Why do My Outdoor Lights Flicker? How to Fix Flickering Lights
Seeing your outdoor lights flicker while you’re enjoying your yard or patio is, at least, unsettling; it might be more than enough to get your mind racing. Why is this happening? Should I be worried? And if so, how much? That’s what we’re here for.
Here, we will be covering several possible that could get your lights flickering, and how to address them. Bear in mind: sometimes you can take a crack at it, and some others, you’ll have to bring in a professional for a proper fix. Whichever the case, we’ll let you know.
1. Check The Lightbulb
Can it really be so simple? Yes it can, and this is something you can verify with relative ease.
This type of bulbs can be prone to flickering, and it doesn’t have to be something serious. It can be as simple as cold temperature, or as a result of the phosphors within receiving the current. If flickering only happens on fixtures with fluorescent bulbs, then there is likely nothing to worry about.
These ones are not affected by low temperatures like fluorescent bulbs are, but there are times when a fairly simple tweak will take care of the problem. If you’re using a dimmer in tandem with your LED fixture, check compatibility, as not all dimmers will work with LED’s comparatively lower voltage, and their operation can result in flickering. If it turns out your dimmer is not intended for LED, swap it for one that is.
LED bulbs may also not work well in certain climates, so make sure you’re using outdoor specific light bulbs if your outdoor lights flicker.
Not all lightbulbs are intended for working with a dimmer, CFL and incandescent ones being two good examples. If you’re trying to get more control of your light intensity, just be sure to get bulbs designed to be dimmed to begin with. Usually, that means getting LED bulbs, but you may be happy to know you can still get a more old-fashioned look if you so wish.
It happens, and more often than you might think. If the bulb in question is CFL or incandescent, wait for it to cool down after turning the light off. Then, unscrew it, carefully screw it back into the socket, and give it a try. If it no longer flickers, you’ve done it!
2. Check Switches & Wiring
Here, we’re going a little farther into the installation, but we don’t have to dig too deep just yet. It goes without saying, a hands-off approach is better in some cases; you will know when we get there.
We begin with what might be the most obvious fix in this category. If the fixture you see flickering is plugged into an outlet (like a lamp, or a set of string lights), then unplug it, reseat it carefully and firmly, and see if this fixes the problem.
This is one of the most common reasons why outdoor lights flicker, and thankfully the easiest fix.
Old or Faulty Switches
If you happen to notice that the flickering is limited to a certain room, wiggle its switch a little; if this exacerbates the flickering, then you have probably found your culprit. This applies to wall switches, and those on lamps as well. Once you’ve located the issue, all that’s left is bringing in an electrician to get the problem fixed.
Loose, Outdated Wiring
This one is trickier, in that you definitely shouldn’t go feeling along the wires trying to find faults. It is also among the most critical to diagnose, as it is a leading cause of house fires, and it can also cause injuries such as serious burns and cardiac arrest.
A loose wire can, for example, cause the current to jump from one connector to another (which is known as arcing), especially if the wire is damaged, limiting its ability to handle its usual current.
Signs of arcing include popping or sizzling when turning the switch on or off; sparks flying; hotter areas on or around the switch; and burnt smell.
If the flickering has started somewhat at random, is not exactly limited to a single area, and it began happening even though you did not introduce any change to your grid (such as new devices, dimmers, etcetera), then it is likely you are dealing with a case of bad wiring, and it is best to call an electrician ASAP to investigate.
If the flickering also began at random, without you introducing any recent changes, but it happens to be limited to a single room, then it is possible to remove the fixture or switch and check the wiring—but only if you 100% know what you’re doing!
If you have even the slightest doubt, then there’s nothing wrong with letting a professional handle it; your loved ones will thank you.
3. Be Aware of Voltage Variations
The factors outlined in this category will almost certainly be out of your hands; in some cases, it won’t be your electrician, but the utility company, fixing the underlying cause.
As you may or may not know, your house shares a transformer with several others nearby. If a neighbor is using a lot of electricity, then there will be less voltage for you, and your lights will flicker.
If no homes near yours are overtaxing the grid, and their lights are flickering too, it could be a sign of a utility problem. This is when you call the company so they take a look.
Does the flickering happen when you turn on a large appliance—and continues even after said appliance is no longer running? Are lamps burning, and/or electronic devices going on the fritz pretty often of late?
Any of these could be a sign of your voltage undergoing frequent, sudden changes, or it could be a sensory overload on a circuit. While letting a professional take a look is always the best option, there is a way for you to peek into it if you feel so inclined.
Introducing the Multimeter
Vague though its name may be, this handy device is in fact dedicated to measuring electric currents, and the ‘multi’ in the name simply means that it can test things other than voltage, such as capacity, resistance, continuity, and (on more advanced devices) even temperature and acidity.
An integral part of any professional electrician’s tool kit, a DIYer can benefit from learning to operate one of these.
For guidance on using a multimeter, the user’s manual should be the go-to resource; that said, here’s a primer on how to work with it:
- Dial must be set to the appropriate measuring. For our purposes, we will likely have to set it to V~, as this is the option for measuring alternate current, or AC—the type used in most houses.
- If your multimeter requires configuring range, choose one that goes above the maximum you expect for the circuit you’re testing. For a house’s current, the acceptable range is 115 – 125 volts (, which means you should select about 200V on your multimeter. Some multimeters are ‘autorange’, which means the device itself detects the maximum and you don’t have to worry about choosing it.
- Multimeters usually come with two test leads—black and red—, with jacks that are plugged into holes at the bottom of the device’s face. Unless the user’s manual says otherwise, the black lead is intended for the hole labeled ‘COM’. The red lead, for its part, goes into the ‘V’ hole for measuring voltage.
- When working on a wall outlet (again, in a US home), the black lead should be touching the larger hole to the left, which is the neutral one; the red lead should touch the ‘hot’ hole, namely the smaller hole to the right. Once both leads are into their appropriate positions on the outlet, your multimeter should provide you with a measurement. If you get a result that reads ‘OL’, ‘Overload’, or ‘1’, (or if the needle on your analog multimeter immediately leaps to the far right) remove the leads with reasonable haste and raise the device’s range. A ‘1V’ reading is normal, no sign of overload.
- If a digital multimeter returns a ‘0V’ result, or the needle in an analog one barely moves, then check the black and red probes’ connection; you can also reduce the range, and see if that returns a proper reading.
- A digital voltmeter will provide you with an easy to read measurement; an analog one, on the other hand, requires finding the right scale among the several available on your screen. For our purposes, we would be looking for the one labeled ‘AC’.
Flickering lights don’t have to be bad news, but they should still be diagnosed with all due haste, as they could be a sign of a potentially hazardous problem—such as faulty wiring.
In most cases, if your outdoor lights flicker then a little of due diligence will neatly solve the issue. And if it doesn’t, any qualified electrician can sort it out for you before it gets out of hand.