Challenging weather conditions, a tight budget, a strict timeline, and unusual feats of engineering did not deter Robert Daniels of Miami-based Brilliant Lighting as he created the lighting for the Bridge of the Americas, the only bridge that spans the Panama Canal. “For 50 years, this bridge has been the only link between North and South America,” says Daniels. “Before the bridge was built in the 1950s, you had to take a ferry across the canal. The bridge was never lit before, and by the time we finished, the Canal Zone and the bridge were under Panamanian control.”

The center span of the Bridge of the Americas measures 1,200' long, large enough for the Empire State Building to pass through sideways (the entire bridge is almost 1.5 miles long). Located in the world's busiest shipping lane, dozens of cargo and cruise ships pass under the bridge daily. In height, it is equivalent to a 48-story building, dwarfing the 18-story super freighters that ply the canal.

In Panama, Daniels worked with Julio Vasquez of Concepto Brillante, a manufacturers' representative for the Cooper line of architectural lighting products. “When I first saw the bridge, Julio said, ‘There it is. You've got $60,000 to light it,’ and I said, ‘No way, Julio,’” recalls Daniels. “It is a huge, impressive bridge.” The final budget was $780,000, of which roughly $100,000 was spent on lighting fixtures, all from GE, as they could meet the short schedule and deliver on time for the 100th anniversary of the bridge.

The additional costs went toward transformers, miles of conduit and cable, lighting of the roadway, and the lighting platforms that were necessary to light the bridge, not to mention re-wiring a 50-year-old bridge (fortunately the canal zone has its own power generating system). The entire project took three years from start to finish.

One of the challenges Daniels faced was the fact that platforms and brackets could not be welded, bolted, or drilled into the existing bridge structure. Instead, 20'-long cantilevered platforms are “clamped” with giant trusses around the existing U-shaped piers that support the bridge. “Each pier was different and not symmetrical,” says Daniels. “The contractor had to piece together the structures and struts for each one. Steelworkers climbed up the bridge wearing safety harnesses.” The platforms, like arms or wings, were wrapped around the piers and welded to themselves in the back, not disturbing the original bridge structure. The fixtures, once hung, were focused via walkie-talkies.

The entire project required 30 different types of bracket arms welded onto the galvanized steel plates and clamped onto the bridge with bolts in the back. To complicate things even more, there was not a plant for galvanized steel in Panama, so the parts were made in Bogota, Colombia, and shipped to the bridge site by boat.

These lighting platforms, a first in bridge illumination, allow for long throws using narrow spot stadium luminaires with GE#MVR1500/U lamps. “Typically, you need a four-to-one ratio for the set back, which means we needed to be back 120', and the platforms take us out just 20',” Daniels points out.

Wide, fill-light floods with GE#MVR-1000/U lamps bathe the immediate area above the platforms in blue-filtered, metal halide light that is thrown almost 600' on each side of the center span and almost 400' on other spans. “Blue-filtered spots light the roadway edge at each cable support, while the cables are lit in white,” Daniels explains. The underbelly of the arch and road are illuminated with blue filtered spots, yet the filters cut out 70% of the light, requiring powerful 1500W fixtures with narrow beams to solve the throw problems.

“The blue color matches that of our sponsor, Bell South, who wanted people to identify with the company through the bridge. The blue was obtained with specially coated glass and dichroic filters from Special FX Lighting,” explains Daniels. “Our goal was to avoid hot spots, even with long 600' throws. It took a feat of engineering to create smooth lighting in a series of individual segments linked by similar light levels and colors on the face of the gray steel.” The light segues to white, as the arch-truss of the bridge gracefully ascends above the roadway. The brighter white uplight, supplied by GE#MVR400/U lamps on telescoping brackets, overpowers the diminishing blue uplight.

Since the top of the arch is visible from nearby Panama City, it is brighter than the ends of the bridge. “As the arch has to be the brightest thing, we had to put lights right up there,” Daniels says, noting that the arch goes up to 100' in the middle. “The bridge starts with each end being 40' high and builds and tapers to 100'. We considered the bridge's side faces as walls, the longest of which is 560', and needed extra fixtures to fill the length, then reach up to the top with a wider beam that fanned out. The point is we were coloring the side of the bridge with light and shaped it with optics.”

The fixtures uplighting the arch are GE Sign Lighters, aimed and positioned to work for the 100' high throws. In addition, a combination of GE#MVR175/U along the bottom chord of the trusses and GE#MVR400/U uplight the rest of the truss. “Extreme budget restrictions limited the number of fixtures that could be used, and therefore, the entire arch was not lit uniformly,” says Daniels.

“Cost efficiency was also paramount,” he insists. “Over 4,200' of the bridge on two sides, as well as the underside of the center span, were lit for less than $800,000, using powerful, yet inexpensive, GE lamps. GE Multi-vapor lamps were used throughout because of their consistent color, brightness, and longevity.” He points out that a total of 361 fixtures consume 229.8 KwD or .27W/sq. ft. and are lit from dusk until midnight everyday, representing $18,000 per year in electricity costs.

Another problem was the vibration from large trucks going over a steel bridge. To solve this, Daniels invented custom vibration dampeners that would vary with fixture loads and cantilever distances. “A dampener was placed on each bracket on the upper and lower arch area,” he explains.

Another major concern to the Panama Canal Commission and boat captains is glare. To control this, all horizontal fixtures have custom glare control with concentric ring louvers inside an asymmetric 12” long visor. “The combination cut direct visible light to a maximum 20° away from the bridge,” says Daniels. “The only direct visible glare is observed from under the bridge. Here, light spillage is less than one lux in the middle of channel.” Channel markers, 500m away, are clearly visible by ships' captains with no light spillage near them.

Winner of both the GE Edison Award of Merit and the IESNA IIDA (International Illumination Design Awards) Award of Merit this year, the lighting for the Bridge of the Americas was a difficult project with many problems to solve. Daniels notes that other bridges might require just a few basic lighting situations with complicated engineering solutions, as on many bridges the towers are symmetrical, for example, or there is easier access for fixtures to be mounted.

“The Bridge of the Americas had over 30 different lighting conditions to engineer and integrate into a single look,” explains Daniels. “We had situations for different distances of spans, truss heights, anti-glare issues for boats and cars, very limited budget, and an as-built condition where we could not use any existing structures or design the electrical and support brackets into the new construction.”

The lighting of the bridge has helped spur economic development in an area on the east side of the bridge, in Amador, near Panama City, with a Frank Gehry-designed museum, a cruise ship terminal, and an entertainment zone with performing arts center, hotels, and restaurants. Fifty thousand people attended the opening celebration, as the bridge is the largest structure in the country. “Everyone in Panama travels over this bridge at least once,” says Daniels, pointing out its importance. “There is only one Panama Canal and only one bridge.”