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It seems that nearly every day we hear news of yet another municipality making the switch from traditional roadway lighting to LED. Owen Sound, Ontario voted just last week to change its 2,000 street lights to LEDs, at a cost of $1.2 million. The city says, and this is a common claim, especially by politicians, that the new lights will save taxpayers money.
But not everyone agrees that switching to LED is the right solution for street lighting. Let’s take a closer look at some of the ups and downs of LED street lighting.
On the up side, LED lights have numerous features that make them ideal for roadway lighting. First and foremost, they are much more efficient than mercury vapour or high-pressure sodium lights. Because they consume less energy and last much longer than conventional lighting, LED streetlights are capable of cutting operating costs. According to the US Department of Energy, “in well-designed LED luminaires’ favor are longer life and reduced maintenance, as well as much better color quality and operating characteristics that the primary incumbent source, high-pressure sodium or metal halide.”
From there the list grows and grows. LED lights throw a more directional beam of light, which reduces light pollution and helps with proper coverage of the desired area. They also start almost immediately after being turned on, where traditional street lights can take up to ten minutes to come to full power. They are available in many different color temperatures, not just the familiar color-destroying orange glow produced by HPS lights. LED street lights can even handle vibration and extreme cold temperatures, two environmental variables that have led to the demise of untold numbers of traditional streetlights.
As good as all of this sounds, everything has its downside, and LED roadway lighting is no exception. The most widely held perception concerning all LED lights, including street lights, is that up-front costs are high. That may have been true at one time, and may still be in certain situations, but it isn’t the norm anymore. In 2009, when the city of Los Angeles started their streetlight retrofit,* each new LED fixture cost an average of $432, put out 42 lumens per watt, rated to last 80,000 hours, and had a five-year warranty. By the end of the installation in 2012, LED fixtures were costing them about $245 each, put out 81 lumens per watt, were rated for 150,000 hours, and had a seven-year warranty. Rapid advances in LED lighting technology are making it more effective and less expensive, thus making cost less of a factor in the decision-making process.
If cost isn’t the problem, what is? Now that several locations have had time to live with their LED roadway lighting, it seems there are issues that weren’t expected when only numbers were being considered.
Complaints about LED roadway lights run the gamut and vary by location. Some locations are too dark, while others are too bright. Some locations have problems with glare, while others have directionality problems. Many of the complaints received have even been about color and perception differences when traditional streetlights are replaced with LED.
But these problems are less about what is wrong with LED lighting than they are signs that those responsible for selecting the lighting need better information. The majority of these complaints are installation and product selection problems. Unlike traditional street lights, where one size fits all, LED street lighting comes any way you need it. Choose your directionality, range of illumination, CRI, color temperature, head style and more.
Image: Before and after Los Angeles street lighting (photo courtesy of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting)
According to the LED street lighting experts at the Municipal Solid-State Street Lighting Consortium (MSSLC), making incorrect choices for a particular location and use is the biggest reason why LED street lights don’t perform as we expect them to. As the individuals who make the decisions learn more about working with LED lighting and the options available to them, problems like these will quickly become a thing of the past.
Cost and aesthetic complaints aside, what other undesirables do LED roadway lights present? There are questions about how LED roadway lighting will affect our health and the world around us.
Manufacturing LED lighting is a relatively clean process, but scientists want to know how their light will change the world. Allegations have been made that LED light is so bright and blue-white that it will interfere with nature. Human and animal circadian rhythms may be altered; migratory birds’ paths and mating rituals may also be hurt by the bright light. General light pollution is another fear that grows with each LED streetlight install.
But each of these concerns can be addressed. Much LED street and roadway lighting is dark-sky compliant and designed to avoid light pollution. Some manufacturers are even producing lights that are approved for use in areas where sea turtles and other sensitive creatures frequent. Overall, many feel that LED roadway lighting is far better for human and animal health, and far less polluting, than traditional lighting. However, this too is only true when the proper lighting has been selected for the exact location. Improperly thought out installations can, and likely will, affect the health and well-being of the life forms that bask in its glow the same way it affects the comfort of those whose towns have made the switch and missed the mark.
So how good are LEDs for roadway lighting? In a perfect world, they can’t be beat. But in our current world, things will have to change before they will be the undisputed choice for roadway lighting installations. Decision makers and engineers will have to become better educated; manufacturers and others looking to promote LED roadway lighting will have to become better educators.
*City of Los Angeles, “Changing our Glow for Efficiency,” July, 2013