An electronic ballast is a device intended to regulate the current flowing through an electric circuit. Not every place in your house needs an electronic ballast, but some appliances and devices have negative resistance to your home's electrical current. With nothing to control this problem, your appliance would cause the voltage to spike until it was destroyed or your power supply failed. The ballast counteracts this negative resistance by supplying its own positive resistance or by regulating the current from its start mode through reactance.
Fluorescent Ballasts: Making Fluorescent Lighting Viable
Older versions ballasts, called magnetic ballasts, cause most fluorescent lighting to flicker. These flickers occur 100-120 times a second, depending on the frequency of your mains. Although this standard flicker cannot be seen by the human eye, eye strain and headaches are frequently reported with this type of lighting. The same principle can also cause a low, but perceptible hum that can ruin your home's ambiance. Electronic fluorescent ballasts eliminate both of these problems.
This means that if you have older version fluorescent lighting, it's time to upgrade. It also means that, if you like the idea of high performance fluorescent lighting, you don't need to be concerned with the annoying basement lighting you grew up with 20 years ago. Fluorescent lighting can also be colored to soften its harshness and approximate the softer glow of incandescence. You probably still don't want fluorescent lighting in your bedroom, but energy-efficient fluorescent lighting is more viable for home use than ever before.
Types of Electronic Ballasts: Resistors, Inductors, and Capacitors
Of course, most homeowners don't need or want a college level physics course to understand how their home appliances work. That said, a basic understanding of types of electronic ballasts is important to ensuring not only your home's safety but its energy-efficiency as well.
Resistors are the simplest form of ballast and act primarily by supplying positive resistance. Simple resistors shouldn't be used for situations that require more than a watt or two of electricity (which, essentially includes all appliances). Variable resistors can fluctuate the amount of positive resistance offered but are still not nearly as efficient as devices that use reactance.
Inductors can regulate the electrical current with greater efficiency, but will also shift the power out of phase with the voltage (this phase shift is what causes the flicker in fluorescent lights). To correct this problem, more expensive electronic and fluorescent ballasts will include a capacitor, which will keep things in phase and help maintain a high power level.
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Electronic Ballast Starters
Inductors work when you turn on the appliance. Instant start, rapid start, and programmed start ballasts are the three types of ballast starters. The difference between the ballasts lies in the sequence in which the voltage is given to the appliance and when the cathodes are heated. Instant start ballasts give voltage to the appliance without heating the cathodes, rapid start does it simultaneously, and programmed starters preheat the cathodes. Instant start ballasts are the most energy-efficient but will increase the wear on your light fixture and the bulb each time you turn your light on. Programmed starters will increase these life cycles, but are the least energy-efficient and are generally only used in commercial applications like public restrooms.