One simple way to update the look of a bathroom is to replace an old, outdated vanity light with one more suited to your sense of style. Since the wiring is already in place in the wall, this project is usually easy enough to do without calling an electrician. In most cases, it's simply a matter of removing a few screws and disconnecting wires to remove the old vanity light and then reversing the process to connect the new fixture to the power source and to the wall.
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Before you begin removing the light fixture, switch the circuit breaker off before attempting any of the work.
Before Starting the Light Fixture Swap
Before getting into the electrical portion of the project, measure the width of the bathroom mirror so you know the approximate size range for a new vanity light. Take a good look at the existing fixture and how the light illuminates the mirror area, noting whether there's anything you'd like to change about the illumination rather than just the style of the fixture. For instance, if the old fixture has two bulbs but they don't offer enough illumination for the center area in front of the mirror, a fixture with three or four bulbs may be better.
If the vanity lights are on either side of the mirror instead of above the mirror, measure the size of the existing fixture base as well as how much space is available between the edge of the mirror and any nearby wall or obstruction, such as a cabinet. These measurements come in handy when choosing new lights and ensure the bases of the new lights will fit without touching the mirror or obstructions off to the side.
Once you've purchased a vanity light, open the packaging and read the installation instructions thoroughly. In some cases, you may need to assemble some parts or take the glass shades off the fixture and remove bubble wrap or other packaging materials. Feit Electric recommends checking the back of the fixture to make sure the wiring protrudes enough to attach it to the house wiring. Readying the light assembly and wiring saves time and effort when actually installing the new fixture.
Removing the Old Light Fixture
Before removing or installing any electrical components in the bathroom, turn off the power to the room by positioning the appropriate circuit breaker to the "off" position. If the breakers aren't properly labeled, ask a friend to flip on the light switches in the bathroom as you try the probable breakers. Be sure to flip any other circuits you've turned off back to "on" if they are not connected to the bathroom.
- Remove the glass shades from the vanity light. In many cases, these are held in place with small thumb screws that must be loosened in order to release the shade.
- Remove the light bulbs and set them in a location where they won't break. Handing them to a friend to do so makes the process even easier.
- Loosen and remove the nuts or screws holding the old fixture onto the wall. Set those aside or hand them to your helper.
- Gently pull away the old fixture from the wall, exposing the wiring.
- Check the wires with a noncontact voltage tester to ensure there is no power coursing through any of the wires connected to both the fixture and the in-wall wiring.
- Gently pull out the wires from the housing in the wall so you can disconnect them. Remove the wire nuts and separate the old fixture wiring from the in-wall wiring. You'll have to do this once for the set of white wires and once for the set of black wires. If there's a bare ground wire, remove that as well.
- Pull the entire vanity light assembly off the wall and set it aside.
- Check the wires sticking out of the wall to ensure their ends are in good shape. If not, snip them and strip 1/2 inch of the coating off the end of each trimmed wire using wire strippers. This ensures a good connection when hooking up the new fixture.
Connecting the New Light Fixture
Before attaching the new light's wires to the wires in the wall, look for a mounting plate in the materials that came with the light. Depending on the manufacturer, the piece may be called a plate, bar or bracket. These are designed to safely connect the fixture assembly to the electrical housing on the wall. If the old fixture has one of these in place, remove it.
- Attach the new mounting bracket to the electrical box as shown in the installation instructions that came with the light. The specifics vary slightly depending on the bracket style, usually shaped like a bar or a disc. The bracket assembly should come with the screws required to attach it to the electrical box.
- Connect the bare grounding wire to the grounding screw on the new bracket by twisting it a couple times around the partially loose screw and then tightening the screw. The head on the grounding screw may be tinted green. If it's not and you can't figure out which screw is which, refer to the details in the installation paperwork that came with the vanity light.
- Twist together the ends of the black wire from the new light and the black wire from within the wall. Tighten a wire nut over their ends by turning the nut clockwise. Tug gently to ensure the wires are secure inside the nut.
- Twist the white wire ends together in the same fashion, again making sure the wire nut is tight.
- Place the fixture in position on the wall, ensuring that the wiring is fully tucked into the electrical box.
- Tighten the nuts or screws that hold the vanity light base plate onto the mounting bracket attached to the electrical box. While not as common, your vanity light may also require additional support, such as wall anchors. If so, the light kit should have the plastic wall anchors and screws for them as well as instructions for where to drill the holes for the anchors. Follow the light kit's instructions for extra support as needed.
- Position the glass light shades on the vanity light and secure them in place with the included thumb screws or nuts.
- Insert one light bulb into each socket. Use LED bulbs to save on energy costs. If you are using incandescent bulbs, make sure the wattage is lower than the highest indicated wattage listed on or near the socket.
- Flip on the bathroom circuit breaker. Turn on the appropriate bathroom light switch to power the new vanity light.
Kathy Adams is an award-winning writer. She is an avid DIYer that is equally at home repurposing random objects into new, useful creations as she is at supporting community gardening efforts and writing about healthy alternatives to household chemicals. She's written numerous DIY articles for paint and decor companies, as well as for Black + Decker, Hunker, SFGate, Landlordology and others.