Fluorescent lamps: Wikis


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Fluorescent lamps
Assorted types of fluorescent lamps. Top, two compact fluorescent lamps. Bottom, two regular tubes. Left, matchstick shown for scale.
Typical F71T12 100 W bi-pin lamp used in tanning beds. Note the (Hg) symbol indicating it contains mercury. In the US this symbol is now required on all fluorescent bulbs that contain mercury.
Inside the lamp end of a bi-pin lamp

A fluorescent lamp or fluorescent tube is a gas-discharge lamp that uses electricity to excite mercury vapor. The excited mercury atoms produce short-wave ultraviolet light that then causes a phosphor to fluoresce, producing visible light. A fluorescent lamp converts electrical power into useful light more efficiently than an incandescent lamp. Lower energy cost typically offsets the higher initial cost of the lamp. The lamp is more costly because it requires a ballast to regulate the flow of current through the lamp.

While larger fluorescent lamps have been mostly used in commercial or institutional buildings, the compact fluorescent lamp is now available in the same popular sizes as incandescents and is used as an energy-saving alternative in homes.




Physical discoveries

Fluorescence of certain rocks and other substances had been observed for hundreds of years before its nature was understood. By the middle of the 19th century, experimenters had observed a radiant glow emanating from partially evacuated glass vessels through which an electrical current passed. One of the first to explain it about 1845 was the British (Irish) scientist Sir George G. Stokes from Cambridge University, who named the phenomenon fluorescence after fluorite, a strongly fluorescent mineral. This explanation relied on the nature of electricity and light phenomena as developed by the British scientists Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell in the 1840s.[1]

Little more was done with this phenomenon until 1856 when a German glassblower named Heinrich Geissler created a mercury vacuum pump that evacuated a glass tube to an extent not previously possible. When an electrical current passed through a Geissler tube, a strong green glow on the walls of the tube at the cathode end could be observed. Because it produced some beautiful light effects, the Geissler tube was a popular source of amusement. More important, however, was its contribution to scientific research. One of the first scientists to experiment with a Geissler tube was Julius Plücker who systematically described in 1858 the luminescent effects that occurred in a Geissler tube. He also made the important observation that the glow in the tube shifted position when in proximity to an electromagnetic field. Alexandre Edmond Becquerel observed in 1859 that certain substances gave off light when they were placed in a Geissler tube. He went on to apply thin coatings of luminescent materials to the surfaces of these tubes. Fluorescence occurred, but the tubes were very inefficient and had a short operating life.

Inquiries that began with the Geissler tube continued as even better vacuums were produced. The most famous was the evacuated tube used for scientific research by William Crookes. That tube was evacuated by the highly effective mercury vacuum pump created by Hermann Sprengel. Research conducted by Crookes and others ultimately led to the discovery of the electron in 1897 by J. J. Thomson. But the Crookes tube, as it came to be known, produced little light because the vacuum in it was too good and thus lacked the trace amounts of gas that are needed for electrically stimulated luminescence.

Early discharge lamps

While Becquerel was primarily interested in conducting scientific research into fluorescence, Thomas Edison briefly pursued fluorescent lighting for its commercial potential. He invented a fluorescent lamp in 1896 that used a coating of calcium tungstate as the fluorescing substance, excited by X-rays, but although it received a patent in 1907,[2] it was not put into production. As with a few other attempts to use Geissler tubes for illumination, it had a short operating life, and given the success of the incandescent light, Edison had little reason to pursue an alternative means of electrical illumination. Nikola Tesla made similar experiments in the 1890s, devising high frequency powered fluorescent bulbs that gave a bright greenish light, but as with Edison's devices, no commercial success was achieved.

Although Edison lost interest in fluorescent lighting, one of his former employees was able to create a gas-based lamp that achieved a measure of commercial success. In 1895 Daniel McFarlan Moore demonstrated lamps 2 to 3 meters (6.6 to 9.8 ft) in length that used carbon dioxide or nitrogen to emit white or pink light, respectively. As with future fluorescent lamps, they were considerably more complicated than an incandescent bulb.

After years of work, Moore was able to extend the operating life of the lamps by inventing an electromagnetically controlled valve that maintained a constant gas pressure within the tube. Although Moore’s lamp was complicated, expensive to install, and required very high voltages, it was considerably more efficient than incandescent lamps, and it produced a more natural light than incandescent lamps. From 1904 onwards Moore’s lighting system was installed in a number of stores and offices. Its success contributed to General Electric’s motivation to improve the incandescent lamp, especially its filament. GE’s efforts came to fruition with the invention of a tungsten-based filament. The extended lifespan of incandescent bulbs negated one of the key advantages of Moore’s lamp, but GE purchased the relevant patents in 1912. These patents and the inventive efforts that supported them were to be of considerable value when the firm took up fluorescent lighting more than two decades later.

At about the same time that Moore was developing his lighting system, another American was creating a means of illumination that also can be seen as a precursor to the modern fluorescent lamp. This was the Mercury-vapor lamp, invented by Peter Cooper Hewitt and patented in 1901 (US patent 889692 ). Hewitt’s lamp luminesced when an electric current was passed through mercury vapor at a low pressure. Unlike Moore’s lamps, Hewitt's were manufactured in standardized sizes and operated at low voltages. The mercury-vapor lamp was superior to the incandescent lamps of the time in terms of energy efficiency, but the blue-green light it produced limited its applications. It was, however, used for photography and some industrial processes.

Mercury vapor lamps continued to be developed at a slow pace, especially in Europe, and by the early 1930s they received limited use for large-scale illumination. Some of them employed fluorescent coatings, but these were primarily used for color correction and not for enhanced light output. Mercury vapor lamps also anticipated the fluorescent lamp in their incorporation of a ballast to maintain a constant current.

Cooper-Hewitt had not been the first to use mercury vapor for illumination, as earlier efforts had been mounted by Way, Rapieff, Arons, and Bastian and Salisbury. Of particular importance was the mercury vapor lamp invented by Küch in Germany. This lamp used quartz in place of glass to allow higher operating temperatures, and hence greater efficiency. Although its light output relative to electrical consumption was better than other sources of light, the light it produced was similar to that of the Cooper-Hewitt lamp in that it lacked the red portion of the spectrum, making it unsuitable for ordinary lighting.

Neon lamps

The next step in gas-based lighting took advantage of the luminescent qualities of neon, an inert gas that had been discovered in 1898. In 1909 Georges Claude, a French chemist, observed the red glow that was produced when running an electric current through a neon-filled tube. He also discovered that argon emitted a blue glow. While neon lighting was used around 1930 in France for general illumination, it was no more energy-efficient than conventional incandescent lighting. Neon lighting came to be used primarily for eye-catching signs and advertisements. Neon lighting was relevant to the development of fluorescent lighting, however, as Claude’s improved electrode (patented in 1915) overcame “sputtering”, a major source of electrode degradation. Sputtering occurred when ionized particles struck an electrode and tore off bits of metal. Although Claude’s invention required electrodes with a lot of surface area, it showed that a major impediment to gas-based lighting could be overcome.

The development of the neon light also was significant for the last key element of the fluorescent lamp, its fluorescent coating. In 1926 Jacques Risler received a French patent for the application of fluorescent coatings to neon light tubes. The main use of these lamps, which can be considered the first commercially successful fluorescents, was for advertising, not general illumination. This, however, was not the first use of fluorescent coatings. As has been noted above, Edison used calcium tungstate for his unsuccessful lamp. Other efforts had been mounted, but all were plagued by low efficiency and various technical problems. Of particular importance was the invention in 1927 of a low-voltage “metal vapor lamp” by Friedrich Meyer, Hans-Joachim Spanner, and Edmund Germer, who were employees of a German firm in Berlin. A German patent was granted but the lamp never went into commercial production.

Commercialization of fluorescent lamps

All the major features of fluorescent lighting were in place at the end of the 1920s. Decades of invention and development had provided the key components of fluorescent lamps: economically manufactured glass tubing, inert gases for filling the tubes, electrical ballasts, long-lasting electrodes, mercury vapor as a source of luminescence, effective means of producing a reliable electrical discharge, and fluorescent coatings that could be energized by ultraviolet light. At this point, intensive development was more important than basic research.

In 1934, Arthur Compton, a renowned physicist and GE consultant, reported to the GE lamp department on successful experiments with fluorescent lighting at General Electric Co., Ltd. in Great Britain (unrelated to General Electric in the United States). Stimulated by this report, and with all of the key elements available, a team led by George E. Inman built a prototype fluorescent lamp in 1934 at General Electric’s Nela Park (Ohio) engineering laboratory. This was not a trivial exercise; as noted by Arthur A. Bright, “A great deal of experimentation had to be done on lamp sizes and shapes, cathode construction, gas pressures of both argon and mercury vapor, colors of fluorescent powders, methods of attaching them to the inside of the tube, and other details of the lamp and its auxiliaries before the new device was ready for the public.”

In addition to having engineers and technicians along with facilities for R&D work on fluorescent lamps, General Electric controlled what it regarded as the key patents covering fluorescent lighting, including the patents originally issued to Hewitt, Moore, and Küch. More important than these was a patent covering an electrode that did not disintegrate at the gas pressures that ultimately were employed in fluorescent lamps. This invention had been created by Albert W. Hull of GE’s Schenectady Research Laboratory, and was registered as US patent 1790153 .

While the Hull patent gave GE a basis for claiming legal rights over the fluorescent lamp, a few months after the lamp went into production the firm learned of a U.S. patent application that had been filed in 1927 for the aforementioned "metal vapor lamp" invented in Germany by Meyer, Spanner, and Germer. The patent application indicated that the lamp had been created as a superior means of producing ultraviolet light, but the application also contained a few statements referring to fluorescent illumination. Efforts to obtain a U.S. patent had met with numerous delays, but were it to be granted, the patent might have caused serious difficulties for GE. At first, GE sought to block the issuance of a patent by claiming that priority should go to one of their employees, Leroy J. Buttolph, who according to their claim had invented a fluorescent lamp in 1919 and whose patent application was still pending. GE also had filed a patent application in 1936 in Inman’s name to cover the “improvements” wrought by his group. In 1939 GE decided that the claim of Meyer, Spanner, and Germer had some merit, and that in any event a long interference procedure was not in their best interest. They therefore dropped the Buttolph claim and paid $180,000 to acquire the Meyer, et al. application, which at that point was owned by a firm known as Electrons, Inc. The patent (US patent 2182732 ) was duly awarded in December 1939. This patent, along with the Hull patent, put GE on what seemed to be firm legal ground, although it faced years of legal challenges from Sylvania Electric Products, Inc., which claimed infringement on patents that it held.

Even though the patent issue would not be completely resolved for many years, General Electric’s strength in manufacturing and marketing the bulb gave it a pre-eminent position in the emerging fluorescent light market. Sales of "fluorescent lumiline lamps" commenced in 1938 when four different sizes of tubes were put on the market used in fixtures manufactured by three leading corporations, two based in New York City. During the following year GE and Westinghouse publicized the new lights through exhibitions at the New York World’s Fair and the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. Fluorescent lighting systems spread rapidly during World War II as wartime manufacturing intensified lighting demand. By 1951 more light was produced in the United States by fluorescent lamps than by incandescent lamps.

Principles of operation

The fundamental means for conversion of electrical energy into radiant energy in a fluorescent lamp relies on inelastic scattering of electrons. An incident electron collides with an atom in the gas. If the free electron has enough kinetic energy, it transfers energy to the atom's outer electron, causing that electron to temporarily jump up to a higher energy level. The collision is 'inelastic' because a loss of energy occurs.

This higher energy state is unstable, and the atom will emit an ultraviolet photon as the atom's electron reverts to a lower, more stable, energy level. Most of the photons that are released from the mercury atoms have wavelengths in the ultraviolet (UV) region of the spectrum predominantly at wavelengths of 253.7 nm and 185 nm. These are not visible to the human eye, so they must be converted into visible light. This is done by making use of fluorescence. Ultraviolet photons are absorbed by electrons in the atoms of the lamp's interior fluorescent coating, causing a similar energy jump, then drop, with emission of a further photon. The photon that is emitted from this second interaction has a lower energy than the one that caused it. The chemicals that make up the phosphor are chosen so that these emitted photons are at wavelengths visible to the human eye. The difference in energy between the absorbed ultra-violet photon and the emitted visible light photon goes toward heating up the phosphor coating.

When the light is turned on, the electric power heats up the cathode enough for it to emit electrons. These electrons collide with and ionize noble gas atoms inside the bulb surrounding the filament to form a plasma by a process of impact ionization. As a result of avalanche ionization, the conductivity of the ionized gas rapidly rises, allowing higher currents to flow through the lamp.


Close-up of the cathodes and anodes of a germicidal lamp (an essentially-similar design that uses no fluorescent phosphor, allowing the electrodes to be seen.)

A fluorescent lamp tube is filled with a gas containing low pressure mercury vapor and argon, xenon, neon, or krypton. The pressure inside the lamp is around 0.3% of atmospheric pressure.[3] The inner surface of the bulb is coated with a fluorescent (and often slightly phosphorescent) coating made of varying blends of metallic and rare-earth phosphor salts. The bulb's cathode is typically made of coiled tungsten that is coated with a mixture of barium, strontium and calcium oxides (chosen to have a relatively low thermionic emission temperature).

The unfiltered ultraviolet glow of a germicidal lamp is produced by a low pressure mercury vapor discharge (identical to that in a fluorescent lamp) in an uncoated fused quartz envelope.

Fluorescent lamp tubes are typically straight and range in length from about 100 millimeters (3.9 in) for miniature lamps, to 2.43 meters (8.0 ft) for high-output lamps. Some lamps have the tube bent into a circle, used for table lamps or other places where a more compact light source is desired. Larger U-shaped lamps are used to provide the same amount of light in a more compact area, and are used for special architectural purposes. Compact fluorescent lamps have several small-diameter tubes joined in a bundle of two, three, or four, or a small diameter tube coiled into a spiral, to provide a high amount of light output in little volume.

Light-emitting phosphors are applied as a paint-like coating to the inside of the tube. The organic solvents are allowed to evaporate, then the tube is heated to nearly the melting point of glass to drive off remaining organic compounds and fuse the coating to the lamp tube. Careful control of the grain size of the suspended phosphors is necessary; large grains, 35 micrometers or larger, lead to weak grainy coatings, whereas too many small particles 1 or 2 micrometers or smaller leads to poor light maintenance and efficiency. Most phosphors perform best with a particle size around 10 micrometers. The coating must be thick enough to capture all the ultraviolet light produced by the mercury arc, but not so thick that the phosphor coating absorbs too much visible light. The first phosphors were synthetic versions of naturally-occurring fluorescent minerals, with small amounts of metals added as activators. Later other compounds were discovered, allowing differing colors of lamps to be made.[4]

Electrical aspects of operation

Different ballasts for fluorescent and discharge lamps

Fluorescent lamps are negative differential resistance devices, so as more current flows through them, the electrical resistance of the fluorescent lamp drops, allowing even more current to flow. Connected directly to a constant-voltage mains power supply, a fluorescent lamp would rapidly self-destruct due to the uncontrolled current flow. To prevent this, fluorescent lamps must use an auxiliary device, a ballast, to regulate the current flow through the tube.

The terminal voltage across an operating lamp varies depending on the arc current, tube diameter, temperature, and fill gas. A fixed part of the voltage drop is due to the electrodes. A general lighting service T12 48 inch (1200 mm) lamp operates at 430 mA, with 100 volts drop. High output lamps operate at 800 mA, and some types operate up to 1500 mA. The power level varies from 10 watts per foot (33 watts per meter) to 25 watts per foot (82 watts per meter) of tube length for T12 lamps.[5]

The simplest ballast for alternating current use is a series coil or choke, consisting of a winding on a laminated magnetic core. The inductance of this winding limits the flow of AC current. This type is still used, for example, in 120 volt operated desk lamps using relatively short lamps. Ballasts are rated for the size of lamp and power frequency. Where the mains voltage is insufficient to start long fluorescent lamps, the ballast is often a step-up autotransformer with substantial leakage inductance (so as to limit the current flow). Either form of inductive ballast may also include a capacitor for power factor correction.

230 V ballast for 18–20 W

Many different circuits have been used to start and run fluorescent lamps. The choice of circuit is based on factors such as mains voltage, tube length, initial cost, long term cost, instant versus non-instant starting, temperature ranges and parts availability, etc. The names of these different circuits vary by country and this can cause confusion. For example, pre-heat in this context has valid but different meanings in the US and elsewhere.

Fluorescent lamps can run directly from a DC supply of sufficient voltage to strike an arc. The ballast must be resistive, and would consume about as much power as the lamp. When operated from DC, the starting switch is often arranged to reverse the polarity of the supply to the lamp each time it is started; otherwise, the mercury accumulates at one end of the tube. Fluorescent lamps are (almost) never operated directly from DC for those reasons. Instead, an inverter converts the DC into AC and provides the current-limiting function as described below for electronic ballasts.

Effect of temperature

The light output and performance of fluorescent lamps is critically affected by the temperature of the bulb wall and its effect on the partial pressure of mercury vapor within the lamp.[6] Each lamp contains a small amount of mercury, which must vaporize to support the lamp current and generate light. At low temperatures the mercury is in the form of dispersed liquid droplets. As the lamp warms, more of the mercury is in vapor form. At higher temperatures, self-absorption in the vapor reduces the yield of UV and visible light. Since mercury condenses at the coolest spot in the lamp, careful design is required to maintain that spot at the optimum temperature, around 40 °C.

By using an amalgam with some other metal, the vapor pressure is reduced and the optimum temperature range extended upward; however, the bulb wall "cold spot" temperature must still be controlled to prevent migration of the mercury out of the amalgam and condensing on the cold spot. Fluorescent lamps intended for higher output will have structural features such as a deformed tube or internal heat-sinks to control cold spot temperature and mercury distribution. Heavily-loaded small lamps, such as compact fluorescent lamps, also include heat-sink areas in the tube to maintain mercury vapor pressure at the optimum value.[7]


The efficiency of fluorescent lighting owes much to the fact that low pressure mercury discharges emit about 65% of their total light in the 254 nm line (another 10–20% of the light is emitted in the 185 nm line). The UV light is absorbed by the bulb's fluorescent coating, which re-radiates the energy at longer wavelengths to emit visible light. The blend of phosphors controls the color of the light, and along with the bulb's glass prevents the harmful UV light from escaping.

Only a fraction of the electrical energy input into a lamp gets turned into useful light. The ballast dissipates some heat; electronic ballasts may be around 90% efficient. A fixed voltage drop occurs at the electrodes. Some of the energy in the mercury vapor column is also dissipated, but about 85% is turned into visible and ultraviolet light.

Not all the UV energy on the phosphor gets converted into visible light. In a modern lamp, for every 100 incident photons of UV impacting the phosphor, only 86 visible light photons are emitted (a quantum efficiency of 86%). The largest single loss in modern lamps is due to the lower energy of each photon of visible light, compared to the energy of the UV photons that generated them. Incident photons have an energy of 5.5 electron volts but produces visible light photons with energy around 2.5 electron volts, so only 45% of the UV energy is used. If a so-called "two-photon" phosphor could be developed, this would improve the efficiency but much research has not yet found such a system.[8]

Cold cathode lamps

Most fluorescent lamps use electrodes that operate in thermionic emission mode, meaning they are operated at a high enough temperature for the chosen material (normally a special coating) to liberate electrons across to the gas-fill by heat.

However, there are also tubes that operate in cold cathode mode, whereby electrons are liberated only by the level of potential difference provided. This doesn't mean the electrodes are cold (and indeed, they can be very hot), but it does mean they are operating below their thermionic emission temperature. Because cold cathode lamps have no thermionic emission coating to wear out they can have much longer lives than is commonly available with thermionic emission tubes. This quality makes them desirable for maintenance-free long-life applications (such as LCD backlight displays). Sputtering of the electrode may still occur, but electrodes can be shaped (e.g. into an internal cylinder) to capture most of the sputtered material so it isn't lost from the electrode.

Cold cathode lamps are generally less efficient than thermionic emission lamps because the cathode fall voltage is much higher. The increased fall voltage results in more power dissipation at tube ends, which doesn't contribute to light output. However, this is less significant with longer tubes. The increased power dissipation at tube ends also usually means cold cathode tubes have to be run at a lower loading than their thermionic emission equivalents. Given the higher tube voltage required anyway, these tubes can easily be made long, and even run as series strings. They are better suited for bending into special shapes for lettering and signage, and can also be instantly switched on or off.


A preheat fluorescent lamp circuit using an automatic starting switch. A: Fluorescent tube, B: Power (+220 volts), C: Starter, D: Switch (bi-metallic thermostat), E: Capacitor, F: Filaments, G: Ballast)
Fluorescent lamp-electronic ballast starter-movie VNr°0001.ogv
Starting a preheat lamp. The automatic starter switch flashes orange each time it attempts to start the lamp.

The mercury atoms in the fluorescent tube must be ionized before the arc can "strike" within the tube. For small lamps, it does not take much voltage to strike the arc and starting the lamp presents no problem, but larger tubes require a substantial voltage (in the range of a thousand volts).


This technique uses a combination filament/cathode at each end of the lamp in conjunction with a mechanical or automatic switch (see circuit diagram to the right) that initially connect the filaments in series with the ballast and thereby preheat the filaments prior to striking the arc. Note that in North America, this is referred to as Preheat. Elsewhere this is referred to as Switchstart.[citation needed]

These systems are standard equipment in 200–240 V countries (and for 100–120 V lamps up to about 30 watts), and generally use a glow starter. Before the 1960s, four-pin thermal starters and manual switches were also used. Electronic starters are also sometimes used with these electromagnetic ballast lamp fittings.

A preheat fluorescent lamp "starter" (automatic starting switch)

The automatic glow starter shown in the photograph to the left consists of a small gas-discharge tube, containing neon and/or argon and fitted with a bi-metallic electrode. The special bi-metallic electrode is the key to the automatic starting mechanism.

Electronic fluorescent lamp starters.

When power is first applied to the lamp circuit, a glow discharge will appear over the electrodes of the starter. This glow discharge will heat the gas in the starter and cause the bi-metallic electrode to bend towards the other electrode. When the electrodes touch, the two filaments of the fluorescent lamp and the ballast will effectively be switched in series to the supply voltage. This causes the filaments to glow and emit electrons into the gas column by thermionic emission. In the starter's tube, the touching electrodes have stopped the glow discharge, causing the gas to cool down again. The bi-metallic electrode also cools down and starts to move back. When the electrodes separate, the inductive kick from the ballast provides the high voltage to start the lamp. The starter additionally has a capacitor wired in parallel to its gas-discharge tube, in order to prolong the electrode life.

Once the tube is struck, the impinging main discharge then keeps the cathode hot, permitting continued emission without the need for the starter to close. The starter does not close again because the voltage across the lit tube is insufficient to start a glow discharge in the starter.

Tube strike is reliable in these systems, but glow starters will often cycle a few times before allowing the tube to stay lit, which causes undesirable flashing during starting. (The older thermal starters behaved better in this respect.)

If the tube fails to strike, or strikes but then extinguishes, the starting sequence is repeated. With automated starters such as glow starters, a failing tube will cycle endlessly, flashing as the lamp quickly goes out because emission is insufficient to keep the lamp current high enough to keep the glow starter open. This causes flickering, and runs the ballast at above design temperature. Some more advanced starters time out in this situation, and do not attempt repeated starts until power is reset. Some older systems used a thermal over-current trip to detect repeated starting attempts. These require manual reset.

Electronic starters use a more complex method to preheat the cathodes of a fluorescent lamp. They commonly use a specially designed semiconductor switch. They are programmed with a predefined preheat time to ensure that the cathodes are fully heated and reduce the amount of sputtered emission mix to prolong the life of the lamp. Electronic starters contain a series of capacitors that are capable of producing a high voltage pulse of electricity across the lamp to ensure that it strikes correctly. Electronic starters only attempt to start a lamp for a short time when power is initially applied and will not repeatedly attempt to restrike a lamp that is dead and cannot sustain an arc. This eliminates the re-striking of a lamp and the cycle of flashing that a failing lamp installed with a glow starter can produce.

Instant start

In some cases, a high voltage is applied directly: instant start fluorescent tubes simply use a high enough voltage to break down the gas and mercury column and thereby start arc conduction. These tubes can be identified by a single pin at each end of the tube. The lamp holders have a "disconnect" socket at the low-voltage end to isolate the ballast and prevent electric shock. Low-cost lighting fixtures with an integrated electronic ballast use instant start on preheat lamps, even if it reduces the lamp lifespan.

Rapid start

Newer rapid start ballast designs provide filament power windings within the ballast; these rapidly and continuously warm the filaments/cathodes using low-voltage AC. No inductive voltage spike is produced for starting, so the lamps must be mounted near a grounded (earthed) reflector to allow the glow discharge to propagate through the tube and initiate the arc discharge. In some lamps a "starting aid" strip of grounded metal is attached to the outside of the lamp glass.

A rapid-start "iron" (magnetic) ballast continually heats the cathodes at the ends of the lamps. This ballast runs two F40T12 lamps in series.

Semi-resonant start

A Semi-resonant lamp starting

Semi-resonant start was invented by Thorn Lighting for use with T12 fluorescent tubes, This starting method uses a double wound transformer and a circuit capacitor to start the lamp without flashing or flickering. The lamp slowly starts over a period of about 3 – 5 seconds until it reaches full brightness without flickering. These were mainly used in commercial installations because of their higher initial cost but they reduced maintenance costs over time as there are no starter switches to be replaced. Semi-resonant start fixtures are now becoming obsolete as they were designed for T12 fluorescent tubes and will often malfunction with T8 counterparts causing erratic starting.

Electronic ballasts

Electronic ballast for fluorescent lamp, 2x58W
Electronic ballasts and different compact fluorescent lamps

Electronic ballasts employ transistors to alter mains voltage frequency into high-frequency AC while also regulating the current flow in the lamp. These ballasts take advantage of the higher efficacy of lamps operated with higher-frequency current. Efficacy of a fluorescent lamp rises by almost 10% at a frequency of 10 kHz, compared to efficacy at normal power frequency. When the AC period is shorter than the relaxation time to de-ionize mercury atoms in the discharge column, the discharge stays closer to optimum operating condition.[9] Electronic ballasts typically work in rapid start or instant start mode. Electronic ballasts are commonly supplied with AC power, which is internally converted to DC (with Bridge rectifier and Reservoir capacitor) and then back to a variable frequency AC waveform. Depending upon the capacitance and the quality of constant-current pulse-width-modulation, this can largely eliminate modulation at 100 or 120 Hz.

Low cost ballasts mostly contain only a simple oscillator and series resonant LC circuit. When turned on, the oscillator starts, and the LC circuit charges. After a short time the voltage across the lamp reaches about 1 kV and the lamp ignites. The process is too fast to preheat the cathodes, so the lamp instant-starts in cold cathode mode. The cathode filaments are still used for protection of the ballast from overheating if the lamp does not ignite. A few manufacturers use positive temperature coefficient (PTC) thermistors to disable instant starting and give some time to preheat the filaments.

More complex electronic ballasts use programmed start. The output AC frequency is started above the resonance frequency of the output circuit of the ballast; and after the filaments are heated, the frequency is rapidly decreased. If the frequency approaches the resonant frequency of the ballast, the output voltage will increase so much that the lamp will ignite. If the lamp does not ignite, an electronic circuit stops the operation of the ballast.

Nowadays, many electronic ballasts are controlled by a PIC microcontroller or similar, and these are sometimes called digital ballasts. Digital ballasts can apply quite complex logic to lamp starting and operation. This enables functions such as testing for broken electrodes and missing tubes before attempting to start, auto detect tube replacement, and auto detection of tube type, such that a single ballast can be used with several different tubes, even those that operate at different arc currents, etc. Once such fine grained control over the starting and arc current is achievable, features such as dimming, and having the ballast maintain a constant light level against changing sunlight contribution are all easily included in the embedded microcontroller software, and can be found in various manufacturers' products.

Since introduction in the 1990s, high frequency ballasts have been used in general lighting fixtures with either rapid start or pre-heat lamps. These ballasts convert the incoming power to an output frequency in excess of 20 kHz. This increases lamp efficiency. These are used in several applications, including new generation tanning lamp systems, whereby a 100 watt lamp (e.g., F71T12BP) can be lit using 65 to 70 watts of actual power while obtaining the same luminous flux (measured in lumens) as magnetic ballasts. These ballasts operate with voltages that can be almost 600 volts, requiring some consideration in housing design, and can cause a minor limitation in the length of the wire leads from the ballast to the lamp ends.

End of life

The end of life failure mode for fluorescent lamps varies depending how they are used and their control gear type.

Emission mix

Closeup of the filament on a low pressure mercury gas discharge lamp showing white thermionic emission mix coating on the central portion of the coil. Typically made of a mixture of barium, strontium and calcium oxides, the coating is sputtered away through normal use, often eventually resulting in lamp failure.

The "emission mix" on the tube filaments/cathodes is necessary to enable electrons to pass into the gas via thermionic emission at the tube operating voltages used. The mix is slowly sputtered off by bombardment with electrons and mercury ions during operation, but a larger amount is sputtered off each time the tube is started with cold cathodes. The method of starting the lamp has a significant impact on this. Lamps operated for typically less than 3 hours each switch-on will normally run out of the emission mix before other parts of the lamp fail. The sputtered emission mix forms the dark marks at the tube ends seen in old tubes. When all the emission mix is gone, the cathode cannot pass sufficient electrons into the gas fill to maintain the discharge at the designed tube operating voltage. Ideally, the control gear should shut down the tube when this happens. However, some control gear will provide sufficient increased voltage to continue operating the tube in cold cathode mode, which will cause overheating of the tube end and rapid disintegration of the electrodes and their support wires until they are completely gone or the glass cracks, wrecking the low pressure gas fill and stopping the gas discharge.

Ballast electronics

This may occur in compact fluorescent lamps with integral electrical ballasts or in linear lamps. Ballast electronics failure is a somewhat random process that follows the standard failure profile for any electronic device. There is an initial small peak of early failures, followed by a drop and steady increase over lamp life. Life of electronics is heavily dependent on operating temperature—it typically halves for each 10 °C temperature rise. The quoted average life of a lamp is usually at 25 °C ambient (this may vary by country). The average life of the electronics at this temperature is normally greater than this, so at this temperature, not many lamps will fail due to failure of the electronics. In some fittings, the ambient temperature could be well above this, in which case failure of the electronics may become the predominant failure mechanism. Similarly, running a compact fluorescent lamp base-up will result in hotter electronics, which can cause shorter average life (particularly with higher power rated ones). Electronic ballasts should be designed to shut down the tube when the emission mix runs out as described above. In the case of integral electronic ballasts, since they never have to work again, this is sometimes done by having them deliberately burn out some component to permanently cease operation.


The phosphor drops off in efficiency during use. By around 25,000 operating hours, it will typically be half the brightness of a new lamp (although some manufacturers claim much longer half-lives for their lamps). Lamps that do not suffer failures of the emission mix or integral ballast electronics will eventually develop this failure mode. They still work, but have become dim and inefficient. The process is slow, and often only becomes obvious when a new lamp is operating next to an old one.

Loss of mercury

Mercury is slowly absorbed into glass, phosphor, and tube electrodes throughout the lamp life, where it can no longer function. Newer lamps now have just enough mercury to last the expected life of the lamp. Loss of mercury will take over from failure of the phosphor in some lamps. The failure symptoms are similar, except loss of mercury initially causes an extended run-up time to full light output, and finally causes the lamp to glow a dim pink when the mercury runs out and the argon base gas takes over as the primary discharge.[citation needed]

Phosphors and the spectrum of emitted light

Light from a fluorescent tube lamp diffracted by a CD shows the individual bands of color.

The spectrum of light emitted from a fluorescent lamp is the combination of light directly emitted by the mercury vapor, and light emitted by the phosphorescent coating. The spectral lines from the mercury emission and the phosphorescence effect give a combined spectral distribution of light that is different than those produced by incandescent sources. The relative intensity of light emitted in each narrow band of wavelengths over the visible spectrum is in different proportions compared to that of an incandescent source. Colored objects are perceived differently under light sources with differing spectral distributions. For example, some people find the color rendition produced by some fluorescent lamps to be harsh and displeasing. A healthy person can sometimes appear to have an unhealthy skin tone under fluorescent lighting. The extent to which this phenomenon occurs is related to the light's spectral composition, and may be gauged by its color rendering index (CRI).

Color temperature

The light spectra of different grow lamps

Correlated color temperature (CCT) is a measure of the "shade" of whiteness of a light source, again by comparison with a blackbody. Typical incandescent lighting is 2700 K, which is yellowish-white. Halogen lighting is 3000 K. Fluorescent lamps are manufactured to a chosen CCT by altering the mixture of phosphors inside the tube. Warm-white fluorescents have CCT of 2700 K and are popular for residential lighting. Neutral-white fluorescents have a CCT of 3000 K or 3500 K. Cool-white fluorescents have a CCT of 4100 K and are popular for office lighting. Daylight fluorescents have a CCT of 5000 K to 6500 K, which is bluish-white.

High CCT lighting generally requires higher light levels. At dimmer illumination levels, the human eye perceives lower color temperatures as more natural, as related through the Kruithof curve. So, a dim 2700 K incandescent lamp appears natural and a bright 5000 K lamp also appears natural, but a dim 5000 K fluorescent lamp appears too pale. Daylight-type fluorescents look natural only if they are very bright.

Color rendering index

Color rendering index (CRI) is a measure of how well colors can be perceived using light from a source, relative to light from a reference source such as daylight or a blackbody of the same colot temperature. By definition, an incandescent lamp has a CRI of 100. Real-life fluorescent tubes achieve CRIs of anywhere from 50 to 99. Fluorescent lamps with low CRI have phosphors that emit too little red light. Skin appears less pink, and hence "unhealthy" compared with incandescent lighting. Colored objects appear muted. For example, a low CRI 6800 K halophosphate tube (an extreme example) will make reds appear dull red or even brown. Since the eye is relatively less efficient at detecting red light, an improvement in color rendering index, with increased energy in the red part of the spectrum, may reduce the overall luminous efficacy.[10]

Lighting arrangements use fluorescent tubes in an assortment of tints of white. Sometimes this is because of the lack of appreciation for the difference or importance of differing tube types. Mixing tube types within fittings can improve the color reproduction of lower quality tubes.

Phosphor composition

Some of the least pleasant light comes from tubes containing the older halophosphate type phosphors (chemical formula Ca5(PO4)3(F, Cl):Sb3+, Mn2+). The bad color reproduction is due to the fact that this phosphor mainly emits yellow and blue light, and relatively little green and red. In the absence of a reference, this mixture appears white to the eye, but the light has an incomplete spectrum. The CRI of such lamps is around 60.

Since the 1990s, higher quality fluorescent lamps use either a higher CRI halophosphate coating, or a triphosphor mixture, based on europium and terbium ions, that have emission bands more evenly distributed over the spectrum of visible light. High CRI halophosphate and triphosphor tubes give a more natural color reproduction to the human eye. The CRI of such lamps is typically 82–100.

Fluorescent lamp spectra
Typical fluorescent lamp with "rare earth" phosphor Fluorescent lighting spectrum peaks labelled.png A typical "cool white" fluorescent lamp utilizing two rare earth doped phosphors, Tb3+, Ce3+:LaPO4 for green and blue emission and Eu:Y2O3 for red. For an explanation of the origin of the individual peaks click on the image. Note that several of the spectral peaks are directly generated from the mercury arc. This is likely the most common type of fluorescent lamp in use today.
An older style halophosphate phosphor fluorescent lamp Spectrum of halophosphate type fluorescent bulb (f30t12 ww rs).png Halophosphate phosphors in these lamps usually consist of trivalent antimony and divalent manganese doped calcium halophosphate (Ca5(PO4)3(Cl, F):Sb3+, Mn2+). The color of the light output can be adjusted by altering the ratio of the blue emitting antimony dopant and orange emitting manganese dopant. The color rendering ability of these older style lamps is quite poor. Halophosphate phosphors were invented by A.H. McKeag et al. in 1942.
"Natural sunshine" fluorescent light Spectra-Philips 32T8 natural sunshine fluorescent light.png An explanation of the origin of the peaks is on the image page.
Yellow fluorescent lights Yellow fluorescent light spectrum.png The spectrum is nearly identical to a normal fluorescent bulb except for a near total lack of light below 500 nanometers. This effect can be achieved through either specialized phosphor use or more commonly by the use of a simple yellow light filter. These lamps are commonly used as lighting for photolithography work in cleanrooms and as "bug repellent" outdoor lighting (the efficacy of which is questionable).
Spectrum of a "blacklight" bulb Fluorescent Black-Light spectrum with peaks labelled.gif There is typically only one phosphor present in a blacklight bulb, usually consisting of europium-doped strontium fluoroborate, which is contained in an envelope of Wood's glass.


Fluorescent light bulbs come in many shapes and sizes. The compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) is becoming more popular. Many compact fluorescent lamps integrate the auxiliary electronics into the base of the lamp, allowing them to fit into a regular light bulb socket.

In the US, residential use of fluorescent lighting remains low (generally limited to kitchens, basements, garages, and other areas), but schools and businesses find the cost savings of fluorescents to be significant and rarely use incandescent lights. Tax incentives and environmental awareness result in higher use in places such as California.

In other countries, residential use of fluorescent lighting varies depending on the price of energy, financial and environmental concerns of the local population, and acceptability of the light output. In East and Southeast Asia it is very rare to see incandescent bulbs in buildings anywhere.

Some countries are encouraging the phase-out of incandescent light bulbs and substitution of incandescent lamps with fluorescent lamps or other types of energy-efficient lamps.


Luminous efficacy

Fluorescent lamps convert more of the input power to visible light than incandescent lamps. A typical 100 watt tungsten filament incandescent lamp may convert only 2% of its power input to visible white light, whereas typical fluorescent lamps convert about 22% of the power input to visible white light.[11] See the table in the luminous efficacy article.

The efficacy of fluorescent tubes ranges from about 16 lumens per watt for a 4 watt tube with an ordinary ballast to as high as about 100 lumens per watt for a 32 watt tube with modern electronic ballast, commonly averaging 50 to 67 lm/W overall. Most compact fluorescents above 13 watts with integral electronic ballasts achieve about 60 lm/W. Lamps are rated by lumens after 100 hours of operation.[12] For a given fluorescent tube, a high-frequency electronic ballast gives about 10% efficacy improvement over an inductive ballast. It is necessary to include the ballast loss when evaluating the efficacy of a fluorescent lamp system; this can be about 25% of the lamp power with magnetic ballasts, and around 10% with electronic ballasts.

Fluorescent lamp efficacy is dependent on lamp temperature at the coldest part of the lamp. In T8 lamps this is in the center of the tube. In T5 lamps this is at the end of the tube with the text stamped on it. The ideal temperature for a T8 lamp is 25 °C (77 °F) while the T5 lamp is ideally at 35 °C (95 °F).


Typically a fluorescent lamp will last between 10 to 20 times as long as an equivalent incandescent lamp when operated several hours at a time.

The higher initial cost of a fluorescent lamp is usually more than compensated for by lower energy consumption over its life. The longer life may also reduce lamp replacement costs, providing additional saving especially where labour is costly. Therefore they are widely used by businesses and institutions, but not as much by households.

Lower luminosity

Compared with an incandescent lamp, a fluorescent tube is a more diffuse and physically larger light source. In suitably designed lamps, light can be more evenly distributed without point source of glare such as seen from an undiffused incandescent filament; the lamp is large compared to the typical distance between lamp and illuminated surfaces.

Lower heat

About two-thirds to three-quarters less heat is given off by fluorescent lamps compared to an equivalent installation of incandescent lamps. This greatly reduces the size, cost, and energy consumption of air-conditioning equipment.


Frequent switching

If the lamp is installed where it is frequently switched on and off, it will age rapidly. Under extreme conditions, its lifespan may be much shorter than a cheap incandescent lamp. Each start cycle slightly erodes the electron-emitting surface of the cathodes; when all the emission material is gone, the lamp cannot start with the available ballast voltage. Fixtures intended for flashing of lights (such as for advertising) will use a ballast that maintains cathode temperature when the arc is off, preserving the life of the lamp.

Health and safety issues

If a fluorescent lamp is broken, a very small amount of mercury can contaminate the surrounding environment. About 99% of the mercury is typically contained in the phosphor, especially on lamps that are near their end of life.[13] The broken glass is usually considered a greater hazard than the small amount of spilled mercury. The EPA recommends airing out the location of a fluorescent tube break and using wet paper towels to help pick up the broken glass and fine particles. Any glass and used towels should be disposed of in a sealed plastic bag. Vacuum cleaners can cause the particles to become airborne, and should not be used.[14]

Fluorescent lamps emit a small amount of ultraviolet (UV) light. A 1993 study in the US found that UV exposure from sitting under fluorescent lights for eight hours is equivalent to only one minute of sun exposure.[15] Very sensitive individuals may experience a variety of health problems relating to light sensitivity that is aggravated by artificial lighting.

UV light can affect sensitive paintings, especially watercolors and many textiles. Valuable art work must be protected from light by additional glass or transparent acrylic sheets put between the lamp(s) and the painting.[citation needed]

Nocturnal exposure to light in the short wavelength ranges (below 530 nm) generated by some fluorescent lamps may interfere with mammalian circadian rhythms due to its suppressing effect on melatonin production. [16] Suppression of melatonin has been linked to cancer in some studies.

Fluorescent lamps with magnetic ballasts flicker at a normally unnoticeable frequency of 100 or 120 hertz and this flickering can cause problems for some individuals with light sensitivity,[17] they are listed as problematic for some individuals with autism, epilepsy,[18] lupus,[19] chronic fatigue syndrome, and vertigo.[20] Newer fluorescent lights without magnetic ballasts have essentially eliminated flicker. In rare cases, fluorescent lighting can also induce depersonalization and derealization, subsequently, it can worsen depersonalization disorder symptomology.[21] Research on these rare cases is very limited and cause and effect often cannot be duplicated.

The non-visible 100–120 Hz flicker from fluorescent tubes powered by electromagnetic ballasts are associated with headaches and eyestrain. Individuals with high flicker fusion threshold are particularly affected by electromagnetic ballasts: their EEG alpha waves are markedly attenuated and they perform office tasks with greater speed and decreased accuracy.[22] Ordinary people have better reading performance using high frequency (20 kHz – 60 kHz) electronic ballasts than electromagnetic ballasts.[23]

The flicker of fluorescent lamps, even with electromagnetic ballasts, is so rapid that it is unlikely to present a hazard to individuals with epilepsy.[24] Early studies suspected a relationship between the flickering of fluorescent lamps with electromagnetic ballasts and repetitive movement in autistic children.[25] However, these studies had interpretive problems[26] and have not been replicated.


Magnetic single-lamp ballasts have a low power factor

Fluorescent lamps require a ballast to stabilize the current through the lamp, and to provide the initial striking voltage required to start the arc discharge. This increases the cost of fluorescent light fixtures, though often one ballast is shared between two or more lamps. Electromagnetic ballasts with a minor fault can produce an audible humming or buzzing noise. Magnetic ballasts are usually filled with a tar-like potting compound to reduce emitted noise. Hum is eliminated in lamps with a high-frequency electronic ballast. Energy lost in magnetic ballasts can be significant, on the order of 10% of lamp input power.[27] Electronic ballasts reduce this loss.

Power quality and radio interference

Simple inductive fluorescent lamp ballasts have a power factor of less than unity. Inductive ballasts include power factor correction capacitors. Simple electronic ballasts may also have low power factor due to their rectifier input stage.

Fluorescent lamps are a non-linear load and generate harmonic currents in the electrical power supply. The arc within the lamp may generate radio frequency noise, which can be conducted through power wiring. Suppression of radio interference is possible. Very good suppression is possible, but adds to the cost of the fluorescent fixtures.

Operating temperature

Fluorescent lamps operate best around room temperature. At much lower or higher temperatures, efficiency decreases. At below-freezing temperatures standard lamps may not start. Special lamps may be needed for reliable service outdoors in cold weather. Certain applications such as outdoor signaling for traffic, railways, etc., using fluorescent lamps do not benefit from the so-called waste heat generated by incandescent lamps in melting snow and ice which can build up and obstruct visibility.

Lamp shape

Fluorescent tubes are long, low-luminance sources compared with high pressure arc lamps and incandescent lamps. However, low luminous intensity of the emitting surface is useful because it reduces glare. Lamp fixture design must control light from a long tube instead of a compact globe.

The compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) replaces regular incandescent bulbs. However, some CFLs will not fit some lamps, because the harp (heavy wire shade support bracket) is shaped for the narrow neck of an incandescent lamp. CFLs tend to have a wide housing for their electronic ballast close to the bulb's base, and so may not fit some lamps.

Flicker problems

The "beat effect" problem created when shooting photos or film under standard fluorescent lighting.

Fluorescent lamps using a magnetic mains frequency ballast do not give out a steady light; instead, they flicker at twice the supply frequency. This results in fluctuations not only with light output but color temperature as well,[28] which may pose problems for photography and people who are sensitive to the flicker. Even among persons not sensitive to light flicker, a stroboscopic effect can be noticed, where something spinning at just the right speed may appear stationary if illuminated solely by a single fluorescent lamp. This effect is eliminated by paired lamps operating on a lead-lag ballast. Unlike a true strobe lamp, the light level drops in appreciable time and so substantial "blurring" of the moving part would be evident.

In some circumstances, fluorescent lamps operated at mains frequency can also produce flicker at the mains frequency (50 or 60 Hz) itself, which is noticeable by more people. This can happen in the last few hours of tube life when the cathode emission coating at one end is almost run out, and that cathode starts having difficulty emitting enough electrons into the gas fill, resulting in slight rectification and hence uneven light output in positive and negative going mains cycles. Mains frequency flicker can also sometimes be emitted from the very ends of the tubes, if each tube electrode produces slightly different light output pattern on each half-cycle. Flicker at mains frequency is more noticeable in the peripheral vision than it is in the center of gaze.

beat effect

New fluorescent lamps may show a twisting spiral pattern of light in a part of the lamp. This effect is due to loose cathode material and usually disappears after a few hours of operation.[29]

Electromagnetic ballasts may also cause problems for video recording as there can be a 'beat effect' between the periodic reading of a camera's sensor and the fluctuations in intensity of the fluorescent lamp.

Fluorescent lamps using high-frequency electronic ballasts do not produce visible light flicker, since above about 5 kHz, the excited electron state half-life is longer than a half cycle, and light production becomes continuous. Operating frequencies of electronic ballasts are selected to avoid interference with infrared remote controls. Poor quality (or failing) electronic ballasts may have insufficient Reservoir Capacitance or have poor regulation, thereby producing considerable 100/120 Hz modulation of the light.


Lighting Systems can save up to 85% compared to fittings with magnetic ballasts

Fluorescent light fixtures cannot be connected to the same dimmer switch used for incandescent lamps. Two effects are responsible for this: the waveshape of the voltage emitted by a standard phase-control dimmer interacts badly with many ballasts, and it becomes difficult to sustain an arc in the fluorescent tube at low power levels. Dimming installations require a compatible dimming ballast. These systems keep the cathodes of the fluorescent tube fully heated even as the arc current is reduced, promoting easy thermionic emission of electrons into the arc stream. CFLs are available which work in conjunction with a suitable dimmer.

Disposal and recycling

The disposal of phosphor and particularly the toxic mercury in the tubes is an environmental issue. Governmental regulations in many areas require special disposal of fluorescent lamps separate from general and household wastes. For large commercial or industrial users of fluorescent lights, recycling services are available in many nations, and may be required by regulation.[30][31] In some areas, recycling is also available to consumers.[32]

Tube designations

Lamps are typically identified by a code such as F##T##, where F is for fluorescent, the first number indicates the power in watts (or where lamps can be operated at different power levels, the length in inches), the T indicates that the shape of the bulb is tubular, and the last number is the diameter in eighths of an inch (sometimes in millimeters, rounded to the nearest millimeter). Typical diameters are T12 or T38 (11/2" or 38.1 mm) for residential bulbs with old magnetic ballasts, T8 or T26 (1" or 25.4 mm) for commercial energy-saving lamps with electronic ballasts, and T5 or T16 (5/8" or 15.875 mm) for very small lamps, which may even operate from a battery powered device.

Fluorescent tube diameter designation comparison
Tube diameter designations Tube diameter measurements Extra
Imperial-based Metric-based Inches Millimeters Socket Notes
T2 N/A 2/8" approx 7 Osram's Fluorescent Miniature (FM) tubes only
T4 N/A 4/8" 12 G5 bipin Slim lamps. Power ratings and lengths not standardized (and not the same) between different manufacturers
T5 T16 5/8" 15.875 G5 bipin Original 4–13 W range from 1950s or earlier.[33]
Two newer ranges high efficiency (HE) 14–35 W, and high output (HO) 24–80 W introduced in the 1990s[34]
T8 T26 8/8" 1" 25.4 G13 bipin/Single Pin/Recessed Double contact From the 1930s,[35] more common since the 1980s.[36]
T9 T29 9/8" 11/8" 28.575 Circular fluorescent tubes only
T12 T38 12/8" 11/2" 38.1 G13 bipin/single pin, recessed double contact Also from the 1930s, not as efficient as new lamps.[37]
T17 N/A 17/8" 21/8" 53.975 Mogul Bipin Large size for F90T17 (preheat) and F40T17/IS (Instant Start)
PG17 N/A 17/8" 21/8" 53.975 Recessed Double Contact General Electric's Power Groove tubes only


Cross section of a typical fluorescent lamp with and without a reflector

Some lamps have an internal opaque reflector. Coverage of the reflector ranges from 120 degrees to 310 degrees of the lamp's circumference. Often, a lamp is marked as a reflector lamp by adding the letter "R" in the model code, so a F##T## lamp with a reflector would be coded as "FR##T##". VHO lamps with reflectors may be coded as VHOR. No such designation exists for the amount of reflector degrees the lamp has.

Reflector lamps are used when light is only desired to be emitted in a single direction, or when an application requires the maximum amount of light. For example, these lamps can be used in tanning beds or in backlighting electronic displays. An internal reflector is more efficient than standard external reflectors. Another example is color matched aperture lights (30 degrees of opening, give or take) are used in the food industry for quality control purposes, to allow robotic inspection of cooked goods.

Aperture lamps have a clear break in the phosphor coating, typically of 30 degrees, to concentrate light in one direction and provide higher brightness luminance in the beam than can be achieved by uniform phosphor coatings. Aperture lamps include reflectors over the non-aperture area. Aperture lamps were commonly used in photocopiers in the 1960s and 1970s where a bank of fixed tubes was arranged to light up the image to be copied, but are rarely found nowadays. Aperture lamps can produce a concentrated beam of light suitable for edge-lit signs.[38]

Slimline lamps

Slimline lamps operate on an instant start ballast and are recognizable by their single-pin bases.

High output/very high output lamps

High-output lamps are brighter and draw more electrical current, have different ends on the pins so they cannot be used in the wrong fixture, and are labeled F##T##HO, or F##T##VHO for very high output. Since about the early to mid 1950s to today, General Electric developed and improved the Power Groove lamp with the label F##PG17. These lamps are recognizable by their large diameter (17/8" or 21/8"), grooved tube shape and an R17d cap on each end of them.

Other tube shapes

U-shaped tubes are FB##T##, with the B meaning "bent". Most commonly, these have the same designations as linear tubes. Circular bulbs are FC##T#, with the diameter of the circle (not circumference or watts) being the first number, and the second number usually being 9 (29 mm) for standard fixtures.


Color is usually indicated by WW for warm white, EW for enhanced (neutral) white, CW for cool white (the most common), and DW for the bluish daylight white. BLB is used for blacklight-blue lamps commonly used in bug zappers. BL is used for blacklight lamps commonly used in nightclubs. Other non-standard designations apply for plant lights or grow lights.

Philips and Osram use numeric color codes for the colors. On tri-phosphor and multi-phosphor tubes, the first digit indicates the color rendition index of the lamp. If the first digit on a lamp says 8, then the CRI of that lamp will be approximately 85. The last two digits indicate the color temperature of the lamp in kelvins (K). For example, if the last two digits on a lamp say 41, that lamp's color temperature will be 4100 K, which is a common tri-phosphor cool white fluorescent lamp.

Halophosphate tubes
Numeric color code Color Approximate CRI Color temperature (K)
27 Warm white 50–79 2700
33 Cool white 50–79 4100
83 Medium warm white 80 3000
84 Cool white (high CRI) 80 4100
Tri-phosphor tubes
Numeric color code Color Approximate CRI Color temperature (K)
827 Warm white ~85 2700
835 White ~85 3500
841 Cool white ~85 4100
850 Sunlight ~85 5000
865 Cool daylight ~85 6500
880 Skywhite ~85 8000
Multi-phosphor tubes
Numeric color code Color Approximate CRI Color temperature (K)
927 Warm white ~95 2700
941 Cool white ~95 4100
950 Sunlight ~98 5000
965 Cool daylight ~95 6500
Special purpose tubes
Numeric code Fluorescent

lamp type

05 Germicidal lamps No phosphors used at all,

using an envelope of fused quartz.

08 Black-light lamps
09 Sun-tanning lamps

Common tube ratings

This section lists the more common tube ratings for general lighting. Many more tube ratings exist, often country-specific. The Nominal Length may not exactly match any measured dimension of the tube. For some tube sizes, the nominal length (in feet) is the required spacing between centers of the lighting fixtures to create a continuous run, so the tubes are a little shorter than the nominal length.

Tube Diameter in 18 in (3.175 mm) Nominal Length Nominal watts
T5 6 in, 150 mm 4 W
T5 9 in, 225 mm 6 W
T5 12 in, 300 mm 8 W
T5 21 in, 525 mm 13 W
T8 18 in, 450 mm 15 W
T12 2 ft, 600 mm 20 W
T12 4 ft, 1200 mm 40 W
T12 5 ft, 1500 mm 65 W, 80 W
T12 6 ft, 1800 mm 75 W, 85 W
T12 8 ft, 2400 mm 125 W

European energy saving tubes

In the 1970s, Thorn Lighting introduced an energy saving 8 ft retrofit tube in Europe, designed to run on the existing 125 W (240 V) series ballast but with a different gas fill and operating voltage, the tube operated at only 100 W. Increased efficiency meant that the tube produced only 9% lumen reduction for a 20% power reduction.[39] This first energy saving tube design remains a T12 tube even today. However, follow-on retrofit replacements for all the other original T12 tubes were T8, which helped with creating the required electrical characteristics and saving on the then new (and more expensive) polyphosphor/triphosphor coatings, and these were even more efficient. Note that because these tubes were all designed as retrofit tubes to be fitted in T12 fittings running on series ballasts on 220–240 V supplies, they could not be used in 120 V mains countries with inherently different control gear designs.

Tube Diameter in 18 in (3.175 mm) Nominal Length Nominal watts Notes
T8 2 ft, 600 mm 18 W retrofit replacement for 2 ft T12 20 W
T8 4 ft, 1200 mm 36 W retrofit replacement for 4 ft T12 40 W
T8 5 ft, 1500 mm 58 W retrofit replacement for 5 ft T12 65 W
T8 6 ft, 1800 mm 70 W retrofit replacement for 6 ft T12 75/85 W
T12 8 ft, 2400 mm 100 W retrofit replacement for 8 ft T12 125 W

By around 1980 (in the UK, at least), most new fluorescent fittings were designed to take only the newer, retrofit tubes (end-caps won't take T12 tubes, except for 8 ft length). The earlier T12 tubes still remain available as spares but only fit in older fittings.

US energy saving tubes

In the 1990s(?), various energy saving tubes were introduced in the US, but unlike the T8 tubes introduced in Europe, they are not retrofits and required new matching ballasts to drive them. Running a T8 tube with a ballast for T12 will reduce lamp life and can increase energy consumption.[40] The tube type should always match the markings on the light fixture.

Tube Diameter in 18 in (3.175 mm) Nominal Length Nominal watts Notes
T8 2 ft 17 W
T8 4 ft 34 W
T8 5 ft 40 W
T8 8 ft 59 W
T12 4 ft 25 W Shoplite

New T5 tubes

See also: T5 fluorescent lamp

In 1990s, a new set of T5 tubes was designed. The lengths of these tubes are designed to fit within 300 mm modular units (such as modular ceilings, modular cupboards, etc.), each being a multiple of 300 mm, less a constant fixed amount for end-caps and the construction of the unit end. The use of T5 tubes (rather than T8 or T12) allows the tubes to be fitted into smaller spaces, and the smaller light source also enables more accurate control of beam direction by means of optics (reflectors and lenses in the luminaire). Each tube length is available in both a lower power high efficiency (HE) version, and a higher power (but lower efficiency) high output (HO) version. The loading (watts per unit length) of the T5 HE tubes is similar to the original 4/6/8/13 W T5 tubes, and some manufacturers produce a range of fittings spanning both these ranges of tubes. When originally developed in Europe, operation from both switchstart series ballasts and electronic ballasts was specified, but electronic ballasts were rapidly taking over at the time, particularly in the commercial lighting space where these tubes are most commonly used, and switchstart series ballast operation is no longer specified by manufacturers, only electronic ballasts.

Tube Diameter in 18 in (3.175 mm) Length Watts HE Watts HO Notes
T5 563 mm (22.2 in) 14 W 24 W fits within a 600 mm modular unit
T5 863 mm (34.0 in) 21 W 39 W fits within a 900 mm modular unit
T5 1,163 mm (45.8 in) 28 W 54 W fits within a 1200 mm modular unit
T5 1,463 mm (57.6 in) 35 W, 49 W 80 W fits within a 1500 mm modular unit

Other fluorescent lamps

Black lights
Blacklights are a subset of fluorescent lamps that are used to provide near ultraviolet light (at about 360 nm wavelength). They are built in the same fashion as conventional fluorescent lamps but the glass tube is coated with a phosphor that converts the short-wave UV within the tube to long-wave UV rather than to visible light. They are used to provoke fluorescence (to provide dramatic effects using blacklight paint and to detect materials such as urine and certain dyes that would be invisible in visible light) as well as to attract insects to bug zappers.
So-called blacklite blue lamps are also made from more expensive deep purple glass known as Wood's glass rather than clear glass. The deep purple glass filters out most of the visible colors of light directly emitted by the mercury-vapor discharge, producing proportionally less visible light compared with UV light. This allows UV-induced fluorescence to be seen more easily (thereby allowing blacklight posters to seem much more dramatic). The blacklight lamps used in bug zappers do not require this refinement so it is usually omitted in the interest of cost; they are called simply blacklite (and not blacklite blue).
Tanning lamps
The lamps used in tanning beds contain a different phosphor blend (typically 3 to 5 or more phosphors) that emits both UVA and UVB, provoking a tanning response in most human skin. Typically, the output is rated as 3% to 10% UVB (5% most typical) with the remaining UV as UVA. These are mainly F71, F72 or F73 HO (100 W) lamps, although 160 W VHO are somewhat common. One common phosphor used in these lamps is lead-activated barium disilicate, but a europium-activated strontium fluoroborate is also used. Early lamps used thallium as an activator, but emissions of thallium during manufacture were toxic.[41]
Grow lamps
Grow lamps contain phosphor blends that encourage photosynthesis, growth, and/or flowering in plants, algae, photosynthetic bacteria, and other light-dependent organisms. These often emit light in the red and blue color range, which is absorbed by chlorophyll and used for photosynthesis in plants.[42]
Infrared lamps
Lamps can be made with a lithium metaluminate phosphor activated with iron. This phosphor has peak emissions between 675 and 875 nanometers, with lesser emissions in the deep red part of the visible spectrum.[43]
Bilirubin lamps
Deep blue light generated from a europium-activated phosphor is used in the light therapy treatment of jaundice; light of this color penetrates skin and helps in the break up of excess bilirubin.[43]
Germicidal lamps
Germicidal lamps depend on the property that UV light kills most germs. Germicidal lamps contain no phosphor at all (technically making them gas discharge lamps rather than fluorescent) and their tubes are made of fused quartz that is transparent to the UV light emitted by the mercury discharge. The UV emitted by these tubes will kill germs and ionize oxygen to ozone. In addition it can cause eye and skin damage and should not be used or observed without eye and skin protection. Besides their uses to kill germs and create ozone, they are sometimes used by geologists to identify certain species of minerals by the color of their fluorescence. When used in this fashion, they are fitted with filters in the same way as blacklight-blue lamps are; the filter passes the short-wave UV and blocks the visible light produced by the mercury discharge. They are also used in some EPROM erasers.
Germicidal lamps have designations beginning with G (meaning 'Germicidal'), rather than F, for example G30T8 for a 30-watt, 1-inch (2.5 cm) diameter, 36-inch (91 cm) long germicidal lamp (as opposed to an F30T8, which would be the fluorescent lamp of the same size and rating).
Electrodeless lamps
Electrodeless induction lamps are fluorescent lamps without internal electrodes. They have been commercially available since 1990. A current is induced into the gas column using electromagnetic induction. Because the electrodes are usually the life-limiting element of fluorescent lamps, such electrodeless lamps can have a very long service life, although they also have a higher purchase price.
Cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFL)
Cold-cathode fluorescent lamps are used as backlighting for LCD displays in personal computer and TV monitors. They are also popular with computer case modders in recent years.

Science demonstrations

Fluorescent lamps can be illuminated by means other than a proper electrical connection. These other methods however result in very dim or very short-lived illumination, and so are seen mostly in science demonstrations. Static electricity or a Van de Graaff generator will cause a lamp to flash momentarily as it discharges a high voltage capacitance. A Tesla coil will pass high frequency current through the tube, and since it has a high voltage as well, the gases within the tube will ionize and emit light'. Capacitive coupling with high-voltage power lines[44] can light a lamp continuously at low intensity, depending on the intensity of the electrostatic field.

Also, placing a bulb half way up a 2 way radio antenna while transmitting will illuminate the bulb due to the RF energy.

Film and video use

Special fluorescent lights are often used in film and video production. The brand name Kino Flo are used to create softer fill light and are cooler than traditional halogen light sources. These fluorescent lights are designed with special high-frequency ballasts to prevent video flickering and high color-rendition index bulbs to approximate daylight color temperatures.

See also


  1. ^ Gribben, John; "The Scientists; A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors"; Random House; 2004; pp 424–432; ISBN 978-0812967883
  2. ^ US patent 865367 Fluorescent Electric Lamp
  3. ^ The pressure of the mercury vapor alone is about 0.8 Pa (8 millionths of atmospheric pressure), in a T12 40-watt lamp. See Kane and Sell 2001 page 185.
  4. ^ Raymond Kane, Heinz Sell Revolution in lamps: a chronicle of 50 years of progress (2nd ed.), The Fairmont Press, Inc. 2001 ISBN 0881733784 chapter 5
  5. ^ General Electric TP111R, pages 10–11
  6. ^ Kane and Sell 2001 page 182 and following
  7. ^ Kane and Sell 2001, page 188
  8. ^ Kane and Sell 2001, pages 196–197
  9. ^ Kane and Sell 2001, page 182
  10. ^ General Electric, Fluorescent Lamps TP 111 R page 8
  11. ^ General Electric Fluorescent Lamps TP111R, page 20
  12. ^ Klipstein, Donald L.. "Light and Lighting Facts and Bits of Data!". http://members.misty.com/don/. Retrieved 2007-12-29. 
  13. ^ Floyd, et al. (2002), quoted on page 184 of Toolkit for identification and quantification of mercury releases (PDF)
  14. ^ Fluorescent lamp cleanup [1] Accessed 22 Apr 2009
  15. ^ Lytle et al., "An Estimation of Squamous Cell Carcinoma Risk from Ultraviolet Radiation Emitted by Fluorescent Lamps"; Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed (1993)
  16. ^ "Prevention of melatonin suppression by nocturnal lighting: relevance to cancer.". 2007. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17554209. 
  17. ^ "Working with Light Sensitivity". http://www.jan.wvu.edu/soar/vision/light.html. 
  18. ^ "Accommodation Ideas for Employees with Epilepsy". http://www.jan.wvu.edu/media/epilepsy.html. 
  19. ^ "Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Lupus". http://www.jan.wvu.edu/media/Lupus.html. 
  20. ^ "Accommodating People with Vertigo". http://www.jan.wvu.edu/enews/2004/Enews_V2-I1.htm#four. 
  21. ^ Simeon D, Knutelska M, Nelson D & Guralnik O. (2003) Feeling unreal: a depersonalization disorder update of 117 cases. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 64 (9): 990-7 PMID 14628973
  22. ^ Küller R, Laike T (1998). "The impact of flicker from fluorescent lighting on well-being, performance and physiological arousal". Ergonomics 41 (4): 433–47. doi:10.1080/001401398186928. 
  23. ^ Veitch JA, McColl SL (1995). "Modulation of fluorescent light: flicker rate and light source effects on visual performance and visual comfort". Light Res Tech 27 (4): 243–256. doi:10.1177/14771535950270040301. http://irc.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/pubs/fulltext/nrcc38944/. Retrieved 2007-08-12. 
  24. ^ Binnie CD, de Korte RA, Wisman T (1979). "Fluorescent lighting and epilepsy". Epilepsia 20 (6): 725–7. doi:10.1111/j.1528-1157.1979.tb04856.x. PMID 499117. 
  25. ^ Colman RS, Frankel F, Ritvo E, Freeman BJ (1976). "The effects of fluorescent and incandescent illumination upon repetitive behaviors in autistic children". J Autism Child Schizophr 6 (2): 157–62. doi:10.1007/BF01538059. PMID 989489. 
  26. ^ Turner M (1999). "Annotation: Repetitive behaviour in autism: a review of psychological research". J Child Psychol Psychiatry 40 (6): 839–49. doi:10.1017/S0021963099004278. PMID 10509879. 
  27. ^ GE TP 111 R
  28. ^ "Exposure and Color Temperature Variations When Photographing Under Fluorescent Lights"
  29. ^ General Electric Fluorescent Lamps TP 111R, Dec. 1978, page 22
  30. ^ LampRecycle.org Commercial Lighting: Lamp Recyclers
  31. ^ EPA.gov Mercury-Containing Light Bulb (Lamp) Regulatory Framework
  32. ^ EPA.gov Mercury-Containing Light Bulb (Lamp) Collection and Recycling Programs Where You Live
  33. ^ Funke and Oranje, "Gas Discharge Lamps"; N.V Philips' Gloeilampenfabrieken (1951)
  34. ^ "EC&M: The T5 Fluorescent Lamp: Coming on Strong". 2003-09-01. http://ecmweb.com/ops/electric_fluorescent_lamp_coming/. Retrieved 2008-09-28. 
  35. ^ "Covington, E. J. The Story Behind This Account of Fluorescent Lamp Development". http://home.frognet.net/~ejcov/thayer.html. Retrieved 2008-09-28. 
  36. ^ "Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: T-8 lamp retrofits". http://ateam.lbl.gov/Design-Guide/DGHtm/t.8lampretrofits.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-28. 
  37. ^ "Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: History and problems of T12 fluorescent lamps". http://ateam.lbl.gov/Design-Guide/DGHtm/historyandproblemsoft12fluorescentlamps.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-28. 
  38. ^ http://www.lamptech.co.uk/Spec%20Sheets/Philips%20TL%20Aperture.htm. Aperture lamps, retrieved 2009 11 15
  39. ^ Thorn Lighting Technical Handbook
  40. ^ "Lighting Design Lab: http://www.lightingdesignlab.com/commercial/articles/Energy_Code.htm". 1995-11-01. http://ecmweb.com/ops/electric_fluorescent_lamp_coming/. Retrieved 2009-07-06. 
  41. ^ Kane and Sell page 120
  42. ^ Goins, GD and Yorio, NC and Sanwo, MM and Brown, CS (1997). "Photomorphogenesis, photosynthesis, and seed yield of wheat plants grown under red light-emitting diodes (LEDs) with and without supplemental blue lighting". Journal of Experimental Botany (Soc Experiment Biol) 48 (7): 1407. doi:10.1093/jxb/48.7.1407. 
  43. ^ a b Kane and Sell pg. 122
  44. ^ "Richardbox.com at Internet Archive". http://web.archive.org/web/20080121014457/http://www.richardbox.com/. 

External links


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