Problems with Fluorescent Lamps and Fixtures
In addition to the usual defective or damaged plugs, broken wires in the cord, general bad
connections, fluorescent lamps and fixtures have some unique problems of their own. The following assumes a lamp or fixture with conventional iron (non-electronic) ballast. Always try a new set of fluorescent tubes and starter (where used) before considering other possible failures. If two tubes dim or flicker in unison, this means that both are powered by the same ballast. Often this means that one tube has failed, although the other tube may also be in poor condition or approaching the end of its life. Both tubes must be replaced with known good tubes in order to rule out defective ballast.
Bad fluorescent tubes. Unlike incandescent lamps where a visual examination of the bulb itself will often identify a broken filament, there is often no way of just looking at a fluorescent tube to determine if it is bad. It may look perfectly ok though burned out fluorescents will often have one or both ends blackened. However, a blackened end is not in itself always an indication of a bad tube. Blackened ends are a somewhat reliable means of identifying bad tubes in 34 or 40 watt rapid start fixtures. Blackened ends are not as reliable an indicator in preheat or trigger start fixtures, or for tubes of 20 watts or less.
Failure of the electrodes/filaments at one or both ends of the fluorescent tube will usually result in either a low intensity glow or flickering behavior, or sometimes in no light at all. A broken filament in a fluorescent tube used in a preheat type fixture (with a starter) will almost always result in a totally dead lamp as there will be no power to the starter. Dim glow is rare in this case and would probably be confined to the region of the broken filament if it occurs. The best approach is to simply try replacing any suspect tubes - preferably both in a pair that are driven from single ballast.
In fixtures where rapid start ballast runs two tubes, both tubes will go out when one fails. Sometimes one or both tubes will glow dimly and/or flicker. If one tube glows dimly and the other is completely dead, this does not indicate which tube has failed. The brighter tube may be the good one or the bad one. The bad tube usually has noticeable blackening at one end. It may pay to replace both tubes, especially if significant labor costs are involved. Also, prolonged dim-glowing may degrade the tube that did not initially fail.
In trigger start fixtures that use one ballast to power two 20 watt tubes, sometimes both tubes will blink or intermittently dim. Replacing either tube with a known good tube may fail to fix this. The tubes may continue blinking or intermittently dimming until both are replaced with brand new tubes. This sometimes indicates borderline low line voltage ("brownout", etc.), no ideal temperatures, or borderline (probably cheaply designed) ballast.
Bad starter (preheat fixtures only). The little starter can may go bad or be damaged by faulty fluorescent tubes continuously trying to start unsuccessfully. It is a good idea to replace the starter whenever tubes are replaced in these types of fixtures. One way that starters go bad is to "get stuck". Symptoms of this are the ends of the affected tube glowing, usually with an orange color of some sort or another but sometimes with a color closer to the tube's normal color if arcs form across the filaments. Occasionally, only one end arcs and glows brightly, and the other end glows dimmer with a more orange color.
Please note that this is hard on both the tube and the ballast, and the defective starter should be immediately removed.
Should one or both ends glow with a bright yellowish orange color with no sign of any arc discharge surrounding each filament, then the emissive material on the filaments is probably depleted or defective. In such a case, the tube should be replaced regardless of what else is wrong. If both ends glow a dim orange color, then the filaments' emissive coating may or may not be in good shape. It takes approx. 10 volts to form an arc across a healthy fluorescent lamp filament.
Defective iron ballast. The ballast may be obviously burned and smelly, overheated, or have a loud hum or buzz. Eventually, a thermal protector built into many ballasts will open due to the overheating (though this will probably reset when it cools down). The fixture may appear to be dead. A bad ballast could conceivably damage other parts as well and blow the fluorescent tubes. If the high voltage windings of rapid start or trigger start ballasts are open or shorted, then the lamp will not start.
Ballasts for fixtures less than 30 watts usually do not have thermal protection and in rare cases catch fire if they overheat. Defective fixtures should not be left operating.
Bad sockets. These can be damaged through forceful installation or removal of a fluorescent tube. With some ballasts (instant start, for example), a switch contact in the socket prevents generation of the starting voltage if there is no tube in place. This minimizes the possibility of shock while changing tubes but can also be an additional spot for a faulty connection.
Lack of ground. For fluorescent fixtures using rapid start or instant start ballasts, it is often necessary for the metal reflector to be connected to the electrical system's safety ground. If this is not done, starting may be erratic or may require you to run your hand over the tube to get it to light. In addition, of course, it is an important safety requirement.
Warning: electronic ballasts are switching power supplies and need to be serviced by someone qualified in their repair both for personal safety as well as continued protection from electrical and fire hazards.
Fluorescent tubes failing in this manner normally draw reduced current. The voltage across the tube is higher and the tube will sometimes draw more power, but the current flowing through the ballast is less.
Since the ends of the bulb usually burn out unequally, some "net DC" may try to flow through the ballast. My experience is that the feared core saturation effects do not occur. Furthermore, the common rapid start ballasts have a capacitor in series with the secondary windings which would block any DC.
There is a different problem that I once knew of causing a fire: Starters getting stuck in the "closed" state. The symptom is the ends of the tube glowing brightly, either yellow-orange or a color closer to the normal tube color, sometimes even one end glowing yellow-orange and one end glowing a more normal color. Excessive ballast current flows in this case. This is not a problem with "instant start", "rapid start", or "trigger start" fixtures. It is only a problem where there are starters.
A dim orange or red-orange glow more likely indicates dead tubes on a rapid start or trigger start ballast. If the fixture is a preheat type, dim orange end glow indicates less current than a brighter yellow-orange, and the ballast is less likely to overheat. Different brands of ballasts are designed a little differently.
If a preheat fixture has the tube glowing only in the ends, it is recommended to immediately remove the tube to stop the ballast from possibly overheating. You should replace both the tube and the starter. The starter is bad if this occurs, and the tube is usually bad also. Typically, the starter goes bad after too much time trying to start a bad tube. In the unlikely event the starter had the initial failure, the tube will be damaged by prolonged excessive end glow.
Why is a Grounded Fixture Needed for Reliable Starting?
Many fluorescent fixtures will not start reliably unless they are connected to a solid earth (safety) ground. This is most likely the case with rapid or trigger start magnetic ballasts. These will usually state on the label: "Mount tube within 1/2 inch of grounded metal reflector". If this is not done or if the entire fixture is not grounded, starting will be erratic - possibly taking a long or random amount of time to start or waiting until you brush your hand along the tube.
The reason is straightforward:
The metal reflector or your hand provides a capacitive path to ground through the wall of the fluorescent tube. This helps to ionize the gases inside the tube and initiate conduction in the tube. However, once current is flowing from end-to-end, the impedance in the ballast circuit is much lower than this capacitive path. Thus, the added capacitance is irrelevant once the tube has started.
The reason that this is required is probably partly one of cost: it is cheaper to manufacture a ballast with slightly lower starting voltage but require the fixture to be grounded - as it should be for safety anyhow.
Why Do Fluorescent Lamps Buzz and What to Do About It?
The buzzing light is probably a mundane problem with a defective or cheap ballast. There's also the possibility of sloppy mechanical construction which lets something vibrate from the magnetic field of the ballast until thermal expansion eventually stops it.
First check for loose or vibrating sheet metal parts - the ballast may simply be vibrating these and itself not be defective.
Most newer fixtures are of the 'rapid start' or 'warm start' variety and do not have starters. The ballast has a high voltage winding which provides the starting voltage.
There will always be a ballast - it is necessary to limit the current to the tube(s) and for starting if there is no starter. In older fixtures, these will be big heavy magnetic choke/transformer devices - hard to miss if you open the thing. Cheap and/or defective ones tend to make noise. They are replaceable but you need to get one of the same type and ratings - hopefully of higher quality. A new fixture may be cheaper.
The starter if present is a small cylindrical aluminum can, approximately 3/4" x 1-1/2" in a socket, usually accessible without disassembly. It twists counterclockwise to remove. They are inexpensive but probably not your problem. To verify, simply remove the starter after the lamp is on - it is not needed then.
The newest fixtures may use totally electronic ballasts which are less likely to buzz. Warning: electronic ballasts are basically switching power supplies and are maybe hazardous to service (both in terms of your safety and the risk of a fire hazard from improper repair) unless you have the appropriate knowledge and experience.