Flickering lights are annoying for most people and even dangerous for those with seizure- or migraine-prone brains. The reasons for flickering lights range from simple to systemic. The trick is identifying the cause in the least time-consuming manner.
The problem causing the flickering ceiling fan lights could originate from the bulb, the fixture, the fan, the switch, the circuit, or the house supply. To identify the cause, there are some questions you can ask yourself and some tests you can perform.
If one fan light is flickering, first check the bulbs and sockets. If these aren’t the issue, check the fan and switch. If multiple fan lights flicker, check for house supply and circuit issues. If there are none, move to the wall switch and the fan itself. If there are no issues, check the bulbs and sockets.
Choosing Your Approach
Now, it would be simple to just look at this problem from house supply issues all the way through to bulb issues. It would make sense in terms of following a process of elimination.
However, you don’t want to go through the whole process of elimination to find out that it was a faulty bulb that could have been fixed in two minutes.
On the other hand, you don’t want to start from the light bulb and work your way up only to find out that it was a house supply problem and you need to call an electrician anyway.
So, my best advice would be to follow the below guide, which I have set out to help you isolate the problem in the least amount of time.
How Many Fan Bulbs Are Flickering?
Most ceiling fan light fixtures are fitted with multiple bulbs. If there is an issue with only one of these bulbs, you can know that it is isolated to either the bulb itself or the bulb fixture or socket. If there is only one bulb, I would still start here, even though it could end up being a more widespread issue.
If all of the bulbs are flickering, it indicates that the problem arises further up the electrical ladder.
Only One Bulb Flickering
If only one bulb is flickering, there are a number of causes:
- The bulb is loose in the fixture.
- The bulb is old.
- The incorrect bulb was used.
- The light socket is faulty.
Loose bulbs can flicker because the contact point between the bulb and light socket (its connection to electricity) shifts from contact to broken contact.
Breezes from open windows and doors, operation of the ceiling fan, vibrations from people moving around on the floor above the fan, etc., can move the bulb enough to create this contact/broken contact cycle that causes flickering.
Happily, this is the simplest fix of all of them.
Take out your ladder or stepladder, climb up, and try to tighten the bulb. If it tightens, then turn the light on again to test it out. If this was the issue, there should be no flickering.
If the bulb was not loose or it continues to flicker after tightening it, then it’s either a different bulb-related problem or the problem may be related to the light socket itself.
Old light bulbs flicker because they are near to being burned out. If this is the case and you left your flickering lights for another few days or weeks, then likely you would turn the fan light on one night to discover that the bulb is completely blown.
But we don’t want to leave the light to flicker itself to death because doing anything with a blinking light bulb is annoying! Besides, what if this is not the issue?
To test if the bulb is old, you have two approaches.
- You can take the bulb out and put it into a light socket in a different fixture (i.e., not on the fan). If it still flickers, then you know it’s the bulb. Simply replace the bulb and continue with your life.
- You can replace the bulb in the fan with a new one. If the new light doesn’t flicker, then you know the bulb was just reaching the end of its life. Once again, you’d spend a few bucks on a new bulb, screw it in, and forget about your flickering light problems.
If, however, the “old” bulb doesn’t flicker in the new socket, then it can indicate that either the bulb is incompatible with the fan or it is the fan light socket itself that is giving issues.
Additionally, if the new bulb still flickers, then the type of bulb may be wrong or the socket is problematic.
You should note that if the bulb and the fan light socket or switch are incompatible, you will probably have noticed the flickering as soon as you installed the “old” bulb or soon after.
If your fan has been functioning perfectly well for a year or two and suddenly the lights started blinking, then it’s probably something to do with the socket. But before we get there, let’s look at bulb incompatibility.
In this day and age, we are (or at least, we should) all be thinking about how we can contribute to preserving and restoring the planet’s health. One of the ways that we can do this is by switching over to LED light bulbs.
These last longer, so fewer burned out light bulbs end up in landfills. They use less power, which reduces the use and burning of unsustainable and polluting resources. And they produce less heat, which means that we don’t need to run ACs and the like to counter the build-up of heat in our homes.
However, LED bulbs function differently from incandescent bulbs. In fact, many ceiling fans are not compatible with LED bulbs.
Wrong Bulb Type
If you have recently switched to LED bulbs, then try replacing it with the type you used to have in the fan and see if the flicking stops. If it doesn’t, then the issue is the fan’s light socket.
If the flickering stops when you change back to your old bulb, then you might have to find other ways to help the planet or look into a new ceiling fan that can use LEDs.
I say “might” because it may be a wattage problem as opposed to a bulb type problem.
When switching to a new type of bulb, you need to make sure that you have matched the wattage correctly.
A 25 W LED is very different from a 25 W incandescent bulb. To replace a 25 W incandescent, you should get a 4 W LED. A 25 W LED is not compatible with the current supply to the socket and it will flicker as this current is drawn in an unstable manner.
Speak to your local hardware store representative and ask them for an LED to replace your x wattage incandescent and try that in your ceiling fan.
If the flickering stops with this new wattage bulb, you’ve solved your problem.
If it doesn’t, then you’ll have to continue troubleshooting.
If your ceiling fan light is controlled with a dimmer switch, then you will need to eliminate bulb/dimmer incompatibility. If your light doesn’t operate with a dimmer switch, you can skip ahead to the section on light sockets.
Ceiling fan lights can be dimmed, although you have to be careful with the wiring lest you end up with a ceiling fan that only functions at certain speeds. Your fan and lights have to be wired separately if the lights are to be dimmable.
Even if your lights are wired separately, you can have issues with dimmer systems. LED and other light bulbs require different dimmers.
Incandescent bulbs are dimmed by simple circuitry that controls the amount of voltage delivered to the bulb. For LED bulbs with incandescent dimmers, as the voltage lowers, there may not be enough to power a full-strength glow and the light will flicker.
LED bulbs, on the other, are dimmed by complex circuitry that controls intermittent flow of power to the bulb (so the power is allowed through one moment and is cut off the next moment). The length of time between power cuts to the bulb determines how bright the bulb glows.
For incandescent bulbs with LED dimmers, the cut in voltage and subsequent resupply of voltage would lead to rapid on/off flickering of the lights.
If you have recently switched to another type of bulb, then try changing back to the original type and see if the flickering stops. If it does, then this was the issue.
If you still want dimmable LEDs or incandescents (where you have the other), then you will have to change out the whole system.
In the event that switching the bulbs produced no effect on the flickering, then it may be a socket issue.
Faulty/Broken Light Sockets
There are a couple of things that could go wrong with the actual light socket, which can result in flickering.
The contact in the socket can be pushed too far down. It is on a spring to ensure snug contact with the bulb, but because it is on a spring, it can also get too loose in the opposite direction. This means that when you insert the bulb, it will sometimes be in contact with the electrical supply and sometimes not.
To check if this is the issue, you can turn off the breaker, take out the bulb, and try pushing against the contact. If it has no give, then it may be too depressed. You can compare it to another of the sockets on the ceiling fan light if you are unsure.
If you suspect that the contact is not in the correct place, then try to carefully lever it up with some pliers or a screwdriver.
Re-insert the bulb, turn on the breaker, and see if it still flickers. If it doesn’t, you have found your problem and solved it all in one.
You will probably need to keep an eye on the socket because it could happen again.
If the light still flickers, then you should check that all the wires connected to the socket are properly connected. A loose connection means an interrupted power supply, which can cause flickering.
Again, turn off the breaker.
On the top side of the socket (opposite the bulb insert), there should be wires connecting the fan wires to the socket. These wires connect to the socket with screws securing them. Try tightening these screws.
While you’re there, try taking off the wire connector caps that are joining the socket and fan wires. Screw them back on to ensure a tight connection. You should also check for any obvious damage to the socket wires. Do they look crushed or frayed?
If the screws or wire connector caps seemed loose, then, once you have tightened them, test the light out to see if the bulb has stopped flickering. If the bulb glows steadily, then you have found and solved your problem.
If the wires look damaged, you can replace them. Does this stop the flickering? If yes, well done!
Should your bulb still flicker, you can try to replace the socket.
Now, this is still technically a test and spare sockets are not such as household staple as lightbulbs, so you may prefer to move to the section “Only Ceiling Fan Lights Are Flickering” at this point.
If you’re willing to take the risk of spending about $15 unnecessarily, then you can try to replace the socket.
If your fan light stops flickering with the new socket, then you can stop troubleshooting.
In the event that all of these steps and tests remain fruitless and your light is still flickering, then you can skip straight to the section “Only Ceiling Fan Lights Are Flickering”.
Multiple Lights Flickering
If your ceiling fan has multiple lights in the same fixture and all of them are flickering, then you should start at the other end of the electrical ladder because you want to rule out the more generalized issues before looking at the more specific ones. In other words, you can move on to the next section “Are Other Lights Flickering?” and work your way through.
Are Other Lights Flickering?
If multiple ceiling fan lights are flickering, it’s less likely to be a bulb or socket-related problem, so you should rather start at the other end of the electrical ladder.
The first question in this approach is: are there other lights flickering in the house?
Turn on all the lights and see if any of them flicker.
Other Lights Are Flickering
If other lights are flickering, it could indicate an issue with either the house supply or the circuit.
To determine which, we need need to ask another question: are the lights on same circuit?
To test this, you can switch off the breaker to the ceiling fan. If the other flickering lights also turn off, then they are on the same circuit. If they stay on, then they are on a different circuit.
If you find that the flickering lights are on different circuits, this indicates a house supply issue. You can ask your neighbors if they are experiencing similar things. If they are it might be a more widespread supply issue.
But whether your neighbors are or are not experiencing flickering lights in their homes, you will need to call in an electrician.
If the flickering lights are on the same circuit, then the circuit is the likely root of the problem as opposed to the house supply. There are a few things that can cause a circuit-level issue. Two of them you can check and address, the rest will have to be dealt with by an electrician.
Did the Circuit Breaker Fail?
Circuit breakers are installed to prevent excess current from entering a circuit that is designed to carry only x amount of current.
A common current found in residential dwellings is 12 A, which uses a 15 A circuit breaker. You get circuits that are stronger than this and they will have breakers to match the higher flow of electricity.
If a circuit breaker fails, then the amount of current flowing through a circuit can fluctuate, causing the lights to burn brighter and then dimmer.
It might depend on how many other devices that are connected to the same circuit are on at the time. Ultimately, however, having too great a current flowing through a circuit is damaging and dangerous.
Try replacing the circuit breaker. If this solves the problem, then great!
If it does not, then put the old breaker back in (save the new one for when the old one actually gives out) and move on to the next test.
Is the Circuit Overloaded?
If the circuit is overloaded, then the limited amount of current that the breaker allows to flow through the circuit is being shared among too many appliances. Each appliance will be getting enough energy to power it, but not enough energy to power it properly.
Lights will flicker if this is the case because in one moment, they may receive enough power to light up fully, in the next, they only receive a portion of this power, and the rest is diverted to another device.
To test this, identify all the appliances on the ceiling fan’s circuit. You can do this by turning off the circuit breaker and seeing which of your suspected appliances (you should have a fair idea of what could be linked) do not turn on.
It may be the ceiling fan, the lights in a particular room, the Wifi modem, and the computer. Or it might be that the ceiling fan is rigged to the same circuit as all the lights on that level of the house.
Once you have identified the appliances sharing the ceiling fan’s circuit, turn them all off or unplug them and turn the breaker back on. Turn the ceiling fan lights on and see if they are still flickering.
If the lights no longer flicker when it’s just the ceiling fan running in the circuit, move certain appliances to different circuits until you find a good configuration. If the ceiling fan is only connected only to lights, you may need to call an electrician to help you rewire the fan or some of the lights into a different circuit.
If the lights still flicker, then there is likely a more complicated wiring issue and you will need to call in an electrician.
Only Fan Lights Are Flickering
If only your ceiling fan lights are flickering, then the problem is localized to the fan or, by extension, to the switch, but only if your fan and fan light are wired separately.
If they are wired together (the same switch controls power to the fan motor and the lights), then it is unlikely that the light will be having an issue and the fan will be functioning fine. This means that the issue is starting at the socket or bulb.
Check the Switch
Let’s start with the switch, since this is a common issue and is also relatively easy to test for.
Switches can suffer from a broken “toggle” or loose wiring.
What I mean by a broken toggle is the operational portion of the switch that you press or move to turn the ceiling fan lights on and off. Over time, these can become loose or broken and then flipping the switch on might not push it into place securely, leading to an unstable connection and flickering lights.
You should be able to feel if your toggle is broken, or you might hear a hum or popping sound when it is in the “on” position. If this is the case, you should replace the whole switch.
If replacing the wall switch stops the ceiling fan lights from blinking, then you can stop your search and enjoy your steady streams of light and your brand new switch.
Loose switch wiring will also be fixed by replacing the wall switch. While loose wiring alone would not warrant replacing the whole switch, it’s best not to leave a broken toggle. So, if yours was broken or loose, it’s better that you put in a new switch, even if the toggle wasn’t responsible for the flickering.
If you don’t find any issues with your toggle, then check for loose wiring. Loose wires also result in an unstable connection, just at a different point in the circuit. However, the outcome is the same—flickering lights.
Turn off the breaker for the ceiling fan circuit and remove the wall switch plate. Try tightening the wire screws (you will probably have to pull the switch out of the wall a little to do this). Put the switch back in the wall, turn on the breaker, and see if the lights are still flickering.
Your lights should be shining steadily if the loose switch screws were your problem.
Don’t despair if you still have the dreaded flicker, though; we’re not out of things to try yet!
Check the Fan
If all of the ceiling fan lightbulbs are flickering, but no other lights in the house are flickering, then the problem could be in the fan itself.
As you can imagine, loose wiring can be a culprit here as well. So, turn off the breaker, open up the fan light fixture and ensure that the wires connecting the light fixture as a whole are tightly connected to the house supply wire.
Replace the fixture, turn on the breaker, and test the lights out. If they no longer flicker, it was just a loose wiring connection, which can occur as a result of the vibrations of the fan.
There is another potential fan-based issue—a wattage limiter. According to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, ceiling fan lighting kits are required to come fitted with wattage limiters.
The aim of these devices is to regulate the amount of energy used by a ceiling fan (even though they are notoriously power-light).
Now, it would make no sense to make a fan that cannot operate properly with the law-required wattage limiter, so a properly functioning fan setup should not be flickering because of this.
However, if the limiter is faulty, then it may be allowing an unstable current through to the lights, which can flicker in response.
Alternatively, if the fan has reached a certain age, has been modified (like its blades were upgraded to non-matching blades), or is put under undue stress, then the fan motor can start drawing more power than it ought to.
The result is less of the allowable wattage is able to get through to the fan lights and they dim. If the excessive power use by the fan fluctuates, then the lights will flicker.
If the wattage limiter is the culprit in the case of the flickering ceiling fan lights, then the best way to test and confirm this is to remove the wattage limiter. It will be in the wiring circuit and should be easy to find and remove.
Does removing the wattage limiter solve your problem? If yes, then speak to an electrician about potentially leaving it out.
If no, then it’s time to test the bulbs and sockets.
Test All the Lightbulbs and Sockets
All the bulbs and/or sockets failing at the same time is not a likely occurrence. However, it is not outside the realms of what is possible.
So, if you have multiple ceiling lights flickering and all the above checks yielded no resolution to the issue, then you can jump to the beginning sections of this article that explain how to test a bulb and socket, but you will test all the bulbs and sockets.
If, after all that, you still have flickering lights, then it is most definitely time to call in an electrician.