Shed Some Light

How to avoid making costly mistakes when it comes to sports field lighting

By Kyle Ryan

Poor lighting can—and will—ruin anything, and there are a seemingly endless number of ways to do it wrong: too much, too little, too much glare, wrong type, pointed the wrong way, etc. Like so many things in this world, when lighting is done right, you probably won't notice it. But when it's done poorly, you can't ignore it. To rephrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous quote about pornography: "People may not know what makes lighting bad, but they'll know it when they see it."

Sports lighting, particularly outdoors, has a frustrating number of variables and standards, all of them specific not only to the sport but the level of competition and environment. Those standards can collide head-on with the ordinances of the surrounding area, which may limit pole height, brightness and pollution. It takes coordination to balance all the variables, but it's not an impossible task. With the right amount of preparation and research, anyone can find a setup that works well for them.

Different systems for different play

Sports-lighting systems are the complete antithesis of the one-size-fits-all approach. What works at one high-school baseball field may not at another, so each facility must first determine what its needs are based on the activity. As the level of competition increases, so do the lighting requirements.

"If it's something that's going to be used at the collegiate level, where you have television cameras and such, then you're going to need to talk about television requirements, etc.," says Shawn Good, lighting department manager for Brinjac Engineering. "If it's just, say, a recreational league or play at a local park or something, then the requirements are much, much less."

Light intensity is measured by foot candle (fc), the total intensity of light that falls upon one square foot of surface placed one foot away from a light source that measures one candle power (also called "lux" in the metric system). The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IENSA) has "recommended practices" for all lighting situations, including sports. IENSA breaks facilities down into four categories, which it mostly bases on the number of spectators. For example, here's how IENSA defines the categories, and how each one has different prescriptions for the same sport, baseball.

Class I: Competition in front of thousands of spectators. These are the types of facilities where television coverage may come into play, which, as Good mentioned, adds a whole additional set of requirements. For baseball, 100 to 150 fc

Class II: Facilities holding up to 5,000 spectators. For baseball, 70 to 100 fc

Class III: Competitive play with some spectators. For baseball, 30 to 50 fc

Class IV: Competitive/recreational play, without any spectators. For baseball, 20 to 30 fc

Once facility managers establish their class, lighting systems become easier to figure out. When it comes to the lamps, most sports lights use the metal halide variety, part of the high-intensity discharge (HID) family. Although they're a bit pricier and require a few minutes to warm up, they're bright and provide excellent coverage and color rendition. They also last a really long time.

"If you're talking about something like a minor-league baseball stadium or a collegiate level, usually you're going to replace those, I recommend, about every 5,000 hours to maintain light levels," Good says. "If you're talking, say, in a recreational league situation, many of those can last upward of 20,000 hours."

That means 833 days or roughly two and a third years of continuous use. Obviously, no one's running their lights all day every day, so lamps can last years before needing maintenance.

"You're talking pretty significant amount of life," Good says, "especially in a recreational league situation where, even if they're operated a couple hours a night, they're only on a couple hundred hours a year. They'll last essentially forever."

But they don't just burn out like a regular household bulb; metal halides fade over time, which may not be perceptible to facility managers who see them every day. They grow accustomed to the lights' slow changes, and before they know it, the lamps are burning at half of their initial strength. To avoid that, Good recommends establishing a regular time to replace all lamps. At a recreational center, that might be every 15,000 hours.


Replacing them can be a tricky process. First of all, the light fixtures sit atop poles that can range from 20 feet upward of 100 feet, depending on the facility. Getting up there can create problems, as Dave Postlethwait of the Knight's Play Golf Course in Raleigh, N.C., discovered. It's not so much the 400 or so lamps that illuminate his 27-hole golf course that create problems; it's the ones sitting atop 75-foot poles facing out onto the driving range.

"I would never do that again, no way," Postlethwait says. Changing the lamps requires a special piece of equipment, he says, which is not only costly but bulky and has a habit of tearing up the ground beneath it.

"It's expensive…I'm just saying it might be a wonderful look, and it might look like you're the best and greatest, right? [But] I would add a few more poles and put the 50-footers instead of the 75-footers."

Complicating matters are the chemicals that make metal halide lamps so great—namely, mercury. When it comes to pollutants, mercury is practically Public Enemy Number One, and metal halide lamps are loaded with it. They can't simply be tossed in the trash. Some places buy special bulb-crushing machines that seal the refuse into drums. Others recycle the lamps. Good recommends taking a hands-off approach by letting an electrical contractor handle it.

"They'll have the lift trucks to get up to the fixtures, so you don't have to rent that," he says. "They have good relationships with electrical distributors; they get better pricing, probably, than you or I could just going down to the distributors to buy a lamp. They can come out replace it all for you and dispose of the lamps for you, and you don't have to worry about a thing."

If it sounds pricier than the do-it-yourself option, it is, but Good thinks facilities actually may save money over time doing it that way. There will be no need to rent a truck or cherry-picker to reach the fixtures, disposal costs are built-in, and the costs of the lamps themselves may be less.

"As odd as it sounds, that's probably going to be the least expensive long-term solution," Good says.

When Okoboji High School in Okoboji, Iowa, installed a new lighting system at its softball field, school Superintendent Bob Miller made sure long-term maintenance wouldn't create headaches down the road.

"We didn't want to have to put in a less expensive model and then within eight to 10 years start looking for bulbs and so forth," Miller says. "The lights have a 10-year warranty on them, and after 10 years, they come and replace the lights at no cost anyhow. We're guaranteed 20 years of perfect lighting on our softball field."

Those types of maintenance agreements for larger installations may cost more at the front end of a project, but they can save money, not to mention hassle, as time passes.

"There are a lot of systems out there that are maintained by the manufacturer," Good says. "When you buy the system, ask for their maintenance agreement, and they'll actually come out for 10 years and just maintain it for you: guarantee that you have the light levels, guarantee that everything works. And if you have a problem, you call them. They bring out their equipment and people that will access lights that are 100 feet up in the air, and you don't have to send, you know, your poor maintenance guy up a 100-foot pole."


Why do poles need to be so high, anyway? Well, the taller they are, the better, for several reasons. The light beams can be more targeted on a certain area. There's less light spill into places that don't need or don't want illumination (that is, homes around these fields). Local ordinances that mandate a maximum height for poles actually increase the odds of light trespass (light falling beyond field boundaries).

"The higher you go, oftentimes the easier it is because you can bring the fixture down a little more and target your field better," Good says. "For example, we do high-school football fields. Those will have anywhere 60- to 70-foot poles often, and those you can keep the light from spilling really from out beyond the track. You can do those very, very cleanly. But they're much more expensive systems. It really is a matter of what do you want to do. You can do just about anything, but the cost goes up."

Poles come in a variety of materials: treated wood, aluminum, steel, cast iron and concrete. They are either buried into the ground or mounted to a concrete foundation; the former is cheaper but susceptible to decay, while the latter is sturdier but more expensive. Many designers strongly discourage wood, mostly because it warps over time, requiring the lights to be continually adjusted.

"Typically we go to an aluminum," Good says. "You're not going to have the rusting problem. They're pretty rigid. They actually work very, very well. That'd be my first place. Concrete poles are great, but they're expensive. It's a great option if you can afford it. Steel also works O.K.; it's just I probably lean toward aluminum in those cases because it'd be more maintenance-friendly over its life span. Both the steel and aluminum pole have what's called a 30-year design plan, so within 30 years, it's expected you might have to replace it."

What makes them maintenance-friendly? According to Good, aluminum poles generally come with a powder coating, which protects the material. Steel's biggest problem is its longtime nemesis, rust.

"If you're going to do a steel, there are a lot of places that will recommend powder coating," Good says. "I would say no to powder coating; get a wet paint. It's going to adhere better for a longer time, and it can be touched up easier. Steel is going to rust; that's your biggest problem, and so if it gets scraped up, you have to touch it up, and you can't touch up powder-coat paint. With aluminum, if you scratch that powder coat, it's not a big deal—it's not going to rust anyway."

Both concrete and cast iron face height limitations; they simply can't be manufactured and/or shipped because of their length. Regardless of the pole type, Good recommends paying close attention to the vibration-dampening ability of the pole's material.

"Go ahead and go for a slightly larger diameter pole, something that's pretty stable," he says. "Get vibration dampeners, things like that. Because the less vibration that's in the fixture, the longer it's going to last. As with anything, the more you shake it, the sooner it's going to fail."

Joint Operations
Can one set of lights work for multiple sports?

Given how expensive lighting systems are, why can't one set of lights work for different activities in the same area? Well, different sports need different illumination, so one set of fixtures won't accurately illuminate a multiuse field. But Shawn Good of Brinjac Engineering thinks some combinations can work.

"Let's say there's a football and a baseball field," he says. "You're going to end up having some lights that apply to both conditions and some that maybe are specific to baseball, because you need more light say at the batting area."

In this setup, the football would have a few of its own lights, baseball some of its own, but they would share several. However, Good cautions that such a system only works in a recreational facility, where the lights receive limited usage.

"You're going to have some lights that are operating during the baseball setting only and not needed during football, and maybe some that are needed during football but are not needed during baseball," Good says. "Then you have the set that's on all the time. And these lights, as far as metal halide lamps, tend to lose light over their life. As they deteriorate, if you're not running them together, you may not end up meeting your light levels everywhere you need to. If it's going to be used a lot, use separate systems."


Fixtures house the lamps and play a critical role in their functionality. The most high-tech lamp quickly will be rendered useless if it's not protected well or designed to withstand the elements.

"I personally wouldn't skimp on the fixture," Good says.

One of the problems with substandard fixtures, Good says, is their improper heat-synching—meaning heat bottles up inside of the fixture instead of being pulled out of it. While it won't cause any safety issues, it can shorten the life of the components inside. Another problem comes from pressure within the fixture, which fluctuates as it heats up and cools down. That can cause dust to get sucked into the lens, which obviously affects light quality.

To determine a fixture's susceptibility to dust and water, manufacturers rate them according to ingress protection (IP) standards, which use two numbers to describe a fixture's attributes. The first, which goes from zero to six, determines how dust-tight it is: Zero would be the lowest, with six being airtight. The second number describes the same type of thing, only with water, and its rating goes from zero to eight.

"Zero would be a whale could swim through it; there's no protecting it," Good says. "Eight means you can submerse it underwater with pressure. Obviously if it's up on a pole, if it's submersed, you've got a real problem."

Good generally suggests using fixtures with a 6.5 or 6.6 rating, which means they're pretty tight overall and can be cleaned with a high-pressure hose (6.6 to be safe), generally the easiest way to clean the fixtures.

The seals still can fail, though, as Postlethwait routinely discovers, particularly on the front nine holes of Knight's Play. "For some reason, there's so many of them, something just happens," he says. "I've had problems with everything. I've had lightning bolts hit them; I've had balls stuck in them; I've had bees in them; I've had broken lamps."

Light Levels
An illuminating guide to various sports and their respective lighting requirements.
Baseball150/100 FC100/70 FC50/30 FC30/20 FC
Basketball30 FC20 FC
Golf Driving Range20 FC20 FC
   Horizontal (at grade)10 FC10 FC
   Vertical (at 200 yards)
Football100 FC50 FC30 FC20 FC
Golf Course Tees (at grade)5 FC
   Fairways (at grade)3 FC
   Greens (at grade)5 FC
Horse Racing
   Horizontal (at track)30/100 FC
   Vertical (at 5 feet)70 FC
Ice Hockey50 FC30 FC20 FC
Rodeo50 FC30 FC
Roller Hockey (at grade)50 FC30 FC20 FC
Soccer (outdoor)50 FC30 FC20 FC
Softball150/100 FC100/70 FC50/30 FC30/20 FC
Swimming Pool
   (at water level)30 FC30 FC10 FC
Deck (at water level)20 FC10 FC10 FC
Tennis125 FC75 FC50 FC30 FC
Track & Field50 FC30 FC20 FC
   Track (at grade)20 FC20 FC
Volleyball30 FC30 FC20 FC

Light pollution

Over the past 15 years or so, light pollution has become a bigger issue everywhere from big cities to small towns to gated communities in the suburbs. It takes three forms: trespass/spill, sky glow (light shining upward) and glare (luminance that's in sharp contrast to the area around it). For sports lighting, trespass and glare are the biggest troublemakers, but technology has made it easier to address those issues.

The Austin Tennis Academy in Austin, Texas, sits in a brand-new, gated community called Spanish Oaks. How exclusive is Spanish Oaks? According to Eric Schmidhauser, managing director of the academy, home lots start at $250,000 and go up to $750,000. That's precisely the type of community that could be fanatical about every little thing inside its borders.

"For our ball-storage shed, we had to submit [laughs] an architectural plan for a design-review community," Schmidhauser says. "It had to be 100 percent masonry. A storage shed. So that kind of sets the tone."

Meaning light trespass would be a huge issue for the academy, which caters only to young, elite players and does not sell memberships. Every day, from roughly 2 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., the academy has kids on all of its 12 courts. With Austin's mild winters, the courts are used 12 months a year.

"Our bread-and-butter product is our year-round academy for elite players," Schmidhauser says. "We absolutely had to have lights. Without lights, we probably would not have purchased the land then. If we had gotten turned down on the permitting process to have lights, it would have been a deal-breaker."

Down the highway from the ATA lies the Lake Travis Youth Association Sports Complex, known locally as the "field of dreams," a network of outdoor fields. When it opened, light trespass into the neighboring subdivision quickly became an issue. Schmidhauser had to promise the same thing wouldn't happen at the ATA.

"We had to sign an agreement that we would turn our lights off by 9 p.m.," Schmidhauser says. "We're trying to get people off the courts at 8:30 so we can have everything shut down by 9."

In addition, the ATA's 60 fixtures mounted on 42 poles use "sharp cutoff" luminaires (a.k.a. fixtures) specially designed for tennis courts, which project light only onto the court to reduce glare. Although the ATA had to shorten its poles a bit after the system went in, Schmidhauser says the system has worked really well.

"They're wonderful, perfect, and the developers are really happy because the light spinoff is really restricted," he says. "It's very limited. There's very little spinoff off the court, and that has made the developers absolutely thrilled."

Full-cutoff lights, like the ones ATA uses, seem to solve pollution issues because they're shielded at the top to prevent light from going up (no sky glow) and on the sides (no trespass). But Good cautions that full-cutoff lights sometimes aren't enough.

"Just because it's considered a full-cutoff light, it doesn't mean that overall your light pollution's going to be good or your light trespass is going to be good," he says. "Ultimately the design where poles are placed and where fixtures are placed will control a light trespass."

For example, the reflectivity of the surface can increase glare and sky glow. Good sees it most often in places like parking lots, which he says tend to be over-lit. Light bounces off the surface and heads up, which can nullify the design of full-cutoff fixtures.

"I think it's a misconception that people have [that] 'If we put a full-cutoff fixture in, we don't have light leaving the site going up,'" Good says. "When you really start doing modeling and studying, you find out oftentimes that's not true. There may be other ways to do it."

Reflectivity may be less of an issue on sports fields, but fields can reflect enough light to create glare and sky glow. Glare is notoriously hard to decrease, but newer technology has made it less of an issue. The best bet for a facility is to make sure their fixtures have visors or louvres (visors inside the fixture itself) and are correctly placed around the fields. Although they're more expensive, internal louvres are better than external visors, according to Good.

"They're really great because they go inside of the lens, which means you don't have a place for bugs and spiders and things to create nests," he says. "You don't have place for dirt and things to collect because they're inside the fixtures doing the same job.

He continues: "The other great thing about being inside the fixture, going back to that vibration issue, [is] a big hood or something hanging on the front of the fixture catches a lot of wind, like a big wind sail, so if a gust of wind goes by, it shakes the whole thing. And if you can put it inside, your wind-loading is reduced."

That may seem like overkill; will wind catching one fixture really create much of a problem for a massive 75-foot pole? Maybe—especially if poles have a half-dozen or more fixtures on them.

"The fixture's more expensive with those internal louvres a lot of time," Good says, "but if it's less wind-loading, you may be saving on your pole because your pole doesn't have to be as strong, and you may be getting more life out of it, so in the end, it ends up being a less expensive item."

Everyone knows a world of difference lies between simply saving money and skimping. Like with a lot of other situations, skimping during the beginning of a project can end up costing a lot more money later on. In Okoboji, Bob Miller knew that going into the softball field project.

"We just wanted to do it right," he says. He knew he made the right decision pretty quickly.

"When we went to the state softball tournament this year, the state venue has the exact same kind of lights that we do," he says. "So we figure if it's good enough for the state, it should be good enough for Okoboji."

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.