Adding Ballast

The Lovely Lady was in the dark.  In more than just one way.  She called her main trouble-shooter to solve her problem.  “Can you tell me why it’s dark in my kitchen?” was the query she started with when I answered the phone from the music store next door.  I’m pretty sure that she didn’t really think I already knew the answer–wasn’t suggesting that I had done something to the overhead light fixture, but I, being the genius everyone knows me to be, suggested wisely that there might be something wrong with it.  A few moments later, I was home and checking to find out exactly what it was that was wrong.  It just wouldn’t do to keep the Lovely Lady out of her kitchen.  I have come to enjoy my meals over the last few years and it is difficult to cook in a dark kitchen.

A few basic tests ruled out circuit problems, as well as a faulty switch.  There was certainly electric current to the wires up in the ceiling.  There had been no flashing as fluorescent bulbs will exhibit before failure, so that left one option:  the ballast.  I wrote down a part number and called an electrician friend of mine.  The part was delivered today.  I even took a few moments of my evening tonight to install it.  I believe that I may be favored with a home-cooked meal tomorrow.  Time will tell.  At any rate, the lights are shining brightly in the kitchen once more.

I have replaced more ballasts in my lifetime than most folks, simply because over the years, the fixtures in my different business locations have employed fluorescent lamps as a primary light source.  I will admit to a stellar lack of curiosity regarding the metal boxes with so many wires protruding.  You attach all those wires to the like-colored wires going to the lamps and the result is a circuit that works.  Tonight, for some odd reason, I have an inquiring mind.  What does that heavy box do?  And, one burning question is on my lips.  Why in the world is it called a ballast?

I know what ballast is; I’ve read about it with regard to ships.  It is the weight that helps to retain balance in sea-going vessels, causing them to ride deeper in the water than would be normal for an empty craft.  Sometimes ballast is useful goods, such as extra weapons, or building materials, or even food.  It also could be simply dead weight, such as pieces of iron or heavy wood.  Its purpose is to help keep the ship upright as it sails across the waves.  For obvious reasons, a light, bouncy craft is not easy to control, nor is it likely to fare well in heavy winds without a bountiful amount of weight to keep it stable.  Ballast can also be used in hot air balloons, to keep them near the earth and not soaring out of control into the upper atmosphere.  Only in extreme circumstances would one ever jettison the ballast, since it is impossible to replace it again, once the emergency is past, until the balloon has landed.  Ballast, then, helps to provide stability and control.

Photo by alwyn cooper

I have never before seen the correlation between the type of ballast which these great conveyances employ to assure a smooth journey and the ballast which is installed in the circuit of every fluorescent light you see.  A little light reading (my apologies) tonight enlightened (sorry again) me profoundly.  The ballast in this particular light fixture does exactly what the ballast in those vessels does; it provides balance, stability.  You see, the way a fluorescent bulb functions is that is contains gas and a coating which has fluorescent qualities, both of which are ignited by the electrical current provided as soon at the switch is flipped on.  So far, so good.  We have light.  The problem comes in the physical qualities of ignited gas, specifically that when it is excited by the electrical current, the resistance is reduced almost to nothing.  Without control of the current, the gas would glow brighter and brighter, and the current would be drawn in higher and higher quantities with potentially disastrous results.  Almost certainly the fixture would be ruined and quite possibly, fires and damage to other electrical components in the circuit would occur.

Enter the ballast, a box containing electronic components and a tar-like substance for noise insulation.  No, it is not named a ballast for its great weight, although that explanation had occurred to me.  What the ballast does is to limit the amount of current which can flow to the gas in the light tubes.  It allows a higher current to start the process and immediately, when it senses a larger than normal flow, chokes it down.  Because the power source is alternating current (it flows one direction, reverses, and flows back the other), this process occurs many times per second, but our eyes can’t actually discern the process.  Every time the current switches direction (60 times per second) the ballast does its job again.  No wonder the Lovely Lady’s kitchen fixture needed repair!  Think of how many times that ballast has performed it’s duties over the last ten years, since we installed the light.

Too much technical stuff?  Maybe we could switch gears for a moment then.  As frequently happens, my mind has jumped to the human condition…well, specifically to my condition, as I have written the words above.  How many times have I rushed ahead on a project I have visualized, my little craft speeding and skittering over the surface, only to meet with disaster as I skidded, out of control, into the barrier of reality.  The brilliance of the idea has stolen away my normal inhibitions, skirted my customary filters.  Knowledge is unleashed and the ballast of wisdom and experience are tossed overboard.  The questions of “what if?”, and “should we consider this for a moment?”, are shoved aside in favor of the “full speed ahead” order by the irresponsible captain.  Catastrophe awaits without ballast.  Balance and control, coupled with enthusiasm and exuberance, will accomplish an incredible amount of work.

I also believe that the ballast concept carries over into the arena of community.  I personally know many “idea” people.  They are the dreamers, the visionaries, who see what could be.  I tend, in community, to be ballast.  I ask questions and suggest potential pitfalls.  I see what might befall.  Together, the visionaries and the questioners make good time on projects, avoiding problems, and achieving the goals.  Alone, each of us is plagued with failure after failure.  Both are a necessity.  Too often, we glorify one and ridicule the other.  Perhaps it’s time that we celebrate the team, the body, if you will.  The hand is not the foot, but it needs that odd appendage to fulfill its purpose.  We are not alike, but we are linked inseparably, and without question, beneficially.

Ballast would not be the thing I would think to praise, if someone were to ask me what is most important in life.  It, however, is a vital part of our existence, both physical and spiritual.  Balance is essential.  I know.  I fall down when I lose mine.  In more ways than just one.

Knowledge.  Wisdom.  The bulb and the ballast that together give light with which to see and to live.  It might be a good time to check and see that both are in working order…

“In art and dream, may you proceed with abandon.  In life, may you proceed with balance and stealth.”
(Patti Smith~American songwriter/singer)

“‘Po-ta-toes,’ said Sam.  ‘The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty stomach.'”
(from “The Two Towers”~J.R.R.Tolkien~British novelist~1892-1973)

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© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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