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May 2010

Under the Lights

Here is the latest on lighting the slopes for night skiing and riding.

Written by Claire Walter | 0 comment

In 1936, Bousquet, Mass., became the first ski area in the country with night skiing when General Electric company in Pittsfield helped it light some slopes for night skiing. In the early days, operators tacked lights onto trees, buildings, lift towers—whatever was along the slopes. Today, like many other aspects of operations that were once seat-of-the-pants or convenient, it’s a science—and lighting designers are the scientists.

Lighting designers understand terms like foot candles, lumens per watt, forward throw, luminaire, etc., and are able to apply the science to calculate the optimum lighting for ski areas, whose special conditions of terrain variations, weather and people moving downhill fast are very different from most lighting applications. Like Baby Bear’s porridge, there is a balance between too dark and too bright, because area operators want “just right” lighting. When a new slope-lighting scheme is being planned, a soils engineer also gets into the act to assure that poles are properly anchored onto rock or into soil to withstand temperature variations, fierce winds, run-off and other unique conditions.

Lighting a slope is a challenge because a slope is not a flat, even plane. It may fall away, flatten out, curve, and have wider and narrower sections. In more than two decades of experience, Howie Lowden of Atlanta-based Athletic Lighting Company has seen it all. He was once a Hart ski rep in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions who traveled to many ski areas, where he saw good, bad, and indifferent slope lighting. Good lighting invites people to return for night skiing. Bad lighting not only can discourage them but can also be a liability issue. If someone is injured at night, cautions Lowden, “The first thing the plaintiff says is, “The lights were inadequate.’”

“You want to light downhill, and also outward from each pole,” he says. Lighting straight down from a high pole is not effective, because the white snow blends with the light, which erases all the texture from the snow and makes it feel like skiing in a whiteout. Contrast is desirable, and there are formulas for creating optimum contrast. The best position for lights is about 25 feet above the ground on a pole or other fixed object.

Just about the worst place to affix a light is what was done with early slope-lighting efforts—attaching lights to trees. Just because trees are convenient doesn’t mean they make good light stands. Trees move in the wind, and they have a tendency to, well, grow, Lowden cautions.

Slope composition, angle and climate play into the choice of poles, as does cost. That includes the pole itself plus installation. Typical pole types are fiberglass, aluminum, wood, steel and concrete.

Then, of course, the electrical contractor has to figure out the power requirements.

Lighting standards themselves have not changed much in the last 30 or so years, but issues that were unknown in the 1970s are considerations now. In the past, utility costs were not much of a concern. Now they are, as part of the entire cost/benefit picture. The good news is that night slope lighting doesn’t have to be especially bright. In fact, Lowden says that more ski areas over-light their slopes than under-light them. The brilliant, all-over illumination we see when night mogul, aerial, slalom or halfpipe competitions are televised is for the cameras, not for the skiers and riders. Less light, properly sourced, provides the best visibility.

The two most common lamps in ski-area use since the '80s are metal halide and high pressure sodium. They come from the family of HID (High Intensity Discharge) lamps that ignite a gas within a closed capsule, which ionizes to create a very bright light. Metal halide has a white cast and high pressure sodium a yellow cast. Some people prefer the whiter light, but both types serve their purpose well, with only small differences between them.

Other types of lights are less efficient. Mercury vapor lamps, an older type of HID, are one example, and should be replaced with more efficient lamp sources. The same is true for 1000- or 1500-watt quartz lights, Lowden says. A 400-watt metal halide lamp puts out the same light as a 1500-watt quartz lamp, and the halide has a much longer life expectancy—16,000 hours vs. 2,000 hours for the quartz.

Lowden believes that the most practical wiring option for ski areas is 480-volt, three-phase lighting, which incorporates a special transformer from the power company. This setup permits greater distances with a smaller conduit and conductor (copper wiring) and ultimately saves money. “Power companies don’t like to put it in,” he says, “but for the end user, it is less expensive because the meter runs more slowly.”

Meadows Goes Modern
Prior to the 2009-10 season, Oregon’s Mt. Hood Meadows retrofitted its 20-year-old lighting system. “We replaced the fixtures and the bulbs, and we’re getting more lighting at a lower cost,” says spokesman Dave Tragethon, for whom night operations are not simply part of the revenue steam but a marketing tool. By the time night-skiing operations ended after more than three and a half months (Thanksgiving to March 15), the area had logged roughly 90,000 night visitors—one-third of whom purchased a $25 night ticket. The rest of the crowd divided one-third day-ticket buyers who extended to night skiing and one-third season-pass holders. Some of these customers bought a $25 night learn-to-ski/ride package. The biggest single nights were the Mondays of MLK and Presidents’ Weekends, when 2,500 people came out for a $10 night ticket. The ticket was sold online so that the area could collect names. Last year, Tragethon said, night skiing was mentioned as much as day skiing as a reason to purchase a season pass.

Even though energy conservation has become of far greater concern than previously, the cost/benefit ratio of replacing anything but those old quartz lights is dubious. Unlike such other heavily-illuminated venues as sports stadiums, tennis courts, parking lots and car dealerships, ski areas light only some of their terrain, and for no more than three or four months a year. Most do not operate seven nights a week, and few operate all night long on a regular basis.

Lighting the Future
Will future technology cut energy costs? LED (Light Emitting Diode) lighting requires less power, but it has a long way to go to become practical for flood lighting. LEDs have fantastic potential for small applications, and they perform well in cold weather, which should prove useful in the future. But the lack of industry standards leaves room for incompatibility with future products and developments, making current investments risky.

Induction lighting has more immediate potential. It has a very long, 100,000-hour rated life, crisp white light, and instant hot and cold start-up and re-start. But it is still very expensive, with a longer payback period, according to Lowden. Still, if a ski area wants to make a green lighting statement, induction lighting would be an option. Maintenance would be very minimal.

The wild card in changing out lighting systems or installing new ones involves tax credits, which vary from state to state and from year to year. Certain types of metal halide lamps and energy-efficient lamps are eligible for rebates and tax credits—sometimes. Some of the current metal halide lamps are more efficient than the first generation models, but they cost more.

There is a growing environmental issue, though: light pollution. This is of increasing concern and impacts new night-lighting installations. The most extreme example is that of Arizona Snowbowl. When Flagstaff, Ariz., enacted its first-in-the-nation “dark skies” ordinance in 1958, it was for the benefit of astronomers and stargazers at the Lowell Observatory right in town. Years later, when Arizona Snowbowl wanted to install lights, objections came from researchers miles from the city, who worried that night skiing would impact the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer (NPOI), a joint project of the United States Naval Observatory, the Naval Research Laboratory, and Lowell Observatory. Michael Willard of Vt.-based SE Group says that Snowbowl attempted to comply with requirements, but in the end the city of Flagstaff denied terrain lighting, and the area ultimately pulled its applications.

Most objections, Willard says, are more prosaic. “There’s a lot of community push for ordinances that limit uplight,” he says. “It’s a challenge for resorts when they apply for terrain lighting.”

But the challenges can be met. One obvious solution: replace floodlights with directed “cut-off” lighting, typically used at shopping centers, parking lots, and on roadways. Options include different beam patterns (square, elliptical, forward-throw) and special lens designs that restrict the light pattern. As a result, though, these cut-off lamps will not cover as broad an area as a floodlight will. Unless designed with that in mind, the results may not meet the lighting needs.

Bottom line is, the technology works. For example, when neighbors across the valley from Wisp, Md., complained about potential light pollution, the area addressed the problem by using cut-off luminaires with lamps recessed into the fixture, Lowden says. The installation required more poles and lights, but the problem was solved.

Aside from light pollution, the issues surrounding night lighting haven’t changed a great deal, and the lighting equipment itself has become better over time. Any area that relies on night operations can be thankful for that.