Troubleshooting Guide for UV Sterilizers, Replacement UVC Bulbs/Lamps
Information for Diagnosis of Problems, Including Ballasts & Starters
UV TROUBLESHOOTING, BALLAST, STARTER, STERILIZER OR OTHER BULB PROBLEMS
This troubleshooting guide is intended for most all UV Sterilizers and Replacement Bulbs/Lamps, NOT just those purchased from American Aquarium Products.
Also, I realize that not everyone has a multi-meter, other technical equipment, or even the know-how to trouble shoot a UV bulb, but please understand my staff or I usually don't have the correct testing equipment when visiting clients in my aquarium and pond maintenance business.
Hopefully this article will help perform some general troubleshooting without the need for technical tools.
With that said, this cannot suffice for common sense or remedial trial & error skills. Often when I came across a UV Sterilizer where the replacement bulb did not work (especially if the bulb/lamp inside already ceased functioning), I would use a second bulb, and if this bulb failed, it was rather obvious I needed to look into what may be the problem with the UV itself, not the lamp/bulb.
This broke down into FOUR general areas:
- Failed Starter- Which is very common. So much so, I usually kept extra starters with me in the service truck (electronic ballasts do not have a starter).
- Compromised, disconnected, or otherwise broken wiring.
- Moisture or even water inside sensitive areas of the UV Sterilizer.
UV Bulb Trouble Shooting Video
Many readers might find this Video Tutorial that examines many aspects of correct UV Bulb use and diagnosing problems with UV Bulbs or the equipment meant to run them.
|A Little About Our UV Bulbs/Lamps|
|• First, if your UV Germicidal Bulb/Lamp was purchased from us (American Aquarium Products), we replace the first UV bulb once, up to 6 months, regardless of fault as a customer courtesy (even though inspection of returns show 90% of returns are caused by shorts or other malfunctions of the customers UV unit); please see our Return Policy Page for more information|
|• Please note that we sell first quality UV Hot Cathode Germicidal UV Bulbs (UV-C low-pressure mercury arc lamps) and even still we check EVERY bulb. As well, we fire random bulbs from new orders we receive to ensure that we ship you a working bulb/lamp. We want to make sure our customers have as little "hassle" as possible from defects. When we "fire" these bulbs, they often are left with a “hazed” or used appearance, but please be assured that we perform this time consuming process to insure you the best quality, hassle free UVC bulb. |
|• The premium long life UV Hot Cathode Germicidal UV Compact Bulbs we sell (5, 7, 9, 11, 12, & 13 Watt G23/G7; and the 18, 24, 36, & 55 Watt G11/G24) generally take about 1-3 minutes to initially “fire”, so please be patient. Once fired the bulb will fire quickly from this point on.|
Further General Troubleshooting:
- First let me point out that it is highly recommended that you change your UVC bulb every six months for optimum performance. Some purifiers can run up to a year per lamp change. Bulbs should be changed every spring in ponds, except in warm winter climates, then every six months. This is assuming 24/7 usage.
If not run 24/7, rather on an on/off schedule, I would suggest once per year, regardless of the time off, as the starting cycle of the lamp/bulb lowers its effectiveness by burning more gasses with each start. Eventually this leads to failure of the UV-C lamp.
Often, failure to follow this basic maintenance procedure only renders your UV-C Sterilizer, Purifier, Clarifier, etc, a useless piece of equipment with a pretty blue glow. It also lulls the owner into believing that the UV Unit is properly functioning, when in fact, the transformer has also deteriorated to the point it is no longer producing the adequate energy to light a high output or new UV-C Bulb/Lamp. So when one finally changes the lamp, it does not light.
This is not to say this is always the case with a forgotten/poorly maintained UV Unit, however in my 30+ years of hands-on field experience where a client would call me out to service an older UV Sterilizer that had not been maintained, the replacement bulb often would not "light", so the unit either required a new ballast or to be totally replaced.
It is also noteworthy than many UV Bulbs/Lamps have loose "balls" of solder inside the quartz glass that will roll around inside.
This is very common with Phillips UV lamps in particular and poses NO PROBLEM what so ever with the function of the UV lamps or no risk to breakage of the quartz glass.
- Broken or Blown Filament; Broken Filaments are generally the result of electrical shorts, rough handling, or simply a defective UV Bulb/Lamp.
Here are a few causes of a broken/blown filament in more detail:
- Rough Handling/ Defective UV Bulb;
It is often difficult to tell the difference between a UV Bulb with a broken filament that was handled roughly during shipping or simply a defective bulb.
However, it is usually quite clear the difference from a filament that is broken/blown due to an electrical short, as the "blown" filament will generally have "scorch marks". Sometimes very dark scorch marks, sometimes subtle scorch marks.
That said, another key point based on my years of UV experience with literally 1000s of bulbs/lamps is that you can still have an electrical short with a "blown" filament that leaves no scorch marks, but you will NEVER have a defective UV Bulb/Lamp WITH scorch marks.
- Moisture Leaks or other causes of Electrical Shorts; this is a very common problem with many submersible UV Sterilizers (such as the Pond Master) as well, the first generation internal Aquarium UVs.
A blown filament is often a dead giveaway to this problem, which can occur in just about any UV used in water applications (including many quartz Sleeve Compacts such as the Aqua Medic and even the popular Turbo Twist)
If your UV Sterilizer is blowing filaments, I suggest cleaning the UV very carefully and inspecting for moisture. If no moisture is found, likely your ballast has shorted as this will also result in a blown filament (moisture causes a temporary short).
To prevent this problem, make sure to place your Pond UV in an area where it is shielded by a stone or some other cover, regardless of how weather proof your UV Sterilizer manufacturer may claim it is.
For Aquariums, make sure your UV is not right next to a sump where moisture can easily cause a problem. One case for me when cleaning a clients aquarium, I accidentally spilled water from canister filter into the UV Sterilizer causing a temporary short that blew out the UV Bulb (cleaning the moisture and replacing the bulb solved this problem, as well as being more careful in the future)
As a positive, if moisture is the cause of the short and resulting in blown filaments; drying out your UV Sterilizer often solves this problem.
It's generally easy to tell if the cause of your UV Bulb broken filament is from a defective lamp or a short;
The picture to the left shows a UV Bulb that blew due to an electrical short.
A bulb/lamp that blows the filament due to a short (such as caused by moisture) will have much more noticeable black scorch inside the quartz lamp near the blown filament.
In some cases, it is possible to "blow" a new bulb/lamp when an older bulb that requires much less energy to fire, does not "blow".
I have witnessed many new (& known working/pre-tested) lamps suffer a blown filament after blown filament, but an older bulb does not blow. The usual cause of this is a surge in voltage from the ballast, which often does not damage a bulb with exhausted or low gasses.
The reason is, these newer hot cathode UV Bulbs take much more voltage to fire and if there is a short present your UV unit is either not giving the bulb enough voltage to fire, or during this high voltage start/firing, it can cause the new Bulb to "blow" (see Section #6 for further information).
So do not make that erroneous assumption that a blown filament when your older bulb works indicates a defective bulb, as although this can indicate a defective bulb, in my experience this is a poor test of whether a bulb is defective or not; Better to look at whether or not scorch marks are present on the UV lamp as this will tell whether it was/is a short or a defective bulb/lamp.
- Leaking Quartz Sleeve; a small leak around a quartz sleeve O Ring which, most often appears AFTER opening a UV Sterilizer to clean it or change the UV-C bulb/lamp, is a common cause for moisture (sometimes a major leak too).
Make sure the O Ring that seals the Quartz Sleeve is lubricated with Petroleum Jelly or Silicone Lubricant (preferred) prior to replacement.
If a leak is suspected or for simply better prevention of a future leak, removing this O Ring prior to inserting the Quartz Sleeve back into the unit and lubricating the O Ring is highly suggested. As well, for known cases of O Ring leaks, (with an O Ring Replacement is not readily available); carefully adding to windings/layers of Teflon Tape prior to reseating the O Ring has solved 80-90% of leaks for me.
- Low or non existent water flow through the UV Sterilizer.
If water flow is too slow or ceases all together, this can allow the lamp inside the UV to heat up to a point that blows the filament or simply damages the lamp where by it will not light (often leaving dark scorch marks if not blowing the filament).
This can also permanently damage an electronic ballast, especially if left 'on' after this failure.
With magnetic ballasts, this usually only damages the easily replaced starter.
An example of a cause of low or no water flow is a UV on a sump that has ceased functioning due to low water (often from evaporation)
- Although it's very rare from my experience; surges can blow a bulb, which are not as easily checked.
Using a surge protector outlet can protect your UV Sterilizer and bulb/lamp. This said, the vast majority of "spikes" result in blown filaments, not simply non lighting or flashing bulbs.
- Switches; Many UV Sterilizers (such as the Terminator) have switches that are depressed when the light assembly is properly attached/screwed on.
However these switches can get bent or not depress properly, thus resulting in a UV bulb that either does not light or partially contacts to the light only part of the time.
This is easily detected by depressing the switch using a screw driver with the bulb inserted. The unit must be plugged in. (Make sure to shield your eyes/skin when testing and only test for a few seconds this way). If this is the problem, it can easily be corrected by bending the switch into a better position or tightening the switch (if this is an option)
Terminator Compact Ultraviolet Sterilizer, Clarifier for Aquarium, Pond
It's not uncommon to have a UV Bulb that is not inserted correctly, thus the new lamp will not light. The TMC UV Sterilizers and other T5 & T8 have lamp contacts that are easy to make the mistake of thinking the lamp is properly seated when it is not. Many compact UV Sterilizers also have contacts that are difficult to tell whether seated correctly or not.
- Flashing; (turning on and off then back on in constant cycles) Can be caused by many things including a bad starter, a loose wire, or simply a bad/ defective bulb,.
UV's use either electronic ballasts/transformers or magnetic ballasts/transformers. Electronic ballasts do not have starters and magnetic ones do.
If you have a magnetic ballast and your bulb is flashing, I would start by checking your starter as this is the cause of the problem in 80- 90% of flashing issues.
Some starters are good quality, and some are junk, and simply just fail prematurely. Sometimes these fail completely where nothing will happen with your UV lamp or sometimes partly where it cannot pre-heat a hot cathode UV-C lamp properly resulting in "flashing".
Flashing can also indicate that you simply have the wrong size starter or ballast, as there is not enough surge voltage to start the UV Lamp.
This is a relatively common problem when someone replaces a ballast or starter, especially since some starters and ballasts over-lap with HO lamps whereby a 20 watt HO lamp might require a 25 watt ballast & FS4 Starter (if a starter is required).
From my many years of experience, this is common with High Output (HO) UV Sterilizers such as the Aqua, Emperor, and TMC brands.
Also, if you have an electronic ballast and your bulb is flashing, I would check your connection first, bulb second, and ballast third. Be sure your contacts are properly seated onto your bulb, and all wires are connected properly.
Since most UV ballasts are electronic nowadays, the flashing may be the result of the ballast simply not having the correct "surge" voltage to light the UV-C Bulb.
It is also noteworthy that hot cathode low pressure mercury UV Bulbs are "aged" by each "start". So if your UV Sterilizer is on a timer with many cycles, this will often cause a bulb to fail in 1/2 to 1/3 of the time (depending upon start cycles). Flashing is common with a premature failure of this type.
Finally, if your ballast is electronic, I would test your ballast as per section #6, look for moisture as per section #2 (although a flashing bulb will NOT have a broken filament), or simply replace your UV Bulb.
Product Resource: Hot Cathode Low Pressure Mercury UV Bulbs
- Starters: A fluorescent starters function is to send a delayed shot of high-voltage electricity to the gas within the fluorescent bulb. This delay allows the gas to become ionized so that it can conduct electricity.
Starters like an electronic ballast can fail and in fact I once purchased a whole box of new FS2 starters that could not produce enough high-voltage electricity to light a single UV Bulb these were designed to light/ignite. However, unlike electronic ballasts, these are inexpensive to replace (in the case of my example, I simply returned these starters as defective).
Unfortunately there is no practical way to test a starter, however replacement of the starter is a simple and inexpensive problem to fix.
Failure of the starter is a common problem with magnetic ballasts (NOT electronic ballasts).
For instance the TMC 15 and 25 watt UV Sterilizer utilizes a FS-2 Starter, while the Fish Mate 8 Watt & 16 Watt (the 16 Watt is a pair of 8 watt T5 Straight tube UV-C Lamps) utilizes the FS-5 Starter.
*TMC Pond Advantage 15 & 25 Watt UVs
*TMC Vecton 15 & 25 Watt UVs
*Fish Mate 8 Watt G8T5, PUVLB508 UV Bulbs
Here is a rough guide of Starters versus wattage:
New UV Lamp not lighting; An old bulb lighting in a unit is not proof that the UV Sterilizer is OK. I've seen many units not “fire up” a new bulb yet work with an old lamp due to a weak ballast. Weak ballasts do not produce adequate energy to fire a new high performance UV Lamp (sometimes a weak ballast can "fire" a new low performance UV Bulb/lamp).
It takes more energy to fire a new high intensity hot cathode UV bulb/lamp than an old lamp or a low intensity cold cathode UV Bulb. By low intensity, these UV Bulbs only produce a fraction (less than 15%) of the necessary UVC.
It is noteworthy that not all original equipment UV Bulbs are not high intensity UV Bulbs.
This is a more common problem than many realize based on our 30+ years experience.
This problem generally occurs with electronic ballasts, not as often with the magnetic ballasts that require a starter, however a starter (which is inexpensive to replace) can also fail to produce the voltage to fire a new hot cathode, low pressure UV Bulb while firing an older "broken in" bulb
Often when this "phenomenon" of an older lamp lighting when a newer UV Bulb/Lamp will not light, involves an older bulb that is well past its useful life.
It takes very little energy to light a 2-3 year old UV-C Bulb. Your UV bulb should be changed every 6 months for optimum performance or every year for minimum performance (or in cooler climate ponds). This phenomenon is much less common with bulbs changed within proper intervals.
See the section in this article under UV Sterilizer Maintenance (3/4 through the article) for tips on testing your ballast:
- Important Surge Voltage Required to Light the Gases of a New UV-C Bulb/Lamp:
It's also noteworthy that even then an electronic ballast may have the correct normal operating voltage, but cannot correctly pre-heat a hot cathode UV Bulb (this is not a problem with magnetic ballasts, assuming a functioning starter).
This is because to fire the gas in fluorescent hot cathode UV-C lamps, electrical voltage often exceeds 500V, and can exceed a Multi Meters limitation for testing. Usually when testing a properly functioning electronic ballast (or starter for a magnetic ballast), my Multi-Meter will 'beep' out around 350 volts as per this important surge voltage where as a improperly functioning ballast will not display this surge, only the normal operating low voltage.
In fact this inability to "surge" in voltage is a very common electronic ballast failure, regardless of brand! For this reason sometimes a ballast (or starter) with a slighty lower than adequate surge voltage may light a new hot cathode bulb, but not another, this is a phenomenom I have observed many times over the years of my servicing UV Sterilizers.
Another Multimeter Test (besides above): as I just noted, the use of a multimeter to test an electronic ballast is not fool proof. HOWEVER I have found that in setting your multimeter to Ohms, then testing placing the probes on two opposite wires (with the lamp removed, but the ballast "on"), you should see some resistance; generally in the 30 to 60 ohm range. I've found many defective electronic ballasts to have little or no resistance (0 to 6 ohms).
This is not a fool proof test. Sometimes simply taking a new and known "working" lamp and placing it in the fixture with the ballast in question is the most accurate way to test (please note that it must be a NEW UVC lamp/bulb, otherwise this method is not accurate at all).
First let me quote Honeywell's website (for UV air purifiers):
"Note running a burnt-out bulb may burn-out the ballast"
The facts are you can and often will damage your electronic ballast beyond the ability to light a new hot cathode UV Bulb (Honeywell uses hot cathode UV bulbs as original equipment).
If your electronic ballast has failed (& you are reasonably "DIY handy"), you can often find a common magnetic ballast to replace your electronic ballast. Just make sure that any replacement magnetic ballast has a rating within +/- 10% of the wattage of your UV Bulb (do not forget to purchase the correct starter for your magnetic ballast too).
Do not make the false assumption you MUST replace your electronic ballast with the exact ballast supplied by your manufacturers UV Sterilizer; An electronic ballast can also be replaced with another manufacturers electronic ballast. As long as the rated lamp service falls within your UV-C bulbs wattage.
This said, as I noted in the "Flashing" section of this article, many high output UV lamps such as those meant for Aqua & Emperor UVs require a slightly higher surge voltage.
This means, as an example that often the next size up ballast and/or starter is required such as a 20-30 watt ballast instead of a 14-20 ballast for a 15 Watt Aqua Lamp.
If unsure, it might be best to purchase an original equipment ballast. During my years in aquarium/pond maintenance where UV Sterilizer use and repair was a specialty, I often had the luxury of multiple ballasts on hand, so if one did not work, I would try the next size up, but the average user may not have this luxury or the time to go back and forth to their electrical supply store.
As well, do NOT assume that if your ballast will light one UV Bulb and not another, that the problem is the bulb.
A ballast that will not light a hot cathode bulb may simply not be putting out the high voltage surge to light the hot cathode lamp.
It takes almost nothing to light a cold cathode bulb.
Keeping an inferior or weak ballast to light an inferior UV bulb will only result in very little true UV Sterilization and thus raises the question of "why even keep your UV Sterilizer when it will perform almost no level one UV Sterilization?"
In the end, often when it comes down to a bad ballast, especially with the more "throw away" Chinese UVs where parts are not always available, you likely will save both time and especially hassle simply replacing the entire UV Sterilizer!!
If this is the case, do not make the mistake of repurchasing the same lower quality UV Clarifier/Sterilizer as many do by rushing off to Lowes, Home Depot, eBay, Amazon, etc., rather consider a TRUE High Dwell Time UV Sterilizer such as the TMC Vecton Aquarium and Advantage Pond line of UVs which also have most all replacement parts readily available.
As a side note, if you purchased your UV Bulb here, it can be returned for full credit toward a better UV Sterilizer (85% otherwise)
After a meeting with one of our sister maintenance companies in LA, he noted that of the dozens of Coralife Turbo Twist UVs, he has now had 100% failure with their ballasts over the last few years which includes replacing many to only result in failures again.
If you are having trouble with your UVC lamp/bulb in ANY Coralife UV, I strongly recommend replacing your ballast or better simply replacing the UV with a better design such as the TMC Vecton Advantage UV!
Product Resource: TMC Aquarium and Pond Premium Ultraviolet Sterilizers
Most of the compact & straight tube bulbs we sell are high performance, long life (8000-10,000 hour) Hot Cathode UV-C bulbs that take as long as a few minutes to light. Please give your unit some time as it may flicker for a while prior to lighting.
Once initially "fired", the UVC bulb should immediately fire up from this point on. This is due to a delayed shot of high-voltage electricity to the gas within the fluorescent bulb. The delay allows the gas to become ionized so that it can conduct electricity
In fact, our UV Hot Cathode Germicidal UV Bulbs are superior to what many consider to be the leaders in UV-C Lamps/Bulbs with a higher output, however because of the high energy gasses these UVC replacement lights often take a few minutes to warm up upon the first firing which sometimes makes persons consider the light defective, however this is simply typical of this type of high output hot cathode UV-C low-pressure mercury arc lamps!
Finally, please note that some G11 Bases (the Standard G11 base is used for 18, 24, 36, & 55 Watt H UVC Bulbs) vary in the configuration of the notch, HOWEVER as per tests with multiple UV Sterilizers, this does NOT affect the ability of slightly different G11 bulbs to fit. Sometimes you need to simply “push” the bulb in tighter or the fit is slightly more loose in fit.
Why Purchase from American Aquarium Products
How UVC Sterilization Works
The MOST ACCURATE, RESEARCHED, & IN-DEPTH article on the subject of UV Sterilizer, Clarifier Use in Aquariums or Ponds ANYWHERE.
Based on over 34 years professional use too!!
A MUST read for anyone serious about the use of UV-C Sterilization in their pond or aquarium!
For H series (Twin Tube or Spiral compact lamp) UVC lights/bulbs, please follow this link:
UV Bulbs/Lamps For Sale; Page 1
For PAGE TWO; L series (STRAIGHT BULB/LAMP) T5, T8, T10 UV Lights/Bulbs, please follow this link:
PAGE TWO; T5, T8, T10 UVC Straight Replacement Bulbs
Industry standard straight tube UV-C lamps that fit most UV Sterilizers as long as one replaces a T5 with another T5 and the same goes for wattage (within a few watts) and pin type (such as 4 pin).
It is important that the length be close in length (generally within a centimeter plus or minus) for the bulb to work, however an exact match is not critical (this applies to the T5/ 4 pin lamps, not the 2 pin style).
Terminator UV Sterilizers
Solid durable construction Terminator UV Sterilizers, Clarifiers, UV Filter Kits for aquariums and ponds
TMC UV Sterilizers; High Dwell Time Aquarium & Pond UVs
Tropic Marine Center Pond Advantage Professional UV Sterilizers for Ponds or aquariums.
There is NO other TRUE UV Sterilizer in its class that is even close to this UVs efficiency for Pond or Aquarium!!
Submersible UV Filter/Pump
SunSun Premium Engineered, Designed Internal 9 & 13 Watt TRUE level 1 UV Sterilizer Filter, Pump
Pocket Purifier; UVC Germ Killing Device
The unique hand held germ eliminating device; kills Flu, Staph & more without harmful chemicals
Custom UV Sterilizer
Select Quartz Sleeves, Ballasts
We sell ONLY UV-C bulbs our extensive experience has shown to be the best from these select manufacturers:
*Norman Lamps of Illinois
(We have found that some manufactures are best for one UV lamp and not necessarily the best for another)
Other Recommended Products:
Premium ATI Hydro Sponge Aquarium Filters for bio and mechanical aquarium filtration.
TMC Fluidized Sand Bed Bio Filter
Pound per pound, by far the most efficient Aquarium Bio Filter for Fresh or Saltwater!
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