Troubleshooting Light Bulbs – CFLs

May 13, 2015

Troubleshooting Your Light Bulbs

Fluorescents, CFLs & LEDs – Oh My! (Part 2)

There is a rising tide of customers calling us with problems or concerns over light fixtures that seem to be behaving oddly.  Frequently, this isn’t the fault of the fixture – but of the bulb or its support materials (such as a ballast, driver, or electronic chip set).  The technology in light bulbs is improving, giving us better efficiency, healthier light, and happier indoor spaces.  However, the fail points of these new fangled lights is also increasing – since a lightbulb is no longer as simple as it once was.

Part of the reason it is habit for us to troubleshoot a fixture rather than a bulb was because our lighting systems have been relatively simple – and if you had a bulb that didn’t work, you tightened it up in the lamp.  If that didn’t work, then you would try replacing it.  After that, all problems existed downstream – aka, in the fixture, the circuit, or the switch – because the bulb was too simple to have many parts capable of failing, and simple replacement resolved something like 95% of your problems.  This isn’t true with modern lighting – as a matter of fact, fluorescents, CFLs, and LEDs have so many circuits and pieces that failures are generally expected as a normal part of the fabrication, implementation, and use process.

PLEASE NOTE – Always disconnect any available plugs, power supplies, circuits, and switches before touching a light bulb and/or fixture.  Live electrical work should never be done by anyone.

(Unless you have specialized training*.)

If ever you are in doubt about a light’s functionality, just plug it into a working fixture, outlet, or circuit to see if you can repeat your previous problems.

Last week we discussed troubleshooting full fluorescent tubes – this week, we explore CFL light bulbs.

The inner circuitry of a CFL bulb.

Ah, the lofty CFL – touted as the ‘revolutionary bulb’ that changed how Americans look at light.  Several years ago, the CFL introduction into casual residential usage started a wildfire amongst homeowners – and spawned a thousand new conspiracy theories, as well as inspiring some pretty impressive legislature.  Thanks to the advent of affordable, efficient light bulbs, incandescent manufacturers had to step up their efficiency and propel themselves into the 21st century.  A welcome change, since the 2010 incandescent bulb was using a filament designed in 1910, and a technology ‘perfected’ in 1964.  The first mass produced CFLs were unreliable at best – created in huge batches at high speed, with inconsistent conditions – and behaved poorly in residential applications (which is why they suffered years of criticism).  Foreign manufacturing also meant quality control was practically non-existent, but time and repeated technology improvements helped performance, reliability, and costs become more reasonable.

Troubleshooting a CFL

One of the most important things to remember about CFLs is that they are Compact Fluorescent Lamps (or Lights, or Light Bulbs, or however your mind remembers the acronym).  This means that even though the bulb is tiny and corkscrew shaped, it is fundamentally based on the same principles as your common overhead tube fluorescent.  We have just made it much harder and more complicated by shoving all the controls, ballasts, and functioning hardware into an itty bitty plastic base (see picture above).  Keeping in mind that the plastic bases are resilient and the glass cork screws are delicate, always try to use the bases when handling these bulbs  to prevent injury and protect the glass portion of the bulb.  None of us want to deal with that dreaded ‘mercury spill’ per EPA ‘suggestions’.

Troubleshooting CFLs can be trickier because of their unique size and behavior – but don’t let it discourage you.  Just like regular fluorescents, you can visually verify defects by running through the same checklist before giving up the ghost on a bulb.  Try examining the bulb itself and asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the light a normal color?
  2. Is the light it’s normal brightness?
  3. Are both sides of the spiral fully lit?
  4. Does either side of the spiral seem dim or hesitant?
  5. Does the bulb flicker, flare, or flash in any way?
  6. Is one side of the bulb is dim or dark but the other is lit normally, or flickering very quickly?
  7. Does the bulb slowly seem to ‘warm up’, stay lit for a little while, and then abruptly cut out?
  8. Is the bulb in a cold (below freezing) environment?  (If the answer to this one is yes, then your best bet is to replace the bulb and/or fixture with something cold-appropriate.)

In addition, always try tightening/reseating it in a fixture, or testing it in a different lamp or light.  Since CFLs are very particular, they may or may not need to be a special type to be used: on a dimmer, in a three way switch (the lamp kind, not the wall kind), on a circuit with lighted switches, in conjunction with photocells, in a damp environment, even right side up or upside down, etc.   CFLs also do not enjoy being turned on-off-on-off repeatedly; they perform best in environments where they are on for extended periods of time.  This means they perform worst in fixtures with occupancy or movement sensors and bathrooms (where we are normally present for less than three minutes.)  It is most especially important that when purchasing, you pick out the CFL bulb specifically situated to your needs.  Never, ever consider using CFLs in a circumstance they aren’t rated for – such as in an oven, mounting them upside down, or extreme temperatures (hot or cold).  The gas inside the bulb doesn’t stand up well to abuse, and failure to use one correctly could yield results like these:

Oven + CFL = melty mess

Since CFLs are inclusive bulbs – tiny fluorescent tubes plugged into their own ballasts and starters – if one of those interior parts go bad, then it’s time to kibosh the whole bulb.  The hard part is separating bulb faults from others; the easy answer is of course to just replace them – but what if you replace 10 bulbs in a month, is that excessive?  Or how about 50 bulbs a year?  Is that too many?  If excessive replacement becomes an issue, consider calling out a licensed electrician to troubleshoot your circuits and wiring.  If you find your CFLs aren’t meeting your expectations as far as performance and lifespan, consider returning them to either the retailer or manufacturer for a refund.

*By specialized training, we mean technical training, skilled certifications, or licenses related to electrical and/or electricity safety.  Skilled and/or trained personnel will probably never read this article, however.  🙂

If all else fails and your lighting is not producing the desired results – whether it be CFL, LED, or high-efficiency incandescent – then simply contact your retailer or manufacturer and arrange to return it.  Light affects our space, all day, every day.  It should be good light that serves a function, performs well, and even brings us visual pleasure.  Anytime your lighting system isn’t doing that, then call a licensed electrician like Swartz Electric, LLC to fix that for you.

Join us next week as we troubleshoot LED bulbs!

Swartz Electric – Your Colorado Springs Electrician performs electrical work throughout Colorado Springs, Monument, Black Forest, Fountain, Falcon, Woodland Park, and everywhere in between. We are the electricians in Colorado Springs to solve your electrical problems and meet your electrical requirements.

Call, e-mail, visit our website, or stop by our office today, and allow Swartz Electric to serve YOU.

This is an original article written by Mai Bjorklund for Swartz Electric. This article may not be copied whole or in part without the express permission of Swartz Electric, LLC.

© Copyright 2015. All rights reserved

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *