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LED Lights for Your Workshop

Updated: Sep. 30, 2019

Get better, brighter workshop lighting by switching from fluorescent bulbs to LEDs.

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The price of LED light bulbs has fallen to the point where it finally makes sense to replace the fluorescent bulbs in your workshop and other rooms with LED lights. These bulbs consume about half the energy of old T12 bulbs and about 30 percent less than even the most efficient T8 or T5 bulbs. By switching to LEDs, you'll save money on electricity and eliminate the hassle of recycling fluorescent bulbs and replacing expensive ballasts. LED bulbs offer other advantages as well. They last twice as long as fluorescent bulbs. They work in temps down to minus 4 degrees or even lower. And they focus the light in a 160-degree downward pattern (as opposed to 360 degrees), so you get a brighter work area.

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Three Choices

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You have three options when it comes to getting on the LED shop light bandwagon. The prices below assume 48-in. bulbs and two-bulb fixtures.

  1. Buy replacement “ballast-compatible” bulbs for about $15 each. Open the fixture and locate the ballast model number. Then search the LED bulb manufacturer’s website for compatible bulbs. The downside to this approach is that you’re still relying on an old ballast that will eventually fail. And a ballast costs $15 to $35 to replace.
  2. Buy entirely new replacement LED fixtures. The cheapest LED fixtures cost less than $40, including bulbs. They’re easy to swap in if yours are suspended by chains—not as easy if they’re permanently mounted and hardwired. The advantage: You’ll never have to replace any ballasts.
  3. If you have lots of fluorescent fixtures or fixtures that are permanently wired, consider converting them to use “ballast-free/direct wire” LED bulbs. Hardwired LED shop lights cost about $15 each. (If you have lots of lights, you can buy in bulk to reduce the price to $10 per bulb.) These bulbs don’t need a ballast because the power wires connect directly to two of the fixture’s sockets. The advantage of this option is that you’ll never have to worry about replacing ballasts. You’ll reuse your existing fixtures, and the conversion is simple.

Shop for LED Lights and Sockets

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Before you go online or shop at the home center, make sure you know what kind of bulbs you have (T5, T8 or T12). Buy bulbs that are labeled “ballast-free/direct wire” (see “Before You Buy,” below). You may need one new nonshunted socket for each new bulb.

Some LED bulb manufacturers include a socket with each bulb, but since there are nearly 10 socket sizes and styles, the included sockets may not fit your fixture. Since most home centers don’t stock all the different types, you can contact the bulb manufacturer or buy the correct one online. Double-check the socket fit before you start the conversion. Never try to modify a socket to fit your fixture!

Before You Buy

Check the label

Decide whether you want a clear or diffused lens. Choose a clear lens if the fixture is directly over your work area and a diffused lens for lighting large areas.

Check the label info on your current bulbs to find their color temperature. If you’re happy with the color, buy it again. If not, choose a color based on the room and task.

Then check the packaging before you buy to make sure the label says the bulbs are “Ballast-Free” or “Direct Wire” to indicate the bulbs are designed to work without a ballast. Finally, check the bulb’s brightness level to make sure it provides the same illumination as your fluorescents, if not better. For comparison, fluorescent bulbs typically provide 2,000 to 3,000 lumens.

Convert Your Fixture

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Ballast-free/direct wire LED light bulbs get power from only one end and use the socket on the opposite end only to hold the bulb in place. Start by unplugging the fixture or turning off the circuit breaker if it’s hardwired. The following photos show the rest of the conversion steps. Leave the old ballast in the fixture or recycle it—don’t toss it in the trash.

  1. Remove the cover/reflector. LED fixtureThen remove the end cap housing from one end of the fixture and cut the wires to the sockets. Remove and discard the old sockets.
  2. Connect the sockets.LED light sockets Insert a new white and black 18-gauge solid copper wire into each new socket. If you don’t have18-gauge wire on hand, you can repurpose the existing wires from your old ballast. Make sure you label the neutral wire from each socket by wrapping each end with white electrical tape.
  3. Connect socket wires.LED Light socket wiresUsing a twist-on connector, connect the neutral wires from each new socket to the white wire from the cord or house wiring. Then connect the hot wires from each new socket to the black wire from the cord or house wiring using another twist-on connector.
  4. Reinstall the end cap and reflector/cover. LED lightLabel the powered sockets with a marker and install the LED light bulbs. Apply the supplied warning label to the fixture so that future users will know the fixture has been converted to use ballast-free/direct wire bulbs. Turn on the power and test the bulbs. Recycle the fluorescent bulbs.

Can You Use Your Old Sockets?

socket tester

The answer is, probably not. Most older fluorescent fixtures have shunted sockets, which means the internal contacts are connected with a copper “shunt” strap. If you connect hot and neutral wires to a shunted socket, you’ll create a dead short and possibly damage the new LED light bulb. You can determine what type is in your fixture with a continuity tester. Turn off the power to the fixture and disconnect the wires going to each socket. Probe across the copper contacts in each socket. If you get a continuity reading, the sockets are shunted and must be replaced with non-shunted units.