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Inactive, Master Electrician
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Lights in garage quit working during cold temps, power still at fixtures

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This has occurred multiple times over the years during cold weather. Three lights in the garage controlled by two light switches. The three lights in the fixtures in garage quit working when temps drop. Breaker is not tripped, and power confirmed at all three light fixtures and wall switches with Greenlee voltage Detector. Have removed all bulbs and bent fixture's center tab down to make sure contact is being made with bulb base. Power still at all three fixtures, but no lights. Help!
What kind of light bulbs are you using? Regular bulbs or compact fluorescents?
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
We have used regular 60w bulbs for years. A few weeks ago I replaced one with a CFL. But, all lights were working normally until yesterday.

FWIW, My girlfriend has owned the house for about 6 years and has had this issue in the past,only during colder temps (it's currently ~ 48F now). It happened last winter when I was here, and is now happening again.
CFL's cannot be used in cold weather conditions. Even here in florida when it gets cold I cant use my CFL's outside because the ballasts need to be warm in order for them to light up.

So that may very well be your problem. Change out the CFLs for regular bulbs and they should work just fine when it gets cold.
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
REPEAT - this issue has occured in the past when using ALL regular (non CFL) bulbs. The current bulbs are two regular, one CFL. How would using one CFL affect the other two regular bulbs from lighting up, when they are all controlled from the same light switch?
To repeat you cannot use cfls in cold weather conditions. Now your problem is going to be a bad connection in your lighting circuit. And it completely makes sense in regards XXXXX XXXXX cold weather. Wire will expand and contract with heat and cold. So when it gets cold - the wire contracts slightly thus causing just enough of a lost connection to allow you to read voltage - but high enough resistance to not allow current flow. That would cause the lights not to work. When its warm - the wires expand curing your problem.

My suggestion to you is to completely redo your switch connections. If your using the pushins on the back of the switches - dont. Rewire them and utilize the terminal screws on the sides of your switches.

That should cure your problem. And if by some slim chance it does not - let me know and we will dig into this further. But your problem is connection related.
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
So you recommend that I remove the two wall switches, inspect them for their wiring connections, and use the screw connections in lieu of the push in-type. I know the switch by the main door (used most often) was replaced by me earlier this year for an occupancy sensor, and has worked just fine. Tt was connected to the inwall wiring with wire nuts. I believe the wires at the switch itself are fixed - ie, it came out of the package thay way.

I understand that cold will contract materials as I am an mech engineer. What I did not know was that I could still read voltage but the high resistance would not allow current to get to the fixture.

As this is my first time using this site, what do I do if I inspect and adjust the two light switches per your recommendation, replace the one CFL back to a non-CFL, and there is still a problem with the lights not working? I do appreciate your replies so far, and have given me great info to hopefully fixing this problem.
Did you have this problem before you installed occupancy sensor? Or after?
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
Before and after. As I said, up until yesterday, all three lights worked just fine. They would come on automaticaly when entering the garage, and I could slide the switch from AUTO to ON position, and the lights would stay on until I put the switch back to AUTO or OFF.

The other wall switch is a regular type, and is rarely even touched.
Ok you never mentioned that you had a motion sensor until your last post - and they can be temp sensitive if not rated correctly. But if this happened before and after that is not the issue.

If your switch wires check out - then the only other place is the connections to the lights themselves.

Now is it only the lights affected? Anything else like outlets etc?
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
Sorry about not clarifying the motion sensor. I agree with that is most likely is not the source of the problem.

I just now thought about the other (regular) wall switch could be the culprit? I can easily replace that switch with a new one of the same type. That wall switch is located inside the garage, but it is an exterior wall so could be more affected by cold temps. FYI, The occupancy sensor is located on a wall which is not an exterior wall - there is a hallway on the oposite side.

AFAIK, this issue only affects this one circuit. I have a floor lamp temporarily plugged into an outlet in the garage. This same outlet also runs the refridgerator in the garage, and we've never lost power to it.
Ok then you will want to redo the other switch in the way I described above. Then if that does not help - redo the connection at the lights.

Now if any of the wire connections are corroded - the difference between hot and cold will make a big difference in its operation.
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
Then if that does not help - redo the connection at the lights.

So I'll just turn power off at the panel, and remove/inspect the three ceiling fixtures. I'll make sure all wiring connections are tightly screwed. If any wires are corroded, is it good enough to clean off with something abrasive (ie, steel wool pad or similar), or does this mean the entire wire needs to be replace between the wall switch and all three fixtures?
No steel wool - sand paper anything like that is fine. You just need to clean off the corrosion which is usually a green colored film or white.
Inactive and other Electrical Specialists are ready to help you
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
Sandpaper it is!

You've really given me some good points to troubleshoot! I'll go ahead and replace the one wall switch to take that out of the equation. I'll try that first to see if that solves everything. If not, then I'll inspect all three fixtures per your suggestion.

Thanks again!
Not a problem. If you need further assistance - just log back in and reply back to this post. Good Luck!!
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
Will do - wish I found this site last year... Smile
Thanks for the accept. Good Luck!!
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
Well, no luck. I did the following:
  • I removed the second (regular) wall switch and relocated the three wires from the push-in holes to the side screws.
  • I removed all three light fixtures and found no evidence of corrosion. I still rubbed the exposed copper wire with sandpaper, for good measure.
  • (FYI, I have not replaced the aforementioned switch, but will try that tomorrow)
After connecting all back up and restoring power, the garage lights still do not work. My voltage detector still shows power at the two switches and three fixtures. I even used a blow dryer on the wall switch, hoping that would solve the problem from the cold exterior wall - no luck.

Interesting note: Our two light fixtures in the adjacent laundry room are on this same circuit (3B in main panel), and they operate just fine. There is also a light for the outside deck (other side of wall of wall switch) that now does not seem to work either. This deck is rarely accessed, so can only assume that light operates only when the garage lights are working. That deck light's wall switch is right next to the garage lights switch (the regular switch, not the motion detector switch).

Looks like we might have to call in a licenesed electrician?
How are you checking voltage - from hot to ground or from hot to neutral? Or are you using one of those stick testers?
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
I'm just using a voltage detector - it lights and beeps when it senses voltage. Greenlee GT-11.

I also have a multimeter, but couldn't seem to get any reading off it. Though I might not have touching the leads to the right parts on the switch.

You will want to use the meter (I thought you were using it the whole time), but anyway set it to ac volts 600. Then take the red lead and touch it to the leads on the switch, and then you want to take the black lead and touch it to the neutral wire and ground. I want to know both readings.
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
OK, give me about 10 minutes...
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
Connections to multimeter:
Black lead - Ground
Red lead - Volts
Scale - 600 VAC

Black lead connected to ground wire (exposed copper) within wall electrical box.
Readings via red lead:

  • touching red wire @ wall switch: 121v
  • touching black wire #1 @ wall switch: 0v
  • touching black wire #2 @ wall switch: 121v
Ok now I need you to check from hot to neutral... (the white wire)
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
At this one wall switch, there is no white wire connection to the switch itself. It's ends are connected with a wire nut within the box itself.

Connections to multimeter:
Black lead - Ground
Red lead - Volts
Scale - 600 VAC

Black lead connected to white wire (wirenut removed) within wall electrical box.
Readings via red lead:

  • touching red wire @ wall switch: 0v
  • touching black wire #1 @ wall switch: 0v
  • touching black wire #2 @ wall switch: 0v
The white neutral wire would not be connected to the switch, they would just be connected via a wire nut in the back of the box. Now your saying on the same wires you got 120v to ground, your now getting 0v from hot to neutral?
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
I'm not sure - I was just giving you the readings based on the wires I was touching with the red and black leads of the miltimeter.

When I pull the switch away from the wall box, there are only three wires connected - one red, and two black.
Right but do you have white wires nutted together in the back of the box?
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
Yes, the white wires are still physically connected together - I just removed the wire nut only. I just touched the black lead to the twisted white wires, then used the red lead to touch all three connections at the switch.
Ok that is going to be your problem. You have a loose neutral connection in your lighting circuit. What you need to do now is find the power source that feeds power to that switch. More then likely you will need to open up the other switch box first. You said you have 2 switches for those lights. Open up the other one and check your voltage at that box. Hots to grounds and hots to neutral.

But from your readings you lost the neutral connection - now we have to track it down.... lol
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
FYI, three white wires twisted together @ regular wall switch

Readings @ motion sensor wall switch:

Connections to multimeter:
Black lead - Ground
Red lead - Volts
Scale - 600 VAC

Black lead connected to ground wire (exposed copper) within wall electrical box:

Readings via red lead:

  • touching red wire coming out of wall box: 122v
  • touching black wire #1 coming out of wall box: 122v
  • touching black wire #2 coming out of wall box: 0v
  • touching white wires coming out of wall box: 122v
Black lead connected to white wires (wirenut removed) within wall electrical box:

Readings via red lead:

  • touching red wire coming out of wall box: 0v
  • touching black wire #1 coming out of wall box: 0v
  • touching black wire #2 coming out of wall box: 0v
  • touching ground wire coming out of wall box: 122v

touching white wires coming out of wall box: 122v <--- Was this reading between the neutral and ground wires?
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
touching white wires coming out of wall box: 122v <--- Was this reading between the neutral and ground wires?

Yes - the black lead from my multimeter was touching the ground wires in the wall box.
The red
lead from my multimeter was touching the twisted white wires in the wall box.
Ok your neutral wire is definately the problem. Now just to prove to you that this is the problem - shut your power off, connect your whites and ground wires together. (this is just for testing purposes) once you do this and confirm the lights work - you will need to back track from the switch to the power source feeding it and test that location for a proper neutral connection.

Do you understand what im telling you?
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
Do I connect the ground and white wires together at both wall switches?
Just just do it at your current location. Once you re-establish the grounded connection to the lights they will work. But again this is just for testing purposes. By no means are you to leave it like that. Once you get the lights to work that will confirm 100% you have a bad neutral. That is when you need to back track to locate the power source feeding the switch - then check it there. You will do this until the bad neutral connection is found.
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
Nothing worked. I had white connected to ground at one wall switch only, then at both wall switches, then at the second wall switch only.

I've put all wires back to how they were, then applied power again. Now my voltage detector does not even beep at either of the wall switches. The lights in the laundry room still work, though.

Why am I now not showing any power @ the two wall switches?
That doesent make any sense. Make sure your breaker is back on fully. Then reconnect everything the way it was originally setup. Once you do that - let me know.
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
Breaker is on, all wiring back to original. Switches are still hanging out as I've not screwed them back to the wall...
Ok use your meter to check voltage from each wire to ground. Just to confirm what your stick tester is telling you.

Do you know where the power comes from for this lighting circuit? Are the switches fed from an outlet? Do they come directly from another switch?
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
All readings 0v at both switches. Power comes from breaker 3B at the main electrical panel. Feeds these garage lights, laundry room lights, and possibly a few outlets in the living room.
Ok - what you need to do is start to back track. If the breaker feeds the circuits you describe - then your problem is not with the breaker or any other associated wiring in the panel box. What you need to do is locate the wire (or where the power feed comes from that feeds your first switch) It will either come from another light switch, or outlet. But you have lost your connection that feeds the garage lights.

I know this is a hassle - but sounds like you had more problems then just a loose neutral.... Are you able to trace your wire?
Just to follow up on my last response please read the following:

Go around to all of your affected circuits using the tester to locate any good outlets on the circuit vs bad ones. The reason you want to do this is because allot of outlet terminals will corrode over time and cause you to loose connectivity - just like your experiencing now. And if your outlets are utilizing the "push-ins" Such as the one pictured below - you will definately want to change it.

Please see pictoral diagram of and example of this testing method:

Once you locate a bad outlet next to a good one, you will need to open up both outlets and re-do the wiring like I show here. This method is called “pigtailing” and will help to prevent occurances like this from happening again:

When you do reconnect your devices (outlets and switches ) do not utilize the push ins on the back sides of the devices. Rather use the terminal screw on the side. See pics for examples of this:

Do not use this method:

Use this method:

Customer: replied 8 years ago.
I don't know how to trace wire - I'm giving up and will call a local electrician to come figure this out. I'll gladly spend a few bucks to someone who does this for a living. I'm getting out my comfort range and TS'ing abilities...and don't feel like shocking myself! I appreciate your help, though I'm disappointed in the current situation. I felt like I was making progress...

The one wall switch is closest to the main panel, I don't think there's an outlet between the main panel and the wall switch. Of course I also have no idea how the wiring is routed thru the walls and ceiling.

Pic #1, 4, and 5 have a dead link - there is no pic available.
I am really sorry....I did not know the images were lost.

Use this guide instead:

Troubleshooting Guide:
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
Well, I can use the data collected here and pass on the electrician when I call one tomorrow.

Could the problem still be the one wall switch? I assume it's the original one that was installed when the house was built about 10+ years ago. The motion sensor switch was only installed earlier this year.
From the readings you gave me no. Your going to have a neutral problem.
Customer: replied 8 years ago.
OK - I'll let the electrician know. Since the laundry room lights work, we know it's not the breaker at the main panel.

Thanks again for all your assistance.
Please let me know the end result. Thank you for trying. Good Luck!!

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