Fluorescent lighting is a mainstay in business settings, and if you've been around a while, you may still have strong associations between buzzing, flickering lights and fluorescent bulbs. Those problems have all but disappeared, and fluorescent lighting options remain popular with businesses for a number of reasons.

In this article, we'll look briefly at how fluorescent lights work, where they're used, and their pros and cons compared with other lighting options.

How Fluorescent Lighting Works
Fluorescent lights are mercury-vapor gas-discharge lamps. An electric current excites the gas inside the bulb or tube and generates UV radiation. The bulb is coated with a phosphor, and when the UV radiation strikes this phosphor, it's converted into visible light.

Unlike incandescent bulbs (including halogen bulbs), fluorescent bulbs do not use a filament to cause electrical resistance. So if the electrical current weren't regulated in a fluorescent light, it could shatter the bulb. This is why fluorescent lights always require a ballast -- the ballast provides a starting charge for the light and then regulates the ongoing current. A proper ballast can help to improve the quality of light and the life of the bulb. Different bulbs call for different types of ballasts.

Where Fluorescent Lights are Used
Fluorescent lights are used throughout office settings in the form of linear tubes. Older T12 bulbs on ballasts using old technology are famous for the flickering and buzzing some of us remember from fluorescent bulbs. But today, T12 tubes are more efficient and run on improved ballasts, eliminating those former problems and saving money on energy. Many businesses have also begun switching T12 tubes over to even more efficient T8 bulbs.

Fluorescent lights are also used in other applications. They are sometimes used in appliances, markets for display cases, as plant grow lights, in medical settings, and more. And of course they now come in a compact fluorescent size, known as CFLs -- these lights often come with the ballast built in, making them a simple replacement bulb for traditional incandescent bulbs in the home or office.

Fluorescent Bulb Pros and Cons
Fluorescent bulbs are popular for a reason: compared to incandescent lighting, they are extremely efficient and cost far less to operate. Especially with their ballasts, they do cost more up front; but for a business thinking of its long-term bottom line, the energy savings quickly outweigh the initial investment. So they've been used for years in offices and even in factory settings as an energy saver.

Unfortunately, they are also considered hazardous waste because of their mercury content. This is even true of CFLs used in homes, and they should be recycled with a facility that can handle them. In fact, the EPA recommends special steps to cleaning up broken bulbs (including evacuating the area after opening windows and shutting off forced air heating or cooling). This is an aspect of fluorescent lights that some people are uncomfortable with.

Also, many people want to dim their lighting at times, and fluorescent bulbs usually cannot be dimmed. The use of a dimmable ballast (built in on certain CFLs) and/or a compatible dimmer switch must be used to allow for dimming.

Fortunately, fluorescent bulbs are not the only alternative to inefficient incandescent light bulbs. With the rise of LED lighting, we now have a mercury-free solution that's even more efficient than fluorescent lighting. Once again, however, cost savings are based on a payback period, as LED bulbs (which do not need a ballast, but do need a "driver," which is sometimes built in) are still substantially more expensive up front than fluorescent bulbs.

This means that fluorescent lighting remains an easy choice compared to LED based on up-front costs, and the good news for those who still choose fluorescent lighting is that companies are working hard to produce fluorescent bulbs with less mercury that continue to work as well as older bulbs.

Need help choosing the right fluorescent bulbs for your business? Give us a call at 877.231.2852 any time -- our experienced, friendly representatives are ready to help with your selection and your order!