Vega VRB-25 –
Last of the Lighthouse Rotating Beacons as We Know Them

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the Vega VRB-25 beacon inside Boon Island Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the Vega VRB-25 beacon
inside Boon Island Lighthouse (ME)

When scientific technology and the necessity for economic savings are melded, the results are often fascinatingly ingenious.

Invariably though, one aspect that is lost in such advancing change is the element of nostalgia, which is ushered out of relevance in favor of technology’s irresistible lure and promise of a more efficient tomorrow.

This scenario is akin to America’s lighthouse optics, where over the last fifteen years, the innovative Vega VRB-25 rotating beacon has supplanted the historic Fresnel lens, as well as other more contemporary beacons such as the DCB-36 and FA-251, inside the lanterns of many of our nation’s active lighthouses where a rotating optic is required.

As this transition started to occur in the mid-1990s, it could not have been starker for lighthouse enthusiasts when the gorgeous Fresnel lens, with its intricate assembly of glass prisms and brass, gave way to the VRB-25’s compact, aluminum housing and acrylic flash panels at certain lighthouses throughout the United States.

The VRB-25 inside Race Point Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The VRB-25 inside Race Point
Lighthouse (MA) shines its
light out over Cape Cod Bay

Following their installation in lighthouses, the Vega VRB-25 beacon, which is manufactured by Vega Industries Limited of Porirua, New Zealand, often appeared ‘lost’ in the spacious lanterns of many lights, and the beacon certainly did not possess the elegance or charm of the incomparable Fresnel lens.

Nonetheless, over the last decade, lighthouse enthusiasts have become accustomed to seeing this modern rotating optic. So much so that aside from the Fresnel lens, younger lighthouse aficionados might be hard-pressed to recall having seen firsthand a rotating beacon like the one-time, robust DCB-36.

As is sometimes the case, the emotional subtleties associated with time’s passage have since spawned a certain underlying level of nostalgia and affection in its own right for the Vega VRB-25, as unlikely as this would have seemed some years ago.

At that time, the conversion from commercial to solar power at lighthouse sites, especially at remote or offshore stations, was in full swing – and the VRB-25 was the U.S. Coast Guard’s preferred rotating beacon for the job.

A close-up view of the VRB-25 at night inside Race Point Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A close-up view of
the VRB-25 at night inside
Race Point Lighthouse

The Fresnel lens was incompatible with solar conversion equipment at lighthouses, and thus, the classical lens was removed during such application changes.

The instruction manual for the Vega VRB-25 describes the beacon as “a modern, low voltage marine rotating beacon for use in 15 to 22 nautical mile applications. It has been specifically designed for solar powered lighthouses.”

Master Chief Dennis Dever (USCG Retired), a former lightkeeper at Boston Light Station (1989-90), and later officer-in-charge of U.S. Coast Guard aids to navigation units in Miami, FL, and Cape May, NJ, touches on the fact that VRB-25 is a ‘stepping stone’ to future lighthouse optic technology despite its present value to aids to navigation.

Mr. Dever notes, “The Vega VRB-25 has served as the latest in the continuing evolution of rotating beacons for major lighthouses. As the evolution progresses, the particular era of time decreases in which an optic is considered current.”

Senior Chief Dennis Dever (2002) showing how small the Tungsten-Halogen lamp is
Photo by Herb Von Goerres

Senior Chief Dennis Dever
(2002) showing how small the
Tungsten-Halogen lamp is
inside the VRB-25 at Harbor of
Refuge Lighthouse (DE)

“Fresnel lenses have been around for 168 years in American lighthouses, and continue to be the ultimate producer of all-around, long range light. Modern technology has been inadequate in its ability to match the Fresnel lens’ brilliance.”

“The pre-World War II DBC-36 beacon lasted an impressive 60-plus years before it was rendered obsolete, but far less in service time than the Fresnel lens.”

It is true that the navigational light emitted from a VRB-25 is not as brilliant as the light shone from a Fresnel lens.

In fact, a veteran Delaware pilot once noted that though he could see the light on the horizon from a VRB-25 at its noted range, the big difference was that this light was more of a “pencil beam” versus the “big, juicy light produced by the Fresnel lens.”

Chris Mills, a former Canadian lighthouse keeper (1989-97) who has seen many different types of lighthouse beacons in service, echoes the sentiments of the veteran Delaware pilot.

Former Canadian Coast Guard lightkeeper Chris Mills next to the VRB-25 inside Highland Light
Photo Courtesy of Chris Mills

Former Canadian Coast Guard lightkeeper
Chris Mills next to the VRB-25
inside Highland Light on Cape Cod

According to Mr. Mills, “Having seen the VRB-25 in action at Rockland Breakwater and Race Point lights in the United States, I have to say that the beacon does not seem to have the same intensity as the traditional Fresnel unit. Of course, the difference between small acrylic prisms & bulls eyes, and large, precision polished glass prisms & bull’s eyes, is substantial.”

“What surprises me the most is that the smaller Pharos Marine APRB 252 appears to produce a wider, brighter flash than the VRB-25 – something more akin to the traditional Fresnel lens flash. Although optically correct, the VRB-25 seems to have a very narrow focus, which gives a very ‘precise’ and brief flash, as opposed to that traditional ‘burst’ of brilliance from a ‘real’ Fresnel lens as the flash panel swings by the observer.”

In all fairness to the VRB-25, it can be argued that the beacon does not have to be as brilliant as the Fresnel lens given all of the other modern electronic aids to navigation at the disposal of today’s prudent mariner.

Also, when the operational and environmental advantages of solar power are obtained at lighthouse sites, especially offshore lights, thus allowing for the decommissioning of costly commercial power submarine cables, there is a natural limit to the energy a beacon can derive from a modest solar array.

A close-up view of the VRB-25s acrylic lens at Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A close-up view of
the VRB-25s acrylic lens at
Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse (ME)

Some people may be surprised to learn that despite its modern appearance and technology, the design of the Vega VRB-25 is rooted in history, as the beacon utilizes some of the same principals of science that Augustin Fresnel applied to creating the Fresnel lens in the 1820s.

According to Vega Industries, “A new Fresnel lens system has been designed to give improved, effective intensity and better energy efficiency compared to systems with shorter focal lengths. The lenses are sturdily built and each one is held in a precision-machined cage to ensure accurate alignment.”

“The optical projection system comprises six Fresnel lens panels arranged symmetrically on a rotating carousel, which rotates around a stationary lamp. The Fresnel lens panels have been specially designed by Vega with a focal length of 178.5mm in order to achieve the optimal balance between beam divergence (in both elevation and azimuth) and effective intensity.”

“Modern acrylic lenses made in properly-polished dies can give energy efficiencies up to 10 times greater than the traditional cut glass optics found in lighthouses from the 19th and 20th centuries.”

A view looking down into the VRB-25 and the beacon's lampchanger
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view looking down into the
VRB-25 and the beacon's lampchanger

In addition to its scientific connection to Fresnel principles, the VRB-25 also possesses a human connection that 21st century LED beacons do not – the need for a ‘keeper,’ all be it an offsite Coast Guard aids to navigation (ATON) technician.

Unlike LED beacons, the VRB-25 contains incandescent lamps that we can plainly see, and though much smaller in size than their predecessors, such as the 1000-watt lamps used in beacons like the DCB-36, DCB-24 and Fresnel lenses, this fact allows for a certain continuum with our lighthouse past. The VRB-25s lamps and parts still require the human element to keep the lights ‘watching properly.’

This will all change in the not-too-distant future with the ongoing transition to LED beacons, which means the Vega VRB-25 beacon may indeed be the last of its breed that utilizes incandescent lamps as its light source, while presenting an appearance that bears some resemblance to other traditional rotating optics.

EM1 Joseph Hevner, an aids to navigation technician for USCG ANT Southwest Harbor
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

EM1 Joseph Hevner, an aids
to navigation technician for
USCG ANT Southwest Harbor (ME)

“With the introduction of the new LEDs, which is the way of the future, this in turn affects the presence of the modern-day aids to navigation technician, just like the automation of lighthouses eventually affected the job security of the true lightkeepers of the past,” says Electrician’s Mate first class (EM1) Joseph Hevner of U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Southwest Harbor, Maine.

“Currently with our lights, we visit them at least every 3 months to check on various pieces of equipment, but primarily the batteries. When the time comes that all of the lighthouses are equipped with LEDs, especially the self-contained types, which do not require external batteries, the lights will no longer require a technician. At that time, it will only require someone who is capable of using a TV remote control to maintain the light, and this will occur but once a year.”

An overview of the VRB-25 inside the lantern at Wood End Lighthouse on Cape Cod
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

An overview of the VRB-25 inside
the lantern at Wood End Lighthouse
on Cape Cod (MA)

EM1 Hevner goes on to note, “For now, the job security of a Coast Guard aids to navigation technician is still safe, as LEDs cannot be used in lights with sectors. The reason being is that when the white LED is seen through a red glass, or Plexiglas sector, the end result is the mariner seeing a purple color.”

“Plus the fact that many offshore lights still use a sound signal and fog detector, which requires solar panels and batteries.”

As for what it’s like for ATON technicians to perform maintenance on a Vega VRB-25 versus some of the more traditional rotating beacons, EM1 Joseph Hevner effectively utilizes the analogy of working on vehicles to explain the differences.

According to EM1 Hevner, “With a beacon like the DCB-24, they were as easy to work on as an old Chevy pickup truck. Everything was right there in front of you, and troubleshooting was easy. There was very little to no mystery in how they worked.”

“The DCB-24 is a stout unit, but after a while, they all encountered the same problems that one would come to expect (motor brushes, contactors, etc.). There was more maintenance involved with servicing these beacons, and they require a lot more power.”

EM3 Dy Chhoeun accesses the lampchanger through the top of the VRB-25
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

EM3 Dy Chhoeun accesses the
lampchanger through the top
of theVRB-25 to replace
extinguished lamps at
Halfway Rock Lighthouse (ME)

“With the VRB-25, it is a much more compact package, and it’s more akin to working on a small foreign car. A lot of parts are very small, and some of the parts are very expensive. In addition, the wires for this beacon are very fragile and very short in length, making it a challenge to change out the CALC-20 controller unit without breaking a wire-lead.”

EM1 Hevner goes on to say, “The VRB-25 contains more complicated parts as well, and thus, it sometimes requires more involved troubleshooting methods. The Coast Guard has great troubleshooting guides for this unit that go step-by-step with flow charts, so it isn’t a curse working on them, as long as the technician is very methodical. Also, a bit of patience is a big help. Without this guide, the servicing technician is almost helpless.”

“Programming the beacons for whatever the required characteristic is quite easy, and they are easy to change the sectors, using blanking panels or lens sheets of different colors.”

EM3 Taylor Mitchell replaces extinguished lamps for the VRB-25
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

EM3 Taylor Mitchell replaces
extinguished lamps for the
VRB-25 at Harbor of Refuge
Lighthouse in Delaware Bay

“Another weak point is that these units are very sensitive to electrical storms. However, as long as the VRB-25s are level inside a lighthouse, you just run them until they malfunction or break down, which isn’t often.”

EM1 Hevner concludes, “The VRB-25 beacon is a good all-around unit, and they can be used indoors or outside, with the only modification being the addition of bird spikes for exterior use.”

Like all things in life though, time and technology have not stopped advancing since the VRB-25 was first introduced in America’s lighthouses during the mid-1990s.

A view of the VRB-25 shining bright inside Little River Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the VRB-25 shining bright
inside Little River Lighthouse (ME)

In 2005, Master Chief Dennis Dever (USCG Retired) noted, “The Vega VRB-25 will most likely become obsolete in far less time with continued advances in LED technology. Once LED designs can produce the required intensities, I suspect the VRB-25s will become artifacts, especially since rotating beacons cannot provide a precise division boundary in sector applications.”

Today, just a few short years later, light emitting diodes (LEDs) are not the wave of the future, but the present. Suddenly, it’s the incandescent VRB-25 beacon that is slowly broaching the threshold of historic change.

A view of the new 8-tier VLB-44 light emitting diode unit (LED)
USCG ANT South Portland Photo

A view of the new 8-tier
VLB-44 light emitting diode
unit (LED) that replaced a
VRB-25 beacon inside White
Island Lighthouse (NH)

In 2008 the offshore White Island Lighthouse in New Hampshire was one of the first light station’s in the country to signal this coming change when U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team South Portland (ME) replaced the Vega VRB-25 rotating beacon with a cutting-edge LED unit known as a Vega VLB-44.

It is fitting that White Island would be one of the first lighthouses to receive this newest technology, for in its history, it has witnessed an unbroken ‘chain’ when it comes to the latest in rotating beacon technology.

The 1859 light tower once possessed a second order Fresnel lens that was eventually supplanted by a double-stack DCB-36 beacon, which in turn was replaced by the VRB-25. Now the VRB-25 has relinquished its ‘watch’ in favor of the light emitting diode VLB-44, which consists of an 8-tier array of beacons.

Based on observations of White Island Lighthouse during clear weather, it is reported that the new LED 8-tier VLB-44 actually can be seen further than the previous VRB-25. The VLB-44 has displayed an approximate nominal range of 21 nautical miles versus an approximate nominal range of 19 nautical miles for the VRB-25.

The White Island Light Station, Isles of Shoals
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The White Island Light Station,
Isles of Shoals (NH)

“Some of the great things about these VLB-44 lights are that they appear brighter than the old beacons,” says EM3 Ben Ellena of USCG ANT South Portland. “The pilots on the Piscataqua River have let us know that they are very visible during clear conditions.”

EM3 Ellena goes on to note, “There is almost no maintenance needed on these lights and the daylight control unit is very sensitive. They also use less power then the older lights, which allows us to have smaller solar arrays on site.”

“Some of the cons to these lights are that during periods of fog they do not cut through the thick weather as well as the VRB-25. Also, if one of the LED lights were to malfunction, our estimated time of response would be up in the air because we would have to order a completely new LED unit.”

A view of the opening on top of each VRB-25
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the opening on top of
each VRB-25, which technicians
access to perform maintenance
on the lampchanger and
lamps inside the beacon

In the wake of this revolutionary breakthrough, the familiarity and human connection to the beacons in lighthouses will soon turn the page as well.

The same winds of change that ushered in the VRB-25 as the latest technology for major lighthouse beacons in the United States are blowing once again across the waters – and this time, it’s the VRB-25 that faces an inevitable phasing-out.

The VRB-25’s lighthouse reign lasted less than two decades before the newest ‘young gun’ in aids to navigation technology – the VLM-44 LED, has begun the process of supplanting its predecessor.

“I like the new technology, but it is very expensive,” says Senior Chief Sean Walsh, officer-in-charge of U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team South Portland, Maine. “I believe it will be more reliable than what it is replacing. Time will tell.”

In the meantime, those in the lighthouse community should take a moment to ponder the important role the Vega VRB-25 has played in the ongoing history of America’s lighthouses.

For in the not-too-distant future, this rotating beacon will depart our lighthouses like many of the Fresnel lenses have prior, and with it the change will bring to a rapid close a chapter of lighthouse history that we all thought we were just becoming familiar with.

The VRB-25 that was in service at White Island Lighthouse until early 2008
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The VRB-25 that was in service at
White Island Lighthouse until early 2008
 


The new VLB-44 that has replaced the VRB-25 at White Island Lighthouse
USCG ANT South Portland Photo

The new VLB-44 that has replaced
the VRB-25 at White Island Lighthouse
 

The second order Fresnel lens that once served at Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The second order Fresnel lens that once
served at Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse
 


The VRB-25 beacon that replaced the 2nd order Fresnel at Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The VRB-25 beacon that is currently
in service at Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse
 

The DCB-36 beacon that once served at Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The DCB-36 beacon that once
served at Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse
 



Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The VRB-25 beacon that replaced the
DCB-36 at Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse
 

The one-time Fresnel lens inside Boon Island Lighthouse
ALF Photo

The one-time Fresnel lens
inside Boon Island Lighthouse
lit up the lantern and
seascape in brilliant fashion
 

A view of the Boon Island's third order Fresnel lens
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the Boon Island's
third order Fresnel lens now on
exhibit at the Kittery Historical
& Naval Museum


Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the Vega VRB-25
rotating beacon inside Boon
Island Lighthouse today

EM1 Terry Colin (1999) showing the end of a submarine cable  
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

EM1 Terry Colin (1999) showing the end of
a submarine cable used to provide commercial
power at offshore lighthouse locations
 

 

Remote offshore lighthouses like Halfway Rock (ME) have been solarized for more efficient and cost effective operations  
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Remote offshore lighthouses like Halfway
Rock (ME) have been solarized for more
efficient and cost effective operations
 

A close-up view of the VRB-25 acrylic lens at Race Point Lighthouse  
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A close-up view of the VRB-25
acrylic lens at Race Point Lighthouse
 

 

A view of the black blanking panel in the VRB-25 at Cape Elizabeth Light  
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the black "blanking" panel
in the VRB-25 at Cape Elizabeth Light
 

The VRB-25 at Little River Lighthouse (ME) sits atop the tower's historic pedestal 
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The VRB-25 at Little River
Lighthouse (ME) sits atop the
tower's historic pedestal
 

A view of a VRB-25 utilized as an emergency light at Portland Head Lighthouse (ME) 
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of a VRB-25 utilized
as an emergency light at
Portland Head Lighthouse (ME)
 

The VRB-25 at Wood Island Lighthouse (ME) with its green-colored flash panels 
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The VRB-25 at Wood Island
Lighthouse (ME) with its
green-colored flash panels
 

A view of the VRB-25 reflecting off the lantern panes at Race Point Lighthouse 
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the VRB-25 reflecting off the
lantern panes at Race Point Lighthouse
 

 

The flashing light from VRB-25 reflects off the water at Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse 
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The flashing light from VRB-25
reflects off the water at Rockland
Breakwater Lighthouse (ME)
 

Interesting Facts about the Vega VRB-25 Rotating Beacon

  • The VRB-25 has a height of 26 ¼ inches without the bird spike and weighs approximately 57 pounds
  • The acrylic Fresnel lens inside a VRB-25 have a rated life of 5 to 7 years
  • Lamps for the VRB-25 are 12VDC marine signal lamps of up to 110-watts
  • Lampchanger for the beacon is a 12VDC, six-place unit
  • The lens carousel motor drive consists of 12VDC, three-phase, electronically-commutated, thirty-pole, brushless, direct motor drive
  • There are no moving, sliding or rolling parts in the motor drive, except for the turntable bearings themselves
  • Construction materials consist of corrosion-resistant aluminum, anodized, with 2-pot polyurethane paint on external services
  • Six large lead-acid batteries supply the solar power for the VRB-25
  • According to the 2005 USCG Aids to Navigation Manual, “The VRB-25 rotating beacon is the standard beacon for use when commercial power is not available, and when the required luminous intensity for a white or colored light signal exceeds 6,000 or 1,400 candela respectively, or when an alternating characteristic is required. The VRB-25 rotating beacon may only be used on structures not subjected to noticeable vibrations.”
  • According to Vega Industries, there are more than 400 VRB-25 rotating beacons in service throughout the world, with 300 in North America

 

Posted: April 2009