Feature Article - April 2002
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Some Light Reading

Designing the best lighting for a sports field doesn’t have to be a battle or cost a bundle

By Stacy St. Clair

Shedding Light on Spill, Glare and Sky Glow

Almost nothing will spark a NIMBYist's anger quicker than a lighted ball field. They'll complain about the glare, accusing the light of spilling onto their property or making it impossible to see the night sky. In reality, spill, glare and sky glow are totally different nuisances. Here's a quick lesson on how to tell them apart:


Spill is defined as any unintended light. It is measured in foot-candles—a unit of illumination equivalent to the illumination produced one candle at a distance of one foot—with a full moon creating about a half foot-candle. Municipalities often write their lighting ordinances to protect against spill because, unlike glare, it can be measured.


Glare is nothing more than a point of incredibly bright light. We experience it daily when we drive into the sun or battle its reflection from a window or bumper. Glare on an athletic field, however, comes from the arc tube inside the metal halide lamp. The arc tube, in a way, is like a miniature sun. It hurts to look directly into it, and a concentrated reflection can be an annoyance. Glare can prove bothersome for homes as far away as a half-mile. And, perhaps more importantly, it can make playing ball extremely difficult. Glare can cause players to "lose it in the lights" and make costly errors.

Sky glow

The third type of light pollution is most commonly associated with big cities but is quickly spreading into suburban areas and beyond. Sky glow is best described as the orange glow that hangs over towns. The effect is caused by wasted light shining into the sky instead of down to the ground. A good test for judging whether you have a sky glow problem: Step into your facility's parking lot and look into the sky. If you can't count more than three stars, there's a problem.

Seeing the light

Administrators at Jackson High School in Jackson, Mich., drastically reduced electricity bills after retrofitting their 30-year-old lighting system at Withington Field, home to both the school football and track teams and municipal football leagues. The school had rewired the lights 15 years earlier but still was grappling with outages and dead areas on a regular basis. Even with the lights at full power, there were spots behind the bleachers that remained pitch black—something both fans and officials saw as an invitation for trouble.

At Corona Park in California lights are turned on
and off according to a weekly computer schedule
that can be changed anytime, saving significant
time, money and hassles.

Spectators had difficulty seeing parts of the field. Athletes had problems seeing a few yards in front of them on the track. Last summer, the school decided to resolve the problem once and for all by hiring a lighting manufacturer that could provide them with twice the light at half-the power.

By using state-of-the-art lamps, designers reduced six poles containing 24 lights each to six poles containing 11 lights each. In the end, the school lost 78 lamps in total and gained a beautifully lighted field.

"It really did bring down our bills considerably," says Russell Davis III, Jackson High School athletic director. "And right away, the athletes noticed a considerable difference in the quality of the stadium's lighting."

Administrators and spectators have been so thrilled with the new lights, there are now major renovation plans so the entire stadium will match the quality of the field's illumination system. First on the list: a face-lift for the stadium entrance and grandstand areas. "It has inspired us to improve other areas," Davis says.

Destin Sports Complex in Destin, Fla.

Parks and recreation officials in South Bend, Ind., also envisioned a first-class facility when they opened the Belleville Softball Complex in the summer of 1997. The trick was to design fields with enough light to attract the country's premiere softball players while sidestepping the glare and spill that would anger neighbors. In the end, they decided upon a system with five poles and 42 lights per field. The light cutoff is an impressive 200 feet from the field, appeasing both worried neighbors and environmentalists.

The facility, now four years old, has gone on to win design awards on the state and local levels. It also was won a design excellence nomination from the National Parks and Recreation Association. The greatest compliment, however, came from the Amateur Softball Association, which tapped the complex to host its 1999 national championships. Before winning the honor, city officials were told it would take at least three years for the complex to have gained a national reputation strong enough to lure the championships. South Bend proved them wrong, landing the 60-team competition on the first try. The event attracted roughly 3,000 spectators and pumped $250,000 into the local economy, solidifying the park's standing as one of the country's top softball facilities.