Aziz! Light bulbs!
September 11, 2014 11:54 AM   Subscribe

Why do these light bulbs keep dying?

I live in a 100-year old house, with some old light fixtures. (I'm a renter.) Many of them are chandelier style with very small glass shades. Accordingly, I've been buying 25 or 40 watt incandescents in a "flame" shape or sometimes those 25-watt "appliance" bulbs.

These bulbs burn out really quickly. Within a few weeks sometimes. And most of the time when they burn out and we try to replace them, the glass bulb part separates (!) from the metal part in the socket. We've even had a few drop loose and "explode" on impact. Then we get out the needle-nose pliers and remove the metal.

I've tried multiple brands of bulbs and being very (very!) gentle when screwing the bulbs in, even to the point of leaving the bulb a bit loose. This keeps happening.

Do you think this indicates something dangerous/wacky about the wiring in our house? (If so, how should we alert the landlord?)
Has the manufacturing quality of incandescent bulbs just gotten terrible all-around? Are there any good brands to try?
Any theories as to why the heck our bulbs are literally falling apart?

I'm most concerned about the potential safety issues.

(I'm hoping I get some answers that aren't just about switching to non-incandescent bulbs. I haven't seen any non-incandescent bulbs in the marketplace that emit pleasant light, will fit in these fixtures and are low enough wattage.)
posted by purple_bird to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Yep, wiring'll do it, as will corroded fixtures. I lived in a house not nearly as old but just looking inside the kitchen and laundry room fixtures you could see that the wiring was not in the freshest state and the fixtures themselves had gotten flimsy/corroded around the contacts (in the kitchen we especially had that problem of it not letting go of the base so you'd end up pulling out the glass only).

Since you rent, I don't think putting new bases in the fixtures is going to be something you're going to make happen. I don't know if non-incandescent bulbs are a better option - I do know that I have replaced the last two incandescent lights I have (one on the vent-a-hood, one on a nightlight) with LEDs (not cheap, since they're weird bases) and it's been better. Sorry. I was able to choose "warm" nightlight bulbs and it is very orangey the way I want it.

Maybe cleaning those contacts would improve things? Maybe try a limited selection of them before you spend a lot of time on it as a project.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:02 PM on September 11, 2014

Best answer: It certainly indicates something is wonky. We have a 10-year-old chandelier with 5x40W incandescent "candle" bulbs over the dining room table in our 1980s house. They last for a long time, at least a year. I'm thinking they last several years on average. And we have that light on 1-2 hours a night.
posted by wnissen at 12:11 PM on September 11, 2014

Best answer: Would it be possible for you to test the voltage of your electrical power in the room in question? Nominal house voltage (US) is 120 volts, but some places it trends higher. My dining room voltage is 122.6 volts. If you find the voltage in your house is higher than nominal you can try "long-life" 130 volt bulbs and see if they last longer.

Maybe also consider replacing the light switch for the lamps with a dimmer switch. (With the caveat that you rent and that you need to observe proper safety procedure.)
posted by Rob Rockets at 12:26 PM on September 11, 2014

Best answer: I would suggest letting the landlord know. You shouldn't have to continually replace bulbs!

P.S. Totally get the title of your question! Love that film!
posted by Hanuman1960 at 12:45 PM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This sounds like a wiring problem. In our case it was resolved by three days and €1500 worth of electrician to re-wire our downstairs with additional circuits.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:24 PM on September 11, 2014

Best answer: I would have an electrician check to see if you are getting overvoltage. This is usually something to do with your supply or breaker rather than wiring/sockets/switches themselves, i.e. the whole house is probably affected. As you may imagine this is also hard on appliances. It is, as you surmise, also an elevated fire risk.

It's possible you or your landlord could have the power company check this out for (electrical joke) no charge. This might be needed anyway since the condition could trace all the way back to the transformer, which is of course not something your electrician can deal with.

If you want to get an idea yourself you can buy a power pen or electrical tester device at your local hardware store for $5-$20 depending.
posted by dhartung at 1:43 PM on September 11, 2014

When I had this problem (with regular incandescents, not even novelty ones), I eventually concluded it was nothing electrical, but simple vibration. In my case, the building was two-story, so walking on the upper floor was imperceptibly vibrating the filaments of bulbs in fixtures attached to the ceiling of the story below, vastly shortening their life.
I'd guess that trains or trucks nearby can do the same thing.
posted by anonymisc at 2:54 PM on September 11, 2014

Whenever I replace headlamps or tail lights in our cars, the packages always say "Wear gloves. Do not touch with bare hands. Oil from skin contact can dramatically reduce the lifespan of the bulbs."

I'm not sure if that applies to your kitchen lights, but I've made it a habit to always use some sort of barrier between my fingers and any light bulbs I replace.
posted by tacodave at 3:34 PM on September 11, 2014

Best answer: "Bad wiring" can cause bulbs to blow but it is kind of rare and is more to do with an intermittent connection than a high resistance connection which just causes bulbs to run dim (and wiring to run hot). I doubt that is the problem here if you can't see any other problems.

Firstly, the failing of the ceramic that holds the glass in the base indicates the bulbs are getting too hot. Are the bulbs in a small kind of enclosure that air can't circulate through? Are they running upside down in this enclosure? Both of those things could contribute. Most household bulbs are designed to run in any position but check you aren't getting ones that need to run upright.

Are they dimmed? If so I'd be very suspicious of the quality of it, particularly if you can hear the filaments buzzing.

Also, yeah, check your voltage. It should be within roughly 10% of the nominal line voltage (117V? I need someone from the US to check me on this). If it is particularly high, yes you can put higher voltage bulbs in, but talk to your landlord, it's not good for anything else in the house. You probably know someone with a multimeter that can check this.

As anonymisc notes, vibration will kill bulbs quickly, but won't explain the failure of the ceramic.

The warning tacodave notes, regarding touching the bulb, only relates to quartz halogen bulbs like car lights, projector lamps, theatre lamps etc, not household incandescants. It's not relevant here.
posted by deadwax at 4:08 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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