Lighting demands are changing the nature of recreational field installation

Athletes may be playing ball in the dark before long. The irony of today’s outdoor recreational lighting is that never before has such high-quality lighting been available and in demand, and never have residential groups fought more vociferously to have those lights turned off. However, contractors and manufacturers are working to offer a compromise.

Organized sports have become more popular than ever in the United States and the need for playing fields is growing at the same rate. When space runs out, the need to use existing fields longer and during later hours has resulted in installation of recreation lighting in small towns and cities across the country.

But these lights are not welcomed by many communities, and that leaves park owners and contractors with a juggling act to provide light for the athletes and avoid upsetting the dark- night-seeking neighbors.

If you consider installation, recreational lighting has gotten a whole lot simpler. But working around neighborhoods’ needs for the elimination of light trespass has given contractors a new challenge.

Over the past decade, manufacturers of sports lighting have responded to concerns of electricians that have led to significant improvement in installation ease. Unlike in previous years, lighting a ball field today may involve equipment from just one manufacturer, a light system that arrives assembled and aligned with the cross arm on the pole and each fixture aimed.

For contractors, this mean a lot less time on the job; for customers, it means a very fast installation. For example, Qualite Sports Lighting in Hillsdale, Mich., one of the manufacturers of recreational lighting, uses an autoCAD system to draw up a field and assemble and aim lights accordingly, long before they reach the field.

Pole installation is easier as well. Customers have moved away from wood poles and concrete poles in favor of steel ones, which are stable and can be installed directly without having to build a foundation.

But despite the ease of installation, manufacturers and everyone else in the lighting industry have another challenge before them: making the lights less disruptive for the surrounding neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has its own individual concerns, but most involve some kind of light trespassing and how it affects the lighting around their homes. Not only do many want to avoid direct glare from the lights, neighborhoods often demand no cloud glare or even visibility of poles during the day. Manufacturers have developed a variety of solutions.

Qualite has released the Gold Series lighting, said Vice President of Sales Rick Kohl. This light includes louvers inside the fixture that reduce off-site light visibility. In addition to light trespass control, the Gold Series offers a remotely mounted ballast assembly and does not require power feed to the top of the pole. Instead, wiring is fed directly into the bottom on the pole. “It makes for much simpler wiring,” Kohl said.

“It makes the contractor’s job easier,” Kohl said. “For contractors, once they are on the job site, they want to get it done. The faster they get it done, the more money they make.”

Light trespassing concerns vary around the country. In some areas, residents are more active and vociferous, such as in the Northwest and the Southwest.

Chris Fote, project manager for Sparling, a Seattle electrical engineering firm, has helped set up lighting in most of the fields in the Puget Sound area. Sparling is a consultancy for contractors and public agencies. Fote confirmed that light trespassing has become a bigger issue than ever before. “The neighbors are more organized and there are more codes and ordinance.” Fote’s challenge is to accomplish sports lighting in that environment.

Most importantly, Fote said, “You have to get involved with the owners up front and begin communicating with the neighbors. Try to work with communities, find out about local ordinances and assess environmental impacts.” In some cases, this can mean performing an environmental impact statement for neighbors. Sky glow, reflected glare and poles all have their impact.

In the most extreme cases, Fote said, they install full cut-off lighting systems, also known as shoebox lights. “Clients specifically require that (at times)” he said. “Glare is the primary issue.”

For spill light, adding an external shield to a flood light, such as those provided by Qualite, can often resolve the problem. On the other hand, the full cut-off lighting eliminates all glare above the light. Fote predicted that sports lighting trends would continue toward designing lights that have the least possible impact on neighborhoods. Cut-off lights may be the primary choice for sports lighting in the future.

The biggest issue for most electrical contractors, however, is getting the support of neighboring communities. “That (often) limits the number of jobs we can bid on,” said Service Electric Co. Inc. (Snohomish, Wash.) co-owner Todd Kottsick. “We’ve had projects deleted or delayed because of neighborhood parties.”

The problem leads to a stalemate, since the need for recreational fields in the United States is greater than ever, as is the need to play at night, since there are more children playing organized sports than ever before. “We’re running out of parks. There’s no place to go and play,” said Kottsick.

Soccer has become the most popular recreational sport in the United States, and there are as many girls playing as boys. Because it is played at a time of year when the light fades early, many are left to play in the dark or install lighting.

Kottsick has seen some compromises help the entire community, when parks and recreation departments pool the funding with schools to provide lighted parks that are available to the entire community. That kind of combination is easier to sell to the community.

To further fuel the controversy, more college and even high school fields are required to provide lighting that would allow televising. Oklahoma Electrical Supply Company (OESCO) of Oklahoma City installed about a dozen steel poles of lights for the University of Tulsa soccer field and practice field area which includes a track stadium. The 18-month project included thousands of fixtures, which OESCO assembled and installed themselves. Project Manager Phil Creek said the lamps came pre-aimed but needed to be re-aimed to meet the lighting requirements. OESCO also installed the sound system and lighting for a press box and locker room. The lights were manufactured by Cooper Lighting, Peachtree City, Ga. The result was state-of-the-art lighting that broadcasts well.

While many schools are eager to attract television coverage, the increased lighting necessary can even further alienate neighborhood groups. Compromises have included installing minimal television-required lighting, or addition of mobile lights when cameras are present.

But many neighbors are unaware compromises exist, and if they knew, some contractors guess, the controversy would end. To meet the concerns of Pacific Northwest neighbors, J. Delvin Armstrong founded Soft Lighting Systems, which makes a full cut-off lighting system that eliminates more light trespassing than any other conventional recreational light.

Armstrong first created the lights for a project at the Meadowland Play Field in Lynwood, Wash. He had done low lighting projects for the Seattle Parks Department tennis courts and wondered if he could make the same concept work on a ball field level. He predicted the design he created would significantly reduce off-sight light impact, while reducing the quality of ball field lighting only minimally. To his surprise, he found the lighting was actually slightly improved with his patented “Softlite.”

Since then, he has installed the lights throughout the region and hopes to spread across the United States. The light works with a spun parabolic system reflector which collects light and reflects it straight out. While conventional lights must be lined up in a column and shone directly onto the field, the Softlite is on a shoe box luminaire and offers reflective wide beam lights. The lights are a blend of metal halite and high pressure sodium, which adds an output of yellow and red light. “The combination of the two lamps (colors) gives you a better color rendition,” he said.

But Softlites have their limitations. They can be significantly more expensive than conventional lights, and they work only in smaller fields. Fields that require the light poles to stand behind stadium style seating need conventional lighting.

In Albuquerque, similar problems arise for fields in high-income residential neighborhoods. In one case, at the Albuquerque Sportsplex, residents who built homes in the neighborhood were successful in requiring the existing athletic fields stayed closed and unlit at night.

That is not the typical response in the Southwest, however, according to Noly Lagrimas, project manager and part owner of Freeman Electric Inc.

Lagrimas said manufacturers such as Musco Lighting, Oskaloosa, Iowa, provide equipment at least partially assembled and with step-by-step installation direction. Because so much of the assembly has taken place on spec, Lagrimas said the bidding process becomes easier as well. “It’s so pinned down to a science that it isn’t hard to figure out the cost,” Lagrimas said.

“Probably the biggest challenge is when you have multibank lights that have to be hand pointed from a boom truck,” Lagrimas added. Whether or not lights have been preaimed by the supplier, someone still needs to walk the field with a photometer (also called a light meter or foot-candle meter) to measure light distribution throughout the field. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.