It’s Over My Head: Existing Homes Without Overhead Lighting and Fans

Residential 0319 Photo Credit: iStock / vicnt
Photo Credit: iStock / vicnt

In 1950s and 1960s homes, lighting fixtures were often installed in the center of the ceiling with a wall switch at the room’s entrance. This worked when general lighting was required for cleaning and similar tasks that do not need intense light. But overhead lighting was inefficient for activities such as reading and knitting, so homeowners used table lamps cord-connected to receptacles. Ultimately, overhead lighting was not practical other than in kitchens and dining rooms and became essentially obsolete in bedrooms and similar spaces, replaced by switched receptacles and table lamps for both task and general lighting.

Generally, between 1984 and 1987, homeowners started asking electrical contractors to install ceiling paddle fans for cooling in the summertime and distributing heat in the winter. This timeline can be somewhat verified, since the 1984 National Electrical Code (NEC) did not contain any specific information about ceiling paddle-fan mounting requirements until a new subsection (c) and an exception were added to 370-17 in the 1987 NEC, stating: “Boxes at Fan Outlets. Outlet boxes shall not be used as the sole support for ceiling (paddle) fans. Exception: Boxes listed for the application shall be permitted as the sole means of support.”

This requirement coincided with a new product that was specifically designed to support the dead weight of the ceiling paddle fan and the box, and the support bracing of the product could also support the ceiling fan’s moving or “live” weight. This paddle fan support was designed with substantially more support than a regular box that would support a chandelier (a dead weight) of 50 pounds or less. Any fan box and bracket or specialty fan box must be designed, tested and listed for support of paddle fans, with or without lighting kits on the fans. This prevents the ceiling paddle fan from falling down and helicoptering around the room with possible injury to people and damage to furniture. I investigated one improperly installed ceiling paddle fan that had come down, injured a young boy and damaged a very expensive dining room table.

There are a number of methods for installing overhead boxes in an existing home, depending on whether there is an accessible attic in the location where the ceiling fan and lighting kit is to be installed.

A “new construction” ceiling-fan support box with a brace kit can be installed in the accessible attic by first determining the appropriate location on the ceiling below, inserting a nail into the drywall in the center of that location or making a hole large enough for a tape measure to be inserted so the location can be determined in the attic above. The “new construction” box is then installed between the joists or trusses and fastened in place with screws, nails or special box braces. A two-gang switch box can then be installed in the wall for the fan and light switch with power supplied from an existing switch or receptacle. This permits a separate switch for the light kit on the paddle fan and a switch for the fan. Alternatively, a wireless remote can be used, requiring only one switch for power for the combination fan and light where the remote acts to switch all of the ceiling fan functions.

If an existing lighting box is already installed in the ceiling and it is not rated for ceiling fans, the existing box must be replaced with a “remodel” (commonly called an “old work” box) ceiling fan support box with brace. Depending on the box fill, the ceiling fan support box can be purchased with either a 11/2-inch-deep box or a 21/8-inch-deep box. Where the box and brace is between trusses or joists, the brace is adjustable with either a ratcheting or a screw-out design. Where the truss or joist is at the new box location, a special 1/2-inch-deep box, rated for ceiling fan installations, can be installed using lag bolts that screw into the joist or truss. Where the area above the ceiling is not accessible, the “remodel” fan box can be used with a new hole cut in the ceiling. Where there is access to an existing wall receptacle in the same joist area, power can be installed to the new switch with limited repair to the wall.

Retrofitting an old ceiling box for a paddle fan or installing a new box and switch for a paddle fan can result in a safe installation.

About the Author

Mark C. Ode

Fire/Life Safety, Residential and Code Contributor

Mark C. Ode is a lead engineering associate for Energy & Power Technologies at Underwriters Laboratories Inc. and can be reached at 919.949.2576 and Mark.C.Ode@ul.com.

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