Who can relax with the lights so bright?

September 25, 1999|By Rob Kasper

I AM AN ARDENT fan of dim bulbs. At the end of the day I rarely feel like facing the bright lights of scrutiny. Instead, I want my world to be soft, slightly out-of-focus and fuzzy.

So last year, when electricians put new light fixtures in our kitchen ceiling, and the fixtures came with dimmers, I was joyful.

Not only did these switches allow me to play with the light level, they let me do it in a new, thrilling way.

Unlike other dimmer switches that operate by turning a knob, these have a toggle switch, and a sliding lever. The toggle switch turns the lights on and off. The sliding lever, sitting right next to the switch, controls the intensity of the light. When the lever is up, the lights are at full power. When it is down, the lights are low. The position of the lever, in effect, is a mood indicator.

Members of my household disagree on many issues. We disagree over what constitutes "loud" music. We don't agree on whether midnight is "late." And we disagree over how intense the lights shining down on the kitchen table should be. I like dusky. Everyone else in the family likes all bright, all the time.

We worked out a compromise. The new lights burned at full wattage until dinner was on the table. Then I dimmed things down. For about half an hour, I reveled in the dull, filmy atmosphere. But as soon as the meal ended, the kids bolted, and somebody turned the lever up to a notch that had the kitchen as brightly lighted as a prison yard during an attempted escape.

For the past year or so, the light level in our kitchen alternated between jailbreak bright and stupor-inducing dim. Then one recent evening, the lever of one of the two switches stopped working. The lights directly over the table went on, but the dimmer dimmed no more. Instead of the soft, calming glow I was used to at supper time, all I got was glare, glare, glare.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was having triac troubles. The triac, I was later told by bright bulbs in the dimmer business, is the device in the fixture that modulates the light level. It does this by sending on-off messages to the lamp, about 120 times a second.

The bright bulbs in the dimmer business also told me that the light isn't really dimmer, it simply appears that way to our eyes. It is a trick, they told me, and tried to explain how it works. I ended up just taking their word for it. It is a trick.

Anyway, the triac in one of dimmer switches had broken. This meant the lights never got the message to chill. After my triac died, I was in pain. Every time I sat under those searing lights, I felt like I was under interrogation at the police station. I was ready to confess, to anything, if only the lights could be turned down.

I hunted for a replacement switch. The only kind of dimmer switches I found in hardware stores were the round ones. I wanted the type with a mood lever. After a long search, I found what I was looking for at a store on Howard Street, a block or so above North Avenue.

As I walked into the building, I got the feeling that I had been in the place before. Sure enough, the shop -- Commerce Electric, which sells electrical parts -- had once been a location for Trible's, a shop that sold appliance parts. I recalled that on this very spot, I once bought an ice maker for my ailing refrigerator and a spin cam shaft for a broken washing machine.

There are folks in Baltimore who trace their life in this town by recalling when they spent time at architectural landmarks like old school buildings, churches and synagogues. The map of my life, however, can be plotted by listing the various parts places I have visited.

At home, installing the new dimmer meant going through the usual switch-replacement drill. First, I flipped off a circuit breaker, cutting power to the switch. Then I began removing screws from the wall plate and the switch housing until the old device and its wires could be pulled from the wall.

Before disconnecting any wires, I drew a three-color illustration showing where each wire was attached. I am sure experienced electricians don't draw these little pictures for themselves. But I do. The drawing is my "cheat sheet." Looking at it gives me confidence, for example, that when I attach the white wire to the lower screw on the switch -- just as the electrician who installed the old switch did -- the house won't burn down.

The new switch had an odd feature, little metal tabs that jutted out from its side. The tabs reminded me of the sidecars attached to motorcycles. The motorcycle sidecars carry passengers. These metal sidecars, I learned, dissipate the heat that a dimmer switch generates.

Dimmer switches lead hot lives and often transfer that warmth to the wall plate, the decorative plate that fits over the metal housing. This heat, dimmer-switch authorities have told me, is normal. It is a byproduct, in part, of sending 120 on-off messages a second. Nonetheless, the designers of dimmers want to make their switches as cool as possible, hence the sidecars. That is what the fellows manning the Technical Assistance Hotline, or the dim line, told me.

This toll-free line is run by Lutron, the company that manufactured the dimmer switch I bought. The toll-free number was on the sheet of installation instructions. The dim-line guys also told me that another way to cool down my switch plate is to use nylon, not metal screws, to hold the plate in place.

After some consultation with my drawing, and some swearing, I installed the new dimmer switch. Now at supper time we are not the brightest kitchen light on the block. Our bulbs are dim. And that is the way I like it.

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