Ask Meghann's Dad: The Mystery of the Light Bulbs

Meghann’s Dad is a retired commercial construction electrician with 35 years of experience. He’s offered to answer any questions the readers might have about electrical work, DIY, home improvement, life, art and his ’67 Firebird. We’ve had an overwhelming response, so if your question has not yet been answered, don’t fret. We’re working on it!

In this episode, Mr. Marco answers questions about mysterious light bulbs, sparking outlets, rewiring an older home, and how to hire a contractor.

Let’s start with Julie’s question:

Man, I’ve been needing an electrician to answer this question honestly! I’m so excited to have this opportunity!

Here’s the deal. I live in an old-ish house (built in the 50s, updated in the 70s). When we moved in (90s) there was a substandard electrical box and we did upgrade that. The problem is that we seem to go through light bulbs like no one else I know. Bulbs are constantly burning out in all of our lamps, ceiling fixtures, outdoor fixtures, etc. Even “long lasting” and compact fluorescent bulbs. We don’t have any other obvious electrical problems, and no problems with appliances that are plugged in, etc. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to about it says it’s just coincidental. But what do you say about it?



Mr. Marco: (Speaking from his cell phone in the grocery store parking lot): In the 70s, especially the early 70s, they used a lot of aluminum wire, which they found out was bad, because with aluminum wire as you tighten it up, the aluminum moves away from the pressure point and it gets loose. What it sounds like is happening [to Julie] is either when she had the service redone they left an open neutral, or there’s a loose connection on the neutral that causes the bulbs to burn out.

You get an unbalanced load on one side and more voltage goes to the lamps than is supposed to, depending on how the load is balanced. So I would recommend they hire a competent electrician and have them come in and check the neutrals in the panel, and all the circuits coming back through the panel, to make sure that the neutrals are tied in properly. Also make sure the neutral tied to the service (you know, the one that goes to the electrical company) is tight… and not loose or burnt. Because I’ve seen the wires so loose that you can pull them out of the connector.

That’s if the wire is aluminum, if its copper you don’t have that problem, but maybe someone didn’t tie the neutrals in properly.

The Consumerist: So, hire an electrician, tell them to check the neutrals.

Mr. Marco: All the neutrals in the system.

The Consumerist: So, It’s probably not coincidence, then?

Mr. Marco: Boy, I’d find that pretty hard to believe, especially since she’s burning up those CFLs that are supposed to last for 5 years. If there’s a loose neutral… there’s a transformer in there, in that bulb, ok, and if the neutral is disconnected, then that light will receive more voltage than they’re supposed to and that’ll burn the transformers. She doesn’t have any problems with her appliances, but she could. If there’s a neutral that’s loose or disconnected eventually it could wear and tear on her appliances, too.

The Consumerist: So just because they’re not all breaking…

Mr. Marco: Well, how long do you use a blender? Ya know? A light bulb, that’s on.

Donna had a common problem for our readers. Bad outlets and how to replace them:


This is a fantastic offer, because I’ve been having a problem that I wasn’t sure what to do about.

A few months ago, I noticed a small spark in one of my kitchen outlets just as I plugged anything in. I started avoiding that outlet, but now two of the others are doing the same thing. I’ve only noticed it in that one room. Could there be some kind of problem with the power in the kitchen that’s causing this, or is it more likely that the outlets are just wearing out around the same time?

My husband is fairly handy, and since we got the house he’s surprised me with his ceiling-fan-hanging and changing-light-fixture skills. Is changing the outlets the kind of thing he could safely do on his own with basic knowledge and good instructions, or should I insist on calling in a professional? And should we replace all the outlets in the whole room, or only the ones that are acting up? If we need a pro, how would you recommend finding a good one?

Thanks a lot, Meghann’s Dad!

Raleigh, NC

Mr. Marco:
Without knowing how long the outlets have been in and how often they’re being used: It could very well be that they’re getting worn. If the plug is loose when you plug it in; if it doesn’t have a firm feeling; if it has a tendency to fall out… it could be that the outlets are worn. I would replace them all.

If they are the 3-prong type, replace them with the 3-prong type. And if they are used a lot….There are two types. There is a 15 amp receptacle and a 20 amp receptacle. If they are high-usage, I would recommend replacing them with a 20-amp receptacle. The 15s are cheaper, but the 20s last a lot longer.

The Consumerist: Would you recommend that her ceiling-fan hanging husband endeavor to do this on his own considering that the outlets are sparking?

Mr. Marco: He sounds like he’s a pretty handy guy. I would definitely want him to disconnect all the power, even to the point of pulling the main if he’s not sure which circuit is which. Because when you take the outlet out of the wall, there’s a possibility that even though the outlet is dead there could be other circuits in there that are live. So I recommend that he do it on a bright sunny day, that he has a flashlight and shuts the power off to the house with the main breaker. Replace all the outlets. White wire goes on the silver screw, colored wire goes on the brass or copper screw. Polarity is very important.

The Consumerist: Is it likely that there is something else wrong with her kitchen or anyone’s kitchen that is having a similar problem?

Mr.Marco: The only other thing that makes me wonder is what she’s plugging in. Is the cord in good repair? Or is the cord frayed? If the appliance that she’s plugging in has problems, that could cause sparks.

Chad has a question about his older home and its ancient wiring:

Dear Mr. Marco,
A year and a half ago I bought a 1905 bungalow style home in beautiful Dayton, Ohio. The inside has beautiful woodwork, a built in china cabinet, deacon benches, three fireplaces and all wood floors… I purchased the home for $61,000 in the summer and I was pretty happy. Two winters have since gone by and I’ve redone the dining room, kitchen, bathroom and I’m finishing up the garage and billiards room now… all is going fairly well but there are two things about the house that scare/bother me.

First is the knob and tube wiring, the ratty stuff is spliced here and there all over the house. The idea of it catching fire and burning my fianc

e and I alive keeps me up at night. So my first question is about rewiring the house. I’d like to be able to pull all of the wiring out this summer and rewire with modern wire… but since I don’t know where everything goes, where everything comes from and what’s all connected it’ll be pretty tough. Are my concerns about the wiring founded? Should I forget about it, have faith in the old stuff and sleep better at night? Should I forget about rewiring and focus on something else? If I should get rid of it any suggestions on doing so?

The second thing that bothers me is the complete lack of insulation found in between our walls. It gets pretty darn cold in Ohio during the winter and insulation would provide a much desired buffer between the outside and the inside. I know that it’s possible to drill holes in our walls and blow insulation into each stud cavity, but the thought of doing this bring me back to my first fear… the wiring. The last thing I want to do is coat that old wiring with blown in insulation that will catch fire and burn as we sleep comfortable upstairs. Is blow in insulation safe to do in a home with knob and tube wiring?

Thanks for any and all questions you might be able to answer,

Mr. Marco: (Sounding a bit sad for Chad) Knob and Tube wiring scares me also. The house sounds very lovely inside, but it’s definitely necessary to replace that. It’s going to be a costly thing, and should only be done by a qualified electrician, but yeah I think it’s necessary.

I guess I’d recommend finding a qualified electrical contractor that specializes in old homes. There are a lot of tricks.

(Sounding more hopeful) Actually, the uninsulated walls are a good thing, because it makes it easier to fish modern flexible armored cable up and down the walls. There will be damage to walls. It’s inevitable. It’s going to happen. There are certain areas where it’s impossible to get any conduit or armored cable in without causing damage to walls, that’s why its very important to hire a contractor that well versed in rewiring older homes. After that is complete, it’s perfectly alright to blow in insulation. I definitely wouldn’t try to do it first, and then try to rewire. Rewire, then put in the insulation.

The insulation is fiberglass…It doesn’t really burn that well.

The Consumerist : So you recommend rewiring first not because fiberglass is going to burn, but because it’ll make it harder for someone to eventually fish new wire through?

Mr. Marco: Exactly. And then, the first thing you insulate is the ceilings. Blankets in the attic, heavy duty. 2′ insulation in the ceilings. Most of the heat in a house is lost through the ceilings and the top 3′ of the wall. That’s where the heat goes. Up to the first 5′ on the wall, the heat loss is very minimal.

The Consumerist: So right away, he should insulate his attic?

Mr. Marco: Right. But, if he’s rewiring the house, now the electrician is going to have to crawl through all that new insulation and pull it out and move it and it is going to make his job harder. So I would recommend find a contractor who is skilled in rewiring old houses, have the knob and tube replaced, and then after that is done and the service is up to date, and all the recepticals are in shielded metal conduit (flexible or pipe) then go in and make sure everything is well-insulated.

The Consumerist: Let’s talk about hiring a contractor, because people who read this site, that’s a primary concern. Do you have any advice?

Mr. Marco: For 35 years, I was a union electrician. I know that the union made sure that I was trained and skilled in all the things that I was supposed to do. Whereas a non-union contractor, that’s not true. They hire their people off the street and try to train them themselves. All union electricians are trained by the union in conjunction with NECA, the national electrical contractor’s association, so they’re skilled.

So the first thing I would do is I would look for union contractors in my area. I would contact the local electrical union, and see who they recommend. They’ll recommend union electrical contractors with skilled people. Especially if you’re doing an older home, you want someone who is really good at that. The local union knows the type of work that each contractor does. Obviously, a big contractor is not going to go into an older home and rewire it, but there are a lot of small contractors that do. That’s their specialty.

The Consumerist: So would you even bother with the phone book?

Mr. Marco: I think going to to local union and asking for a list of local contractors that do the type of work that they need done would be an excellent start. If you’re not satisfied with the list you get, then I would look through the yellow pages. But I would definitely prefer a union contractor, because I know they’re trained.

The Consumerist: How many estimates would you get?

Mr. Marco: No less than 2. I like to get 3 estimates on a job. But sometimes, you know, if one is so far below the rest, you have to ask yourself why. And if one person is so far above… why? If I had 3 estimates and they’re all over the place… One guy’s doing it for free, the other guy wants me to re-mortgage the house, and the other guy is somewhere in between, I go with the in-between guy, but I get one more estimate first.

Also, you know, if I pick a contractor and it looks like he’ll do a good job, I ask him the names of some of the other people he’s worked for and their phone numbers so I can give them a call and see how he did.

The Consumerist: So, you can ask for references?

Mr. Marco: Exactly.

Joshua has a philosophical question:

Dear Meghann’s Dad,
I was at work today and a man came in. He said he had been married 37 years today. I told him congratulations. He got a nasty look on his face and told me it was a 37-year prison sentence. This is not the first time this has happened. A man came in one time and told me never to get married, no matter how pretty the girl was, how much I thought I loved her, or how much money she had. What do you think about marriage? If you could get married again (assuming you are married) would you do it?

Thanks Meghann’s Dad!
Atlanta, GA

Mr. Marco: Just tell him: I’m the exception that proves the rule. I met my bride back in 1969, we were married in ’76 and it’s been very good for me.

The Consumerist: Ok, we’ll let him know.

Happy 31st Anniversary today to my parents Edgar and Diane! And Happy (sort of) Birthday to my mom, she’s got a leap year birthday!

If you have a question for Meghann’s Dad, write to us at tips [at] consumerist [dot] com. Please put “Ask Meghann’s Dad” in the subject. We’ll call Dad while he’s at the grocery store and spring your questions on him with no warning. That’s how we roll. —MEGHANN MARCO


Edit Your Comment

  1. muddgirl says:

    Wow, Meghann’s dad sounds like a super awesome dude.

  2. B says:

    The guy who announced out of the blue that it was his 37 year anniversary and then snapped at the person who congratulated him was clearly bringing it up just to start a fight. And that kind of person isn’t somebody I would take relationship advice from.

  3. The Unicorn says:

    Our shitty Chicago basement (oh, excuse me, GARDEN) apartment had light fixtures that seemed to run through bulbs way too fast — at the time, we chalked it up to the ambient crappiness of the place, but now I’m sure it was faulty wiring. Especially since the landlord did such a poor job managing the place.

    Thanks Meghann’s dad!

  4. kerry says:

    Chad –
    My sister had knob and tube wiring in her house when she bought it this past summer. Her insurance company wouldn’t give her a policy without a promise to get rid of the old wiring within 60 days of moving in. She hired an electrician who did it room-by-room (so she and her boyfriend could still live relatively comfortably in the rest of the house) and I think it took about a month, maybe a bit longer. She was dreading it, but when all was said and done it was really quite painless.
    For the record, her house was built something like 200 years ago and retrofitted with the knob and tube wiring.

  5. adamondi says:

    Meghann’s dad does indeed sound like an awesome guy. Nothing like having the resource of someone who has honed his craft over decades from whom to get advice.

    And as for the marriage thing, anyone that is that bitter about marriage, and is not divorced, is clearly an idiot. Either get a divorce or shut your cake hole. Don’t go around telling people to never get married because you are unhappy. Not everyone is as retarded as that guy obviously was.

  6. That light bulb issue may explain why I can’t put more than 2 bulbs in the 3-4 bulb light fixtures in my apartment.

    Of course, I am not going to do anything about it since the last time my landlord brought someone in to fix something I was left with a pedestal sink that is not fully attached to the wall.

  7. cerealfan says:

    For the lighting question…

    Another thing you should have an electrician check out is the voltage across the socket. If the voltage is significantly lower than it should be (think of it as if the old wiring were using up some of the voltage), then the current going through the ballast (the electronics part of the CFL) is much higher than it should be. High currents for too long in electronics kills them.

    The equation would be Voltage/Current (amps) equals a constant.

    Ironically, incandescents last much longer at reduced voltages. (A drop from 120 volts to 110 volts effectively doubles the life… “Double Life” bulbs are actually rated for 130 volts, and they’re run at 120 volts.)

  8. cerealfan says:

    P.S. – That’s just another possibility than what Mr. Marco was describing.

  9. swalve says:

    cerealfan- that’s an old cheap-landlord trick. You can buy 240 volt lightbulbs that fit is standard sockets. They’ll run a half their rated wattage, and last forever. Their color temperature is a nice dingy yellow “warm” color. I’ve had landlords that put in 25 watt, 240 volt bulbs in, meaning you get 12.5 watts of gross light in your hallway…

  10. galatae says:

    Well, that’s all well and good, but how do you find a union contractor in an at-will state (i.e. South Carolina / Georgia)?

  11. Meg Marco says:
  12. sr105 says:

    Most everything you could want to know about fixing home wiring: