Greenhouse Lights

Blog / Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

I’m not the most precise gardener. I like to let things grow their own way. Weeds happen, and I pull them as needed. But once the plants are in the ground, I do my best to keep them from dying but it’s a day-to-day process. One of my friends, Geoff, keeps all the data on what he does and when and it’s rather impressive. He even keeps logs of how much he harvests for each plant every year. I just put stuff in the ground and hope it doesn’t die.

What I want to get better at is starting my seeds from scratch. I’ve done a bit of this in the past and have had poor to mixed results. When we lived in an apartment, I had a small greenhouse where I started seeds. Those seeds often sprouted, but the moisture levels in the greenhouse caused the plants to drown in their own pots. In the basement greenhouse I built recently, I don’t have to worry about moisture levels because it is not enclosed, but I do have to worry about light levels (I think this was also the case in the small greenhouse but rarely did the plants grow enough that the light factor came in).

The basement is dark like basements are. And since I have the greenhouse under the steps leading into the basement, it’s even darker. To solve this, I have some lights dangling from sockets above the plants. Most are grow lights, so they should help the plants grow. However, Because my cords aren’t as long as I need them to be, I have the lights up near the ceiling, too far for the baby plants’ comfort. When you’re starting seeds, you should have the light as close to the seeds as you can manage. If you do not, your plants will start to stretch toward the light, making their stalks stringy and weak. This is the case with all of the seeds I started this year except for one.

So what is my solution? Obviously its a DIY project to improve the space. Let me tell you what I did.

When we moved into the house, the bathroom had two fixtures of vanity lights above the mirror. Each fixture had three bulb sockets in it. We found that one bulb in each was more than enough (also switching from the bright, hot, energy draining vanity lights to LEDs was a must). But Ellie and I still hated the look of the vanity lights, and it made it worse looking to have only one bulb in each fixture. It made us look either too lazy to replace the bulbs, too cheap to replace the bulbs, or both. I wasn’t having it.

So, Ellie found a set of fixtures she liked and we took an hour to replace them. If you haven’t had the satisfaction of replacing a light fixture, you should really try it. It’s minimal work for a relatively drastic change. I said to Ellie, as we were removing the old fixtures, I’m going to hang on to these, I think I know what I can do with them. This was back before I had created the basement greenhouse but I knew where I wanted that project to go. And so the fixtures sat and waited until I was ready to bring them back to their full glory.

I want to take a quick sidestep and mention that I can be a bit of a pack-rat. When I see things on the side of the road and I think I have a use for them, I’ll snatch them up right away. I fully intend to use all these things I grab, sometimes it just doesn’t work out though. Recently, I’ve had a need for electrical cords. For example, when I wired up the 3 HP treadmill motor for the ShopSmith 10ER, I needed a new power cord for it because the original one was cracking. Since the ones at the store cost money, and not an insignificant amount either, I started finding them on the sides of the road. The best source for electrical cords? Broken vacuums. Thus far, I’ve snipped two electrical cords off vacuums and haven’t regretted it because I’ve found a use for both of them.

The vanity fixtures were set up to be directly wired into the wall. This meant I only had two bare wires coming out of each fixture. I wanted to wire them together, and also be able to plug them into an outlet.

Bear in mind, I have no intention to put any more load on these fixtures than originally intended for either the fixture or the vacuum electrical cord I use to wire them up. I’m not well versed in electrical wiring, but I know there are safety guidelines for a reason. I only intend to run low wattage LEDs in these fixtures (I think I ordered six 4W bulbs, so 24W but there is a chance I’ll double up the bulbs in the future so a whopping 48W).

What I sketched out in my head to connect the lights to each other and the power was the simplest of solutions. I would take the black wires from each of the three points and connect them together. Then I would take the white wires from each of the three points and connect them together. That should work, right? To get there, I needed to extend the wires coming off the fixtures slightly. I took four feet off the vacuum extension cord, cut it in half, and connected it to the fixtures as an extension. On the other ends of this, I wired all three together. To me, it’s so simple that I didn’t expect it to work. But it did! First try! I made sure all the places where wires were joined were connected using wire nuts. Then, I wrapped the wire nuts and a bit of the wire in electrical tape to hold everything together. That’s how my dad taught me to do it.

Now that I had the fixtures wired, I needed a way to suspend them from the ceiling and be able to raise and lower them with plant growth. Again, I opted for the simplest of designs. The fixtures had some holes in them already to mount them to the walls, so in these holes, I secured a few S-hooks. I bent the hooks to be sure I didn’t have to worry about them coming off the fixtures. From there, I ran some string up to eye hooks I had placed in the ceiling. This gives me a track to run the string on. I spaced the eye hooks for each string further apart than they needed to be to give the fixtures some stability in the greenhouse. Finally, I used the pegboard on the wall behind the greenhouse and a peg as a hook to loop the string around. This allows me to easily adjust the height of the lights.

Greenhouse lights installed

Now, I just have to wait for my new bulbs to arrive. I ordered a few LED bulbs from eBay and since they’re shipping from China, they won’t arrive before next month. Once I have those bulbs, I plan to give seed starting another go. If things work out, I’ll do some growing in the basement since it will be too late to get most plants outside this year.

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