ROI: The Grid

For many, ceramic lighting will make dollars and sense (like a number of news outlets that would rather remain nameless); for many it will not. The hard numbers are easy to calculate, but there's also the not so easy to calculate.
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Sweating under the lights is a clichÈ of TV studio production. To create color images that look lifelike and true on camera, you have to use heat-pumping overhead spots and fills that turn your studio into an over-sized Easy-Bake Oven. Or you could use fluorescent lights, but then you trade some lighting throw control for low temperatures.

@Body:At least, that's the way it used to be until ARRI introduced its 250-watt Studio Ceramic 250 and X Ceramic 250, both of which can be deployed for overhead or portable lighting. By using Philips Ceramic ST 250 HR discharge lamps, these ceramic spots run far cooler than conventional tungsten-halogen spots, yet provide a 3200K light source that resembles the warm look of halogen illumination.

"They are sufficiently cool-running that the spots' handling points stay at room temperature," says John Gresch, vice president of ARRI's lighting division. "Should you briefly touch the spot housing by accident, you will feel intense heat, but you won't burn yourself like you would on a conventional halogen source light."

More importantly, ARRI's new 250-watt ceramic spots provide as much brightness as a conventional 1,000-watt tungsten-halogen light source. For penny-pinching operations and facility managers, this means you can get the same light intensity at a quarter of the power cost!

Are there any downsides? Of course: ARRI's new ceramic lights cost much more than their halogen equivalents. "A 1K tungsten light source with lamp costs $650 for a Fresnel studio version," Gresch says. "A comparable 250-watt ceramic fixture costs $3,250 for the Fresnel studio version." However, when you factor in reduced power costs, safer handling and the fact that ceramic lamps last eight times longer than tungsten-halogen lamps, and one can see that ceramic lighting is an idea whose time has come.

WHAT THE HECK IS A CERAMIC LAMP?

First things first: the term "ceramic lamp" doesn't mean that the lamp is made of pottery.

Instead, the Philips Ceramic ST 250 HR discharge lamp uses a ceramic material to coat the inside of the fixture, explains John Gresch. "This, plus the use of an arc light source--with a continuous spark traveling from a cathode to an anode within the lamp--is what provides cool yet intense illumination."

In contrast, a tungsten-halogen lamp uses an incandescent tungsten filament within a sealed quartz bulb that contains a trace of halogen vapor (hence the name "tungsten-halogen"). The light is produced by electricity flowing through the tungsten filament, which glows fiercely due to molecular friction. The halogen serves to slow down the evaporation of tungsten from the filament, thus resulting in longer lamp life.

The upside of a tungsten-halogen lamp is cheap bright light, but it comes at the price of intense heat generation. The excess heat is essentially wasted energy, unless you want to warm a studio using its lighting grid. This waste results in higher direct power costs for running halogen lights, plus indirect power costs to run air conditioning, plus hardware costs to buy, install and maintain A/C equipment as well.

THE AVANTAGES OF GOING CERAMIC

We've already touched on the power-saving aspects of ceramic lighting, savings that will grow as electricity rates continue to climb. As well, the fact that a $350 ceramic lamp lasts eight times as long as a $25 tungsten-halogen lamp means that the real price comparison between the two works out to $350 vs. $200; not $350 to $25.

In addition, the fact that ceramic spots run far cooler than halogen matters to anyone who has accidentally been burned by a lighting instrument, whether hung or portable, myself included! (By the way, gels last longer on ceramic spots, because they don't get as hot.)

However, there are other advantages to ceramic lighting that also make a difference, even though they're not quite as obvious.

For new studios, the reduced power demands of ceramic lighting mean that smaller production spaces can be lit using a standard 120-volt circuit. This means no heavy-duty wiring to install and maintain, no special dimming equipment to control a high-wattage lighting grid and no serious risk of fire. This last point is especially important because U.S. broadcasters are legally required to have specially-trained staff oversee conventional halogen-lit studios for safety reasons. If a small studio can be adequately lit using 120V ceramic lighting, "anyone can walk in and flip a switch to bring it to life," Gresch says.

One last benefit is that longer bulb life means less crew time spent replacing burnt-out lamps. In today's labor market, this savings is more than welcome!

CONSIDERATIONS AND CAUTIONS

Besides costing more to acquire and maintain (in terms of replacing lamps), ceramic lighting fixtures may not be a good choice for large existing studios. The reason is that you can't just pop a ceramic lamp into a tungsten-halogen housing: you have to use ballast as well. For the sake of simplicity, ARRI ceramic fixtures come with igniters and ballasts included. However, this does push up the price.

As well, if you have already invested in a high-powered lighting grid, it makes little sense to rip out your tungsten-halogen spots in favor of ceramic lighting. The exception to this rule would be if you were willing to pay money upfront today to wire in a 120V circuit for ceramic spots, in order to realize the power savings they can provide.

Finally, ARRI's current ceramic product line really only replaces 1K tungsten-halogen spots. If you are using higher-powered halogens in some areas, you won't be able to do a one-to-one swap.

STILL, CERAMIC'S ADVANTAGES PERSIST

The above concerns notwithstanding, the direct and indirect power savings offered by ARRI's ceramic lighting are too striking to be ignored. For broadcasters building new small studios, needing to light newsrooms or remote bureaus, or upgrading old ones, ceramic lighting is truly the smart, cool choice.

James Careless covers the television industry. He can be reached at jamesc@tjtdesign.com.