Should I be worried if I see small sparks coming out of my switch when I turn off a light?

Perfectly normal! What you are seeing is a load spark. When electrical current is flowing it does not want to stop. So when you flip the switch off it’s trying to jump the distance as the the switch contacts separate and just does not have high enough voltage to continue as the contacts further separate and is extinguished. That is what you are seeing, the larger the load the bigger the spark.

Why does my light switch feel odd?

You should be able to feel if your standard toggle switch is working properly or not. If it feels odd when you turn it on or off or if it leans to one side or feels soft, most likely it needs replaced. A good working switch will have a solid feel to it. Now to complicate matters a switch can feel perfect when toggling it on and off but still not conduct power.

My dimmer feels hot. Is it safe?

Dimmers have a maximum capacity, but most common home dimmers are rated to handle 600 watts. The closer you get to that maximum the more heat you will sense. So count the number of bulbs and add up the wattages the dimmer controls. If it’s over 50 to 60% of its rated capacity, it will feel warm. Warm is normal, but if it is hot enough to make you want to pull your hand back, then it should be looked at by an electrician.

Can I replace a worn out switch or outlet myself?

Sure. There are numerous books on the market to help you with that. It’s not difficult but you need to feel 100 percent comfortable handling electrical wires. Above all, you need to identify the proper circuit and turn off the fuse or breaker before proceeding. Deadly voltage is present in that box if you don’t turn it off. Statistics show that more people are injured from common household 120 volts than any other voltage.

Can I replace a old 2 prong outlet with a 3 prong?

The short answer is no you can't because if you have a 3 prong grounding outlet then it must be connected to a grounding wire. If there is a grounding connection in the box then yes you can but it's not real often that there is a grounding connection there and connected to a valid ground.

There are other option. The NEC code does allow us to replace a 2 wire outlet with a GFCI outlet. The other option is to actually run a single ground wire from the breaker box to the outlet box. If it's a metal box then you must ground the box and the outlet.

What is a 3 way switch?

If you have a light fixture that has two switches to turn it on or off then that is known as a 3 way switch. If you have more than two switches, then the others become 4 way switches. For a homeowner or the average handy man, 3 and 4 way switches can be very confusing and they commonly replace them incorrectly. The reason for this is because there are about 15 different ways you can wire these types of switches by the codes. I have seen numerous situations where 3 and 4 way switches were not wired using acceptable wiring methods as outlined by the National Electrical Code.

Why do I see sparks when I unplug my appliance?

Usually a normal occurrence. If you plug in or disconnect an appliance when it’s on, that is what we call a load spark. On occasion it can startle even seasoned pros for a moment. This is very similar to the sparks described above for light switches.

Why is my dimmer switch buzzing?

Most of the time this problem is the bulb, not the dimmer. Try switching to a different type of bulb. The filament supports are vibrating from the dimming process so be sure to get a completely different type. Don’t just get another one from the same pack. Odds are it will vibrate too.

Can I dim compact spiral fluorescent bulbs?

Generally no, most of them are not rated for use with a dimmer. There are some on the market that will work with dimmers and more are becoming available but the average $2.98 spiral bulb will not work on a dimmer.

Why does my recessed can light go off and on by itself?

Most recessed can lights have a little thermal protector built in them to protect it from overheating. The two main reasons for cycling on and off is that either it is using a higher wattage bulb than the fixture is rated for, or it’s covered with insulation when it’s not IC (insulation contact) rated. In either case the fixture gets too hot and the protector shuts it off. When it cools down, it turns back on and starts the process all over again.

Should I worry if my fluorescent light fixture turns off on its own and comes back on a little later?

Like the recessed can light, it has a thermal protector. Most of the time this is a sign that the ballast is going to fail soon and needs to be replaced. If the fixture is installed directly to an insulated ceiling it can cause the fixture to overheat, which will cause the protector to shut off the ballast. Newer fixtures have what we call “standoffs” that space the fixture off the ceiling ¼ to ½ of an inch to allow for ventilation between the fixture and the ceiling, thus helping them to stay cooler.

How can I tell if my fluorescent light bulbs need replaced?

There are two easy way to tell if your bulbs are near the end of their lives. Look at the ends of the bulbs. If you see black extending more than 1.5 inches from the ends then they are about finished. Another way is to run your hand up and down the bulb. Does it feel gritty or slick? If it feels gritty, it’s been in use for a while and you might want to consider new ones. Usually with old, well used bulbs you will have both symptoms.

My house has aluminum wire and I hear sizzling and popping sounds at my light switch. What is wrong?

Better get it looked at right away. Aluminum wire is soft and expands and contracts rapidly. This causes connections to loosen up on their own and can cause damage to the insulation on the wires, and there are many documented cases of houses catching on fire because of this. Most of the time it’s easy to repair but it depends on how much damage has been done. If the damage to the wiring is extensive and extends into the wall beyond the box, then replacement will be necessary. Another warning sign is hearing static interference on your AM radio, or if you sense heat at the switch or outlet.

Why do my lights dim when my A/C unit starts?

Also normal. When an A/C unit starts it has a very large inrush of current. That large but short duration power flow causes the voltage to your home to drop slightly, and that will dim your lights for a short duration. Of course there are exceptions. If your dimming is prolonged or severe then have it looked at. If you call the power company first they usually come out at no charge and it's possible the problem is on their side of the meter. Your A/C unit can have a problem where it has to work harder to start and this can also cause the lights to dim.

Why do some of the lights in my house get brighter when I plug in my vacuum or my blow dryer?

This is never a good sign. In fact, it is one of the worst. If this is occurring in your house, you need an electrician to check it out. Voltage drop is natural as large amounts of current flow long distances on your wires causing lights to dim. But if the voltage rises in your home when you turn on heavy 120 volt appliances instead of dimming, then there is a loose common wire connection that needs to be investigated. Depending on many factors, the voltage can rise quite high and easily damage sensitive electronics in your home.

Your electrician can help you determine if the problem is inside the home, or if it’s a problem that the utility company will need to repair. In either case, it needs to be located and repaired. It’s usually a very simple fix once the connection problem has been located.

Do lightning arrestors work?

Yes to some extent they do work. If your house takes a direct hit or even a very close strike very little will fully protect your home.

Where they do excel at is knocking down dangerous high voltage from a nearby strike. For a very fast moment in time lightning can raise (spike) the voltage in your home to damaging levels. When you have a lightning/surge arrestor installed in your home it will clamp down on the voltage to safer levels. The more you have in use in your home the better they work.

The first one will bring down the voltage some and the next one in line will reduce the voltage even further. Series redundancy in lightning protectors is a good idea. I have 2 installed in my own breaker box and then at every sensitive electronic device in the home I have another.

Do not go out to the local hardware or grocery store and buy a $5.00 surge protector strip and think it will do the job because odds are it will not. You have to spend money to get real protection. Many times with a powerful strike the lightning/surge arrestor will sacrifice itself to protect your gear and it’s far better to fry your $50.00 surge arrestor than it is to destroy your $2500.00 TV and home theatre system.

My breaker box is rusted what should I do?

If you see rust on the outside of your box then you can bet you have rust on the inside too. This is a real problem! Circuit breakers are designed for clean dry locations so if they get wet then rust and other contamination is very possible and that causes circuit breakers to not trip at their rated value.

Sometimes they trip on the low side and it's just a nuisance to reset them constantly. But if they fail to trip when there is a fault or overload situation present then that is very dangerous. It could burn down your home. If you ever see water dripping from your breaker box or visible rust then call your electrician and have it evaluated because it's just not worth the risk.

In this example you can see rust not only in and on the box but look closely at the termination screws on the breakers. One of the most important elements with a safe electrical system is clean tight connections. When rust is present that's not possible. Rusting and corroding connections add resistance and that creates heat.

The socket in my light fixture turns when I try to remove a burnt out bulb.! What should I do?

Whatever you do don't keep turning the bulb trying to remove it. There will be one or two screws that secure the socket to the base of the light fixture. If the screws are missing then the socket and the wires will twist together so tightly that it can damage the fixture by pulling the wires out of the back of the socket.

In some cases the wires can and will twist so tightly that they will short together and that will cause a breaker to trip every time you turn on the light fixture. Here is a picture of exactly what happens when that occurs.