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I'm an American who bought an antique chandelier from France on ebay. It has old cloth covered wires I'm guessing from the 1930s. I'm not sure which one is the hot wire. One wire is made up of 2 wires. Is one of these supposed to be be a ground? I'm assuming not. enter image description hereEach socket has the standard 2 wires, then inside the chandelier they're all taped together and somewhere in there a third wire is introduced. I want to replace the wires but the problem is they're so thin I don't think modern wires are going to fit through the holes. Maybe I could leave the thin wires coming from the sockets, and just replace the ceiling cord with a modern wire? Not sure if the sockets should be replaced either.

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  • These similar earlier questions might be helpful: diy.stackexchange.com/questions/127915/… and diy.stackexchange.com/questions/219027/… Dec 5, 2021 at 18:30
  • i would run new thin wire and run DC through it to LEDs to avoid mains voltage on thin wires. Then you can use thinly insulated (eg enamel) wiring to safely deliver more power than you could with AC as the insulation need not take up as much cross-section.
    – dandavis
    Dec 5, 2021 at 18:36
  • I would not recommend enameled wire for this. Enamel is very thin and delicate which leaves it prone to damage. The enamel may be too thin to insulate from sparking on voltages seen in household wiring. Thin wires rated to 600 volts are very common for applications like this such as "lamp cord", "speaker wire", or "thermostat wire". A 120 volt rating is not enough because actual voltage in normal use can exceed 140 volts, and spike to much higher if there is a lightning strike nearby or a fault in the wiring. Household wiring is rated to 600 volts for a reason.
    – MacGuffin
    Dec 6, 2021 at 2:39
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    @MacGuffin from the rest of dandavis's comment it's clear that the enamelled wire would be used for low voltage DC. The would be a sensible approach if you could get LV bulbs with the right fitting
    – Chris H
    Dec 6, 2021 at 9:36
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    @ChrisH Ah, yes, my reading comprehension fails me again. Apologies and thanks. I'll keep the comment for continuity and as a warning to others sharing my comprehension level. ;^) Also, take care even with low voltage DC as enamel can scrape off easily still and get something hot. Make sure to calculate ampacity for wire sizing using the correct voltage. Stepping down voltage will step up current for the same power.
    – MacGuffin
    Dec 6, 2021 at 10:41

2 Answers 2

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Since the lamp contains metal parts, a proper grounding needs to be added. I.e. a third wire must be connected to all metal parts.

But this 3rd wire must not be connected to neutral (and of course not to hot as well), which was a standard method for some decades in Europe. It must be a dedicated ground wire.

A GFCI (RCD) should be installed for this lamp's circuit - better all circuits in that house should be protected by a GFCI - if not yet done.

80 years ago, grounding was not mandatory/available in many places.

The white plastic connectors are European connectors, in case of NEC- incompatibility they must be exchanged with the correct ones.

Flexible wires do need ferrules for the clamping at the sockets.

The sockets are not from that age, they have been exchanged in the last 40 years.

Normally, hot is connected to the center pin of the socket. In the last picture with the view into the socket, the left screw holds the hot wire. The right screw holds the neutral wire.

This is a safety rule, since the fingers are more likely to touch the pole which is closer to the outside, and which is connected to the thread of the bulb. If the bulb is screwed into the socket, the hot pin is completely covered by the bulb and can't be touched.

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  • Thanks for the reply. Are you saying that the 2 wires that are bundled up in the 2nd photo are the neutral? Dec 5, 2021 at 5:41
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    No, since the wiring between the 2 white connectors and the sockets can' t be identified via photos. Best way would be via a multi meter, switched to resistance test. Matching ends have below 1 Ohm, non-matching ends should have infinite Ohm.
    – xeeka
    Dec 5, 2021 at 7:39
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    ...non-matching ends should have infinite Ohm if all bulbs are removed.
    – xeeka
    Dec 5, 2021 at 15:11
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To answer the literal question in your title first: the way you tell neutral from hot in a light fixture like this is with a multimeter. (Technically, all you need is a continuity tester, but the easiest way to get one is to got to a hardware store and buy a basic $10 multimeter. And it'll be useful for other things, too.)

Once you have a multimeter, use it in continuity testing mode to test which wire connects to which part of each lamp socket. (Obviously, do this with all lamps removed and the chandelier unplugged.) The rule here is simple: in a correctly wired screw-type lamp socked, the screw threads should be connected to neutral and the contact at the bottom of the socket should be connected to live. (This is for safety reasons. If the wires are swapped, the lamp will still work, but you're more likely to get shocked by accidentally touching a live contact while changing a bulb.)

Some other things to check, while you're at it, include:

  • Are all the sockets wired the same way, or do some of them have live and neutral swapped compared to the others? If they do, you'll want to switch them around so that they're all consistent.

  • Are all the connections reliable, even if you wiggle the wires around?

  • Is there continuity between live and neutral? With the bulbs removed, there shouldn't be — if there is, that indicates a short circuit somewhere that you'll need to fix. Wiggle the wires around while testing this, too.

  • Is there continuity between the exposed metal parts of the chandelier and either live or neutral? Again, there shouldn't be, unless there's a short circuit, or unless neutral has been wired to do double duty as ground — which is not safe, and you should fix it.

  • If there is a ground wire present, is there continuity from it to all exposed metal parts? (There should be. If there is no ground wire, I would strongly suggest adding one. And yes, do use GFCI.)

Just to be extra sure, you should also repeat the last two tests above after reinserting the bulbs, since a faulty socket could have the lamp base touching an exposed metal part.


With that out of the way, let's move on to your other questions:

I want to replace the wires but the problem is they're so thin I don't think modern wires are going to fit through the holes.

You should be able to get modern wires of similar thickness. Pick some reasonable max wattage for the lamps you might put in that chandelier and use an online wire gauge calculator to figure out the minimum wire thickness you'll need for your lamps. (Remember that the wires going out to the individual lamps only need to carry current for one lamp each, and that modern LED lamps use a lot less power than old incandescents.) Then get some wire that's at least that thick, while still fitting through the holes.

Note that the wires to the lamps don't need to be in a cable, since they'll be out of sight and effectively in a grounded metal conduit. Individual (stranded or solid) wires should do fine, as long as their insulation is rated for 110 V. You'll probably want to use the old wires to pull some strings (one for each new wire) through the holes, and then use the strings to pull the new wires through. It's a good idea to practice tying a good wire pulling knot first; you don't want the string to come off the wire halfway through!

Make sure to get appropriate wire colors: black for hot and white for neutral. And consider also pulling a bare ground wire through to each socket (and attaching it e.g. to the metal stand holding the socket). While probably not absolutely necessary, if the chandelier is indeed all metal, having individual ground wires all the way to the sockets means you won't have to worry about whether the chandelier itself is a good ground conductor or not.

Maybe I could leave the thin wires coming from the sockets, and just replace the ceiling cord with a modern wire?

That's… certainly an option, if the old wire to the sockets is still good. But I'd rather not. All those old cloth-insulated wires and hand-made splices might still be perfectly good and safe, but I wouldn't rely on it. Better to replace it with known good modern wiring than to worry about it.

(I'd worry about the wire gauge too, since you say the old wires look thin, and since the lower mains voltage in the US means that lamps there draw twice as much current as in Europe for the same wattage. But those old wires were surely sized for incandescent bulbs, so with modern LEDs that draw maybe 10% to 20% of the power of equivalent incandescents you should be fine. If you're planning on using the chandelier with high-wattage incandescent bulbs, though, do make sure the wires are up to it.)

In any case you'd still want to add a ground wire, if there isn't one already, and attach it to the body of the chandelier.

Not sure if the sockets should be replaced either.

That's a good question. Based on a quick peek at Wikipedia, it seems that while Europe and US both use the same kind of Edison screw light bulb sockets, the exact sizes in common use are different. If you can find bulbs that fit the existing sockets, keeping them should be fine, but it might be more convenient to replace them.

In any case, as xeeka notes, the sockets look newer than the rest of the chandelier, so they've probably already been replaced at least once at some point.


Ps. As a general disclaimer, I have very little experience with American electrical codes and no idea whether your chandelier, with or without the modifications suggested above, would be permitted under them. Some answers that I found to earlier questions here seem to suggest that it probably won't be, since it won't be UL listed, although apparently a local electrical inspector might be able to waive that requirement.

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  • European ES sockets have larger clearances to allow for the higher voltage, and so using american bulbs in them is no problem; the reverse is not true (because of the clearances). Which was just as well when I was building a lamp for an American, as it's not easy to get American sockets over here (UK). Ofc you do need to check the particular socket and bulb combination in case you got something worn/on the edge of tolerance.
    – 2e0byo
    Dec 6, 2021 at 11:36
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    @2e0byo: I have no personal experience on this, but the Wikipedia page I linked to says that's true of some socket sizes (like US E26 vs. Euro E27) but not necessarily others. I suspect the existing sockets are probably E14 size, and I don't think American E12 bulbs will fit them. (Apparently you can buy compact E14 to E12 adapters, though. And of course nowadays you can just buy 120V E14 bulbs online too, although selection might be more limited than with E12.) Dec 6, 2021 at 13:34
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    fair point, and that wiki article is a better source than my head! :) The point about clearances as well as threads stands though---you really don't want internal arcing. And I just wasted half an hour reading on the history of various bulb fittings: you really shouldn't link to wiki, it's bad for productivity :D
    – 2e0byo
    Dec 6, 2021 at 14:00

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