What are high-pressure sodium lights?

2nd April 2024
Paige West

High-pressure sodium lights (HPS) are a type of gas discharge lamp that has been widely used for outdoor lighting, notably in streetlamps, as well as in industrial and horticultural applications.

Characterised by their distinctive yellow-orange glow, HPS lights operate on the principle of electrically exciting sodium gas under high pressure, a process that results in the emission of light. Despite the advent of more energy-efficient lighting technologies like LED, HPS lights have remained prevalent due to their efficiency, long lifespan, and cost-effectiveness in certain applications.

Principle of operation

The core mechanism behind HPS lights involves passing an electric current through a narrow tube containing sodium gas, along with other inert gases, at high pressure. This excitation causes the sodium to emit light predominantly in the yellow and orange parts of the spectrum, which accounts for the characteristic glow of HPS lamps. The high pressure increases the efficiency of light production and improves the colour rendering index (CRI) compared to low-pressure sodium lights, although it still does not match the CRI of natural daylight or that provided by LED lights.

Construction and features

An HPS lamp consists of a sealed glass tube that encloses a ceramic arc tube with electrodes at each end, through which the electrical current flows. The arc tube contains the sodium along with xenon gas, which facilitates the initial strike of the lamp. Mercury is also added to improve the lamp's efficacy and colour rendering. The outer glass envelope serves to insulate and protect the arc tube and contains a vacuum or an inert gas to help manage heat.

HPS lights are known for their luminous efficacy, producing a high output of lumens per watt of electricity consumed, making them more efficient than many traditional lighting options. They typically have a long operational lifespan, ranging from 12,000 to 24,000 hours, which reduces the need for frequent replacements and maintenance.


Traditionally, HPS lights have been the lighting solution of choice for many municipal street lighting projects due to their efficiency and the large area they can illuminate. They are also commonly used in industrial settings, such as warehouses and manufacturing facilities, and for outdoor areas like parking lots and sports fields, where high visibility over large areas is required.

In horticulture, HPS lights are favoured for their effectiveness in promoting plant growth. The spectrum of light they emit is particularly beneficial during the flowering phase of plants, making them a popular choice for greenhouses and indoor gardening operations.

Advantages and disadvantages

One of the main advantages of HPS lights is their high efficiency, offering more light output per watt of electricity compared to many conventional lighting technologies. This makes them an economical choice for large-scale and long-duration lighting applications. Their long lifespan further contributes to their cost-effectiveness by reducing replacement and maintenance requirements.

However, HPS lights do have limitations. Their colour rendering index is relatively low, which means they are not ideal for applications where accurate colour differentiation is important. This limitation has led to their replacement by LED lights in many applications, as LEDs can provide a broader spectrum of light with much higher colour accuracy. Additionally, HPS lights require a warm-up period to reach full brightness and a cool-down period before they can be restarted, which can be inconvenient in certain situations.

Environmental considerations

HPS lights contain mercury, a hazardous material that requires careful handling and disposal. The environmental impact of mercury, coupled with the push for more energy-efficient and eco-friendly lighting solutions, has prompted a gradual shift away from HPS lights in favour of technologies like LED, which offer superior efficiency, better colour rendering, and do not contain hazardous materials.


High-pressure sodium lights have played a significant role in outdoor and industrial lighting for decades, prized for their efficiency and long lifespan. However, as lighting technology advances, the shift towards more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly options like LED is evident. Despite this shift, HPS lights remain a testament to the ingenuity of past lighting technologies and continue to serve in applications where their specific characteristics are advantageous.

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