How to Troubleshoot Your LED Lighting System

LED lighting should be straightforward and
fun to install, but if you have problems, it gets annoying quickly. We’ve spent many
years helping people get their LED lighting systems working and I’d like to share insights
that might help you when trouble finds you. Principle #1: Safety first. If you don’t
know what you are doing, it’s safest go get help from someone who does. A large current
passing through your body can kill you. Excessive heat buildup can start a fire. If you don’t
know how to be safe with electricity, get help.
Principle #2: Read the instructions. You never know what indispensable gems you’ll find
in there. Environmental Lights spends a lot of time writing manuals to help you have the
best experience possible. You don’t have to read every word, but if you scan the instructions
quickly, you’ll probably be glad you did. Our manuals are online for all to see.
Principle #3: Achieve success in stages. Failure isn’t fun. It’s frustrating, undercuts
your confidence and wastes your time. Be sure to find enough success along the way to keep
your spirits up and make it enjoyable. Sometimes people call or email us and they are obviously
frustrated or even angry. I feel bad because it is unnecessary for them to feel that way,
and it’s also hard to help someone when they’re angry and confused.
Debugging a circuit can be an emotional process. It can make you feel a great sense of accomplishment
or anguish. Let’s go for accomplishment. DON’T spend hours or days wiring your system
before you’ve experimented a bit with it to make sure you know how it operates, and
how the lighting looks. Years ago, we had a customer spend hours putting up a large
Christmas light installation before he even powered up the lights. At the fateful moment,
he plugged them in and realized he should have bought the warm white we recommended,
instead of the pure white he insisted on. He wanted us to take everything back, but
we don’t sell used Christmas lights. Never open all the boxes or bags on a large delivery
until you’ve inspected the product to ensure satisfaction. Get a sample working before
you wire the whole project. DO test your system in stages, appropriate
for your experience and the situation. For example:
1. Pre-test your system just to make sure you know how to hook it up, that it does what
you want, and looks the way you wanted. You might learn things that speed up your installation,
too. You might even identify a defective component, which could save time later.
2. Test your system as you build it, if possible. This helps identify bad connections or components.
If you’re having problems, go back to a simple system and re-establish success. For
example, if you have a dimmer, driver and lights, and the lights don’t come on, take
the dimmer out of the circuit and see if you can at least get the lights to come on with
just the driver. In some systems, you can take the controller out to see if the lights
come on in steady burn mode. Principle #4: Don’t assume. You might see
3 wires joined in a wire nut. That does not mean they are actually connected electrically.
One time, I asked a person to test the input voltage on a decoder by putting a voltmeter
“ON THE DECODER” and he assured me it was the requisite 12 volts. After several
more minutes of debugging over the telephone, I asked him, “Are you absolutely sure you
measured 12 volts on the 2 terminals on the decoder?” He said yes, that he measured
a wire that connected to the decoder several feet away, and we discovered that he had a
bad connection that looked good. We wasted time because he assumed a connection was good
when it wasn’t. Your eyes can deceive you. Please remember what you know and what you
don’t know. Principle #5: Know your tools. Digital multimeters
are indispensable for debugging circuits, but people misuse them all the time. Common
mistakes: 1. Don’t test DC voltage on an AC setting.
The AC voltage on a DC circuit is 0 volts. If you see 0 volts and expect something different,
be sure you’re on DC. 2. Don’t measure current with high resistance
test cables. It can really reduce the current you measure. Keep your electrical connections
as clean and short as possible for the best reading.
3. Don’t use a voltmeter to measure the output of a dimming driver: use an oscilloscope.
Most dimming drivers do not produce a DC output or a sine wave AC output. In fact, there are
numerous poorly designed dimming drivers sold by our competitors that seem fine when you
look at their outputs on a volt meter, but dismal when you look at them on a scope. Those
drivers all damage the LED lights and shorten their lives. If you don’t own a scope, that’s
fine. Just remember that a volt meter won’t tell you much about whether your dimming driver
is working. All the driver models we sell have been extensively tested by our staff
on an oscilloscope and are known good. Principle #6: Substitute. Typically, under
1% of electronic devices are defective, but we all get unlucky from time to time. The
fastest way to determine if a component is bad is to swap it out for a different specimen,
if you have one. This technique is underutilized. A lot of people just don’t think of it.
It’s easy. Just be careful of one thing: If you connected something in a way that destroyed
the component, mindlessly substituting another specimen will also destroy that one. Once,
we had a customer destroy 7 expensive drivers in a row before he finally ran out of drivers
to destroy with his faulty set-up. Principle #7: Respect voltage drop. All lines
have non-zero resistance, and that can cause your LEDs to get less current than they should,
so they are dimmer than they should be. Even worse, voltage drop can cause your controller
not to operate correctly. Things that create voltage drop include a) large loads, b) long
lines, c) thin wires, and d) bad connections. If you remember these 7 principles, you’ll
eliminate most problems encountered installing LED lighting. One of the hallmarks of Environmental
Lights is that we are dedicated to making your projects go smoothly, so if you’re
still having troubles with our lighting after considering these 7 principles, give us a
call. Thank you for your business.

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