A fluorescent lamp, or fluorescent tube, is a low-pressure mercury-vapor gas-discharge lamp that uses fluorescence to produce visible light. An electric current in the gas excites mercury vapor, which produces short-wave ultraviolet light that then causes a phosphor coating on the inside of the lamp to glow. A fluorescent lamp converts electrical energy into useful light much more efficiently than incandescent lamps. The typical luminous efficacy of fluorescent lighting systems is 50–100 lumens per watt, several times the efficacy of incandescent bulbs with the comparable light output.
Electronic starters use a different method to preheat the cathodes. They may be plug-in interchangeable with glow starters. They use a semiconductor switch and "soft start" the lamp by preheating the cathodes before applying a starting pulse which strikes the lamp the first time without flickering; this dislodges a minimal amount of material from the cathodes during starting, giving longer lamp life. This is claimed to prolong lamp life by a factor of typically 3 to 4 times for a lamp frequently switched on as in domestic use, and to reduce the blackening of the ends of the lamp typical of fluorescent tubes. The circuit is typically complex, but the complexity is built into the IC. Electronic starters may be optimized for fast starting (typical start time of 0.3 seconds), or for most reliable starting even at low temperatures and with low supply voltages, with a startup time of 2–4 seconds. The faster-start units may produce audible noise during start-up.
Electronic starters only attempt to start a lamp for a short time when power is initially applied, and do not repeatedly attempt to restrike a lamp that is dead and unable to sustain an arc; some automatically shut down a failed lamp. This eliminates the re-striking of a lamp and the continuous flickering of a failing lamp with a glow starter. Electronic starters are not subject to wear and do not need replacing periodically, although they may fail like any other electronic circuit. Manufacturers typically quote lives of 20 years, or as long as the light fitting.
Electronic ballasts employ transistors to change the supply frequency into high-frequency AC while regulating the current flow in the lamp. These ballasts take advantage of the higher efficacy of lamps, which rises by almost 10% at 10 kHz, compared to efficacy at normal power frequency. When the AC period is shorter than the relaxation time to de-ionize mercury atoms in the discharge column, the discharge stays closer to optimum operating condition. Electronic ballasts convert supply frequency AC power to variable frequency AC. The conversion can reduce lamp brightness modulation at twice the power supply frequency.
Low-cost ballasts contain only a simple oscillator and a series resonant LC circuit. This principle is called the current resonant inverter circuit. After a short time, the voltage across the lamp reaches about 1 kV and the lamp instant-starts in cold cathode mode. The cathode filaments are still used for protection of the ballast from overheating if the lamp does not ignite. A few manufacturers use positive temperature coefficient (PTC) thermistors to disable instant starting and give some time to preheat the filaments.
More complex electronic ballasts use programmed start. The output frequency is started above the resonance frequency of the output circuit of the ballast; and after the filaments are heated, the frequency is rapidly decreased. If the frequency approaches the resonant frequency of the ballast, the output voltage will increase so much that the lamp will ignite. If the lamp does not ignite, an electronic circuit stops the operation of the ballast.
Many electronic ballasts are controlled by a microcontroller, and these are sometimes called digital ballasts. Digital ballasts can apply quite complex logic to lamp starting and operation. This enables functions such as testing for broken electrodes and missing tubes before attempting to start, detection of tube replacement, and detection of tube type, such that a single ballast can be used with several different tubes. Features such as dimming can be included in the embedded microcontroller software and can be found in various manufacturers' products.
Since introduction in the 1990s, high-frequency ballasts have been used in general lighting fixtures with either rapid start or pre-heat lamps. These ballasts convert the incoming power to an output frequency in excess of 20 kHz. This increases lamp efficiency. These ballasts operate with voltages that can be almost 600 volts, requiring some consideration in housing design, and can cause a minor limitation in the length of the wire leads from the ballast to the lamp ends.