North stadium light malfunctions under review

Shedding light on a failing system

Problems with the lighting system at North Stadium came to a head this autumn.

On one occasion—the Sept. 5 girls soccer game between Mahtomedi and North High—the overhead lights failed to function adequately, and the contest was discontinued after just one half of play.

The next night a mobile lighting system was brought in as “backup” in case the overhead lights went dark during the big football matchup between the Polars and Hill-Murray Pioneers.

A month later, on Oct. 15, players and fans were plunged into darkness at the North vs. East Ridge boys soccer playoff game. Action on the field was delayed until district employees were able to get the lights back on.

While players and coaches got a break to rest and review strategy, fans had ample opportunity to discuss the cause of the darkness. The rumor in the stands: bird’s nests on the huge light bulbs have shorted them out.

The answer, however, may not be that simple. The adequacy of the stadium lights has been sporadic at best this fall and has caused concern about events already scheduled for the spring sports season.

“I’m really not sure what the problem is,” said North activities director Jed Helwig in a recent interview. “I’m told it is some problem with the underground wiring.”

District staff already have to baby the system to get it to work, he said. 

“Because of possible overload on the system, each of the eight (light) towers must be turned on independently, one at a time.”

Helwig continued, “I know we have both boys and girls lacrosse games already scheduled for next spring. I hope the problem can be fixed by then.”

Underground wiring is one problem

I was told the present lighting system at Polar Field was installed just under 50 years ago in 1965.

Retired North High teacher and coach Crist Langelett recalled that originally the North St. Paul Lions Club led the charge to raise money for the lights and installed them in 1950.

Since then, the underground wiring was replaced in 1965 and the light bulb sockets have been replaced on a couple of occasions. But the towers, Langelett believes, are the original towers that lined the field.

The person who is intimately aware of the problems and will more than likely head up the effort to find a solution is Mike Boland, director of operations for health and safety maintenance for the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District.

During a phone conversation, Boland discussed the lighting troubles and the need to find a possible solution as soon as possible.

“We have done some temporary repairs, but right now we are investigating our options,” Boland stated.

As of yet no recommendations have been made to the District 622 School Board and Superintendent Patty Phillips.

Boland said multiple ground-fault problems have been occurring because the underground wiring probably did not have waterproof insulation back in 1965. Or if it did have it, it’s no longer effective.

But the problems aren’t limited to just the underground wiring, and it may take some detective work to find them.

“It is a very tedious process, because it is a multi-phased system. It is difficult to find just where the problems are,” Boland said. “We have run the numbers and know that replacement costs could be as much as $200,000. Nothing yet has been presented. We are still in the assessment stage.”

Boland shares Helwig’s anxiety about being able to light early-spring practices and games. According to the Minnesota State High School League, lacrosse practices begin March 31 and first games are played April 15.

“We got through this year,” Boland stated. “We have to get the lighting system fixed (for the 2014 events).”

The stadium lights are utilized for varsity football, boys and girls soccer, boys and girls lacrosse, and lower-level football, soccer and lacrosse, and occasional night practices.

Meanwhile, down at the Tartan field, Titan students and staff may have thought there was something wrong with their lights this recently—or at least the colors they were seeing.

The sudden surge of red on the field was the North boys soccer team getting ready for their state tournament games. The coaches and players had to practice at Tartan Stadium because of the unreliable overhead lights at the North field.

Old system is inefficient

The time may be right for a change; with today’s technology, a new, more energy-efficient system could drop the cost of operating the lights to only $6 per hour, far less than the energy costs of the old, outdated system.

The football, soccer and lacrosse activities require approximately 135 hours of usage during a school year.

At that rate it would take about 33 years to recoup the $200,000 if a whole new lighting system were installed.

But then the student athletes, coaches, visiting teams and spectators would be reasonably assured the lights would work.

It’s possible that further investigation could bring about a “patch” type solution.

Helwig and Boland recognize that whatever happens needs to take place in the near future.

Until a decision is made, any activities that take place at North Stadium are in danger of being played in the dark.

Wally Wakefield can be contacted at wwakefield@lillienews.com.

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