February, 2016
Feature
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



Flashlight Shootout 2016

RICK BUNZEL

It’s been 10 years since I did my first flashlight review, and there have been a lot of changes.

Back then, battery life on a MagCharger lasted for about one inspection, the halogen bulb was the brightest and lithium batteries were nowhere to be found. In 2016, many lights will go for numerous inspections before needing to be recharged. Today, size doesn’t equate with brightness. My brightest light in the 2012 review had a 6-inch lens and was 18 inches long. In 2016, I tested a light with a 1-inch lens that’s 4.5 inches long and put out nearly as much light and has a battery that will last for several hours.

My requirements for an inspection flashlight haven’t changed since 2012. The flashlight should be rechargeable, preferably with a 12-volt charger, have a brightness greater than 200 lumens, fit comfortably in my toolbelt and emit a neutral, light color. For this review, I was able to get LED flashlights from LED Lenser, MagLite, StreamLight and Dorcy. I requested a main working light and a pocket light. (I found that I like to carry a pocket light as a backup in case I have a problem in an attic or crawlspace. The pocket light has to be able to fit in the ruler pocket of my pants.)

Many lights I received use USB chargers. This great new feature allows charging on the go with an adaptor and a USB cable (see sidebar). One manufacturer put a battery gauge on its light. Because most of these lights have some “smarts,” it would be nice if each one had an indicator to show when there’s less than one hour of run time left.

The brightness of the 2016 lights is dramatically different and some of the lights are too powerful for interior inspection use. Most lights I reviewed use a Cree LED element, with the more powerful of these elements producing over 1,000 lumens. In the 2012 test, the brightest light produced over 1,300 lumens using five LEDs. In this test, the UltraStinger produced 1,100 lumens with a single C4 LED. In a residential inspection, you really don’t need more than 200 to 400 lumens. Beyond 400 lumens, the light washes out the objects and you lose detail. Another issue I found with lights over 500 lumens was that the lighted objects are so bright they will dilate your eyes. The exceptions are when you are in an attic, basement or crawlspace.

I used the lights on inspections to provide real-life conditions. I tried to use each light for at least two weeks. Originally, I planned to photograph the beams focused on a target (as I did with the last test), but as lights have gotten brighter, I think this is less relevant. (Note: All pricing is from Amazon and is subject to change.)

Streamlight
Strion HPL ($108; 615 maximum lumens): This light should be considered the successor to the UltraStinger as it is lighter and brighter than the original UltraStinger. This light has three modes of brightness (615, 320 and 160 lumens) and a strobe mode. The lens is not adjustable and using it at the highest setting causes a hotspot in the middle of the beam. The switch is on the butt, but I wish there was a switch behind the lens to make it easier to cycle through the brightness options. The one drawback to its small size is the reduced run time of one hour on the high setting and two hours on the medium setting. It comes with a lithium ion battery and a charging cradle that takes a 120-volt adaptor or a 12-volt plug. Like all Streamlight products, the Strion is well-constructed and heavy-duty. One drawback to this light is its short run time, but with a 12-volt charger and cradle, I would normally just park it in the cradle between inspections. I also did have a problem with the switch on the first unit, but Streamlight quickly repaired it. Streamlight products have a lifetime warranty that I have used in the past. If you have a problem, send it back and they will repair it for free in most cases.

UltraStinger LED ($119.95; 1,100 maximum lumens): This is such a bright light that, unless you get used to clicking through its brightness modes, it’s really too bright for inspection work other than in crawlspaces. At 1,100 lumens, it washes out everything and dilates your eyes. Streamlight has a programing mode (Ten-Tap) that allows you to select high/medium/low with strobe, high only (without strobe) or high/medium/low without strobe. Unfortunately, what I really would want is to start out at low power and step up through the modes. Also, I’d like the lens to focus to allow a flood beam or narrow spotlight. Without these features, the UltraStinger LED is really most useful for outdoors or in crawlspaces and attics.

SL-20 ($89.99; 350 maximum lumens): I’ve had this light for 18 months and it has been my daily inspection flashlight. Usually, I can do four to six inspections without recharging it. Its nickel-cadmium (NiCad) batteries recharge pretty fast and the cradle is superior to the Strion or the UltraStinger cradles. The SL-20 charger has a hoop that easily aligns. The body is a nylon polymer that makes it nearly indestructible. This lens is not adjustable and if I use it to add light to a picture, I have to position the beam’s hotspot out of the picture to prevent washing out detail.

Waypoint Spotlight ($111; 1,000 lumens): In the Pacific Northwest, we have a lot of crawlspaces that are tight, nasty and dark. I want a bright light so I can look into the crevices and corners. My previous crawlspace light was the Dorcy 750-lumen spotlight. It wasn’t perfect and it had a habit of not wanting to turn back on if it momentarily shut off. Streamlight’s spotlight is twice the price, so I had high expectations. The Waypoint did not let me down. It’s well-built and the features were on par with all the Streamlight products. The Waypoint was 25% brighter with a single C4 LED than the Dorcy Spotlight. The trigger will turn on momentarily or stay on constantly, and there is a separate toggle for the three brightness levels. It comes with a lithium ion battery and both 120-volt and 12-volt adapters. The run time is three hours at high power and six hours at midpower.

ClipMate USB light ($40; 70 lumens): The ClipMate did not fit into my pocket light definition, but it is a cool little work light. It’s lightweight and it can clip onto a pocket or a hat. The light is on a stalk, so it is easy to clip it and focus it on where you are working. There is a built-in USB jack, so it can plug directly into any USB port.

LED Lensers
LED Lenser P17R ($249; 400 maximum lumens): From the moment you start unboxing the P17R, you can tell it’s a quality product. It has a weight to it similar to the old MagCharger. This is the only light that has a true focusing beam. With a quick twist, this light goes from a tight focus to flood. The flood was great—it allowed me to be able to add light to broad pictures in the crawlspace and attic. The tight focus made the light seem brighter than the Strion HPL. This light also has some technology behind it. In addition to the three modes, it has a 360-degree gauge on the butt that tells you the state of the charge.

LED Lenser P5R.2 ($111; 270 maximum lumens): When it comes to pocket lights, the P5R.2 is superior to anything else out there. This R.2 version gains 70 more lumens over the previous version and it has a handy charger cradle. It is powerful enough to be your main working light and small enough to go into your ruler pocket. I carried the previous model for over two years—even sent it through the laundry numerous times—and it continued to work. Mysteriously, my P5 disappeared, eaten by either the laundry basket or the dryer. I have hopes that it will show up someday. In the meantime, the R.2 is taking its place. I love the focusing beam and the USB supermagnet charger. The only downside is that this is an expensive light if you use it only as a backup.

LED Lenser F1R ($119.85; 1,000 maximum lumens): This specialty light combines incredible output with a three-hour battery life in the form of a pocket light. When I first used it, I was blown away. LED Lenser did an incredible job building this light; however, for our purposes, it really has too much power. But for anyone who needs a tactical light, this is the product for you. It has the LED Lenser quality to match the battery and lumen output, but it has a high price tag.

Dorcy
Dorcy PowerBank ($59.99; 520 maximum lumens): At first glance, I tried to decide whether this was a pocket light or a working light, as it was only 6 inches long and has a small lens. Then I turned it on, and I found it to be really bright for its size. The light has three brightness modes, strobe and an SOS signal, plus it can act as a 2,250 milliamp battery. If you prefer to carry a flashlight on your belt ring, you should consider this light. If Dorcy could incorporate a focusing beam, this flashlight would be perfect, but as it sits, it’s a pretty nice light and a worthy consideration at this price point.

Dorcy COB Pocket Light ($10.99; 30 lumens): This inexpensive pocket light has a dim spotlight and a semibright floodlight on the side. Compared with other pocket lights, it was disappointing, but considering its low cost, it’s not too bad.

Maglite
Maglite ML125 ($79.78; 193 lumens): My first real inspection light was a MagCharger. I think I paid about $200 for it, which was a big investment at the time. It was bright, but had a short battery life. In 2012, Maglite had a single LED light, but I was hopeful that, in 2016, Maglite would re-establish itself as a major player in the professional-quality flashlight market. I asked Maglite for a rechargeable LED and got the ML125 plus several regular battery lights. My first impression of the ML125, was it this wasn’t built nearly as robustly as a MagCharger. It was small and parts of this light were plastic. When you pulled back the hood, there was a plastic focus mechanism that was different from the LED Lenser; the Maglite allows you to tune the focus of the beam and lock it in place, but not on the fly, which is a critical difference. My other complaint with this light is its claim to be “rechargeable.” Unlike all the other lights in the test, the ML125 requires battery removal for charging; you have to place the NiCad cell in a charger. The redeeming factor is the run time. On high mode, run time is 25 hours, which could last for a week of inspections. In low mode, the light is good for 72 hours. The switch is programmable, so you can select modes with the push of a button. Although this light is a good value, I would buy the Maglite RL1019 ($99.99 on Amazon), which is much brighter and has a real charging cradle.

Maglite ML300L ($56.79; 625 lumens): This light is an improvement on the first Maglite LED I saw in 2012. Its smart switch allows you to easily program modes. The ML300L has a Quick Focus, which allows you to adjust whether the beam has a hotspot or not, but I didn’t find this feature useful. This model is not rechargeable, but with the use of three D cells, battery life is 16 hours (on low power, battery life is 77 hours). I’m not a fan of disposable batteries, but with this kind of battery life, it’s worth considering.

Maglite XL200 ($33.91; 173 lumens): A great pocket light for the money, it has a smart switch that was difficult to figure out, but it goes from bright to dim and back again. Although it stated it had 173 lumens, it did not seem to be that bright. It wasn’t rechargeable, but it is supposed to run for 2.5 hours on three AAA batteries. It’s all-metal construction is very durable. For the money, I thought it was a great value for a pocket light.

The Bottom Line

All of these lights are great, but which one is best? If cost is no object, then the answer is easy: the LED Lenser P17 is the best light. I like that it can change focus on the fly, it is bright, it charges in a cradle with a USB cable and it has a gauge to tell you the battery status. However, at $250, its cost is outside of my flashlight budget.

When price is a consideration, the best light is the Streamlight Strion. It is lightweight, throws a lot of bright light for its size and sells for slightly over $100. I know that some of you are asking, “What about the UltraStinger?” Frankly, it’s too bright for interior use and there is no way to set the initial brightness to the lower levels. Both the LED Lenser P5 and the Maglite XL200 were tough competitors in the pocket light category. The LED Lenser is more expensive, but it has additional lumens and can survive the washing machine. Also, the feature that allows you the ability to focus the beam gave it an edge over the Maglite XL200 to take the win.

With only one contender in the spotlight category, the Streamlight Waypoint is still worthy of the win. For those who do crawlspaces regularly, this is a great light to have.

Rick Bunzel is the principal inspector with Pacific Crest Inspections and an ASHI Certified Inspector. He holds a B.A. in Business Marketing and has chaired the marketing and public relations committees for a national home inspection organization. He is active on the North Puget Sound Board of Realtor’s Communications Committee and is a Lieutenant with the Mt. Erie Fire Department in Anacortes, WA. Check out Rick’s website at www.paccrestinspections.com.