Lamp and Light Fixture Inspections: Is it Safe?

April 29, 2016

With all the Restoration, Repurpose and Reclamation programs on TV, its easy to get inspired to pick up an old fixture and bring it home. However, buying used fixtures/lamps that appear to be working correctly might still have hidden problems. I thought it might be a good idea to devote an article to inspecting a lamp/light fixture.  As with any of my projects, safety is number 1, and with any electrical appliance, lamp or light fixture, insuring it remains compliant with the  electric code and the original UL listing  is very important.

pre purchaseWe recently picked up the swag lamp pictured to the side. The picture is from the location we bought it. As you can see it was working. So why would I want to take it apart? Just to check it out!  So, I disassembled it to clean, inspect, repaint the metal surfaces and total rewire if required. As with most any hanging type fixture with the bulb below the socket, there is a natural tendency for the rising heat to make an impact on the above wiring. As expected, I found brittle and decayed wiring above the socket. After seeing the condition of the wiring  I wondered why the fixture was working at all! Overheated wiring is the sleeping giant of lamp and light problems.  Most wiring is rated at 105C (or 221F), and in most correct applications will be fine, however when a bulb wattage is greater than the lamp rating is used, the wiring will be the first component to suffer.  You may never know it until the wiring is disturbed. Once disturbed, the insulation can disintegrate and potentially cause the wires to touch each other. You know where the story bad wiregoes from here. Always follow the bulb ratings requirements as listed on the fixture.

Without knowing the history on a light fixture, it never hurts to confirm that it is in good working order before you use it. Here is my basic check list: 

  1. Physical Review of the Lamp: Is it relatively clean, does it appear to have been stored inside or outside? Fixtures left outside can rust as well as rodents can get to places unseen to chew on the plastic wire insulation.
  2. Manufactured or Custom: In general, lamps that were manufactured in mass generally were designed and built to a specification. Typically they use standard lamp parts and overall meet the design criteria necessary for long term use. Custom lamps can be made from most anything (bowling balls, table legs, vases, etc.). Good custom manufacturers follow the same criteria. On the other hand, I regularly run across lamps that were hand built, but failed to ensure proper safety for long term usage. Many of them I can fix, but for various reasons a bad design can cause premature failure, in turn, it may not be a good lamp. The two most important items with custom lamps is 1)quality of workmanship and 2) proper heat dissipation.
  3. good bad wire comparoWiring terminations: Most failed wiring is at the terminations. Frayed/broken wires, premature insulation failure, loose connection can all impact the safety and performance of the light. In this picture the bottom wire has decayed insulation and has turned black in color due to excessive heat. The one on top is in good condition.
  4. Polarity: In a simply lighting circuit there is a “line or hot” side and a “neutral”. Those terminations should be consistent from the plug to the socket to ensure the hot termination is in the base of the socket not the shell. This is tested with a VOM meter.
  5. Polarized Plug: Similar to #4. The larger prong on the plug goes in the larger hole in the wall socket, which is the neutral side, maintaining the polarity through the entire circuit. If it is a lamp and has a plug on the cord and it is not polarized, it is a good idea to change it out.
  6. Wiring Size: Not usually a problem with US manufactured lights, but most lamps/lights originally designed to work in a different country could have undersized wiring for use in the US. After determining the wire gauge, this can be addressed in multiple ways including, 1)rewiring the lamp or 2)simply lowering the wattage of the light bulb to be used.
  7. Bulb Sockets: Sockets show wear for various reasons, including the cardboard insulator and the metal contact surfaces. Regardless of the reason; noticeable wear in the socket should be resolved by replacing it.
  8. Grounding circuit: Lamps have polarized plugs, but light fixtures require a grounding circuit. This could be a green wire, or a small bare wire, or even a black wire with green tape that is attached to the body of the light fixture. With a VOM meter, continuity between the conductor and the bare metal surface of the fixture can be confirmed.
  9. Switches: Most switches tell you when they are bad and there is little indication they are going bad; not a lot of  in-between. They can be good today, and bad tomorrow. If you have taken the lamp apart, changing the switch/socket is cheap insurance.
  10. Dimmers: Many times dimmers start to act up before total failure. Inspect for 1)free movement between clicks, 2)ambient temperature to touch, 3) full range of light from the bottom to the top of the dimmer movement. If it is just dead, some large dimmers have internal fuses that can go open.
  11. Physical Integrity: Most all manufactured lamps include metal parts. Many of them are soft metals such as brass or pot metal which can be fairly easy to bend or break. With that said it is not uncommon to have to occasionally tighten up some of the parts to keep everything in alignment. Do not over tighten the parts, the soft metal can break and be difficult to repair. FYI: Pot metal can be difficult to fix, so if you are thinking of buying a  lamp that is physically broken, you might think twice.
  12. Top capVentilation: As you can see in this picture of the top cap of the same swag lamp; there is virtually no ventilation for the heat to escape. Just for safety sake, I added some ventilation holes in the top cover.
  13. Light it up: The final test is to power it up and let if run. Depending on the type of lamp, I may let them run for 30 minutes or so with the highest rated bulb. Mainly looking for heat problems with components and if it smells.

Here is the finished lamp.  You can see the small holes I added to the top section for heat dissipation. Since heat is a major issue in this style fixture,  I used an LED bulb and it drastically cut down the amount of heat. LED bulbs have become a game changer for multiple reasons; look for a later post on LED bulbs.

Finished LampFinished Lamp 2

This article was originally published in my other blog found at DallasLampandLight.com

 

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Seasonal Reminder: Spring 2016

April 21, 2016

Bee hiveYes, that is me in the bee suit. Spring is not a great time to do bee remediation, but you will find them swarming this time of year.  Yes I knew they were there and had decided to let them do their thing, but the situation changed and I had to ask them to leave. They were not happy with my request. We did our best to save the hive.

 I attempted to relocated about 20k bees that were under my shed the spring of 2015. The picture was a reminder to me to re inspect the shed. The good news is they have found a new home somewhere. I have not seen them this spring.

This seasonal reminder  provides a list of items you need to review before the summer months set in. If you need details on what to look for or what to do, click on the link (if there is one) and it will take you to the post that was written on the subject and provide more detail.

  1. Heating/Cooling-Air Filters: Assuming you have a forced air system, change the filter prior to the heavy air conditioning months.
  2. Roofing-Looking For Leaks:  Spring rains are approaching so inspect your roof for leaks, trim away any tree limbs and clean debris off the roof. Look for raised nails and any breaches in the roof surface.
  3. HVAC Outdoor Unit: Get your garden trimmers out and trim away any vines or growth away from the  outside condenser. You should have 18″ to 2 100_0233feet clearance around the unit. Also take your water hose and wash down the outside coils  that may have accumulated dirt. Check the condensation drain that comes from the air handler in the house. Ensure that it is clear of obstacles or debris by pouring water through it.
  4. Water Leaks: Check all water fixtures and toilets for leaks. Inspect fixture drains for water puddles or loose joints in the traps.
  5. Lawn Sprinklers: Exercise the system. Look for excessive water traveling down the driveway or sidewalks. Inspect the sprinkler heads, look for blow-by and odd spray patterns. Replace or repair the heads. If you need more help on this item, click the “lawn sprinklers” tab to see multiple subjects on locating lost heads, valves as well as tune-up recommendations.
  6. Exterior Inspection:  Walk around the house, look for rotted wood, peeling paint and other exposed surfaces. Use caulk to re-seal cracks and touch up paint to reseal the surfaces. Replace rotten wood as necessary.
  7. Interior Inspection: Winter dry-out will have caused some surface cracks around doorways and windows. Also  re-caulk/grout any cracks that may have surfaced in the bathroom and kitchen, especially around the tub and shower. These two areas experience the most use and require the most maintenance.  Replace or clean water filters, faucet strainers and vent-a-hood filters in the kitchen. Flush kitchen and bathroom sinks with scalding hot water for approximately 3-5 minutes.
  8. Water Heaters: Tank type water heaters should have their pressure release valve tested (opened and closed). This will also validate the drain pipe is clear and open.
  9. Gutters and Downspouts: Clean you gutters of leaves and debris. Flush them with water to ensure they flow freely.
  10. 100_0206Surface Water Drainage: Culverts, waterways, landscape drainage systems should be cleared of debris and overgrowth that may have occurred.
  11. Windows and doors: Look at the edges where the windows and doors connect to the house. Ensure the caulk is in good shape and add caulk as necessary, indoors and outdoors.
  12. Electrical Service: Inspect the Entrance, Mast and Weather-head. Look for any damage that may have occurred over the winter. Look for tree limbs that may be contacting the entrance cable.
  13. Electrical Service-Smoke Detectors: Clean your smoke detectors of cob webs and change the battery.
  14. Test your security system: Work with monitoring service to validate all the door, window, glass break, and motion sensors operate properly.
  15. Test Smoke Detectors:  It’s a good time to clean off the cob webs and change the battery.

If you are needing some additional information on one of the topics that I have not written about, let me know and I will put it higher on the list of articles to write. Email to


Seasonal Reminder – Lawn Sprinker Tuneup

April 5, 2016

If you are a follower of this blog, lawn sprinklers seems to be a regular topic. I get more hits on this one subject than all the rest. After reviewing  the current articles I found that I lacked a straight up, “seasonal tune up” article. So, for this weeks post I am going to walk through a methodical process of checking your sprinkler system. Generally speaking this is about a system that is designed correctly and  working properly.  I typically do this at the beginning of the watering season then again in mid-summer.

Material/Tools Needed:

  1. Spare sprinkler bodies: You should normally keep some extra sprinkler bodies that resemble the product that was installed with your system. Having identical sprinkler bodies will keep replacement and repairs simple.
  2. A handful of various sprinkler nozzles: Even though there may be several types of sprinkler heads (pop up, rotary or impact), it is important to have extra copies of the same nozzle that are being used in the various zones. Even though many home centers prefer to sell you the sprinkler body with the nozzle, having them as separate items will save you time and money.
  3.  Sharpshooter Shovel:  This particular shovel works well when working on sprinklers as you can dig around a sprinkler without disturbing too much dirt. Dirt and dirty water  is the enemy when it comes to working on sprinkler systems.
  4.  Sprinkler flags: You will probably have to buy these in a pack of 100, but it will be less than $10. You will use these to mark sprinkler heads that require attention.
  5. Screwdrivers: 1 small screw driver, 1 medium screw driver (flat and Phillips head style). These will be used to disassemble nozzles and some heads.
  6. Dental tool: Something like this link will work; these can also be found at the Orange Box store. It is very common for sprinkler nozzles to capture small pebbles that will lodge in the nozzle disrupting the sprinkler spray pattern. You will want to pick out the debris without damaging the plastic.
  7. 1 pair of medium-sized Channel Lock pliers: These can be used to adjust, tighten and loosen the body of the sprinkler head especially if your hands are wet.
  8. 1 pair of medium-sized vise grips: Used as a way to extract nozzles from pop-up heads by lightly holding the nozzle riser exposed. Never use a lot of pressure as you can easily damage the sprinkler head.
  9. WD 40 Lubricant Spray: Used to lubricate various parts that are supposed to move or react to the water pressure. WD40 is a fish oil based product and should not damage the grass.

SPRINKLER TESTING PROCEDURE:

  1. Activate the test sequence in the Sprinkler Controller: Most controllers have a test function that allows you to run the system in short intervals. If you can choose the time limit, set it to two minutes. If your controller does not have this function, you can have a friend turn the sections on one by one. TIP: If you have to do this manually, find some walkie-talkies to communicate with your partner.
  2. Find the first zone that is running:  Carrying your sprinkler flags, walk around and through the zone that is running, looking for the six items mentioned below. Use the flag to identify problems. However, try to realign the heads in this first sequence while the zone is running. Use the Channel Lock to grab the body to make adjustments.
  3. Repeat #2 for all the zones: I find the sprinkler flags really help, cause you can go directly back to each problem once you have made it through the entire system.
  4. Repair, replace  or adjust the heads as required: One of the most  important elements of sprinkler repair is to avoid introducing dirty water into the system. The dirt will make its way to all the downstream head and clog them up. If you find a broken head or pipe within your inspection, you may have to clean all the nozzles (see #2 below) in that zone.
  5. Run the test sequence again: As a final step, run the system one last time to ensure that everything is operating to your expectations.

Common Problems and Solutions:

  1. Misaligned Heads: Heads that are used around the perimeter of a property typically use patterns less than “full circle”. These heads will require occasional realignment to keep them from spraying on a sidewalk, fence or house. You can  adjust  either the nozzle, neck or sprinkler body. Try adjusting to the right (righty tighty, lefty loosie). If you have to turn it to the left, try not to turn it more than a 1/4 or 1/2 turn. Turning the head too much to the left may cause the nozzle or head to disconnect itself (while under pressure), this may cause a guiser of water and will get you real wet.
  2. Dirty Nozzles:  If the pattern seems uneven or broken up. The nozzle is dirty. With the water off, grab the sprinkler stem and raise it as if it were spraying water. Use your vise grips to LIGHTLY hold the stem up. Remove the nozzle and pull the filter (with the dental tool or your finger tip). Blow through the filter and nozzle. If this doesn’t remove all the debris, use the dental tools or water to clean further. You may have to disassemble the nozzle completely to get the dirt out. If the filter was completely stopped up, turn the sprinkler zone on/off very quickly to flush the line at this point (with the vice grips in place). Reassemble the nozzle to the head and release the vise grips to let the stem return to the body. NOTE: The purpose of keeping the stem extended through this process is to avoid the opportunity for dirty water to enter the system.  
  3. Broken/Damaged  head: Besides the nozzle mentioned above, the sprinkler body can leak as well. This could be out the bottom, side or top. Sometime the heads can be rebuilt, but at this stage its best to just swap out the head with an identical body and nozzle. If it’s not muddy around the head, attempt to unscrew the complete body out of the ground. Without disturbing the dirt, re-insert the replacement head. If you have to dig it up, use the sharp shooter shovel to expose the  head down to where it connects to the next pipe. It’s best to dig the hole a bit deeper than the head. If water comes out, you do not want the dirty water to reenter the system as mentioned above.  Replace the head and the surrounding dirt.  This sprinkler repair  link has a video included that might be of help.
  4. Sprinkler heads do not recess into the ground after spraying: This is a very common occurrence caused by small dirt particles surrounding the elevated riser at the wiper seal of the sprinkler head after the water is turned off. Grab the head by the tip and spray WD-40 on the riser. Work the shaft until it moves freely. If that doesn’t clear it, replace the head  and rebuild the old one in the sink to get all the dirt out of it.
  5.  Heavy Running or Pooling Water: This could be associated with #3 or it could be a damaged pipe.  With your shovel, LIGHTLY remove the wet dirt, you do not want to cause anymore damage. Dig below the pipe or area to be repaired. Use a coffee can to remove as much of the water and dirt as possible. Make the repair as necessary.
  6. Weeping heads:  Occurs when system is off. Typically you will notice this on days the sprinklers are not running, or you find constant moist spots. Typically, you must disassemble the sprinkler valve and clean it.  Rebuilding the valve may be required as well.
  7. Draining sprinkler head: similar to #6, but usually happens with a head that is located lower that other heads in the zone. This is fairly normal and can be left alone. If it happens in a bad spot and you really don’t like it, you can add a lateral line drain to disperse the water.

 For more detailed information, take a look at these other articles I have written on the subject: Lawn Sprinkler Efficiency Part II, Lawn Sprinkler Efficiency Part I ,  Searching for Lawn Sprinkler Valves, Chasing Lawn Sprinkler Leaks; Finding Sprinkler Valves and Common Problems,Lawn Sprinkler Efficiency Upgrades Part II,  .