Track Lighting, Rail Lighting, Cable Lighting: What's the Difference?
 

As home furnishings continue to lean toward clean-lined, contemporary styles, more and more homeowners are looking to hang decorative pendant lights or to mount spotlights, tilted at just the right angle for dramatic effect.

And that means more homeowners will be walking into your lighting showroom asking for track lighting, rail lighting or cable lighting. But what exactly are the differences between those types of lighting, and how can you tell a customer which type is best for them?

To find out, we asked Elias Shahvar, President of Focalor, a California-based company that sells low-voltage rail lighting to lighting showrooms, to explain the difference between these lighting trends.

First, Shahvar set the record straight. Track lighting and rail lighting are exactly the same — a strip of metal that you attach to the ceiling that provides power to fixtures that hang from it.

Cable lighting, on the other hand, is not attached to the ceiling. Instead, cables are run from one wall to another, and fixtures hang from the cable. Shahvar says cable lighting is good in rooms where you can’t mount anything to the ceiling, such as if the ceiling is made out of cement, but it can be problematic because the cable can sag over time.

No matter what you call it, Shahvar says there are several reasons why track lighting can give homeowners an advantage over installing individual fixtures.

First, Shahvar says, track lighting gives homeowners more options if they decide to re-arrange the furniture.

“When you put a light on the ceiling, you have to put an electrical outlet box for each fixture. The disadvantage is that is very expensive. Each electrical box that you [install] costs maybe between $100 and $150; the fixture itself may cost $50 or $100. So you can see it’s very expensive,” Shahvar says. “The other thing is that… if you put it fixed, and then you rearrange the [layout], you have to remount those and move all those boxes. But if you have rail, you can easily loosen the fixture and move it along the rail to any point you want.”

Shahvar also said track lighting is a good solution in rooms where the ceiling isn’t accessible to run wiring through it.

“I had that in my house; I didn’t have access to the ceiling. Like if you’re in an apartment building, you don’t have room to run wire, you can use one rail and you can put a bunch of fixtures on it,” he says.

Track lighting can come in a single line (often called a monorail), or it can come with two rails that have ¼ of an inch space between them so that they double their capacity.

When it comes to track lighting, the real difference is not what you call it, but whether you’re using high-voltage (also called line voltage) or low-voltage options.

High-voltage track lighting typically comes in a straight line, while low-voltage track lighting can usually be bent into an S curve, a circle or even a zigzag.

Low-voltage track lighting also is usually available in a wide range of finishes such as shiny chrome, brushed chrome, satin nickel, bronze and even gold, while high-voltage track lighting often only comes in a white finish for industrial applications.

But the one downfall of low-voltage track lighting is that it can’t carry the same number of fixtures that high-voltage track lighting can.

For example, high-voltage track lighting can take up to 25 amps of electrical current, or about enough to run 25 100-watt bulbs. And if you want to put up more fixtures, you simply add another rail.

Low-voltage track lighting can only accommodate about 6 100-watt bulbs, and if you want to add more fixtures, you have to make sure you have a transformer for each circuit that will step down the current from the wall from 120 volts to down to 12 volts, which makes it safe enough to touch.

Another downfall of track lighting is that it currently is not compatible with LED bulbs. Although Shahvar says most track lighting already uses halogen bulbs, he said there is no product on the market that uses LEDs, so for customers who are looking for the most energy efficient lighting possible, track lighting might not be the best option.

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