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Several Lights Flickering:
Could Be Trouble...

Since the beginning of January 2002 my husband and I have seen our lights flicker, sometimes staying out for 3 seconds than back on. My husband checked the circuits in the basement and all is well. What could be the problem? My husband hasn't done anything more to find the cause, but I want to know. I should mention that our neighbors lights have been fine, so it's definitely internal. As well all the lights go out throughout the house and sometimes they do not. Thank you in advance for your time.

Of all the symptoms that an electrical system can have, a group of lights that flicker is the scariest, in my opinion. I suspect that you are getting some arcing somewhere. Arcing occurs when wire connections are close but not fully touching. The electric current jumps the gap, like lightning, and creates some heat. This heat could be minor, or it could be a serious problem, depending on how much current is jumping across the gap, and how wide the gap is.

This is not the same as a short circuit, although both can give off sparks. A short circuit occurs when the hot wire touches the neutral or ground wire, and normally the circuit breaker or fuse will trip, shutting off the power.

Arcing can occur for hours, days, weeks, even years, and it will never trip a conventional circuit breaker. 

And arcing can cause enough heat buildup to START A FIRE. I don't want to alarm you, but this could be serious.

Two years ago in my own home, I noticed that ALL of the lights in the house were flickering. If a single light flickered I would suspect that the bulb had a loose filament (a trivial problem) or the bulb was loose in the socket. But in this case I discovered that the Main Breaker was arcing. I could hear the arc sound when I pressed my ear to the breaker, it made a little "fzzzt fzzzt" sound. And the breaker was warm. This was on a Sunday night. I made sure all the major current-drawing automatic appliances (the electric water heater and the refrigerator) were turned off that night, just to minimize the heat build up. No power draw, no heat problem. The next day I tried to find a replacement main breaker, but that brand was no longer sold, so I did a sudden-instant main breaker panel replacement. I was up late that Monday night.

Anyway, I would strongly recommend that you call an electrician at the earliest possible opportunity. I suspect that a wire has come loose somewhere, and troubleshooting this is not something I can explain in an e-mail. But you can try shutting off various circuits to see if the flickering can be narrowed down to a certain area. Many newer houses have all of their lights on one or two circuits, so it's possible that the problem is limited to a lighting circuit. I strongly suggest you turn off all lights at night (most people do anyway) and perhaps even the water heater if it's electric. Turn off the fridge at night if its lights are flickering. And make sure you have working smoke alarms. I'd put a battery-powered smoke alarm near the breaker panel, for now, just in case.

Please have this problem examined by a knowledgeable person.


Bruce W. Maki, Editor.




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Copyright 2002

Compiled January 22, 2002