Media and helpful hints

How can I remove a stuck and broken light bulb?

First, unplug the lamp from the receptacle or, if a ceiling fixture, make sure the switch is off. Usually you can grasp the broken light bulb base with a pair of needle nose pliers and turn it to remove it. If the bulb is stuck, push the end of a potato into the socket and turn it out that way.

I want to install a new light switch. Does it matter which wire goes to which screw? I thought the hot wire went to the gold screw and the neutral wire to the silver screw.

You are confusing a receptacle with a switch. Before working on a receptacle or switch, make sure the power to that area is completely off. On receptacles—not switches—the black (hot) wire goes to the gold screw and the white (neutral) wire goes to the silver. There should be a third (green) screw for the bare copper grounding wire.

Switches that control one light are called single pole switches. They have only two screws, and it doesn't matter which wire goes to which screw. (Older wiring may have only two wires, both in black fabric.)

A three-way switch, however, is different. (See below for further explanation.)

I want a switch at the top and bottom of the stairs to control one light. How do I do this?

Three-way switches that control a light fixture from two different locations are always used in pairs, such as at each end of a room with two exits or at the top and bottom of stairs. Each switch is readily identifiable by its three screws and because it has no on/off lettering on the switch. Two of the screws are either brass or silver colored, and the third is black or copper colored. Using them requires what is called three-wire cable plus a ground. You cannot use two-wire with a ground, commonly called by its trade name, Romex, for this purpose. The wiring is more complex and requires the novice to follow diagrams.

What's a "switch loop" and how does it work?

In a switch loop, the hot and neutral wires arrive at the light fixture before reaching the switch. If you simply connected the wires from the light to the switch, the light would always be on. To make a switch loop, connect the incoming hot (black) wire to the white neutral wire that runs to the switch. Mark the white wire at each end with black tape or black paint to indicate it is hot. Now the incoming white neutral wire is attached to the light fixture, as usual, and the black wire from the switch is connected to the light fixture. In this way, the hot wire initially bypasses the fixture, then loops through the switch and back to the fixture.

Why does my smoke alarm keep beeping?

If the beep is every few minutes, your battery is probably running low. If it's a photoelectric design, you also could have a bit of dust and dirt in the unit, which might cause a malfunction. Clean it and check the battery.

My kitchen range is wired with aluminum wire and is connected directly to the house's copper electrical wire. Is this safe? What's the problem with aluminum wire?

The main problem with aluminum wiring is that it expands and contracts more than copper. If you have a loose connection, there is greater chance for electrical arcing, heat buildup, and possibly fire. Aluminum cable is still used quite frequently in sizes 6 and larger. The thing to look for (with the power off) is that the lugs (terminals) connecting the aluminum wire to the copper are suitable for copper or aluminum. They should bear the letters "cu/al." If the lugs are copper only, replace them. The ends of aluminum wires should be dipped in Penetrox, an antioxidant compound, before being attached to the copper wire in the cu/al lug.

I want to connect a new ceiling fan, but there are only two wires and a ground wire coming out of the ceiling. But my fan has a black, white, and a red wire. What is the red for?

The red wire allows you to turn on the fan without the lights, or the lights without the fan, assuming you have a stacked switch with the fan. To make this work right, you would need three wires (black, white, and red, plus ground) from the ceiling fixture down to the switch. But since you only have two wires in your ceiling box, the wall switch will turn on both lights and fan together. You can attach a chain beneath the fan to control the lights or fan separately, if you wish.

Two of the four outlets in my bedroom won't work. What's up?

Turn the circuit off and inspect each receptacle. Receptacles are often wired with the push-in method in the backs of them rather than using screws. Wires connected by the push-in method can become loose. Remove the wires from the back and attach them to the receptacle screws. If that doesn't work, try new receptacles.

How can I stop my fluorescent lights from buzzing?

The buzz is caused by the ballast (transformer) in the lighting fixture. Most residential fixtures use magnetic ballasts that operate at 60 hertz, which creates audible humming and flickering. Your solution is to replace the magnetic ballast with electronic ballast, which operates at 20,000 to 40,000 hertz—essentially continuously. This completely eliminates humming and flickering.

The electronic ballasts only work with the new thinner diameter fluorescent tubes, called T-8s.

If you convert your fixture to electronic ballasts and T-8 lamps, you will notice a huge improvement in quality. No more humming and flickering—and much better color rendition from the higher quality T-8s.

My fluorescent bulbs are dim and won't get brighter. Why?

If you are sure that the lamps are good, then check to see if the two incoming wires, black and white, are making a good connection. First, turn off the power to that light, and then remove the cover in the center of the fixture. If the connections are tight and the lights still don't work properly, you will need to replace the ballast. That's the black rectangular box with probably six wires coming out of it. Basically, you will just cut the wires off the old ballast and connect the wires from the new one with wire connectors. Just match the colors. You can get ballasts and small wire connectors at any home improvement store. 

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James P. Cordaro, President
General Inquiry
Estimator & Operations Mgr

All Phase Electrical Systems
A.P.Electrical Systems, Inc.
(800) 491-APES (2737)
(818) 787-APES (2737)
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7738 Densmore Avenue
Van Nuys, CA 91406-2918