If It Ain't Broke Now's the Time to Fix It

Because it's so unexciting, it's just too easy to put off equipment maintenance until another day, while you Google your way around the Internet trying to find the right replacement lamp for that data projector in the boardroom. On the other hand, the kind of excitement brought about by equipment failure, particularly on-air equipment failure, is something that most of us would prefer never to experience.

The conventional wisdom in lighting is that the gear that needs the most maintenance is the equipment that's always being moved around and loaded in and out of trucks. While this equipment may take the most physical punishment in the process of being rigged, de-rigged, re-rigged and shipped about the place, it also gets the most attention.


When constantly used optics become a little grimy, there's a good chance that someone (most probably the LD) will notice and wipe over with window cleaner. If the pan, tilt or focus mechanisms become loose or jammed, someone is likely to discover this during focus and either mark the gear for later repair or solve the problem on the spot.

If, like me, you and your crews do a quick visual inspection of each piece of gear before wasting time trying to rig or focus a dud, then signs of general wear will be noticed. Problems such as aging cables, loose plugs, sloppy switches, missing color runners, jammed shutters, cracked lenses and damaged barn doors are going to be noticed and repaired before the gear is considered suitable and safe for use.

Permanent and semi-permanent rigs for regular shows such as daily news, current affairs, weather, sports hosts and talkshows tend to get set up in an initial flurry of attention. Every detail is agonized over during pilots and dry runs by a flock of finicky executive producers, clients, sponsors, media managers, agency executives, agents and network executives. Then suddenly, they all disappear, leaving the production staff to run the show forever.


In between planning other productions or working on shoots in another studio, today's duty-lighting or vision-control technician drops into the studio to check out the lighting rig. If something comes up on every fader and nothing seems to be either pointing in the wrong direction or spilling off the set, then the rig will be declared fit for use. On the rare occasion that a problem is encountered, any blown lamp is replaced, and any errant focus is remedied. Closer to air/record time, today's duty LD/vision operator rolls into the studio, calls up the show's main memories on the lighting console and gives the levels a fine tweak for the day's presenters, audience, guests and costumes.

Meanwhile, as the show grinds on, like sausages out of a machine, day-by-day and week-by-week, all the gear is imperceptibly deteriorating. In theory, such a regime should guarantee a constant high quality of production, closely matching that original adrenaline-drenched pilot. In practice, there is a range of slow, degenerative processes that affect equipment that otherwise has every appearance of working reliably forever.

No matter how good the studio's air-conditioning system, dust will accumulate on the optical surfaces of a luminaire. Add to this the various sticky vapors from floor cleaners, plastics, curing paint, cooking demonstrations, smoke and haze machines, hair spray and evaporated lubricants from the internal mechanics of the luminaire, and you have an optical coating that can reduce light output substantially, and even diffuse the otherwise crisp focus of the system optics.


There is no lamp technology in common use that doesn't drop slowly and inexorably in output throughout its operational life. Many sources also exhibit a drift in color temperature over time. In the situation where a lamp sits for years at a time, without any sudden physical or electrical changes, it can run significantly beyond its rated life.

In a rig with a mix of incandescent, fluorescent and metal halide discharge sources, there can be some bizarre changes in the balance of both levels and color temperatures once a lamp substantially exceeds its rated life.

Even the most temperature-tolerant lubricants slowly evaporate when held at high temperatures for extended periods, thus reducing the available lubrication for the occasionally moving parts of a luminaire. Throw some dust and some slightly sticky hazer/cracker/fog/smoke juice in to the mix, and you progressively increase the risk that the mechanicals will jam when next moved. This is likely to happen in an on-air rush when you refocus the luminaire to cover for another that's just given up the ghost.

Flexible, high-temperature cable is one of the great advances brought to us by the plastics revolution and certainly better in many ways than the asbestos- and glass-fiber-covered cables that preceded it. However, prolonged exposure to the heat from a high-wattage lamp and the significant UV output from a discharge lamp or a high output tungsten halogen lamp will eventually cause even these cables to become brittle. Again, this will frequently pass unnoticed in a static luminaire that is allowed to quietly degrade over many years. It may only be discovered in that moment of disorganization that arises when another piece of gear fails.

There is a clear path for avoiding the slow degeneration that brings the potential for catastrophic failure. Regular, but not necessarily frequent, preventive maintenance is neither arduous nor particularly time-consuming. Working from the expected life of your lamps, you can readily calculate when they have gone well beyond their point of economic use and schedule a few hours to go through the rig. Replacing all lamps, cleaning all optics, cleaning, lubricating and exercising all mechanicals and testing the electrical integrity of the wiring is not a big deal. Properly managed preventive maintenance reduces the likelihood of having a bad day and preserves the pristine beauty of the producer's original vision. If it ain't broke, now may be a very good time to fix it.