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How to Add a Pull-Chain Light to a Closet

Bert spent 25 years working as a home-improvement and residential construction contractor in central Florida.


Many new homeowners ask the same question: why didn't they put a light in this closet? A simple thing like finding matching shoes becomes extremely frustrating after a couple failed attempts. Some homeowners opt for a simple battery-operated puck light. Their dim light works okay until the batteries wear out, often after forgetting to turn off the unit. Adding a pull-chain light to a dark closet solves this inconvenience. Before starting check for local building code restrictions and apply for all applicable permits.

Plan the Project

Normally a pull-chain light mounts in the space between the center of the room and the doorway, keeping the chain within easy reach of the doorway. However the exact layout depends on the closet. For instance, a narrow but deep closet needs the light closer to the center for maximum efficiency.

Push a screwdriver up through the closet ceiling and leave it there. Climb into the attic and find the screwdriver. Push the insulation away and inspect the area for obstructions, such as plumbing pipes or roof trusses. Use this information to relocate the light's mounting box, if necessary. The correct box depends on how the truss layout in relation to the light. If the light sits under a truss, use a pancake-style box. A pancake box mounts to a truss with screws. If the hole does not hit a truss, use an old-work box. An old-work box, sometimes called a retrofit or remodeling box, uses a solid lip below the ceiling and mounting tabs above to grip the drywall. Personally, if the layout for the light's mounting box hits a truss, I move the light layout slightly to utilize an easy-to-use old-work box.

Draw a round circle on the ceiling for the mounting box, using the screwdriver hole as a placement guide. The box itself makes a nice hole template. Simply hold the box against the ceiling and trace around it's perimeter with a pencil. If using a pancake-style box, push a drywall saw through the screwdriver hole and cut along the template. When the saw hits a ceiling truss, pull the saw out and finish the cut with a utility knife. If using an old-work box, make the hole 1/4-inch smaller than the outline. Remove the drywall cutout.

A pull-chain light draws power from an always hot circuit.

A pull-chain light draws power from an always hot circuit.

Install the Wire

Finding an appropriate power source for a pull-chain light sometimes proves challenging. Climb into the attic and locate an always hot power source with an accessible junction box, such as an attic-light or exterior electrical circuit. The new light's power source must connect to the electrical circuit in an approved box. Turn off the appropriate circuit breaker for the entirety of this project.

Unroll a section of 14-2 with ground wire set. A 14-2 with ground wire set contains three 14-gauge wires: one black insulated wire, one white insulated wire and a paper-wrapped bare copper wire. Push about 16-inches of the wire set through the hole for the pull-chain light's mounting box. Stretch the wire from the light to the power source. Do not cut the wire yet.

Secure the wire to ceiling joists or trusses in the accessible areas with wire staples. The staple should snug the wire sheathing without crushing it.

An old-work ceiling box that is ready to be pushed up into the drywall cutout.

An old-work ceiling box that is ready to be pushed up into the drywall cutout.

Install the Ceiling Mounting Box

Install the appropriate ceiling mounting box. If using a pancake-style mounting box, remove one of the 1/2-inch knockout covers with a slotted screwdriver. Install a 1/2-inch wire clamp in the knockout hole, keeping the clamp's nut facing down. Slip about 4 inches of wire into the box and tighten the clamp. A pancake-style box's shallow depth does not allow for much excess wire. Press the pancake box up against the truss and secure it with screws. If using an old-work box, push between 6 and 8 inches of wire into the box through the self-locking wire access slots. The old-work box's extra depth allows for more wire, which makes the wire connectors easier to reach and work with; the extra room also makes it easier to tuck the wires after wiring the light fixture. Slide the box into the hole until the lip sits flush against the ceiling. Turn the mounting tabs with a screwdriver, locking the box in place.

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The terminals on this light are interchangeable.

The terminals on this light are interchangeable.

Install the Pull-Chain Light

Remove the wire set's jacket and paper sleeve, exposing two insulated wires and one bare copper wire. Strip about 5/8 inch of insulation from each wire. Bend the wire ends until they resemble a J. Wrap the J-shaped end one of the insulated wires around one of the light's wire terminals and tighten the terminal screw. The wire terminals are interchangeable on this style lamp. Connect the second insulated wire to the light's remaining wire terminal. Attach the wire set's bare copper wire to either the mounting box or the light's green screw, when applicable.

Start the light's mounting screws in the appropriate holes in the mounting box. The space between these screws matches the distance between the light's keyhole shaped slots. Align the wide part of the keyhole-shaped slots with the mounting screws. Push the light fixture up against the ceiling and twist until the narrow part of the keyhole-shaped holes sit above the screw heads. Tighten the mounting screws until they hold the lamp in place.

Connect the Wire Set to the Power Source

The exact wiring instructions for this step depend on the power source. That said, the basic steps remain the same. Verify the correct circuit breaker remains off. In all cases, make the connections inside the power source's junction box. Open the junction box and pull the existing wire connections out of it. Either loosen an existing wire clamp on the junction box enough to add the new wire set or install a new wire clamp. Remove about 4 inches of the sheath and paper wrapper from the pull-chain light's wire set. Strip 5/8-inch of insulation from the black and white wires. Push the light's wire set through the wire clamp until the sheath extends into the box about an inch. Tighten the wire clamp.

Combine the new wire set's bare copper wire with the existing wire's bare copper wire. In some cases the box uses a green-colored screw for this purpose. In others a wire nut serves this purpose. Tuck this bundle deep into the box.

Remove the wire nut holding the white insulated wires together. Add the new white-colored wire to this bunch. Twist the wire ends together with pliers and secure them with a wire nut. Position this bundle toward the rear of the box.

Disconnect the wire nut holding the existing black wires. Hold the end of the new black wire against the others and twist the ends together. Lock the black wires together with a wire nut. Fold this group of wires into the box. Replace the junction box's cover.


Finish and Test the Pull-Chain Light

Clip the pull chain extension on the end of the light's beaded chain.

Install a light bulb in the pull-chain light. Pick the light bulb color that matches your personal preference. A warm-light bulb puts off an easy-on-the-eyes yellowish colored light. A daylight-colored bulb emits harsh but color-accurate light; natural- and cool-light are in between.

Turn on the circuit breaker. Gently pull the chain to activate the light.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Bert Holopaw

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