If you're installing a new lighting feature in your home, things might move swiftly and simply. The keyword is 'might.' Some features will state that they require a ballast, and if this is the first time you've ever attempted to put a light in, you may have no idea what a ballast is.
Once you understand ballasts and how they work, you'll likely come to the conclusion that ballasts aren't a great first time DIY project. Calling in a pro will probably be your best bet.
What is an Electrical Ballast?
A ballast is a small box with a bunch of wires. The magic happens inside of the box. The ballast is installed between a light switch and a light, acting as a moderator for the electricity that flows to that light. The ballast controls how much electricity gets to the lamp and at what time it gets there.
How is an Electrical Ballast Used in Lighting?
Fluorescent lights don't work the same as normal light bulbs. The moment they receive electricity, they want to use it all. They'll draw up every ounce they can muster until they become scalding hot, and they'll promptly burn out. You'd be replacing your fluorescent tubes several times a day if it weren't for the ballast they're connected to.
When you flip the light switch, the ballast allows a large amount of electricity to transfer to your fluorescent light. This little jolt is what makes the light kick on. Once the light is on, your fluorescent light requires much less electricity to stay on. The ballast limits how much electricity can enter the light, regulating the power. This keeps your electric bill down and extends the life of your bulbs by preventing premature overheating and burn out.
The Different Kinds of Ballasts
A basic ballast is necessary for any fluorescent lighting fixture. It'll get the job done insofar as your bulbs won't burn out moments after you replace them. If that's the only thing you're trying to achieve, a plain old ballast will work for you. Ballasts can be used for things besides starting and maintaining a light.
Using Multiple Ballasts
Multiple ballasts will allow you to turn off half (or three quarters) of your lights by flipping a switch. This is convenient when you need to be able to save some energy without leaving a room completely dark. This can be a valuable safety feature when you don't want to come home to a dark house or trip over things on the way out. You don't have to keep every light on as a safety precaution.
This won't work as a safety feature in the event that the power goes out, as ballasts cannot store power. They only work when the switch is on and the electricity is running. If you want safety lights for blackout situations, use Boundery's EBULB. It automatically turns on in the event of a power outage and stays illuminated for up to 4 hours.
If you simply want the room to illuminate while someone's in it and go dark when it's empty, you can use one of Boundery's Motion Sensor LED Bulbs. You don't even need to bother with switches or reducing the lights. They'll handle themselves.
Dimmable ballasts give you the option to dim the lights they're attached to. This is particularly helpful in rooms where sunlight partially illuminates the space. You may not need maximum light output for all hours of the day. Just enough to clearly see what you're doing will suffice. There's no need to use up all that power to generate more light than necessary. As the sun goes down, you can put your lights back up to full strength.
Ballasts to Reduce Energy Costs
Ballasts that reduce energy costs aren't something that most homeowners seek. They're great options for commercial buildings, stores, warehouses, factories, and offices that use a lot of power for several hours a day. These ballasts safely throttle the power to the light and can reduce wattage by up to 15%.
It doesn't seem like a lot, especially when the running cost of a fluorescent bulb is typically pennies. When you have hundreds of fluorescent bulbs, that 15% can really add up. That's why these ballasts are an invaluable solution for keeping overhead costs down.
Do All Lights Need a Ballast?
Not all lights need a ballast. It's really only fluorescent lights that require complicated installation. Standard light bulbs and LED lights won't require any ballasts. They work in normal lamps and ceiling fixtures equipped for run of the mill light bulbs. These are much easier to install, control, and use.
The Case for Switching to LED Bulbs
LED bulbs don't need any kind of special electrical hookup. They last longer, they're easier to replace, and you don't need any additional electrical components to run them.
If you're looking to save money and reduce your overall energy consumption, finding a special ballast isn't the answer. Switching your light bulbs is. The math is simple.
Comparing Fluorescent Tubes to LED Lights
The standard fluorescent tube is 40 watts and the standard LED bulb is about 8 watts. If you were to operate them both from sun down to sun up every year, that would equate to about 4,170 hours. The average lifetime of a fluorescent tube is about 10,000 hours of operating time with a great ballast. An LED bulb on its own has a 25,000 hour life.
The efficacy of each light is different. Efficacy refers to the amount of lumens the lamp will put out, compared to the watts it takes in. An LED bulb will always be 100% in efficacy. Fluorescent lights are different. The absolute best case scenario is about 79% efficacy, but this doesn't factor in the ballast. Some power will be lost to the ballast and effectively go nowhere, never coming to generate any light. This means that LED bulbs are substantially more efficient.
The Costs of Operation
The United States national average cost for residential electricity is about 10.05 cents per kwH. Your fluorescent light will use about 167 kwH per year, while an LED bulb will use about 35 kwH in the same span of time. The fluorescent light will cost $16.76 per year to run, and the LED light will cost a mere $3.56 annually.
If you have 8 fluorescent lights in your home, you're spending about $134 dollars a year to keep them on. The same amount of LED bulbs will cost about $28.50.
The Environmental Impact
A single fluorescent light bulb will lead to 233 pounds of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, as well as 3 pounds of sulfur dioxide, 2 pounds of nitrogen dioxide, and 2 ounces of mercury. Up to 78 pounds of coal will be burned to power that light bulb if your neighborhood, like 50% of United States neighborhoods, is powered by coal energy. The emissions are the same as driving 190 miles in a standard non-eco friendly vehicle.
A single LED light bulb barely compares. It contributes to only 50 pounds of carbon emissions, a fraction of the total emissions related to fluorescent bulbs. In addition to the smaller amount of CO2, LED bulbs also contribute about one pound of sulfur dioxide. They aren't responsible for any nitrogen dioxide or mercury entering the environment. The coal total comes in at about 17 pounds, and the driving emissions equivalent is 40 miles.
More Green in Your Wallet and the Planet
Fluorescent lights are always more expensive to use than LED lights, and far more harmful to the environment. Switching eliminates the need for ballasts, keeps your electric bill substantially lower, and heavily reduces your carbon footprint.
When you switch to LED lights, everyone wins.
Ballasts play a very important role in extremely antiquated lighting systems. Instead of focusing on what kind of ballast you need, focus on eliminating your fluorescent lights altogether. Track lights will always be more expensive to run, and they're a little bit of an eyesore.
Instead, buy a beautiful overhead lighting fixture and have it installed. Equip it with an LED bulb that's cheaper to use and nicer to look at. If you want your lights to be dimmable, look for dimmable LED bulbs. Unless the packaging denotes that the bulb is dimmable, it's safe to assume it's not.
Your beautiful, well-lit home will also help to preserve the planet by utilizing less energy and significantly reducing the amount of harmful emissions that come from fluorescent lights.