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

In the beginning, it was proclaimed,

"Let there be light."

The NIMBY Bible, if there were such thing, would almost certainly expound upon that directive. With steely resolve and the threat of a possible lawsuit, it would declare: "Let there be light, so long as it doesn't disrupt my sleep, damage my quality of life or lower my property values."

Therein lies one of the most exacerbating problems for outdoor facility managers today. Lighting fields has become a tricky balancing act, in which the needs of the players and concerns of neighbors threaten to topple multimillion-dollar projects.

PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates

No better example exists than Dodd Stadium in Norwich, Conn. The New York Yankees farm team broke ground on the $9.3-million facility in November 1994. Though supporters heralded its construction as an economic boon for the community, residents of some nearby homes gave the plan an icy reception. They complained about light spilling into their houses and destroying the tranquility they once enjoyed. Disgruntled neighbors leaned heavily on an ambiguous local law that declared any objectionable light illegal.

The team was forced to redesign the lighting after the 6,270-seat stadium's groundbreaking. The result was a less-than-desirable lighting scheme that still upsets people involved with the field's original design eight years later. One lighting designer goes so far as to say the stadium went from "one of the best lit stadiums in the Eastern League to one of the worst."

While it's easy to blame NIMBYists (Not In My Back Yard) for interfering with progress, their complaints often have some legitimacy. The recreation industry, trying to meet the demands of growing sports leagues and patron expectations, are illuminating more parks than ever before. Field lighting, without question, is contributing to a nationwide light-pollution problem.

Pac Bell Park, home of the San Francisco Giants

Before the guilt overwhelms you, there is still a chance for redemption. And achieving it has never been easier. The vast majority of the industry's outdoor lighting suppliers all have systems that reduce spill, glare and sky glow—the three cardinal sins of the illumination world.

If a clear conscience and happy neighbors aren't enough to convince you to travel the less-polluting path, consider this: An offensive lighting system is no cheaper than an environmentally friendly one. In fact, a well-designed system will probably save you money because all the light you pay for will be directed onto fields and not into nearby houses. Poorly designed lighting, meanwhile, wastes an estimated $2 billion per year in the United States alone, according to government statistics.

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.

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."

Saving money on indoor illumination

Indoor facilities typically don't have to worry about their lights upsetting neighbors, but they must face their own nemesis: electricity bills.

Several facilities have turned to new automatic dimmer systems to reduce their energy bills. Though the technology is being used in gymnasiums and natatoriums, it has received the warmest praise from ice rink owners who spend obscene amounts on electricity. The systems, which can reduce rinks' energy bills by 35 percent on average, pay for themselves after roughly two years of use. It also lowers refrigeration loading costs by an estimated 16 percent by lowering the heat created by lights at ice level.

The technology, which can be retro-fitted to work with a building's existing lighting, uses motion sensors to detect what can of action is taking place in facility. At an ice rink, for example, the system would dim the lights to 50-percent power when no one is in the arena. Upon a person's entrance, the lighting is restored to appropriate levels.

When hockey players take the ice for practice, the skaters' speed tells the system to illuminate the rink to 75-percent power, more than enough light for drills but still saving money. Once the players leave the ice, the censors automatically dim the lights to 50 percent. As soon as anyone enters, the detectors instantly bring up the lights. If the patrons are basic skaters such as parent-and-tot class participants, the lamps would dim to a maintenance level—62 percent power—because recreational programming does not require as much light as hockey.

In the end, an ice arena spending $17,844 annually on its electricity bills could save $7,719 per year by reducing light and refrigeration loading costs.

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