How To Change A Swimming Pool Light
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If you are looking for information about how to change a swimming pool light then this article will help to explain the different kinds of pool lights that you can encounter and what you need to know about how to safely remove it from the light niche and install a new bulb. Before proceeding with a repair like this on your own you must be aware that water and electricity do not mix. Pool lights should not be dangerous and yet many of them are (or can be) due to improper installation or damage to the light. You should not, under any circumstances, attempt to work on, modify or change your pool lighting system in any way. Doing so could be dangerous or even deadly to yourself or any swimmers in your pool. I can not stress this enough - if you have any doubts about what you are doing then you should absolutely bring in a professional to assist you.
All that being said there are many pool lighting systems which do not require that you do anything to the electrical system in order to change a burnt out bulb. In a properly installed pool light there is almost always a GFCI breaker that controls the lighting circuit. A GFCI, of GFI as it is often shortened to, protects against electrocution by detecting current escaping the intended system pathway. In the event of current leaking to ground, or a "ground fault" the GFI breaker will open the circuit. If you are working on your pool lights and want to change the bulb then the first step is that you must verify that this pool light is installed safely. Deficiencies and dangerous code violations like not having a ground fault protected circuit for your pool light would typically be found by an industry professional when doing routine maintenance such as changing the bulb in the pool light. If you are changing your own pool light then you should confirm that your light operates off of a GFI protected circuit. This can be accomplished by using a GFI breaker in the electrical panel, which is identifiable by having a "test" button right on the breaker. Only GFI breakers have this and you do not need to open the panel to see it - just walk up to your panel and look for any breakers with a test button. If no GFI breaker is visible then this means that there must be a GFI outlet (plug) installed somewhere near the lighting circuit, of which the pool light is on the load side of the plug. Either that or your pool light was installed without a GFI protecting circuit. If this were my pool then I would close the pool to all use until a GFI could be installed.
Why does the GFI matter - you just want to change a pool light. Why do you need to know all of this? The answer is because you are now the last person to touch this pool light. If someone dies from electrocution tomorrow then you will have to live with this, as well as possibly being liable for the death of someone else. When installed corrently and protected with a GFI, pool lights are safe according to the National Electric Code - and that includes both lov voltage 12 volt lights as well as line voltage 120v lights.
How does an electrician inspect for a GFI? - An electrician will remove the light from the niche and expose the wires on the light for testing. Alternatively they will open the closest junction box to the light location. Even though the bulb is burned out there will still be electricity reaching the light when it is turned on. A digital multimeter when tested across the leads will give either line voltage (120 volts) or a stepdown voltage for low voltage lighting systems (12 to 14 volts). The electrician then shuts off the GFI breaker (or presses the test button on the GFI plug that is feeding the light circuit). This will now result in 0 volts being read at the light. This test confirms that power is reaching the light fixture, and that turning off (or testing) the GFI protected circuit does in fact result in the power being turned off to the light.
120 volt pool lights - All pool lights have the potential to be dangerous given the wrong set of circumstances. 120 volt (line voltage) pool lights are easily the worst offenders. Even low voltage lighting can be dangerous, but line voltage lights are a much greater concern. In Canada 120v lights in pools are very rare but there are some out there. However in much of the USA 120v lighting has been used, and in some cases is still used for new pool installations so pools in the USA are much more likely to have line voltage lights as opposed to low voltage lights. In theory the GFI, if it was used, and if it was installed properly, and if it does not malfunction, protects the bathers from electrical shock.
If you have 120v lighting in your pool then you should consider having a professional come in and evaluate your installation to see if a switch to low voltage is possible, as well as verifying that your light is properly GFI protected. Even just changing the bulb on a 120v light can be dangerous or deadly. The pool light is wet, the whole working area is wet, and you can not verify whether voltage is reaching the light until you uninstall it or open connections in a junction box - all stuff that electricians should be doing. This is why changing a pool light, especially a line voltage light, really is just better left to the professionals. I understand that it costs more and you want to save money, but electrical work is a special consideration. You are either proficient with electrical systems and understand them fully and can work on them safely...or not. There is no middle ground with electricity and when you start talking about pool lights then the danger increases multiple fold.
Can I Change My Pool Light Myself?
If you have to ask then the answer is no. There is too much risk in trying if you don't know how to safely work with and test for electricity. But what if you are good with electrical, maybe even licensed for electrical work, but you just have no experience with pool lights and need some basic instruction. Or what if you DID have an electrican come out, verify everything is safe, but your bulb is burned out again. The actual process of changing a pool light is usually quick and easy. There are a few kinds of lights that dominate the market and for the most part you should be able to remove the light from the niche and uncoil the extra wire such that you can pull the light out of the water and sit it right on the pool deck. A properly installed pool light should always have enough extra cord installed to allow you to put the light on the deck so that you do not need to drain the water in the pool just to change the light.
How to remove a pool light from the niche - There are two main style of light. One has a set screw at the top dead center of the light that holds it in place. The other style has a twist lock mechanism that holds the light in the niche. Take a look for a brass phillips screw in the top dead center of the light. If you do not have one then you probably have the twist lock style of light that needs a 1/8 turn counter clockwise to remove. If you have the top dead center screw style light then be warned that this brass screw will strip if you look at it the wrong way. You get one shot with these screws to remove them and if you do not line up your driver well you will rip up the soft head of the screw and now you have a real problem on your hands. Try using a thick rubber band over the head of the screw if yours is already stripped and this might give you just enough purchase to carefully back it out. The bottom dead center of these lights is simply held in by a lip on the light that lines up with a lip on the niche.
The Aqualamp style of lights are the easiest to change. The light twist locks into the niche and removes without any tools. The light disassembles easily with a large phillips screwdriver and a new sealed beam bulb (or LED bulb) is installed with a small phillips - just two screws for the new light. Do not forget to have the light gasket around the light before you connect the new bulb. While very popular across Canada these 12V lights are much less common in the USA.
There are many brand and models of pool lights that have the top dead center screw holding them in place. These lights should also have enough cord to allow you to sit them on the pool deck to work on changing the light. Most of these styles of light will have a screw or series of screws on the back side of the light which you remove the take the fixture apart, or a band clamp style connection that uses one set screw to attach a compression flange around the light. Be sure to pay attention to the order the light comes apart, and all gaskets should be lubricated with a silicone based lubricant prior to reinstallation. Better yet would be to install a new pool light gasket every time that you install a new bulb. New gaskets are cheap and new bulbs are terribly expensive so this is definitely worth the extra few dollars investment. Failure to achieve a water tight seal in the light will result in the new bulb failing either right away or very shortly.
Do not touch the light bulb - When replacing your pool light (or pretty much any lights) you definitely want to avoid touching the actual bulb with your bare hands. You should have a soft cloth or paper towels to pick up and handle the light bulb itself. Oils from your hands will cause hot spots on the bulb can can lead to vastly reduced service life and potentially a sudden failure of the glass.
Installing New Pool Lights
It is possible that when you go to replace the bulb in your pool light that you discover that you will need to remove the whole light and wire from the fixture. If the light niche itself has failed (less common), or you want to upgrade to a new light like an LED color change light (more common), then you might need to pull the light out cord and all. This involves (an electrician) opening the junction box nearest to the light and disconnecting it electrically. Now, in theory, you should be able to pull the light out from the pool side, electrical wire and all.
Unfortunately real life is often not that easy. Quite often pool lights are installed in conduit barely large enough to contain the light cord. Over time the water causes the cord to swell, and if that happens you will likely never pull the light out from the conduit. In a worst case scenario you can end up having to break open the pool deck to expose the back side of the light niche as well as the electrical conduit to the junction box. Hopefully the junction box is close by, often directly above the light fixture in the pool deck, but sometimes long runs up to 100' are used so there is no closer junction box to open. Again with a situation like this it is possible to start working on the light and have it turn into major surgery for your pool.
POOL INSTALLERS PLEASE NOTE - Wire pulling lubricant exists within the electrical industry. Find some at your local hardware store or electrical supplier. DO NOT use dish soap, or any soap, to help lubricate wires for pulling to a pool light. This will work to pull the wires, and once that soap dries and becomes tacky in the pipe over time, you will NEVER get that wire out of there again. The number of builders still using soap to pull wires is ridiculous. Use wire pulling lubricant for lubricating wires for pulling. Use dish soap for washing dishes.
Can you change a pool light to LED or color? - In order to change a pool light to something new you need to verify which make and model light that you have, and then find out which is the exact replacement bulb for this niche. Mix and matching light niche, lights and transformers is risky business so you need to make sure you get the right bulbs. Quite often manufacturers will have the regular white bulb or an upgraded LED color change bulb that fits in the same niche / fixture. The only problem, if you want to call it that, is the color change LED lights are five to ten times as much money as the basic white light. If you know the voltage of your light, the physical size of the light, and hopefully the model of light currently used you should have no trouble finding a replacement LED light to fit in your niche.
One final tip for changing your pool lights is to use butyl tape or duct seal putty to help seal the electrical conduit opening at the back of the light niche. The electrical conduit on pool lights is one of the single most common causes for pool leaks across the board. To help resolve this you can use this putty to press into the conduit opening inside the light. This will prevent water from tracking back into that conduit where it might be able to escape the system. The putty is better than silicone, urethane or epoxy as it seals without hardening over time like these other options - and this would interfere with removing the light (and wire) should you ever need to in the future.
How To Upgrade My Pool Light To LED?
While 120v pool lights are common, and safe when installed correctly according to the National Electrical Code, 12v lights are potentially safer - and some of them are even considered "intrinsically safe" by the NEC and UL due to their con-conductive material design and low voltage two wire system. While 120v lights can be fine, why not upgrade to an LED light which can actually outperform 120v lights and provide all the color options you can imagine.
Some 120v pool lights use a regular bulb socket (Edison base) which allows you to replace the existing white bulb with a color change capable LED light without changing any other wiring to your light (like adding a 12v step down transformer). Simply take the light out of the niche, open it and swap the bulb out with this 120v LED pool light.
The Pentair IntelliBrite is a direct swap replacement for 11" Pentair light niches. You will need to also install a pool light transformer that is sized for the wattage of lamp that you have. Since you need to install a transformer and change the wiring this LED light upgrade will require an electrician. Optionally you can also use this Pentair IntelliBrite light controller to help you cycle through the light colors instead of turning the light on and off dozens of times as this is how the light changes colors if you do not buy the extra light controller.
The Hayward Universal LED pool lights are sealed unit lights that can be directly swapped in existing pool light niches in many cases. The completely sealed and totally plastic design means no additional bonding is required which minimizes installation costs, however this light still requires a pool light transformer which means making changes to your homes electrical system. To upgrade this light you should contact a local electrician. Similar to the Pentair replacement LED light this unit can optionally be controlled with a Colorlogic pool light controller for easier cycling between programmed color modes.
So why is this all so complicated anyway? You just have a burnt out bulb in your pool light and you want to replace it with a new bulb. Aside from the fact that there are many different sizes, makes and models of pool niches, pool lights and pool transformers, and ALL of yours must be compatible with eachother to work - The problem is that pool lights can be dangerous and you would be making a mistake to assume that everything is installed to code (and safely) just because it was like that already. The light might be 12 volts but it might be 120 volts. It might be GFI protected or it might not. Some, like the new "intrinsically safe" all plastic and low voltage lights do not require a GFI and so truly no assumptions can be made when it comes to your pool light. This is why you must understand electricity and be able to recognize various components like GFI breakers and step down transformers, as well as understanding how to wire line side and load side for a GFI plug. Failure to understand these concepts make changing your own pool light dangerous, and that is why professionals exist in this industry. It might cost you a little more to brighten up your pool again but at least you can rest assured that it was done correctly and safely.
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