Fluorescent Lamp Basics
The fluorescent lamp was the first major advance to be a commercial success in small scale lighting since the tungsten incandescent bulb. Its greatly increased efficiency resulted in cool (temperature wise) brightly lit workplaces (offices and factories) as well as home kitchens and baths. The development of the mercury vapor high intensity discharge (HID) lamp actually predates the fluorescent (the latter being introduced commercially in 1938, four years after the HID). However, HID type lamps have only relatively recently become popular in small sizes for task lighting in the home and office; yard and security area lighting; and light source applications in overhead, computer, and video projectors.Fluorescent lamps are a type of gas discharge tube similar to neon signs and mercury or sodium vapor street or yard lights. A pair of electrodes, one at each end - are sealed along with a drop of mercury and some inert gases (usually argon) at very low pressure inside a glass tube. The inside of the tube is coated with a phosphor which produces visible light when excited with ultra-violet (UV) radiation. The electrodes are in the form of filaments which for preheat and rapid or warm start fixtures are heated during the starting process to decrease the voltage requirements and remain hot during normal operation as a result of the gas discharge (bombardment by positive ions).
When the lamp is off, the mercury/gas mixture is non-conductive. When power is first applied, a high voltage (several hundred volts) is needed to initiate the discharge. However, once this takes place, a much lower voltage - usually under 100 V for tubes under 30 watts, 100 to 175 volts for 30 watts or more - is needed to maintain it.
The electric current passing through the low pressure gases emits quite a bit of UV (but not much visible light). The gas discharge's radiation is almost entirely mercury radiation, although the gas mixture is mostly inert gas and generally around something like 1 percent mercury vapor. The internal phosphor coating very efficiently converts most of the UV to visible light. The mix of the phosphor(s) is used to tailor the light spectrum to the intended application. Thus, there are cool white, warm white, colored, and black light fluorescent (long wave UV) lamps. There are also lamps intended for medical or industrial uses with a special envelope such as quartz that passes short wave UV radiation. Some have an uncoated envelope, and emit short-wave UV mercury radiation. Others have phosphors that convert shortwave UV to medium wave UV.
Fluorescent lamps are about 2 to 4 times as efficient as incandescent lamps at producing light at the wavelengths that are useful to humans. Thus, they run cooler for the same effective light output. The bulbs themselves also last a lot longer - 10,000 to 20,000 hours vs. 1000 hours for a typical incandescent. However, for certain types of ballasts, this is only achieved if the fluorescent lamp is left on for long periods of time without frequent on-off cycles.