How to Replace an Outdoor Light Fixture

After building my confidence in electrical work with the indoor lights I replaced, I decided I needed to tackle an outdoor light fixture, specifically our back porch light. My husband and my dad replaced the front porch light shortly after we moved in, and that made such a big difference!

Our back porch light fixture was nothing offensive–just a little small for the space and outdated. I couldn’t decide on a fancy light for the porch, so I decided to match the front porch light with this great light from Home Depot. (They don’t seem to have it available online anymore, but they have a great selection of affordable outdoor light fixture options if you’re still looking for one–I think this cost us $45).

A Note on Electrical Work

Before we get started, we MUST talk about how important safety is when working with anything electrical, which includes replacing an outdoor light fixture. If anything, you should be overly safety cautious. If anything makes you uncomfortable, during any step of the process, please STOP and call an electrician. Replacing a light is typically a relatively cheap electrician call (ours charges by the hour, and he’s replaced 2 lights for us in an hour in the past).

When I did my first few electrical projects, I turned the entire house power off to be safe, despite also having a voltage detector that I used at every step. Now, I feel comfortable just flipping the breaker, but I’m still religious about checking the voltage before touching any wires, even the ground.

And, last but not least, make sure you have someone in the house with you. This is a good project to have a second pair of hands with (not necessary, just makes things easier when you want someone to turn the breaker on to check your light, or hand you a screwdriver while you’re on the step ladder and holding a light fixture at the same time). And, absolute worst case, if you receive a shock, there’s someone to call for help.

Here We Go!

supplies for installing new light
Getting everything ready! Sadie included, as always

Disclosure: The links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no cost to you, I earn a small commission if you click the link and purchase the item. I’ve only linked items I’ve used in the past and would use again (unless otherwise noted). 

Supplies Needed

You’ll need a few supplies when replacing an outdoor light fixture, some of which you probably already have and some you need specifically for electrical projects. They are totally worth investing in, if you don’t have them (I can’t count how many times I’ve used them), and they’re relatively inexpensive (think $10-$20).

  • The new fixture and bulbs to match
  • Screwdriver (with interchangeable flat and Phillips heads), or one of each
  • Ladder or Step Stool to reach the wall fixture comfortably
  • Black electrical tape
  • Outdoor caulk
  • Caulk gun (unless you got a squeezable caulk tube like mine pictured above, then you don’t need this)
  • Utility Knife
  • Orange twist wire connectors
  • Voltage Tester (I love my Klein Voltage Tester)
  • Wire Strippers ( I have these from Home Depot and they work great)
  • A second pair of hands for bigger/heavier light fixtures

Before you Start

Make sure you read and understand the instructions for installing your new light when replacing an outdoor light fixture. I am the queen of starting to install something before making sure I read everything, and I’m working on being a grown up and following my own advice. While the basics of connecting and disconnecting the electrical is the same for every light, there are definitely nuances in how to hang different lights.

Also, for replacing an outdoor light fixture, it’s important that you check the weather. Because you’re working with electrical, you obviously don’t want it to be raining. You don’t want it to be super windy while you’re up on a ladder or step stool, either. And, since we need to use a sealant, make sure there isn’t rain in the forecast for 24 hours. Most sealants are usually rainproof after an hour, so a stray storm won’t do any harm, but you don’t want it to sit under hours of rain, or it won’t properly form the seal.

Step 1: Turn Off the Power

old outdoor light
Our old light

You need to do this at your main electrical panel in your house. If your circuits are labeled, this is easy–flip the circuit off that corresponds to the area of the house you are working in. If your circuits aren’t labeled (like our home’s), then you have 2 choices–play a guessing game of flipping circuits, then testing the voltage with your voltage detector to make sure you got the right thing (I’ll talk about how to use the voltage detector in a second); or, turn off the whole house power. This is totally your call. Just make sure it’s bright enough wherever you’re working (and make sure your husband isn’t working from home and needs electricity in your office when you’re doing it).

It’s important that this is your first step when replacing a light fixture because when you start removing the old light, you will expose live wires if the power is still on and have no way of detaching it from the wall. Then you’re left standing on a ladder with an awkward light fixture in your hands, trying to figure out what to do next. Just avoid this whole scene and turn the power off before anything.

Step 2: Remove the Old Outdoor Light Fixture

Place your step stool or ladder, so you can comfortably reach the outdoor light fixture. And, make sure you have your utility knife, screw driver, and voltage detector close at hand. Also, make sure you have a place ready to put your light down close by (in case it’s heavier than it appears).

Once you have everything ready, climb up on your step stool with your utility knife. You’ll need to use it to cut away the old sealant around the light fixture. I usually start by running the knife in a straight line around the edge, making sure to puncture the full seal. For now, your goal is to break the seal it formed, so you can remove the light. We’ll worry about removing it all from the wall later.

Once you’ve cut through the old sealant, place the utility knife down and pick up your screw driver. Unscrew any screws attaching the light to the wall. Make sure you’re holding the light because it will come off, and then it will only be connected at the electrical wires.

If there’s no obvious screw heads visible, they may be covered by caps like ours was. To remove those caps, you can either twist with your fingers if they’re loose. If they’re tight, grab a pair of pliers to grip the caps and twist until you remove them.

caps removed from old light fixture screws
Caps removed from screws

Then, pull the light off. Make sure you’re holding the light because it will come off, and then it will only be connected at the electrical wires.

old fixture off with exposed wires
Old light fixture removed. Just need to disconnect the wires now

Don’t be surprised if it’s gross in there. I was greeted by a small lizard who scurried out of my light, as well as bugs and dust and dirt. Luckily, I was not on the step stool, or I would have fallen right off when he poked his head out!

Step 3: Detach the Electrical Wires from the Old Outdoor Light

Before touching any wires, use your voltage detector to make sure the power is off by testing EVERY wire. There should just be two (typically white and black or red) and a ground wire (bare copper or green). Check the voltage by doing the following:

Best $20 I ever spent!
  1. Turn on the voltage detector. The power light should come on when ready.
  2. Touch one of the wires at the exposed part (the copper, not the colored part). It should turn green if the power is off and mine also beeps once. I usually touch it in several places to make sure it’s really off. It’ll light up green every time if the power is truly off.
  3. Continue to this for each wire to ensure the power is off.
  4. If anything every lights red, STOP IMMEDIATELY! Red means there’s electricity flowing through. Mine also beeps continuously if there’s a live wire, so it’s nice to have the double check. Have your partner check the circuit breakers to make sure you turned off the correct one. If ever in doubt, turn off all the house power, or stop and call an electrician.
Voltage tester in use when replacing a light fixture
Green means good to go!

Once you’re sure the power is off and the voltage meter confirms it, you can untwist the ceiling wires from the light wires to disconnect the light from the ceiling. If you have a ground wire (a plain copper wire or a green wire) twisted around a screw, you may need to loosen the screw with the screwdriver to get that off completely. Once you’re done, set the light to the side.

Halfway There!

If your crossbar is rusted or damaged or doesn’t fit your new light, remove it now by unscrewing the screws holding it in. (A crossbar is literally two pieces of metal, or sometimes a piece of metal with screw holes throughout, that’s used to support the light). If it looks in good shape and works with your new light, feel free to keep it!

removing old crossbar
I took off the old crossbar too because it was a little rusty. Just a few screws and done!

Before we move on to installing the new outdoor light fixture, let’s make sure you get all the old sealant off the wall. You can do this by using your razor blade and scraping it off, or sometimes if you’re lucky, simply peeling it off.

And, now we’re halfway done! The second half of this project is basically just reversing the first half, so you already know what you’re doing. Take a few minutes off the step stool, grab a sip of water, and get ready for the next steps.

exposed electrical box with old crossbar
Look how fancy my 1950s wiring is! LOL

The first part of installing the new light is install a new crossbar (if you took the old one off). It goes up as easy as it came down–place screws through the vertical crossbar into the fixture holes above and below the wiring and tighten.

crossbar with screws in it
Brand new crossbar! The two screws sticking out are the ones that will hold the light up. The blue/green one is the ground screw for the ground wire.

BUT, before you do this, you will need to place the screws that hold the light up into the horizontal crossbar facing out towards the new light (not into the wall). Then tighten the vertical screws, making sure to keep the horizontal screw holes on the crossbar are parallel to the ground, since those are what support the new light.

crossbar with screws in place
Here’s what my crossbar looks like with the decorative caps on the end of the screws. Those decorative caps cover the screws on the light when you’re done.

Step 5: Attach the New Light to the Electrical Wires

getting wires ready for install with the wire strippers
Getting the wires ready for install

Now, we’ll start working on connecting the new electrical wires. Before you get back up on your step stool, make sure your wires are ready to go. That means there is copper exposed on the new light’s wires, at least 1 cm, if not more (I usually err on the side of more to make it easier to wrap the wires together). If there isn’t enough copper exposed, use your wire strippers to gently cut the rubber cover of the copper wires (but not the copper) and then pull the cover off. It may take you a couple tries if you’ve never done this before–don’t worry, there’s usually plenty of extra wiring included so it’s ok if you mess up and cut the copper when stripping the wires.

trimming wire coating
Here you can see the coating is cut but not the wire. Now, just pull that coating off!

Once you’re ready, holding the new light in one hand (or having your partner hold it for you), you need to get back up on the step stool and twist together the white wire from the light with the white wire from the wall and the black/red wire from the light with the black/red wire from the wall.

Then, you should place a small piece of black electrical tape around each pair of wires.

black electrical tape on wires

And, finally, place an orange twist wire connector on each connection. Twist it on.

twist cap on electrical wires

To attach the ground wire, there are two possibilities I’ve run across when replacing a light fixture. If you have a ground wire in the wall, do the same thing as above (twist the wires together, apply tape and a twist connector).

wall copper ground attached to light fixture ground wire
Plain copper wire in my wall is the ground for this outdoor light, so I wrap the new outdoor light fixture’s ground wire around it and don’t use the ground screw.

Most, however, have a ground wire on the light and not in the wall. If this is the case, twist the ground wire around the ground screw, and then tighten the screw so the ground wire is well secured.

Brief note on wire colors: The white wires are the nonactive wires and the red or black wires are the active wires. Your ground wire is usually either green or plain copper. It’s VERY important that you match the wire colors on your new light with the ones in the wall. You can cause people to get shocked when they touch the switch or fixture if they’re not matched up correctly.

Step 5: Mount the New Outdoor Light Fixture

Now, follow instructions for mounting your new light to the wall. If you have any extra wiring, you may have to shove it into the light box to make sure your new light fits properly against the wall.

The tricky part with my particular mount is making sure the light properly fits on the crossbar, since we’ve already place the screws that hold the light up through the crossbar. When the light is properly on the mount, the screws should stick out the screw holes, the light should be level, and the light should be flush to the wall.

new light fixture decorative screw caps
My screws were a little long, so you can see some it showing. I stressed about it for 5 minutes and never noticed it again (until I posted this picture).

Lastly, twist the decorative screw caps over the ends of the screws.

Step 6: Turn the Power Back On and Check your Work

Once everything is tight, it’s time to check your work. Make sure you have the correct lightbulbs in your light, and then go turn the power on. If you’re light works, you did it!

newly installed light with power
Yay! It works!

If it doesn’t work (and you really did turn the power back on and you’ve tried with brand new lightbulbs), most likely it’s an issue with the wires. I’ve had that happen before when I didn’t twist and tape the wires well enough, and they came apart when I was hanging the light up. Easy fix, just repeat steps 4-6! If everything looks right after you double check and it’s still not working, use your voltage checker to make sure you have power at the electrical wires. If you do and the light still doesn’t work, I’d call an electrician for help. It could be a faulty light or something else more complicated.

Step 7: Apply Sealant Around the Oudoor Light Fixture

Here’s one of the most important steps for an outdoor light (even if it’s covered by a porch): applying sealant around the outdoor light fixture. My new fixture is black and walls are brick, so I chose clear outdoor sealant, but choose whatever color works best with your home. The sealant is so important because it prevents any water from running into your electrical box, since there will always be a few tiny (or not so tiny) cracks between your outdoor light fixture and your wall. As we all know, electricity and water don’t mix.

To apply the sealant, first cut open your caulk at a 45 degree angle and far enough down the tip that you have about 0.5cm opening (about half the width of your fingernail). Just eyeball these measurements–no need to get super technical.

Next, load the caulk into the caulk gun, if it needs one. I have a hard time squeezing the caulk gun so I buy the smaller, squeezable tubes whenever I can.

applying caulk to light fixture
Make sure the caulk covers all the cracks so no water gets in.

Then, start slowly squeezing the gun to release the caulk along the top of the light. You want to release enough to cover any cracks between the wall and the light. Run the length of the top of the light, and then put the caulk down. Use your finger, or a wet paper towel if you want to try to keep it off your hands, and smooth the caulk down that side. Make sure there are no remaining visible holes. You can use a wet paper towel to wipe away any caulk that got in places it shouldn’t.

Smoothing the caulk to get an even seal
Smoothing out the caulk to get an even seal

Repeat this process on the sides of the light. Leave the bottom of the light open, so that if any moisture does make its way into the electrical box, it can drain out.

And, Done!

This a great project (and relatively inexpensive if your outdoor light fixture isn’t pricey) that can transform the entire look of your outdoor areas!

Before replacing our porch light, I had replaced 4 or 5 indoor lights without issue. But, for some reason, replacing an outdoor light fixture made me extra nervous.

After completing this project, there was no need for those extra nerves. The only extra step is removing and replacing the sealant, which any one can do.

I promise it wasn’t that difficult–I was 5 months pregnant when I did this 🙂

hand on pregnant belly
Putting my feet up and feeling very proud of myself afterwards 🙂

P.S. If you want help replacing an indoor light fixture, check out my post Replacing a Light Fixture (add Link before publishing)!

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