Like any manufactured product on the market, fluorescent lamps are not perfect. Both fluorescent lamps and ballasts fail from numerous factors, even though you might take extensive precautions. A better understanding of why these lighting products fail will better prepare you for when you have to replace your light fixtures and help avoid issues in the future.
Predicting these problems ahead of time can be problematic, though. Sometimes you may receive a bad batch of products from a distributor. In some cases, there might have been an occurrence during the manufacturing process that caused these lighting products to fail before their specified lifespan. Or maybe your building experienced a freak electrical surge that caused the fluorescent lamp or ballasts to stop working.
However, if you educate yourself on the reasons for potential issues with fluorescent lamps and ballasts, you can implement practices to try to safeguard against these problems. Additionally, there is a safety factor when handling broken or malfunctioned fluorescent products since fluorescent lamps contain a small amount of mercury. Because mercury is a toxic substance, it is vital to know how to dispose of burned-out lamps properly.
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The Lifespan of a Fluorescent Lamp
How long a fluorescent lamp lasts is usually determined by the manufacturer. At Shine Retrofits, we carry quality fluorescent lamps that last from under 10,000 hours to over 50,000 hours. Several factors help determine how long a fluorescent lamp will operate.
A fluorescent lamp near the end of its life will typically show a few signs. One clear indication is the light being emitted begins to flicker, which will be annoying enough for you to realize something is wrong. Another, more subtle issue is the color of the fluorescent light may start to appear off. The fluorescent lamp may also stop producing light in areas of the bulb. Another telltale sign is if either end of the tube turns black.
Why a Fluorescent Lamp May Fail
One part of fluorescent lamps that might eventually fail is the electrodes (aka filaments or cathodes) located at either end of the lamp tube. When electricity flows into the light fixture, those electrodes create an electrical arc that springs electrons that flow through the gases inside the lamp. They eventually hit the atoms of mercury inside the lamp, causing them to produce wavelengths of UV light. That UV light then is absorbed by the phosphor coating lining the inside of the light tube, and they begin to glow, making the lamp emit light.
If the filaments in the lamp are not working, an electrical current can no longer get into the lamp to stir up the necessary electrodes. This means there is no heat to turn the mercury liquid inside the lamp into vapor, which is needed for the fluorescent lamp to emit light.
Another reason a fluorescent lamp may fail is related to the electrodes or filaments on either end of the fixture. This time the failure of the fluorescent product is called the "emission mix." The emission mix is on the filaments and assists in getting the electrons moving through the gas inside the lamp's tube. Every time the lamp turns on and electrons are made, the emission mix helps the cathode pass sufficient electrons into the gas. When it runs out of emission mix, though, the fluorescent tube is not able to fulfill the electron need and often turns black at the ends from overheating and disintegration of the electrodes.
You may think the more a fluorescent lamp is on results in more mix. However, it does not necessarily work that way. Every time a fluorescent lamp turns on in a cold state, more emission mix is used to get the electrons moving through the gas. That means that switching lights on for lesser periods -- usually less than three hours -- will burn out due to less emission mix compared to lamps kept on for longer periods.
Loss of Phosphors
Eventually, as the lamp is used, the performance of the phosphor coating that lines the insides of the lamp's tube will start to dwindle. You can tell this is starting to happen when you notice the light emitted from the lamp is not as bright as it once was. Often, you can tell this is happening when you install a new fluorescent lamp next to an older one and can see the difference in brightness between the two. It is a slow process, so you can definitely continue to use your fluorescent tube during that time, though eventually, it will become so dim and inefficient as to be useless.
Loss of Mercury
As you know, all fluorescent lamps include a small amount of mercury liquid inside them. And it is this mercury liquid that, when formed into a vapor, is one of the most crucial factors in producing light. Over time, when the mercury liquid turns to a gas, some of that gas will become permanently absorbed into the phosphor coating. Or the mercury can even be absorbed by the glass tube itself or the electrodes on either end.
Fluorescent lamps are now made with lower amounts of mercury than in the past, leading to more light fixture failures. When a fluorescent lamp is beginning to lose its mercury, you can tell by the color of its light, which will start to look pink.
Disposing of a Fluorescent Lamp
Eventually, all fluorescent lamps will fail, which is why it is influential to stay educated about the proper disposal of your lamps. If you find yourself having to dispose of fluorescent lights, what is the proper and environmentally-conscious way to do so?
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, lamps that contain mercury are regulated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Universal Waste Rule (UWR), and Subtitle C hazardous waste regulations. Because of that, certain protocols must be followed when disposing of a fluorescent lamp.
These protocols can also depend on where these fluorescent bulbs are operating. For instance, the EPA has an entire set of rules for those handling fluorescent lamps in school buildings. The EPA also has a National Lamp Recycling Outreach program they developed for recycling lamps that contain mercury. Additionally, certain states -- such as California -- have their own rules for disposing of fluorescent lamps. It is consequential to be aware of local, regional, and federal regulations for lamp disposal, as they can change depending on where you live and how you use the lamps.
When it comes to compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), the EPA has rules and regulations for these as well. For instance, the EPA recommends the disposal of CFLs as hazardous waste rather than in your general household garbage. They also advise recycling CFLs and mention some states -- including California, Minnesota, and Washington -- which require residents to recycle CFLs rather than just throwing them away, where they can break into a trash compactor and the mercury inside them released.
Why Ballasts Fail
Another reason a fluorescent lamp may fail to work is due to a problem with the ballast. You can tell your ballast may be malfunctioning if the light begins to diminish or starts to blink at a rapid pace. Another sign can be if the fluorescent lamp stops working very abruptly. Most of the symptoms of a malfunctioning lamp happen over a long time, which is why lamps that suddenly cut out are a sign of a ballast problem.
How long the electronics inside the ballast will last typically depends on what operating temperature you're using. Checking the minimum and maximum operating temperatures manufacturers recommend for the ballast you are using is always a good idea. Generally speaking, increasing the maximum operating temperature by 10°C will lower the ballast's life in half. That can make a massive difference in the monetary cost of replacing your fluorescent lamps and is not recommended.
Additionally, there might be problems if your ballast is not wired correctly to the fluorescent lamps, causing it to malfunction. If you find that your ballasts are not operating at peak performance, this could be the cause, especially if it's a new installation. Plus, checking in and fixing this is a relatively easy solution, which is better than replacing either your lamp or ballast altogether.
Another tip to remember -- sometimes a ballast has a control inside where if it begins to overheat, it will automatically shut itself off, turning off the light along with it. Then, after it is allowed to cool down for a few minutes, it will turn back on. So before you get rid of your ballast, make sure that's not the issue.
If you have any additional questions about the performance of fluorescent lamps or ballasts, our team at Shine Retrofits would love to help. Our lighting experts know the ins and outs of all our lighting products and can guide you through browsing and purchasing the best lights and accessories for your project. You can reach us at 1-877-912-4907 anytime Monday through Friday, from 6 am to 6 pm, Mountain Standard Time. We look forward to hearing from you!