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Q: Help! The lightbulbs in our fixtures keep flickering on and off. As far as I know, my house isn’t haunted, but I’m spooked that this could cause a fire. Am I being overly cautious, or do I need to call an electrician?
A: It appears you’re having a “lightbulb” moment. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind that sparks a brilliant idea, but rather, a problem that requires an immediate repair. Short of festive holiday lights or decorative faux candles, a flickering light in a standard fixture is not normal. Although electrical problems should always be taken seriously, you can discern the quick fixes from the causes for concern with these helpful tips.
Start at the source—of the bulb, that is. Florescent bulbs have a propensity to flicker frequently, due to a variety of everyday factors, including cold temperatures, the bulb burning out while in the socket (tip: replace the tubes to stop this from happening), and the general way that phosphors power up their maximum level. If your florescents flicker every now and again, it’s probably not a huge concern.
For LED bulbs, the most common cause of flickering relates to dimmer switches. These dimmers are manufactured to handle higher electrical loads that don’t always coincide with the lower voltages of LEDs. Before swapping out your standard lightbulbs, take an inventory of your existing dimmer make and model, and then cross-check the compatibility to ensure everything will work seamlessly.
Sometimes the solution is as simple as a quick “righty-tighty.” How many homeowners does it take to screw in a lightbulb? The answer is one, but that one person needs to screw it in correctly to avoid any flickering. The solution to your horror story lighting scheme could be as simple as twisting the bulb so that it sits tightly enough into the socket to make the necessary connection.
A faulty fixture switch or a lose light plug can also cause difficulties. It’s all about the connections: A loose one between the on/off switch on your lamp or light fixture and the lightbulb itself could be the culprit. Wiggle the switch gently to see if it evokes a flicker; if yes, simply replace it to stop the strobe light effect. The issue could also arise from a loose connection between the plug and the outlet. Unplug your lamp, adjust the metal prongs, and then plug it back in. If that does the trick, it may be that the two just needed a more secure fit.
Infrequent shakiness might mean your large appliances are to blame. Pay attention to the patterns: If you notice your lights flicker consistently when large appliances such as your air conditioner are running, the problem could be that your overall voltage is fluctuating too often, or that you have too much sensory overload on the same circuit. Although slight fluctuations are normal, your home should register between 115 and 125 volts. Purchase a voltmeter at your local hardware store to gauge your home’s output, or hire an electrician to take a look.
Old wiring, breakers, connectors, and switches are cause for concern. Loose or outdated wiring is one of the leading causes of house fires. If you try the above troubleshooting techniques and your lights still flicker, this could be a sign of loose service conductors in your main electrical panel, an outdated breaker box with worn connectors, or a switch failure. In any event, whether it’s a system-wide problem or confined to one location, these problems can quickly turn into a fire hazard; call an electrician to pinpoint the problem.
And don’t forget about the neighbors. Your home shares a transformer with surrounding homes, so a cause of flickering lights may be your neighbors’ heavy electrical usage, or damage caused by downed trees or power lines. An electrician (and a little patience to see if the problem resolves itself!) is your best bet for identifying, locating, and repairing the issue.