Toward a "redneck" high-efficiency outdoor lighting solution

One problem that arises at some events is how to light some of its areas at night if the location doesn't already have its own lighting installed. The challenge is to do it on the cheap, and in a sufficiently efficient way to not need a whole lot of power behind it either. A prime example of how not to accomplish this is the approach traditionally taken by some local folks to get some additional light for a haunted playground event they put together every October, done in a park that's basically dark at night. In the past they've lofted pairs of those typical 500W halogen worklights into the air, and then wondered why they kept blowing circuit breakers. Clearly, some lower-demand solution to produce a lot of lumens for a little power was needed, and I offered to try and poke around and work on that after seeing all the problems in the first year of my own involvement.

Lashing pairs of worklights to a pole with bungee cords is pretty redneck to begin with; I figured anything I could come up with could be similarly meatball-theatre grade as long as it would work, not present an electrical hazard, and not drop onto someone's head mid-party. Fortunately, this little headscratcher came up at a time when developments in the field of energy-efficient lighting were really taking off and lots of new and interesting products were hitting the market and becoming more affordable.

After screwing around, so to speak, with some 42-watt bulbs which seemed to be the biggest ones I could find, I ran across these monsters in a Home Depot one day [in the outdoor lighting section, next to all the big metal-halide and sodium lamps] and was pleasantly astounded that such a high-power unit had become available. They're made by TCPi, who amusingly refers to them as "spring lamps". (TCPi also makes the Ecosmart line, which later versions of the same lamps are marketed under.) 68 watts native for this one, supposedly producing a 300W equivalent incandescent output at 4200 lumens. Here's the CFL to make up for any and all personal inadequacies! Even if it wasn't rated at 500W equivalent output, maybe it would be close enough for the purpose.

One of the first things I noticed was the aluminum plate covering the top surface of the ballast, serving as a heat-sink for the electronics without leaving lots of air-vent holes through the enclosure. While not claimed to be waterproof, they are somewhat weather-resistant and suitable for semi-outdoor environments especially in temporary setups.

I proved this later in the year by using a couple of them and some smaller units to light a parking area at another event, during which there was a bit of rain and these things kept on working without incident. [Fresh rainwater isn't all that conductive anyway, so wet electrics in the air aren't so likely to short out.]

So for the haunted-park event the next year, I began building up a larger collection and mating them with the cheap "brooder" lights which are the oversize version of the typical clip-on lights found near the same section as extension cords. These have high-temp ceramic sockets as they're designed to take 250 - 300W incandescent lamps for the *purpose* of keeping things such as newly-hatched chicks warm, but they'd do for my purpose and for the most part, come with larger heavier-duty clamps than the smaller types and include a couple of protective hoops one can install on the front of the bowl. These also have the largest reflector size available. The TCPi spirals are still way too big to sit at the sweet spot of the reflector but at least it helps get most of the light going in the right direction. A 180-degree or more spread isn't a bad thing when one just wants to get lots of light into a big area.

[The chart behind everything here is Apollo's gobo selection poster.]

Over a relatively short time I have watched the quality of these inexpensive clamp-on light fixtures degrade to almost ridiculous levels. The reflectors used to have some actual substance and in the smaller sizes, actually threaded onto the lamp socket in a nice tight-fitting fashion. And the ball joints for the clamp used to really be that, a knurled *ball* that would actually hold its position fairly well when clamped down with the nice easily-handled wingnut. The parts of the clip that go around the socket were also lined with pieces of foam tape to buffer the grip against the socket shroud for less risk of cracking it.

Now, all that's gone the way of any other pride in workmanship we had left. The bowls are basically tinfoil and often come conveniently pre-dented from the hardware store as it's almost impossible to avoid during ordinary handling, and barely hang on to the socket by about two threads' worth and feel like they're going to strip off any minute. The clamp ball-joint is now more like a badly knurled cylinder, severely limiting the positions in which it will actually *hold*. The newer wingnuts are tiny and hard to adjust, and the often misshapen and badly holepunched socket clip pieces bite down on the socket with bare steel. One guess as to where all this crap is made. Perhaps it's all always been made there, but the QC that the companies importing this stuff require has gone completely down the toilet. All in the interest of buying for three cents less than the other guy. I really have to wonder if they eat their own dog food and actually *use* this garbage over there in Ching-Zang province or wherever the sweatshops are, or just feed it all to the dumbass americans in the hope that more of us slaves to wal-mart will kill ourselves on it.

Thus, a bunch of fixup in the fixtures of all sizes has been necessary, in the hope of still getting the best out of them. A bit of anti-seize on the clamp screws and wingnut bearing surfaces helps quite a bit, and most of the socket clips are lined with little strips of gaff tape for a nicer grip. The electrical connections all get opened up and checked/tightened/trimmed as needed, and all the stupid lawyer-fodder "you will die if you use this" labels taped around the power cords swapped out for bits of tie-line to wrap things up neatly when packing the lights away.

The big "brooder" lights need an additional bit of work to adapt to the large round ballast bases of the 68W bulbs -- a slight reforming of the bowl down near the center, to better conform to the shape. Otherwise the ballast bottoms out against the bowl before the center electrode connects in the socket! This is facilitated by placing the bowl down over a wine bottle of about the right shape at its shoulders, and pressing down in a series of sharp pulses around a larger circumference with the inner hole in a roll of gaff tape. The bowl metal can be expanded just enough to fit the TCPi ballast with just a little clearance once the bulb is fully screwed in. This is about the only positive about the thinner-gauge sheet stock. It's still kind of a pain in the ass to do and I'm hoping the clip-light makers will start reshaping the reflectors to be generally more compatible with CFL bases which many of them are currently not. I poked at least one supplier about this on the phone, pointing out that even the smaller fixtures have trouble accepting many of the higher-wattage lamp bases.

While TCPi seems to have a pretty good product out [despite a similar issue with manufacturing location, they at least seem to keep a tight leash on their quality], now there are some other companies also trying to get into the high-power CFL market. And failing miserably. I picked up one of a different brand to check out for the purpose, and not only did it not work when I got it home, I could tell it was total crap. Upon calling the 800 number on the side and being given an email address to send suggestions to I wrote to the company, Feit Electric, whose detritus is all over the CFL market at the big-box stores in general, and basically told them flat-out how and why their lamps suck. I also posted the essence of that rant over at Priuschat in a thread where various folks have been discussing energy-efficient lighting. You can see more of the ongoing CFL conversation by moving around in the postings. Nobody else really seems to like Feit either.
By chance I also picked up a candidate from Sylvania, which does work and has a completely different color temperature and spends a while glowing an interesting pale green in the dark after it's turned off. But its base is also full of ventilation holes. It became a fifth large-size unit after being mated up with the *last* brooder light I could find in stock at the nearby HD -- and I had to scrounge around some torn-apart boxes for all the parts of that one to make sure I actually bought the whole package. Another problem with these sketchy supply-lines is that the stock turns over and changes rapidly and at the same time, ongoing quality shortcuts are being made at the source so honestly, you can wind up with noticeably different versions of the same thing just by buying more a week or two later. That's *insane*, and all because some beancounters in Atlanta were trying to save a couple of cents per unit instead of actually giving a crap what the customers are taking home. If they arbitrarily decide next week that they aren't going to buy these brooder lights anymore, then that's it, the stores don't get 'em.

Another interesting and even more recent twist is the appearance of truly outdoor-intended fluorescent fixtures on the market, even going as high as 100W native. These are a little different and modeled on other types of high-efficiency outdoor lighting, usually with the ballast contained in the fixture itself and the lamp being just that, a lamp. The lamps often have oddball custom connectors, such as mogul bases or two- and four-pin plugs. The housings of these *claim* to be waterproof and are intended for permanent mounting to walls via standard electrical fittings. They're possibly a step down from the industrial halide and sodium lights, geared toward smaller installations, but are still much more efficient than any incandescent and produce a better overall spectrum that can even deliver better night-time visibility. One advantage to lower-power lights is that they can be fully enclosed without ventilation holes and still radiate away what little heat they produce, helping keep moisture and insects out of the works.

As part of the ongoing experiment I got two of these, different types, one of which is a 100W unit [I couldn't resist trying it after finding one of that power] and the other is 65. They are big and klunky and need to be mounted somehow, so I figured the two of them roughly in balance could substitute for one of the worklight pairs if suitably rigged to go up in the air.
This, then is the "thereIfixedit"-grade lashup for the two outdoor-rated units. The intent is that the PVC drops into the top of one of the vertical pipes used by the haunt-group and simply gets plugged in. Both units have daylight-shutoff photocells on the side, now taped over to make them just go on any time power is applied.

This is a more expensive part of the experiment, and I'm not entirely happy with it -- not so much from its redneck-kludge aspect, but just from various design issues in the units themselves. The gray 100W one, part of the "fluorex" line from Lightsofamerica, is an all-plastic housing which goes together *very* poorly and the clear cover was almost impossible to get mounted right with its silly undersized self-tapping screws. The brown one, from Utilitech and imported by some outfit in Bellevue WA, is a somewhat better [albeit heavier!] metal and glass-faced housing that unclips and swings open but the fitting to attach it to an electrical box is total garbage. The conduit-threaded bit that's supposed to hold the stem securely into a knock-out hole is very poorly cast and undersize, and I had to hunt around through several drawers to find a backing nut that's also suitably undersize to make it feel a little more like it isn't going to strip and fall out in the next breeze. And it's got a tiny little bolt at the pivot point, barely able to hold the joint together and locked to point in a consistent direction. I drilled a small hole through the back of the actual unit housing and safety-wired it past the entire attachment fitting into my well-mounted electrical box just in case.

So neither of them are particularly well put together but for 40 or 50 bucks I guess we can't have everything. The weight difference and mismatched mounting methods are one reason the PVC tube mounting point is offset along the 2x4, but then it also needs a crazy angle to avoid hitting the side of the brown unit at the angle it needs to be set at. Blech. It was a quick and dirty.

There are a few construction-site-style CF worklights being marketed at this point, but are still quite a bit more expensive than their halogen equivalents and I haven't seen any over 65 watts native yet. But the fact that LoA went as high as 100 is promising, and that's probably not near the limit of the technology. These "bare" units are still cheaper because they don't come with a tripod stand and wiring and all that. I just wish they'd quit labeling the bulb packages most prominently with the supposed "equivalent" wattage and stick with the real rating, but I guess the public has to go through a training period to get used to what the lower real wattages of these things actually produce. They all at least have lumen ratings which is a more instructive way to compare. The gray LoA unit claims to produce a *thousand* watts equivalent light output, but they qualify that based on "scotopic lumens", i.e. taking CRI and human eye response into account. I doubt it's anywhere that high even effectively, but whatever. Both outdoor units do have a rather high color temperature in the 6000-some K range, producing a chilly bluish light as opposed to the 2700K spiral-bulbs which are closer to "long-life" or "soft white" incandescent [aka underpowered, not at full white] quality.

Whether it's outdoor fixture lamps or any size of spiral bulb, fluorescent output spectra are in fact all over the place these days. We now see them with warm, cool, and pink casts and often a mix in the same installation. The listed color temps are a best overall guess, as many fluorescents still emit a fairly strong yellow-green peak that shows up really ugly on digital cameras no matter what you do with the white-balance and in real life they're still fairly unflattering on flesh. In occasional discussions about the unsuitability of most CFLs for stage lighting duty we've found agreement that the output spectra and non-dimmability are the most likely showstoppers.

However, while playing around on the living room floor with my cold outdoor fixtures and warm spiral-bulbs and a light meter, I observed something interesting. Consider this, shot with regular "tungsten" white-balance like you might expect to at most theatrical events.

Recognize how the hand shadows look? Seen that someplace else, such as on the cyc at one of the shows done at local conventions? That's a typical warm/cool split often used in theatrical lighting design, and it's straight from one of the TCP spirals and the grey-case LoA fixture. And the overall fleshtone of the hand isn't too bad. So it's starting to occur to me that with proper lamp selection, maybe a little color-correction filter to knock off some of the ugly peaks and a *mechanical* dimming flag mechanism such as found in any discharge-based fixture like a modern moving light whose actual light source remains on regardless, some form of high-efficiency wash lighting may be closer to achievable reality than we think.

So my little "army of darkness" continues to grow, and is pretty much ready to go for this year's haunt. The as-built rig may wind up being a mix of the old stuff and what I supply, but we'll still use far less power overall.

I've found it convenient to take a Sharpie and mark all the [real!] wattages on the bulb bases in a nice big readable way, to aid in fast selection out of a pile and to see what power is loaded into a fixture without unscrewing the lamp. Size is only a rough guide, and even some different brands rated at the same input power have different lumen outputs and spectra. As seen right here in the greenish look of the wood, in fact, and that's *after* being corrected a bit in post.

And before anyone asks, no existing LED based unit is equally able to handle these high-output, broad-coverage situations yet. Not at the available technology level and certainly not at prices accessible to mere mortals. Industrial streetlamp modules are available by now but cost over $200 each, not exactly what we rednecks are looking for. At the higher power ranges I believe that compact-fluorescent is still doing a little better in terms of lumens per watt and almost certainly in terms of spectral breadth. I'm confident that LEDs will get there eventually, but some of us need to light stuff in the meantime.

Miscellaneous links

Disastrous "normal" failures: inferior parts cause burning ballasts
CFLs vs. incandescent [and many other light sources as well]
CFL brand comparison and other discussion

_H* 091002, updated 140924