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What's the big deal about ballasts?

Image of fluorescent tubes

More light for lower cost is just one of the advantages of electronic ballasts

Fluorescent lights are the workhorse of commercial and industrial lighting design. Cristian Suvagau, one of our lighting engineers, estimates that, despite their known disadvantages, close to two billion fluorescent lamps are in use at any given time in North America.

Fluorescents lights are, in a nutshell, the product of two components: the lamp (aka the tube you're used to seeing) and the ballast. In a fluorescent lamp, the ballast plays two parts: it provides the right voltage to start the lamp, and then it operates it. Without the ballast, a fluorescent lamp connected to a high voltage power source would immediately overheat and burn out.

Ballast technology has made some big gains in the past 10 years due in part to amendments made to Canada's Energy Efficiency Act in 2004. That April, the Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE) amended the regulations of Canada's Energy Efficiency Act to increase the efficiency of fluorescent lamp ballasts. To sum it up, magnetic ballasts were being phased out. Since then, electronic versions have been developed to replace and improve upon the older technology.

Today's electronic ballasts operate at roughly 1,000 times the frequency of magnetic ballasts

Basically, with electronic ballasts, you get the same amount of light for a lot less electricity. Some of the other benefits of electronic ballasts, compared to magnetic ballasts, include:

  • Reduced heat
  • The need for fewer ballasts
  • Instant start, and programmed start options
  • They're easy to dim
  • There's no humming or flickering
  • They produce steady light and fade less over time

Reduced heat

"In any system that transforms energy from one state to another – in this case from electrical energy to light – there are losses," explains Suvagau. "Most of the time those losses are in heat.

"But electronic solid state produces less heat than electro-magnetic, much less. If you operate cooling equipment like refrigerated cases and freezers, or if you use air conditioning on a regular basis, switching from magnetic to electronic ballasts could help you save on cooling costs."

Fewer ballasts

A single electronic ballast can operate up to four lamps, where magnetic ballasts can only support two. Depending on your lighting layout, you may be able to lower the cost of doing a lighting upgrade because you don't have to do a one-for-one replacement of your old ballasts.

In a delamping situation, which is when an electrician permanently removes unused T12 sockets from the luminaire, we recommend customers work with a certified electrician, or a member of the Alliance.

Instant start and programmed start options

There are two types of electronic ballasts: instant start and programmed start. Instant start ballasts provides high voltage to the lamp to provide a quick start. But it's a shock to the lamp. If you cycle your lights on and off a lot – for example, if you have motion sensors – the lamp may not handle the shock so well and you can depreciate the life of your lamp by up to 50%.

Programmed start ballasts heat the electrodes first, reducing the shock to the lamp, maximizing both lamp and ballast life. They can cost a bit more, but they'll pay for themselves through reduced wear and tear on the lamps.

Dimming

Dimming is much easier with electronic ballasts. However, constant dimming can be tough on ballasts. Sticking to a pre-set dimming level can help minimize the wear and tear on your lamps.

No humming, no flickering

With the higher frequency of electronic ballasts, the humming and flickering some people perceive with fluorescent lights is virtually gone.

Less fading over time

Whereas a T12 lamp with a magnetic ballast would lose about 30% of its lumen output [ability to produce light] over a median lifetime, it's not more than a 5% loss with a T8 or T5 and an electronic ballast, says Suvagau. That means your lights won't slowly get dim and dingy as the lamps age – they'll continue to produce steady light until the day they give out completely.

Switching to energy-efficient lighting is a smart way to cut costs. In addition to incentives available for indoor and outdoor light bulbs, we offer incentives for a wide variety of T8s, T5s and electronic ballasts.