Fluorescent lights use electricity to cause mercury gas to emit ultraviolet light. When that UV light, which is otherwise invisible to the naked eye, interacts with the light tube’s phosphor powder coating, it glows and produces visible light. However, like any electrical application, the electricity in the tube must be controlled so it does not damage the device or put anyone in danger. To monitor the electrical current flowing through a fluorescent light, a ballast is used. This blog will serve as a thorough guide to fluorescent ballasts.
The ballast, sometimes referred to as a control gear, is a small device wired to a light’s circuit to restrict the magnitude of electric current moving through it. Because a building’s main power source has a higher voltage than the light needs to work, the ballast gives a small boost of voltage to turn on and then just enough power to remain running safely. Ballasts are needed because the process that occurs within a fluorescent light, which involves molecules of mercury gas being heated by electricity to become more conductive, would be too dangerous if uncontrolled. If there were no ballast, the current would be too much for the light to withstand and would ultimately burn out and potentially catch fire.
Fluorescent lights use one of two types of ballast: magnetic or electronic. Magnetic ballasts are a comparatively outdated technology, but are still found on older types of lights. To work, magnetic ballasts rely on the principles of electromagnetism, which state that when an electrical current travels through a wire, a magnetic force is naturally generated around itself. There are two methods by which magnetic ballasts work: preheat method and rapid-start method.
The preheat method works thusly: the light switch is turned on, and the current enters the filaments at each end of the light. The current is too low to turn on the light at this point, but enough to hear the gas inside the starter. The heated gas slowly allows the full current into the filaments, heating the mercury gas within the light. Once the mercury gas is hot enough, it will conduct the current, generate light, and remain lit. Now that there is more electricity flowing, the ballast can begin to do its job of regulation. In the rapid-start method, the ballast keeps a small amount of current flowing continuously through the filaments, causing the mercury gas to become ionized. As the ballast continues to supply current through the filaments, the gas gets hotter and more charged, brightening the light as a result.
Electronic ballasts use more advanced circuitry and aparts, allowing them to control current with greater precision and efficiency. They are also smaller, lighter, and can supply power at much higher frequency than magnetic ballasts. Similar to magnetic ballasts, there are two different start methods: instant and programmed. In the instant-start method, the ballast uses a high-voltage boost to quickly heat and light the filaments and mercury gas. This makes them highly efficient, but also diminishes their lifespan due to the intense surges of voltage. Because of this, ballasts that use this method are often found in spaces where the lights are left on for long stretches such as offices, shops, and warehouses. In the programmed-start method, the ballasts pre-heat the electrodes with controlled amounts of current and apply a higher voltage when starting the light. For this reason, these ballasts are designed for areas in which the lights are constantly being turned on and off.
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