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When a fluorescent light buzzes

Humming or buzzing in a fluorescent light fixture is usually caused by a ballast that’s poorly built or improperly mounted. The hum occurs as electrical current moves through metal plates in the ballast.

With the power off, open the fixture. The ballast is a metal box about 2 by 3 by 10 inches with wires leading to it. Make sure that the mounting screws are tight. If there are vibration-isolation spacers, check them. Compare this bad fixture to any similar quiet fixtures you may have to identify the problem. It may be necessary to replace the ballast.

Also check to make sure that the framing of the fixture is not amplifying the sound. You may need to change the mounting.

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Burning odor from light fixture or outlet

If a light fixture gives off a burning smell, disconnect the fixture until you have determined the source of the odor. Overheating electrical wires and devices often emit a burning smell. Don’t use the fixture again until a professional has repaired it. A fluorescent fixture may have a ballast that has failed and is spilling tar. For typical incandescent light fixtures, the burning smell may occur if you’re using an oversized bulb. Check the rating of the fixture and the wattage of the bulb. The rating will be inside the fixture, near the bulb. Never exceed the wattage recommended. You might also have a loose electrical connection at the splice or in the outlet box, or a loose screw or lamp base. A loose connection can create excessive resistance to electrical flow, and the resistance causes heat. Excessive heat makes metal connections expand and contract, loosening them further. This heat can damage insulation and even start a fire. Sometimes, when such excessive heat melts plastic, the problem area emits a misleading "dead animal" smell. If you notice any strong smells near outlets, electrical boxes, or light fixtures, they may be due to an electrical problem. Call an electrician to evaluate and fix the problem. In the meantime, do not use electrical power in that area.

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Removing broken light bulbs

Sometimes, especially on exterior light fixtures, the glass bulb breaks away from the metal base. There is no best way to remove the base from the fixture, but here are several options.

Before replacing an exterior light, purchase a higher quality bulb with a better base or a copper base that will not rust. You can also coat the threads of exterior bulbs with a special dielectric grease available at automotive stores. Dry lubricant, Permatex Anti-Seize, and Vaseline will also work.

To remove the broken base, first make sure the power is off. Wear eye protection. Protect the immediate area from broken glass that may remain on the base. I like to use a needle nose pliers to grab the metal rim of the bulb and twist it. You can also jam the nose of the pliers into the base of the bulb to get a grip. Sometimes opening the pliers inside the metal threads will give you a grip.

If all fails, use the needle nose pliers to collapse the metal threads until you can remove them.

Folks have phoned my radio show with the following suggestions for removal:

  • Use your fingers, protected by heavy gloves (not my idea).
  • Use a fuse puller the same way I use a needle nose pliers.
  • Jam into the broken base and turn with:
  • a large cork.
  • a wooden ruler.
  • a wad of white bread (perhaps you need some really heavy Italian bread).
  • a potato.

Energy-saving tips for light bulbs

If you have teens or younger children in your home, you may have noticed that they seldom remember to turn lights off. From personal experience, I know that the best way to keep the lights off in a home shared with teenagers is to send them away to college. If that is not practical, here are several aids I have used successfully.

First, reduce the wattage of all lights and replace standard incandescent bulbs with fluorescent lamps. Fluorescent lamps are now available that are small enough to fit inside standard table lamps and fixtures. A fluorescent costs about 5 to 10 times more than a standard bulb, but it easily pays for itself through energy savings and long life. You will replace the standard light bulb 10 times before the fluorescent fails.

If you’re concerned about the color of fluorescent lights, you haven’t seen the newer color-corrected types. They produce a color closer to sunlight than typical incandescent bulbs. I have found fluorescents to be my biggest energy saver. They are in all our table lamps and many other fixtures.

For walk-in closets or storage areas, replace the switch with a 15-minute timer. The maximum the light can be on is 15 minutes, and often the kids will switch the timer off because of its annoying ticking. This also works in bathrooms and bedrooms, but there you will need a longer (1- or 2-hour) timer.

For exterior lights, I always use fixtures with a built-in photo-eye control so the light only operates when it is dark. Fluorescent and sodium lights are also big energy savers for outdoor fixtures.

For bathroom and bedrooms, I have had mixed results with motion sensor switches. They can be hard to adjust and may turn off at inappropriate times. Ask yourself: would waving your hands in the dark while taking a shower be fun or frustrating? Despite some problems with adjustment, though, I think motion sensors generally work well.

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