Avista Utilities has begun a program of replacing old style street lights in Spokane with new state of the art LED lights, in an effort to cut power consumption. But the new lights have left some customers dazzled by the brightness of the new fixtures.
Avista Utilities is planning to change out old style high pressure sodium lights with 28 thousand newer LED lights in their service area, including Spokane, and many other town through the Northwest.
The company’s chief energy efficiency engineer Tom Leinhart says the end result will be energy savings. “They lower the amount of wattage that we're putting to that particular fixture because they use half the power that the old ones consumed, and their life is longer so they reduce our maintenance costs.”
The company has started to replace the older lights as they burn out or reach the end of their lifespan. Some Spokane residents are noticing them, but not all think the lights are a good thing. A few weeks ago, Jesse Morris from the West Central neighborhood got a chance to experience the new LED street lights. “The first night it went on, it was 'whoa, this is insane.' Unless you have seen them, it is almost impossible to understand how bright they are. You might as will be in daylight. They are insanely bright. You know we like to go out on our porch after dinner, and sit out on our porch, but it is literally impossible to be out there. It is so bright and so glaring.”
The Avista spokesman says the light seems brighter than the ones they’re replacing, but that’s because the older lights lose their brightness at time goes on. “Even if we had replaced these lights with the same thing that were there, it would have increased the light output by 30 or 40 percent and we probably would have got calls just from that alone.”
But these same type of LEDs are coming under fire from people in other communities where they are being installed, including New York City, and the general theme seems to be the lights seem extremely bright and dazzling. Lienhardt says Avista does have a couple fixes for residents who complain that the light are shining directly on their house or yard, making it seem like a grocery store parking lot. He says they can install what he calls “cut-offs,” to partially block the light, and can also adjust the angle of the fixture somewhat to try and eliminate the glare on someone’s property. There are some who feel the new lights are a good thing.
Spokane Police Captain Dave Richards has been working with Avista to install a number of lights near the Hamilton street bridge neighborhood, an area he describes as a high crime region. He says they have received a few good reports from neighbors there, and hope to keep tabs on the crime rate to see if there is a reduction of reports over time. “Were gonna look at a three month, six month, nine month and a year out from when we started installing these and to looking at the areas we’ve improved and to see the positive impacts we’ve had as far as quality of life incidents and crimes. And that's only part of the review aside from interviewing the neighbors and finding out, 'do they like it?' You know, how do they feel?"
But an advocate for reducing light pollution, John Barrintine of the International Dark Sky Sssociation, says there have never been any legitimate studies that have proven increasing city lights actually reduces crime. “In turn that’s because it’s hard to control all of the variables, that are involved so that if you do see a change in the crime before and after a new lighting installation goes in, being able to isolate the lighting itself as the major contributing factor is difficult. There are some studies that have been done over the past 25 years, but they are not conclusive. They are suggestive that adding more light to outside space at night does not improve security, and in fact it can compromise security.”
Barrantine explains by citing brightly lit parking areas, where the eye is dazzled by the brightness, and we're unable to see into the dark shadow areas, where criminals can hide without being detected. There are those who are concerned with the health impact of bright lights on humans at night as well. Paul Bogard is the author of a book called The End of Night. “What researchers are finding, for example, is that bright lights are linked to our sleep disorders, they disrupt our circadian rhythms, they impede the production of the hormone melatonin.”
Bogard says the negative impacts of bright light at night also extend to the animal kingdom. "So many insects, amphibians, so many different animals rely on darkness for life. We have more than 450 species of birds that migrate in North America at night in the dark. So it’s really false to think that 'oh this isn't a big issue...we can pull our shades and the astronomers can go someplace darker.'”
The town of Davis, California decided to let citizens pick the type of LED they liked best, and put up a variety pack test street, where residents chose a type of light that featured lower wattage, and also a less blue spectrum that was closer to the color temperature of the older Sodium lights.
Avista spokesman Tom Leinhart says that could be an option, but they are currently following guidelines from their main customer, the City of Spokane. “So if the City of Spokane came to us and said we want to look at a number of different color temperatures for our lights, we would probably do whatever they wanted to look at. And so how many lumens they want down, how the light goes, that’s the customer were actually working really hard to try to solve for first.”
Leinhardt says Avista will respond within two business days to any city resident who has a problem with the lights to see if the cut offs or realigning the lights can help. Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder says he is also listening to citizens’ concerns to see if there is any need for crafting a city lighting ordinance to alleviate problem lighting.