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Today's new flashlights.

Today's new flashlights

Everything's smaller these days. First stereos and TVs, now the pocket flashlight-- all have been slimmed and scaled down without loss of performance.

In fact, if you haven't shopped for a flashlight lately, you're in for a surprise. Outdoorsmen of all stripes--campers, backpackers, bikers--will be delighted by the various configurations that have evolved from the humble old two-cell.

New materials are making possible flashlights that are smaller and lighter (one weighs just half an ounce).

New chemicals in batteries keep some types working in subfreezing weather.

Better seals make some waterproof.

Updated designs offer everything from mini-headlamps for cave explorers to 6-inch fluorescents that fill a tent with diffused light to flashlights whose beams can be focused to a high-intensity spot.

Here's what's behind these developments.

The new krypton bulbs

Standard vacuum bulbs ("lamps' in the industry) are being challenged by small, high-intensity lamps filled with krypton, xenon, argon, or halogen.

Sealed under pressure, the gas allows a higher filament temperature, giving a whiter, more penetrating light and up to four times longer life. At $1 to $7 each, these lamps cost two to five times more than vacuum bulbs; like the new mini-flashlights, they're now widely available in hardware and sporting goods stores.

A choice of battery types

Three types of cells (batteries) are used in the new flashlights instead of the big, corrosion-prone carbon-zincs:

Dependable alkalines. Most of the mini-flashlights employ alkaline batteries (usually AA, sometimes the smaller AAA or N sizes). Alkalines offer much longer life than carbon-zinc cells (even the so-called heavy-duty or super cells). They're a little costlier, much less likely to leak, and the fluids are less corrosive.

Rechargeable ni-cads. Ni-cads--nickel-cadmium cells--have been around a while, but only recently in mini-lights intended primarily for outdoor use. At about $5 for the AA size, they're more expensive than alkalines, slightly cheaper than lithiums. Ni-cads maintain about 95 percent of potential brightness for almost the entire burn time, then tend to expire suddenly. Shelf life: five to seven years. Ni-cads are rechargeable, even after a year or more of nonuse. The recharging unit may be built-in or detachable. To recharge the typical ni-cad, like the light pictured on page 43 (sold by Acculux of America, Box 20095, Reno 89515), just plug it into a wall socket at home overnight; this will provide up to 4 hours of useful power. That's enough for an overnight trip, chancy for a longer outing. The recharging process can be repeated up to an astounding 1,000 times.

But if ni-cads are used for only an hour or so each time, then recharged, they develop a "set,' or memory. Micro-crystals build up and block full recharging. That's why it's best to charge ni-cads fully, drain them almost completely (as you might on a weekend backpack), then recharge.

Other ni-cad flashlights costing $25 to $40 have built-in solar cells that--given enough sunshine--will keep the battery continually charged.

Small, powerful lithium batteries. For a fraction of the weight and size of other batteries, lithium cells have equal power and last up to six times longer. Ordinarily, flashlights use two cells to generate 3 volts; with lithium cells, just one cell is needed. Other batteries begin losing power immediately; lithium cells operate at a constant output over 90 percent of their life. And they function at or near full capacity from -20| to 120|. (Other cells quit at around 20|, just when a skier or snow camper really needs them.)

You can store lithium batteries up to 10 years, about 2 years for other types.

AA, C, D, and other standard-size lithium batteries are expensive (about $6 for the small AAs) and can be hard to find; ask at backpacking and mountaineering shops. Lithium cells also come in an array of nonstandard sizes to fit the new breed of mini-flashlights; these are sold by manufacturers and distributors.

Chemicals in lithium batteries are highly reactive. You're warned not to burn, recharge, puncture, or short-circuit lithium cells, or let their chemical come in contact with water. But spent lithium batteries are inert and can be disposed of in everyday garbage without hazard.

Some experts remain dubious about recommending lithium batteries. Yet they have been used for years in digital wrist-watches, calculators, and cameras. And U.S. Army tests show that lithium batteries are far less likely to rupture, leak, or fail than alkaline batteries.

Scaled-down flashlights, new designs

You can now buy small versions of other standard flashlights: mini-fluorescents, for example, and lightweight headlamps that don't require awkward auxiliary battery packs and connecting cables.

You can choose models that cast an even glow for lighting a tent or cabin, others with a concentrated beam for guiding you along a dark trail. One model has a blinking emergency light. The removable head of the center flashlight in the big picture on page 43 doubles as a base, letting the light burn like a candle.

Durable bodies, O-rings for waterproofing, rotary switches

The newcomers are tough. Some bodies are crafted from lightweight aircraft aluminum, others from durable Lexan or ABS plastic which cannot be corroded by leaking batteries. One manufacturer guarantees his product for life against everything except "shark bite, bear attack, or children under 5.'

On certain models, tough rubber O-rings seal the point where body and head meet, providing reliable waterproofing.

Conventional switches (which can inadvertently be pushed "on' as you stow the flashlight in your pack) have given way in some models to rotary switches. You work them by rotating the head; this may take both hands, a liability in some situations.

Improved reflectors bounce back more of the light generated. Lenses of Lexan and other tough plastics have become clearer and more durable; there's even a mini-Fresnel lens (the type used in lighthouses) that creates a more penetrating light; it's in the headlamp on page 43.

Convenience features abound: magnetic bases, key-ring attachments, spare bulb storage, and accessories (colored lenses, wrist lanyards, belt holsters).

When you go shopping . . .

It's almost impossible to measure and label each battery-bulb combination in terms of candlepower, burn time, and the like. Too many variables come into play.

For example, you can't say a certain battery will last 4 hours until you define the temperature, type of bulb, and whether use is continuous or intermittent (continuous use drains a battery faster).

A practical approach is to go into a dark room, turn on the flashlights you're considering, and see how they compare.

How focused or broad is the beam? How evenly does it spread light? How far does it penetrate? Would this light get you down a dark trail? How does the flashlight feel in your hand? How easily does it switch on and off? How available are replacement batteries, bulbs, and parts?

Finally, ask how long the flashlight will last in the wild before the light goes out, the batteries need changing or recharging, the bulb needs replacing. It doesn't pay to buy the smallest mini-light on the market if it burns out quickly and leaves you right where you started: in the dark.

Photo: Sampling shows slim penlight with lifetime guarantee, key-ring light that works in extreme temperatures, durable aluminum body model, conventional light, and ni-cad light you can recharge for years. All fit comfortably in your hand

Photo: Headlamp with mini-Fresnel lens ($11) is perfect for reading in camp

Photo: Mini-cells: N and AAA alkalines, AA carbon-zinc, ni-cad, and two lithium cells twice as powerful as the others

Photo: Map-reading light ($13.50) recharges in cigarette lighter of most autos. It's not sold in stores; to mail-order, call (702) 825-4328

Photo: Flexibe-neck light ($15) clips to pocket or collar, freeing hands for household repairs or field chores
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Dec 1, 1986
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