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This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences. 

Light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. To put that in perspective, a runner traveling at that speed could circumnavigate the equator 7.5 times in one second.

The speed of light has been a subject of interest to sports fans since the first recorded night game was played under electric lights on September 3, 1880, in a field near Boston. The game was between two rival department store baseball teams. 

In England, inventor and master electrician Edward Weston was working on, among other things, dynamos (generators) that could produce direct electrical power. At the same time he was also working on electrical lamps.

Back in America, a talented marketer, to promote his products to a wider audience, offered to light the field for the baseball game. He set up three 100-foot-tall wooden towers, 500 feet apart in an equilateral triangle around the field and attached 12 electric-arc lights to each. He boasted that each light was equal to 2,500 candles. So with three towers, with 12 lights each, he predicted the equivalent of 90,000 candles lighting the field.                 

Reports from that time noted that about 300 spectators came out, as much as to see the light show as the game. Newspaper accounts further noted that the lighting resembled “that of the moon at its full.” Players and fans complained they couldn’t see the ball clearly, only the motions of the players. Play was stopped after dark at a 16-16 tie, probably because players couldn’t see the fast-moving ball either. Reporters predicted that night lighting would not be practical.

History has obviously proven both Weston and the marketer wrong, as now the vast majority of fields in the world are lighted, with effectiveness measured in “foot candles” generated by “dynamos” that make Weston’s first attempt look like an AA battery.

Today, in youth sports, it isn’t enough just to have a lighted field; the field must provide lighting that will enable an optimum performance for players and an enjoyable experience for spectators and also meet nationally established minimum standards. For rec departments and similar groups that rely on tournaments for revenue, proper and efficient lighting is a must or teams will not sign up. Further, improperly lighted and maintained systems may become a source of complaints—or worse, lawsuits.

Indeed, lighting outdoor sports fields has come a long way in the 135 years since that game played on the lawn in the rear of Nantasket’s Sea Foam House. 

The Wave Of The Future

Properly designed, installed, and maintained systems can be a source of pride and acclamation. The challenge, as always, is money. Ballfield lighting constitutes a major part of a department’s budget—or, in some cases, the budget of the baseball associations that often help share the burden. It’s not only the installation cost; changing bulbs and ballasts, keeping them clean and properly aligned, repairing systems after lightning strikes or other damage—and paying the light bill—run into major money.

The type and efficiency of lighting systems at parks and rec fields range from quirky, decades-old technology to highly efficient and effective modern designs.

Today, parks and rec practitioners must also try to decide between the existing standard in ballfield lighting—metal halide (MH)—and the up-and-coming (depending on whom you talk to) wave of the future—light-emitting diode (LED).

What is the difference between them? Which one is better? Well, that also depends on what your needs are, to whom you talk, and—here it comes again—how much money there is to spend.

Comparing Types Of Illumination

Metal halide technology is based on Weston’s concept. Known as MH, it is a high-intensity discharge lamp, which means an electric arc with a small discharge tube provides the light. This column is too short to delve into all the science of it, but the Edison Tech Center (http://www.edisontechcenter.org/metalhalide.html) has a good summary.

Other forms of illumination have been used, such as low-pressure and high-pressure sodium and mercury vapor, but MH has thus far proven best for sports applications.

The output of MH lamps, when properly installed, aligned, and maintained, is generally accepted to be closer to natural sunlight than most other light sources on a sports field. The bulbs normally have a long life (15,000 to 20,000 hours) according to industry sources.

Industry leaders put MH above all other forms and contend the lamps will last 20 times longer than incandescent bulbs at a lower operating cost, produce better light than mercury lamps, and are more energy-efficient.

The youth-sports market has spoken, though, and MH has proven to be the standard, most cost-effective method of sports-field lighting for parks and recreation applications.

A Look At LED

However, in recent years, LED lighting has begun to emerge from flashlight, computer monitor, and stage lighting popularity to enter the sports arena, at least at the professional and college levels.

Ephesus Lighting (www.ephesuslighting.com) is a relatively new, Syracuse-based company that has quickly emerged as a leader in sports LED lighting technology. Starting in 2012, when the LED lights lit the first professional sports arena (American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch, War Memorial Arena), they have quickly expanded to include other projects, such as lighting the University of Phoenix Stadium, home of this year’s Super Bowl.

True, this is professional sports, with mega-zillion dollar entertainment budgets, a level that the average parks and rec department will never hope to achieve. Still, it doesn’t hurt to know what’s coming because someday the price may be lower.

Ephesus President Mike Lorenz agrees that MH is currently the status quo, but argues that LED digital technology is the next step in sports-field lighting.

“Yes, metal halide still dominates the parks and recreation market,” he says. “It was first introduced commercially on a broad basis in the 1960s, so we’ve had about 50 years of minimal innovation in the type of mechanical lighting on ballfields. We have thousands of lights out there, and up until LED comes along, why would you change? Now, we believe we are bringing to the market a true LED alternative at a price point and with an installation strategy to replace existing technology.”

Lorenz is describing a new product the company intends to introduce this fall that is specifically designed and marketed for municipal parks and rec and other local uses. He says his company has developed a product and a process that can use existing poles, cross arms, and brackets to simply switch out existing systems with LED. The new, lighter systems will decrease the weight load on infrastructure and will provide better lighting and lower operating costs.

Explaining that the company is first and foremost a technology company, heavy in engineering, Lorenz stresses products are developed that are then shared with partners in the network that have existing relationships with municipalities, previously selling them the legacy products.

He also points out that the company is offering a price point that will enable the market to adopt it at a much faster rate and much more aggressively.

Chancing a scientific guess, Lorenz proposes that the average recreation ballfield could be retrofitted with this LED system for between $75,000 and $150,000, depending on the size of the field, the existing fixture levels, and other variables.

Power usage is another major difference between MH and LED. MH requires warm-up time and the “in-rush,” or power-up process, burns lots of kilowatts. LED lighting is instantaneous. 

The disruption factor is another consideration. Most parks and rec field managers have had to deal with the complaints from users when power goes out, lights go off, and the game is delayed; when power is restored, it takes 15 to 20 minutes before MH lights come back to peak performance. When LEDs come back on, the light quality is full blast in a millisecond.

A high-profile example of this disruption occurred at the 2013 Super Bowl, nicknamed the “Blackout Bowl,” after a partial power outage suspended play for 34 minutes, an eternity for game organizers, advertisers, and fans. That outage no doubt prompted this year’s Super Bowl to be lit with LED.

“If you lose the power source, you lose the light, no matter what technology you’re using,” notes Lorenz. “The difference is that, when the power comes back, LED lights will be back on instantly.”

However, MH technology continues to improve as well, at a price-point that can be very attractive to struggling departments that have to make improvements.

Musco Lighting (www.musco.com) is one of the leading companies serving the parks and rec community with both MH and LED products. While the company has been heavily invested in MH technology since its founding in 1976, it is keeping step with evolving technology.

In all of its promotional materials online, the company offers both technologies to customers, evaluating which is best based on client needs, both for quality and cost. Ultimately, parks and rec lighting will improve, whether upgrading to newer generation MH or jumping to one of the next-generation LED systems.  However, eventually, the newer technology will prevail.

Choosing What Works For You

So, in the final analysis, what is a budget-strapped rec department to do?

Reality will often dictate that, whether MH or LED, long-term budget planning will be necessary. Lorenz recommends that a comprehensive cost-benefit evaluation precede a decision, with four major focal areas.

“First, you have to ask, does it make good business sense considering the run time of a lighting system and the operational costs—you have to determine what is more reasonable—LED or HID—from a budgetary perspective.”  Proceeding with the assumption that all customers want to keep the lights on but spend less, he believes LED will provide that alternative.

Second, Lorenz recommends finding companies that have credible experience in sports-lighting applications so customers will know the system is designed to last the term of their investment, it is designed to be upgraded as technology changes, and it will provide for alternatives for LED lighting in the future.

Third, determine if replacement or renovation is better, and study all of the costs of taking out the current system and replacing it with something totally new. There are always hidden costs with either decision.

Last, factor the need for maintenance into the decision. “A well-designed LED system will require much less maintenance, simply because it’s designed to last hundreds of thousands of hours with no degradation in light quality, whereas MH lights require much more maintenance, and they gradually degrade every time they are burning,” he notes.

Fortunately, parks and rec practitioners don’t have to make these decisions at the speed of light. More and more resources are available to study the options and develop long-range budget and operational plans necessary to obtain buy-in from all stakeholders. A well-prepared plan will help ensure a well-designed lighting system that will serve effectively into the future.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.

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