The Complete Guide to Tube Lights

A few decades ago, fluorescent tube lights entered the lighting scene. Thanks to their cylindrical design, they produced good quality light that was dispersed better than incandescent bulbs. Soon tube lights began to be used in warehouses, factories, offices, homes, indoor gardens, schools almost everywhere that lights were needed. The sockets continued to be occupied by incandescent bulbs until miniature fluorescent tubes – the CFLs, arrived. Now LED technology is replacing both fluorescent tubes and CFLs at the same time.

Tube LED lights are an elongated source of light with low luminous intensity. The distribution of light is better and glare is significantly reduced compared to other light sources.

Why tube lights make sense?

Fluorescent tube lights are energy efficient – about three times as efficient as incandescent bulbs. But LEDs are much better. A 23 watt, 6 foot tube light LED can replace a fluorescent tube that hogs a staggering 60 watts. The life of more than 50,000 hours and 5 years of warranty mean that this piece of technology makes a lot of practical sense. The primary reason why tube lights are used – energy efficiency - is also the reason why LED devices are ideal replacements. Given the long operating hours the return on investment is high and break even can be less than a year in some situations. In areas like subways, tunnels, and factories the long life of these lights translates into significant savings in replacement and maintenance costs.

Features of LED Lights

Variety - LED based tube lights are available in a variety of lens types (frosted and clear) and colors.

Aluminum heat sink – Heat sinks are important for LED lights as LEDs operate best when heat is efficiently conducted away. Aluminum is one of the best conductors of heat that helps prolong the life of the lighting device by preventing overheating.

Mercury-free – The presence of mercury is a major drawback of fluorescent tube lights. Fluorescent tubes need to be disposed safely but safe disposal facilities may not be handy. Carrying a five foot long tube to a disposal facility located 10 to 30 miles away is not exactly a practical proposition.

No ballast required – Ballasts are needed to provide the striking voltage to Fluorescent devices. The ballast adds to the cost of lighting. It also increases power consumption and is also one additional piece of equipment that adds to the failure risk of the fluorescent tube. LEDs on the other hand can work on low voltage currents.

Shock and vibration resistant – Solid state lights are easy to carry and install. They do not have fragile electric elements that might snap due to vibrations nor are they made of glass that can create risk of breakage and laceration injury.

Should you use ballast free tube lights?

It is better to use ballast free tube lights. These work on low voltages and use less electricity. It may however be necessary to rewire the tube light holder to eliminate the existing ballast from the electric circuit. If you do not want to rewire the tube light holder retro-fit kits are available with us for direct replacement of fluorescent fixtures. It is possible to include a circuit in the LED design that will nullify the changes made to the electric current by the ballast. LEDs that are used with ballasts consume slightly more electricity than ballast free tubes.

Evaluating Fluorescent Tube Lights – Understanding some important issues

 1) Operating life Fluorescent tube lights Versus LED lights 

  • Standard Fluorescent T8 Light - up to 20,000 hrs
  • LED Light - 50,000 hrs - 100,000 hrs

The life of the fluorescent tube depends on the quality of the starter and the ballast. The life span of fluorescent tubes varies between 10,000- 15,000 hours. However there are a few things that you must know.

  • A fluorescent tube is exposed to a lot of wear and tear when it is switched on. Estimates suggest that switching on a fluorescent tube once can reduce its life by as much as 20 minutes.
  • A faulty starter is a fluorescent tube light’s death knell and must be replaced immediately. It will try to switch on the tube light several times in a minute, drastically reducing its life.
  • During the first five minutes of operation a 36 watt fluorescent tube uses close to 50 watts of power. It is often cheaper to let the fluorescent tube burn instead of switching it on and off.
  • If you have motion sensors to optimize power usage, it is better to adjust them to switch off fluorescent tube lights only after an area has been unoccupied for 20 minutes.

LED lights on the other hand are powered by a ‘Driver’ that supplies a constant low voltage current to the diodes leading to longer life and safer operation.

2) Safety Issues

Fluorescent tubes contain mercury a hazardous material. Mere contact with mercury is sufficient to cause toxic responses. Mercury is such a dangerous neurotoxin that some believe that the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ traces its origin to hats with mercury treated animal pelt lining. These led to absorption of mercury and neurological disorders in the wearer.

Fluorescent tubes must therefore be disposed safely like cans of pesticides and used batteries. Sadly the awareness of the safety issues is lacking. What is worse is that safe disposal facilities may not be available at a convenient location. For people living in the suburbs safe disposal of broken tube lights can at times mean a 20 miles drive.

3) Ultraviolet emission 

A small amount of UV light is emitted by fluorescent tube lights. The amounts of UV light are minuscule but can still damage artwork and cause complications in predisposed individuals.

4) Ballast

Magnetic ballasts can increase power consumption in a lamp by 10% or more. Electromagnetic ballasts are better but produce a humming sound. High frequency electronic ballasts are the best but cost more than magnetic ballasts thus increasing the cost of lighting projects.

5) Power quality and radio interference

Ballasts have a low power factor and need power factor correction capacitors. Fluorescent tube lights produce harmonic currents in the power supply and the arc can produce radio frequency noise. This renders these lights unsuitable for areas where radio frequency noise is undesirable. While it is possible to suppress the noise the cost of suppression is high.

6) Operating temperature

Fluorescent tube lights work best at room temperature. In cold conditions the temperature may be too low for efficient operation. At temperatures below freezing standard tube lights may not start at all.

7) Flicker problems

A fluorescent tube’s light output and color temperature change constantly. This is what is called ‘Flicker’.  Flicker is the reason professional photographers dislike Fluorescent lights. This problem is particularly intensified in tube lights using magnetic ballasts. Even otherwise fluorescent tube lights nearing their end tend to flicker at the frequency of the AC mains. Electronic ballasts can overcome this problem but are more expensive. Cheaper electronic ballasts are available but are likely to interfere with infrared signals.

Energy efficiency, operating life, safety, ease of disposal, worry free performance, flicker free light and versatility; LED devices trump fluorescent lights on every count! So why not start considering a switch over to LEDs?

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