Solved! How to Fix Flickering Lights in Your Home
A reader asks, “Why are my lights flickering?” Learn what causes flickering lights, how to fix the problem—and when you should worry.
Q: Help! We have multiple lights flickering in our house. As far as I know my house isn’t haunted, but I can’t help wondering, can flickering lights cause a fire? Am I being overly cautious, or do I need to call an electrician?
A: It appears you’re having a “light bulb” 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 flashing light bulb in a standard fixture is not normal. Possible electrical problems should always be taken seriously, and these helpful troubleshooting tips will help you differentiate the quick fixes from the causes for concern.
The types of light bulbs you have may have to do with why they are flickering.
Fluorescent bulbs have a tendency to flicker frequently, and this can be caused by 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 to their maximum level. A fluorescent light flickering every now and again is probably not a huge concern.
For LED bulbs, dimmer switches are the most common cause of intermittent flickering LED lights. 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 light bulbs, take an inventory of your existing dimmer make and model, and then cross-check the compatibility to ensure that everything will work seamlessly.
RELATED: How to Dispose of Light Bulbs
Flickering light bulbs can be fire hazards.
If you are wondering, “Is a flickering light bulb dangerous?” Depending on the source of the problem, yes, it can be. While a bulb that’s loose in its socket does not present a fire hazard, other causes do warrant concern. Frayed or damaged wires or loose connections in a circuit breaker box can create sparks that reach temperatures greater than 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, more than enough heat to ignite wood framing. Some 70 percent of home fires are caused by faulty wiring, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Needless to say, a flickering light bulb is not something that should be taken, well, lightly.
If you have one flickering or flashing light bulb, sometimes the solution is a simple “righty-tighty.”
How many homeowners does it take to screw in a light bulb? The answer is one, but that one person needs to screw it in correctly to keep it from flickering. The solution could be as simple as twisting the bulb so it sits tightly enough in the socket to make a connection.
A faulty fixture switch or a loose light plug can also cause lights to randomly flicker.
Electricity is all about the connections: A loose one between the on-off switch on your lamp or light fixture and the light bulb 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.
If fixing the connections doesn’t solve flickering lights on one circuit, the issue could be damaged wires.
Lights flickering in one room could indicate a problem with the wiring. Faulty wiring could be the result of insulation deteriorating off old wires, or it might even mean that animals have chewed through wiring. When wiring is damaged it is prone to arcing, which occurs when the electrical current attempts to jump over a gap created by damage in the wire, causing the lights to flicker.
The sparks created by arcing can exceed 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, creating a major fire hazard. If you suspect that damaged wiring is the culprit, cut off power to that wire by switching off the corresponding circuit breaker on your breaker box. Then pick up the phone and call a licensed electrician to assess and repair the problem.
Large appliances might be to blame if you have lights flickering on one circuit.
If your flickering lights come and go, pay attention to the patterns: If you notice that the lights flicker when large appliances like air conditioners or refrigerators are running, the problem could be that your overall voltage is fluctuating too often or that you have an overload on that circuit. Although slight fluctuations are normal, your home should register between 115 and 125 volts. Purchase a multimeter online or at your local hardware store (our researched guide to the best multimeters has some terrific options) to gauge your home’s output, or hire an electrician to take a look.
RELATED: How to Use a Multimeter
If you have lights flickering after a power outage, the power company may be trying to correct a fault in the line.
Flickering lights can also be related to a brief power outage. If all the lights in the home flicker, there may be a short circuit somewhere in the lines between your home and the power company. These very short outages can be caused by trees or animals coming into contact with the power lines, or even two lines brushing up against each other. When these events happen, breakers built into the power company’s system will flick on and off to clear the problem and prevent damage that could result in a longer power outage.
To stop ceiling fan lights flickering, try checking the light switch.
If your ceiling fan light flickers, the light switch may be the problem. Specifically, ceiling light flickering will occur if the fan is tied to a dimmer switch and is using the wrong kind of light bulb. Unless you’re using bulbs specially designed to work with dimmer switches, the bulbs may flicker when the dimmer switch is not set to full power. If this is the case, try a different type of bulb.
If, however, you’re using a standard light switch for your ceiling fan light, check to see if there’s a problem with it. After cutting power to the circuit at the breaker box, remove the switch plate. Next, remove the two screws holding the light switch to the box and gently pull the switch out until you can inspect the wiring. Check the connections, and tighten them if needed.
If all lights are flickering in the house check your electrical panel, or get in touch with your service provider.
While you can rest assured that those flickering lights aren’t the result of paranormal activity, they could be an indication of a scary situation with your home’s electrical system. House-wide flickering could be caused by loose service conductors, which can work themselves free over time. Flickering lights could also result from frayed or damaged wiring in or close to the box. Both situations create a serious fire hazard, so it’s crucial that you have a licensed electrician investigate the issue as soon as possible. An electrician will inspect your panel and determine if the connections can be tightened or if they should be replaced, fixing your flickering lights issue and eliminating the potential fire hazard.
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 issue or confined to one location, these problems can quickly turn into a fire hazard. Call an electrician to pinpoint the source of the flickering.
Are your lights still flickering? Look around your neighborhood.
Your home shares a transformer with surrounding homes, so your flickering lights may be caused by your neighbors’ heavy electrical usage or by downed trees or other damage that affects the 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.