Does the power consumption drop when a four-tube fluorescent fixture has either two tubes missing or two tubes that are burned out. If there is a drop in consumption, how significant is it? Is it cost effective to remove two tubes if you don’t need the lumens of four tubes? — M, Connecticut
Most four-tube fluorescent fixtures are effectively two separate two-tube units. They share the same ballast, but otherwise each pair of tubes is independent of the other. Removing one of those pairs from the fixture will save nearly half the energy and expense, and is a good idea if you don’t need the extra illumination.
The two tubes within a pair operate in series: current flowing as a discharge through the gas in one tube also flows through the gas in the other tube. That’s why they both go out simultaneously. Only one of them is actually dead, but since the dead one has lost its ability to sustain a discharge, it can’t pass any current on to its partner. Replacing the dead tube is usually enough to get the pair working again, at least for while.
Leaving dead tubes in a fixture isn’t the same as removing unnecessary tubes. Tubes often die slow, lingering deaths during which they sustain weak or flickering discharges that consume some energy without providing much light. Also, most fluorescent fixtures heat the electrodes at the ends of the tubes to start the discharge. During startup, the ballast runs an electric current through each electrode (hence the two metal contacts at each end of the tube) and the heated electrodes introduces electric charges into the gas so the discharge can start.
That heating current is only necessary during starting, but if the discharge never starts then the ballast may continue to heat the electrodes for days, weeks, or years. If you look at the ends of a tube that fails to start, you may see the electrodes glowing red hot. Because of that heater current, leaving a failed fluorescent tube in a fixture can be waste of energy and money. Be careful removing those tubes from the fixture—although they produce no light, they can still be hot at their ends.