Lighting systems can be an effective way to illuminate places where traditional ceiling lights would be impossible or cost prohibitive. The two most common—track lighting and monorail lighting—are incredibly versatile, but because of the many configurations and options to consider, we’ve laid out this guide.
While these two systems work in very similar ways, there are some distinct differences. Here, we’ll answer some basic questions to help you find which is best for your application.
What is the difference between a track system and a monorail system?
At the most basic level, track is a line-voltage, 120-volt system; monorail is usually a low-voltage, 12-volt system.
Functionally, this means that track lighting is essentially an extension of your home’s electrical circuit. Monorail lighting is its own low-voltage system dictated by the transformer used. Because of this difference, track lighting is simpler to specify, since the limitations of the system are just those of the circuit itself. Monorail, on the other hand, will require a calculation between the light fixtures you want to use and the transformer required to run the system.
The other major difference is aesthetics and design. Track lighting is a more conventional lighting system commonly found in kitchens, bathrooms and hallways. It’s also a great option for high ceilings with wood beams to install a track system that can light up a wall with a fireplace or art. Monorail is a more updated, design-oriented system, and usually has more decorative options for the light fixtures.
How do I choose between a track or monorail system?
When choosing between track and monorail systems, keep two things in mind: function and budget. While track and monorail serve the same basic function, they go about it in very different ways.
- Is the system going to be strictly functional for lighting, or a feature as part of the overall design of the space?
Track systems tend to serve a more functional use. The lower price point and simplicity of specification and installation make them ideal for spaces where you are looking for illumination, and maybe not necessarily a grand design statement. Hallways, closets or galley spaces are all perfect spaces for track lighting, as well as in large, vaulted spaces. Matching the color of your track system to the ceiling is an easy way to make it disappear.
- Do you want to use decorative fixtures?
If you need functional lighting but also want to use those great pendants you picked out, a monorail system is the better solution.
- Are there any special considerations for the space, such as a high, vaulted ceiling?
Monorail systems are inherently flexible to meet the needs of non-traditional spaces. The rail can be suspended at lengths adjusted for slopes or tall ceilings. They can also be styled in dramatic ways to complement the architecture of a space.
What do I need to build a track or monorail system?
There are three major components for each type of system:
The basis for either of these systems is the track or the rail itself. Keep in mind that many systems are proprietary—so if there is a specific fixture you want to use, make sure it’s compatible before selecting your rail or track. Track typically comes in 2-foot, 4-foot, 6-foot and 8-foot lengths, and can be shortened by field-cutting a long length or lengthened by connecting several tracks together. Monorail generally comes in 4-foot and 8-foot lengths, can be bent to shorten and requires mounting hardware. You can also connect multiple rails together, but you’ll experience a voltage drop after a certain point.
Either lighting system will need power. Track systems are 120 volts, so they only require a power feed to connect the track line to your home’s wiring. Monorail systems are a bit more involved. These are usually low-voltage systems and require their own transformer. Transformers come in both surface-mounted and remote options to accommodate various installation requirements.
The point of either system is to light a space, so the actual light fixtures are a key ingredient here. Track lighting offers a much larger range of light outputs with directional fixtures—options include standard bulbs, line- and low-voltage halogen and LEDs. While track lighting doesn’t generally accommodate more decorative fixtures, there are adapters that will allow for some line voltage and low voltage pendants to be added to a track.
When selecting your light fixtures for a track system, keep a running tally on the wattage of each. While the system itself is not limited, the circuit you are installing onto might be. Work with your electrician to make sure the circuit can handle the light fixtures you want to use.
Monorail systems offer a much wider array of decorative fixtures, including a diverse range of mini pendants. These can be used on their own or combined with directional heads to create a complete system with multiple lighting functions. As a low-voltage system, wattage is generally limited; the wattage of all the lights used cannot be greater than the output of the transformer (if you’re using LEDs, this is less of a problem as it has been in the past).
When planning a monorail system, work backwards. The system’s layout and fixtures are going to determine what transformer you need to power the system, so choose those first to ensure you build the system out correctly.
How do I install a track or monorail system?
In most instances, a track lighting system is easier to install. The tracks can be cut to size and the components just snap together. The track itself will mount directly to the ceiling or a mounting substrate. As long as the system has been planned out properly, there shouldn’t be too many problems.
Installing a monorail lighting system is a more involved process, and we’d recommend hiring an experienced lighting electrician to install it. The level of installation complications will vary depending on the transformer and the mounting system selected, but again—a smooth installation is possible with proper planning while you’re shopping for all the right pieces.
That’s all you need to put together a professional track lighting set-up. There are numerous ways that you can now modify or accessorize your track lighting, with things like:
- Track Suspension Kits – These kits allow you to hang the track from the ceiling. This looks great in exposed high-ceiling environments like lofts or creative spaces.
- Connectors – You can connect tracks together into straight lines, 90-degree turns or any angle for that matter. You can create closed loops and boxes without short circuits by using dead connectors.
- Special Lenses – You can use special lenses to change the shape of the light (honeycomb louver, spread lens, beam elongating lens) or the color (color lenses, color dichroic lenses).
How to Choose Cable Lighting
Cable lighting is a low-voltage system that uses conductive tensioned cable to offer a variety of high-tech lighting arrangements. The cables, which are hung with accent, ambient or decorative fixtures, run in parallel lines below the ceiling. This makes cable lighting an ideal choice when an electric power source in the ceiling is inaccessible due to exposed ductwork or vaulted or cathedral ceilings. The cables are capable of direction changes and can be mounted wall to wall, ceiling to wall, or ceiling to ceiling.
Cable lighting is a dynamic low voltage, single-circuit system that uses conductive cable, supports, connectors, re-routers, power supplies and adapters to provide lighting in unique spaces. Different systems have different methods for determining the amount of cable required. Typically, multiply the length of the run by two (for each cable) and add some extra for turns and adjustments.
The cable needs to be suspended. The length of the run and whether it’s mounted from wall to wall, wall to ceiling, or ceiling to ceiling will determine the type and number of ceiling supports needed. Based on the design, either rigid or flexible supports will be required. Runs more than 20 feet or using heavier fixtures may require extra supports. If the run has to overcome major differences in height, this will need to be accounted for when selecting suspensions. Re-routers can be used to change the angle or direction of the cable run.
Cable systems, like monorail, are low-voltage and require transformers to step down the voltage to 24 or 12 volts. Choose from electronic or magnetic transformers; the transformers can be surface mounted or installed remotely. Power feeds deliver the power from the transformer to the cables. To determine the wattage required for the transformer add up the wattage of the lamps connected to the system. If the sum of the wattages exceeds 300 watts at 12 volts or 600 watts at 24 volts, a second transformer is needed.
When choosing fixtures for the cable system, consider the total wattage and what needs to be illuminated. Pendants, spots and heads can all be used with cable systems. Cable systems can be a great solution for providing decorative ambient lighting, direct lighting or accent lighting.
Similar to cable lighting, track lighting is another way to add lights when a ceiling can’t accommodate recessed lighting because of beams.