Now You See It

By Tom Neale, 10/15/2009


Most of us didn’t know it, but during the past two years something happened that will be very helpful and important to us all.  A standard for rating flashlights and spotlights has come into being. Why is that important?  How many times have you needed a good light and looked at the absurd claims of millions of candle power on product boxes?  So you pick out one with the most millions (and maybe the lowest cost), take it to your boat, try it out and discover that it isn’t worth squat. Sure, you can probably take it back, but that fact didn’t help a bit during the dark night docking incident when you needed it. And once you’ve taken it back, what then?  Now, thanks to some of the key players in the industry and two highly recognized and reputable organizations, much of the guess work can dim away, just like some of those “multi-million candle power” lights.

FL 1 Standard Icons

For years responsible flash/spotlight (hereafter “flashlight”) manufacturers have been concerned with the problem. It takes money to make a truly good light. But any clown can print a pretty box with wild claims to attract an uninformed buyer. I would assume the question in the minds of many manufacturers was: Do you join them or continue to make good products? Fortunately for us, many chose the latter course. Then, in late 2006, the National Electrical Manufacturer’s Association (NEMA) was approached by a representative of a battery manufacturer member who also makes flashlights with the  proposal that NEMA help in setting standards for flashlight and related products.  Clearly there was a need, from the perspective of manufacturers and their customers. The project took off and experts from various companies, many of whom were and are competitors, formed a committee to form a standard to cover “basic performance of hand-held/portable flashlights, spotlights and headlamps providing directional lighting.”  A stated goal was to not only specifically define performance criteria but also testing methods, both of which could be easily verifiable by third parties.

Standard setting can be quite difficult and it’s imperative that the standards are trusted by competitors and consumers. With this in mind, help and approval was elicited from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) http://www.ansi.org/ . NEMA Program Manager, Andrei Moldoveanu, who is experienced in NEMA and ANSI standard-setting, worked with the group. After over two years of work the ANSI/NEMA FL 1 FLASHLIGHT BASIC PERFORMANCE STANDARD was approved as an American National Standard on August 18, 2009. The standard has now been published by NEMA, which is headquartered at 1300 North 17th Street, Suite 1752 Rosslyn, Virginia 22209. It can be purchased on the website: www.nema.org .

What does this mean to us?  As boaters, we know or should know that cheap flash lights are far more than inconvenient. They can be dangerous. They can leave us stranded when we need light desperately. They can fail to illuminate targets that can hole us or indicate where we need to steer. They can dim out when we need to find and to diagnose life threatening problems in the many dark regions of a boat. They can leave us unseen as we cling to debris in the water after a catastrophe in the night. Now when we buy we will be able to look at icons on the packaging that tell us how well the product performs in different areas.  And the information is based not on wild marketing claims but on objective criteria and testing procedures, recognized by NEMA, ANSI and various responsible members of the industry.

If we wish to buy lights that are rated by these standards we should look for packaging with icons that are stamped with the logo: FL1 Standard.  The icons will have units of value (referred to as “metrics”) indicating ratings specific to that product.  There are six categories:  Beam Distance, Light Output (measured in Lumens), Impact Resistance, Run Time, Enclosure Rating (Water Resistant, Waterproof or Submersible), and Peak Beam Intensity (measured in Candela or cd).

Most of these ratings are obvious but some may not be. For example, Peak Beam Intensity is the maximum luminous intensity, the value of which does not change with distance from the flashlight, and it is expressed in units of Candela. Beam Distance involves how far the beam will project onto a designated surface.

Mr. Peter Nario-Redmond from one of the major battery manufacturers involved was chairman of the Committee.  He points out that when you shop for a light you should consider your anticipated needs and look for characteristics that best suit those needs. And, he notes, that, like buying a car, you may want a light with various combinations of qualities that would best suit you.  For example, if you want a dedicated spotlight, you would pay particular attention to the Beam Distance rating.  If you want a flashlight to illuminate close in work in the engine room, you might pay particular attention to Light Output.  If the purpose of light is primarily to allow you to be seen, you might pay particular attention to the Run Time and Peak Beam Intensity rating. For use on a boat, you may want the Impact Resistance rating to be higher than that you’d need for use in a house.  The Enclosure Ratings are also of great concern to boaters. And, obviously, some ratings are irrelevant for some products.

The companies that gave of their time and expertise to do this were Dorcy International, Princeton Tec, Coast, Surefire, LLC, Golight, Petzl, The Brinkman Corporation, Energizer Holdings, ASP Inc., Streamlight Inc., Cat Eye Co. Inc., Black Diamond, The Coleman Company Inc., and Duracell, Inc.  I assume that we should be seeing these logos which are relevant to their products on their packaging. But a question leaps to mind: Why are not all manufacturers involved? In my opinion, some aren’t involved simply because their products don’t stand a chance of comparing favorably with competitors when objective standards and testing methods, scientifically formulated, are used. Normally I wouldn’t buy their products anyway, because of the nature of the claims I see on the packaging, the obviously poor quality of the product upon inspection, and because of past experience.


Tom’s Tips About Flashlight Buying

1. Even some good lights may, particularly if used in the marine environment, suffer from internal contact corrosion or intermittent contact failure.

Click Here for More Tips

Compliance with these standards is voluntary.  And compliance with the standards isn’t a certification, wherein an independent third party such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL) has evaluated the product. But compliance with these standards should mean that the company has tested its product according to the specifically defined methodology in the standards and is reporting the results using the specifically defined units of value. It should also mean that false and misleading advertising could be readily proven should that occur. I notice that there are some companies which aren’t members of this group have and do produce good products. While I will first look for products with the FL1 Standard rating logo, I won’t necessarily always preclude a product from consideration if it has been made by a manufacturer long known to me and which has consistently produced good lights, honestly represented.

Boating and water sports involve risk.  Any comments herein should be followed at your own risk.  You assume all responsibility for risk or injury to yourself or others.  Any person or entity that uses this information in any way, as a condition of that use, agrees to waive and does waive and also hold authors harmless from any and all claims which may arise from or be related to that use.