Ceiling: Black/White/Red Wires. Chandelier: Brown/Ground Wire. How Do I Connect the Two?
August 22, 2004 10:58 AM   Subscribe

She looked at her dining room, and saw that it was without light, so she said, "Let there be light." This had no effect, so she went to Home Depot and bought a chandelier, because she saw that it was good. Then she came home, took out the fuse, took down the old ceiling fan, and began to assemble the chandelier. Then she ran into problems, got frustrated, dropped the third person, and asked MeFites:

How should I connect a light fixture when there are black, white, and red wires in the ceiling and the chandelier has two spliced-together brown ones and a ground wire?
posted by orange swan to Home & Garden (17 answers total)
This do-it-yourself forum post may be helpful, or perhaps you could post some more details there and get some help from them directly.
posted by Zonker at 12:00 PM on August 22, 2004

Response by poster: Update: I have managed to figure out where the brown wires go, but I still don't have any idea what to do about the ground wire. I live in an 30 year old building, and the wiring reflects that.
posted by orange swan at 12:03 PM on August 22, 2004

You could send the other ground to a metal water pipe, if there are any in that ceiling.
(I know this will work electrically, but is it "code", dunno?)
posted by milovoo at 1:46 PM on August 22, 2004

The ground is a "safety" ground - meaning it works electrically to leave it completely disconnected. It just might kill somebody someday though. (On the other hand, an overhead light fixture is one of the few places I'd feel more-or-less okay not attaching the ground wire.) I don't know what code says. Your local library might have a copy of the electrical code, although it's not easy to read., especially since what you're looking for is whether you're grandfathered in, not what you should do in new construction.

If the junction box in the ceiling is metal, it's possible that the existing ground wire is attached to the junction box. Can you see where the black/white/red wires come from? Odds are they all come from one cable, and that cable probably has a ground wire in it as well (bare copper, or possibly green-insulated).

Random safety thing: if you can figure out which wire in the chandelier goes to the screw part of the lamp sockets, it's sometimes recommended to use that wire for the neutral (white) connection, because it's easier for a random person to come in contact with that part of the socket than the other part. (Especially if they've halfway-unscrewed a light bulb.)

(I assume what you figured out in your update is that, of the black and red wires, one is for the lamp and one is for the fan? Or was it something else?)
posted by hattifattener at 2:24 PM on August 22, 2004

Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light

Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!

It is the business of the wealthy man

To give employment to the artisan.

posted by holloway at 2:28 PM on August 22, 2004

I don't have anything to add, orange swan, but I just wanted to say I just loved the way you phrased your question.

Also, when commanding light to appear, you must say it with conviction.
posted by WolfDaddy at 2:58 PM on August 22, 2004

By any chance was your fan able to be turned on/off from two separate locations? That's typically where you use the three wire with ground sheathed cable. The other possibility would be if there were separate connections, one for the fan, the other for the (apparently non existant) light fixture.

You can try reading here, it's not too badly written.

I've never seen brown wires on a light fixture btw :P
posted by substrate at 5:10 PM on August 22, 2004

Response by poster: When Googling, I found that exact page and read it thoroughly, substrate.

It turned out that in the horribly unclear directions with its very poorly drawn diagrams it did say that of the two brown wires, the ridged side went to the white wire, and the other to the black. There seemed to be nothing for me to do with the red wire but stick a wire nut back on it.

I screwed the ground wire to the mounting strap because I couldn't find anything else to attach it to. Is this very unsafe? I should think that it would be fine provided no one tries to monkey with wiring without taking out the fuse first... but of course the next person to own my apartment might just be stupid enough to do that.

The fixture I took down was simply a (ugly) ceiling fan with no light on it. Besides its red, white, and black wires it had a green wire that was not attached to anything - I suspect that it was the ground wire, and that I therefore have precedent for leaving mine unattached:-)

The new chandelier is now up and working fine - but there's one catch. The light switch doesn't work, and I have to turn the chandelier on and off via the fuse box. The light switch never worked for the fan either - it was operated by a pair of pull strings. I've opened up the outlet and had a look inside, and it all seems to be connected, so I don't know what to do. I sense a "Let there be light, part deux" thread coming on.

Oh, and thanks WolfDaddy. The whole Genesis thing was one of the weirdass things running through my frustrated mind while I tried to assemble this thing and put it up. I also found myself singing, "Fuckity fuck fuck, fuckity fuck fuck," to the tune of "Frosty the Snowman".
posted by orange swan at 5:51 PM on August 22, 2004

In my previous life, full of renovation of a 1939 house, several light switches stuck in the on position, which I found rather odd.

It costs very little to replace them, so that's what I'd suggest.
posted by tomierna at 6:12 PM on August 22, 2004

orange swan, hook up the ground wire to the metallic box. I will bet that the red wire is switched, that is that when you flick that switch it's connected or disconnected from the power. It was wired in just in case anybody wanted to hook up a lamp at the bottom of the fan.
posted by substrate at 6:21 PM on August 22, 2004

Response by poster: What would replacement entail? Would I just replace the actual outlet and use the existing wires, or would the metal housing have to come out of the wall?
posted by orange swan at 6:21 PM on August 22, 2004

Best answer: I'd also try swapping the red for the black. Red and black are both hot, so the wall switch could be on either.

The green wire on the old fan was almost certainly a ground. If there's no obvious ground wire---typically a bare copper one---coming out of the ceiling box then just tie off to the box. Often older installations (50-70's) had grounds to the boxes but not a wire running into the box. It was considerd neater that way, or something.

What age is your building? If it's pre-70's it may not be properly grounded at all, in which case there's not much you can do short of rewiring the place. Rewiring is a big job. New wire has to be run from the panel to every outlet (switch, plug lamp). It involves breaking the walls and requires a bulding permit and professional inspection.
posted by bonehead at 8:52 PM on August 22, 2004

Response by poster: Hmm, it might be worth trying to connect the chandelier with the red wire instead of the black. Although the old fixture was hooked up to both the red and the black, and it didn't operate by switch. But now that I think about it, I realize I never tried switching the ceiling fan on by its pull string and then trying the wall switch.

The apartment building was built in the mid-seventies, probably 1975 or 1974. This is the third light fixture I have replaced in my apartment (with two more to go) and I have yet to see anything resembling a ground wire. I think I'm just going to leave it fastened to the mounting strap - it has a special green screw for that.
posted by orange swan at 6:04 AM on August 23, 2004

You could remove the fuse, then use a multimeter to test conductance for the wires. Two of them will show a short in one position or other of the lightswitch.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:01 AM on August 23, 2004

I just wired a new ceiling fan yesterday. The fan is controlled by a pull string, and the built-in light is controlled by a dimmer switch on the wall. (I believe that it is BAD to power a fan via a dimmer switch). I used a 3-wire setup (which actually has 4 wires -- black, red, white, and bare ground). The black and white wires to the fan are attached to the black and white (neutral) coming out the ceiling, and the wires for the light (which happen to be blue and white) are attached to the red and white. The red wire is connected to power via the dimmer switch, and the black wire is powered directly. The ground to the fan is attached to the bare wire and to the metal ceiling box. I know that doesn't apply directly to your situation but thought I'd spell it out in case it was helpful. I think this is a pretty typical setup.

In your case I would agree that the red wire might be switched at the wall. I don't understand why the red and black would both be connected to your old fan, but it would be helpful if you remember exactly how that was hooked up. If you only have the 3 wires coming out of the ceiling, they could have used the white as the ground, the black as the netral, and the red as the hot (or vice versa). Or you may not have a ground wire at all, which shouldn't really be a problem for a ceiling light as long as you are sure to use your wire nuts correctly and use plenty of electrical tape to keep everything clean.

One thing to try would be to pull out the wall switch enough to see what color wires are attached and to try and figure out which ones are being used for the switch. If the switch doesn't do anything, maybe it isn't even connected to those wires? Do what fff suggested and check for connections with a multimeter. Be sure there is no power going to the switch before you start taking it apart...there is a chance it could be on a different fuse.

If they wires are connected, I would suggest getting a good lutron dimmer switch, which are easy to switch out once you figure out which wires are which. Be sure to get one that allows you to shut your lights completely off in addition to dimming.
posted by jacobsee at 10:24 AM on August 23, 2004

Random safety thing: if you can figure out which wire in the chandelier goes to the screw part of the lamp sockets, it's sometimes recommended to use that wire

In Canada this isn't a suggestion it's code.
posted by Mitheral at 1:19 PM on August 23, 2004

Response by poster: Last night I disconnected the black wire and connected the red wire to the chandelier instead, with the happy result that the wall switch can now be used to turn the chandelier on and off. So my installation is done.

Thanks, all!
posted by orange swan at 8:43 AM on August 24, 2004

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