Finding that perfect flashlight is not as easy as it may seem. The options are seemingly endless. So, how do some of the most popular models compare? One way to explain the differences is to tell you about my own search for the perfect flashlight.
Before I began my home inspection business in 2003, I had the privilege of attending the ITA school in Manassas, Va. Mike Casey was our instructor, and we got to ask lots of questions about tools. At that time, one of the flashlights ITA was offering was the StreamLight UltraStinger®. That became my “starter” flashlight.
What a place to start! It had a 20W halogen bulb that put out an impressive 75,000 Candle Power (~260 Lumens) for an hour of continuous use. An hour run time easily would make it through an inspection. The run time wasn’t an issue because when I began my inspection business, I rarely had two inspections in a day.
As I got busier, I added a car charger that would top off my Ultra between inspections and would allow me to make it through the day’s inspections with one battery. Adding a second flashlight allowed me to rotate the usage and, when necessary, send the unit for repair of the switch or front glass.
However bright that 20W halogen was, it had one major flaw: It could burn out without any warning. Filaments do burn out, and Murphy’s Law says you will be at the other end of a crawl space or attic when it does. When my first flashlight suddenly burned out, I was indeed in an attic, but when it got very, very dark, I was lucky enough to be able to see the attic hatch.
As a result of that experience, I added a small 1W LED flashlight to the other side of my belt. As time progressed, I found I was using the small, lightweight flashlight more and more for under cabinets, sinks and furnaces. It was much smaller and lighter than the UltraStinger, and it lasted weeks on a set of AA batteries. But, I still carried my UltraStinger for attics, crawl spaces and outdoor work where I wanted lots of light.
As technology progressed, I upgraded to a 3W LED. The UltraStinger spent more and more time in the car. I also found a TeraLux LED bulb for a 3 C-cell Maglight. Now, I had almost as much light (140 Lumens) as my UltraStinger with the run time of a 3C LED package. My halogen UltraStinger was moving farther and farther back in my vehicle.
I still carried two flashlights at all times, as it can get very dark in an attic if the batteries die or (it happens) you drop your primary flashlight and can’t find it in the insulation. It’s easy to find a dropped flashlight if you can see the glow, but if it has turned off, forget it!
Attending InspectionWorld brought a host of new flashlights to my attention. Many of my colleagues would talk about their special flashlights and others would bring theirs to ASHI chapter meetings and pass them around for all to review. One thing was common, though: Almost everyone carried a backup flashlight, even if it was a tiny keychain unit.
After dragging out the Ultra for what seemed like a darker than usual attic, I decided it was time to again seriously look for a new flashlight. The Ultra’s batteries were starting to lose their charge faster. But rather than start searching at random, I had a list of requirements.
- I wanted at LEAST the same light as My UltraStinger (75,000 candle power or 300 Lumens).
- It should be an LED system.
- It had to use standard batteries, readily available at common retailers.
- It should not rely on rechargeable batteries, which often are difficult to switch out in the field.
Google became my friend as I continued my search every night after finishing my paperwork.
I found lots of flashlights that promised lots of light, but they used C123 cells or 1829s or some other strange cell that I’d never seen in stores. The UltraStinger’s proprietary 5-cell ‘stick’ was about $40 and I didn’t want to go that route again. C123 batteries are about $3.50 each for the good ones.
My wife found an interesting flashlight at an alternative energy fair: the Solar Goose Ultimate 3W Flashlight. While not as bright as I wanted (120 Lumens), it had the distinct advantage of not requiring a charging cable: I simply could leave it on my car’s dashboard. The flashlight head can be removed and the base used as a charger for many different devices. It came with plugs for just about any electrical device (except an iPod). My wife also bought a handy attachment for the base: an inspection mirror with a flexible neck and an integrated LED light.
Then, I stumbled across a brand I had never heard of: Fenix. I wrote a short note to Fenix outlining my specifications. The company quickly responded with several choices. The best fit was its TK40 that ran on (believe it or not) AA cells and produced an astounding 640 Lumens, more than double my UltraStinger. Yes, it uses eight-AA cells, four in a pinch, but it is bright! Holy cow, is it bright. In addition, unlike my UltraStinger, my LED Maglite or my 3-AA LED Mini-Mag, you can adjust the brightness. It has four settings: low, medium, high and turbo. It has a couple of other neat features such as “dazzle,” which is a fast strobe-like blink meant to disorient an attacker. It also has an SOS mode, which automatically blinks SOS in Morse code.
The Fenix TK40 now is my primary flashlight, and my 3W-3AA LED Mini-Mag is my backup. At $124, the Fenix is not cheap, but is in line with the UltraStinger and other premium flashlights.
To show the illumination capabilities of each flashlight, I did a real-life test. One night, I set up a camera in my attic and took all my flashlights up with me. Each flashlight was either freshly charged or had a new set of batteries installed, and each picture was taken with the same camera settings (shutter speed, ISO and aperture). The results are pictured here. This was my turn to talk nonstop about my special flashlight, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the conversation.
Photos above: The five flashlights tested. From left to right in both photos: the MiniMag, the MagLite with LED bulb, the SolarGoose, the UltraStinger, and the Fenix TK40.
The bottom photo shows the relative brightness and color of each beam. Photos by Welmoed Sisson.
Photo above: UltraStinger
Photo above: 3C LED MagLite
Photo above: 3AA MiniMag LED
Photo above: Solar Goose
Photo above: Fenix on low
Photo above: Fenix on medium
Photo above: Fenix on high
Photo above: Fenix on turbo
Photos by Bob Sisson.