Audio & Illumination

Space-Specific, Sport-Specific

By Dawn Klingensmith


hen Robert Perry was in the market to replace the 9-year-old metal halide lamps at the Ponds of Brookfield Ice Arena in Brookfield, Wis., one of his main concerns was the color that various types of lighting would cast onto the ice surface. "As a hockey player, there's a certain color of light that's comfortable for the eyes," he said.

Also of top concern was "consistency of lighting," he added, with the goal being "a complete bathing of the ice."

"We wanted natural, easy light on the eyes. We nailed it. We've had no complaints, only compliments," said Perry, who owns the arena.

The fluorescent lighting at the ice rink has perhaps drawn universal applause, but what constitutes "good" lighting, as well as what makes for good sound, is difficult to define, let alone achieve—though both are crucial aspects of athlete success and spectator satisfaction.

"Lighting is one of the critical things about a project, but if you talk to 10 people in the lighting industry, you'll get 10 different 'ideal' solutions," said Lou Verrone, an Atlanta-based regional distributor for the Manitowoc, Wis., manufacturer that produced the high-efficiency fluorescent lights for the Ponds of Brookfield.

And with sound systems, if you want high-quality music, for example, it sometimes comes at the expense of clear-sounding voices. That need not be the case, but so many variables come into play that there can be no one-size-fits-all solution. Audio engineering is an art as much as a science, and any system probably will require considerable tweaking before the installer and the end user are satisfied, with trial and error being part of that process.

The Sound and the Fury

Case in point: At a cost of $1.5 billion, the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas was intended to be the world's most impressive sports stadium, while also doubling as a concert arena. But the building's design caused acoustical problems, particularly for concert goers who claimed the music reverberates in some locations and sounds muffled in others.

Football fans complained that sound broadcast through the stadium's hundreds of speakers seemed to get eaten up by the enormous space. And some said they had trouble hearing Cowboys' announcer Jody Dean, though that problem reportedly has been solved.

Before sound engineers and consultants started a months-long process of fine-tuning the sound system, The Dallas Morning News invited readers of its Cowboys Stadium blog to chime in with their opinions of the stadium's acoustics. "I have a better sound system in my shed," one respondent groused. "This may qualify as one of the worst sound systems I've heard," another wrote.

The acoustical challenges, built right into the stadium's architecture, are the sheer size of the space; the retractable roof, which precludes the installation of overhead sound-deadening material; and giant glass doors—each measuring 180 feet wide and 120 feet tall—in the end zones.

Hard surfaces, like Cowboy Stadium's massive glass portals, reflect and amplify sound. That's why school and recreation facility audio systems often sound like the unseen adults in Peanuts cartoons. In typical gymnasiums and natatoriums, hard reflective surfaces and materials, including water, concrete, wood, metal, tile and glass, bounce sound waves among one another, creating echoes.

Competitive facilities should perhaps be reverberant to some degree to stoke excitement, but surfaces and materials must be absorptive enough to support intelligibility and clarity.

Even top-of-the-line sound systems won't deliver optimal speech intelligibility and frequency range without proper acoustics, including strategically placed noise-reduction solutions such as spray-on ceiling coatings, tiles, ceiling- and wall-mounted panels, suspended banners and perforated metal panels with fiberglass at their core.

Pools of Light

Different water sports require different lighting conditions. For example, ambient brightness is more important for water polo than for competitive swimming, because swimmers' attention is focused on their lanes. To prevent light from reflecting off the water, fixtures must be strategically mounted.

Often, indoor pools used for competitive swimming also are open to recreational users. Along with water toys and oversized towels, recreational users bring greater expectations for a cheery atmosphere, including bright ambient lighting and a welcoming, underwater luminance, which needs to be taken into account during the lighting design phase.

Of course, making a "splashy" design statement is secondary to meeting the technical requirements of an indoor pool environment. Because of the humidity and chlorine, lighting systems, including their fastening components, need to offer a high degree of protection against corrosion.

Sound It Out From the Start

The biggest mistake people make is not considering sound as a design element and incorporating it into the project from the outset. "You can't just scoot in a speaker as an afterthought," said Peter Hamilton, president of a Stratford, Conn.-based loudspeaker manufacturer.

Sophisticated software programs can give people an idea how audio systems will sound based on inputting various specifications into computer-assisted drawings, but the actual results usually differ from the simulation. Audio system design is complex and takes into account all sorts of variables.

"It's not as simple as, 'How many speakers do you use in a room with X amount of square footage?' It depends on what kind of activity goes on in there—that makes a big difference," Hamilton said. "Also, what do you require the system to do? Most often, it's for speaking and music.

"Then, you have to make allowances for how reverberant the space is and use sound absorbing materials" where necessary, Hamilton added.

Similarly, with lighting, there are numerous factors that can negatively affect results despite careful planning. For that reason, Verrone recommends auditioning lighting equipment before making a purchase. "There are so many options out there, and the customer will hear various sales pitches, lies, truths and so on while doing their research that it can become confusing and downright overwhelming," he said. "Nothing is more important than hanging test fixtures in their facility, measuring the light output, energy consumption and visually seeing the light. This way, they will clearly see that all light fixtures do not perform the same way, even with the exact same lamps and ballasts, so it is important that they see and feel the light with their own senses."

The Sweet Sound of Success

The football stadium at Milton High School, Alpharetta, Ga., is a perfect example of the importance of sound, and the potential consequences of an initial under-investment. It took a long time—and a potential disaster—for the sound to catch up with the stadium's looks. With high-end artificial turf and a jumbo screen, the stadium's quality was almost collegiate—except for the sound, driven by a poorly designed and underpowered paging horn system, according to Mike Shetler, of Atlanta-based VisionQuest Design and Production. The sound was loud but often unintelligible, with distortion and feedback drowning out announcements. But though folks in the stands strained to make out announcements, the school was getting plenty of complaints from neighbors due to the overall din.

Then, "the night of their first home football game of 2007, they needed to evacuate the stadium due to a lightning storm, but the sound was so bad the crowd couldn't understand the announcement," Shetler said in the release.

Now, the audio is on par with the rest of the stadium. There are three-way, long-throw speakers covering the home stands, a unit covering the visitors' bleachers, and a pair of two-way loudspeakers on the press box, along with speaker processing and amplification equipment. The weatherproof speakers offer directional control to cut down on neighbor complaints and deliver superior intelligibility and musical performance, according to Shetler.

In certain outdoor applications, powerful speakers perched atop the scoreboard or press box deliver sufficient sound quality, and offer a relatively easy audio upgrade where trenching across an athletic field for wiring is not possible.

Whether outside or indoors, sound systems require designers, installers and operators to consider several critical factors. With outdoor facilities, the neighbors' tolerance for stray sound is but one consideration, while indoor venues require a thorough understanding of noise dynamics. Usually, the number of anticipated spectators, or listeners, helps guide the selection of sound equipment

Scout It Out

Whether in the market for loudspeakers or lighting, consumers should first do some legwork. It's advisable to visit several similar facilities to assess different degrees of audio or lighting quality, and to ask facility managers about their experiences with the design, equipment and manufacturers.

Before upgrading to high-efficiency fluorescent lighting at Ponds of Brookfield Ice Arena, Perry not only visited several other arenas, but he also brought along a collection of hockey helmets with half and full-face plastic shields to see how various types of lighting appeared through different face guards.

Updating sports lighting entails a significant outlay of capital, with ongoing expenses for service and maintenance. For cost-efficiency, particularly when tax-exempt financing is available for an entire project, it might make sense to invite proposals that address not just sports lighting but also security and convenience lighting for spectator seating areas, walkways and parking lots.

There are sports facility lighting standards set by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, which as a guiding principal establishes a class of play, or level of competition, which takes into account such things as ball speed and the number of spectators. There are guidelines for how many foot candles are needed for specific types of sports and facilities, but in Verrone's opinion, they tend to be "a little dated." (In general, 45 to 70 foot candles are recommended for a recreational or amateur sports facility, and in excess of 100 are needed for a professional sporting event.)

Illumination quality is not the only key consideration; structural integrity also is of utmost importance. Wooden utility poles, for example, can succumb to rot, weather and insect damage, presenting structural safety hazards. Also, humidity cycles can cause the pole to warp, thereby throwing off the fixture's aim.

Different situations call for different types of lighting, but in general, "three things make a lighting fixture good or bad," Verrone said.

The first is thermal efficiency. "You want it to run cool," he said. "When things run cool, they last longer."

The second is optical efficiency, which means the fixture harvests light from the light source and throws it down to the playing area as opposed to permitting the light to trespass out of bounds.

The third is electrical, or energy, efficiency. This last measure of performance was particularly important to Scott Chitwood, who co-founded Carolina Courts in Indian Trail, N.C., in January 2009 with partner Ron Esser. Their private facility has five regulation-size basketball courts that double as 10 volleyball courts. Roughly 15 percent

of the time, the space becomes a multipurpose facility, hosting expos and other events, and it can be divided by curtains for more intimacy.

Chitwood wanted lighting with wireless controls that would enable staff to remotely turn off the lights over empty courts and dim the lights when less visually demanding tasks are taking place. The lighting configuration includes 25 fixtures over each court, arranged into five rows. This arrangement, and the wiring, enables staff to shut off entire rows when full-capacity wattage isn't needed for competition.

Energy efficiency is one of several reasons Perry of the Ponds of Brookfield is pioneering the use of fluorescent lighting in an ice rink. (Fluorescents generally "like a warmer temperature" for optimal functionality, Perry said.) According to the manufacturer, the high-efficiency fluorescent lights with several patented features consistently produce 50 percent more light and use 50 percent less energy than other artificial light sources. In Perry's facility, the energy savings are lower, at 15 percent, but that still translates to $9,000 annually.

Fluorescents Gain Favor

Energy-efficiency is just one reason fluorescents are winning fans in the sports and recreation sectors. Ten years ago, fluorescents weren't suitable for most sports venues and applications because the technology, at the time, didn't meet all the demands—though their advantages were clear in other usages. Nowadays, compared with metal halides, fluorescents can offer more consistent performance, Perry attested.

Toward the end of their lifespan, the brightness of metal halide lights drops off dramatically. Diminishing quickly but at different rates, end-of-life metal halide lamps disperse light unequally, with a brighter patch here and a dimmer patch there. This overtaxes the eye and makes it difficult to track the hockey puck, Perry said.

Also, because of metal halides' end-of-life behavior, when a single bulb burned out, Perry had to replace the remaining 65 bulbs over the ice because the difference in brightness was distracting at best and unsafe at worst.

In addition, high-intensity discharge lighting systems produce a buzzing sound when in operation and cast a yellowish light, "which is not good for sports because being able to see clearly is so important," said Linda Diedrich, director of corporate communications for the Manitowoc, Wis., manufacturer that outfitted the Ponds of Brookfield Ice Arena, as well as Carolina Courts. "Our high-efficiency fluorescents produce crisp, clean, clear light."

A perceived advantage of metal halides over fluorescents is they direct light where it's desired almost in a spotlight manner, whereas fluorescents are generally more dispersive, so Perry was somewhat concerned that fluorescent lighting would be too diffused by the time it dropped down from the 26-foot ceiling to the surface of the ice. However, "The entire ice sheet is bathed in constant, consistent lighting," he said, adding that he has since become an "evangelist" for the use of high-efficiency, high-quality fluorescent lighting in ice arenas.

With the advancement of fluorescent lighting technology come other energy-saving innovations, such as tubular skylights, or solar light tubes, which passively harvest sunlight from a rooftop to illuminate a facility, without the heat gain associated with traditional skylights. "They put out more light than any fixture and are fantastic for gyms and auditoriums," Verrone said.

Plus, they have ambient light sensors so if the lighting level drops below a certain number of foot candles, artificial lights automatically turn on.

Equipping sports venues with sound and lighting can be a difficult process involving research, decision making and finger crossing. But remember, the end result is all about fun and excitement. Consider the thrilling add-on at Shakopee High School in Shakopee, Minn. As part of a comprehensive audio upgrade, the Electronic Design Co., based in Shoreview, Minn., mounted subwoofers beneath the home bleachers. Because the seating is built into a hill, the bass frequencies bounce off the slope and travel across the field to the visitors' seating. But the best part is that the thunderous bass produces a "butt-shaking" effect. It just goes to show that good sound can truly move people.

Tackling Structural Defects After the Fact

According to an August article in the Austin American Statesman, huge athletic field lighting poles have been crashing to the ground without warning in school districts across Texas, and in one particularly hard-hit district in Kansas, where in 2001 a tornado toppled all four poles at the Hoisington United School District's football and track stadium. Two years later, during a track meet, one of the stadium's replacement poles toppled. Fortunately, the 80-foot pole fell away from the packed bleachers and onto the school roof, so no one was injured. The remaining poles were removed after an inspection revealed cracks in all three of them, and the district replaced them with poles made by the same manufacturer.

Then, in May 2005, school maintenance crews saw a sizeable crack in one of the poles and removed it immediately for fear it would topple. The remaining three poles also were removed, and all were found to be cracked at the base.

Such poles are generally expected to last decades, but all of the cracked or fallen ones were less than 10 years old, according to news reports. School districts, colleges and a couple of minor league teams reportedly have removed more than 100 poles, all made by the same company, that were found to be at risk of falling.

Rapid vibrations from light winds, repeated exposure to heavy winds, or poor design could all be the cause of the poles' premature failure.

Structural integrity is critical. Even well-designed poles can present hazards if facilities cut corners during their installation as a money-saving measure.

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.