Unique Transformer Overload

Discussion in 'Landscape Lighting' started by LLC RI, Dec 19, 2011.

  1. LLC RI

    LLC RI LawnSite Member
    Posts: 149

    Hey Guys,

    I went to a service job today. I had been to this guys house years ago. I think I gave him a quote to do some work, which he never had me do. Over the years, he would call me from time to time to get my advice, but still, no work.

    Recently, he contacted me to make some repairs to his landscape lighting ( that I did NOT put in) - some damage which was storm related, and to check a transformer that he thought was burned out. I told him they usually don't burn out and instructed him to check his GFCI's if they were plugged in outside etc.

    He assured me that he checked things and sent me pictures of the transformers on the job.

    We went to his house today and the first thing I did was to check the transformer that wasn't working. The Unique transformer was plugged in on the side of the steps into an outlet that was not GFCI. Above it to the left, I saw a surface mount box with a GFCI on the porch and some conduit leading down. Bingo, there's the culprit. GFCI was tripped since the storm in August and he never checked it to reset it.

    So now I get to the nitty gritty and see that it's a Unique transformer from way back. I had stopped using the Unique transformers because I remember the video that Bill Locklin sent or showed me that illustrated how dangerous a transformer like that was in that it had no secondary side circuit protection.

    This transformer supplied what looked like an awful lot of lights. I got my glasses on and looked at the rating - 4.13 amps on the primary side/ MAX. This lead me to believe that it was a 500 watt transformer. When I amped the low voltage commons, I found some pretty high numbers. I then amped with my meter, the current flowing through the little plug line that goes into the timer - 8.3 amps!!!!

    This unit was drawing more than twice the rated amount of juice and yet, the fuse ( as expected did not blow at all).

    I showed the client and advised him that this is a dangerous situation. For one thing, the transformer is way overloaded and for another thing, there is no secondary side overcurrent protection.

    I advised him that we add another transformer to split the load or better yet, eliminate the Unique transformer all together and put in something with the proper protection. He agreed but didn't want to do it now and seemed more concerned with any residual value that I would give him for the Unique transformer. I told him I was not interested in it.

    This is an older transformer but I'm curious if Unique is still putting those out with no secondary circuit protection.

    Has anyone had any issues similar to what I describe? Is there anything else I should do? I already told him it was dangerous and that should a line short, he might have a problem.

    From what I gathered, his lighting was added over time. Thats why there are overloaded transformers and lines, not to mention, not a great design.

    One more question, he has some plastic well lights with a rubberish bezel ring that the PAR 36 lamp fits in and they have a cheap looking grate that says ILLUMINATOR on it. Any ideas on who's unit that was, as he needs some replacement grates. Seems the PVC tube has notches that the grate snaps into and the tabs got broken off , thus the debris shields are gone.

  2. bcg

    bcg LawnSite Bronze Member
    from Tx
    Posts: 1,835

    Unique includes fuse links with their transformers to install fuses on the secondary side. It's up to the installer to make sure it's done correctly. Ideally, the fused links would be installed on the common side and fused for the load on that run but I've seen it not happen pretty frequently.

    Personally, I prefer transformers with built in secondary protection.

    I'd bet that the glass fuse did blow at some point and somebody replaced it with a higher amperage rating fuse to "fix" the problem.
  3. S&MLL

    S&MLL LawnSite Senior Member
    Posts: 751

    Should have added your own secondary protection. I keep a bunch of inline fuse holders on truck for this reason. U touched it so you can now be held responsible of it catches fire. A lot of times I will use it on small loads too. Takes about 30 amps to trip a magnetic breaker. On some small led installs we might only be at 3 amps secondary. And if a line short develops might not be enough to exceed30 amps. 5 bucks a fuse holder 30 cents a fuse. Cheap easy protection and piece of mind.

    As per your par36 grates. See if a hadco grate fits. They use same style "boots"
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  4. Lite4

    Lite4 LawnSite Gold Member
    Posts: 3,113

    Those are unique well lights. Stands to reason they would be. Probably bought them with the transformer.
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  5. irrig8r

    irrig8r LawnSite Platinum Member
    Posts: 4,535

    My impression is that those old Unique transformers weren't UL listed, or even ETL listed for that matter, and it was before any talk of UL 1838, etc. In fact wasn't UL 1838 a reaction to higher voltage transformers like the ones from Unique and those that followed?

    So does that mean that they took advantage of a loophole in the code, or did the NEC not address the issue before?

    In any case, I was not aware that a short in the secondary would not blow that fuse. Makes sense now that I think about it. (Not not having secondary protection but that a secondary short wouldn't cause the fuse to blow.)
  6. S&MLL

    S&MLL LawnSite Senior Member
    Posts: 751

    A short can blow the main fuse. All depends what size fuse they put in.

    If you have a 500 watt trans on the primary side you have a 10 amp fuse that does nothing. It would take 1200 watts (on 120vac) to blow that fuse.
  7. The Lighting Geek

    The Lighting Geek LawnSite Senior Member
    Posts: 875

    If it is a really old one, the cord inside the transformer to plug into the timer would be white. After that they were black. Don't use their transformers anymore with LED. 90% of our transformers are 300 watt now. I would check to see if someone put a higher rated fuse than what came with the transformer, should be a 4amp I believe. I never had a problem with secondary fuses, and I installed hundreds of them.

    The well lights are also Unique, (F125BK) like Tim said. Both the transformer and the well lights have a lifetime warranty I believe. They still make the grates.
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2011
  8. sprinklerchris

    sprinklerchris LawnSite Senior Member
    from Georgia
    Posts: 281

    UL 1838 dates back to the 1970's. It was developed with Intermatic and several other early low-voltage manufacturers. Intermatic originally wanted higher voltage, but UL said no based on safety. That's where the 18 volt cap comes from.

    Unique tests their transformer to a standard meant for an indoor, general purpose transformer. So they can say it is UL, but not the standard that applies for outdoor, low-voltage landscape lighting. It's smoke-and-mirrors.
  9. Elegant Outdoor Lighting

    Elegant Outdoor Lighting LawnSite Member
    Posts: 60

    Those plastic F-125 well lights have a 5 year warranty, but you can buy the grates the list price on those are about $15. Tommy is right about those transformers having a lifetime warranty. I have sent a few of those in and Unique has always been good about repairing them.

    Watch out for the overload. I would replace with proper fuse and when wait for it to burn out while still on the service call. Then, show the customer and refuse to place a larger fuse that does not provide any protection. It's your license and insurance on the line-- not to mention his family's safety!! "We can either remove some of the runs, or sell you another transformer"...sticky situation
  10. LLC RI

    LLC RI LawnSite Member
    Posts: 149

    Hey guys... thanks for all the replies.

    I didn't even check the amp rating of the primary side fuse, because I know they don't burn out, usually no matter what.

    It was likely an older Unique unit because there were no fusable links or any other kind of secondary protection.

    The client has been told that he should upgrade that transformer and I am hopeful that in the spring, he will heed my advice and let me get him a new transformer along with retrofitting some fixtures with LED/s.



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