Landmark Niagara Falls gets dynamic RGBW LED lighting upgrade (UPDATED)

Dec. 12, 2016
An SSL projector system can now dynamically bathe both the Canadian Horseshoe Falls and the American Falls in colored light on the Niagara River.

An SSL projector system can now dynamically bathe both the Canadian Horseshoe Falls and the American Falls in colored light on the Niagara River.

The Niagara Falls Illumination Board has unveiled a new LED-based dynamic lighting system using red, green, blue, and white (RGBW) luminaires or projectors that makes the famed falls even more spectacular at night. The twin cities of Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada and Niagara Falls, NY collaborated on the $4 million solid-state lighting (SSL) project that was undertaken by a consortium of lighting specialist and contracting firms including Ecco Electric Ltd, Salex Inc, Mulvey & Banani Lighting Inc, Sceneworks, and Stanley Electric. See a video of the falls here.

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"The newly enhanced nightly illumination of Niagara Falls will capture the imagination of the millions of visitors who come to witness the sheer power and beauty that is Niagara," stated Mark Thomas, chair of the Niagara Falls Illumination Board. "We are very fortunate to have community stakeholders on both sides of the border who have supported our vision and this project from the very start. These enhancements will help us to create an overall guest experience that will continue to shine a positive light on Niagara for people from throughout the world."

The Niagara Falls were previously lit by xenon sources with the light projected from the Illumination Tower located in Queen Victoria Park on the Canadian side of the river, near the Victoria Place entertainment venue and stage. There were also a few fixtures in a bunker in the river gorge used to illuminate one side of the American Falls. That system had been in place for some 20 years.

Newly installed LED-based outdoor SSL at Niagara Falls illuminates with dynamically controlled color schemes while saving 60% on energy consumption over the previous xenon installation.

The Illumination Board issued an RFP back in 2014 globally, seeking suppliers that could replace the 21 fixtures in the existing system on a one-for-one basis and increase the white-light level on the falls from 5 fc to 2–3 times that level. At least 30 companies/teams responded initially and seven moved to a finalist stage before the winners were selected.

Salex president Nick Puopolo led the process of retrofitting the system with LED lighting, bringing a proposal to the Niagara Falls Illumination Board along with Ecco Electric and ultimately participating in bringing the idea to fruition. Salex is a lighting and controls sales agency and Ecco is an electrical contractor.

The winning team had gone to great lengths to study the problem. The distance from the Illumination Tower to the two spans of falls was in the range of 2000 ft. So Salex began the process of using computer simulations and actual tests of LED luminaires in lockstep to find a way to control a beam and deliver the desired light levels.

The company had become acquainted with Japanese manufacturer Stanley Electric that had developed a unique luminaire with narrow-beam optics, although the product had not been installed in actual projects. Stanley had developed LED and optics technology as a leading Japanese supplier of automotive headlamps and taillights. Through simulations and nighttime tests across a lake and down an airport runway, the team confirmed that the 2–3˚ beam would deliver the light across the requisite distance. And ultimately a prototype and a test at the falls proved the concept capable.

The new system is installed in three places with the bulk of the luminaires in the existing Illumination Tower. There are also three luminaires in a new bunker near the American Falls. And the project includes for the first time the ability to fully light the Horseshoe Falls with luminaires installed atop the Table Rock Centre directly adjacent to the falls on the Canadian side. Previously, the mist generated in the middle of the U-shaped falls had prevented light from reaching the back of the horseshoe. The new location for the luminaires solved the problem.

The Stanley luminaire design is square with each luminaire integrating nine individually-controllable LED modules. In total there are 1400 modules and 350 zones of control whereas the older system had just the 21 zones or one per fixture. The granularity added an incredible gradient effect to the system.

Indeed, the team used the examples of sunset light on the falls to explain the project. The light effects must be different in the lower, middle, and upper areas of each small lateral section of the falls. Salex said the RGBW system can deliver more than 18,000 different color combinations with even illumination and gradients where required.

"The RFP did not require us to do what we did," said Puopolo from Salex. But the team all realized that they were working on a legacy project at what is often called the 8th Wonder of the World. Puopolo said it was unanimous among the team that the lighting accomplish more as long as they could at least break even on the project, and he added, "The more pixels the better the show."

The SSL retrofit project was intended both to enhance the falls experience for visitors and to deliver the energy efficiency and longevity associated with LED lighting. Salex said the outdoor SSL system delivers light levels that are 4–14 times brighter than the xenon lighting depending on the colors being projected. Moreover, Salex said uniformity was much improved with light now filling gaps in the coverage of the prior system, while the new lighting also delivers a "crisper visual image of the waterfalls."

The LED system reduced energy consumption by 60% relative to the xenon lighting. And the consortium of companies behind the project designed it to operate relatively maintenance-free for 25 years.

We regularly cover LED installations at iconic locations around the world. For example, we recently covered the LED lighting installed at St Peter's Square in Vatican City. And some of the projects have been in nature such as the relighting of the Saalfeld Fairy Grottoes in Thüringen, Germany. But the Niagara Falls project may be the most impressive use of LEDs to date in a natural setting such as the one on the Niagara River.

*Editor's note: Updated on Jan. 19, 2017 with additional system information and video.

About the Author

Maury Wright | Editor in Chief

Maury Wright is an electronics engineer turned technology journalist, who has focused specifically on the LED & Lighting industry for the past decade. Wright first wrote for LEDs Magazine as a contractor in 2010, and took over as Editor-in-Chief in 2012. He has broad experience in technology areas ranging from microprocessors to digital media to wireless networks that he gained over 30 years in the trade press. Wright has experience running global editorial operations, such as during his tenure as worldwide editorial director of EDN Magazine, and has been instrumental in launching publication websites going back to the earliest days of the Internet. Wright has won numerous industry awards, including multiple ASBPE national awards for B2B journalism excellence, and has received finalist recognition for LEDs Magazine in the FOLIO Eddie Awards. He received a BS in electrical engineering from Auburn University.