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A quick lighting and suspended ceiling project

Lights out

It happened a couple of days before Christmas Eve. The overhead light in the family room suddenly went out without warning. The circuit breaker hadn’t tripped and changing the bulbs did not change the result. I suspected that the ballast was to blame.  I mean, what else could it have been? My Dad. who knows something about this sort of thing, confirmed the diagnosis.

Christmas was hectic and I didn’t get over to Home Depot until January 3. We were out of town. Can’t change the light if we aren’t home, and if we aren’t home, we don’t need the light.

The search at Home Depot proved futile.  With ballast in hand, I searched the rack for a match. The employee helping me out said that he had never seen a ballast like the one I had.  So now the project was about to become a bit more extensive.

A quick repair becomes a project

So at this point, I wasn’t going to be able to repair the fixture.  Nope.  I had to replace it.  And why stop at just replacing the fixture?  Why not make a few improvements while I’m at it?

Overhead light in family room

The family room addition is poorly built and we plan to eventually tear it down. However, it does have one interesting detail– a partially vaulted ceiling. When we moved in, there were two skylights, but they leaked.  So we had the roofers remove the skylights and cover the holes when they re-shingled the roof. If you were to look up into the tunnels, you would see the plywood roof deck instead of sky.

Between the two skylights the fluorescent light fixture was housed in a paneled box that served as the main lighting for the room.

For over three years, I wanted to insulate and cover the skylight tunnels. I just never got around to it. Now, since I had a light fixture to replace, I now had a reason to fix up this area.

The plan: a suspended ceiling inside the vaulted section to hide the water damage and allow me to install new light fixtures.  Because demolition is this room’s future, I wanted this project to fall in the “quick and dirty” category.

Another $500 trip to Home Depot

(January 10)  Just once I’d like to make a Home Depot run and spend less money than anticipated. No matter the size of the project, I always seem to spend double my original estimate.

The cost of materials had definitely increased in the five years since I installed the suspended ceiling in the basement of our previous house. And herein lies the fundamental difference between do-it-yourselfers and contractors. Contractors are always aware of the current prices. Do-it-yourselfers usually base estimates on the cost of previous projects, even though they may have been completed several years ago.

The actual total for the suspended ceiling supplies was $393 with tax. Add another hundred bucks for other supplies like some new metal snips (tools are always an investment) and some electrical wire and now the bill is almost $500. The wiring was the biggest sticker shock…the price of standard household wire had doubled in the two years since the last time I bought some.

I could have done the ceiling cheaper if I used 2 x 4 panels instead of 2 x 2. I would have needed fewer cross tees at a savings of about $15. But I liked the look of the 2 x 2 panels.

I also could have shopped around and bought the ceiling panels at a place that sells them individually.  Home Depot only sells by the case. There are 16 in a case, and I estimated that I needed 24. That meant I needed to buy 2 cases and would have 8 left over, at an additional cost of around $40. And I also bought an extra main tee and an extra cross tee (add another $10), just in case.  With tax, that’s an extra $75 over and above the actual cost of this project. At least I might be able to use the extra tiles elsewhere, so it’s not a complete waste of money.

Why a suspended ceiling was our only option:

A suspended ceiling was not necessarily the cheapest way to go, and it definitely wasn’t the prettiest, but at the end of the day, it was my only real option, legally.  And here’s why:

Another hidden junction point

Surprise, surprise. Another example of the previous owner’s electrical wizardry. Further proof that e built the family room addition without any permits or inspections.

hidden junction box
Hidden junction box.

What you are looking at here is the box that was built around the existing fluorescent fixture, with the paneling removed from one side. Removing the paneling, which was glued and nailed in place, was the only way to gain access to the electrical wiring. As you can see, there is a junction point at the peak of the ceiling, which was completely inaccessible, By code all wire connections MUST be accessible and the only way to get to this one was to do some demolition. I had been considering either a drywall or bead board ceiling.Both of those options were off the table as I would have to do some re-wiring to eliminate the hidden junction box.  A suspended ceiling allowed me to work with what was there because it would leave the junction box accessible.

Insulating the skylight tunnels

(January 11)  I nailed up some 1×2′s around the tunnel openings, added some insulation and stapled up some vapor barrier with acoustic sealant that should help stop the indoor air from penetrating the cavity.  I wasn’t too concerned with ventilation as there was a small gap  between the drywall and the roof deck at the top of the tunnel.  Ideally, I should have removed the drywall from the tunnels and tied the insulation and vapor barrier into the existing.

skylights insulated
The side of this box containing the light was paneled.

The ceiling project is looking up….


(January 13) I added a rectangular frame made of 2 x 4s to give me a way to mount the light fixtures and support the suspended ceiling.

frame for lights
Framework for the fluorescent lights.

Nearing completion

The suspended ceiling itself was not terribly difficult to install, though the main tees were a bit of a pain. I juggled the hanger wire and just over 13 feet of main tee, while balancing on a ladder. Somehow, I managed to get the two main tees in place and supported. When I did the ceiling in the basement at our previous house, I used thinner wire which was a lot easier to work with. The heavier gauge wire I used this time around was more difficult to readjust to get the ceiling grid level.

suspended ceiling
Suspended ceiling almost complete.

The ceiling consists of three rows of panels, with only the middle row being full size. Each of the two sides needed to be trimmed. Normally, trimming the tiles is pretty easy, but the tiles I used this time are beveled so the grid is recessed. Therefore, there was little room for error as I had to cut a notch along the edge (rather than just lopping it off).

I overestimated the amount of materials needed– and here’s why

When I counted the number of panels needed, I forgot to subtract the four would be replaced by the clear light panels. I also overcompensated for the small pieces at the ends, counting them as full panels when a single panel could supply two of these pieces. And I had allowed for a certain margin of error, but, miracle of miracles, I did not make any mistakes in trimming the panels.

Nearing the end of the project, I faced a bit of a dilemma:  I only needed one more tile. So, do I open a full case for that final piece, or do I hunt around the city looking for someone who sells single panels so that I can return the unopened case to Home Depot? Home Depot only sells full cases, so returning a partial case was not an option. Fortunately, I found a retailer who sold singles and returned the extra case to Home Depot for a refund.

The final cost of the project, after returns and adjustments, was less than $300.

A weekend project finished in less than a week

I do believe that is a new record for me.  This is probably the first project I have ever done where I made absolutely no errors in measurement whatsoever. And if my memory serves me correctly, it is also the first time I didn’t have to make multiple trips to the building supply store for more material. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did make a stop at a local store for an additional ceiling panel, but rather than cost me more money, it enabled me to put some money back in my pocket.

It’s better than what was there

The old vaulted ceiling was in pretty rough shape. Now, the old skylight tunnels are somewhat insulated and vapor barrier-ed, which should keep us warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Two new fluorescent fixtures provide light for the family room. And I kept a bit of “architectural interest” (if you can call it that) by raising up that section of the ceiling by about 5 inches. I think it looks pretty good.

suspended ceiling
The finished ceiling.

Not intended to be permanent

Suspended ceilings in main living areas almost always cover up problems. This one is no different. But I could not have easily repaired the vaulted ceiling. And, with an electrical junction point near the peak, a suspended ceiling was really my only option, without doing major electrical work.

The electrical issue aside, a drywall ceiling would have caused significantly more mess and disruption. This is the room where we spend about 95% of our time when we are not sleeping and we were able to continue using the room during this project.

Always at the back of my mind is the plan to rebuild the family room at some point in the future. I don’t necessarily like wasting money on something that will be heading to the landfill later, but we still have to use the room now. The simple fact is that the appearance of the vaulted area of the ceiling was embarrassing. I feel much better now that I have done something about it. Heck, I may even consider repainting the pink walls.  I don’t know if I can look at pink walls for another five years….

This post has been modified.  The content has been edited from 5 blog posts that were originally published between 1/10 and 1/16 of 2007. 


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