|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 fixture is more costly because it requires a ballast to regulate the 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.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency classifies fluorescent lamps as hazardous waste, and recommends that they be segregated from general waste for recycling or safe disposal.
Top, two compact fluorescent lamps. Bottom, two linear fluorescent lamps. A matchstick, left, is shown for scale
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. 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 over 100 lumens per watt with a 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. For a given fluorescent tube, a high-frequency electronic ballast gives about a 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.
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 labor is costly. Therefore they are widely used by businesses and institutions, but not as much by households.
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.
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.
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.
The extra energy used to start a fluorescent lamp is equivalent to a few seconds of normal operation; it is more energy-efficient to switch off lamps when not required for several minutes.
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 the end of their life. 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.
Power quality and radio interference
Magnetic single-lamp ballasts have a low power factor
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.
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. In applications such as road and railway signalling, fluorescent lamps which do not generate as much heat as incandescent lamps may not melt snow and ice build up around the lamp, leading to reduced visibility.
The "beat effect" problem created when shooting photos 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, 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 has 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 a slightly different light output pattern on each half-cycle. Flicker at mains frequency is more noticeable in the peripheral vision than it is when viewed directly, as is all flicker (since the peripheral vision is faster—has a higher critical frequency—than the central vision).
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.
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 light fixtures cannot be connected to dimmer switches intended for incandescent lamps. Two effects are responsible for this: the waveform 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 that work in conjunction with a suitable dimmer.
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