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Design

RENOVATION WARNING! A PSA About The “Standard” But Too Big Junction Box (Also HELP)

We are full speed ahead on my brother’s River house project (finally in the “fun to show you” stage which is happening SOON) and it’s bringing up more things for me to tell you. This time it’s not about mistakes you can avoid or preventing problems from contractor, it’s just that sometimes the design world moves forward with new things, but the “standard” way of building a house remains the same unless you flag it early. These are *mostly* solveable and again, not a “mistake” just an “OH OK GOOD TO KNOW”. It’s really about knowing what you want early, design-wise, and communicating it to your contractor so they can build the house for how you designed it.

photo by kaitlin green | from: farmhouse kitchen reveal

The “Too Big Junction Box” If You Want Small Sconces Or Ceiling Lights

Here’s the deal – a junction box is the electrical housing that sits behind the drywall that you connect a wall or ceiling light to, and most are a standard size (usually 4″, sometimes 5″, I guess), creating a hole that size in the wall. And yet there are so many new and cool sconces out there that have a much smaller “canopy”, which is the round or square part of the scones that connects to the wall and COVERS the J-box hole). Do you always have your sconces/ceiling lights picked out before the electrical is done? Nope. But if you want one of the new/cool sconces that has a tiny canopy then you need to install a much smaller junction box and if you don’t catch it, the electrician will install standard. This has happened to me now twice and counting…

photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: a quick update: the changes i’ve made to my la living room

Years ago this happened in LA when I wanted to put art lights over our shelves flanking our fireplace, replacing bigger sconces (the same ones that are on the sides of the room). The art lights had a small back rectangular plate, but the J-boxes were 4″ in diameter. Our walls were plaster and therefore switching out the J-boxes to a smaller one and patching them was going to be annoying, but I really wanted these sconces and already had them on hand. We ended up putting them over a piece of painted metal that covered the hole, attached the sconce to that, and called it a day (I wouldn’t do this for a design client or myself now, BTW, but I was ok with it then for whatever reason).

photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: a quick update: the changes i’ve made to my la living room

This happened again in our farmhouse in the rooms where there was paneling. I wanted picture light sconces flanking the hood in the kitchen and in the family room but I forgot to catch it in time and the electrician installed the standard 4″ Junction boxes, drilling huge 4″ holes into the beautiful horizontal wood. The sconces I wanted had a 3 1/2″ back plate – not big enough to cover the hole. You can’t patch a wood gap like that so I had to return the sconces I wanted and got bigger ones, which are fine but I wanted these originally.

photo by kaitlin green | from: farmhouse family room reveal

But the thing is that the smaller junction boxes seem to be more expensive so you want to choose them wisely. It’s like smaller canned lights – you might not want to put them everywhere or it can really up your budget, so knowing where you might want those smaller sconces before you finish drywall (or paneling) is important. And yes, you can definitely change out the J-box to make it smaller, you just need to patch/repair the drywall and paint (which is easier than paneling or plaster, but still a thing if you have smooth walls).

But I ALSO want to talk to lighting manufacturers/retail brands about this – I think this should be flagged prominently on the site before buying. Exact canopy size is often not even on specs and FURTHERMORE, sometimes if there are articulating sconces you can’t even see the canopy in the photo. These sconces have a 2″ backplate (not even sure how small of a J-box you would need), and I almost bought these recently for a project but I would have had to redo the drywall. But more and more I’m finding sconces that I want have a small backplate which needs to get caught first.

So my PSA to you is to A. try to find your sconces/ceiling lights early on and B. double check the size of the canopy so that if you have a smaller one you have time to put in a smaller J-box before you order and have to return (or do some annoying patchwork).

Sound off in the comments if I’m wrong about this or if there is a solution that we don’t know about. xx

Opening Image Credits: Photo by Kaitlin Green

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jess
2 months ago

Thank you so much for this! Do you have a link to a junction box that is smaller than standard?

2 months ago

Ah, that’s so annoying! I wonder if the same thing is true here in the UK; I’ll make a note of it for our upcoming (always upcoming, somehow never “in progress”) remodel. I totally agree that lighting companies need to be better about listing specs for this – another fun but complicated thing is that many older homes here have those lovely decorative plaster ceiling medallions, which means not all styles of cap or canopy will work well and you have to have that measurement and a sense of whether it’ll sit right on the plaster. Maddening that they don’t always show the canopy/cap or list the dimensions, even in the technical spec sheet! ANOTHER thing lighting related that I’ll call out is, watch out for fixtures with integrated LEDs. More and more lights are doing this, and a lot of them aren’t dimmable, but even when they are you don’t get as much control over the dimmable aspects (some do it smoother than others, etc.) and a lot of LEDs in my opinion don’t look good when dimmed because the colour temperature doesn’t adjust. There are a few newer bulbs that do this – Phillips has some called DimTone… Read more »

Jen A
2 months ago
Reply to  Virginia

Lights and light bulbs all seem so complicated now! Honestly just buying light bulbs sort of overwhelms me. I am so impacted by light but it’s hard to know what to buy to achieve it AND the light bulbs are all so expensive now that it is wasteful to return something that isn’t giving the light you want.

Monique Wright Interior Design
2 months ago
Reply to  Jen A

So, so true! Ugh. Warm white, cool white, daylight…🤯

Eliza
2 months ago
Reply to  Jen A

Jen, a good rule of thumb is to use 2700K bulbs pretty much everywhere, and 3500K where you need task lighting. A lot of people jump to 4000K daylight bulbs for task lighting because they conflate blueness with brightness (and “daylight” sounds really bright), but getting 3500K bulbs with a higher lumen output always looks better.
I’m really impacted by light too and one of the best things I ever did was replace all of my bulbs with smart bulbs so I can dial in the brightness and temperature to exactly where it feels best.

Lia
2 months ago
Reply to  Virginia

This is so helpful! Thank you. I had some Tala bulbs in my cart. Would love to know the brand of your chandelier bulbs – but really I want to read your whole blog post about this!

Cris S.
2 months ago
Reply to  Virginia

Virginia – this is a great summary of some of the many problems with light bulbs and fixtures these days! Additionally, not all older pot lights work well with the newer LED lightbulbs – ours get a really high pitch rattle that makes me just turn everything off. You have all my sympathy!

MKP
2 months ago
Reply to  Cris S.

I think the high pitch squeak might mean that the switch on the wall doesn’t work with the bulb. I’ve had this happen before when I had dimmable bulbs without a dimmer switch. And my sister had a high pitch whine with dimmable bulbs but a dimmer switch that wasn’t compatible with the bulbs. It’s a PITA but at least there may be a solution.

Cris S.
2 months ago
Reply to  MKP

Thank you MKP! I do think there is a dimmer involved and will see what we can swap out. I really appreciate it!

Heidi
2 months ago
Reply to  Virginia

I would love to see a post on choosing LED lightbulbs. I am sensitive to harsh lighting and have avoided buying them because of that. But now that we can longer buy incandescent, I have spent way too much time buying and returning LED lightbulbs in the quest to find the right Kelvin that is pleasing to the eye as well as bulbs that will dim without flickering or making noise. Why must this be so hard?

andrea
2 months ago
Reply to  Heidi

Here’s what I learned recently about color/warmth: Just bc it says 2700K on the box (warmest for LEDs right now, though I have heard of 2200, but haven’t seen them) doesn’t mean across a brand of bulbs that the bulbs will all be the same warmth. In my experimentation, the Phillips bulbs that have 800 and 1600 lumens are the warmest. Why the 1500 and 650 are less warm, I have no idea! Anybody know why?

susan
2 months ago
Reply to  Heidi

I am pretty sure Young House Love did a blog post on this. It was a while ago but if you search their blog you may find that info.

🥰 Rusty
2 months ago
Reply to  Virginia

Australian bulbs are marked either “warm white” or “daylight”. Much easier.
I don’t have any can lights – that sounds frustrating.

KC
2 months ago
Reply to  Virginia

Just had this exact problem in my kitchen! Lights were picked out before electrical went in but didn’t know it’d be an issue, and we put in a tongue and groove beadboard ceiling, so the wood got cut, no going back. Our electrician installed the lights and you could see the J boxes. I hated it! Our solution was to put up medallions under the light to cover the box, but the medallion holes also ended up being too big for the light canopy. Now we are planning on swapping out just the canopies on the lights for larger ones, with a canopy kit. Luckily they are white so shouldn’t be too hard to match.

Elle
2 months ago
Reply to  Virginia

I think in the UK pretty much all lights are wired with the box behind plasterboard or lath and plaster, and it’s very easy to patch up to make it look nice. So even if the junction box has to be changed behind a light fitting, we would just use a bit of filler, sand it smooth and paint it. I have gathered from this blog that lots of US houses have a textured finish to their ‘drywall’ so you’d end up with smooth patches on the textured walls in the US if you just filled in the holes and sanded them.

2 months ago

Hey, Emily. When we run into this on residential design projects, our electrician installs the lights with the teeny tiny backplates with NO junction box. There’s a name for the installation type and I’m blanking, but it works beautifully in this situation. It does seem like backplates are only getting smaller, especially when ordering fixtures from Europe. Cristi with City Chic Design in Phoenix, AZ

Sarah
2 months ago

Curious how that works with building code? I thought all fittings needed one to pass and for safety.

Meredith
2 months ago
Reply to  Sarah

I would guess a box is actually there inside the wall, but the drywall is either not drilled at all, with lots of extra wire capped safely inside and awaiting its debut (not ideal because of extra work to fish it out later, but ok if you don’t have the placement), or else the drywall is just drilled out only large enough to thread the wire through. I note this on plans as ‘leave only a whip.’ The long extra wiring is the whip. Typically I would only do this for lighting that’s going into millwork. I believe the bonus of the J-box is that it gives safe and sturdy purchase for your light fixture to screw into, as well as housing the wires. A whip, threaded through nice sturdy millwork, can snake into the fixture that’s attached to the wood of the cabinet. But the actual electrical box is probably still there inside the wall, anchored to the studs, as per code.

Lia
2 months ago
Reply to  Meredith

Ah – thanks Meredith! Your comment wasn’t showing for me when I posted my guess below.

🥰 Rusty
2 months ago
Reply to  Meredith

That’s the only kind of installation I’ve ever seen. Just the wires come through.

Lia
2 months ago
Reply to  Sarah

I wonder if it uses a recessed junction box – like pot lights?

Mary
2 months ago

Thanks for the tip! Agreed on better light specs/details! What the pluck? Seems to be getting worse for some reason, on high end lights too! Even when the fixtures can be exchanged, it is a pain, and costs add up on additional electrician visit and patch/repair work.

🥰 Rusty
2 months ago

Wot?!? How can this be expensive?
My brother put new insulation in my roof for me last winter (you’d expire trying to do this in any other season in Australia) and before he started, he tidied up all the spaghetti of electrical cables in my roof … by putting them in junction boxes (J boxes). He bought boxes of 10 or 12 for retail price and they averaged out at @ $3 each.
Now ekectricians buy them wholesale, so estimate @ $1-$2 each.
On top of that, things in Australia per item tend to be more voz most everything is made in China and sold at US$ which is more than an AU$.
The work to install is exactly the same. On top of tgat most walls in Australia are brick, so ….. ?
I am confounded as to how or why this is an expensive task – clearly other than having to patch walls.
I can’t work out how it’s expensive ? 🤔 ?

Molly Phillips
2 months ago

What a great PSA for people! It is SO HARD to choose all of the lighting prior to the build/remodel it does make life so much easier, and not just for junction boxes. It matters what sconces you pick, especially, since where they are placed there the light is, and they can cast terrible shadows in places say, where you’re trying to put on makeup (hello undereye shadows). I also had a junction box installed for an over-the-mirror light and the piece I picked out was so tall, I couldn’t add the shades or they would touch the ceiling. #whoops

2 months ago

My initial reaction to this is that I would hate a really small junction box if I was trying to wire in a light fixture. I’ve done a tiny bit of electrical work, but sometimes it can be really hard to cram all the connections you need to into a standard junction box, much less a very small one.

Michelle
2 months ago

How does the necessary wiring / attachments even happen in a (MUCH!) smaller jbox? That seems unrealistic from an install standpoint. How can you make the necessary connections for, say, a three-way wiring set up in that small of a space? Perhaps these smaller-canopy fixtures are intended to have some sort of escutcheon or backplate that covers the normal-size jbox?

Roberta Davis
2 months ago

That’s something I’ve never thought of! I guess I haven’t done enough new building or remodeling!

Kim
2 months ago

When I’m re-wiring a space with gutted walls, I always try to just leave a pigtail wire. The wall finishers leave the wire stub sticking out where the fixture will eventually go. Then when I have the final fixture and can determine exact placement, it’s easy to cut the right size hole exactly where I want it and use a remodel box.

suzanne
2 months ago
Reply to  Kim

Isn’t the weight of the fixture a problem? My understanding is that a J box held by drywall not a stud can only hold 6 lb fixture ? My daughter has a wire just just hanging out of the ceiling with some very old fluorescents piggybacked to each other (screwed to drywall). They are encased with a huge homemade oak/stained glass monstrosity.

Cris S.
2 months ago

Oh oh oh (raises hand frantically)!!!! Another issue is when you pick out a sconce that has a square or rectangular plate and the electrician goes through and puts huge round holes in the walls and then people are left to try to patch in the bits of the circle around the square. OR you tell them to space the sconces far enough apart that a king size bed frame will fit between them and give them the measurements. And then they place the wall switches far enough apart BUT then wire the sconces INSIDE of the light switches so that 1. the bed no longer fits there and 2. you have to reach around the sconce to flip the light switch on or off. 5 years on and I still hate that man.

Thank you for raising these issues Emily – and I can’t wait to start seeing pics of your brother’s home.

Julie
2 months ago
Reply to  Cris S.

“5 years on and I still hate that man…” Yes! I feel you friend!!!!! Except mine is 3 years on and a tile guy…

Jeanne
2 months ago
Reply to  Cris S.

Oh my, you just resurrected my own long time hate of an electrician who really screwed things up haha.

Carmen
2 months ago

This is so true Emily. I recently discovered this myself while we spent the last six months remodeling our entire home. The electrician installed the standard junction boxes but when we went to install my beautiful wall sconces the backplate was oval shaped and did not cover the box completely. Oops! In this case some expertly applied caulking did the trick to cover that small gap. Lesson learned though! It still amazes me all the small things I learned while doing our home remodel. Now I feel like anyone I talk to that might be embarking on the renovation journey has to hear all about it from me ha! I know they’ll thank me later though!

Lorrie Elliott
2 months ago

It is probably not fair to lump all electricians into one group but my experience is that they don’t even look at the plans. Our architect went to the trouble of specifically placing the outlasts, etc., but the electrician just put them wherever he thought they should go.

Brenda
2 months ago
Reply to  Lorrie Elliott

This is why I ALWAYS recommend attending an electrical walk-through with the electrician and architect during the wiring phase. I have been in houses where it was just left to the electrician to locate everything and it has ended in just weird placements of everything electrical. In this case, where it is planned out on a blueprint by an architect, the electrician should be on the hook for rectifying any misplaced outlets/switches etc. As extra insurance though, ALWAYS attend the walk-through.

Amy Pilgrim
2 months ago

And then there are those of us with homes built in the 1970s with ALUMINUM wiring! I can’t go with a smaller J-Box, because I have to use Alumi-Cons in each and every outlet and switch as I systematically replace each and every outlet and switch in the house to prevent electrical issues with the outlets! It’s a very tight fit with the larger J-Boxes, so a smaller one is out of the question. Ugh! Very expensive project, as each outlet/switch takes from two to four Alumi-Cons, and they currently run $3.50 each! I never paid attention to how many outlets and switches there were in a house until I had to redo them all! Yikes!

Colleen
2 months ago

Oh man this happened to me too and it was over tile so it was unfixable (at least within my budget) and I had to get new ones. SUCH a bummer

2 months ago

I haven’t read all of the comments so likely someone has already mentioned this but I always have my electrician just “add a whip” behind the drywall at the rough in stage. When he’s at the finish stage and has the fixture with him, he opens the wall exactly where I want it and can see the canopy size he’s working with. This helps with the canopy size issue, and also helps if placement needs to move slightly based on other unforeseen circumstances that inevitably come up during construction.

SG
2 months ago

Super helpful post. I had this issue with a big reno and it caused so many downstream problems beyond just my sconce selection. Most contractors have zero attention to detail and mindlessly reach for the same standard item whether it makes sense or not.

Monique Wright Interior Design
2 months ago

Another issue I ran into when moving the vanity lights in our daughters’ bathroom: when you run into a stud, and need to put a junction box in front of it. We went from a 5-light centered fixture to two 2-light fixtures above the sinks. One of the lights needed to go directly in front of a stud, and there just wasn’t enough room for a standard box. The fix: a more shallow junction box on one side. There are several different scenarios that require a bit of creativity!

Cici Haus
2 months ago

Ugh I ran into this too! I had to buy new lights because it was also on paneling. It’s a real bummer!

Debbie
2 months ago

Hi,
Another issue is installing antique light fixtures that don’t work with current J box sizes. My husband and I have had success using standard outlet boxes. They come in various sizes, plastic or metal. Can be tricky to fit all the connections in. And it passes inspection.

Shawn
2 months ago

What a great post and discussion in the comments. Team EHD, have you ever thought of doing a series of interviews with tradespeople on things designer should consider from a tradesperson’s POV? I’m sure they have their lists of “It drives me crazy when a designer…” because of something the designer doesn’t know about physical restrictions of a place or best practices of a trade. For example, needing blocking for a heavy chandelier or what’s involved in using a pigtail installation or what kind of fixtures should be chosen before rough-ins vs ones that can be selected later.

Kara
2 months ago
Reply to  Shawn

Yes yes yes, this please!