Dimmable Fluorescent Lights
Country: United States
Date: January 2009
How do they make florescent lights dimmable?
Actually, ordinary fluorescent lights can in fact be dimmed slightly
with a standard light dimmer... perhaps down to 60% or so of their
full brightness. But to dim them further, requires a very special
dimmer. The problem is that as you dim a fluorescent light, the
filaments at each end get cooler and cooler, and eventually no longer
emit electrons into the ionized mercury vapor inside the lamp. Special
dimmers actually drive some current through these filaments to keep
them hot enough to allow electrons to be emitted, which in turn ionize
the mercury vapor in the lamp to create light. These dimmers are
relatively complex and expensive.
For a dimming fluorescent lamp, the difference is in the dimmer control, not
Incandescent bulbs are powered directly from 120 volt electricity from the
wall. The frequency is 60 Hz. An incandescent bulb is dimmed by reducing
the power to the bulb, which makes the hot filament produce less light.
In contrast, a fluorescent bulb requires the use of a "ballast" to make it
work. A ballast is required because 1) fluorescent bulbs need a special
circuit to get started, and 2) the electric properties of a fluorescent
bulb are unusual and (in the simplest method) an inductor and capacitor in
the circuit is needed to maintain the correct amount of current and voltage
to the plasma, but not too much or too little. The bulb voltage is not 120
volts, and sometimes the frequency supplied to the bulb is not 60 Hz, but
may be 20,000 Hz or more.
An old-fashioned ballast is simply an inductor and capacitor. There are
electronic ballasts which contain electronic components and are more
efficient and produce a flicker-free light. Finally there are dimming
electronic ballasts (power controllers actually) which cost even more and
can operate a fluorescent tube from 100% power all the way down to 1% power.
A ballast (ordinary, electronic, or dimming electronic) operates properly
only for the size bulb it is made for.
As a previous post notes, some varieties of fluorescent tube contain
starting filaments which may need to be kept hot to keep the ionization
going, even at low power levels.
A fluorescent lamp operates because a self-sustaining plasma is generated in
the tube. How exactly does a dimming ballast work? It is difficult to find
out. The manufacturers are reluctant to put that information in public.
However it is done, the dimming method involves reducing the power to the
tube, while still maintaining discharge. It is my understanding that pulse
width modulation may used to dim the light, which suggests that the
discharge is cycled on and off, and is on only a small fraction of the time.
As a side note, there are compact fluorescent bulbs that are advertised as
"dimmable." These work poorly using conventional dimmers. The bulbs do not
dim much before going out. On the other hand, tubular fluorescent bulbs
that are driven by properly designed electronic dimmers are able to control
the range of light from barely visible to full brightness.
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Update: June 2012