It’s well known that LED lights are much more efficient than incandescent or fluorescent lights. They use less electricity and last much longer, making them well worth the initial cost. For me, the long life is the real advantage because it means I’ll spend far less time buying and changing bulbs. Swapping screw-in incandescents for screw-in LEDs couldn’t be easier and everyone should do it. I did that years ago.
Recently, the fluorescent tubes in my basement laundry area (which date from the time before household LED lights became available) stopped working. Because they both stopped at the same time, I suspected the ballast might need to be replaced. While researching ballast replacements, I became aware that LED tubes for replacing fluorescent tubes are now available. The advantages of LEDs make swapping them for fluorescents the obvious thing to do — but doing it isn’t as easy as unscrewing one bulb and screwing in another.
It’s the ballast (which is “used in fluorescent lamps to limit the current through the tube, which would otherwise rise to a destructive level due to the negative differential resistance artifact in the tube’s voltage-current characteristic” according to Wikipedia) that’s the issue. “What to do with the ballast?” is the question
Keeping the Ballast. The easiest way to convert fluorescent fixtures to LED is to replace the old fluorescent tubes with LED tubes that are specially made to work in fixtures with ballast. Just take out the fluorescent tubes and put in the new LED tubes. However, that’s probably not the best way. In general, LED lights don’t require ballast, so you’re buying an LED light that is made to work with ballast. In fact, because it’s made to work with ballast, you shouldn’t use it in a fixture that doesn’t have ballast. There are two problems with keeping the ballast: (1) it will eventually fail (which will leave you in the dark) and need to be replaced, (2) it uses electricity, so keeping the ballast partially offsets the savings you get from using LED lights. To avoid spending money for ballast replacements in the future (the life of the LED might be 4 or 5 times the life of the ballast), and to avoid spending money for electricity consumed by a ballast that isn’t even necessary, I decided to remove the ballast from my basement fixture.
Removing the Ballast. It’s fairly easy to remove or at least bypass the electrical ballast in a fluorescent fixture, thus converting it to use LED. You just need to open the light fixture, cut a few wires, and make a few connections with wire nuts. There are lots of directions online. However, there are two ways of doing the re-wiring. (See, I told you this wasn’t as easy as replacing screw-in incandescents …). You have the choice of either (1) running the live wire to one end of the fixture and the neutral wire to the other end, which is the standard way fluorescent fixtures are wired, … or … (2) running both the live and neutral wires to the same end of the fixture. Method (1) requires LED tubes that are called “double ended” or “dual end powered” Method (2) requires LED tubes that are “single end powered”. It’s probably best to buy the LED tubes and do the re-wiring accordingly, because “single end” tubes require a different kind of lamp holder (a.k.a. “tombstone”). However, note well: The wiring job has to match the tube type or your light won’t work.
To review, the choices are:
- Use an LED tube designed to work with a ballast (easy, but you have the cost of ballast replacement and electricity consumption).
- Use an LED tube designed for use without a ballast (requires re-wiring the fixture, but eliminates cost of ballast), either
- doubled-end LED tube, or
- single-end LED tube
Also, LED tubes are available with either clear or frosted plastic covers. The clear tubes are a bit brighter, but are harsh if you happen to look directly at them because you can see the actual LEDs. I wouldn’t use them in any location where the tube itself is visible. They might be good for recessed lighting or maybe in a fixture that has its own light diffuser. The frosted tubes are more like traditional fluorescent tubes, bright but not harsh on the eyes.