Common Causes for Early or Regular Light Bulb Failure

Ever since the invention of the incandescent light bulb in the late 1800s, the technology that made them possible has been evolving. First, the bulbs used platinum filaments, which were quickly replaced by carbon and then tungsten. In later years, new compact fluorescent (CFL) and LED-based light bulbs have started to become the norm. All along the way, each advance has made the bulbs we use more reliable and long-lived.

Still, as any homeowner (or apartment-dweller for that matter) can tell you, light bulbs rarely last as long as they say they should. In fact, there’s a good chance that you have one or two fixtures in your home that seem to go out with alarming frequency. As it turns out, it’s not your bad luck that’s causing it. There are several very real reasons that light bulbs burn out faster than they should – you just need to know what they are and what to do about them. Here’s a list of the major causes of early light bulb failure:

Over-voltage

The modern power grid provides power to homes and businesses, aiming for a stable feed of 120 volts in most cases. In reality, though, there are a variety of conditions that can cause your household voltage to spike over the nominal 120v that your bulbs require. When that happens, you’ll find that bulbs won’t last as long as they should. To figure out if this is your problem, you need to use a voltage tester on whichever fixture is having a problem. If you get a reading that’s over 120v for more than a second or two, there’s a good chance that an over-voltage is the cause of your early bulb failures. All it takes is a 5% overage to reduce the life of your bulbs by 50% – so if you find this problem, you’ll need to switch to 130v long-life bulbs or contact a licensed electrician to trace the cause of the problem.

Improper Electrical Connection

Most people don’t know this, but how you screw in your light bulbs plays a big role in how long they will last. If you screw them into a fixture too far, they could bend the contact element in the fixture’s base, causing a poor connection to the bulb. The same thing goes for screwing them in just far enough to touch the contact – in both cases; electricity can arc between the bulb and the base, which will shorten the bulb’s lifespan. If you’ve gotten into the habit of tightening your bulbs too far, you’ll need to turn the power off (at the electrical box, not the switch) and use needle-nose pliers to bend the fixture’s contact tab to about a 20-degree angle to restore it to normal. Then, only tighten your bulbs a tiny bit past the point when you feel resistance from the socket.

An Unstable Fixture

If you’ve ever taken a close look at an incandescent bulb, you’ll notice that the filament appears to be quite delicate. It’s not your imagination. It doesn’t take much to break a light bulb’s filament, so if your fixture is unstable or vibrates due to external forces (such as a washing machine, garbage disposal, or even a stereo that is often turned up loud), that could be the cause of your problem. If you find this is the case, consider switching to a CFL or LED bulb that can stand up to the forces at play. If that’s not a suitable option,130v long-life bulbs are worth a try. They have a thicker filament which should be less prone to breakage from vibration.

Overheating

smoking broken light bulbLet’s face it. We’ve all found ourselves tempted to replace a bulb that’s burnt out with whichever one we happen to have on hand. Sometimes you might even choose to use a higher wattage bulb than a fixture calls for because you want a little bit more light in a particular location. If you’re using the wrong light bulbs in a fixture, though, they’re not going to last long. When you use a bulb of a higher wattage than the fixture recommends, it will generate more heat than it otherwise would. If you’re lucky, the bulb will only burn out early. If you’re not, it could result in a fire. If you have bulbs burning out faster than they should, make sure that they’re the right wattage for the fixture they’re in. If not, get the correct wattage and use them instead. If you require more light than a standard bulb provides, consider a CFL or LED replacement, since they produce more light for the same or less wattage than an incandescent bulb and may be safely used in their place.

Other Considerations for Light Bulb Failure

If you find that there are multiple fixtures in your home that go through bulbs faster than they should and the above causes don’t seem to be the problem, you could have a more significant electrical issue at play. It’s possible that you have an over-voltage that’s coming from outside your home, or have lighting on the same circuit as a high-draw appliance that’s creating instability. No matter the cause, however, you’ll want to contact a professional electrician right away to figure out the root of the problem. In the long run, you’ll save yourself plenty of headaches – and light bulbs, too.

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