Seeing the Light

A combination of natural light and savvy fixture selection can keep your facility bright, safe, and cheerful, without breaking your budget.

A combination of natural light and savvy fixture selection can keep your facility bright, safe, and cheerful, without breaking your budget. Be sure to check out the photo gallery.

It never fails. You hear an odd noise coming from the barn in the wee hours. You stumble out to investigate, tripping over the hose in the driveway that you were too busy to put away that day. You finally make it to the dark barn, hoping that the big hairy spider you saw earlier isn’t lurking behind the switch as you grope for the light.

Fortunately, there are many lighting solutions available that can help make this scenario a part of your past. Here are some basics that will help ensure the safety and comfort of your farm for horses and humans alike.

1. Go Natural as Much as Possible

The best and most economical barn lighting is natural sunlight. Sunlight also helps kill mold, mildew, bacteria, and viruses. John Blackburn of Blackburn Architects is so committed to these advantages that he approaches every new project from the perspective of using as much natural light as possible. Features he uses to flood his barns with natural light include:

  • Skylights. Continuous ridge skylights can be used to facilitate ventilation.
  • Dormers or cupolas. Cupolas are not the best source of natural light but they enhance appearance and ventilation and allow some light to enter the loft.
  • Clerestory (also spelled as clearstory) windows. These are high windows above eye level that allow light and ventilation. You see these in monitor barns that have a central raised roof.
  • Transom windows above the doors and below the roof eave.

It is more difficult to retrofit an old barn with these features to allow natural light to penetrate the interior, but it is not impossible. “The biggest problem with old barns, “ John notes, “is the hayloft, which will typically block any natural light from reaching the lower levels of the barn.”

2. Safety is Key

Naturally, safety is a leading consideration when lighting your barn and property. Blackburn offers these pointers:

  • Put all wiring in a metal conduit. Rodents can gnaw through plastic wiring.
  • Ceiling light fixtures in areas open to horses must be at least 12 feet above the horse.
  • Cobwebs, bird nests, and dust accumulation on hot light fixtures are a leading cause of barn fires. Therefore, lights should be contained in a housing that prevents or limits contact between the bulb and flammables, or the fixtures mounted in a way that permits easy cleaning.
  • Light switches and outlets—especially those located in dusty areas like lofts—should have explosion-proof junction boxes.
  • Cover glass bulbs with a plastic or shatterproof lens. A cage is better than nothing, but will not contain shards of glass in the event of bulb explosion or breakage.
  • Make sure lights in wash stall areas are waterproof, and have rust and corrosion-free gaskets.

It is not a bad idea to check with your local building code about lighting and electrical requirements. However, Blackburn points out that many towns consider private equestrian facilities as an “agricultural use,” and therefore exempt them from codes. This might not be the case for barns being built or renovated in suburban areas or for public use. Blackburn also notes a growing energy-conservation trend where some towns are limiting the amount of lighting in an area. This can be especially challenging when lighting a large indoor arena that has a high ceiling.

3. Consider the Choices

The type of light fixture selected for a specific area of the facility (wash stall, aisle, arena, paddock, etc) depends on the location, size, and function of the area, as well as the amount of light needed. In a riding arena, you also need to consider the lighting in terms of foot candles. For most arenas, 18 to 40 foot candles of light is sufficient although some public facilities may specify that they want 35 to 50 foot candles of light at riding level. Blackburn points out, “Now, especially in arenas, we also have to consider glare, the color of the interior, the ceiling height, and whether the arena will be used for any other functions, such as parties or horse shows” he explains. “It can get pretty complicated.”

Blackburn points out that lighting choices are changing with advancing technologies. “Even so, the choice of lighting often comes down to these factors: purchase and installation costs, type, sustainability, operating/maintenance costs, and function—task, mood, security, event, or accent,” he comments.

The most common types of lighting currently used in barns are incandescent, halogen, fluorescent, and high-intensity discharge or HID (mercury vapor, metal halide, high- and low-pressure sodium) lights. Ron Tracy of Orion Lighting offers his thoughts. “Fluorescent technology is safe, efficient, reliable, and most adaptable to agricultural use. We recommend them for stalls, wash stalls, and aisles. High bay fluorescent fixtures can light an indoor arena at about half the cost of HID fixtures, and they produce no shadows or glare. Plus, they light instantly and produce daylight-quality illumination,” he points out. “Metal halide and HID lights are medium-efficiency. They take about 3 to 6 minutes to fully light, and tend to generate shadows if not carefully installed. They can be expensive to run, also. Halogens should primarily be reserved for outdoor use because they burn so hot.” Keep in mind that fluorescents can be slow to achieve full brightness in very cold temperatures, so be sure to have high-output fluorescent fixtures or tubes with electronic ballast that is rated to work in your climate. Both Blackburn and Tracy agree that incandescent lights are the least desirable option, as they consume the most electricity, generate the most heat, and are least safe in a dusty environment.

For doorway or exterior applications, consider solar light fixtures. Some of these come with a sensor, separated from the light by a cord. The sensor is placed in a sunny location to charge and the light can be placed wherever it is needed. The sensor can operate the light for several days without sunshine.

4. Positions, Please

Proper placement of your lighting fixtures is essential for safety and maximum comfortable use. For the inside of stalls and wash stalls, Blackburn recommends 4-foot long fluorescent tubes or compact fluorescent lights with appropriate ballast on at least two sides of the stall. Orion designs fixtures to be positioned at a 45° angle along the ceiling of groom and wash stall areas, to help the light be directed onto the horse’s legs. Lights can also be placed at a lower level or on a swing-out arm in these areas, for added leg visibility. Just be extra careful that the lights are protected with a shatterproof covering. For aisles, compact fluorescent high-hat lights are an unobtrusive option.

For operating indoor arena lights, a common temptation is to just operate every other row of fixtures. However, this creates shadows. There are several alternative options that avoid the problem of shadows, while saving energy and money. One option is to wire the lights in zones according to how you use the indoor. For instance, if you find that you often use only half the indoor at a time, zone the structure so that you can light the half you’re using. The other option is controlled switching. This involves wiring the fixtures so you can control the number of lamps that are lit on each fixture (typically, people will use half the lights—ie, 4 on an 8-light fixture, 3 on a 6-light fixture, and so forth). This approach can only be used with lights that have dual ballasts (currently-made arena fluorescents all have dual ballasts so this is not an issue for new structures).

5. Research Your Options, and Sidestep Common Mistakes

Choose a safe, efficient, reliable fixture. Ron Tracy advises, “Look to the future and choose the most efficient and reliable commercial-grade fixture you can afford.” Tracy offers these other suggestions:

  • Avoid the temptation to buy inexpensive retail-grade fixtures instead of commercial- and agricultural-grade fixtures. Ron points out that quality agricultural grade lights will feature polycarbonate or aluminum rust-proof enclosures that protect components from dust and moisture. They also burn cool to minimize fire hazard, and have high-efficiency, instant-on ballasts (the ballasts on Orion’s agricultural grade fixtures, for instance, function at -22° F to prevent the fluorescent lights from failing in cold temperatures).
  • Whenever possible, stay away from fixtures that use incandescent bulbs, halogen floodlights, or other hot-burning floodlights.
  • Ask the lighting supplier about long-term costs of operation. Some fixtures might cost more up front, but pay for themselves over time.
  • Consider whether the components of the fixture—bulbs, baffles, gaskets, housing, and mounting hardware—are replaceable. With some fixtures, they are; with others, they aren’t and you need to repurchase an entire unit when one component gives out.
  • Check on the warranty, which varies with manufacturer. Orion lights, for instance come with a two- to five-year warranty. Others might offer less lengthy assurance.

We are often in the dark about a lot of things that we can’t plan or foresee. However, with a little advance planning and research, the lighting around your barn doesn’t have to be one of them.

For more information, check out:

Blackburn Architects—

Orion Lighting—






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