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Cape Hatteras Lighthouse could get a new LED light

An afternoon sun sets Cape Hatteras Light aglow on Aug. 7, 2015.

NATIONAL PARK SERVICE OUTER BANKS GROUP

By JEFF HAMPTON | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: June 16, 2018

BUXTON, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Coast Guard electrician James Harper flipped the switch on one of the most famous lights in America.

Two metal drums on each end of a platform began to turn and the bulbs inside them flashed as they do at night, beaming across the Atlantic Ocean.

The demonstration went well, but the beacon atop the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is decades old and needs constant repair. The light went dark twice this year after aging components broke down.

The Coast Guard is considering changing the bulb to the latest technology available – an LED light.

"It will cut repair costs, travel time and man hours," Harper said.

The new light would not rotate, not have moving parts, be easier to maintain and use 90 percent less electricity, he said.

The Coast Guard refitted the Cape Lookout Lighthouse further south last fall with a solar-powered LED light made by Vega Industries in New Zealand. The Hatteras light would get the same product. It looks like a stack of clear donuts standing about three feet tall, Harper said.

The light would shine 16 to 20 miles and still have the same 7.5-second flash sequence, he said.

Many LED lights have gone into lighthouses in South America, said Mark Novo, a sales representative for Sabik Marine, the parent company of Vega Industries.

Locals frown on the new lights at first then get used to the change, he said. LED lights shine immediately at 100 percent while traditional bulbs need to ramp up.

"Your eye sees an LED better," he said.

The Cape Lookout beacon does not seem as bright with the new LED bulb, but enthusiasts are grateful the old lighthouses remain working, said Cheryl Roberts, founder and former president of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society.

"I'm just glad they're keeping a light in there," Roberts said.

The Coast Guard will hold public hearings before making the change at the Hatteras light, said spokesman Nate Littlejohn. The National Park Service owns the lighthouse and the grounds around it while the Coast Guard maintains the light.

The beacon in Buxton has undergone many changes since the first tower went up in 1803. The structure was only 90 feet tall with a light powered by whale oil, according to a history by the National Park Service. Mariners complained it was weak and hard to distinguish from other lights. The original structure was increased to 150 feet and the light amplified by a Fresnel lens of 1,000 glass prisms standing 12 feet tall.

"They were an engineering marvel as well as an artistic marvel," Harper said.

The current brick lighthouse – tallest in the nation at 210 feet – went up in 1870 with a light powered by kerosene.

Lighthouse keepers carried fuel up the 269 steps along with cleaning supplies and tools every day. They rewound three 150-pound iron weights around a drum that turned the gears that rotated the 1.5-ton light assembly. It worked like a giant grandfather clock, said Chris Cabral, a supervisory park ranger who oversees the lighthouse site.

Painters braving the Outer Banks winds applied the famous black and white candy stripe paint job in 1873.

The weight system endured for more than six decades until 1934 when electricity was run to the light, according to the park history.

As the beach eroded, waves crashed against the base in the mid 1930s, causing authorities to vacate the brick tower. A steel-framed structure went up nearby and was used for 15 years until the Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt the shoreline, the Park Service history says. Vandals damaged the Fresnel lens during World War II and it was removed.

A rotating assembly similar to what is there now cranked up again in 1950 atop the brick tower.

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