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How HID BULBS/LAMPS AND BALLASTS Work- Metal Halide, High Pressure Sodium, & Mercury Vapor | Most-Buyed Power Tools

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How HID BULBS/LAMPS AND BALLASTS Work- Metal Halide, High Pressure Sodium, & Mercury Vapor
How HID BULBS/LAMPS AND BALLASTS Work- Metal Halide, High Pressure Sodium, & Mercury Vapor

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A lot of apprentices (and journeymen) have trouble understanding what makes HID lighting any different than regular lighting so troubleshooting them can be a bit confusing. Let’s talk about it!



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HID lamps are easy to understand once you wrap your head around the idea that the light inside of one is produced from an arc inside of a tube. There are no metal wires inside of an HID lamp like you’d find in a standard incandescent. In fact this is the philosophy behind fluorescent tubes, neon signs, and compact-fluorescent as well. It’s just an arc being struck in a tube, then the arc mixes with certain chemicals to form an arc-stream to produce visible light.

All HID lamps have a few things in common. 1) They use an arc to illuminate rather than a piece of metal. 2) They all use ballasts. 3) They are all used in relatively the same places – sports arenas/stadiums, street lighting, and parking lot lighting.

How these bulbs differ is where things get interesting:

Metal Halide
Metal Halide lamps use halide salts on the inside of the arc tube. Halide salts such as fluoride, bromide, chloride, and iodide are deposited around the inside of the inner arc-tube and when an arc is stricken through the tube, the halide salts start to vaporize into the arc stream. Each halide salt has a certain color profile that it adds to the finished light output, and a specific temperature has to be maintained in order to keep the lamp at the same color consistency. This is achieved by painting the pinched edges of the arc-tube white to reflect light back into the chamber.

Mercury Vapor
Rather than having any secondary elements in the arc tube to control the light color, a mercury vapor relies solely on the blue light emitted from vaporized mercury (which all 3 of these lamps have). What makes mercury vapor the most recognizable is the white coating around the inside of the lamp’s outer envelope. Much like a fluorescent lamp, a mercury vapor lamp utilizes phosphorescence to control the color. Phosphor glows when introduced to UV light, so this coating helps to make the color of the glowing mercury less blue, and more white.

High-Pressure Sodium
HPS lamps are pretty well known for their yellowish/orange color output. This lamp operates similarly to the MH and MV lamps, however, the substances it uses to achieve its color and efficiency are hotter and require more pressure to ignite. Mercury is still inside of the inner arc-tube, however, there is also sodium which is a very hot burning substance. The arc-tubes of HPS lamps are very skinny and made from an opaque ceramic rather than quartz or glass like a MH or MV lamp would be.


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  1. Excellent and detailed explanation. I've learned something new. Thank you and God Bless you. Steven.

  2. Cool video about the "HID" lamps. Two things though, (1) the ballast provides the necessary starting voltage for the lamp and limits the current. The ballast does not spike any voltage to the lamp, (pulse start metal halide & high pressure sodium vapor lamps only). The igniter / starter does the "pulsing" to get the lamp going. Mercury vapor lamps and most metal halide lamps are "probe start" , they have a "third electrode" with a resistor in series with the main electrode. (The igniter is just a capacitor case full of "leading peak" capacitors that builds up an electrical charge, greater than 2KVs to reach "electrical breakdown" in the ark stream. Some lamps can operate on "choke" ballasts, while some may need autotransformer ballasts (CWA or HX). (2) The capacitor is for power factor correction for the ballast creating a "lag" in the circuit. The capacitor reduces this lag and increases the power factor of the circuit. Without the capacitor, the power factor would be considerably low ( about .55 or .65 if your lucky). Adding the capacitor to the circuit raises the power factor to about .90 or even .95. And last but not least, be GENTLE handling these HID bulbs, they're vacuum jacket bulbs and can explode if enough force is exerted on the bulb glass.

  3. I hooked up my metal hilight in my tent it turns on for 2sec and turns back off all bran new y u think not working

  4. I know this is an older video but it was awesome and informative. I have an old 200 watt HMI (hydrargum medium arc iodide) studio light and it is basically a fancy compact metal halide lamp “daylight” color fixture. The fixture will not arc and doesn’t make the traditional “Zzzh” sound like it should since it has to have an ignitor. The ballast is electronic and dimmable and uses long cable for wiring. My question is: how can I troubleshoot this light? I have narrowed it down to it NOT being the ballast causing the issue. In the fixture onboard I think it’s just an ignitor and ignitor timer that I have researched on. I haven’t dissected the fixture yet. Also, as a nice useless trivia fact, in studio lights they call the lamps globes. I have no idea why. Anyway I replaced the globe with a new one and it still doesn’t work. Any ideas would be great!

  5. Best explanation I've ever heard!
    If you can please make a troubleshoot video of metal halides involving all situations (pulse or probe start lamps).
    Thank you so much for sharing!

  6. Perfect explanation, Thanks,
    and I just ask a question about ballast and ignitor if you have time to explain

    What will be the maximum cable from ballast+ignitor to lamp ?
    if i am using 1000W Son-T ?

  7. Can u run multiple lights bulbs on one ballast. For example if u had 1000watt ballast hps, could u run 3 300watt bulbs on it in parallel or series circuit

  8. Solid video but not one mention of them being grow lights lol. Or how on wire runs of over 50' 1000 watt bulb may not to run properly. The ballasts you shown are now going out of style because if the new digital ones. The old magnetic ones give off a lot of heat from the bulb and ballast. In fact the temp rite under a 1000 watt bulb is around 900° and touching one accidentally will leave a burn and scar. (Proof on my back lol). The digital ballasts run cool to the touch and many can fire hps or mh of any wattage like 400 600 1000 and even dimmable. But in my experience they cannot be repaired like the old school magnetic ones you can buy just the igniter or capacitor. It would be interesting to see you explain or deconstruct the light controllers available today for running multiple light set-up like the powerbox or titan. Not sure where you learned all the bulb info with gases and such but you taught me something today I've been working with these on and flickering off for over 2 decades now. Keep up the good work man. Good work speaks for itself I say

  9. Do you need the capacitor? I have seen these lamps wired directly to the ballast before. This is from a CDM type lamp.

  10. All in all a good summary of HID lighting.We now have a new class of HID lamps-ceramic metals halide.These have a ceramic arc tube like a HPS lamp.CMH is pulse start like HPS and pulse start quarts halide lamps.CMH lamps run at higher temps-so the arc is more stable and halides stay in the arc-and give constant light output and color over the life of the lamp as opposed to quartz tube lamps.The ballasts are usually electronic-and have 120Hz square wave output-this gives less "flicker" when moving objects viewed under the lamp.-No strobing.CMH lamps can give higher lumens per watt than LED-and they give VERY long life-over 20,000 hrs!

  11. This was very helpful to me. I ran into one of these MH lights for the first time, and was not sure how it worked. Thanks!!!

  12. Dustin, I just came across some surplus lamps of all these types. Selling on eBay. Not super knowledgeable about these. Is it possible To test these without plugging them with starters and ballasts and such? I have an advanced multimeter…please tell me I can test these without hooking up all the wiring!

  13. Great presentation. From what I was told, the capacitors aren't necessary. What is the capacitance of the capacitor, as it is not stated on the ballast itself or on the lamp?

  14. Do all mercury vapor bulbs always have a white glass? If yes, perhaps it will help me differentiate them

  15. Hi – nice informational talk! With the Hg metal halide bulb (clear) – does the arc tube put out a lot of Hg UV light which is absorbed by the glass outer bulb? Which Hg vapor bulb has the most UVc arc tube output? Does the Na Hg light (3rd on your list) have a higher UV output? I'm looking for an arc tube that with a UVc output on the order of 10 W/ cm^2 at a distance of 1 m. Do you know of any bulbs like that ? Regards – Tim

  16. Great video, I like what you were saying, as you're very knowledgeable the only thing I do disagree with that LEDs are not cheaper to run because most people forget they do not produce a lot of heat so you spend more time money on heating the room up because LEDs run quite cool compared to hid. As most grow are tropical.

  17. Is there a way to check if the mercury vapor or metal halide ballast work? I installed a lamp for my brother in law because the previous lamp apparently blew up. There's continuity between the common and lines, between the capacitor and lamp holder, also between lamp holder thread and lines. In the 277 line, there seems to be around 4-6 ohms of resistance between that and the other lines, I don't know if that helps..
    I plan on just wiring it up to a spliced power chord, connecting it to a gfci, and measuring the output voltage at the lamp holder. But is there a way to check with just my meter? The functional fixture read output around 250V. Input is 120V.

  18. Great video. I’m glad to hear someone finally do a good detailed explanation on HID lighting. One small correction in terminology though. The ballast is the entire group of electrical components that condition the circuit before it reaches the lamp socket. The components include the transformer, capacitor, and (sometimes) ignitor. I appreciate you’re information. Very helpful.

  19. These lights were the BEST technology in regards to lighting….. LED''s fucking suck.  If you can get a high pressure sodium, metal helide or mercury vapor fixture, please do.  They still have old Westinghouse Silverliners and GE mercury vapor lights in my neighborhood that probably were installed in the 60's!!  They run like a champ.

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