Flickering Lights

No, this isn’t a blog about Christmas lights or what you might see in your rear-view mirror if you’ve been speeding. This blog is about something that is highly unsafe in your home. With all the power hungry electronic gadgets we have these days, it’s easy to overload an outlet with adapters and power strips.

 

In older homes that only have a two prong outlet, the circuits are often protected with a screw in fuse. Many people, tiring of blown fuses are tempted to install a higher amperage fuse. Two problems occur when this is done. The first problem is a 15 amp circuit is generally wired with 14 gauge wire that only carry a 15 amp load safely. The second problem is that these wires have insulation that has become brittle and may fall off of the wire as it heats from being overloaded. A fire can develop making for bad day at the very least.

Old style screw in fuse Old style screw in fuse

Old two prong outlet on left – New 3 prong outlet on right

With a two wire circuit there is rarely a redundant ground wired into the circuit. Nearly all electronic devices require that third prong; The redundant ground. It protects the device from a number of risks. Adapters often do not provide that ground. They merely provide you with a way to plug in your three prong plug into a 2 prong outlet.

 

One other possibility to cause lights to flicker is that your home may have been wired with Aluminum wire. Aluminum isn’t quite as conductive as copper. It expands and contracts as the circuit is used. Over time, the connections become loose making a poor connection. That can become a source of flickering lights.

Burned aluminum wires – Aluminum expands and contracts eventually loosening the connection

Modern electrical circuits are protected a variety of resettable circuit breakers. This is handy for situations where a circuit is momentarily overloaded and the circuit breaker trips. When a breaker trips constantly, it is a warning that the circuit is overloaded and you should take steps to reduce the load. It is more difficult to change out a circuit breaker to a higher amperage. Doing so, you run the same risk of fire as might with an improper screw in type fuse.

New style re-settable circuit breaker

Most modern builders wire a given circuit with 12 gauge wire in order to support a 20 amp load. These days bedrooms have many outlets. The potential for a 20 amp load becomes more likely and the need for a 20 amp breaker.

 

So what do the flickering lights possibly indicate? Many things. At the top of the list: A circuit that is on the verge of having problems as outlined above. How will you know if the circuit is overloaded or the flicker is caused by something else? Often we have all noticed a flicker when the air conditioner kicks on. Other times, starting the dryer or when the refrigerator cycles. This is normal particularly in the heat of the summer when the entire house may be drawing a heavy current. If you notice a flickering when nothing else is starting up, It’s time to check the load on the circuit.

 

Things to check: Outlets that have fully populated power strips. If you have 5 or 6 devices plugged into a standard two outlet wall plug, you may have found the problem. Sometimes and extension cord has been hidden under heavy furniture or carpeting. These cords can become frayed and short out. Unplug a few of the devices or unplug the extension cord and see if the flickering goes away. If you cannot find the source of the overload, it’s time to call an electrician.

 

A good handy man can help to locate these possible overloads and can determine the need for an electrician. The best thing to do is not to overload an outlet or run extension cords under things. Think safe!

 

Happy Holidays!

 

Mr. Fix It Mike

 

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