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Your Guide to Use Ballasts for Growing Cannabis

Added 30 August 2023

Growing cannabis requires various components and devices, and in this lineup of major components, many growers forget to focus on a lesser-known yet significantly important component: grow light ballast. This device protects your grow lights and, to an extent, even your cannabis plants. 

But what are these ballasts, how do they work, and how do you pick the best one for you? Learn all about grow light ballasts for cannabis plants in this article below. 

What are Grow Light Ballasts?

What are Grow Light Ballasts?

When growing cannabis, you have to use powerful grow lights, and these lights convert electricity into light via various methods. But your electricity supply is never stable — there are always fluctuations — which can cause lights to fluctuate between dim and too bright, and in severe cases, such fluctuations can even cause the lights to be short or burn. 

This is where ballasts come in. These devices sit between the power supply and the grow lights, and they direct and limit the energy reaching the lights to maintain the bulbs' right intensity and stability. These bulbs are crucial in HPS, LEC, and MH grow lights, but they also come built-in with LED (as a driver) and CFL lights. 

So, if you want to grow cannabis, you’ll need to get the right ballast if you plan on using HPS, LEC, or MH grow lights. It’s a necessary part of your arsenal. You don’t need ballasts for CFL and LED lights. But before we dive into picking the right ballast for you, let’s look at the three main types of ballast available in the market. 

What are the Types of Ballasts?

What are the Types of Ballasts?

Grow light ballasts are of three primary types, and while you will only ever need to purchase two of them since the third one comes built-in with LED lights, it’s still a good idea to learn about all three types. Here are the three types of grow light ballasts for cannabis. 

1. Magnetic Ballast 

Magnetic ballasts are the old type of ballasts, which have almost become obsolete nowadays. One advantge they have over other ballasts is that they are cheap. And, this is because the technology is pretty basic with fewer parts.  

Magnetic ballasts use aluminum and copper coils surrounded by steel, along with a condenser and a starter, to function. The coils produce a magnetic field, which helps regulate the flow of electricity to the grow lights. 

If you are worried about electromagnetic or radio-frequency interference, you can pick magnetic ballasts, as they don’t produce either. Plus, high-quality magnetic ballasts also run cooler today, thanks to technological advancements. 

2. Electronic Ballasts

The second type of ballast that is popular for cannabis grow lights is the electronic ballast. These engineering marvels are much more efficient at regulating energy than magnetic ballasts, allowing your lights to run to their full potential. These ballasts use a microprocessor to control the circuit, thereby controlling the energy flow.

Thanks to their efficient conducting properties, electronic ballasts prevent light flicker or hum, which is common with magnetic ballasts. This is because electronic ballasts work at a much higher frequency. But that’s not all; electronic ballasts offer many other benefits. 

Electronic ballasts extend the life of your lights due to their consistent power delivery, allow you to run multiple lights using one ballast, and decrease your energy bills. Plus, electronic ballasts are lighter and do not heat up as much. However, they do emit radio-frequency interference, which may disrupt other electronic equipment in the grow room. 

If you are growing cannabis on a large scale, using electronic ballast poses another risk: law enforcement. It’s easy for them to track down your grow room if you use electronic ballasts to operate an array of grow lights. 

3. LED Drivers 

The third type of ballast is LED drivers, which are not really ballasts in the true sense, but they serve the same function as regular ballasts for LED grow lights. LED drivers regulate energy and convert AC into DC, just like your smartphone charger. 

You don’t need to worry about LED drivers because LED grow lights come with a built-in ballast, but it helps give you a perspective on how ballasts work. 

Digital vs. Magnetic Ballasts

Digital vs. Magnetic Ballasts

When it comes to choosing the ballast for your lighting needs, there are differences between magnetic and digital options. While both have their merits, the advantages of digital ballasts are undeniable. Let's explore the factors that set these ballasts apart, and why you should choose one over the other. 

1. Maintaining Consistency 

Voltage regulation is a critical factor that influences the consistency of light and plant growth. Magnetic ballasts are limited to producing the voltage they receive which becomes problematic as they will either underperform or draw more energy. In addition, fluctuations in power supply can also cause voltage variations, which can harm the yields and plants ultimately. 

In comparison, digital ballasts have the ability to adjust incoming voltage, ensuring a steady output regardless of variations in power supply. This capability prevents any decline in performance and unnecessary energy waste resulting in plant growth and increased yields. Thus, you can install an MH or HPS Light and change it according to your convenience. But, you’d have to purchase dedicated ballasts for each light if you’re using magnetic ballasts. Another feature of digital ballasts is that they will shut the unit off automatically if the lights aren't running optimally, indicating that your plants aren't receiving good lighting. 

2. Weight

The difference in size and weight between digital and magnetic ballasts is immediately noticeable. Magnetic ballasts tend to be bulky and heavy which can be problematic for installations with limited space. Conversely, digital ballasts have a lightweight design, making them ideal for confined spaces and installations that require mobility. 

3. Lighting Frequency

Digital ballasts excel in controlling output frequency. This feature enhances lamp efficiency by exciting gases more effectively and produces superior light output while extending the lamp’s lifespan, and ensuring accurate color rendering. On the other hand, magnetic ballasts perform according to the fixed frequency from the main power supply which often leads to a flickering effect that affects the quality of light.

4. Energy Efficiency

One of the reasons to choose digital ballasts is their remarkable energy efficiency. Although the difference may seem minimal — usually around 3-4% less energy consumption compared to other units — you cannot ignore the cumulative effects, especially when you have several grow lights. You can save more energy if you use digital ballasts, which is a crucial factor if you want to grow cannabis in the long term. 

5. Heat

Let's talk about heat management. Magnetic ballasts are inefficient as they generate significant heat. They are often hot to the touch. Heat is produced when electricity flows through the core. Since the heat generated is nothing but an unnecessary byproduct, magnetic ballasts are inefficient. However, thanks to technological improvements, many magnetic ballasts produce less heat now. That said, digital ballasts also generate some heat. However, it’s less comparatively as most ballasts use plastic sheathing for components, effectively reducing heat-related issues and ensuring better operational longevity.

6. Silent Operation

Now let's consider operation. Vibrating coils in magnetic ballasts hum constantly, which can be quite annoying. And, it only gets worse as the equipment ages. This not only disrupts the cultivation environment but also indicates that the efficiency is decreasing due to coil deterioration. 

In contrast, digital ballasts operate silently without any humming or buzzing noises. With a silent grow room, you have the peace of mind of not attracting unwanted attention from others, but it also ensures that the equipment functions to its maximum potential. 

7. Dimmable Functionality

The ability to dim lights is an advantage that digital ballasts offer exclusively. This feature is valuable during the vegetative stage if you want to increase the light intensity gradually. Also, dimming helps with controlling temperature, which is crucial for plant health. Digital ballasts with functionality help you meet specific growth stages and environmental conditions.

Due to so many issues, most manufacturers have discontinued magnetic ballasts; however, there are many grow lights that still use magnetic ones. 

How to Get the Right Ballast for Your Grow Lights?

How to Get the Right Ballast for Your Grow Lights?

Now that you know what ballasts are and the types of ballasts you have to focus on, let’s take a look at how to pick the right ballast for you. Here are some of the things you need to keep in mind that will help you figure out the best ballast for you. 

1. Are You Replacing Your Old Ballast or Getting a New One?

The first thing is to consider whether you are replacing your old ballast or getting a new lighting system. If it’s the former, it’s best to replace the old ballast with a new one with the same specifications. You will probably have to get a magnetic ballast if you’re using a more traditional grow light setup. 

On the other hand, if you are starting out and setting up your grow lights for the first time, you can go for digital ballasts. Remember, magnetic ballasts are cheap and easy to use. Electronic ballasts are more efficient and reliable, but they do come at a cost. 

At this stage, you should also consider if LED grow lights are a better option for you. They allow you much control, last for years, and offer many other benefits over conventional grow lights. Of course, they are expensive, but you don’t have to purchase a separate ballast, spend so much on energy bills, and purchase new bulbs every growing season. 

2. Electromagnetic Interference, Flicker, and Noise 

The two downsides of magnetic ballasts are they make noise and sometimes cause the lights to flicker or hum, as mentioned already. While these aren’t significant problems, they can be deal breakers for some growers. In such cases, you can pick electronic ballasts.

But don’t forget that these ballasts produce electromagnetic and radio interference, which can interfere with some electronics nearby. Worse, if these interferences aren’t within the legal limits, they may invite local authorities to your grow room. 

3. Consider Your Budget 

If you are a new grower, it’s advisable to keep your budget in mind every step of the way. It won’t be too late before you’ve spent more money than you’d be okay with when growing cannabis, especially when it comes to growing lights. So, figure out how much you are willing to spend on ballasts, both in the long and short term. 

Here, magnetic ballasts are the cheaper option, especially if you are a new grower or have a large setup. However, if you know you are in the game for the long run and want the best for your plant — budget not a concern — pick electronic ballasts. 

Also, if you are getting grow lights, consider the budget of both lamps and ballasts combined. You can purchase a kit that comes with the lights, fixtures, and ballasts — they are a lot cheaper than buying everything individually, especially if you are planning on getting electronic ballasts.

4. Follow Your Heart (and Mind, of course!)

Finally, you should consider your preferences and what draws you most. Since digital ballasts are so efficient, you can’t go wrong with them. They offer excellent value for cannabis growers; however, the choice narrows down to what you really want. 

If you are a fan of old-school technology and believe in the saying, “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken,” go for magnetic ballasts. That is if they are working fine for you. They are durable, have fewer parts, and are cheap to purchase. However, as mentioned earlier, they are almost obsolete now. 

The good news is that you can use digital ballasts if you like having the best equipment in your grow room or want scalability. They are efficient, work with multiple grow lights, and can make your grow lights last longer. 

Summary: Your Guide to Use Ballasts for Growing Cannabis 

Grow light ballasts are ridiculously important, and you must pick the right one. These devices regulate the flow of electricity to your grow light, protecting them while also making sure they produce the right amount of light. 

You have two options when it comes to ballasts: magnetic and electronic. Magnetic ballasts are cheap, mechanically simple, and don’t produce electromagnetic interference. Electronic ballasts are more expensive, but they offer more energy efficiency and eliminate hum and noise that are common in ballasts. 

Figure out which type of ballast is good for you, depending on your budget, preferences, and the rest of your equipment. And remember, no matter what type of ballast you pick, make sure you purchase it from a reputable dealer/brand because a low-quality ballast may be cheap, but it can end up doing more damage to your grow lights than good. The risk is not worth it.