The future for high-intensity discharge bulbs as an instrument of sports illumination grows dimmer by the day.
The picture is darkest indoors. "In professional and collegiate arenas, the cost of ownership and the quality of the light delivered is better with LED than it is with HID right now, and therefore LED is the only light source of choice for an indoor arena. I'm not seeing any HID at all," says Jeff Rogers, vice president of Musco Lighting, which has designed and manufactured sports lighting systems using HID technology since 1976, though few for indoor environments since 2013. "Now, it's 100 percent LED."
Head outdoors to find a similar story of transformation taking shape. From NFL stadiums to recreational softball diamonds, LED lighting is quickly becoming the dominant player in sports lighting. Rogers, despite his company still supplying roughly 80 percent of its outdoor projects with HID lighting, predicts that the economics of LED technology will soon reach a tipping point with consumers — perhaps in as little as two years. The far superior energy efficiency and longevity of LED will more than justify the initial capital investment, which he estimates to be 35 to 50 percent more than HID currently as it's applied to outdoor applications. "As LED continues to become more efficient, the costs come down and the availability of the components in the marketplace improves, we will have a crossover point where it's an equal cost to owners to put in LED as it was to put in HID," Rogers says.
The only thing slowing the switch to LED outdoors, he adds, is hours of operation. Whereas a collegiate gymnasium may operate roughly 4,300 hours a year at 12 hours a day, seven days a week, an outdoor sports field sees only a small fraction of that type of lighting demand. In fact, Musco recently installed lighting at a prominent Division I university that specified LED in its basketball arena and HID for an outdoor intramural field because the hours of operation on the latter didn't justify LED's up-front investment. "Most outdoor sports facilities, especially at the recreation level, are lucky to run 300 hours a year, so the cost of ownership doesn't return investment against the cost of initial capital fast enough to make sense yet," Rogers says. "It's getting there faster. The transition is picking up pace."
STATE OF THE ART
The pace of this game is being driven by players like Ephesus, a company that specializes in maximizing the effectiveness of solid-state technology. "We're basically creating light — quality light — from a computer chip. If you think about your cell phone, your computer, your television — all of the components making up those systems are solid-state electronics, versus mechanical components that were embedded for 50 years in bulbs," says Ephesus president Mike Lorenz. "We're making sure the light quality is great for broadcasters, for fans and players, and that we've got the right type of light coming out of the fixture."
Lighting professional sports venues — where demand can likewise vary widely, from 1,000 hours at a professional baseball stadium to less than half that in a football setting — brings the added considerations of convenience (LED's instant-on capability comes in handy at the conclusion of stadium concerts, for example) and television broadcast quality. "The quality of the broadcasting technology is advancing very, very quickly, and it's the perfect time for solid-state lighting to match that," Lorenz says. "Our goal as sports lighting technology people is to create that same quality that you want at home in the venue itself. And you clearly can see the uniform colors better. You can see the blades of grass better. You can see the difference when you start comparing light coming from an LED system versus from a metal-halide system."
While high school sports field operators may not care about concerts and close-ups, LED brings another advantage over metal-halide lamps — light control.
"The professional level is driving faster and harder than the high school football field is, and the high school football field just doesn't need the on-off," Rogers says. "What the high school field does need is improved environmental impact, because they're in places where neighbors care about light pollution. We've developed some very sophisticated systems for control of glare and spill light, and I believe that will drive LED faster into those environments. It allows you to put lighting systems in places where the neighbors may not have let that happen before."
Lorenz agrees. "The reality is there are many fields that aren't lit right now that would be lit if there were solutions that made sense," he says. "We're coming out with a second version of our technology this September to specifically address the lesser-used venues and demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of LED sports lighting outdoors, and in my judgment that will then become mainstream."
In addition to energy savings of 65 to 85 percent in the outdoor setting, LED light sources boast a far longer and more consistent life — up to 250,000 hours with minimal degradation. Absent the need to regularly send technicians up 100-foot poles to relamp, maintenance savings are significant, as well. "The kryptonite of an LED system is heat, which will degrade the system," Lorenz says. "The real secret is to design a system that dissipates heat efficiently, and if you dissipate heat throughout your entire design, then you can extend the life of the technology."
And while the cost of the lighting technology itself is still higher than HID, there are some savings to be realized beginning with installation. "If I have to put up HID lighting on a field today, typically I'm going to have to put up more poles, more brackets and more lights than I would with an LED system," Lorenz says. "So you have the installation cost savings, as well as the energy and maintenance savings. All those things become triggers for people to consider lighting fields that otherwise would be unlit."
Early adopters are lining up. "We've sold dozens of systems this year already for municipal applications, and the paybacks range anywhere from five years to 15 years," Lorenz says. "People are taking a longer view because it's greener, it's more sustainable, and they like the control capability. The capability to improve glare, to cut off spill light — all that will be inherent in the new system, as well. It's just that it's designed a bit differently than what we would use for a professional environment or a Division I collegiate environment."
Neighborhood concerns aren't limited to high schools or city parks, however. Ephesus recently installed a system for Duke University field hockey. Says Lorenz, "We had light cutoff requirements at Duke that were just astronomically tight, given the field that we lit was right next to a neighborhood, and we more than met those requirements because of our technology's capability to really push the light exactly where it needs to go."
As a company, Musco has long prided itself on fixture design, harnessing the light from a metal-halide lamp's three-and-a-half-inch arc tube and redirecting it through reflection to the field below. The more precise point source of LED light makes that job easier. "There are lenses that you can put around the chip, and there are reflectors that you can build, and then it's a combination of reflectors and lenses, and just lots of fixture design work goes into producing a luminaire that manages control of the light," Rogers says. "That's what we're really all about — maximizing the efficient use of the energy and then providing the best quality of light for the players, spectators and fans."
As for existing clients? They won't be left in the dark, either. "We are continuing to evaluate and explore options for HID," Rogers says. "We care about all light sources. We care about what's at cost for the owner to have light and be able to conduct sports activities at night. So we're constantly exploring. Are there other options in the metal-halide world? Clearly the core technology of LED is the bandwagon right now. There's no doubt about it. That's the market focus. We're spending a lot of R&D money figuring out solid-state lighting and what's going to happen to that in the future. But we're not turning our heads to everything else that's out there."
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Athletic Business with the title "THE SWITCH IS ON"