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cazzie's avatar

Any electricians here on fluther? My house has a quirk that seems to be getting worse.

Asked by cazzie (19341 points ) October 20th, 2012

Incandescent light bulbs are blowing on more than one circuit. I change a light bulb and then it blows after a short time. Some light fittings after only 2 months. Sometimes there an be a sudden slew that blow in the same week. Why am I changing so many light bulbs? I want to switch over to the more expensive power savers, but I don’t want to buy a bunch of $20 bulbs and then have my house wiring destroy them. My brother (who lives no where near me so can’t really help) thinks that it may be some wiring problem in my fuse box. I literally have NO money to call an electrician, so is this something I can look at and fix myself?

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42 Answers

XOIIO's avatar

How old is the house? Most likely just old wiring. My house does this too, flourescents don’t burn out as much, but I’d probably invest in LED bulbs. Way more power saving and shouldnt be affected by the power fluctuations.

Don’t try to fix it yourself unless you want to turn into a human barbaque. If you don’t know how to do it youll get killed easily.

cazzie's avatar

Oh, sorry, the house was built in 1990. The fuse box has switches that trip, not ‘fuses’ that you replace.

Brian1946's avatar

How do you know that the blowing bulbs are on more than one circuit?

cazzie's avatar

because the upstairs switch is on one circuit on the fuse box and the ones in the basement are on another, etc.

Brian1946's avatar

Did you verify that through the use of schematics, a wiring diagram, breaker (switch) testing, or something else?

LuckyGuy's avatar

Are you reasonably handy? Do you have an inexpensive digital voltmeter? $5 from Harbor Freight. Also you can get a plug in wall circuit analyzer for ~$4 It has three lights on the back that light up to tell you your problem. These are nice but not necessary.
If you are “brave” I would turn off the main breaker, Unscrew the cover of the box and remove it.
Look at all those wires but don’t panic! There is one going to every breaker, one going to return and one to ground, for each circuit. Take a screw driver and tighten each one of the screws They will turn about 1/8 of a turn clockwise. Is your wiring copper or aluminum? Both flow over time but AL flows much more and sometimes loses contact.
Don’t forget to tightend the big wires too.
After that is finished you can close up the box.
Now look at the main ground. It will be a big wire leading from the box to a water line or metal post someplace. Tighten that. Sometimes that gets loose and causes all sorts of weird problems, like: turn on the toaster and a light in the other side of the house glows dimly. People think it is ghosts. Fix the ground wire and the house is cleared of spooks.

You can do this at no cost and it will only take about 20 minutes. If you do it with a friend it will be much easier. Use a wooden handled screwdriver an wear shoes just in case.
Good luck.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@cazzie It may help to let everyone know what country you are living in. Our house (in England) has a similar problem. Flip the switch, and if a light bulb blows, it shuts off the main circuit.

XOIIO's avatar

@cazzie Yeah pretty much the same here, not sure the year is accurate but its all fuzes and there isn’t any grounding. Our flourescents (fancy dandy talk for energy savers) last a normal life, but incandescents and pretty random, sometimes a long time, sometimes only a month or two.

cazzie's avatar

@LuckyGuy anything electrical scares the shit out of me and I am not feeling brave. You basically described better what my brother was getting at. He said it was the main ground wire, most likely. I am handy, but when we bought the house, I told hubby that I would do the plumbing and drainage maintenance but he would have to take care of electrical. (he is an electrical engineer, after all) Hubby is gone for weeks, so this has fallen to me to do, unless I want to wait until he gets home and end up fighting about it.

Buttonstc's avatar

So, where is hubby now? Just curious.

cazzie's avatar

He was in Paris all week this past week and left there yesterday and got to Libreville, Gabon. 4 days in Paris with nothing to do but pick up a work visa from an embassy.

@LuckyGuy I think I am going to call someone who knows a bit more about electricity and have them help me look at the connections to the fuse box. If that looks solid, I think I will phone the local power company. We had really bad storms last winter and it may have done something to the power connection to the house and the problems seem to have gotten worse just since we started using more power with our underfloor heat that we switched on a few weeks ago. My brother also reminded me about smoke alarms. Hubby took all them down just after we first moved in and never reinstalled them, I just realised.

LuckyGuy's avatar

@cazzie I can walk you through it if you like. It is easy, honest. Invite someone over and make a lunch project out of it. It will be fun and you’ll be so proud when you find it.

You have screwdrivers with plastic or wooden handles, right?

gasman's avatar

It only takes a slight over-voltage to reduce the life of incandescent bulbs, so it’s worth checking with a voltmeter. Not that there’s much you can do if that’s problem, other than complain to the power company.

Another possibility for the spate of short-lifespan light bulbs is that you purchased them recently all at the same store, and the whole batch is somehow defective – either in manufacturing or by rough handling during shipping. I’ve encountered that before.

I don’t see how a faulty ground would cause light bulbs to fail.

When an incandescent bulb burns out, however, it can cause a brief current surge that can trip a circuit breaker (“fuse”) at the panel. That in itself is not unusual.

If you get to the bottom of things, could you please post your findings to satisfy our collective curiosity?

LuckyGuy's avatar

@gasman If the neutral line has a poor connection to ground, and one phase has a high load applied to it, such as an electric floor heater, the other phase can effectively have a higher than normal voltage on it. Just a couple of volts over normal will shorten the life of a bulb.

I am willing to bet the bulbs that are blowing are on the phase not connected to the heating system. Tighten the ground wire. That will do it

cazzie's avatar

I think there is a voltage meter here in the house, if he didn’t pack it and take it in his work kit. He was using one just before he left Monday, trying to fix the power cord to the Macair. I have a nice assortment of screw drivers with plastic handles.

@gasman the bulbs are bought at different stores at different times and this just keeps happening. Do you think that the bulbs could be causing other bulbs to die because they cause a brief surge? Four bulbs upstairs all died within a week, all on the same circut and there was surge was so strong, the fuse switch blew with the first one that died. The other’s didn’t die right away, but they were all gone within the week.

cazzie's avatar

@LuckyGuy so, is my theory right? Because I am pulling more juice around the house with the floor heaters, I am making the volltage problem worse? Is this a serious fire threat? Should I get this sorted immediately?

gasman's avatar

@LuckyGuy Thanks, I hadn’t considered that.
@cazzie No, I don’t think a surge of current, associated with a bulb burning out, would affect other bulbs on the circuit – or even in the same fixture. It would only explain a blown breaker. A voltage surge or spike might explain it, however, but that’s not caused by light bulbs burning out.

cazzie's avatar

I did try to talk to hubby about this, but I got an unhelpful reply that began with ‘If you knew anything about electricity….’ not helpful.

LuckyGuy's avatar

@cazzie . Don’t panic. You are safe. If there was something serious your breaker would pop. It is just annoying.
I just read the above answer. (Don’t get me started.) Well, Sweetie after you take care of this problem you will know something about electricity. Just do it.

Findn the voltmeter and measure the voltage at some of your wall sockets. It should read about 120 Volts. Carry that with you as you check others around the house.

I will bet when you turn on the floor heater the half of the circuits in your house (the ones connected to that phase) are reading a little low like 115–117 volts The other circuits connected to the other phase will be reading a little high like 121–123 volts. This difference will go away when the heater it turned off and they both will read 120 Volts. If that is true then you just need to tighten that screw. It will take 2 minutes (after 15 minutes of heavy breathing)
Seriously If you want to call me I will actually give you my cell number and walk you through it. PM me if you want .

cazzie's avatar

Ooops. If it reads 120V I am in more trouble than I thought. I live in Europe. ;o)

That is soooo nice! @LuckyGuy

I am going to do this if he hasn’t taken the meter with him. And then I am going to FACEBOOK that I did it and he can kiss my electrical knowing ass! LOL. The neighbours are home, so, before I start fussing with the fusebox proper, I might see if he wouldn’t mind coming over and making sure I there is someone to call an ambulance if need be. (only half joking.)

LuckyGuy's avatar

@cazzie I am so proud of you. You can do this. As usual I made the typical flutherer’s mistake and figured we are in the same country. I was describing a typical American box and voltage. Obviously your voltage is different and the plug in tester I was talking about won’t be $4 at Harbor Freight. You can probably find it in a Do-It store. But you don’t need it. A 6mm screwdriver and a dash of bravery is all you need. (The voltage information would only be useful for bragging rights after the fact.)
By the way, don’t call me, I don’t have an overseas data plan on my phone. ;-) .

cazzie's avatar

Well, here is an update: I couldn’t find the voltage meter, so I am sure that he packed it in his work kit so no reading the outlets to test our theory tonight. I powered everything down. Turned off the mains and then tried to take the front off of the mains switch to check the connections. I couldn’t get it off. It is held on by four long phillip screws and I can’t get to two on the right side because what ever moron installed the thing put it BEHIND the door hinge and metal edge of the cabinet so the screw driver comes at it on an angle. I looked to see if I could take the door off the hinge, but it wouldn’t have mattered much because of the metal edge of the cabinet that was also obstructing access. It was also installed so that you have to be 2 meters tall to see and have leverage enough to unscrew the bastards and my flash light holder, while very chatty and full of encouragement, is only 136 cm tall. I can just hear hubby yelling at me already if I strip the screw heads. One on the left side, that I managed to get off, had been badly stripped already and made the going difficult. I’ll get the blame for that, so I won’t even tell him I had a go at it.

ETpro's avatar

Sounds like your home wiring is getting occasional voltage surges. You could either invest in surge protector extension cords, and floor lamps plugged into them, or have an electrican install surge protection at the main breaker.

Surges can come from lightning storms in the area. But they can also result form large electric motors that cycle off automatically at times, resulting in an inductive kick that rolls out through connected wiring and effects everything downstream of the main transformer serving the area. You just have to balance the cost of light bulbs against the cost of the solution. You might decide it’s best to just grin and bear it, and replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs that are both far more energy efficient (cheaper to run) and more surge tolerant.

cazzie's avatar

@ETpro my plan is to change to the energy efficient type, but I didn’t want to pay $20 each for bulbs only to have to replace those every two months. You say CFLs are more ‘surge resistant’? That will fix the blowing light bulb problem, but shouldn’t I still fix the underlying problem or are all houses like this and it is no big deal? (I guess, if I knew anything at all about anything, I shouldn’t have to ask so many stupid questions.)

You aren’t the first person to suggest that the power surges are coming from outside the house, either. I think I will call the power company tomorrow and ask them if they have had other reports. We don’t have lightning storms very often at all. They are extremely rare here. When you mention large electric motors, do you mean like those in domestic appliances in my house or some large industrial one at a local business in the neighbourhood?

cazzie's avatar

It is also the halogen ones that are blowing, I should add.

ETpro's avatar

OK, CFLs are compact fluorescent lights. They are essentially a fluorescent tube like office lighting, but in a smaller diameter and wound up into a spiral so they are about the same size as a regular light bulb and use the same base. They tend to last about 5 to 6 times as long as an incandescent bulb, and while more expensive than incandescent, they are not that much more expensive. A 13–15 watt CFL gives the light of a 60 watt incandescent. So it is 4 to 5 times cheaper per hour to operate it and you don’t have to replace it nearly as often as you would an ordinary incandescent. CFLs are tolerant of surges, but will NOT work well on a dimmer. They flick off on low settings on a dimmer, and fail very early if dimmed often. New CFLs that are suitable for dimmers are just now coming into the market, so if you are going to use one on a dimmer, be sure to get the type designed for that service.

LED lighting is the true paragon of energy efficiency, but is still relatively expensive on the front end. Prices are coming down though. A 6–8 watt LED array bulb gives as much light as a 60 watt incandescent and lasts over 40 times as long, on average. Here’s a table that gives you the annual cost to run a 60 watt incandescent, CFL and LED.

Halogen lighting is a totally separate animal. Halogen lights are somewhat more energy efficient than incandescents but they burn far hotter, and thus can present a fire hazard if used where a piece of cloth or paper might fall over them. I do not know how halogen bulbs handle surges. But if you are seeing them burn out early, it sounds like the answer is “Not to well.”

cazzie's avatar

The really expensive bulbs I was looking at must have been LEDs and not CFLs, but either would be an improvement. We don’t have any dimmers in the house, so that isn’t an issue. Are the LEDs surge resistant as well? I would like to put LEDs in the fixtures that are hard to change and get left on more.

jerv's avatar

My first thought is that 120 VAC isn’t always 120 VAC; there seems to be some spiking going on. So I agree with @ETpro; you may have some intermittent load with a high startup current making for interesting surges. Refrigerators and microwaves are notorious for that, as are hair dryers and washing machines.

cazzie's avatar

Right. You have all convinced me. I’ll just go get some CFLs and LEDs and ban incandescents from the house.

ETpro's avatar

All household lighting is susceptible to voltage spikes due to nearby lightning strikes or sudden switching of large loads. LEDs are no exception. Rather than throwing $15 here and $20 there for surge protected power cords, I’d tend to spend a couple of hundred on a full house surge protection system TVSS. You’ll still want to put expensive electronics on a surge protected extension, because a lightning hit near your house will induce high voltage spikes in the internal wiring. But protection at the breaker box should keep all your lighting happy.

Being a cheapskate, I replaced incandescents with more energy efficient alternatives as the old incandescents burned out.

cazzie's avatar

Now I am a bit confused. Are these spikes coming from outside the house or inside the house? Our power infrastructure is quite modern here with no overhead power lines. I can phone the power company, but I wouldn’t expect much cooperation from them. Customer service hasn’t been invented here in Norway.

The TVSS seems to protect the house from outside surges coming into the house, but it doesn’t regulate spikes that are generated from things inside the house, is that right?

Tropical_Willie's avatar

TIME OUT. @cazzie while this may sound dumb ( on my part ) when you install the halogen bulbs are you touching the bulbs with your bare fingers? ?

The oil on your skin can shorten the life of a halogen bulb by 80 or 90 %. Clean cotton gloves will work or some come with a thin paper wrapper, use that to hold on to the bulbs.

jerv's avatar

@Tropical_Willie Good point. Personally, the only halogen bulbs I deal with are the ones on my car; I often forget that they are also used rarely used in household fixtures. Good catch!

cazzie's avatar

@Tropical_Willie that doesn’t sound dumb at all. They get really hot and the oil on them will heat and mess them up. Good point.

ETpro's avatar

@cazzie As to the origin of spikes, they can come from inside or out. If you have an appliance running on the household circuitry and drawing high current when in operation, it can cause surges as it cycles on and off. Really big surges are more often the result of lightning or of really big loads, such as pumping stations for a water or sewer system cycling on and off outside the house.

LuckyGuy's avatar

I still vote that it is a poor ground and your high current, floor heater is back feeding into that phase. You refrigerator and other appliances have not changed and you were not blowing bulbs before your heater started were you? Look for that ground wire or ask your neighbor. If you live in a subdivision everyone will have the same type of box with the same type of ground.
Here’s a trick to getting stuck screws off . Put the correct size screw driver in the slot or plus hole in the screw and hit the screwdriver with a hammer a few times . It reshapes the hole to the correct size and seats the screwdriver tip better so you can get a good bite. Use a step ladder so you are pushing perpendicular to the screw and have enough leverage to lean into it while turning.
Can you ask a kindly neighbor to help you? It is a perfect excuse to meet the neighbors and get to know them better.

Do yo live in a warm climate or a cold climate and how do you heat your home. If you live in a cold climate like me and heat with oil or propane, electricity is cheaper than fuel on a per kWhr or BTU basis. . It is cheaper to use the inefficient bulbs to heat your home.
If you live in a warm climate with air conditioning then it makes sense to swap.

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cazzie's avatar

@LuckyGuy I live in Norway, so it is cold. Very cold. I’m up at about 63 degrees North. The neighbours aren’t very friendly, actually. This part of Norway is actually known for it, especially if you are a foreigner. We had a huge falling out with our immediate neighbours because our children don’t get along, and they think my son is a psychopath, so I am not that interested in ‘getting to know them’ better. They seemed so nice when we first moved in.

We heat our house with underfloor electrical heat, for the most part. No oil or natural gas. We have a wood stove in our living/dining area, but currently have no wood.

I can’t get the screwdriver perpendicular to the screws on the right side, even if I use a step ladder because the aluminium fuse box surround is in the way. Obviously, the fuse-containing back section was installed and then they put the box surround over the top of it, but rather than center it properly, they actually set it too far over to the left so when the door of the box is opened, it sits in the way, as does the lip of the box on the right side.

I am just going to leave it for now. Perhaps buy some florescent bulbs in the meantime and see if they fare better.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Sorry, Cazzie, but I am not going to leave you alone. ;- )
.
Norway!!! If electric heat is your primary source then you are not actually saving anything by going to new bulbs. Every watt your “wasteful” incandescents put out as heat, is replaced by a watt your electric floor heater needs to put out. It is one for one. Your electric bill will be identical. Don’t waste your money. Try only one bulb if you must.
I’m sorry you can’t get that door open. Look at the door hinge. Does it have slots in it so it can be lifted out of the way when it is opened a bit?
Do you see a large wire coming out the box and going to a metal water pipe anywhere? That would be the ground and might be out of the box and accessible.

Now I have thoughts of Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon in my head. Those Norwegians might not be friendly but they always “Do what needs to be done.” :-)

cazzie's avatar

There is a wire that is split open and the copper is wound around, what appears to be another solid looking cable, but not a pipe.

We don’t run our underfloor heating all year round. It gets turned off for about three – four months.

I did look to see if I could take the door off its hinges.

I still think florescent bulbs will be the solution if they are, indeed, more spike proof. I am just sick and tired of changing two or three light bulbs every damn week.

LuckyGuy's avatar

That’s it !!!! (Most likely.) See if you can tighten it or make the connection better. There might be some corrosion between the copper and the other wire. You can put a metal screw type hose clamp over it and crank it down to improve the contact too. (Look up stainless steel hose clamp images.)
Does the wire wiggle? Is there white powdery dust at the connection point? That would indicate poosr connection. The voltmeter would show it too when you have the power on.

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