Guest Column - November 2002
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Bright Ideas

Managing a successful sports lighting upgrade project

By Tony Burns

Have you sensed a need to upgrade your sports lighting but put it off because of the immensity of the task? It helps to have a game plan for breaking down the project into manageable segments. There's also value in identifying the factors that can result in good lighting performance and minimal life-cycle cost.

Updating sports lighting represents a significant upfront capital outlay, with service and maintenance implications extending far into the future as well. Although a lighting project scope may seem overwhelming, recreation departments often face critical needs that cannot be delayed. Addressing the project sequentially can shorten the process and make it more manageable, resulting in good lighting performance within budget guidelines.

Condition and performance survey

Structural integrity Supervisors should carefully assess the structural condition of their sports lighting as well as illumination performance. Many older fields have wooden poles furnished by local utilities. While economical, after years in service they can pose significant safety and performance shortcomings. Woodpecker or insect damage and rot can present serious structural safety hazards to participants and spectators. Humidity cycles often cause wooden poles to warp and twist, resulting in incorrect luminaire aiming. There are numerous instances of safety officials padlocking facilities for unsafe wooden poles, causing considerable disruption to recreation activities.

On- and off-field illumination factors Many factors can combine over the years to cause substandard illumination. Poor engineering (for example, insufficient vertical candlepower) can result in balls "disappearing" in flight. Departments may have modified playing field configurations since original lighting installation. Dirty, corroded or insect-obscured opticals and reflectors can cut down on luminaire output. Low-output lamps can exaggerate the impact of other installation and maintenance factors.

Residential development may have taken place near many facilities since the original sports lighting installation. Complaints about spill light pollution are common with older facilities, making glare-reduction measures necessary for good community relations.

Some departments installed lighting systems years ago under now-obsolete or nonexistent specifications. Be sure to consult league officials representing organizations using your fields. Obtain from them current lighting specifications from their sports leagues or sanctioning bodies.

Supervisors should also assess the adequacy of convenience and security lighting for participant and spectator seating areas, walkways and parking-area lighting. This lighting influences safety, security, convenience and esthetics. Consider inviting proposals that encompass sports, approach and parking lighting for cost-efficiency, especially when tax-exempt financing can fund the entire project.

Measure illumination Supervisors should carry out a preliminary evaluation of these factors and then obtain actual illumination measurements. Call upon a registered illuminating engineer from a lighting manufacturer, a consulting engineering firm, an experienced electrical contractor or your local utility. This professional can survey the illumination at any point on and above your fields. You should then compare these results with the appropriate lighting standards.

Now sit down with your findings. If they uncovered safety problems or substandard illumination that you cannot correct through maintenance, you probably need to begin planning an upgrade project. Some of the other factors may add to the degree of urgency. Having confirmed the need, the next step is to investigate financing options.

Investigate financing options Unless your department has received a capital expenditures allocation giving you some discretion, you will probably have to look at outside financing. State and local governments can qualify for low-cost, tax-exempt, lease-purchase financing. The interest component of the installment payment is much lower than with traditional commercial financing. These plans, typically structured as installment loans, conserve cash balances. Faster and simpler than the bond process, these financing plans will close in a fraction of the time it takes to do a public offering.

Documentation and intermediary involvement is less burdensome with lease-purchase financing. This significantly reduces transaction and issuance costs. There are no underwriter fees, rating agency fees, printing costs, down payments or reserve funds.

Flexible payment terms can be negotiated to meet budget constraints. Fixed and variable rates are available. Soft costs such as installation and start-up costs can be included in the financing. The title passes to the owner upfront. Security interest is held by the finance company until all payments are received.

Multiple pieces of equipment can be added to the plan over a period of years. A single plan creates a renewable source of tax-exempt financing. Similar plans include operating leases, tax-oriented leases and master lease agreements.

Cost factors

Initial cost Initial sports lighting costs include engineering, site preparation, service cabling, equipment and installation. They may also include package proposals for outdoor convenience and security lighting. Budgeting will involve cost components from the sports lighting manufacturer, grading contractors, an electrical contractor and your local utility. The sports lighting manufacturer can often serve as a sort of general contractor, assisting you in evaluating related costs up front.

Maintenance costs The primary long-term costs for sports lighting are for replacement lamps and their installation. These costs favor luminaires that use readily available, competitively priced standard lamps. Some manufacturers may use proprietary lamps available from only one supplier, resulting in higher replacement costs to maintain light output levels.

Other maintenance involves cleaning the optics and reflectors. Luminaires that have a well-engineered air-filtration system minimize the entry of contaminants and insects, keeping components clean longer and making eventual cleaning easier and more complete.

Evaluate the cost of long-term service agreements vs. the expected lifetime of lamps and frequency of cleaning, cost of replacement lamps, aerial equipment rental costs. Many departments come out ahead without maintenance contracts.

Technology can help reduce lifetime maintenance costs. For a little higher upfront cost, lowering systems are available that bring the luminaire assemblies down to ground level for cleaning or servicing, eliminating the need for owning or renting aerial equipment.

Product factors

Structural performance Pole types include wood, aluminum, concrete or galvanized steel. The metal poles usually constitute the best value relative to performance and cost. Some locations experience a high frequency of excessive winds. If a sports lighting supplier does not include luminaire support assemblies approved by a registered structural engineer to 125 mph, you should obtain this from a third party before signing a supply contract.

Integral ballast vs. remote ballast Ballasts are essentially transformers that provide the current necessary to power the lamps. Both integral (pole-top) and remote configurations are available, and there are trade-offs to both. Lower-cost integral ballasts are less convenient to service, although ballasts are the longest-lived component of sports lighting systems.

Remote ballast enclosures, while easier to maintain, are nearer the ground and place components within reach of spectators and vandals, making necessary extra cost security measures such as locks and fencing.

Luminaire performance Reflector technology has advanced in recent years. Types using optical glass over polished metal focus the emitted light more tightly where desired rather than diffusing it more broadly. These types can often attain the specified illumination with fewer luminaires, resulting in a lower upfront cost than conventional reflectors. As mentioned regarding maintenance, luminaires should have a gaseous and particulate filtration system to prevent contamination of the optics that increases light loss factor over time.

Even the best luminaires cannot provide optimal illumination if not aimed properly. Ensure that your system has an accountability trail from engineering through installation, ideally with factory pre-aimed luminaires and fail-safe identification so that the installers place each luminaire in its proper place on the crossarm and that it is aimed as the engineers intended.

Glare reduction Facilities near residential areas must account for spill light pollution, especially after foliage is gone. Glare control options are available to significantly cut the amount of spill light pollution, while focusing more light on the field where it is needed. These involve a combination of reflector technology and visor-like accessories.

Solicit proposals Having considered your needs and identified cost and product factors, you are ready to solicit proposals from lighting system suppliers. Listen carefully to the specifications they propose to you, making sure they apply materially to value. Suppliers have been known to insist upon irrelevant specifications in an attempt to eliminate competition. If after much study you remain uncertain about system specifications, you can hire a registered engineering consultant to recommend specifications.

Illumination testing/verification Insist in your specifications that the supplier verify the resulting illumination on the finished facility. Be aware that newly installed lamps exhibit higher candlepower than after a burn-in period. You should specify that the verification measurements take place after the industry-standard 100 hours of lamp burn-in. Be sure to hold the supplier accountable to conduct confirmation measurements following burn-in and correct any shortcomings.

Success is in the method Relighting sports facilities can seem a daunting task, with no clear place to start. Breaking a lighting project down into phases can reduce uncertainties and help attain the desired performance within budgets.

Be sure to rely on assistance from experienced professionals, either the system manufacturer, a registered illuminating engineer, an experienced electrical contractor or your local utility. Also, gaining a clear understanding of product factors will aid in avoiding pitfalls in lifetime performance and cost.

Tony Burns is manager—Marketing Programs at GE Sports Lighting Systems. He can be reached at