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Soffit floodlights (C) D Friedman Outdoor Floodlight Diagnosis & Repair
How to repair outdoor light fixtures

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This article describes diagnosing & fixing an outdoor light that is not working.

Here we explain & illustrate how to inspect and test a dawn-to-dusk floodlight or security light that is not working. Starting with how to use a neon tester to confirm that electrical power is off before touching electrical wires, we continue with a list of things to check if your outdoor light won't turn on.

This article series discusses outdoor lighting installation, troubleshooting and repair procedures. This series also explains how to install recessed lights in an exterior soffit or roof overhang. We provide lighting installation suggestions about the type of light fixture to use, light fixture support, clearances, fire safety, moisture resistance, switch location, and electrical code citations for exterior lighting on buildings.



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How to diagnose & fix an outdoor "Dusk to Dawn" motion-sensor light fixture that won't light-up

Dawn to dusk outdoor light stopped working (C) Daniel FriedmanReader Question:

2016/04/03 Freezing Cold said:

Without warning, our outdoor dusk to dawn light stopped working Tried cleaning the fixture's sensor & changing floodlight bulbs, but that didn't help.

Any ideas or suggestions? Or is this 3-year old fixture a goner? Thanks.

This question appeared originally at: ELECTRICAL INSPECTION, DIAGNOSIS, REPAIR

Here are the steps to diagnose & fix a floodlight, motion-sensor light, security or dawn-to-dusk outdoor light that is not working:

Reply: Watch out: some of these inspection steps or bulb socket repair attempts must be done with electrical power turned off. Otherwise there is risk of death by electrocution; if you don't know how to do this safely ask for help from a licensed electrician as you could be killed.

Article Contents

Turn off Electrical Power and Confirm that Electricity is OFF at the Fixture Before Touching It

Confirm that the neon tester is working before trusting it with your life (C) Daniel Friedman

[Click to enlarge any image]

A simple and very inexpensive tool such as a Neon Tester lamp can be used to determine if electrical power is on or off at an electrical wire or device before it is handled. Having been surprised once by discovering that my tester itself had failed, now before checking the status of an un-certain electrical circuit, I confirm that my neon tester is working normally by inserting its probes into a known-live electrical receptacle - illustrated above.

Using a neon tester to check for power at electrical wires (C) Daniel Friedman

In our photograph above the neon tester's leads are touched to the line and neutral wires and the bulb is LIT indicating that electrical power is ON at this circuit. In our next photo below you can see that the neon tester's light is OFF indicating that power has now been turned OFF.

Watch out: this is not a reliable nor a complete electrical system test. For example, a weakly-grounded wire or electrode may look just fine when tested with a VOM, a DMM, or a neon tester, but when subject to higher current flow the ground may be completely inadequate.

Using a neon tester to check for power at electrical wires (C) Daniel Friedman

Watch out: some of these inspection steps or bulb socket repair attempts must be done with electrical power turned off. There is risk of death by electrocution; if you don't know how to do this ask for help from a licensed electrician as you could be killed.

More safety advice is at TEST EQUIPMENT, ELECTRICAL

Inspect the Outdoor Fixture Before Starting Tests

Here is a list of outdoor light installation snafus that might upset a licensed electrician as well as your local electrical inspector. All of these conditions were found at the same "not-working" outdoor light.

Leaks into the light's electrical box mount

Water leaks into electrical fixture outside (C) Daniel Friedman

Before closer inspection of the wiring and bulb socket on the "Dawn-to-Dusk" floodlight fixture discussed in this article I took a look at how the fixture was mounted on the wall. Above my screwdriver tip is pointing to an opening into the wall above this surface-mounted outdoor light. I didn't see any sign that a weatherproof electrical box had been used for this installation, so I already suspected that I would find amateur electrical wiring that may be unsafe.

Improper mounting screws for the outdoor light

Drywall screw used at outdoor light fixture (C) Daniel Friedman

A second warning sign that my cousin Neil might have done this light installation and wiring (Neil is a good guy but not so handy) was the use of interior drywall screws to mount the light fixture to the wooden clapboard wall.

Interior Work Electrical Box used at an Outdoor Light Fixture

Interior work electrical box exposed to the weather (C) Daniel Friedman

Aside from electrical code violations and risk of water entry that short-circuits the light fixture, making it unsafe even to touch, leaks into the building wall at this sloppy light installation risk longer term structural damage from rot or from having attracted wood-destroying insects.

Electrical Box Not Secured to Wall

Improper securing of electrical box to wall -  loose (C) Daniel Friedman Improper securing of electrical box to wall -  loose (C) Daniel Friedman

Woe continued at this electrical job. The electrical box was "secured" to the wall simply by having driven electrical wire staples into the wall through one of the box ears. The box was loose in the wall and neither of these staples at the box top and bottom was holding it in place. I could pull the staples out or the whole box with two fingers and a little tug.

Damaged Gasket Seal at the Outdoor Light Fixture

Damaged floodlight gasket allows leaks into the electrical wiring (C) Daniel Friedman

Finally the gasket that was intended to seal this outdoor floodlight to its electrical box mount was itself so deteriorated that water readily entered the fixture, its wiring, and the "electrical box" behind it.

We decided to install a new wet-location electrical box on this wall, mount a new motion-sensor floodlight fixture to the new box, and of course to seal the box to the wall.

Diagnosis: Check for These Security Light Problems

Review these checks and tests in about the order given to find out why your light is not working. I'm listing steps in an order guided by a guess at probability of the problem cause along with ease or simplicity of each step.

  1. The bulb: take a bulb that's known to be working - you saw it lit on a fixture - and try it in the fixture - if it won't light then try it again in the fixture where it was working to confirm the bulb is still good, OR try the existing light's bulb in an indoor fixture - we want to avoid looking dumb because we had a bad bulb
  2. Switches: check that all relevant switches are on
  3. Electrical power: check for electrical power right at the fixture, using a DMM, VOM, or neon tester.
    Watch out: if you don't know how to do this ask for help from a licensed electrician as you could be killed.

Split bulb socket caused failure of this outdoor floodlight (C) Daniel Friedman 2016

  1. Cracked lamp socket: If the fixture still won't light check for a cracked or damaged bulb socket such as the damaged floodlamp socket shown in my photo above.
  2. Bulb base: some new bulbs, including some LED units sold as outdoor floodlamps are manufactured with a shorter bulb-base than older lamps.

    Some of these short-based bulbs also feature a shoulder at the top of the threaded bases. The bulb shoulder may contact the top of the lamp socket before the tip contact on the bulb's base contacts the electrical contact in the bottom of the lamp socket.

    Sometimes, with power off to avoid being shocked, you can gently pry up the tab in the bottom of the bulb socket base to make better contact with the bulb. Also try using an older style incandescent bulb just to test for contact and lighting.
  3. Manual "on": If the fixture has power and the bulb is good, use the motion/sensor or control for the light to put it into "TEST" mode. That should bypass the automatic control and force the light on. If the Manual ON switch doesn't illuminate the light, someone who can follow the wires can bypass the sensor - if the fixture lights, then you know you need to replace just the sensor assembly.
  4. Internal wiring or splice disconnects: disassemble the light from its mounting base or electrical box and check each of the spliced or twist-on connector connections therein.

    A broken wire may or a very corroded connection in an electrical box that was not weather-tight might explain why the light was not working. Below I've disassembled the black "line" wiring in preparation for re-making that electrical connection. Notice that an electrical ground is not visible in this fixture. Ultimately we installed a new floodlight at this location. That installation is detailed at SECURITY / MOTION SENSOR LIGHT INSTALL .

    Watch out: work with electrical power off; if you don't know how to do this, ask for help from a licensed electrician as you could be killed.

Check twist on connector splices in a motion sensor light that's not working (C) Daniel Friedman Check twist on connector splices in a motion sensor light that's not working (C) Daniel Friedman

  1. Replace the light fixture: as a last resort, change the whole fixture along with its sensor.

    Please see SECURITY / MOTION SENSOR LIGHT INSTALL for complete details on how to replace or install a new outdoor security light or floodlight with a motion detection sensor.

Article Series Contents

Also see our discussion of lighting requirements over stairs, at LIGHTING OVER STAIRS & AT EXITS and see LIGHTING, INTERIOR GUIDE for details about lighting fixtures, bulbs, and indoor requirements.

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Continue reading at SECURITY / MOTION SENSOR LIGHT INSTALL or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.

Or see BULB COLOR TEMPERATURE COMPRARISONS

Or see LIGHTING, EXTERIOR FAQs

Or see LIGHTING, EXTERIOR GUIDE - home

Or see LIGHTING, INTERIOR GUIDE - home

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REPAIR AUTOMATIC OUTDOOR LIGHT FIXTURE at InspectApedia.com - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.

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