Troubleshooting Common Problems With Light Fixtures

Light fixtures are incredibly handy for illuminating our homes and workplaces, but like any electrical device, they can develop issues. Troubleshooting common light fixture problems doesn’t have to be difficult though. With some basic tips, you can diagnose and resolve many basic lighting problems yourself.

Inspecting the Light Bulb

The first thing to check whenever a light isn’t working properly is the light bulb itself. Here are some common light bulb-related issues and solutions:

Burned Out Bulb

If the light won’t turn on at all, the bulb itself may simply be burned out and in need of replacement. Screw out the old bulb and replace it with a new one of the same type and wattage.

Loose Bulb

If a light flickers or only works intermittently, the bulb may be loose in the socket. Turn off the light and gently twist the bulb to tighten it back into place.

Wrong Wattage

Using a bulb with too high of a wattage for the fixture can lead to overheating and shortened bulb life. Check the fixture’s recommended wattage and replace the bulb if needed.

Dimmed Bulbs

Some bulbs like CFLs and LEDs don’t work properly on a dimmer switch. Use a standard on/off switch or replace with dimmable bulbs.

Always turn off the light and allow the bulb to fully cool before handling to avoid burns. When in doubt, consult the bulb packaging or fixture instructions for recommended wattages and compatible bulb types.

Checking the Light Switch

After inspecting the bulb, issues with the light switch itself are the next most likely culprit. Try these tips for diagnosing switch problems:

Flipped Breaker

If the switch and light aren’t getting any power, check the breaker box and reset any tripped breakers.

Bad Connection

Loose switch connections can interrupt power to the light. Turn off the breaker then unscrew the switch and inspect wires for secure, corrosion-free connections.

Bad Switch

If power is getting to the switch but the light still won’t turn on, the switch itself may need replacement. Turn off power and swap in a new switch of the same type.

Three-Way Switch

In a lighting circuit with multiple switches, one may be bad or wired incorrectly. Test switches individually while resetting breakers as needed until finding the problematic one.

Dimmer Compatibility

Standard bulbs and LED/CFLs sometimes don’t work properly on dimmer switches. Replace switch with standard on/off switch.

Checking the Fixture Itself

If the bulb and switch check out okay, the problem may lie in the light fixture itself. Some common fixture issues include:

Bad Socket

If a bulb won’t stay tightened or frequently needs tightening, the socket itself could be cracked or worn out. Replace the socket with a new one matching the wattage rating.

Loose Wires

Over time, fixture wires can vibrate loose. Turn off power at the breaker, then inspect wires for tight connections and corrosion.

Bad Ballast

Fluorescent fixtures, some LEDs, and HIDs rely on a ballast to regulate power. If the bulb is good, try replacing the ballast.

Shorted Fixture

A short circuit in the fixture wiring can prevent it from turning on. Alicensed electrician can diagnose and repair shorted components.

Broken Switch/Pull Chain

These components are easy to replace on most basic fixtures. Match new parts to originals.

Routine fixture cleaning and maintenance can help prevent many of these issues. Replace components like sockets as they wear out, keep connections tight, and don’t exceed recommended wattages.

Troubleshooting Recessed and Track Lighting

Recessed and track lighting have a few additional things that can go wrong beyond the basics:


If a recessed fixture points in the wrong direction, gently twist or turn it to adjust aim. Don’t force movement.

Old Track

On old track lighting, corroded contacts prevent lights from making a connection. Wipe contacts clean or replace track.

Loose Track Heads

Tighten any loose track heads, as these can interrupt the flow of power.

No Grounding

Some fixture issues are caused by lack of proper grounding. An electrician can ensure fixtures are properly grounded.

Cable Issues

For track lighting, broken cables or loose connections can cause power loss. Inspect cables and fittings.

Diagnosing Fluorescent Light Problems

Fluorescent light fixtures require a ballast to regulate power. Some specific issues include:

Flickering Tubes

If flickering persists after inspecting connections, replace tubes even if old ones look okay. New tubes often solve flickering issues.

Noisy Ballast

Buzzing/humming sounds usually mean the ballast is wearing out. Replace with a ballast of the same type.

Blackened Tubes

Black residue at tube ends signifies sodium loss. Replace tubes. Sodium loss occurs more quickly in cold and damp locations.

Slow Starting

If tubes are slow to light up, the ballast may be faulty. Replace ballast or use ballast bypass lamps.

UV Leakage

Purple glow outside tubes indicates dangerous UV leakage from aging fixtures. Replace tubes and ballast immediately.

Troubleshooting LED Lighting Problems

LED lighting comes with its own unique issues:


Using too high of a voltage can burn out LED components. Check local power voltage and use surge suppressors.


Ensure adequate ventilation and air circulation to prevent overheating.

Driver Failure

If an entire LED fixture goes out, the driver (power regulation component) likely needs replacing.

Color Shift

LEDs can shift color over time. Replace individual LED modules as needed.

Wiring Issues

The low voltage used for LED tape lights makes them prone to wire breaks and loose connections. Inspect wiring.

Incorrect Polarity

LED tape lights won’t work if wired backwards. Check for reverse polarity.

When to Call an Electrician

While many basic lighting issues can be addressed yourself, some scenarios require calling in an electrician:

  • Complete power loss to the lighting circuit
  • Signs of short circuit or overload
  • Flickering lights throughout the home
  • Sparking, burning smells, or cracked/damaged wiring
  • Adjustments to hardwired fixtures without an easily accessible switch or breaker
  • Installation of new circuits, switches, or built-in fixtures

Troubleshooting lighting issues yourself is a great way to save on service call fees. However, anytime you are unsure about electrical work, contact a licensed electrician to be safe.

Outdoor Lighting Troubleshooting

Outdoor lights face additional challenges from weather exposure and wildlife:

Moisture Issues

Check all light fixtures and junction boxes for water intrusion causing corrosion. Seal any holes or cracks.

Dirty Fixtures

Buildup of dirt, debris, spiderwebs, etc. can prevent lights from turning on. Clean fixtures thoroughly.

Photocell Failure

If dusk-to-dawn lights don’t turn on properly, replace the photocell sensor. Test first by covering sensor.

Loose Wires

Outside fixtures are prone to wire vibration. Inspect connections for tightness and corrosion.

Bugs/Bird Nests

Nests inside fixtures create short circuits. Clean out fully before reinstalling bulbs. Avoid incandescents which attract insects.

Animal Damage

Squirrels and birds often chew through wires. Seal off access holes with caulk or hardware cloth.

Ground Faults

Moist conditions can cause ground faults. An electrician should diagnose and repair these faults.


Ensure outdoor fixtures are rated for the environment. Add shade structures if needed.

Tips for Preventing Fixture Issues

With good maintenance and smart usage, you can help minimize problems with your light fixtures:

  • Use bulbs that match the rated wattage for the fixture to prevent overheating.
  • Check for loose bulbs periodically and tighten when needed.
  • Clean fixtures regularly to remove dust and insect buildup.
  • Ensure all outdoor fixtures are rated for damp locations.
  • Use surge suppressors to protect fixtures from power spikes.
  • Replace old components like sockets and ballasts before they fail.
  • Avoid covering lights with blankets or other materials that trap heat.
  • Use dimmers and timers compatible with LED/CFL bulbs.
  • Keep air vents clear around recessed lights to prevent overheating.
  • Minimize vibration near lights to stop wires from coming loose.
  • Check junction boxes for any gaps allowing insect/rodent entry. Seal these.
  • Hire an electrician for installing whole-home surge suppressors.

Safety Tips for DIY Troubleshooting

When attempting to troubleshoot your own light fixtures, keeping safety in mind is crucial:

  • Turn off power at the breaker before any work. Double check with a non-contact voltage tester.
  • Allow bulbs to fully cool to avoid burns.
  • Work on a sturdy ladder to reach overhead fixtures. Have someone support the ladder.
  • Wear gloves and eyewear when cleaning fixtures.
  • Keep flammable materials away from hot bulbs.
  • Avoid leaving hot bulbs facing combustibles like curtains or furniture.
  • When in doubt, hire an electrician to avoid injury and damage.
  • Call emergency services immediately for any sparking, smoking, or burning fixtures.
  • Never attempt electrical work when wet, tired, rushed, or impaired.
  • Stay aware of exposed wires and caps when working inside boxes.
  • Refrain from adjustments inside hardwired fixtures if no switch or breaker cuts power.

By approaching all light fixture repairs with proper care and caution, you can troubleshoot issues safely and effectively. Pay attention to warning signs, and don’t hesitate to call in an expert when needed. With diligence and electrical know-how, your home lighting system can provide many years of bright, attractive, and hassle-free illumination.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some common causes of flickering lights?

Some common causes of flickering lights include loose light bulbs, worn-out sockets, faulty light switches, problems with circuit breakers or fuses, issues with dimmer switches, overloaded circuits, and wiring problems.

Why does my new LED bulb not work in my existing fixture?

Older light fixtures sometimes lack the proper components to power LED bulbs. LEDs require different voltages and drivers than traditional incandescent bulbs. You may need to retrofit the fixture with an LED-compatible socket and driver. Dimmer switches also often don’t work with LEDs.

How do I know if I have a neutral wiring problem with my light?

Lights that turn off when you flip a switch on or flicker when other lights/appliances turn on often indicate a missing neutral wire connection. An electrician can diagnose and repair the wiring. Warning signs include LED and CFL bulbs that won’t work, or lights that don’t match the dimmer switch setting.

Why does my bathroom exhaust fan turn on when I flip the light switch?

Often this is because the exhaust fan and light are wired to the same switch and circuit. An electrician can add a separate switch and circuit to control the fan independently.

What causes buzzing or humming noises from light fixtures?

Electrical arcing, old ballasts, and cheap transformers/drivers can cause buzzing or humming. Dirty electricity causing electrical interference can also be an issue. Consult an electrician to inspect fixtures making noises.

Why do my recessed lights keep burning out bulbs?

Frequent bulb failures usually indicate overheating. Ensure adequate clearance around recessed lights for ventilation. Upgrade bulbs to LEDs which produce less heat. Insulation contact could also cause overheating.

How do I troubleshoot track lighting?

Check that track heads are tightened securely. Connectors and cables should be undamaged. Clean contact points with electrical cleaner. Check wires for damage. Finally, ensure proper grounding; ungrounded tracks can cause issues. Consider replacing old corroded track.

How do I stop my outdoor lights from turning on during the day?

Use fixtures with built-in photocells that detect daylight. Or add an external photocell sensor which you can mount in a shaded area. Photocell failures are common – replace them if lights come on during the day.

Why are my landscape lights not turning on?

Check that the transformer is plugged in and operational. Inspect wires for damage from lawn equipment or rodents. Ensure wire connectors are corrosion-free. LEDs may have reversed polarity – flip connections. Finally, replace old bulbs and photocells if needed.


Troubleshooting light fixture issues may seem complicated, but these tips should give you the knowledge needed to diagnose and repair many basic lighting problems around your home. By methodically checking bulbs, switches, wiring connections, and the fixtures themselves, you can identify the culprit. While some repairs like shorted wires and bad ballasts need professional electricians, many issues like loose sockets and tripped breakers can be easily fixed with basic tools. Knowing when to call in an expert is also key to staying safe. With diligence and electrical know-how, you’ll be ready to handle any troublesome fixture situation. Your home lighting will function smoothly for years to come, brightly illuminating each room.