Tips for the Choosing, Feeding, and Care of Automated Lights and Consoles

by | Jun 23, 2022 | Facilities, Lighting, Production

By Don Pugh & Robert Mokry

Automated lighting fixtures and lighting control consoles can easily become the place where the largest part of your media ministry’s lighting budget is spent every year. This article addresses how to maximize the impact of your automated lights via proper maintenance and repair, thereby significantly extending the useful life of the church’s investment in this dramatic, high impact technology.

CHOOSE WISELY

The first and best way to ensure reliability in automated and conventional lighting systems is to choose the products you purchase carefully—thoroughly evaluate the manufacturer’s reputation for reliability, warranty and ease of service. It seems like there’s always some new fixture that’s better, stronger and faster. That’s not a bad thing; sometimes they really are cheaper and better.

What qualifies professional lighting distributors is their commitment to stocking parts for imported fixtures, for example. You can read reviews in entertainment lighting trade magazines, internet discussion forums, and also ask competent lighting technicians questions such as “what fixtures break the least?” and “what products are the easiest to service and get parts for around here?”. If your church occasionally has big productions, the ability to rent additional light fixtures in your area might influence your choice.

CONSIDER PLACEMENT

PLEASE consider how your staff will access your automated lighting fixtures for maintenance—a catwalk or other investment in rigging that allows the fixtures to be lowered to the floor for service will pay for itself for years, no matter what fixtures you hang on it now (or in the future). Avoid hanging fixtures where you can’t access them. Positions that require moving pews and a man lift to access should be avoided.

Most importantly, dedicate a minimum of 5% of your fixture purchase toward spare parts—items such as fuses, motor drive chips, a spare power supply and logic board, belts, etc.—even if your fixtures are still in warranty. Automated lights are sophisticated electromechanical devices full of motors and electronics, surrounding an intense radiation source, be it a lamp or LED light engine. Though modern automated lights are pretty reliable, the Boy Scouts have a good motto: “Be prepared.”

PREPARE FOR THE UNSEEN & UNKNOWN THROUGH CLEANING

The importance of regular cleaning cannot be overemphasized, as the majority of fixtures in use today utilize cooling fans to accommodate their high power light sources, be they LED or conventional metal halide lamps. Simply put, heat is the enemy of lighting fixtures. Repeated heating and cooling is the primary cause of failure (and ultimately normal end of life) of lighting fixtures and electronics. Dirty vents, filters and fans will obstruct airflow quickly, which can lead to premature lamp and motor failures, cracked glass reflectors and lenses, and burned fans and PCB’s.

Keeping fixtures clean is not difficult, and doesn’t require expensive diagnostic/test equipment or highly trained technicians. All that is required is a consistent schedule of routine cleaning by the responsible person(s), and the discipline to see it carried out. A log chart for cleanings is a great idea for the lighting booth, accompanied by great shame and scorn from the pastor(s) and congregation for not cleaning the lights on schedule! OK, perhaps that’s a bit extreme, but a thorough cleaning every 6 months will ensure extended operation—and you’ll also discover small problems before they turn into bigger ones.

If you work in extremely dusty conditions, or around lots of fog and/or dust, you may need to clean more frequently. This is where that catwalk or moving truss comes in really handy (hint, hint). Another thing to keep in mind is that fog fluid coats optics. Using fog is important to the lighting design, but use as little as necessary (don’t just let the fog machine run) and keep foggers as far as possible from fixtures with fans running.

CLEANING HOW-TO TIPS

Here’s the down and dirty (pun intended) on how to clean your automated lights.

IMPORTANT: BEFORE CLEANING OR SERVICING ANY LIGHTING FIXTURE, DISCONNECT OR UNPLUG THE FIXTURE FROM THE POWER SOURCE. THE LAMP CIRCUIT AND OTHER SYSTEMS PRESENT POTENTIALLY LETHAL VOLTAGES. ALWAYS DISCONNECT POWER. ALWAYS DEFER HIGH VOLTAGE REPAIRS TO COMPETENT TECHNICIANS.

We prefer to use a soft, clean brush and vacuum cleaner for cleaning fixtures as opposed to compressed air, as this method removes the dirt and dust from the fixture AND the area, as opposed to just blowing the dirt somewhere else.

Don’t allow fans to spin while vacuuming—blower fans generate back-currents that can damage the PCB that powers them. Carl Zeiss (the people that make movie camera and other precision lenses) offer individual lens cleaning wipes impregnated with alcohol; they are ideal for cleaning optics, mirrors and reflectors. Avoid glass cleaners like Windex that contain ammonia; they can discolor enhanced aluminum coatings used on mirrors and gobos. 90%+ isopropyl alcohol along with a lint-free, abrasive-free cloth is the cleaning combination most recommended by lens, mirror and dichroic filter manufacturers. We like the Zeiss wipes because they are always clean every time, small and easy to keep around and are designed for use on optics.

THE IMPORTANCE OF INSPECTIONS

While cleaning your automated lights, inspect the key components inside the fixture for the following potential problems:

Lamp socket – discolored or charred lead wires, discolored metal where the lamp attaches, wear spots on the leads where they might rub against metal parts, and a lamp socket that doesn’t hold the lamp firmly are suspect. Also check where the leads plug in on the other end for the same issues.

Reflector – Aluminum reflectors can discolor with age or become scratched and dented by lamp explosions. Check glass reflectors for cracks, discoloration or peeling coatings and replace if either are discovered.

Hot mirror/heat reflector – most automated lights have a UV/IR filter right in front of the lamp that will appear to be a clear piece or pieces of glass attached to an aluminum holder. These reflectors protect the gobos, dichroic color filters, lenses and other components from intense, invisible ultraviolet and infrared radiation/heat generated by the lamp. Inspect these filters carefully for cracking of the glass and/or cracking and peeling of the reflective coating. This can be kinda tough because they are essentially “clear” to visible light, so observe them off-axis. 400W and up fixtures are more susceptible due to higher intensity lamps than 250W fixtures and below, as are older fixtures because they’ve had longer to bake the coating.  

Interlocks/thermal sensors/light sensors – many fixtures utilize safety interlocks, which are switches that interrupt the power supply in the interest of safety when a door, cover or lamp cap is removed. Thermal sensors shut down the fixture if it gets too hot (which is what will happen if you don’t clean properly!). Light sensors (notably used in the MAC2000) tell the fixture the lamp is on or off. Be sure these bits are not discolored or broken.

Ignitor/power capacitors – these will be large tubular or rectangular components. Caps and ignitors with plastic bases will sometimes snap off the base in transit—replace them. Also look for charred or discolored connections.

Stepper motors – failed stepper motors either seize up (won’t turn by hand), or burn/open up (coil winding opens or shorts to ground). Often shutter/dimmer motors fail first because the shutters/dimmers are in the beam most, absorbing heat and transferring it to the motor. Generally, check and change motors closest to the lamp (where the most heat is created). When one shutter motor fails, go on and change both. Much like auto repairs, often the primary expense/hassle is the labor to disassemble and reassemble the device. It’s a real bummer to replace one shutter motor, and then the other fails in 2 months.

Shutters/Dimmers – already mentioned above, they take a lot of abuse. Look for warping, and be sure they don’t rub against anything.

Gobo wheels – look for warping, sticking rotating gobos, cracked glass gobos and gobo holder wires sticking out.

Belts – look for cracking, stretching, discoloration or frays, especially belts near the optical path/heat. Replacement can sometimes be complicated, as many belts have tensioning devices and are incorporated into complex assemblies like color mixing. Pan/tilt and zoom/focus belts are usually easier to replace in the field.

Dichroic filters and color mix wheels – these are among the most expensive parts in the fixture. Check for cracks and rubbing. In wash lights, it’s not uncommon to see cracks in big color mix wheels. As long as glass is not dangling around (in other words, the wheel is structurally sound), the crack won’t image in the beam—washlights are very forgiving. Hard edge or profile fixtures are a different matter. They will image cracks and often they are made of thinner glass to achieve less weight/greater speed of movement/less space used. Sometimes after extremely long use, dichroic filters will fade, especially magenta. They will scratch, so be careful with metal tools.

Sensors – Automated lights must know where the “start/home position” is for every motor. Some parts “find home” mechanically; lights that “clatter” when first started utilize mechanical homing. Parts that rotate continuously or require a high precision of repeatability incorporate magnetic or optical sensors for feedback, usually located on small PCB’s right next to the wheel. Or sometimes a sprocketed wheel will be attached to the end of a motor shaft or gear, and that will be read by the sensor (pan and tilt usually). Check for wheels rubbing against the sensor itself, or for teeth missing on sprocketed wheels.

Lenses – Many lens elements in automated lights are actually multiple lenses stuck together with optical glue and will separate or discolor/yellow if overheated by failure of the hot mirror. Clean lenses carefully (vacuum big dust particles first), then drag individual wipes across lens until the last wipe yields no dust. In other words, don’t use one wipe and grind the collected dust into the lens. Zoom lenses sealed in tubes can pose special difficulties; often they require a return to the factory to be disassembled with special tools.

Iris – many professional fixtures have an iris or variable framing shutters. Sometimes an iris will stick and it won’t happen for months or years again, especially on older fixtures. Leaving the iris in the beam for extended periods (hours) is to be avoided; that’s what ages them the most.

Fans – Finally something everyone can understand. Keep ‘em clean, and don’t let them spin when vacuuming. If one fails, replace it ASAP.

Wire harnesses – look for cracks and discolored connectors (sign of lots of heat or age). Don’t jerk or move wires around unnecessarily.

Lubricants – we get asked about using lubricants in automated lights from time to time. Most lubricants will lose viscosity (melt and ooze all over) when exposed to the heat present in automated lights. High End uses a lubricant on rotating gobo wheels (Krytox) that holds up, but that is the only exception we know of. Generally, we advise against customers using lube in lights.

REPAIR TIME

When something major does go wrong with your lighting fixture or console, what are the alternatives for cost-effective repair? Some repairs are straightforward enough to be handled in the average lighting shop. However, some of the more complex components found in automated lights (primarily the printed circuit boards that drive the motors and power supply modules) do require specialized testing and diagnostic equipment along with a technician familiar with the territory. This is a significant investment that is difficult to justify for all but the largest lighting rental and sales shops. While most good lighting techs can perform minor repairs like changing a motor drive chip or optical sensor, do you really want them hacking away at a $1200 circuit board with inadequate tools and knowledge? Many modern PCB’s utilize microscopic surface-mount components that require hot-air soldering tools for proper removal and replacement. In this case, returning the PCB for service to the manufacturer or independent lighting repair center is a wise choice.

Having said that, in some cases even the fixture manufacturer will not provide repair service for “off the shelf” components they use in their products, opting to simply sell you a replacement part. This is where a company that specializes in repairing PCB’s, power supplies and complete fixtures can provide a cost-effective alternative to the sometimes limited and expensive options provided by many manufacturers. Not too surprisingly, most of the major manufacturers use some of the same components in their fixtures, as certain manufacturers of certain components are simply the best at what they do. So, the same part used in an older fixture might be exactly the same as what’s in a more recent fixture, or any of a number of modern fixtures. The bottom line is fairly analogous to the automotive industry: why buy the “factory part” from the dealership when the exact same (if not better) replacement part can be bought from a parts specialist for significantly less, and with faster service?

WHEN REPAIRS NO LONGER WORK

So, when is it time to abandon a fixture or console from a reliability standpoint?

In the event of a major failure where a fixture has sustained significant damage, used replacement fixtures can often be an excellent alternative to repairing a completely smashed fixture or console or replacing it with a new model. Using a company such as LightParts, Inc. can ensure that the replacement parts and/or repairs will be done well. These companies also sell new and refurbished manufacturer B stock lighting equipment, usually with warranty. This can help ease the mind of media ministers and pastors when it comes to service, making used equipment purchases a very cost-effective alternative to buying new fixtures and consoles for the house of worship on a budget. And who isn’t on a budget?

WHAT IS THE TRUE VALUE OF REPAIR VS. REPLACEMENT?

As automated lighting fixtures with more features and higher output lamp sources become popular, more dollars are invested. In most cases repairing a fixture or console can be accomplished for a fraction of the cost of a replacement. Multiple repairs are feasible throughout the life cycle of an individual fixture or console as well—and still at fractions of the replacement cost. When your ministry depends on maintaining a reliable lighting system, the maintenance and repair process is the way to get the most out of your sizable investment.

SUMMARY

Maximizing the impact of your moving lights in worship requires keeping them in service. Broken lights are a hassle that stand in the way of the worship experience, and getting them back into service may be more than your church’s staff and resources can handle. Companies such as LightParts Inc. that specialize in the repair of fixtures and their discrete components are a fast and cost-effective alternative to the original manufacturer for complete repair services, and purchasing replacement parts for your qualified in-house technician.

About the authors: Don Pugh and Robert Mokry are both 30+ year veterans of the entertainment lighting industry and co-owners of L LightParts Inc. in Austin, Texas.

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