Do fluorescent tube bulbs have a problem at lower temperatures?

Apr 27, 2010
Suburban Washington DC
I have about a dozen 4 footers in the basement and some of them are dim while a few are dead. Bought some LED replacements, but when I go to remove and jiggle the old bulbs out, they spring back to life. It's probably in the low 60°s down there. Do these fluorescent bulbs have a problem at lower temperatures?
If it's not a high output or weather rated ballast, they will always start dim in the cold.

In regards to a lamp coming to life when you wiggle/move it, it may not have been seated in a tomb stone quite right or the tomb stones spread out a bit over time.
The LED's are a much better product. Fluorescents just don't age well, nor do they work well at lower temperatures. They work fine when they're new, and then not so much over time.

My Dad was an electrician, and when he got called in to work on them, he insisted on replacing all of the bulbs and all of the ballasts... up front. Otherwise, there would be a call back. And the customer rarely understood why.

You can put new tubes on a old/weak ballast... and they might work fine for a while. Sometimes, just reseating the old tubes will work... again, for a while. Replace everything, and they work reliably for another several years.

Plus, there's added energy efficiency with newer components.

Or just go to LED's...
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Touching the tube while the power is on increases the electric field inside and may help get it started-- once.
I recall them being dim when cold.

Was totally worth the effort to switch to led in the basement. I went with ones not needing ballast, just rewired, whatever it was it needed. Forget what color I used though, it does make a difference.
I agree with the general info above; temps affect the typical flourescent system.

There is a work-around, but it may not be worth the effort given the low cost of LED sets today. What can help a flourscent bulb light-off is getting the charge to run the length of the bulb. When you touch the bulb, you generate a localized "hot spot" which helps the charge jump from one end to the other. Even the static charge in your hand (especially common in low-humidity weather), helps!

One way you can sort of assist the system is to put a thin strip of aluminum foil along the tube. I'll be specific ...
- get a roll of aluminum foil; (common for kitchen work, nothing fancy)
- roll it out long enough that it would run the axial length of the bulb (4' or 8' typically); cut the foil at that length
- now cut the foil in a strip about 3/4" wide, to run the length of the bulb (this is a major pain in the rear as it may tear, but being diligent can help)
- remove bulb and lay on work surface
- lay the foil strip along the axis of the tube against the glass
- take some electrical tape and then secure the foil to the tube about every 10-12", and certainly at the ends; the foil needs to be snug along the glass, but not so tight as it would be prone to tearing during handling
- cut the ends of the foil off such that they terminate about 1/2" before the tube end
- reinstall bulb carefully, so as to not tear the foil. put the foil so that it rests nearest to the fixture, so as to not affect the light dispersement into the room

Believe it or not, this works, and pretty darn well too. I've done it on many older 8' fixtures, and it really makes a difference in cold temps. Significantly so, in fact. In my garage and barn, I've updated to LEDs because the 4' fixtures were reasonable cost. But it's far cheaper just to put some foil on a tube, if you have the patience.
I wasn't aware of the foil trick as @dnewton3 suggested above. I wish I had before I scrapped all the old 4ft T12 shop light fixtures I had between my basement and garage. Probably 12 or more fixtures. I gutted the ballasts out of most of them and retro'd them with some no-name, cheap LED tubes. One by one over the past 4-5yrs the tubes went bad. Some only lasted months. Others I swapped out with ~3ft brand name LED "shop lights". Some of those have been replaced as well as they failed.

New electronic ballasts for fluorescent fixtures are also complete junk today. Old school magnetic ballasts lasted a long time.
just buy cold weather rated fixtures + bulbs!!! ever an issue in my unheated garage in penna!
The old-style fluorescent ballasts for normal fluorescent bulbs (not high-output) were rated for 50° F and above. The reason was that those bulbs were normally used indoors. If the temperature was colder than 50°, the bulb might or might not start.

Also, prolonged exposure to cooler temperatures without operating the lamp, such as in a fixture in a shed that wasn't turned on much, could essentially kill the ballast. Then the fixture would not work without a ballast change. I ran into this in an unheated, uninhabited house that had fluorescent fixtures that had not been turned on in a few years. None of those fixtures would operate even though they had power to them when checked.

High-output (HO) ballasts for HO bulbs were usually rated for cold temps because those bulbs were often used outdoors or in cold places such as freezers.

I used to work for an electrical-supplies wholesaler and went to lighting schools. LEDs made my training obsolete, but the LEDs are generally so much better than what they replaced that I'm not sorry. If you can switch, switch with a good LED (not a cheap one).
Last time I went to a big box store to buy some 4' fluorescent tubes, all they had was LED tubes so that's what I got. I was glad I did as they worked fine in my old fixtures without any of the humming and flickering I was having before.
just buy cold weather rated fixtures + bulbs!!! ever an issue in my unheated garage in penna!

I bought a cold start rated T8 twin tube 4ft fluorescent shoplight for my garage about 6yrs ago from Lowes or Home Depot (don't recall).

I was just out in the garage and it's 0degF out. It fires up to full brightness. No need for special bulbs. It's all in the ballast for T8s.
Mine are T8’s. They are 10 years old but had daily use use for the last 6 years. My garage is heated to 60 F. Now, the end of the 4 ft bulbs are black for about an inch. A bulb in one fixture went dark. I bought a contractors package of 10 bulbs and replaced one. I’ll replace the others as they fail, but if the ballasts go, I’ll get rid of them and rewire them for LED’s.
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