Posted by Doug Root on 5th Jun 2020

The Importance of a Fluorescent Ballast

You may have heard about some of the benefits of fluorescent lights that have made them such popular light fixtures for so many years in so many settings. They offer a bright white light, a strong, steady light output and they last for many years. Some of the longest-lasting fluorescent bulbs can last for almost 50,000 hours, which is far longer than incandescent bulbs and most other options. Only LEDs reasonably make a challenge to the efficacy of fluorescent lights.

We’ve already covered some of the benefits of fluorescent lights before, as well as how they work and what types are common. Here we’re going to get into a lesser-known element of fluorescent lighting systems: the fluorescent ballast.

Ballast is something with which many people may be unfamiliar, even if they have had exposure to CFLs or incandescent light bulbs in residential settings. In the first place, incandescent bulbs do not require a ballast, and moreover, it is common for CFL bulbs to already have a pre-installed ballast as part of the unit. Much like incandescent bulbs, you just plug them in and switch the bulb on. With more complex fluorescent lighting systems, the process is not that simple.

To understand the function and importance of a fluorescent ballast, consider the word. Perhaps a more widely recognized (and certainly older) use of the word ballast comes from the nautical realm. Ballast is a material, frequently seawater but sometimes cargo or stones, that are used to add additional weight to a ship, reduce its freeboard and make it more stable underway. In essence, the ballast of a ship or other vessel was there to make it more stable and more manageable, especially when encountering animated seas.

To take a simple approach to it, a fluorescent ballast provides for a fluorescent light bulb the same thing a ship’s ballast provides for a ship, stability, and reliability. Consider the fact that in the past fluorescent bulbs sometimes took a while to heat up and reach their full brightness, as well as the fact that some fluorescent bulbs have had problems with flickering, even without burning out.

A fluorescent light bulb needs a ballast to regulate the current to the system as well as providing the proper voltage for the system to operate effectively. Without a ballast to regulate the current and voltage, a fluorescent lamp would continue to draw current and burn itself out within seconds.

Even if it weren’t for the fact that fluorescent bulbs would rapidly burn out without a fluorescent ballast, the ballast makes it possible for the lamps to start up in a timely manner, reach their full brightness quickly, and then produce a steady light output. When you switch on a fluorescent light, the ballast provides a high voltage to allow an arc between the lamp’s electrodes, after which point the voltage is decreased and the current is steaded to allow the lamp to provide a steady light. Moreover, a ballast makes it possible to realize the light output and lamp life of a given fluorescent light. Electrode temperatures vastly affect the light output and life of a lamp and the regulation a ballast offers helps to extend lamp life and provide for steady lighting, as we already mentioned.

Originally, most fluorescent lamps used a type of ballast known as a magnetic ballast. Without getting too into the weeds with how a magnetic ballast works, know that some of the issues surrounding older models of fluorescent lights were due to their magnetic ballasts. Issues like slow startups and the humming or buzzing noises that some people associate with fluorescent lamps were largely due to magnetic ballasts.

Today, most fluorescent lights use a different form of ballast known as an electronic fluorescent ballast. Many modern electronic ballasts have a higher cycle rate so that the lamps can offer a very rapid start or even an instant start. They also do not noticeably flicker and are much quieter than their forebears.

With all of this said, different types of lamps have very distinct needs in ballasts, so it is very important to understand the ratings of a fluorescent lamp as well as the ballast factor in order to pick out a ballast for a lamp or a system.

Of course, you can always reach out to us here at Atlanta Light Bulbs if you need a little bit of help figuring out what you’re looking at and what you need. We have many years of experience helping our customers navigate the occasionally complex waters of lighting and lighting systems, and we’d be glad to answer any questions you might have on fluorescent lamps and ballasts. Give us a call today at 1-888-988-2852 and let us know what you’re looking for or what information you might need. We’d be more than happy to fill you in.