Good Light Balance

Juggling performance vs. pollution when it comes to sports field lighting

By Mitch Martin

At the end of 1989's Field of Dreams, the dazzlingly bright lights of Ray Kinsella's cornfield baseball diamond brought a zigzagging stream of eager customers. In 2003, those lights might instead bring angry astronomers and loon-loving environmentalists.

A bright field and a dark sky equal happiness for the recreational facility manager.

Recreational facility managers seeking to provide quality outdoor lighting must balance the standards of light pollution activists against the demands of athletes and clogged recreational schedules. The problem becomes even more complex when budget constraints come into play, not to mention subjective interpretations of the qualities of light.

Glare is often at the heart of this debate. Glare, a qualitative term, refers to the way a light source interferes with vision and cannot be measured. In contrast, spill light generally refers to measurable light outside the defined area a fixture is intended to illuminate.

Dark is good when it's off the field. Recent improvements in lighting technology have allowed facility managers to contain much of the light to the playing field.

A study for a Seattle Parks lighting plan concluded the industry lacks a consensus on a solution for glare. Just as laymen perceive lighting differently, so do the lighting engineers and company reps in charge of installing top-flight lighting systems, says Scott Davis, a former lighting manufacturer employee who now serves as technical manager for the Tucson, Ariz.-based International Dark-Sky Association.

"I think it is very possible that if you gave a particular lighting project to 10 different people, what you would get in return would be 10 different lighting designs," Davis says.

The International Dark-Sky Association represents an increasing number of people who want to ban or limit outdoor recreational lighting. Lighted stadiums and other sports facilities, particularly in relatively rural areas, represent one of the biggest concerns for dark-sky advocates and the single largest source of neighborhood lighting tensions, according to Davis. It may be of some small comfort for facility managers to hear that Davis says car dealerships are just about as troublesome.

Despite technical improvements, it is difficult to imagine that light pollution concerns will subside any time soon. Neither is it likely that facility managers will face waning demand for field time or budgets with surplus cash. However, by making restrained, intelligent choices, facility managers can reduce their share of light-induced headaches.


Simply put, athletic field lighting attempts to create a daytime playing environment long after the sun has set. For many years, the price paid for this extended play time came in the form of high electrical bills and angry neighbors, who were happier when night was the night.

If facility managers have been able to control light pollution at all, it's because the major athletic field lighting manufacturers have designed new fixtures over the past five years, moving toward full cutoff or fully shielded lighting systems.

West Des Moines High School in Des Moines, Iowa

The newer fixtures generally have allowed night lighting to become less intrusive. Several manufactures have created visors and dampeners that keep light from spilling off the field and into the neighborhood. Some advanced directional accouterment can be retrofitted to newer but already existing lighting equipment.

Some in the industry believe visors have limited impact. Thomas Lemons is a lighting engineer and designer on the Sports & Recreational Areas Design & Application committee of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America. According to Lemons, visors and dampeners don't control light very well. Instead, he favors high-quality fixtures that produce well-controlled beam patterns.

Generally speaking, recreational sports require 20 foot-candles of light and usually don't have much more than 50. Little League Baseball, for example, requires 30 foot-candles of light in the outfield and 50 in the infield. Professional and high-level sporting events, particularly televised sports, have 200 foot-candle lighting or more. Lighting experts caution that the quality—and expense—of the fixture needed to control spill and glare rises exponentially with higher light levels. They advise against installing higher light levels than what is required for the level of the event.

An advanced lighting system illuminates night baseball at PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The field is brightly lit, but the remnants of a sunset remain unobscurred.

Russ Owens, a lighting consultant who chairs the same committee Lemons serves on, says recreational managers should strive to meet the requirements of governing bodies but not be a slave to them. Non-experts overly influence some municipal lighting codes, Owens says. Particularly, he believes manufacturers sometimes tailor suggested lighting requirements to match their own systems. Other requirements may be simply gratuitous. Owens is unable to pinpoint the rationale on which the 50-30 foot-candle requirement in baseball is based. Such figures should be seen as guidelines rather than canon, particularly for purely recreational leagues, he says.

"I don't think there are spies out there running around checking to see if you have enough foot-candles," Owens says. "I play softball under pretty marginal light, and I still have a good time."

One of the simplest but most important things to keep in mind when trying to decide on lighting levels is the size of the crowd. Larger crowds generally correspond to higher levels of athletic competition.

"You have to keep a little common sense," Owens says. "If you have a stadium with 10,000 people, light the field so 10,000 can see the field."

Rules of thumb for good athletic lighting are hard to come by. Many lighting experts are reluctant to issue blanket lighting guidelines because different criteria come into play depending on site conditions. Eric Gold, a landscape architect and manager of several Seattle Parks field improvement projects, says each lighting project is unique.

"I've never found that good lighting is so expensive that a lot of people find bad lighting is worth living with."

"Every site is really and totally different," Gold says. "There really are few similarities from project to project because the topography is different and the location of the homes in relationship to the field is different. We really try not to have any preconceived notions of what we're getting into."

An advanced lighting system illuminates a soccer field.

Perhaps the best examples of site-specific lighting occur in rural areas, where even low levels of light are striking. Residents tend to be more sensitive to lighting in those areas. One solution may be higher wattage systems, which many experts believe provide better, more controlled lighting. Systems of 1,500 or even 2,000 watts, however, are more expensive to buy and can cost more to operate.

Because lighting projects are so hard to judge, they are also hard to budget. Gold errs on the side of caution and often budgets for the worst-case scenario.

"Programming and funding can be extremely difficult," Gold says. "But the advantage particularly with lighting is if you plan for the more expensive option, then you may end up with a budget surplus."

Lemons advises against skimping on any part of lighting because it can have such a serious effect on the overall project.

"I've never found that good lighting is so expensive that a lot of people find bad lighting is worth living with," he says.

Despite a larger range of lighting fixtures, multiuse facilities remain difficult to light properly. Generally, baseball requires more or better light than football or soccer, and thus the lighting requirements for America's favorite pastime can serve as the starting point in multiuse fields. Owens says laying a soccer field out diagonally across the outfield of a baseball diamond is relatively conducive to acceptable lighting. The infield lights can be switched off for soccer, while additional lights are turned on for the soccer field.

"You want to avoid a lot of switching," Owens says.


Light poles and light controls play an important part in effective sports field lighting.

A soccer game is illuminated by bright lights that keep much of the light trained on fans and players.

Poles help manage spill and glare. However, industry experts disagree what height works best. Many experts believe taller poles, extending 90 feet or higher, allow lights to shine directly down onto the field. High-placed lighting also is generally believed to be important in baseball to help fielders handle fly balls. However, Lemons disagrees with both of these assumptions. He believes high poles actually increase glare, particularly when they sit above the horizon line.

Instead, Lemons and some other lighting experts favor lower heights. Higher poles in some cases aren't needed because light reflected of the playing surface illuminates the bottom of the ball—the only part of a baseball a fielder can see, he says. Lemons has designed outdoor tennis facilities with low poles surrounded by berming that he says controls light pollution quite well.

The International Dark-Sky Association does not recommend limiting pole height in lighting ordinances.

Another way to ease lighting pressure on neighboring homes—and on electric bills—is with lighting controls. Homeowners concerned about light pollution become particularly upset when light filters into their homes from an empty ball field. Advances in electronics and software allow greater control of fields or even individual lights from remote locations. Parks in King County, Wash., recently benefited from a modem-control system that allows employees to control lights from their desks via modem. Officials estimate the system will save $10,000 annually plus lost staff time.

As Night Falls...
White River High School in Buckley, Wash., has a lighting system with internal redirecting louvers and an external visor.

Night Games

The rising crescendo over light pollution may cloud the fact that outdoor athletic lighting represents an important resource in the recreational world and has a fairly long history in the United States.

Major League Baseball has been playing night ball for more than 68 years. After many years of stadium lights at minor-league baseball games, the Cincinnati Reds hosted the Philadelphia Phillies on May 24, 1935, under flood and spotlights at Crosley Field. (The lights were mounted on an eight-pole configuration.) The Cincinnati Reds Web site notes that seven night games that year averaged about 20,000 fans, while day games averaged about 4,500.

Even Chicago's Wrigley Field, which started night baseball only in 1989, has a longer history with outdoor sports lighting than the famous 1989 controversy might lead one to believe. According to the Chicago Tribune, Wrigley Field hosted a heavyweight wrestling match at night eight months before the Reds-Phillies contest at Crosley Field. In 1946, Jake LaMotta knocked out a middleweight contender under the lights at Wrigley. Both events also showed that sports and temporary lighting have a long history.

Lighting restrictions aren't as new as some may think, either. Some communities have had light ordinances for 40 years.



Technical solutions literally may pale in comparison to improved human interactions.

A new lighting system will light the way for players at Seattle's Genesee Playfield. Seattle is improving field lighting across the city, to the relief of some and the consternation of others.

Seattle is undergoing a very large lighting restoration project to replace aging lighting systems and add other upgrades to its athletic fields. A lighting survey found the city had only one ball field with up-to-date lighting. Seattle officials are working to update, replace or add lights to parks across the city. Because the northerly city can become dark as early as 4:30 p.m., lighting is a particularly important part of the park's system.

However, the projects have created something of a controversy, despite serious field time crunches. The city parks department faces vocal astronomers, environmentalists and neighbors concerned about adding to light pollution.

While opposition appears stiff with future projects, the city has found success with completed projects. Parks spokeswoman Dewey Potter says the city has tried to work with concerned parties since the beginning of the planning process by enlisting the support of sporting groups and reaching out to light-pollution opponents. Still, success is relative.

"Overall, we are just trying to be the best neighbors we can be," Potter says.

A hallmark of the city's effort has been sending parks staffers to work with individual homeowners. For a recently completed park, Gold says he and a technician from the contractor met with homeowners. The company rep would adjust individual lights while Gold talked with the homeowner.

Lighting night baseball for television is the height of the art of outdoor sports lighting. Here a camera looks down on Pacific Bell Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.

"We really tried to respond to any request that was reasonable and responsible," Gold says.

Because lighting is so hard to judge, Gold strongly recommends keeping detailed records of such lighting changes.

Gold characterized lighting opponents as a collection of "Not In My Back Yard" activists, astronomers and wildlife lovers concerned about the effects of light pollution on habitats. Such coalitions are often loosely organized, he says, but they can be passionate and well informed.

"It stretches the process out quite a bit, but I think this is the case now in most major metropolitan areas," Gold says. "The advantage is that by the end of it, you really do understand the issue from every possible angle."

Dark-Sky's Davis says that light pollution activists are working well with recreational facilities across the country.

"Good lighting really is a value for everyone," Davis says. "It's often the difference between a good field and a bad field."

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