What is Overlamping & How to Avoid It

The living room seems a little dim, you think. Here’s the DIY solution you cook up: you head over to the hardware store, buy a brighter bulb, screw it into the nearest lamp and bask in the incandescent glow. Easy, right?

Not exactly. Using a lightbulb with higher-than-recommended wattage for a specific fixture is known as overlamping. This seemingly innocent practice is actually surprisingly dangerous, and is one of the leading causes of house fires in the United States — right up there with candles, smoking and cooking mishaps.

What happens when you put a higher-watt light bulb in a light fixture?

Overlamping is one of the most commonly overlooked mistakes a homeowner can make, and it can be deadly. A 2011 electrical fire that killed 11 people in Brisbane — the deadliest fire in Australian history — is believed to have been caused by a desk lamp with a 60-watt bulb in a 40-watt fixture.

Overlamping is defined as a situation where a “light fixture is fitted with a bulb that has a too-high wattage,” according to home improvement blogger Taryn Williford. When you place an incandescent bulb with wattage that’s too high in the socket of a lamp that cannot provide the required electrical output, the ensuing heat and intensity of the bulb can scorch or melt the socket and the insulation of the lamp’s wiring.  

Now you have prime conditions for arc fault. An arc fault occurs when a spark jumps through the air between exposed wires. This sounds dangerous, yes? It is — in fact, the National Fire Protection Agency and the National Association of State Fire Marshals reported that “50 to 75 percent of all electrical fires in the United States are caused by arc fault conditions…(and) electrical arcing caused approximately 48,800 fires annually in one- and two-family dwellings” over a four-year period.

Although you may think you’re just making the room a little brighter, you’re actually putting your family, your property and your own life at risk.

Know your watts

To help simplify overlamping prevention, regulators in the U.S. mandated that all lamps built after 1985 must display the appropriate wattage for incandescent light bulbs on the underside of fixture. Take the time to look at this number, and stick to it when you are replacing light bulbs.

Love that vintage lamp that your grandma left you? Don’t overestimate the wattage. Stick to softer bulbs, and never exceed more than 60 watts unless the lamp is marked otherwise.

CFLs and LEDs and overlamping

Compact fluorescent lights (CFL) are designed to replace the traditional incandescent light bulb. They may screw into the same fixture as an incandescent bulb and use a fraction of the electrical power. A CFL often has a tubular shape atop the familiar screw-bottom.

An LED (light-emitting diode) light is directional, rather than radiant. This allows the LED to use much less energy than an incandescent light or even a CFL. LEDs can also directly replace incandescent bulbs in some cases.

CFLs use a much lower wattage than incandescent bulbs and create far less heat, making overlamping situations far less likely. LEDs also use much less electricity and even remain cool to the touch. The risks of overlamping are negligible.

So what bulbs should I use?

There are drawbacks to any lighting solution. Incandescent (even halogen) lights are energy inefficient. CFLs are made from materials that are terrible for the environment. LEDs burn out at a quicker rate. The right light for you is the light that makes you most comfortable in your home — and that’s a decision you need to make.

Need electrical repairs?

If you live in Maryland, Northern Virginia or Washington, D.C. and need electrical repair work now, please contact the John C. Flood electrical experts (703) 214-5611.

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