Wonky Electricity
December 2, 2004 8:02 PM   Subscribe

I'm sitting in my living room watch my dining room light turn on and off, dim and brighten, turn off again, then turn on. I know the house isn't haunted, but what is happening to my light? Should I be worried? [MI]

I live in a 90 year old house here in Portland Oregon. I've lived here for four years now. Starting about two months ago or so my dining room light started turning on and turning off mysteriously. After a few weeks of this, it started diming as well where it will slowly dim to a degree then stay there or will turn on (from being off...) but into a dimmed state.

I can control the light by getting of my couch, going to the switch and flicking it but sometimes my actions only act a few seconds before the light does whatever it wants to. Furthermore, I don't even have a dimmer switch!

If I had just moved into the house, I'd worry about it being haunted but since I've been here so long I'm not worried about that. I am worried about some frayed wire or something and the possibility of my house burning down...

As far as I can remember, there wasn't anything that happened at or about when this problem first started. I didn't install any new technology in the house, or get a new water heater or anything...

I don't have a job, I don't have much money, I'd really rather not just hire an electrician to come on out here and spend a bunch of money to try and fix the problem. HOWEVER I do worry about why this is happening and don't want to come home from a bar one night to find my house burned down.

Thoughts? Anyone have a mysterious light like this?
posted by pwb503 to Home & Garden (12 answers total)
I'm not an electrician, but I've done some electrical work. In your case, I'd find a way to get an electrician, unless you are positive you have solved the problem. The next best thing to do is isolate the problem to the best of your ability. Some steps to get started:

Change the light bulb. See if the problem goes away. If it does, move the old light bulb somewhere else and see if it reappears.

When you changed the light bulb, did you see any damage? Bugs, rust, mold, anything?

Call the local fire marshal's office and explain the problem. They don't want to see your house burn down, either.

Old house - still on fuses, or is there a breaker box? If fuses, find the circuit and use a new fuse.

Can you find out what else is on the same circuit, and disable everything? In an older house, who knows what obscure location that one circuit might reach. Possibly even outside.

Turn off everything else in the house, and see if the problem still exists. Is there something drawing power you don't know about? Maybe something intermittent, like a furnace or hot water heater? Something long forgotten about, like an old heating register?

Is your roof in good shape? Any chance you might have leakage into the walls of the house? Do you have an attic where you might be able to check this?

If you can't isolate the problem, remove the problem. Turn off the light and get a lamp until you can get someone to look at the problem. Bonus points if you can shut the whole circuit off.

This problem wouldn't be happening if everything were in working order. Electricity is not something you want to have in partial working order.
posted by bh at 8:30 PM on December 2, 2004

If the light turns on by itself, the switch may be damaged - leaked upon, corroded, arcing, etc. Replacing the switch might be a simple/cheap first step if you're comfortable doing that. But, it could be something much more complicated.
posted by one at 8:51 PM on December 2, 2004

Be very careful about undertaking electrical projects on your own. There are many things that can go wrong.

[/almost burned down his apartment]
posted by mr_roboto at 10:35 PM on December 2, 2004

If nothing else in your house is dimming or flickering, and if you've tried replacing the bulb, it's almost undoubtedly the switch. Turn off the current to that circuit, and replace it as your first step. If it's not the switch, then most likely it's the socket.

Both things are easily replaced - just be sure you shut off the power! You are turning off the correct breaker switch when the light goes out.
posted by jasper411 at 10:37 PM on December 2, 2004

It's not a halogen light, is they? They flicker before they die..
posted by ascullion at 10:52 PM on December 2, 2004

Also sounds like it could be a worn out lamp switch arcing to me. Does it make any noise when it does the flickering and dimming? My folks have a lamp that used to do this very thing periodically, accompanied by sizzling and crackling. A new switch finally took care of it.
posted by Tubes at 11:30 PM on December 2, 2004

Being one of the aforementioned Fire Marshal types I have this to offer: TURN OFF THE LIGHT RIGHT NOW! Done? Okay, good.

Here’s the deal: If the problem is part of the larger circuit you would likely be seeing other lights on the circuit dimming also. Chances are the problem is somewhere between the switch and the bulb, so the advice thus far on replacing first the bulb and then the switch is correct. Worst case could be that you have a weak spot in the old wiring and the whole run needs to be replaced. This is a serious problem because something is likely causing resistance to the flow of electricity through the circuit. This impeded electricity manifests as heat at the point of resistance. Enough heat buildup (especially in an old wooden house) and you get a fire.

If you’re not comfortable changing out the switch by yourself, get an electrician to look at the problem and make the needed repairs. I know there is a cost involved with that, but it is much less than the costs involved in recovering from a house fire. I’ve seen a lot of fires caused when people recognized problems like this, but figured they would put off the repairs until later. Good luck.
posted by Local Hero at 5:52 AM on December 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

the switch is old and tolerances are not as exact
a small amount of humidity is causing the switch which is normally closed as a result of light hand pressure to close on its own, thus the constant dim and brighten cycle

replace the dimmer switch

i speak from experience (and an electrician for a father)
posted by angry jonny at 6:35 AM on December 3, 2004

Unrelated Electrical Question:

I have a (non-surge-protecting) extension cord plugged into a wall switch-controlled outlet in my room, with 3 lamps and a transformer for two tiny 12V halogen bulbs hooked into it. A couple days ago, I flipped the wall switch and 4 coils in the 3 aforementioned lamps' bulbs burned out at the same time. The halogen lamps continued to work fine. Nothing else in the house had any problems, and I've never had any problems with lighting/wall outlet circuits before.

What could have caused this?
posted by azazello at 6:54 AM on December 3, 2004

"I don't have a job, I don't have much money...don't want to come home from a bar one night to find my house burned down."

Perhaps taking a couple nights off from going to the bars might free up enough cash to hire an electrician?

Just a thought.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:01 AM on December 3, 2004

ooh, snap
posted by luser at 11:55 AM on December 3, 2004

It could also be that your furnace is wired into the same circuit as the light in question, and when it cuts on it sucks away so much power it causes the light to dim. Very common situation in older homes. An electrician can (and should) rewire it onto a dedicated circuit.
posted by spilon at 12:45 PM on December 3, 2004

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