The Mysterious Case of the Leaky Light Fixture

The Case of the Leaky Light

A routine light bulb replacement leads to a head-scratching problem...

The Case of the Leaky Light

The Start: An Apparently Dull LED?

My wife and son recently commented that the spare bedroom was looking “very dim.” “Can you add more light or at least add stronger bulbs?” they asked.

When I went to investigate the single overhead light, I could see through the frosted glass that both bulbs were functioning – but one did appear to be somewhat dull. I’ve installed LEDs pretty much throughout the house – do LED’s even get “dull”?

The Mystery: A Perplexing, Leaky Light

Regardless, when I went to take down the fixture to look at the bulbs, I was a bit taken back by the fact that the cap nut was very slick as if covered in oil. As I got the nut and washer off a thin stream of liquid ran out of the bottom of the glass covering and onto the bed. Oops! When I looked down, I noticed there was a large stain already on the bed – presumably from the same liquid. Once I got all the covering off though, I couldn’t see where this might be coming from; there was no obvious flow from above.  How is it possible for my house to have a leaky light?

The bedroom has an attic separate from the rest of the house and shared with the garage, so I went up into the garage hatch to see what I could see. The electrical box over the fixture was covered in insulation and didn’t appear to have been disturbed in any way, so it didn’t seem to be coming from above.

Questions: What Could Cause an LED to Leak?

  • What’s in them?
  • Aren’t they solid-state components?
  • What could be leaking out of them?

I went to the all-mighty oracle (Google) and found that yes, they are pretty much semiconductor wafers, wires, glass and usually some plastic. Hmmm.

The "Light Bulb Moment": Switch!

Just as I was about to move on I saw a link reading, “The sad state of Switch & its liquid-cooled LED bulb.” The author describes pretty much exactly the situation I was experiencing. It turns out, the company Switch had an early LED (circa 2007-2012) that used oil to cool the bulb. Obviously, some tend to leak. The company has since gone out of business (it appears for other reasons, but go figure), so no recourse there. I may have gotten these for free from the city where we live – but I could just as easily have purchased them myself as I seem to have a variety of different types installed. I did find another Switch in the light above our dining room table and one in a box I hadn’t yet used – both are now awaiting transport to the local Hazmat where I take all my old bulbs and batteries.

The leaky light culprit - an oil cooled switch bulb

The bad news is we need some new bed sheets – the good news is that the mystery of the leaky light was solved and I retained my “Home Maintenance King” title – at least in the eyes of my wife and son, neither of whom seem in much rush to challenge me.

About the Author
Will Lorey

Will Lorey

As EnergyLogic's Chief Operations Officer (COO), Will is involved with nearly every aspect of our processes. He joined EnergyLogic after a career in the Air Force. Learn more about Will here.

11 Comments on “The Mysterious Case of the Leaky Light Fixture”

  1. Similar story here. The light fixture in our kitchen was getting dimmer, and one of the three bulbs in it seemed to be dying. When I took off the glass globe cover to the fixture to replace the dim bulb, I saw a puddle of clear liquid in it. Then I noticed all three bulbs had liquid in them. Like Will, I assumed the liquid was water. But there is no water source above that fixture, just a bedroom — no water pipes in the kitchen ceiling or bedroom floor directly above it. After removing the dimming bulb, I discovered my fingers were oily. So, I went to Google for an explanation. My thanks to the authors of “The sad state of Switch & its liquid-cooled LED bulb” and “The Mysterious Case of the Leaky Light Fixture” for the answer I was seeking. — Gail

    1. Thank you so much for reaching out, Gail! It’s certainly a strange occurrence and we’re delighted that we could help you solve it! Hope you have a fabulous day – and no more “mysterious leaky light fixtures”! 🙂

  2. Same problem in recent years with SATCO LED bulbs rated for enclosed fixtures. For us, at an advanced age, the risk of slipping and falling on the slippery oil is significant. We are struggling to find safe alternatives.

    1. Oily substances certainly can be hazardous. We’re grateful that you didn’t experience any slips or falls, Vance! We wish that we had an alternative recommendation to share. Thank you for sharing the detailed information related to your experience so that readers can make more informed decisions.👍

  3. I just came across this article because I, too, just encountered an oily light fixture and went to Google for help. I’m not sure what brand is in the fixture as I was alarmed and just left there for my husband to see to it. But now, I’m not so alarmed and am curious as to the brand. Thanks for the help!

    1. Cheers to your investigative skills, Crystal! We’re so glad to hear that our post helped put your mind at ease and get to the bottom of your mysterious leaky light fixture experience. Thank you for sharing with other readers and us! 🙌

  4. So thankful for this! We have a 16″ round LED light in our closet which is a small space. After the light was left on most of one day, I noticed that the left shoulder of some of my nicest shirts had been hit with something which took the color out and left a mark about 2″ long. It was odorless and colorless, except when it hit something white where it left a rust-colored mark. This occurred in early December. It is now March 1. The entire rack on the left side of the closet is covered with towels. (Nothing on the right was ever damaged.) In time three more shirts were hit, but with much less fluid/gas. The existing light is Hampton Bay. The replacement is a NUVO 11″ purchased from a reputable lighting store that will stand behind it. There is a small vent with crosshatch vents also in the ceiling. There has never been one mice dropping or any odor to the damaged areas. I have lost close to $500 in clothing because of this and if it wasn’t for your website, I would have no hope!

    Is it argon gas? Besides being odorless and colorless, after it hits fabric it seems to vaporize. Help!!!!

    1. Hi Joan! Thanks so much for sharing your story with us. We’re so sorry to hear about the LED trouble in your closet. Although we can’t be sure what is leaking from your bulb specifically, many people believe the culprit to be the cooling fluid used to keep the bulbs from overheating. We might suggest that you check with the manufacturer to see what they use and if they’ve had this issue in the past. Hopefully, it is just a defective bulb and you can get a replacement that will fix the problems. Good luck defeating your leaky light fixture!

  5. I recently purchased a Satco ceiling led light to replace a Hampton Bay fixture that had leaked on my clothes ruining a number of pieces. Whose fixtures do you recommend for a closet ceiling light?

  6. This is a great example of how even seemingly small issues like a leaky light fixture can have a big impact on a home’s energy efficiency. Thanks for highlighting the importance of proper sealing and insulation.

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