In my previous post I explained how I began a project to remodel our second bedroom into a nursery. This post chronicles the installation of 600 fiber optic strands into the ceiling of this room in order to create a night time star field.
Installing fiber optics into a ceiling is no small feat. The project took the help of several friends over long weekends and nights throughout the course of nearly two months. A good part of what took so long were several unique challenges that greatly complicated the installation beyond the typical approaches you’ll find on other blogs.
When I first started to plan the ceiling I thought it would be cool if it could have distinguishable markers much like you’d see in the real night sky. Following some encouragement from my father-in-law I broke out a compass to find the exact direction of North within the room. Then I hopped on my computer and pulled up Google Earth in sky mode.
I set the orientation to match the same angle of the room and started to look for a set of constellations that had a good variety. After I found a good candidate I pulled the star map and began plotting out the other pieces of the ceiling. In order to minimize issues during the installation I added markers for studs, electrical boxes, the crown molding, and access panel for the fiber optic illuminator. Once all of those markers were in place I slightly adjusted the placement of some constellations and stars to ensure nothing would get cut off or blocked. Thankfully not a lot of adjustments had to be made.
Since the fiber optic kit has three different sizes for stars (0.75mm, 1mm and 1.5mm) I plotted 600 points based on the real intensity in the night sky. This means that the largest fibers (1.5mm) make up the major focal points of each constellation. The medium size fibers complete any remaining stars within a constellation and the small fibers fill the remaining space. For the smaller fibers I made sure to use a similar distribution to that of the actual night sky. For example, there is a higher concentration of fibers along the belt of stars that makes up the Milky Way. The resulting map is shown below.
The blue grid matches the rooms dimensions as broken up into 2 foot by 2 foot segments with labels represented as A1 through F6. The long red bars represent the placement and size of the ceiling’s resilient channels (aka: studs). The large red circle in the center is where the ceiling light is to be installed, while the red boxes near the center represent a smoke alarm and fire extinguisher. Finally, the labels W1 through W4 indicate which wall of the room the map corresponds to.
With a complete map of the ceiling finished I began the initial construction. This is when I discovered the first major obstacle in the process. All of the fiber optic kit’s documentation as well as all of the online videos, guides and blog posts relating to it’s installation all had one basic requirement; that you must have attic access to the ceiling. This is so that you can freely drill holes and feed the wiring through the ceiling with a two person team.
Unfortunately for me I live in a condominium. I have no attic access and since I live on the first floor my ceiling is shared with a neighbor above me. The only option in this situation is to take down the existing ceiling and put up all new drywall with the fibers already installed. To further complicate matters my building is constructed with a network of fire sprinklers that I really did not want to start messing with. All of the sudden this was not a project I could do in a couple of weekends.
Thankfully my ceiling was constructed with two layers of 5/8″ drywall. So instead of tearing down the whole thing I decided to take down only the first layer. The reasoning behind this decision was that doing so greatly reduces the difficulty since I would not have to work with multiple layers, insulation and especially that pesky fire sprinkler. Instead I could feed the fiber optics along the ceiling, sandwiching them between the two layers of drywall, until they met at a hole in the upper layer of drywall where the light source would be.
I broke out my Rotozip, set it to a depth just shy of 5/8″, and began to make a series of cuts along the ceiling in a grid like fashion. Once I had a nice square cut out of the drywall I used a drywall knife, a large mallet and good old fashioned strength to pulled the drywall off the ceiling. To my surprise this worked without a hitch.
A word of caution: at first I had made the mistake of cutting the drywall too close to the stud nails. This made it very difficult to pull the drywall down as I was not able to get enough leverage. Soon after I realized that if I made all of the cuts in the center between studs I was able to pry the drywall off the ceiling with ease.
After about a solid day’s worth of effort I was able to get all of the drywall off of the ceiling.
My next step was to start drilling holes for each of the fibers in the drywall. I lined up each piece along the wall and began marking them with the same grid and labels I used on the star map. I also marked where the stud lines were with blue tape and added the additional markers for the various holes required.
Once done I needed a way to plot each of the star points onto the drywall. To make things easier I used a short throw projector to overlay the star map I made onto the drywall pieces. This is where the grid of blue lines came in handy as I was able to exactly match the 2′x2′ sections of the map to the drywall.
The next complication I encountered was that laying each fiber between both sheets of drywall creates a sharp 90 degree angle. This immediately creates a kink in the fiber resulting in less light transmittance and increases the likelihood that the fiber will break altogether. To get around this issue I dug out grooves on the back side of the drywall, creating a 45 degree angle that more easily allowed the wire to safely bend flat onto the backside of the drywall.
Each fiber was then pushed through the drywall, taped down and run in a series of paths along the back. These paths all lead towards the center of the room where a hole in the upper layer of drywall contains the light source. Again, to prevent kinking and breaks in the fiber each one was laid perfectly flat side by side so that when the new layer of drywall was secured tightly against the upper layer no problems would occur.
While running the fiber along the back great care was taken to ensure that no fiber ran over an area that might cause damage from a stud screw or drilling while installing the fixtures.
An alternative method would have been to install a small spacer between the two layers of drywall. However, after much research I discovered that doing so actually increases sound transmittance through the wall (and I don’t particularly want to hear my neighbors any more than I already do).
After every fiber was installed into the drywall and run along the back they were ready to put up on the ceiling. I started with the outer pieces of the ceiling, closest to the walls. This made it possible to tape the remaining fiber across the upper layer of drywall in order to meet at the light source. Where it was feasible I also cut small hopes in the upper layer of the drywall and fed the fiber across the inside of the ceiling using a steel fish tape.