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Fluorescent Lighting

Written by; Chad Simco / TCCN Staff Writer
Added on: Sun Jun 28 2009


Fluorescent Lighting

Very simply, a fluorescent tube is a lamp that uses electricity to activate mercury vapor, which causes the atoms to produce ultraviolet light. This causes phosphor to then fluoresce, which gives us light that we can see. But when did all of this begin? Most people believe that the incandescent bulb was invented first. It was not, though it was patented first and became the bulb of choice in residential homes.

In 1857, Alexandre Becquerel did the first experimenting with fluorescence. A German physicist then worked with it, but it was not until 1901 that the first mercury vapor lamp was patented by an American, Peter Cooper Hewitt. The incandescent bulb was first invented by Woodward, who patented it in 1876, but then sold the patent to Thomas Edison in 1879, who then developed it, but got credit for the invention.

Some historians feel that Edward Germer should get the credit for inventing the first true fluorescent light. He patented his first fluorescent lamp in 1927. General Electric later bought the patent rights to his patent.

The incandescent bulb is using a simple technique to provide light. The heat resistant filament in a glass bulb is heated by electricity, which causes it to glow. While traditional light bulbs emit plenty of ultraviolet light, they don't convert it to visible light, wasting a lot of the energy they produce. They also lose energy through heat emission, making them more costly to use. However, in the past they have been preferred over the fluorescent bulbs because they gave off a warmer, more flattering light than the bluer, more natural light of fluorescents. Fortunately, this is no longer true, as you can buy fluorescent bulbs in several different colors now.

Fluorescent lighting is created with the use of chemicals, rather than heat. Electricity is applied to gases enclosed in a thin glass vacuum tube, which then emits light. When you flip on the light, the current travels across the starter switch, passing through electrodes that are on both ends of the tube. These work as the filaments, similar to the one you'd find in a common light bulb. The electrons coming off the metal surface move into the gas tube, ionizing it. The starter switch contains two electrodes next to each other and neon or another gas. When you turn it on, it causes an arc which makes the connection. A bimetallic strip in the starter bends when heated to make the contact with the other electrode. As it cools, it moves away again and opens the circuit, turning off the light.

High voltage, needed to create the electrical arc is provided by a transformer wired into the circuit. It is called the ballast. If the filaments aren't worn out, current will flow through the tube as long as AC current is provided. They do, however, need occasional replacement. This becomes obvious when you begin to see a flicker in the light, or hear a hum when the light is on.

No matter what size or shape your fluorescent light fixture is, they all work the same. An electric current stimulates mercury atoms, which causes them to release ultraviolet photons. This ultraviolet light is not visible to the human eye, so another step is needed to convert it and illuminate the lamp. Phosphor powder coatings inside the tube, when exposed to ultraviolet, give off white light, which is visible to us. Therefore, when compared to the common light bulb, you can see that it is much more efficient, using the invisible light to produce visible light instead of wasting it.

At this time, these efficient lights are more costly, bulkier, and more complex than the others, though the price is coming down yearly and new shapes and smaller sizes are becoming available all the time. However, with the new awareness of our environmental problems, it is important to remember that they use less electricity, give off less heat, and last much longer than a standard incandescent bulb.

The new compact fluorescent lamp has a standard bulb base and screws easily into almost any lamp that was designed for incandescent bulbs. Where you might have needed a 60-watt bulb using the incandescent method, you can now use a 15-watt compact fluorescent to give you the same light. This environmentally friendly alternative is now being used in many homes. Commercial buildings, and schools, hospitals, etc. are still using the long fluorescent tube fixtures.

Improvements continue to occur. The standard fluorescent light used only 25% as much electricity as the light bulb. Tri-phosphor lamps with electronic ballasts use another 40% less energy, improve the color emitted, and run both quieter and cooler.

Other lighting has evolved from the invention of fluorescence:

• Black lights are basically fluorescent lights without the phosphor coatings in the bulbs. They work by emitting invisible ultraviolet light which then causes the phosphors that are outside the bulb to give off visible light. They are used to detect urine and some dyes that would be invisible in visible light. Bug zappers also use black light to attract the insects. If you have ever seen the Blue Man Group, you have seen short wave ultraviolet light in action. When they darken the theater and turn on the ultraviolet lights, everyone wearing clothing containing phosphors, or who have wrapped any of the crepe paper passed out to them before the show around themselves will now glow in the dark.

• Neon lighting also stemmed from fluorescent, though it is technically a gas discharge lamp. This works by releasing visible light, in various colors, when it is stimulated by electrons and ions. Many of our street lights use a system that is very similar to this one.

• Like neon lighting, the germicidal lamps contain no phosphor. Geologists sometimes use them to identify minerals by their fluorescent color. The ultraviolet emitted by these lamps kill germs effectively, but can also damage the eyes and skin.

• Those tanning beds that people are using to get a start on their summer tan use tanning lamps that contain a phosphor blend made up of three or more different phosphors. Most, but not all human skin responds to it.

• Light-dependent organisms, such as algae and photosynthetic bacteria flourish under grow lamps. These lamps contain phosphor blends that stimulate photosynthesis, and growth and flowering in plants.

• The LCD displays found in your television monitors and personal computers use cold-cathode fluorescent lamps as backlighting.

• Florescent lamps without internal electrodes, i.e. electrodeless lamps, have been around since 1990. Because they use electromagnetic induction, they last much longer than the others (these electrodes are usually the first thing to go in your fluorescent tube). Of course, they also cost more.

We keep hearing the environmentalists telling us to "go green", so let's apply that to fluorescent lighting. It is considered the green alternative to traditional, incandescent lighting, and second only to solar. Why? Because they waste so much less energy and last so very much longer than incandescent bulbs! And when you increase efficiency, you lessen the demand on generating stations, which are powered by fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and decrease the amount of garbage dumped in landfulls.

So now that we know more about fluorescent and incandescent lighting let us compare the pros and cons:

Fluorescent Lighting Pros:

• It produces less heat, and therefore is more efficient.
• It saves energy, slowing greenhouse effect and reducing pollution.
• It lowers those costly electric bills.
• Productivity in workers increases, because of the reduction of eye strain when using fluorescent lighting.
• These bulbs do not need replacing for five years or more.
• They can now be purchased in specific blends to enhance cool tones or warm tones in your room

Fluorescent Lighting Cons:

• They cannot be used in certain closed light fixtures, because the heat intensity would damage the bulb.
• At this time they still cost more to purchase.
• Fluorescent bulbs contain a tiny amount of mercury (though one fifth as much as is found in a watch battery and one-hundredth as much as found in an oral thermometer)
• Not all compact fluorescents can be used with dimmer switches and 3-way switches.

Compact fluorescent lamps are safe to use and no mercury is released while the bulbs are in use.

It should be noted here that there is no immediate health risk when a bulb gets broken... if cleaned up properly. Open a window for at least fifteen minutes to disperse any gas. Turn off the air conditioning or heat, and all fans to keep it from spreading to other areas. Wear disposable rubber gloves. Sweep up all the glass and phosphor powder and wipe the area down with a damp paper towel. Place all glass and towels in a plastic bag. It can now be disposed of in your regular trash. If you are purchasing your new bulbs at Lowe's or Home Depot, they accept the old ones and dispose of them for you.

Incandescent Lighting Pros:

• It is cheaper to purchase.
• It can be used in closed fixtures.
• These bulbs are easier to dispose of.
• The bulb can be used with all dimmer and 3-way switches.

Incandescent Lighting Cons:

• They need more frequent replacing.
• They use more energy.
• These bulbs create more costly electric bills.
• They waste too much energy.
• They increase green house effect, climate change and air pollution.

Are you wondering where in your home to convert to fluorescent lighting? The answer is simply everywhere. Because fluorescent bulbs are now available not only in long tubes, there are no longer any limits. Partially open ceiling fixtures, strip lighting, flood lights, table lamps, mood lighting, and task lighting are all possible now. So lets go through the house, one room at a time.

Your garage would do well with fluorescent utility lighting and long surface mounted work lights. If you have cabinets and a work bench out there, smaller task lighting strips under the cabinets are good. The same goes for the basement and utility areas, unless you have dropped ceilings in them. Then you would want to use recessed troffers.

The flat spiral coils without decorative covers are perfect in closets. You might want to use a warm light fluorescent in your closets. In home offices, or dens you really need uniform all around lighting, preferably non-glare, and some task lighting near your desk, computer or work area. A ceiling mounted, centered light fixture will take care of the first problem. Task lighting can be placed under a bookshelf to highlight the desk top or facing upward on a shelf to uplight your bookcase. If you have tropical fish, don't forget your aquarium lighting. A short tube running the length of the tank really shows off your display.

You can do several things with fluorescent lighting in bathrooms. Because you apply make-up, shave, and do other detailed chores in the bathroom, your lighting is very important. It needs to be realistic (which is not always the most flattering) and free of shadows. Ceiling mounted fixtures are perfect for the shower and bathtub areas, but around the mirrors, you need wall lighting. Strip lighting with those new globe fluorescents are very nice, and can be hung across the top of full-wall mirror or down both sides of the mirrors if they are narrow.

Do you use your bedroom only for sleeping, or do you watch television, read, dress, or just relax in there as well? You definitely need a central ceiling fixture... perhaps a ceiling fan, using the new decorative fluorescent bulbs. A dimming switch is nice in the bedroom, for either setting the mood or brightening things up for detail work. If you read in bed, wall sconces or even ceiling mounted spots can work. If you prefer to cozy up in a comfortable chair for reading, a nice floor lamp with compact fluorescent bulbs will work. Add a couple of table lamps on the night stands and you are prepared for anything!

Living rooms and family rooms can use multiple kinds of lighting as well. A ceiling fan/light fixture combination is very practical, for air circulation and to provide good lighting when entertaining. Floor and table lamps wherever you need direct light, and perhaps spots or strips to accent a bookcase, entertainment center, fireplace, painting, piano, etc., and even a floodlight can behind a grouping of live or silk plants will add a touch of ambiance. And all of this can be done with energy saving fluorescent lighting!

Kitchens, like bathrooms, require excellent lighting. If you have a work area and a separate eating area, it would be good to hang a ceiling mounted fixture in the work area, and a hanging fixture over the table. Slim undercabinet strips can provide much needed light with no visible fixture, and should be placed in any area that you work in: by the sink, near the stove, and where you do your food preparation. These lights come in all different lengths to accommodate your cabinetry.

Let's review some of this. Fluorescent bulbs now come in incandescent shapes with spirals inside the colored glass: as standard shaped bulbs, floods and globes for strip lighting, as well as flat spirals for ceiling mounted fixtures, and the standard tubes in many different lengths.

Depending on your desire to have softer light or cool and brighter light, you can now choose bulbs to go with blues, greens, grays, and whites, or enhance the warmer tones of reds, oranges, yellows and woods. Either way you are going to enjoy the higher light output and the improved colors.

Dimming ballasts are now available for fluorescent lighting.

Fluorescent lighting can and should be used in every room of your house. You are no longer limited by style, color or unavailability. The addition of task lighting makes your life easier, reduces eye stress, and can be hard-wired or used as a plug-in with a cord.

Our most inefficient source of light is incandescent lighting. Only ten per cent of its energy is converted to light. It wastes energy, is unfriendly to the environment, and costs you dearly on your monthly electric bill. By simply changing one fixture, or for that matter, one bulb in one fixture to a fluorescent light, you will note savings on your bill, increase the atmosphere and the light in your room, and help to save the environment. You will be producing and consuming less energy, and causing less pollution.

If, after reading this, you changed your home over to all fluorescent lighting, you wouldn't have to change a light bulb for 3-5 years, and would save at least $500 over a one year period.


Copyright: 2009

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