Using a Dimmer with Fluorescent Lights and Bulbs

One question we often get from customers is “Can you dim fluorescent lights?”. The answer is yes, but certain considerations apply.

It is possible to use wall dimmers for both fluorescent and CFL bulbs, but each requires a different approach and special hardware.

A tabletop dimmer compatible with dimmable CFL bulbs.
A tabletop dimmer. Some dimmers such as this one are compatible with dimmable CFL bulbs.

Jeff Emmerson of our Lamps Plus Professionals trade pricing program says that, “It is much less expensive and more convenient to dim fluorescent lighting than ever before. Where fluorescent lighting is used in kitchens or dining rooms or family rooms, it is possible to install it on a dimmer.”

However, altering fluorescent lighting is not as simple as just changing the switch, such as with incandescent bulbs.

A special fixture and compatible dimming control are necessary.

And, although it is possible and more inexpensive than in the past, altering the level of fluorescent lighting remains at a higher cost level than controlling standard lighting.

A CFL bulb design.
A CFL bulb with a spiral design.

Can I Dim a Fluorescent Light Bulb?

For fluorescent bulbs, a dimming ballast is required. The Lutron company invented the world’s first electronic dimming ballast some 30 years ago.

Today Lutron offers an extensive selection of fluorescent dimming ballasts and controls to support their complete fluorescent dimming systems. These are most often used in commercial or institutional applications.

However, fluorescent lighting systems are increasingly being used in residential spaces, especially in recessed downlighting and coves or where energy efficiency is an issue.

What About Dimming a CFL Bulb?

CFL, or compact fluorescent light bulbs, are commonly found in most homes today.

To use a CFL bulb on a dimmer switch, you must have a CFL bulb that’s specifically made to work with dimmers and dimmer switches.

Several manufacturers, such as GE, make a dimming compact fluorescent light bulb. It is not recommended that you use regular compact fluorescent bulbs with dimming switches since this can dramatically shorten the bulb life.

And What About an LED Light Bulb or Fixture?

While an LED bulb is not the same technology as a CFL, there are the same types of dimmer – light bulb compatibility issues. Much like CFLs, make sure you check the LED bulb packaging to be sure it is dimmable, not all are. And remember that not all dimmers are compatible with LEDs.

What will happen if you use a non-dimmable LED with a dimmer, or use a dimmer that’s not compatible with LEDs?

You may see flickering from the bulb, drop offs at low light levels, among other issues. And, ultimately, the LED driver or circuit will be damaged, causing the bulb to fail long before it should.

The Effect of Dimming a Fluorescent or CFL Light Bulb

While incandescent bulbs create a warm, candlelight look as they dim, light from a fluorescent bulb remains cooler in color, and many times does not match the color tone of the fully lit CFL bulb.

Unlike a regular incandescent bulb, dimming won’t increase the life of a fluorescent bulb, either. What it will do is help set a mood for a room space.

Questions About Dimming Light Bulbs?

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