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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Flashlights, batteries and the quest for light.

A lit flashlightImage via Wikipedia

Original Article

Been thinking about doing this thread for a while and MIL-DOT got me into the mood with his recent flashlight thread.

So, I'm a flashaholic. No it's not what you think. A flashaholic is someone who collects, builds, modifies or simply appreciates a good flashlight. Basically we're portable, handheld lighting nerds. There are some good forums around and my favourite is CPF (Candlepowerforums).

I have around 30 in my collection that range in price from $5 to over $200. Some are insanely bright, some are insanely small, some are just there to be used and abused.

So, with that said I've got a little to say on the subject for people wanting a little advice. I'll keep this basic as there's a lot on the subject that could be said but would just confuse people.

First, not all flashlights are created equal. There are many brands out there that you might know of and think they are great, but they're not. Maglite once ruled the roost and while they still make a good product, you can buy cheaper lights that are better. I have quite a few maglites but none of them are stock and the dimmest one still puts out 400 lumens (stock about 100 lumens). They also make great self defense objects that the cops won't bust you on if you have one in the car.

In recent years there have been tremendous steps in the technological development of the LEDs (light emitting diodes) used in most flashlights and the electronics used to drive them. If you spend around $50-$60 on any of the 2AA or CR123 lights offered by quality makers (yes most of them are Chinese, but they're pretty good) you will get a light capable of emitting a stable and constant light of around 80-100 lumens for 5-6 hours on ni-mh batteries. An older style 4D incan flashlight would give the initial 80ish lumens but the batteries would be virtually flat within two-three hours, as would be the output.

When selecting a flashlight, look for something that is current regulated and will take not only alkalines, but also ni-mh and lithium primaries.

Some good brands to look at (and there are more, these are just some well trusted brands) are:

4Sevens - make a variety of small to medium sized lights that take most batteries and have stylish yet rugged design. Their Quark series is good value for money and I highly recommend them.

Fenix - also make a variety of small to medium lights, but also make several jaw dropping lumen monsters. Their TK60 is capable of 800 otf lumens for 4 hours of 4 ni-mh D's.

Jet Beam - make some seriously nice looking flashlights. They have a fairly good reputation but I don't own any myself so look at some reviews.

Zebralight - most famous for their early headlamps, now make some really nice EDC lights that have fantastic regulation that is quite astonishing. Their SC51 will put out 30 lumens off a single AA for around 9 hours.

Surefire - These are the light that really started the small, but powerful flashlight revolution. They are more expensive than the Chinese brands (duh) but the build quality and reliability are second to none.

Look, there's loads more out there so just let google be your friend, don't be offended if I missed your favourite brand.

Second, not all batteries are created equal either. Alkalines are by far the most popular but also come with a variety of flaws, not the least of which is they tend to leak after a while, ruining whatever they are in.

Alkalines...mmmm...use these for emergencies only. They will leak if left unattended, and especially in hot environments. They also don't have great energy density and are not suitable for high drain devices.

Ni-mh (nickel-metal hydride) batteries can deliver outstanding performance in high drain devices. Though not all ni-mh batteries are of the same calibre. For myself, I have found that Sanyo Eneloops are by far the best ni-mh battery made. They are LSD (low self discharge) and will store around 80% of their power after more than a year of being left unused. They are very resiliant and last and last. I've had some I charge weekly for a few years now and they still perform as good as new. Most ni-mh batteries are flat in less than six months.

Combined with a smart-charger, eneloops are a brilliant way to light up the dark and save the environment as they can be charged up to 1,000 times (1,500 for the newer ones). A smart charger will charge each cell individually and they also have a discharge function which discharges the batteries right down to erase any memory they might get. This should be done once every 20 or so charges.

Lithium batteries have a tremendous amount of energy density and are around 1/3 lighter than alkalines, they don't leak and the shelf life goes beyond a decade. These are the best choice if you want to leave a flashlight in the glovebox or kitchen drawer for that time when you really need to have a flashlight and have it work. There's nothing worse than needing something only to find it's dead. Stick to the known brands as a lot of the cheap Chinese batteries are not as well made as some of the better known brands. Buying in bulk you can get quality lithiums fairly cheap.

Lithiums batteries come in many sizes and most, but not all flashlights will accept them. Check the manufacturers warning on battery types before purchasing a flashlight.

There are also li-ion batteries that are rechargable but have to be cared for and should really be left alone unless you really learn how to use and care for them properly. They also require a different charger to that used for ni-mh.

Third, not all beams are equal. Some flashlights are designed for throw. That is, they are designed to send the light a long way, usually in a narrow angled beam. Some flashlights are designed to have a flood beam. That means they spread the light out a lot more and don't shine as far. This beam is ideal for close work and such.

Still there are some which are designed somewhere between the two. They will throw reasonably well, while also having a nice spread of light. This type of light is the most suitable for 90% of what you will use a flashlight for.

Lights that throw usually have what's called a smooth reflector, in that the surface of the reflector is a smooth mirror finish that directs the light nearly straight out the lens for maximum distance.

Lights that are floody often, but not always, have a textured refelctor, often referred to as 'orange peel' as it has a similar appearance to the skin of an orange. The textured surface scatters the light more and gives a smoother, more diffuse beam. This type of beam is usually the most pleasing to use for day to day tasks.

Modes - This should be up there with the flashlights, but it's such a vast subject I'll give it it's own little section here.

Many lights these days come with modes. That is they have more than one output changed by a variety of functions depending on how the manufacturer designed the light's switch and electronics.

Most lights with modes have a broad range of output from as low as a super low 0.2 lumens up to a whopping 2000+ lumens in some of the big hitters.

The idea is that not all outputs are suitable for all conditions. You don't want 500 lumens for reading a book while camping, you don't want 10 lumens for search and rescue. Modes also give you the opportunity to find a personal sweet spot between output and runtime. Less output = more runtime and more output = less runtime.

Some lights have very complicated UI's (user interface) that require some careful reading of the instructions and a little practice to get a good hold on how the light operates. Some of my lights my wife won't even touch because of this.

Choosing your flashlights (yes you do need more than one, two is one and one is none, blah, blah, just get more than one) is something you can do by trial and error, or go to one of the many forums on flashlights and do some reading and ask questions.

Hope this helps someone.