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Mikaila31 01-14-2012 06:55 PM

how to get more light cheaply. DIY style =)
This thread is focused on building a DIY light from scratch or retrofitting an existing fixture. A few methods I use may be uncommon and still somewhat unproven. The point of this build was to get the most light for the cheapest cost, but with maintaining good efficiency. Though with any DIY I am not responsible for any damage caused by constructing a DIY light.

To start with I have been using CFL ballasts to power linear tubes. By CFL I mean the spiral energy saver bulbs. This takes the cost of the ballast from being one of the most expensive part of a fixture to about $1-3. However it only works well with wattage below 23-26 watts since these are the more common larger sizes of CFL bulbs. You can certainly go higher, but the cost jumps quiet a bit. (for example 40 watt spiral CFLs tend to go for $8-10). This method also works best with T5 bulbs, these are closest to the diameter of the spiral compacts and also one of the more efficient linear tubes. However it is not limited to T5 bulbs, it works with T8's or power compacts. This method allows for a lot of customization including underdriving or overdriving bulbs, but I will go into more detail later.

I will only briefly cover mounting a fixture. Mainly because this is very variable depending on how you are mount the bulbs and to what.

First we will start with a brief overview of fluorescent lights. T8, T5, PC bulbs are all very similar in construction. The bulbs are powered by ballasts, which increase the voltage required to start the bulb. Wires then run to each pin of the bulb. They are pretty simple overall. The wiring can vary a bit depending on the individual ballast used. This is a general diagram of a linear bulb fixture.

Also common with T8 fixtures are the "starter" type. These function similar as above, except instead of a ballast they have a transformer. The Starter is a capacitor that functions to increase the voltage required to start the bulb.

Now for building your own fixture!
Step 1: locate a ballast

As I mentioned above I have been recently experimenting with using Spiral CFL ballasts to power other bulbs. This greatly decreases the cost of the fixture. You need to buy a spiral CFL with the proper wattage you want. For T5's and PC bulbs the wattages are basically equivalent. Example a 14 watt CFL ballast will power a 14 watt T5 at around its normal output. For T8s however I have found you need a higher wattage ballast then the wattage stated on the bulb, example a 23 watt CFL ballast to power a 15 watt bulb. This is because of the larger diameter of the bulb. I personally would stick with T5s or PC bulbs, but if you have a T8 fixture with a dead ballast this is certainly a cheap way to get it up and running again. These are electronic ballasts and run very quiet and provide instant start up on all bulbs I have tried.

To get a spiral CFL ballasts you need to take apart a spiral CFL. This is very simple and poses no danger as long as you don't break the bulb. Take a screwdriver and run it along the seam on the base of the bulb. I found its easiest to run it all the way around the bulb just separating the two halfs. Then start prying them apart. Eventually the base should pop open and reveal the ballast.
Above is a westinghouse 23 watt ballast. All the brands I have taken apart are very similar. Westinghouse and Sylvania I prefer over GE, but all brands will work. To those familar with lights the wiring shown on the CFL in the pic will look very similar to a normal ballast. The ballast has two wires for power and these need to be cut. Two brands, Westinghouse and Sylvania, have a resistor that is kinda hidden in a white tube (can see it in the pic). Try not to cut it off, but if you do its easy to just reattach. Then their are 4 small pins on the ballast that have wires wrapped around them and run to the bulb. These need to be unwrapped and the ballast is free.

These are examples of removed ballasts.

Step 2: wiring! (Its not as hard as it seems. Honestly!)

Now the little pins on the ballast are always together in pairs, either on opposite sides or offset from each other. Wiring these ballasts to a different bulb is as simple as attaching wires to the pins and running them to the pins on the bulb. One pair of the pins runs to one end of the bulb and the other pair goes to the other end of the bulb. The exact pins you connect to on each end of the bulb DOES NOT matter. This makes the wiring very simple as multiple ways are correct. The two power wires can be connected directly to a standard AC power cord. If you don't have one buy a $1 extension cord and cut the socket end off it.
This is a simple wiring diagram. I color coded it to show which wires are interchangeable. Basically if you cross the two red wires with eachother is doesn't matter, same with the two blue wires, or the two black ones. It will work regardless. However if you cross two different colors, a blue and a red, it will not light. But you will NOT damage the ballast either if you by chance mess this up. These ballasts like all ballasts use high voltage. Safest way to work with them is do NOT touch it if it is plugged in, this goes for all electrical work.

Connecting wires to the pins is the trickiest part, but still not very hard. I could careless what wire you use, but every light fixture I have taken apart uses primary wire, 18 AWG(american wire gunge) rated up to 300V. I prefer to use this type of wire, but have occasionally used lesser rated wires. You can get it at most home improvement stores usually $5 for more then enough. This wire is often solid core. I CAREFULLY bend the pins on the ballast till they form an almost closed hook. Make a similar closed ring with the wire, then stick the two together and bend it so they are both fully closed. The tighter the better, a lose connection is more likely to make the fixture flicker when it is moved.

Now there are two ways to connect the wires to the pins. Either with endcaps/socket or making a DIY connection with terminal rings. Proper sockets are much more preferred, but with T5 it is doubtful you will find these locally. I would suggest getting them online along with the bulbs or using the terminal rings. The terminal rings are not as convenient as the twist sockets, but get the job done regardless. Its harder to get the bulb in and out, but its not like this is done very frequently. The ring terminals are super cheap($1 for 2 dozen), but you do need to buy extra parts for mounting the bulb.

If you use ring terminals they should be 16-14 AWG size, as this size fits snugly over the bulb pins. You need to trim the insulation on them down so they are shorter. If you are using T5 bulbs half of them need the insulation fully removed or they won't fit. For T8s or PC bulbs leave the insulation on.

Then connect the wires from the ballast to the ring part of the terminal. Then each terminal fits on a pin. The rear bulb shows you how they are wired. Once you are done the connection should be covered like the front bulb has, to avoid to a connection between the two wires.

Once you attach a powercord to the ballast your basically done with wiring. Below are a few examples.
This is a 4 ft Normal output T5 with a 26 watt ballast.
A 14 watt NO T5, but running off a 23 watt ballast making it basically a HO T5. I plan to swap out the bulbs when ever I get around to ordering HO bulbs.
Retrofit into a standard T8 light strip, using the existing hardware. Basically just changed the magnetic ballast for an electric one. I've been using this fixture for a month and a half without any issues. The only difference you can notice is instant start up, no high pitch buzzing, runs cooler and the fixture is at least 50% lighter in weight.

More to come!

zof 01-14-2012 08:19 PM

Nice walk though, never though of using CFLs for a ballast, would be interested to hear what sort of life span you get with the bulbs.

Reefing Madness 01-15-2012 11:45 AM

Or get the correct ballast for the lamp, and do a remote ballast install.
Sylvania 49419 - QS2X54T5HOUNVPS80SC T5 Fluorescent Ballast - product summary - Bing Shopping

Mikaila31 01-15-2012 09:14 PM


Originally Posted by Reefing Madness (Post 951276)
Or get the correct ballast for the lamp, and do a remote ballast install.
Sylvania 49419 - QS2X54T5HOUNVPS80SC T5 Fluorescent Ballast - product summary - Bing Shopping

Thats why the thread title says "how to get more light cheaply". I well understand how to make a proper fixture. The point of this was to make a fixture with high output as cheaply as absolutely possible. The ballast you linked is a dual T5 HO for 4 foot bulbs, not exactly what I need. This would be though Regardless its a good example of what I was trying to get around using in a fixture. Before I always use to recommend using Spiral CFLs for low cost lighting, however they have their drawbacks and inefficiencies. I thought of this idea when thinking really hard on how to drive linear tubes cheaply. CFLs are cheap and self ballasted. Linear tubes are better, yet have really expensive ballasts. This was the solution I came up with.

Now both real ballasts linked here are listed for at least $45-50. Note that this is just for the ballast and maybe some attached wire. That cost is crazy =/ . They are also large and bulky things. Below is a picture of the finished fixture, which uses very little parts actually meant for fluorescent lighting. Total cost of bulbs, CFL ballasts, wire, tube clamps, reflectors, connectors and other misc hardware was roughly $30. Only thing excluded is the wooden housing, which I didn't make for this project but for another one. It was probably $15-20 to build and paint. The cost is lower or equal to the cost of just buying a proper ballast. If you buy cheap T5 HO bulbs and proper sockets online from the same place, the cost is basically the same. I bought all my parts locally, including the bulbs. Fixture consumes about 46 watts.

Ballast life is something of an unknown. But from my understanding and research a CFL ballast should last just as long attached to a linear tube as it does with the spiral tube, if not longer. CFL life varies A LOT depending on the fixture and orientation of the bulb. For aquariums be best orientation to get the most out of a spiral bulb is straight upside-down, but this orientation is likely to lead to a much shorter life span due to the ballast overheating. Mounting the ballast away from the bulb and giving it a larger housing is likely to let it run cooler and have a longer life then normal. I would expect at least 2 years out of the ballast. Certainly not as long as most proper ballasts should live, but given the cost of the CFL ballasts I used was $2, 2 years is fine with me. Unlike proper ballasts these little one get only warm to the touch, where as my dual 55watt PC ballast can easily burn you once it gets to operating temp. In the lights I have driven using rewired CFL ballasts most the heat ends up coming from the bulb itself.

I've never been too concerned about bulb life, since a lot of planted people replace bulbs before they burn out. They should have a longer bulb life compared to magnetic "flicker" ballast/starter. They start linear tubes the same way they start the spiral ones. Instant on with no flicker, kinda dim at first then the bulb slowly warms up and gets brighter. Bulb life will be more dependent on how you drive the bulb, not the ballast itself. High output bulbs for example never last as long as normal output bulbs.

Another reason I think this is a sweet method is you can really fine tune your light levels. Normally T5 bulbs come in standard NO or HO wattages. For example a 22" T5 NO is 14 watts, while a HO is 24 watts. If you took either bulb type and using a 18 watt CFL ballast to drive it then that will result in a bulb brighter then normal output, but not as bright as HO.

Here are two comparison shots of light output (with my cameras exposure locked).
Fixture I kludged together. 46 watts- 2 T5 bulbs @ 4100K

Current USA Satellite fixture. 55 watt power compact @ 9325K(GE FW&SW)

badxgillen 01-16-2012 12:11 AM

and yet again i must aplaud you...good work as this will really help out a number of underfunded hobbyist get into the planted tank game.:-D

chrispmcgill 01-19-2012 02:19 PM

so could this set up work with 10k, 13k or 14k t5 tubes?

Mikaila31 01-19-2012 02:33 PM


Originally Posted by chrispmcgill (Post 956121)
so could this set up work with 10k, 13k or 14k t5 tubes?

if by that you mean kelvin rating then yes. Kelvin temp does not have any effect here. Same bulbs with different kelvin temp run the same, the only difference is the color and spectrum they produce. Kelvin temp is influenced by the coating on the bulb and that is it.

It doesn't matter what CFLs you take the ballasts from as long as they are your normal spiral shaped ones with a round base. It doesn't need to be daylight or anything like that any will do. Just pick the right wattage.

chrispmcgill 01-19-2012 02:45 PM

it seems that t5HO 24w 48in 10K bulbs are not made. Are these bulbs only made in 54w?

Mikaila31 01-19-2012 06:55 PM


Originally Posted by chrispmcgill (Post 956147)
it seems that t5HO 24w 48in 10K bulbs are not made. Are these bulbs only made in 54w?

24 watt would be Normal output. You can't have high output without it being 54 watts since the higher wattage is what makes it high output.

romanlutsk 01-22-2013 05:10 AM

Driving 54w T5 with 23w CFL ballast?
Thanks a lot for the great thread, Mikaila31, it's exactly what I was looking for.

I was wondering if this 54w T5:
54-Watt Linear Fluorescent Light Bulb-414193 at The Home Depot

would work with a Greenlite 23W CFL ballast?

or should I just get a 21W one:
21-Watt Fluorescent Replacement Light Bulb-29691 at The Home Depot

Also, the 54w one says that the startup type is "preheat" - would that make any difference?

Finally, I have 2 broken 23w CLF - any way to drive one 54W linear lamp with 2 ballasts?

Thanks a lot,

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