Are there high voltages around fluorescent lamps?

Do ballasts of fluorescent light fixtures produce a high voltage arc that ionizes gases in the tube during start up? If so what sort of voltages are we talking about? — SC, Australia

A traditional fluorescent lamp needs a ballast to limit the current flowing through its gas discharge. That’s because gas discharges have strange electrical characteristics, most notably a regime of “negative” electrical resistance: the voltage drop across the discharge actually decreases as the current in the discharge increases. If you connect a gas discharge lamp to a voltage source without anything to limit the current and start the discharge, the current flowing through the lamp will rise essentially without limit and the lamp will quickly destroy itself. As a kid, I blew up several small neon lamps by connecting them directly to the power line without any current limiter. That was not a clever or safe idea, so don’t try it!

The standard current limiter for fluorescent lamps and other discharge lamps that are powered from 60-cycle (or 50-cycle) alternating current has been an electromagnetic coil known as a ballast. When that coil is in series with the discharge, the coil’s self-inductance limits how quickly the current flowing through the lamp can rise and therefore how much power the lamp can consume before the alternating current reverses direction. The discharge winks on and off with each current reversal and never draws more current than it can tolerate. Unfortunately, the lamp’s light also winks on and off and some people can see that flicker, especially with their peripheral vision.

Actually, the ballast usually has another job to do in a traditional fluorescent lamp: it acts as a transformer to provide the current needed to heat the electrode filaments at the ends of the lamp. Heating those electrodes helps drive electrons out of the metal and into the lamp’s gas so that the gas becomes electrically conducting. In total then, the ballast receives alternating current electric power from the power line and prepares it so that all the lamp filaments are heated properly and a limited current flows through the lamp from one electrode to the other.

In modern fluorescent lamps with heated electrodes, however, the role of the ballast has been usurped by a more sophisticated electronic power conditioning device. That device converts 60-cycle alternating current electric power into a series of electrical energy pulses, typically at about 40,000 pulses per second, and delivers them to the lamp. The lamp’s flicker is almost undetectable because it is so fast and the limited energy in each pulse prevents the discharge from consuming too much power. It’s a much better system. Compact fluorescent lamps use it exclusively.

So where might high voltage fit into this story? Well, there are some fluorescent lamps that don’t heat their electrodes with filaments. They rely on the discharge itself to drive electrons out of the electrodes and into the gas to sustain the discharge. But that begs the question: “how does such a lamp start its discharge?” It uses high voltage. Because of cosmic rays and natural radioactivity, gases always have some electric charges in them: ions and electrons. When the voltage difference between the two ends of the lamp becomes very large, the electric field in the lamp propels those naturally occurring ions and electrons into the constituents of the lamp violently enough to start the lamp’s discharge. The voltages needed to start these “cold cathode” lamps are typically in the low thousands of volts. For example, the cold cathode fluorescent lamps used in laptop computer displays start at about 2000 volts and then operate at much lower voltages.

Do brownouts or other power outages damage appliances?

If a home looses some of its power during a power outage and the lights shine dim, will it burn up the motor in the refrigerator? Will it damage other appliances (TV, VCR. stereo. etc)? Should the main disconnect be shut off? — J, Ohio

Power outages come in a variety of types, one of which involves a substantial decrease in the voltage supplied to your home. The most obvious effect of this voltage decrease is the dimming of the incandescent lights, which is why it’s called a “brownout.” The filament of a lightbulb is poor conductor of electricity, so keeping an electric charge moving through it steadily requires a forward force. That forward force is provided by the voltage difference between the two wires: the one that delivers charges to the filament and the one that collects them back from the filament. As the household voltage decreases, so does the force on each charge in the filament. The current passing through the filament decreases and the filament receives less electric power. It glows dimly.

At the risk of telling you more than you ever want to know, I’ll point out that the filament behaves approximately according to Ohm’s law: the current that flows through it is proportional to the voltage difference between its two ends. The larger that voltage difference, the bigger the forces and the more current that flows. This ohmic behavior allows incandescent lightbulbs to survive decreases in voltage unscathed. They don’t, however, do well with increases in voltage, since they’ll then carry too much current and receive so much power that they’ll overheat and break. Voltage surges, not voltage decreases, are what kill lightbulbs.

The other appliances you mention are not ohmic devices and the currents that flow through them are not simply proportional to the voltage supplied to your home. Motors are a particularly interesting case; the average current a motor carries is related in a complicated way to how fast and how easily it’s spinning. A motor that’s turning effortlessly carries little average current and receives little electric power. But a motor that is struggling to turn, either because it has a heavy burden or because it can’t obtain enough electric power to overcome starting effects, will carry a great deal of average current. An overburdened or non-starting motor can become very hot because it’s wiring deals inefficiently with the large average current, and it can burn out. While I’ve never heard of a refrigerator motor dying during a brownout, it wouldn’t surprise me. I suspect that most appliance motors are protected by thermal sensors that turn them off temporarily whenever they overheat.

Modern electronic devices are also interesting with respect to voltage supply issues. Electronic devices operate on specific internal voltage differences, all of which are DC — direct current. Your home is supplied with AC — alternating current. The power adapters that transfer electric power from the home’s AC power to the device’s DC circuitry have evolved over the years. During a brownout, the older types of power adapters simply provide less voltage to the electronic devices, which misbehave in various ways, most of which are benign. You just want to turn them off because they’re not working properly. It’s just as if their batteries are worn out.

But the most modern and sophisticated adapters are nearly oblivious to the supply voltage. Many of them can tolerate brownouts without a hitch and they’ll keep the electronics working anyway. The power units for laptops are a case in point: they can take a whole range of input AC voltages because they prepare their DC output voltages using switching circuitry that adjusts for input voltage. They make few assumptions about what they’ll be plugged into and do their best to produce the DC power required by the laptop.

In short, the motors in your home won’t like the brownout, but they’re probably protected against the potential overheating problem. The electronic appliances will either misbehave benignly or ride out the brownout unperturbed. Once in a while, something will fail during a brownout. But I think that most of the damage is down during the return to normal after the brownout. The voltages bounce around wildly for a second or so as power is restored and those fluctuations can be pretty hard some devices. It’s probably worth turning off sensitive electronics once the brownout is underway because you don’t know what will happen on the way back to normal.