Do LED Tube Lights Need a Starter ?

Fluorescent tube lights are as old as dinosaurs and have been around for quite some time. While these lights are not the most efficient bulbs on the market, they can are an ideal example of clever engineering. They produce light by passing a current through a sealed gas tube filled at low pressure with argon gas and mercury vapor. The current excites the mercury vapor and triggers UV light that causes the phosphor coating inside the tube to glow.

A starter is a small device present in certain types of lighting and most commonly found in fluorescent tubes. The starter is made up of a small glass container with argon gas inside and a bimetallic foil. The sole responsibility of a fluorescent starter is to produce sufficient discharge to “activate” the gas inside the lamp so that it lights up.

But what about LED tube lights – do they need the same starter?

LED tube lights don’t need a starter, LEDs produce light using a small amount of low-voltage DC current supplied by an electronic driver circuit, while fluorescent tubes work with the help of a starter and ballast/choke to generate the high starting current required to excite the gas within the tube and also limit the current flowing through the tube.

To help you understand this in full, I’m going to explain to you:

  • Why a starter is needed in fluorescent tubes
  • Why a starter isn’t used in LED tube lights and what they use instead

How does a starter work to light a fluorescent tube?

A fluorescent starter is a simple timed switch that allows the flow of current in the filaments of fluorescent light using bi-metal contacts. 

When power is turned on, the current makes its way to the fluorescent tube via the ballast and the starter. Inside the tube, the circuit closes through the filaments. 

The starter is an open switch, and when open, very limited current flows through the circuit. The voltage makes the neon gas ionize, thereby increasing the temperature inside the starter.

This will cause the contacts of the bi-metal switch to close, which will significantly increase the current through the ballast and filaments (the filaments will heat up, exciting the gas inside the fluorescent tube). 

Since there is no gas ionization to keep the temperature elevated, the temperature inside the starter will drop and the contacts will switch again to the open position. 

This will create a pulse of high voltage from the ballast coil which then ionizes the gas within the fluorescent tube. The resulting effect is a drop in voltage across the tube under the ionization voltage of the starter. 

Meanwhile, the starter circuit will remain open and can even be removed at any time, since the fluorescent tube has lit, and the starter has no further role to play.

The current through the tube will now be regulated by the ballast at acceptable levels, which will prevent the tube from getting too hot and burning out prematurely. 

Are Starters Required For LED Tube Lights?

So now that we fully understand the role of a starter for fluorescent lights do LED tubes need the same technology?

Well, the answer is sort of.

LEDs do not have a starter, instead, they employ the use of an LED driver which does a similar job, but in a different way.

LEDs do not require high voltage spikes to produce electricity. 

The diodes need constant DC current, which needs to be controlled at a lower voltage to protect the light.

The primary responsibility of an LED driver is to act as a DC power supply, by converting the higher voltage AC current to the lower voltage DC that the LED needs.

So in some sense, you can think of an LED driver as a smart combination of choke or ballast and a starter. Still, it’s technically a different sort of equipment.

Internal vs External Drivers

Most LED tube lights on the market and fitted with inbuilt drivers, which makes it much easier to fit them into existing light fixtures – all you need to do is remove or bypass the existing ballast.

However, an internal driver is less efficient, since the components have to be a lot smaller to fit inside, which makes them less efficient.

It also makes the inside of the bulb operate at higher temperatures, which in time, will shorten the lifespan of the diodes. 

A quick search for LED tubes with external drivers will yield a ton of options that you can choose from, however, you’ll still have to install the driver into the fixture or circuit, which can be much more work. 

An external fixture will guarantee a longer lifespan and a more reliable driver which will do a better job of regulating current, giving your LED tube light the longest lifespan possible. 

Regardless of the driver type, LED tubes with internal drivers will already nearly double the lifespan compared to fluorescent tubes (from around 30,000 hours to 50,000), however, you will benefit more over time if you invest a little more by upgrading to an external driver system will serve you better in the long run.

Meanwhile, you still have a third option. While I strongly recommend that you always use LED tube lights with a driver, you can buy “plug-and-play” options designed to work with existing ballasts.

These are the easiest retrofitting option – swap the fluorescent tube for the LED one, and you’re good to go.

However, reliability will be lesser because LEDs run better with a driver. The ballast might burn out, which will cause the component to malfunction. 

To enjoy the full benefit of a long-lasting, energy-efficient LED tube light, you really should upgrade the fixture with a dedicated driver designed for LEDs. 

Final Words

I said at the start that fluorescent tubes are clever, and the chokes and ballasts used to make them work correctly and efficiently are also the results of some pretty brilliant engineering.

I explained in great depth how fluorescent tubes are a great engineering feat and that the starter used to make them work correctly and efficiently, is the result of clever engineering. 

But they aren’t the right technology for LED tube lights.

An LED driver may do the job of a starter, choke, or ballast, but it is solely designed for use with LEDs and will ensure the diodes operate at acceptable levels, lighting up for longer while making the lights as safe as they are meant to be.

You may have installed LED light tubes in your homes or workplace, have you opted for ones with internal or external drivers?

Are you considering the upgrade from fluorescent?


Do T8 LED Tubes Need a Starter?

Not unless specified, I’ve never needed any that did. All the fluorescent tubes I’ve replaced with LEDs have specific instructions, I recommend you go for ones that do not require a starter, choke/ballast, that way you get the benefits of both worlds, if your ballasts are good you don’t have to rewire your light and if your ballasts are bad you can wire it direct. Be sure to adhere to installation instructions.