Plug & Play vs. Ballast-Bypass LED T8 Replacement Lamps
Posted by Brian Huff on Thursday, January 10, 2019
One of the hottest topics that consistently gets discussed in our office is the pros and cons of Plug & Play vs. Ballast Bypass LED T8 lamps. We talk to potential customers every day who have read about Ballast Bypass lamps, been quoted Ballast Bypass lamps, or are asking to buy them from us. Adventure Lighting’s stance on Ballast Bypass Linear LED has always been to stay away from them. MANY of our competitors, colleagues and vendors swear by them- But we believe there are serious long term risks associated with this LED Solution. Here are a few points that may help you and your business decide which option is best for you.
- With Ballast Bypass Lamps, you must re-wire the entire fixture. This is obvious, but if you’re going to go to the effort (as easy as it may be) of re-wiring a fixture, just replace the fixture. Ballast Bypass along with Plug & Play LED T8 lamps are a simple fix to go from Fluorescent to LED. Re-wiring the fixture takes away from the simplicity of the process.
- “You eliminate the ballast as a failure point in the fixture”. True. But I would argue that replacing a ballast is a pretty simple, fairly cheap process. Electricians, maintenance professionals and building owners have been replacing ballasts for decades. It’s just not that big of deal. Generally speaking, they outlast the LED lamps anyways.
- Safety Risk of Line Voltage running on a LED Lamp. This problem has been addressed for the most part by companies adding surge protection and safety devices to LED lamps to ensure the safety of the installers of the lamps. That said, there are lamps out there that don’t have the protections that others have. It’s common practice to place a finger on the lamp pins for alignment while installing. This is risky with 120v. Let alone 277v, or 347v in Canada.
- Long term safety issues. Lets assume that the Bypass Lamps are installed and working correctly. You’ve gone to the trouble of re-wiring a fixture, and installing the lamps safely. The manufacturers have addressed a lot of safety issues for install, I won’t argue that the already installed bypass lamps are going to be okay to use. The real issue is how to replace failed lamps in the future. The UL states that you must place a sticker in the modified fixture to warn future installers that “this fixture has been modified from its original configuration”. This is the ONLY thing that notifies someone that they need to make sure they know what they’re doing. Let’s be honest, no one is going to read that sticker. There are two different ways to wire a bypass led tube. Single Ended, where the hot and neutral are on one end of the lamp- and Double Ended, where the hot is one side and the neutral is on the other. We have had multiple instances where electricians walk into our shop and tell us about putting the wrong lamp into a bypass fixture. One instance involved shorting a system and taking out a floor of computers in an office. Now, this is an extreme case. But I would ask if your installer replacing lamps 4 or 5 years down the road is going to be capable of matching up the correct lamp with the existing wiring configuration of the modified fixture, or if they’re going to grab the most accessible lamp on their way back from lunch and slap it up there. Perhaps they’ll grab a fluorescent lamp and put it in. That lamp has a pretty strong possibility of literally exploding in their hand.
If your goal is to easily, cheaply and safely change from fluorescent T8 to LED T8, we recommend instant fit, plug & play LED T8 lamps. It is the simplest way to save energy, while preserving the long term safety of the fixture and the installers.
President, Adventure Lighting Inc.
Adventure Lighting has been in the wholesale lighting business since 1980 in Des Moines, Iowa. Brian has been with the company since 2008 and has fully owned Adventure Lighting since 2017
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If you’re looking to convert your linear fluorescent lamps to linear LED lamps, there are now more options and additional risks to consider.
Thanks to new technology and lower prices, it’s easier and more affordable to upgrade to energy-efficient linear LEDs.
Proven, well-known traditional lamp manufacturers have lowered their pricing on LED linear lamps (like T8s). It no longer makes sense to choose products made by riskier, lesser-known lamp manufacturers that use lower pricing to attract customers. Additionally, warranties are important. You want to choose a manufacturer who will stand by its product.
Return on investments (ROIs) in less than a year becoming more common today, depending on annual burn time, kWh rates, availability of utility rebates for DLC certified products, etc.
Unlike waiting for the next cool technological gadget, or for prices to drop, there is now a cost correlating to your wait to upgrade to more energy efficient lighting – energy and labor savings that you could be enjoying every day.
Ready to shop for linear LED tubes?
Today's T8 linear LED solutions
First, we’re going to break down four options if you’re looking to retrofit from linear fluorescent to linear LED.
1. Plug-and-play or direct fit linear LED (UL type A)
A plug-and-play, or direct fit, linear LED is probably what you're imagining – a simple, one-for-one swap out of the original linear fluorescent lamp. This lamp works directly with the existing fluorescent ballast, so there is no rewiring or ballast change required. But you do want to make sure your ballast is compatible.
Jump ahead to pros and cons.
2. Ballast-bypass, line voltage, or direct wire linear LED (UL type B)
Bypass the ballast linear LEDs – also known as line voltage or direct-wire linear LEDs – work straight off the line voltage flowing directly to the sockets, requiring you to remove the original fluorescent ballast.
Jump ahead to pros and cons.
3. LED lamp and driver (UL type C)
This linear LED solution requires a ballast change, except instead of replacing the ballast with another ballast, you will replace it with an LED driver and your fluorescent lamps are replaced with linear LED lamps.
Jump ahead to pros and cons.
4. Hybrid or dual technology linear LED (UL type A & B)
Hybrid linear LED lamps are able to work both as a plug and play – with the existing ballast – and, once the ballast peters out, you can remove it and have the lamp run off of line voltage.
Jump ahead to pros and cons.
Plug-and-play T8 LED pros and cons (UL type A)
Plug-and-play LED tubes (Type A) pros:
- Simplicity for installer
The lamp snaps into the existing fixture without any wiring modifications, meaning installation can be done by virtually anyone, as long as your existing ballast is compatible.
Whenever we can shorten the time someone has to spend dangling from a ladder, things are automatically safer.
- Lowest cost linear LED solution
As a simple one-for-one lamp replacement, the cost of the lamps combined with the minimal labor to install them make them the less expensive option.
- Ballast protection
Fluorescent ballasts are designed to control the flow of current or voltage to the sockets, by regulating the current spikes that commonly occur throughout the day.
Plug-and-play LED tubes (Type A) cons:
- Upfront cost
Even with the recent price reductions for linear LEDs, they are still usually 3-5 times the price of the existing fluorescent lamps. The positive news, though, is that it is not uncommon to achieve ROIs in under a year based on energy and labor savings.
- Ballast compatibility
While plug-and-play linear LEDs are getting better with ballast compatibility, it's still something you should check. The best way to do this is to take a sample of your common ballasts and make sure they are listed on the manufacturer's approved compatibility list. Our goal is to make lighting easier, so we put together a list of resources where you can check ballast compatibility.
- Continued ballast maintenance
While LED lamps don't put the same stress on a ballast that linear fluorescents do, on-going ballast maintenance is still required.
Ballast-bypass T8 LED tube pros and cons (UL type B)
Ballast-bypass LED tube (Type B) pros:
No ballast maintenance
Removing the ballast simplifies the number of fixture components that need to be maintained.
Less energy used elimination of ballast draw
An extra couple of watts is consumed when you pair an LED lamp with a ballast. Since you're bypassing the ballast, the wattage on the lamp is the wattage consumed. This is called ballast factor.
Ballast-bypass LED tube (Type B) cons:
The most significant negative to a ballast-bypass linear LED is the risk of electric shock since the sockets carry line voltage. It's a common practice to place a finger on the lamp pins while you are trying to install it, and this becomes a risky endeavor when using single-ended . Some LED manufacturers have included safety designs to address this, but we always recommend double-ended LED tubes over single-ended for Type B systems.
Fixtures must be rewired
It can be argued this is a simple process. Disconnect the ballast from the circuit and wire the sockets to line voltage. There are several video tutorials available to demonstrate this task. Interestingly enough, most of these demos are performed with the fixture being rewired laying on a table. If you've done this before, you understand that doing this over your head while balancing on a ladder (and maybe before your morning coffee) can make things more complicated.
Exact wiring uncertainty
Unfortunately, there's no industry-standard wiring schematic for ballast-bypass linear LEDs. Different manufacturers have a variety of approaches that the installer must consider. Among the 31 linear lamps tested in a DOE Caliper report, seven different wiring configurations were used. To complicate matters more, there are two common types of lamps – double-ended and single-ended. The type of lamp and the type of socket (shunted or non-shunted) will have an impact on the wiring. This type of variation among commercial products introduces a new layer of complexity, and for safety reasons we recommend using a qualified electrician.
Fluorescent lamp compatibility or snap-back
We hope that once you retrofit LED you don't decide to go back to fluorescent, but it's possible that someone could inadvertently install a linear fluorescent lamp in a ballast-bypass fixture. When the LED lamp does need replacing, if you mistakenly try to replace it with a fluorescent, the lamp may not work or could be hazardous.
Title 24 requirements
In California, there are Title 24 requirements that need to be when you retrofit existing fixtures by replacing the ballast. Please refer to the current Title 24 requirements for more details.
Higher initial labor costs
The need to remove the original fluorescent ballast and rewire the line voltage to the sockets requires more labor than plug-and-play solutions that work with the existing fluorescent ballast.
When bypassing the ballast, you may need to change your sockets from the most common shunted sockets to non-shunted sockets. Non-shunted sockets are required if you're using single-ended tubes. This will require a small amount of additional material cost and more labor to replace them all. In addition, some manufacturers may no longer honor the socket warranty if line voltage is direct-wired to their sockets. If you're using double-ended LED tubes, you typically do not need to change your sockets.One of our key partners recently came out with a product that could fix the socket compatibility problem. Sylvania's LEDlescent double-ended ballast-bypass lamps are polarity neutral. That means they work in shunted or non-shunted sockets.
LED T8 lamp and driver pros and cons (UL Type C)
LED lamp and driver (Type C) pros:
- Better energy savings
LED drivers are more energy efficient than today's ballasts. The wattage of the LED lamp is all that is consumed, whereas when used with a fluorescent ballast, the energy consumed increases by about two watts per lamp on average.
- Reduced maintenance
LED drivers are designed to last longer than traditional fluorescent ballasts, thus reducing maintenance costs.
- No ballast compatibility issues
LED drivers properly paired with the right linear LED lamps eliminate any ballast compatibility issues that are often common with plug-and-play LED lamps.
- No snap-back
The term snap-back refers to replacing the energy efficient lamp with the older, less energy efficient technologies (in this case, linear fluorescents). When the LED lamp needs replacing, if you try to replace with a fluorescent, the lamp will not be compatible and not function properly with the LED driver.
LED lamp and driver (Type C) cons:
Higher initial material costs
Replacing both ballast with an LED driver and new LED linear lamps come with higher material costs when compared to the plug-and-play solutions. This is offset by the higher energy savings and reduced future labor costs.
- Higher initial labor costs
The need to replace the original fluorescent ballast with a new LED driver requires more labor than plug-and-play solutions, which work with the existing fluorescent ballast.
Title 24 requirements
In California, there are new Title 24 requirements that need to be when you retrofit existing fixtures by replacing the ballast. Most Type C systems will meet Title 24 requirements, but refer to the current Title 24 requirements for more details.
Hybrid T8 LED pros and cons
Hybrid linear LED pros:
- Greater flexibility
The hybrid lamps were designed to work both with the existing fluorescent ballast and by bypassing it. You can start by using it like a plug-and-play lamp and when the ballast fails, you can direct wire it to line voltage.
- Initial simplicity for installer
The lamp snaps into the existing fixture without any wiring modifications meaning installation can be done by virtually anyone.
Hybrid linear LED cons:
- Eventual safety risk
The most significant negative to bypassing the ballast with a linear LED – once the ballast burns out – is the risk of electric shock since the sockets carry line voltage. Most hybrids system use single-ended LED tubes. It's a common practice to place a finger on the lamp pins while you are trying to install it, and this becomes a risky endeavor with .
- Fixtures must eventually be rewired
It can be argued that this is a simple process. Disconnect the ballast from the circuit and wire the sockets to line voltage. There are several video tutorials available to demonstrate this task. Interestingly enough, most of these demos are performed with the fixture being rewired laying on a table. If you've done this before, you understand that doing this over your head while balancing on a ladder (and maybe before your morning coffee) can make things more complicated.
- DLC listing issues
To be eligible for potential utility rebates, linear LED lamps usually need to be listed on the Design Lights Consortium (DLC) list of certified products. Hybrid lamps are often listed as DLC certified when used with the fluorescent but are not DLC approved when bypassing the ballast, as it is considered a fixture modification. Some manufacturers may be DLC listed for both.
- Eventual extra labor
Once the original fluorescent ballast dies, the need to remove it and rewire the line voltage to the sockets requires additional labor.
- Fluorescent lamp compatibility or snap-back
We hope that once you retrofit to LED you don't decide to go back to fluorescent, but it's possible that someone could inadvertently install a linear fluorescent lamp in the fixture after you rewire it directly to line voltage. When the LED lamp does need replacing, if you mistakenly try to replace it with a fluorescent, the lamp will not be compatible and not function properly.
Other important things to consider when comparing linear LED solutions1. Proper socket seating
Though the traditional fluorescent sockets have a plastic exterior, they have metal contacts on each side of the interior of the socket. For a lamp to properly be “seated” in a socket, it needs to snap securely into place to avoid coming loose or moving, and with both of the pins on the LED lamp coming into contact with the metal contacts inside the sockets.
You also want to make sure sockets are not cracked or broken. This could cause socket seating problems. Improper socket seating is the most common cause for fire hazards or melted tubes.
If you want to ensure that you have the proper sockets for your new LED tubes, use this guide. Then, you can purchase the proper sockets (aka tombstones) here.
2. Emergency ballast compatibility
Many of the traditional emergency ballasts used with fluorescent lamps are not compatible with most of the LED linear solutions on the market today. The most common emergency ballasts that compatible with LEDs are often much more expensive the fluorescent versions. This will add to the material cost and labor to the retrofit project. Please make sure your emergency ballast is listed on the manufacturer's compatibility list.
3. Limited dimming options
Though there are currently some good dimmable LED linear options available, the choices are limited and often cost more.
Choosing the right linear LED
The first part of your linear LED decision should involve choosing a reputable manufacturer. You want to work with someone that has put their product through proper testing and will ultimately stand by it. In our experience, some of the best linear LEDs on the market include Sylvania’s SubstiTUBE products and Philips InstantFit. We also carry products from MaxLite and TCP.
The second part of your decision is which linear LED solution is best for your application. The most common decision is ballast-bypass vs. plug-and-play. For some, the ease of installation on plug-and-play products is attractive, but for others, the simpler long-term maintenance of a direct-wire LED is valuable. Both are viable options that will save your property time and money, but we strongly recommend either plug-and-play or a double-ended ballast-bypass.
Your safety is extremely important.
If you choose ballast-bypass LED tubes, look for a direct-wire lamp that comes with a valid "modification" sticker to affix to the fixture and preserve its UL listing.
Finally, the LED lamp and driver option offers great long-term maintenance savings and light output, but the higher cost will extend your payback.
As you consider the variables that go into a lighting retrofit decision, remember to evaluate your priorities for the project and keep safety first.
This article has been updated to include new linear LED solutions and current recommendations. It was originally published in September 2015.
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