A few days ago (last Thursday, maybe) I walked into my office at home and flipped the light switch. The light flickered for half a second or so and went out. So, I flipped the switch off and back on. It flickered for slightly less time and went out again. I thought to myself, “Hmmm. That’s not quite how a burned out light bulb behaves.”
But, me being the optimist that I am, I figured I’d change the light bulb and see what happened. I’m aware that I might have boring blog posts, but even I wouldn’t stoop to the low level of a new blog entry just because I had to change a light bulb. That would be too pedestrian, even for me. So, needless to say, changing the light bulb didn’t make any difference. Still no light.
That got me a little bit excited. I was going to get to do some detective work with electricity. I really enjoy working with electricity. If changing the lightbulb didn’t work, the next obvious thing to check, and what I was assuming all along, was that the switch had gone bad. I could see the light behaving as it had (flickering) if the switch had gone bad, so that was my best guess as to what the problem was. So, I made my way out the shed, grabbed a replacement switch (you have spare electrical parts lying around your home as well, I’m sure) and headed back into the house. A quick flip of the breaker switch, some screwdriver and plier work, and I had a shiny new switch installed. I went and flipped the breaker back on, made my way back to the office, flipped the switch and….. nothing.
Hmm.. That was unexpected. The lightbulb was confirmed good. The switch was brand new, so it was most likely good. That left… the light socket. Since I didn’t think I had a spare light socket lying around (come to find out later, I did have. *snap*) I ended up having to go to Lowe’s to pick up a replacement light socket. The light socket that I originally had in there was a 3-light socket. Lowe’s had a replacement 2-light socket that was $3.98. It had the same size threading for the lamp shade, so I figured it would work well enough. I was only using a single light bulb in the socket anyway, so the 3 to 2 change didn’t matter.
So, I made my way back home, made sure the breaker was off, and proceeded to replace the old, obviously decrepit, 3-light socket with the shiny new 2-light socket. A quick trip to the breaker box later, and I was ready to test my handiwork. I flipped the switch and…… nothing.
This was a conundrum. The bulb was good. The switch was good. The socket was good. That left…. the wiring? The odds of the wiring magically going bad were very, very slim. So, it was time to get out some better testing equipment. So, I pulled out my trusty digital multimeter and started taking some readings.
And, I saw some interesting numbers. You would expect to see something close to 120 volts across the hot and neutral wires. Hot to neutral at the switch was showing 54-57 volts. Hot to neutral at the light was showing about 27 volts. Very strange. With the switch ‘off’, I was getting about 11 volts across the hot and neutral at the light. I pondered this for a while.
Then, I decided to look at other things in the circuit. The hallway light, the bathroom light, and one bathroom outlet were on the same circuit. Testing of the hallway light and the bathroom circuit both revealed that they were getting 120 volts, just like they should. My paper telling me what’s on each circuit (that I keep near the breaker box) also said that the doorbell was on that circuit.
At this point, a lightbulb went off…. in my head.
A couple of years ago the doorbell quit working. There’s a doorbell transformer up in the attic that converts the 120 volts from the house to the 12 volts that is needed for the doorbell. It’s just a little box, about 2 inches on a side, that attaches to a junction box. Nothing very interesting. When the doorbell quit working, I just assumed that the transformer had probably died. There was about a foot of insulation on top of the junction box and transformer, and I figured that the transformer might have gotten warm and quit working, and I didn’t care about the doorbell all that much anyway. Since blowing in the insulation a few years ago, I’ve tried very hard to not go up there and disturb it, since that decreases its effectiveness.
But, having the office light quit working got me to wondering whether or not it had been wise of me to ignore the doorbell problem. I began to wonder if maybe the transformer was pulling off those missing volts and converting them into pure heat up in the attic. I decided that the switch and the light socket were OK, so I put everything in the office “back together” (using the old 3-light socket) and turned the circuit back on so that I could use the light in the bathroom.
And, I flipped the switch in the office, and the light worked perfectly. This was last night. I had fully prepared myself for a trip into the warm attic (summertime sun and all that) and now the crazy light was working perfectly. So, I went to bed last night comfortable in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be getting up early in the morning (to avoid the daytime heating) for an attic trip.
This morning arrives. I flip the switch. The light flickers once or twice and goes dark.
So, I turned off the circuit and headed for the attic. I didn’t really know exactly where the doorbell transformer was. I had a general idea of where it had been several years ago before burying everything under a foot of shredded newspaper, but one’s mind can play tricks in times such as those. So, I started digging around. I found wires for the alarm system and knew that I was close. I dug more. Each time my hand dipped down into the insulation little puffs of dust rose into the air, inevitably destined for my nose. Finally, I found the junction box. A couple of minutes later I had the transformed totally disconnected and made my way out of the attic. Flipped the circuit breaker back on, tested the light, and it worked.
That’s where things are at now. The circuit is live and hopefully when I get home tonight the office light will still be working. We’ll see. This has been a fun experience, though. I love working with electricity.