Is It Time to Upgrade Your Magnetic Ballasts to Digital Ballasts?

By Cory Hughes
Published: November 1, 2016 | Last updated: April 20, 2017 04:52:16
Key Takeaways

The benefit of new grow technologies such as digital light ballasts is greater efficiency that leads to better results.

Source: Yuttapong Pinchurai /

From the big clunky boxes you could anchor a boat with, to the sleek, lightweight, modern powerhouses available today, ballasts have come a long way over the years. The shift from magnetic to electronic and digital ballasts is changing the grow game for the better.


Advancements in technology and computers always make their way into the indoor gardening arena before too long. While a ballast is fundamentally a power regulator, making the switch from a magnetic to a digital ballast will help you get the most out of your garden.

Let me take a minute to explain exactly what a ballast is and why it has such a big impact on your yields. First off, if you were to plug a standard 1,000W high pressure sodium (HPS) bulb into a direct AC current, you’d pop it in just a few seconds. There would be too much power coming in.


A ballast regulates that current to a preset configuration and allows you to get the most from your bulb without having to worry about safety. All high intensity discharge (HID) bulbs require the use of a ballast, of which there are three types: magnetic, electronic, and digital.

Magnetic Ballasts

Magnetic ballasts are a tried-and-true technology but they are rather archaic in design. Magnetic ballasts are fundamentally electromagnets, hence the name. Electricity is funneled into a single induction coil (a steel core wrapped in copper wire), which is used in conjunction with capacitors to reduce the current to a preset level.

It is about as basic as an electrical device can get. This was the standard for many years simply because there wasn’t another option. Don’t get me wrong, magnetic ballasts do what they are supposed to do, but seeing as how we live in an age of advanced technology, growers now have a lot more options.


The biggest advantage to a magnetic ballast is that it will last forever. Well, maybe not forever, but the average lifespan of a magnetic ballast is 10 times that of the other types. One of the downsides of living in the future is everything is seemingly meant to break after a while. You won’t have that problem with your magnetic ballast.

Another problem you won’t have with a magnetic ballast is radio frequency (RF) interference. On the other hand, electronic and digital ballasts give off RF interference, a problem old school technology doesn’t have.


However, I would still tell you that if you are looking to save a few bucks and pick up a magnetic ballast, you should probably think twice. As with all older technologies, they just don’t run as efficiently as their newer cousins on the market. Magnetic ballasts tend to run as much as 30 per cent less efficiently, power wise.

As they work mechanically using steel and copper wire, they also generate a lot of heat, which is another factor to incorporate into your planning. All in all, a magnetic ballast will get the job done but in this day and age, you have better alternatives to turn to.

Electronic Ballasts

The biggest leap in ballast technology came in the form of the electronic ballast. Electronic ballasts gutted traditional magnetic ballasts, removing the heavy steel cores and copper wire and going with modern circuitry instead. Electronic ballast technology has been around for a while, with the first designs going back to the 1950s.

The big shift to electronic ballasts in consumer products came between 1988 and 1998, primarily for use in fluorescent lighting systems. In cultivation they are a much more recent incarnation than their consumer-based fluorescent cousins.

Electronic ballasts run fairly silent, they don’t give off any heat and they discharge power at an extremely consistent rate. Unlike its magnetic counterpart, an electronic ballast stabilizes your current and won’t allow flickering if the current coming into the ballast isn’t steady.

Like it or not, times change and technology changes with it. The advancements made with new ballast technologies save you money, push more light and maximize your yields in the long run. Efficiency is really what it’s all about.

Having an indoor garden can significantly spike your electric bill, so you really want to save pennies every chance you get. Moving from a magnetic ballast to an electronic one will help you do that. The shift in technologies is analogous to when the film industry took the leap from VHS to DVD. Computerized technologies always take over eventually.

Digital Ballasts

If you are looking for the cutting edge of ballast technology, look no further than the digital ballast. Some people use the term electronic and digital interchangeably, but there is a fundamental difference. In my opinion the improvements over the electronic ballast really make digital ballast design more of an incremental step as opposed to a completely different genre.

The single biggest advantage a digital ballast has over electronic and magnetic ballasts is the use of microprocessors. Microprocessors revolutionized computers and digital ballasts alike. The microprocessor is the brain of the ballast.

It maximizes the unit’s efficiency, monitors power and allows for consistent power regulation through variable wattage settings. In other words, you can adjust the wattage typically between 400W and 1,000W. Some digital ballasts have an additional power setting pushing it up to 1,100W. This setting is a great way to get the most out of bulbs that are on the way out, extending their lifespan significantly.

Digital ballasts are currently the most expensive ballasts on the market but have come down significantly over the years. If you are using a magnetic ballast, the cost of a new digital model could easily pay for itself through savings in your power bills. Modern digital ballasts are as much as 30 per cent more efficient than their magnetic predecessors.

If you are running your grow with magnetic ballasts and getting good results, you could definitely continue to do so. The benefit of new grow technologies is the level of efficiency that leads to better results.

When it comes to your garden, efficiency is the name of the game. Maximizing yields while cutting costs should be the goal of every grower. Indoor gardening technology is already taking major leaps forward with fully automated and mobile control apps.

The next advancements in ballast technology will undoubtedly include plug-and-play features like monitoring and making adjustments from your phone or tablet. It is hard to say what the future will bring as far as growing innovations go, but what we do know is that this is an exciting time to be an indoor gardener.


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Written by Cory Hughes | Commercial Grower

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Cory Hughes is a former police officer turned full-time commercial grower in Denver, Colorado.

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