Upgrading the lighting in your workshop may be one of the least expensive and most impactful changes that you can make. “But I can see the parts on my workbench just fine,” you might say. Yes, however lighting is not simply a question of being able to see your project, but a question of eyestrain, productivity, and enjoyment. If you take photos of your work, they will look significantly better under upgraded lighting, and you will save electricity too.
Straight 4′ fluorescent tubes are the mainstay of shop lighting for good reason. They are inexpensive, energy-efficient, and deliver diffuse light, but there are some important differences among the various types. The older large-diameter tubes are called T12 (The number after the T indicates the tube diameter in eighths of an inch). These tubes are often powered by heavy iron magnetic ballasts, which convert the mains voltage into something that the tube can use. Magnetic ballasts cause the light to flicker, sometimes noticeably, and also produce a buzzing noise. They are also relatively energy-inefficient. If you have T12 lighting in your shop, you are a good candidate for a simple and really effective upgrade.
Newer T8 fluorescent tubes have the same pin arrangement on the ends of the tube, so they fit perfectly into an older T12 fixture, but they require an electronic ballast, which is where the energy savings are made. The electronic ballast does not produce an audible buzz, and the light flickers at over 20KHz, well above perception. You can find electronic T8 ballasts for 2-bulb and 4-bulb fixtures (like the fixture shown above) at your local hardware store, or online for $10 to $25. Replacing an old magnetic ballast is very straightforward, and often does not require the fixture to be removed from the ceiling.
PRO TIP: T5 fluorescent is much more expensive than T8, requires you to change your whole fixture, and offers only marginal efficiency improvements compared to T8.
Once you have your fixture upgraded, you’ll want to choose decent T8 tubes that produce a full spectrum of colors. The fullness of the color spectrum is represented by a numerical value called the Color Rendering Index (CRI) of a lamp, with higher values allowing you to see colors as they truly are. However there is some subjectivity here, so it’s possible that a lower CRI lamp will appear more pleasing than a higher CRI lamp. Finally, the color temperature of the light describes how red or blue the light is. For workshops, I’d highly recommend 5000K to 6500K. A really great tube is the Philips F32T8 TL850.
LEDs are ideal for task lighting. The Ikea Jansjö lamp is one outstandingly helpful option. However, LEDs are still more expensive than T8, comparable or less energy-efficient in lumens per watt, and require a whole new fixture.