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Sports stadiums embrace the advantages of LED lights

NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans, has switched to LED lights this season. (Eric Kayne/Invision for NRG via AP)

For years, sports stadiums have used metal halide lights to illuminate playing surfaces. But now, arenas are turning to LED lights, which have already made inroads in everything from city street lights to Christmas lights.

When the San Francisco 49ers were investigating light options for Levi’s Stadium in 2012, LED lighting was still an uncertainty among sports teams. According to a 49ers spokesman, broadcast networks raised concerns about the readiness of LED lights for use in a major stadium. While the team looked at a few LED prototypes, it ultimately opted for the safe and traditional metal halide lights to illuminate the field.

Since then, attitudes have changed on LED lights. The NFL’s Houston Texans and Arizona Cardinals have switched to LEDs for this season.

“The payback was quite attractive in terms of the energy savings, not just for our events but in all events that happen out here,” Houston Texans president Jamey Rootes told me. “You add to it the softer benefits of the quality of the presentation on television, the quality of the presentation for the fans in the stadium, a more vibrant stadium experience.”

Rootes told me he hadn’t heard any concerns about LED lights affecting the quality of a TV broadcast. Ephesus Lighting chief technology officer Joe Casper told me a Fox broadcasting crew sent to certify his company’s work at Cardinals’ stadium described it as “the best lit stadium they’ve ever seen.”

An ESPN spokeswoman pointed out a perk of LED lights — because they don’t necessarily flicker, viewers won’t be distracted by flashing while watching slow-motion replays. And while metal halide lights need time to warm up, LEDs turn on immediately.

The Carolina Hurricanes also installed LED stadium lights this offseason, becoming the second NHL team after the Montreal Canadiens.

“These LED lights will outlast the rest of the building,” said Dave Olsen, the general manager of PNC Arena. “We’ll get a solid 20-plus years of life without having to do any maintenance to them at all. That’s the real key, I don’t have to relamp every three to five years.” He also said the clean white LED light makes for a better in-house experience given how it reflects off the white ice.

LED lights age more gracefully than metal halide lights, which take on a reddish tinge and become less bright over the years.

The lights in Houston and North Carolina have been installed by Musco, which lights 2,000 sports fields a year. It first used LED bulbs when it relit the White House in 2007.

“There’s a lot of interest. The core technology has continued to improve and the costs have come down to the point where it is becoming much more applicable today than it was even a year ago, even two years ago,” said Jeff Rogers, its vice president of developmental sales. “There’s more interest and there’s more discussion about it.”

At University of Phoenix Stadium — home to the aforementioned Arizona Cardinals — 780 metal halide light fixtures were replaced with 312 LED light fixtures, and the field is actually brighter now.

Colleges such as Arizona State and Notre Dame have also switched to LED lights on their basketball courts.

Depending on the project, the significance of energy savings will vary. In San Francisco, LED lights were used for 40 percent of lights inside and outside the stadium. A spokesman expects energy savings of 15 to 20 percent. Olsen didn’t want to quote a number on his savings in North Carolina until seeing a year of utility bills. Musco says the lights in Houston will save 60 percent over the lights they’re replacing.

Houston’s lights were installed in partnership with NRG Energy, which has installed everything from wind turbines to solar panels at other NFL stadiums, including FedEx Field. It hopes that exposure will encourage consumers to think about nontraditional energy options.

“Our message is the power to be free. People have sustainable choices that they can make that haven’t been available for them in the past,” said Sicily Dickenson, NRG Energy’s chief marketing officer.

No Major League Baseball stadiums have made the switch to LED lights yet, but Ephesus Lighting told me it’s in discussion with two teams.

Ephesus first installed LED lights in Syracuse’s War Memorial Arena in 2012. Since then, its done over 30 arenas around the country.

The majority of the company’s business is installing lights in busy and hot environments such as steel mills, paper mills and food processing plants where changing bulbs is difficult due to high ceilings and a reluctance to slow down business.