Recent quest to quiet a humming fixture sheds a little fluorescent light on things

October 19, 1996|By ROB KASPER

THERE WAS A HUM in the kitchen. At first I treated the hum the way all veteran homeowners treat strange noises. I pretended it would go away.

When it didn't, I checked out the usual suspects, the kids, the radio, the refrigerator. All were known noise offenders. The percentages were usually pretty high, that at any given moment, one of them would be guilty. But in this case, they were innocent.

The "hummer" turned out to be a fluorescent light fixture. It was the first of four such fixtures, each about 2 feet long, that were attached to the bottom of the kitchen cabinets. The humming fixture provided light for the kitchen sink.

I tried the few fluorescent light tricks I have in my home-repair repertoire. The first was replacing the light, or "tube." I pulled the tube out of one fixture and switched it with the tube in "the hummer."

This was a variation of "bulb snatching," the household practice of stealing a working light bulb from your mate's favorite lamp and using it to replace the dead bulb in your favorite lamp. The difference was that in this case both bulbs, or tubes, worked fine. The fixture over by the sink continued to hum, even after the tubes had been switched.

Next, I replaced the starter in the humming fixture. The starter is a small silver cylinder that snaps in and out of the fluorescent fixture. It reminded me of the kind of tubes that the television repairman used to snap into the back of my family's black and white set, to restore the set to working order.

Home repair books told me it was almost as dated as a black and white TV. New fluorescent lights, called rapid-starting lights, don't have any need for these silver tubes. I picked up a starter at the neighborhood hardware store for about 50 cents, and snapped it into the noisy fixture. The humming stopped. My wife declared that I was a genius. Such praise was unusual, and fleeting. After about two minutes of blissful silence, the humming noise returned, making me a former genius.

My last trick was replacing the ballast. The ballast is a rectangular box that sits in the inside, or guts of the fixture. Wires come in one side of the box and go out the other side. I am not exactly sure what is inside that box, but I do know that whatever is in there hums when it is about to expire.

Replacing the ballast on an aging fluorescent light turned out to be a judgment call. A new ballast would cost about $14, an entire new, rapid-starting fixture would run about $10.

Beyond cost, there was the question of whether a new rapid-starting light would cooperate with the three remaining old fixtures. The fixtures shared the same electrical feed, with one switch turning on all four lights. I was concerned that a newfangled fixture, with its rapid-start capacity, wouldn't hit it off with the three aging fixtures and their old-fashioned silver starters.

My suspicions were confirmed when I called Bill Dorman, proprietor of Peoples Electrical Supply Co. Inc. Dorman told me I should fix the old light rather than buy something new. "If you put that new one in, it could you throw you out," he said. Even though I didn't quite understand what the new light would throw me out of, I felt reassured by Dorman's pronouncement. I have been buying electrical supplies at this shop for 15 years, and still get a charge from listening to Dorman.

Dorman's shop sits on the 300 block of Gay Street, a part of town where there is a lot of grit and history. Dorman knows about much of it. And in his daily course of business, Dorman, a large man with a full beard and passion for ice hockey, doesn't confine his conversation to matters electrical. He also ventures into matters historical and philosophical.

Recently, for instance, while advising me on how to stop my kitchen light from humming, Dorman also made the following observations. On the advantages of having old, loosely caulked windows: "When Rice's Bakery (a vacant Gay Street building that was demolished in 1974 by a natural gas explosion) blew, all the guys on the street with new windows had theirs shattered. My old windows just flexed."

On how to balance a man's passion for collecting sports memorabilia with a woman's need for domestic order: "I had all these hockey sticks (from the old Baltimore Clippers team) at the house. One day my wife says, 'Now that the kids are gone, I'd like to have my house back.' I brought the sticks down here."

On having a beard: "I am never shaving this off. That is 15 extra minutes I get to sleep every morning."

Sometime during this stream of wisdom, Dorman ordered a ballast for my kitchen light.

I said goodbye to Dorman, promising him I would pick up the part in a few days. Even though the kitchen fixture was still on the blink, I felt enlightened.

Pub Date: 10/19/96

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