Cool Tools: Personal Lighting
Published: August 2009
Few electricians go to a job without one or more tools that provide a compact, temporary source of light. For many, flashlights are standard items for tool belts or boxes, and compact hands-free lights to illuminate dark work areas fre-quently are a necessity.
Flashlights, corded clamp-on or one-lamp work lights, or single--lamp fixtures for an incandescent bulb have been available for decades. However, recent advances in compact personal lighting products available today, in both corded and cordless versions, are more efficient, more durable and easier to use.
Mark Herman, national accounts manager for Graybar (www.graybar.com), compares advances in personal lighting equipment to the evolution in consumer electronics.
“Think of the first personal music players for cassette tapes,” he said. “They seemed small back in the day, but compare them to today’s ultracompact digital players and devices that play not only music but video with clear, sharp images on tiny screens. It’s the same with personal lighting products. Improvements in technology and design are producing products that are smaller and lighter in weight, are easier to carry and use, and some have multifunction capabilities.”
The revolution of personal lighting is based on advances in light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and new battery technologies, Herman said.
“Development of LED technology has increased light output,” he said. “LEDs offer several efficiencies and advantages: they last longer than incandescent or krypton lamps and drain less power than other types of advanced lamps. Increasing light intensity with reflectivity has become somewhat of an art form.”
As LED technology improved and was adapted to compact lighting, manufacturers faced the additional challenge of providing a compact power source that could last for at least one shift and be recharged in a relatively short period of time.
Advances in battery technology also are a factor.
“Even a year ago,” Herman said, “an LED flashlight required four batteries and produced about 80 lumens. Today, LED flashlights are reduced to smaller platforms with 160 or more lumens output.”
Not only are flashlights smaller without sacrificing light intensity, applications have been broadened to include laser pointers and the capability of producing lights in various colors. Impact-resistant cases improve durability and small sizes are easier to carry and use.
Personal lighting advances are not limited to flashlights.
“Headlamps on hardhats have been available before, but they usually required heavy battery packs mounted on the back of the hel-met,” Herman said. “New LED models use lighter, rechargeable lithium-ion or alkaline or AA or AAA batteries inside the head unit, making them much lighter.”
There also are new lighting options for small work spaces. Compact stand-alone light models in both cordless and corded versions use LEDs and other types of lamps and offer features that make them more versatile.
“Flashlights and other compact lighting for use in hazardous work areas where a spark is not permitted have cases that are sealed and gasketed,” Herman said. “The use of rechargeable components is increasing for lights classified for use in areas where there are chemi-cals and other fire hazards.”
Some first-time users of LEDs may notice a difference in the “look” of the light, Herman said. LED light may not appear to be as bright as that provided by conventional lamps. But with lumens of 100 and higher, LEDs provide the same level of light as other types of lamps with comparable ratings.
“With the technology’s rapid improvement, the market preference has shifted to LED products,” he said.
Even so, compact lights using incandescent lamps are still widely used and continue to be the light source for many current prod-ucts. Other popular products use fluorescent lamps.
The broad Woodhead line of compact lighting from Molex includes products using both LED and incandescent lamps. Molex global product manager Scott Hagen, Molex global product manager, is in a good position to evaluate each type of light source.
The biggest change in compact lights over the past several years is the widespread use of LEDs, Hagen said.
“This technology has become commonplace in many different lighting products, including hand lamps,” Hagen said. “With many more options for portable hand lamps, the new LED technologies seem very attractive.”
However, he said, many of the new LED hand lamp products may be somewhat disappointing when used in spaces where electri-cians typically work—small, tight, confined areas where many cables and parts exist between the light source and the parts needing light.
Klein Tools (www.kleintools.com) offers personal lighting products that include 10 LED hand lamps ranging from a mini-pocket model to full-size flashlights, including one with a 90-degree right-angle head that provides up to 10,000 hours of lamp life.
Leatherman (www.leatherman.com), which is best known for high-quality knives and multitools, recently entered the personal lighting market with a new line of keychain and pocket-sized LED lights. The most powerful of the three models uses a single lithium-ion battery. It is just over 3 inches long, weighs 2.6 ounces and produces 100 lumens of light on its high setting.
Makita (www.makita.com) offers several compact flashlights, including 18V lithium-ion battery models with four-position pivoting heads and Xenon lamps for brightness. A new ultra-compact LED flashlight is only 43⁄4 inches long and weighs just over a half pound, including its rechargeable 10.8V lithium-ion battery.
McGill Electrical Product Group (www.mcgillelectrical.com) offers a wide range of portable, temporary lighting including heavy-duty fluorescent hand lamps, low-voltage portable fluorescent hand lamps with solid state ballasts connected to the base, and 5- and 10-socket light strings with easy-open protective cages for easy lamp replacement.
Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. (www.milwaukee.com) portable work lights are available in 12-, 18- and 28V lithium-ion battery platforms with Xenon incandescent lamps and rotating heads to direct powerful light exactly where needed. All are designed for operator convenience with individual features that vary by model.
Woodhead (www.woodhead.com) lighting products include fluorescent and incandescent hand lamps for job site illumination in construction and hazardous and wet locations; LED hand lamps, including a battery-operated model with built-in rechargeable battery pack; and hazardous-duty string lights in incandescent and fluorescent versions.
“Because the LED products tend to be more costly and the life of a hand lamp—the enclosure, not the light source—is relatively short, users will generally never get the value out of an LED hand lamp versus a traditional lighting technology,” Hagen said. “The balance be-tween cost, quantity of LEDs, optics, and heat dissipation is certainly a challenge. In my opinion, very few LED hand lamp products have really gotten this balance right.”
When evaluating portable LED hand lamps, Hagen believes the driving feature should be durability of the LED source.
“Everyone who has ever used an incandescent hand lamp has been working with it for five minutes and dropped or bumped it, break-ing the filament,” he said “This should be the clear advantage for portable LED hand lamps.”
However, Hagen said he thinks the current driver influencing popularity of new LED light products is their novelty and the flashy de-signs of LED hand lamps.
“I do not believe there is a weight advantage or portability advantage to LED hand lamps,” he said. “There certainly is not a cost ad-vantage or a light output advantage, and for temporary, personal lighting, the energy efficiency is just not an issue on anyone’s radar.”
Whether a corded or cordless hand lamp is best depends on many factors, Hagen said.
“Battery-powered lighting products generally have the benefits of needing no local power source and having no cord that gets in the way when doing work, especially in confined spaces,” he said. “Unfortunately, the battery always needs to be recharged and adds a significant amount of weight to the product. For the corded units, power cords create trip hazards and need local power, which may not be available in certain work areas.
“If there is a long job, maybe spanning a few days, in an area where power is available or can be brought to, or when a user needs to hold or frequently reposition a light, certainly a corded unit is a better option. And a corded unit would be the better choice if a user has a special application or environment or needs a very large amount of task and area light. Generally, if there is no convenient power avail-able and the duration of a job or operation is very short and the electrician will not be handling the light, then a battery unit is prefer-able.”
With the variety of lamps now available for commercial and industrial uses and growing popularity of compact fluorescent bulbs for home use, will incandescent lamps become obsolete?
“There is proposed legislation that would completely obsolete the standard medium-base socket from new lighting fixtures and lamps,” Hagen said. “This, combined with the controls and increased efficiency requirements on lighting products, is pushing the in-candescent lamp closer to extinction. Considering the electrical industry, the portable and temporary application of hand lamps, and the types of users, incandescent technology was the only feasible technology available. With self-ballasted compact fluorescence and drop-in LED products utilizing more rugged, impact-resistant light sources and falling technology costs, there certainly is added pressure to obsolete the standard incandescent light bulb.”
GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at email@example.com.