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Posted by Doug Root on 16th Mar 2021

Exploring the Different Types of Fluorescent Ballasts

Incandescent bulbs and halogen bulbs are simple enough. You just make sure that the wattage and voltage are acceptable for the circuit and the fixture, that the bulb base is compatible, and you screw them in. Switch on the light, and electricity flows through the filament in the bulb, resulting in electroluminescence.

Yet many other types of light bulbs are not this straightforward, including some types of bulbs that are commonly used in residences. Take fluorescent bulbs, for example. You also need to ensure that the base and fixture will accept your bulb before inserting it into the socket, but fluorescent lamps also need fluorescent ballasts or they won’t light properly, or at all.

What Is a Lighting Ballast?

A light ballast is a device that provides the necessary voltage power to start the lamp and regulates the current fed to the lamp thereafter. In essence, they enable the lamp to start and then they help to ensure it gives off the advertised light output.

Fluorescent lights are well known for their energy efficiency and long lifespan, but the ballast is a key factor in this. The lamp’s ballast enables much of the energy efficiency of the light and keeps the electrodes from becoming too hot, which preserves the lamp’s life as well.

Without a ballast, the light would quickly draw power and would continue to draw until the lighting system was overwhelmed and the lamp burned out. This means that ballasts are a critical component of fluorescent systems.

With that said, there are several different types of ballasts, just as there are different lamp types. These can be broadly categorized into magnetic ballasts and electronic ballasts.

Magnetic Ballasts

Magnetic ballasts, which have also been called electromagnetic ballasts, are an aging form of ballast technology and are somewhat rare today. These are not as reliable as modern electronic ballasts, sometimes resulting in the buzzing, humming, and flickering of fluorescent lamps operated with them.

For the most part, magnetic ballasts have been replaced with more sophisticated and reliable electronic ballasts, which vary according to their start methods.

Electronic Ballasts: Instant Start Ballasts

Some ballasts pre-heat the lamp’s electrodes, which enable them to start more quickly, but this is not how electronic instant start ballasts work. These types of ballasts use a high voltage to provide the discharge arc between the lamp’s electrodes, rather than heating them up.

This provides a very quick startup for the lamp in question. Additionally, these types of ballasts are also designed to operate with fluorescent lamps and provide the highest possible energy efficiency. The drawback with these is that they cut back on the number of start-up cycles. For some users, this might mean that these types of ballasts are preferable in an area where the lamps will be left burning for long periods of time, rather than being turned on and off routinely.

Electronic Ballasts: Rapid Start Ballasts

Like an instant start ballast, a rapid start fluorescent ballast provides a voltage spike to get the lamp to start. However, it does so while also pre-heating the lamp’s electrodes. The rapid start has a pronounced benefit over instant start in that it is less harsh on the lamp and therefore can provide longer lamp life and more startup cycles.

The drawback is that rapid start ballasts use more energy and result in shorter lamp life. This means that these types of fluorescent ballasts might be preferable for users who expect a larger incidence of on-off cycles and are not as concerned with energy efficiency.

Electronic Ballasts: Programmed Start

Another form of fluorescent ballast is what is known as a programmed start ballast. These are some of the best all-around ballasts out there because they address some of the shortcomings addressed so far.

Programmed start ballasts preheat the electrodes slightly and then apply the voltage necessary to create an arc, which will result in the lamp thereby being illuminated. All things considered, programmed start ballasts are highly energy-efficient and so result in longer lamp lifespan, as well as a higher average number of lamp cycles than instant start ballasts.

How Do I Know When I Need to Replace It?

While there is no one dead giveaway that will tip you off that you need to replace a ballast, if your fluorescent lamps are exhibiting any of the following symptoms, they could be attributable to the ballast:

-Flickering, humming, or buzzing.

-Lower than usual light output.

-Slower startup than expected or previously experienced.

-Unexpected shifts in the color temperature of the bulb.

While these are not methods by which you can tell for sure if your ballast is on the fritz, you can always get in touch with us for more information and we’ll help you get to the bottom of it. Whether you need a new fluorescent lamp or a new ballast, we’ll help you figure it out - just call us at 1-888-988-2852.