Light Your Way

Cable Lighting System: Cable Light Fixtures and How To Use Them

A cable lighting system provides flexible light across uneven ceilings.


A cable lighting system can help if you have areas of your ceiling that make installing lights difficult or you don’t like the appearance of track lighting. Such a system allows you to string lights across areas of your ceiling and to create attractive light sources in areas that you might otherwise be unable to reach. A cable lighting system works by stringing two electrified cables across your ceiling. These cables are bare, with an electrified current running through them. Lights are then hung from the cables and are used to illuminate the area below. Because the cables are bare, the lights may be hung anywhere on the cable, providing a great deal of flexibility. Of course, because the cable has a live current (just like track lighting), caution must be taken when touching the cables, fixtures or bulbs.

Advantages of Cable Lighting

Cable Lighting System

Cable lighting systems, like this one available at Amazon, can be suspended from any surface and can even turn corners.

Often it is difficult to install lights in a ceiling. For example, you may not be able to cut into the ceiling. If the ceiling is concrete or is an antique ceiling into which you don’t want to cut holes (even for track lighting), a cable lighting system provides a way of having ceiling lighting.

In addition, many homes have areas where the ceiling is too far away for installing lighting. One common example of this is cathedral ceiling lighting. Cathedral ceilings usually leave only a two places where lights can be easily installed: at the apex or on the beams. A cable lighting system allows you to hang lights between almost any two points on the ceiling.

You can also use cable lighting for purely aesthetic reasons. Cable lighting functions a great deal like track lighting, allowing you place flexible lighting fixtures along a preset line. However, many people dislike the appearance of the track in their track lighting. It appears like exactly what it is: a metal bar stretched across the ceiling. A cable lighting system is far more subtle, appearing as only a pair of wires, and some people simply prefer the look.

Disadvantages of Cable Lighting

There are two disadvantages of a cable lighting system. First, they can only hold a limited amount of weight. Second, they can only carry a limited amount of current. Both of these restrict the type of lights that can be used in terms of their style and brightness.

Fluorescent Reflector Bulb

Compact fluorescent light bulbs come in many varieties, including reflector bulbs for accent lighting.

First, cable lighting fixtures are universally lightweight to the point where there isn’t much space on them for decoration. The ornate parts of lighting fixtures have simply been stripped away. This doesn’t mean that they are ugly; far from it. Rather, the fixtures are sleek and usually well-suited to more contemporary designs.

The second and more important issue is the limited amount of power that can be sent through a single cable lighting system. With current technology and safety regulations, cable systems cannot carry more than 300 watts of power across the wires. To give a sense of a comparison, this is the equivalent of three light bright incandescent bulbs (though I will give a tip in the next section on how to double this). As a result, either multiple cables must be used or you must work within the wattage limit.

Designing the Best Cable Lighting System

Despite these disadvantages, cable lighting systems remain one of the most flexible and stylish types of lighting systems available. This flexibility gives you a number of choices concerning how to arrange and use your lighting.

Fixtures and Bulbs

First, you should decide what kind of lighting fixtures you want to use. Cable lighting has much of the same flexibility as track lighting systems when providing accent lights. You can get reflector bulbs that cast a spotlight on some feature of your home, like artwork.

Alternatively, you can get ambient lighting in the form of bulbs with translucent shades that diffuse the light. In fact, cable lighting can be used for any type of lighting except for task lighting. You should never use ceiling lighting for tasks because people trying to work by ceiling light have to dodge their own shadows.

For bulbs, you should consider using fluorescent bulbs. Fluorescent bulbs are much more attractive than they were just ten years ago, and they come in a wide array of bulb types and color tints. Aside from the environmental issues, cable lighting is also limited by wattage, and fluorescent bulbs provide about four times more brightness per watt as incandescent. This means you can get four times more brightness per cable by using fluorescents.


The next thing to decide is how to actually arrange your cable lighting system. In a way, cable lighting systems are a bit like Lego. They come with a number of different pieces that fit together in a very specific way.

Upward Cable Lighting

Cable lighting, like this system that is available at Amazon, can also be used to shine light upward, reflecting off the ceiling and creating ambient light.

First, you’ll need to decide where to actually string the lights. This decision is made by thinking about where it is you want to have your lighting, and what it is for. Is the goal to provide some attractive uplighting that highlights your cathedral ceiling? Place one or two cables along the length of the ceiling and light upwards. Is the goal to hang some cabled pendants over an eating area? Make sure that the cable hangs over that area at a height typical for a pendant.

Next, you’ll need to figure out what to do with the transformers. Most cable lighting is low-voltage, such as 12V light bulbs, which means that a transformer is required to lower your household current. You can choose to use a remote-mount transformer that you hide inside of a wall or a surface-mount transformer, that you hide somewhere on or near your wall, like on top of a ceiling beam. Remember that each transformer can only provide you with 300 watts of power.

For a single cable, you only need a single transformer, except for the following trick. If you want to double the amount of wattage you get from a single pair of cables, you can use an isolating connector. An isolating connector attaches to a cable and prevents the electricity from going through the cable at that spot. If you use isolating connectors, you can put transformers at both ends of the cable, effectively getting 600 watts of power and doubling the amount available.

For every twenty feet on your cable, you will also need to use a vertical support. These supports prevent your cable from sagging, which can be dangerous. Fortunately, these supports are much easier to install than most ceiling fixtures, as they require no wiring of any kind. They can also be installed on angled ceilings.

Once you’ve put all of these elements together, you’ll have put together the outlines of your cable lighting system!

Putting It All Together

A cable lighting system provides a great alternative to track lighting on difficult ceilings, or even when you just prefer the appearance of them:

  • They have the advantage that you can put them on almost any ceiling.
  • They provide flexible light placement, similar to track lighting.
  • They have limitations in the amount of light they can carry and the amount of wattage they can use. Fluorescent bulbs are especially good for making the most of the wattage limit.
  • They are easy to plan and install.

Cable lighting is increasingly popular, and can fill a unique niche in lighting design.


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