Whether they’re being used in industrial applications, as grow lights, around the home or anywhere else, LED lamps are generally chosen for their superior quality and consistency of light output - as well as their excellent economy when it comes to long-term running costs. Today, they’re especially popular options for use in downlights and display lighting setups.
The cost of the lamps themselves is often higher than for many other types of lighting, but this is usually offset fairly quickly by their vastly increased efficiency in operation.
Due to the low power draw, LED lights don’t require a ballast per se - but if you’re looking to swap out your existing fluorescent or HID lamps to take advantage of LED technology, it’s likely you’ll want to insert LED lamps directly into the existing fittings. In that case, you have a few options, the simplest of which is usually a ‘plug-and-play’ format.
Rather than a ballast, LEDs technically use a similar but distinct piece of circuitry called a driver - however, some compatible LED varieties are designed to work with the existing ballast technologies found in most fluorescent or HID fittings.
All ballasts will eventually fail, and in time you’ll find yourself needing to replace an LED lighting ballast for lamps that don’t technically require one. However, a non-ballast-compatible LED lamp wouldn’t work at all until you’d removed the ballast entirely and wired in the correct driver system, which would usually mean significantly rearranging or replacing the existing fixture.
Plug-and-play LEDs tend to be the more expensive systems, but the slightly higher cost of the lamps will still be lower than having the whole fixture upgraded or replaced. Other options include hybrid or linear LEDs, which will work with an existing ballast until it fails, after which they can be line-wired to mains voltage and/or fitted with a driver.
Although non-ballast-compatible LED lamps are usually a little cheaper in the first instance, installing them and the hardwiring they require can pose a significant safety risk to anyone not qualified as an electrician, as the sockets will carry live mains voltage if the ballast is bypassed.
In most cases, it’s therefore far easier to go with the slightly more expensive ballast-compatible LED lamps for a retrofit job. Then simply continue to replace ballasts as and when required, and enjoy the convenience and safety of a direct like-for-like lamp swap to upgrade your system.
For any more information and advice on all kinds of lighting controllers and accessories, contact us via our support pages and we’ll be glad to help out.
HID light ballasts
HID light ballasts work much like the lighting ballasts in fluorescent lamps, with a few key differences that make them a slightly more complex piece of circuitry.
Most HID lamps need to power on and off quickly with little or no warm-up time, so their ballasts are designed and wired to allow for very rapid heating and cooling of the gas without causing damage to (or even explosion of) the bulb.
In addition, the current flowing to HID lamps needs to be regulated very precisely, as too little is equally bad for the long-term health of the luminaire. HID ballasts also convert DC to AC current where necessary and regulate the flow of electricity within the specific and relatively narrow ranges required by these light types.
Electronic light ballasts
Electrical light ballasts use induction coils arranged in sequence to control the flow of power through the lamp’s circuitry. They offer several advantages over the larger, usually somewhat cheaper magnetic varieties.
Electronic lighting ballasts operate at much higher frequencies than magnetic ones, meaning you won’t see anything like as much flickering (or hear nearly as much buzzing) from a lamp being powered through a properly working electric ballast.
When you do hear an audible humming or see a constant flicker from a fluorescent, HID or LED light fitting that’s otherwise operating normally and in good health, it’s a fairly safe bet that there’s a magnetic ballast installed. These control the flow of current at a much lower frequency than an electrical equivalent would, and thus the slight waveform inconsistencies in power delivery become more noticeable.
Electronic ballasts for fluorescent lights
Magnetic ballasts tend to be the older standard for traditional long-tube fluorescent lamps found in many workplaces, often in fittings that haven’t been upgraded in a while. They’re also commonly found in an older workshop or industrial fixtures that have yet to be replaced with newer-style HID or LED bulkheads and drum lamps.
Dimmable fluorescent lighting, as well as many of the newer and more compact versions of fluorescent tubes, often require electrical ballasts to function properly. This is due to the more complex requirements of their inner current regulation systems. Electric ballasts are far better at regulating the current flow much more precisely and efficiently, with less audible noise and visible flicker.
More efficient use of the power being supplied makes for a smoother user experience when under fluorescent lamps powered through an electronic ballast, meaning they’re usually a much more popular option in home and display use.
The longer lifespan of electric ballasts also means that their higher cost can quickly be offset if you regularly need to maintain and replace larger quantities of ballasts and other parts in your fluorescent lighting setup.