Restoration Guide - Lighting and Controls

Shannon Lee

Editor's Note: This is article 5 of 8 in Chapter 7: The Electrical Guide of Old House Web's Home Restoration Guide. This guide was developed and edited for old homes from original materials in the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Rehab guide.


Section 1--Interior Lighting

The world changed in 1879, when Thomas Edison created the incandescent light bulb. Up to that point, gas was used as the primary lighting system in the United States. As incandescent light bulbs became more popular, gas fixtures were often upgraded to handle both gas and electricity. By 1913, gas had lost its dominance as the most popular lighting option, and electricity became the wave of the future.

In 1938, Edison's fluorescent lamps, which were patented in 1896, saw their first commercial production. Fluorescent lights have gone through many changes and improvements over the years--today's fluorescent lights offer superb illumination, mimic the color of incandescents, and can even be dimmed.

1.1: Interior Lighting in Old Homes

The fixtures in an old house can often show signs of wear and tear. Wires wear out, connections become loose, and contacts can corrode. There can also be the problem with light output. Older light fixtures might not be able to provide enough power or handle the heat generated by a higher-output light bulb.

For instance, the pan light that was popular in bedrooms and informal areas during the 1920s was designed for small bulbs in the 15 to 40 watt range. By today's standards, that is little more than a nightlight.

There are ways to preserve the integrity of the fixtures in your old house while still obtaining the light output you need:

  1. Rewire the fixture. Old fixtures might be rare or even one-of-a-kind, which adds to their historical value. Instead of replacing the fixture, keep preservation in mind and carefully rewire it to handle a higher-power light bulb.
  2. Opt for a reproduction. If the fixture is seriously deteriorated or you are unable to safely rewire it, modern reproductions offer the historic charm and meet modern light output needs.
  3. Install additional fixtures. Increasing the light sources in the room allows you to keep the old fixtures while still getting the illumination you need. Options include low-voltage light fixtures, fixtures for compact fluorescent lights, and white LED lighting.
  4. Install dimmer switches. If you use modern incandescent lights in your old house, a dimmer switch can reduce the output to levels you would expect from a historic light fixture.

Section 2--Exterior Lighting

Exterior lighting provides safety, security, and beauty for the outside of your home. Outdoor light fixtures have many of the same problems as interior ones, but the additional exposure to sunlight and moisture makes exterior light fixtures even more susceptible to corrosion.

New exterior light fixtures must be installed according to several special requirements, including the depth at which underground cable is buried. Local codes might have more stringent requirements.

The following techniques can help with replacement and restoration of exterior fixtures:

  1. Rewire the fixture. Just as you might rewire the interior fixtures, consider doing the same with your exterior fixtures, both for safety and efficiency.
  2. Install a reproduction. Keep all the historical charm yet increase the light output of your external fixtures with a replica or reproduction of the original.
  3. Low-voltage lighting. Low voltage lighting is just what it sounds like--it uses a lower voltage, thus eliminating the risk of electric shock. It is very easy to install and simple to relocate.
  4. Photovoltaic lighting. Solar panels can charge a compact, high-efficiency battery that runs at night, thus lighting walkways, driveways, and the like. Very inexpensive and easy to install, these lights are used for both security and ambiance.
  5. Full cut-off fixtures. By directing the light downward from the fixture, light can be targeted only where needed. Light pollution and glare are reduced.
  6. White LED lighting. LED lights are very cost-efficient outside, particularly in gardens, along walkways, and in decorative fixtures.

Section 3--Switches, Dimmers, and Other Controls

Controlling the light fixtures in your old house can be as easy as flipping a switch, but the controls of yesteryear weren't as simple. Key-type switches were the first common type of controls, followed in 1890 by the push-button switch. Designed with springs, these switches often had a distinctive snapping sound. Quieter mercury switches were later developed, and "tumble" switches were introduced around 1898.

Wall switches and dimmers are now the common standard, even in old houses. Wall switches are durable and reliable. While they can last up to 20 years, replacement is easy and affordable, so many homeowners replace the switch before age becomes a problem. When it comes to replacing light fixtures in your old home, you have plenty of options:

  1. Install a reproduction. Though most push-button switches have been replaced with more modern switches, reproductions are available, complete with that nostalgic "snapping" sound.
  2. Dimmers with noise filters. Radio frequency can often interfere with the use of dimmers, but installing a noise filter can eliminate that problem.
  3. Lamp debuzzing coils. This coil can effectively reduce the noise from radio frequencies, but it also requires a junction box that might not be pleasing to the eye.
  4. Self-contained devices. Developed for recreational vehicles and manufactured homes, the self-contained device switch is directly attached to the electrical cable and inserted into the wall.
  5. Wireless switches. Instead of using the existing wiring, opt for wireless switching that uses infrared light or radio frequency signals to control your lamps and appliances.
  6. Fiber optic switches. Fiber optic cables do not corrode or fail in damp places, making them perfect for bathrooms, laundry rooms, and the like.
  7. Motion-sensor switches. Save energy with motion-sensor switches that turn on the lights when you walk into a room but turn them off when movement isn't detected.

With all the advances in lighting since Edison's day, you can give your old light fixtures a facelift, combining the best of modern efficiency with historic charm.



About the Author

Shannon Dauphin is a freelance writer based near Nashville, Tennessee. Her house was built in 1901, so home repair and renovation have become her hobbies.

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