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

Dark times
Withington Field in Jackson, Mich.

Mankato East High School in Minnesota is also considered one of the Midwest's best-lit fields—after getting off to a horrific start in 1998. Like many athletic groups, the Mankato Area Baseball Association found themselves with too many teams and not enough daylight hours in which to schedule them all field time.

When Independent School District 77 offered to install a lighting system at the local high school, the association believed its problems were solved. In reality, the trouble had just begun.

The district and association awarded the $45,000 job to a national lighting supplier, who marketed its systems as "pre-aimed." They later paid an electrician an additional $25,000 to come and re-align all the stray lights that could only be considered "pre-aimed" if the manufacturer's intention was to illuminate anyplace other than the field.

"The field had never had lights before, and there was lots of concern about having them," says Leroy Schweim, the school district's grounds supervisor. "We thought we were being really careful about it."

Reality, however, was much crueler than the district or baseball association imagined. Officials had asked only two things of their lighting design: provide a superior visibility on the field and do not disrupt the nearby homes. The project, which by this point had cost $70,000, accomplished neither.

Silsbee ISD High School in Silsbee, Texas

The field's light quantity was 20 percent lower than originally specified. Even worse, there were significant bright and dark spots hampering visibility in certain locations. Design criteria called for uniformities of 2:1 on the infield and 3:1 on the outfield. Uniformity ratios—defined as the minimum illuminance over an area to the average illuminance for the same area—measured as high as 18:1 in the outfield.

The greatest problem, however, was the extreme light spill neighboring homes experienced. With some houses as close as 200 feet from the outfield fence, the glare from the lights caused an uproar. The school district and baseball association were inundated with irate phone calls and angry letters.

"People could sit in their living rooms and read the paper even with all their (house) lights off," Schweim says. "I thought all lights were supposed to be like that. That's how bad it was."

The district and association hit their lowest point when they received a cease-and-desist order from the city. The municipality had received so many complaints about the lights, it suspended their usage until the problems were addressed. The association went back to their supplier for assistance, but the company says it would be too much money and too much hassle to salvage the system.

Peoria Memorial Stadium in Peoria, Ill.

Stuck with an expensive system and no night games, officials began looking at other communities' lights. Did all lights come with disgruntled neighbors and unwanted glare? Or did they have bum lights? After investigating the situation, they decided the latter to be true. They had a faulty system and needed to do something about it.

The school turned to another national light supplier for help, and the company provided its service free of charge, in exchange for using the high school as a cautionary tale about what bad lighting can do to a good field. Using the same poles and electrical system, the company replaced the existing 60 fixtures with their patented reflectors designed to redirect wasted, off-site spill and glare back onto the field. This resulted in less glare and better playability—using the same number of fixtures. When the renovation was complete, the neighbors were happy, the teams were ecstatic and the city lifted the restraining order.

"It worked out for us," Schweim says. "But I would tell anyone looking to put up lights to know what they're getting into. Talk to other people and find out what to expect. Make as many different calls as you can."

And it doesn't hurt to have ample patience and a thick skin because even the most environmentally friendly lights will not silence all the critics.

Lighting expert Chuck Lindstrom, a former professional baseball player, insists there's only one sure-fire way to avoid the headaches of having an illuminated field.

"Don't turn on the lights," he says. "That's the only way to satisfy everyone."