Feature Article - October 2004
Find a printable version here

Let There Be Lighting

How to illuminate the world inside and outside your facility

By Kyle Ryan

Once lighting needs have been evaluated, it's time to match those needs with what the budget allows. In some cases, installations may have to be built in phases, as the Schaumburg (Ill.) Park District did with its new Olympic Park. The park district is in the process of lighting the five baseball/softball fields and nine soccer fields at the park.

"If we don't have the money, we wait until we do," says Dan Otto, assistant director of the Schaumburg Park District. "Olympic Park, we didn't build it all in one year. We did it in phases."

That meant building the softball fields, then soccer fields, then eventually installing lights.

"We always did have a master plan, and we were always going to light all the fields," Otto says. "We just took our time little by little."

With the budget figured out, it's time to enlist the help of a consultant. Even if your staff has a general understanding of facility needs, it often pays to bring in someone with expertise, both with the design and dealing with vendors. The Homewood-Flossmoor Park District in Illinois quickly hired a consultant when it decided to upgrade the lighting system for the tennis courts at its racquet and fitness club.

"Your vendors will always give you some help because they want to sell you the product," McKinnon says. "Which is fine—you just have to temper that with knowing they're trying to sell you the product."

In Schaumburg, the park district did most of the planning itself.

"We have the expertise to do a lot of that work," Otto says. "Civil engineering drawings, obviously, we go outside. The lighting stuff we go outside. We basically came up with the plan ourselves. If you don't have that expertise, you hire somebody."

Lighting vendors can suggest engineering firms, and information is of course available online, but everyone suggests asking around.

"Ask the guys that have already done it," Otto suggests. "Did you have a problem? Were they responsive? Did they deliver what they said they would deliver? If you're getting good answers and you feel comfortable, then you're ready to go."

Once bids start coming, McKinnon warns against the low ones. Like the old saying goes, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

"A low bid doesn't necessarily mean the most qualified bidder, and you've got to make sure they're qualified to do the job," he says.

Even if you find the most qualified, experienced contractor out there, delays are inevitable. McKinnon's sales representative for the light-fixture company he used tragically died in a car accident, which caused setbacks. Then there are weather and material delays.

"Those are just delays that are part of doing business," Otto says.


The Australian Ministry of Sport and Recreation noted that indoor lighting has some advantages when compared to outdoor areas. Consistent lighting is more easily achieved because walls and ceilings control and reflect light, which helps reduce shadows. Weathering isn't a factor, so the lights require less cleaning. But indoor light must also be flexible, especially if the area hosts different activities.

Built in the 1970s, the Homewood-Flossmoor Racquet & Fitness Club has 10 indoor tennis courts in two banks of five courts and a fitness center. Large iron bar joists, which support the pitched ceilings, tended to prevent light from the 228 indirect fixtures from reflecting well.

When the park board decided to upgrade, it made a contradictory-sounding request to the engineer it hired: more light, fewer fixtures. It also protected its investment before the project even began.

"We actually fixed our roof first so it didn't leak, and then we did the ceiling and lighting installation second," McKinnon says. "The order is important. If you have any roof issues, address those first before you put in a ceiling and lighting systems because if you have a really leaky roof, you're just going to damage your insulation that you're putting in."

Once the lighting project got under way, contractors worked on one bank of courts at a time during the slower summer months at the club. Once completed, the tennis area went from 228 light fixtures to 96, with an 50 percent increase in lighting—saving the district up to $25,000 a year in electrical costs.

How? First, designers brought the roof in a couple of feet to create a smooth surface, not one interrupted by intermittent iron joists.

"The combination of the ceiling reflection and insulation helped the reflection bounce the light back to the court better and allowed us to use less fixtures and increase lighting capacity," McKinnon says.