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The World has long since gone digital. Electronic EC, pH and Hygrometers are standard fare in most growrooms and a plethora of additional sensory equipment is available on the market today, from float sensors to smoke detectors. Most of it can be hooked up to a computer where software collects and analyses the data before making any necessary adjustments. Some of it will only work when attached to a computer, refusing to belittle itself by accommodating the all too fallible faculties of increasingly redundant humans. Combined with automated door and window locks, motion detectors and the almost inevitable internet based auto-ordering system, it’s easy to think the little digital bastards are colluding to cut you out of the equation entirely. In an act of patronising aplomb your laptop will even take a time-stop image of the progress of your plants, forgoing the tiresome trials of having you enter their closely controlled workspace to gawp in wonder. Soon the day will come when we’re little more than slaves to the occasional “bing” of an alarm denoting your need to fulfil one of the ever diminishing acts that an automated system can’t perform for itself. This final act of indignity will be the last vestige of self-worth we mortals are allowed before our silicon based progeny finally expunge us from existence…

Of course there’s nothing to stop the purists amongst us whipping out the litmus paper and dusting off the colour chart. Be warned though; your electronic pH meter is likely to win an argument despite the fact that it lacks the ability to talk, which can be pretty disheartening.

…or more likely, not. Progress is a good thing after all. Greater accuracy of measurement lends itself to increased production, and who doesn’t value a little more free time? You could use it to try rock climbing, watch a classic film, develop you passion for Ambient music or shamelessly promote some interests of your own. Of course there’s nothing to stop the purists amongst us whipping out the litmus paper and dusting off the colour chart. Be warned though; your electronic pH meter is likely to win an argument despite the fact that it lacks the ability to talk, which can be pretty disheartening.

The last few years have seen a fundamental shift in the domestic lighting industry towards energy efficiency. Bathed in that sickly yellow light you’d be forgiven for thinking that change was for the worse, but electricity bills don’t lie (we hope). Hydroponic botanists can’t help but benefit from a greater understanding of the mechanics of light and its general application.
(See our Light spectrum article). Whatever shape our digitised future takes, one thing you won’t have to take on faith alone is the fact that Ballast will adapt to those changes and remain forever your faithful friend. With this in mind, Hydromag reviews the latest innovations taking place in Ballast technology and asks… How bright is your Ballast?

The truth be told, anyone using less than a handful of magnetic ballasts is unlikely to experience any real issues with them.

Old Faithful

Let’s start by making it clear that we have no intention of trashing magnetic ballast. We’d be idiots to do so and frankly we’d need to invent a bunch of problems with it which just don’t exist. Magnetic ballasts have dominated the industry for decades, and for good reason. Years of development have seen technical problems and glitches ironed out and the technology refined into the stalwart it is today. Ironically the fact that it does such a good job means that you rarely need to give it a second thought. If only we could say the same about the government, public transport, airports…the list goes on.

Magnetic ballasts are ideal for hobby growers and anyone on a budget. Reasonably priced and almost universally reliable, other than keeping them clear of any flammable materials they need virtually no maintenance at all, which means that you can instead focus your attention on the more pernickety aspects of your growroom setup. For those very occasional times when something does go wrong most reputable manufacturers offer 1-3 year guarantees on their products. The truth be told, anyone using less than a handful of magnetic ballasts is unlikely to experience any real issues with them. So “Why fi x it if it ain’t broke?” as nobody’s uncle used to say. Well, ramp the number of units up and you’re likely to start feeling a few negative effects.

The heat and noise generated by a handful of magnetic ballasts is generally very manageable. Once you get into double figures though your growroom will start to feel and sound like the engine room of a submarine. The Cold War may well be over, but your neighbours probably aren’t going to take that level of noise disturbance lying down. That’s to say nothing of how uncomfortable you, and and potentially your plants, will be in the sweltering, largely unmanageable heat.

Digital ballasts tend to generate less heat…ideal for the many growers who suffer at the hands of excessive heat levels and ventilation problems posed by an indoor space.

The Young Pretender

Digital Ballasts all share in a number of standard features. Foremost of these, in terms of comparison, is the fact that they tend to generate less heat than magnetic ballasts. Less heat means a smaller, more manageable impact on the temperature of your growroom; ideal for the many growers who suffer at the hands of excessive heat levels and ventilation problems posed by an indoor space. Digital ballasts also reduce the risk of fire in comparison to magnetic ballasts- you should always make sure nothing fl ammable touches the surface of your ballast, however should a dry leaf drop off your plant or some reflective sheeting fall off the wall, it’s probably not going to cause a problem with digital ballasts.

Digital ballasts run virtually silently, which is essential for anyone with a big setup and a great advantage for anyone with, say, a 1m tent set up in a guest bedroom. Some of us find the gentle hum of magnetic ballast soothing, but for those irksome people with unrefined tastes, digital ballast offers the peace and quiet of an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

Although some manufacturers would argue otherwise, on the whole digital ballasts are generally accepted as being more energy efficient than magnetic ballasts. Digital ballasts convert more of the power it takes from the mains into power for your lamps, wasting less of that energy on producing pesky noise and unwanted heat as a by-product. Most digital ballasts have a feature known as ‘Soft Start’ or ‘Incremental Start’; Whereas a magnetic ballast ignites your lamp with a larger boost of amps and then reduces the current once the lamp has stabilised, modern digital ballasts increase the power gradually until they reach their normal running current which is much kinder to your lamps. Soft start should, in most cases, prolong the lifespan of your lamps. The fact that digital ballasts are much lighter than their magnetic counterparts doesn’t make a huge difference to the everyday workings of your growroom, but if your online retailer charges postage by weight, as so many in the UK do, then you’re going to make a saving by opting for digital over magnetic.

Adjustable ballasts solve the problem of having to match your ballast to specific bulbs.

New Kids on The Block

As if these standard features weren’t enough a number of ballasts offer impressive new features too. Looking to the future; Lumatek, Hacienda, Quantum, Adjustawatt® , Digilight and SmartStart® (to name a few) all offer digital ballasts with a number of interesting new features.

Adjustable ballasts solve the problem of having to match your ballast to specific bulbs. A 1000w digital ballast can be adjusted to match the wattage of most lesser rated lamps – provided the unit in question has the correct settings. By downgrading the wattage of your ballast it can be used with any 250w, 400w or 600w bulbs, eliminating the need to have a number of specific ballasts for each of your bulbs. Be warned though – attaching a lesser rated bulb to a 1000w ballast without changing the setting will very likely blow that bulb.

The flip side of this is the ability to downgrade the output of any higher rated bulbs. Let’s say that your plants have grown so tall that you can’t give them adequate clearance from the intense heat generated by the 1000w bulb you’re using. Rather than leaving them to burn, cutting back your crop or having to swap out your bulb for a weaker one, adjustable ballast lets you turn the setting down to a more amenable level. So that same 1000w bulb now takes on the role of a 250w, 400w or 600w bulb without the ball ache of tempering your crop or changing out the components in your setup.

Overdrive is another interesting feature of the new wave of digital ballasts. Those brilliant boffins of the electric fraternity have thrown caution out of the proverbial window of reason and straight into the long dead face of Michael Faraday. By sacrificing a fraction of a bulb’s lifespan, overdrive boosts a bulb’s luminosity by around 10%. The practical application of this function is somewhat of a mystery to me, but it definitely beats arguing over whether or not Faraday really did create the monstrosity that is Parma Violets. I’m guessing Nikola Tesla would be proud, too. Take that Faraday. Moustachioed Serbians for the win!

Not satisfied with simply matching the competition, the boffins at Sol Digital have come up with the Adjusta-Watt® Digital Ballast. These ballasts use a system of controlled re-striking to monitor the heat of a bulb every sixty seconds before allowing it to ignite, preventing the bulb from blowing out upon re-ignition after, say, a power cut or unplugging your system to plug in a vacuum cleaner. Not that anyone would be stupid enough to do that…ahem. SmartStart™ technology also acts to regulate the electrical draw of any system plugged into the same mains circuit, igniting each lamp in series as opposed to all at the same time. This acts to prevent surreptitious surges and spikes from overloading the system and tripping the circuit breakers.

Lumatek have been making their ballast for over a decade and are regarded as the original manufacturers of digital ballast. Using microprocessors and advanced algorithms, Lumatek’s ballast controls voltage levels provided to the lamp in an effort to optimise PAR light production. Recent independent comparison tests at the Electro-technical Institute between the Lumatek 600w set to the Super Lumen setting and a leading 600w magnetic ballast showed the Lumatek achieved approximately 30% more PAR light with 50% better coverage over the grow area. Like other manufacturers, Lumatek back up these findings with solid warranties on all of their products.

“OF COURSE THERE IS A DOWNSIDE TO THIS DIGITAL REVOLUTION. NEW TECHNOLOGY COMES AT A PRICE, AND NOT JUST IN THE FINANCIAL SENSE.”

How Much?

Of course there is a downside to this digital revolution. New technology comes at a price, and not just in the financial sense. Not only is much of the technology very new, but so too are the companies who produce it. More features often means more things that can potentially go wrong, and even a solid warranty is little comfort to the grower whose crop has spent 12 hours without light because of an unforeseen error in the technology. It’ll be a long time and doubtless a rocky road before digital ballasts earn the trust that magnetic ballasts have earned over many years of faithful service. If you choose to take the digital route, it can’t hurt to have a supply of magnetic ballasts on hand to pick up the slack should the worst come to pass with your shiny new toys. Whether or not those ballasts gather dust in a corner, well, only time will tell.

 

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