How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 809

How does an electronic dimmer work? I know that a regular household dimmer works through resistance coils, but I read that electronic dimmers actually clip the A.C. cycle. Is this why you read the voltage output of an electronic dimmer the voltage remains the same even when it is dimmed down? Why can electronic dimmers dim fluorescents and arc lamps, but resistive dimmers cause those lamps to flicker? — KG, New York, NY
Electronic dimmers do clip the AC cycle. They use transistor-like devices called triacs to switch on the current to a lamp part way into each half-cycle. By shortening the time that power is delivered to the lamp, the dimmer reduces the total energy delivered to the lamp during each half-cycle and the lamp dims. But while a triac turns on easily, the only way to turn it off is to get rid of any voltage drop across it. The dimmer uses the alternating current itself to turn off the triac—the voltage of the power line naturally goes to zero at the end of each half-cycle and the triac turns off. The triac then waits until the dimmer restarts it, sometime into the next half-cycle.

Since the dimmer messes up the waveform of the electric current flowing through the lamp circuit, what you measure with a voltage meter depends on how that meter works. Since many AC voltmeters just measure peak voltage and assume that they are looking at a pure sinusoidal current, they don't give you an accurate sense for what is really happening to the voltage of this clipped waveform as a function of time. Unless an electronic dimmer is turned way down, the peak voltage it delivers will be close to the normal power line peak, a fact which tricks the voltage meter into reading a high value and which allows a properly designed fluorescent lamp to continue operating normally but at a dimmer level.


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