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Municipalities and streetlights: making the jump to LEDs

Ron Bednarick can spot an LED streetlight from 35,000 feet away.

When he gazes out the window of an airliner on a clear night, most of the cities far below are bathed in a bright orange glow. The urban haze is created by tens of thousands of high-pressure sodium streetlamps.

“Most cities look like orange blobs from the air,” said Bednarick, roadway lighting marketing manager for Eaton. “But quality LED street lighting is warm, white and uniform, with no light directed upward other than what is reflected off the street. It’s shockingly clear.”

Bednarick is part of a roadway lighting revolution aimed at improving performance and reducing energy and operating costs.

Most estimates put the total number of streetlights in the United States at 45 to 55 million. Of these, the majority are high-pressure sodium (HPS) lamps and, to a far lesser extent, metal halide bulbs. These high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps have illuminated parking lots, warehouses and other areas in addition to roadways for years.

But that’s beginning to change.

LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, last longer and produce better light than their orange-hued counterparts. “The pace of LED adoption has probably tripled in the past two years,” said Bednarick. “It’s becoming more difficult to ignore the boost in light quality and cost savings gained by relighting roadways with LED luminaires.”

LED streetlights produce better, more controlled light

The light emitted from well-designed LED streetlights is clear, controlled and aesthetically pleasing. The precisely designed optics in LED luminaires ensure light goes where it belongs, meaning less light is wasted and more areas are illuminated after dark.

“All those HID lamps currently on our roadways are lighting up the sky, but they’re not doing the best job of lighting the ground for automobile and pedestrian traffic,” said Bednarick. “If you were a hundred feet up in the air, you’d see a bunch of bright and dark spots where the light isn’t reaching the ground. That’s bad for visibility in general, and it contributes to crime.”

LED fixtures are cheaper to maintain and use less energy

Most roadway lights are owned and operated by utility companies, and the utilities that join the LED retrofit movement can expect to reduce their energy consumption by about 40 percent. But the real savings for utilities are on the maintenance side.

High-pressure sodium lamps must be replaced at least every five years as their lumen output decreases. Materials and labor for a single lamp replacement might cost a utility anywhere from $80 to $200. Because LED luminaires last three to four times longer than HIDs, the savings realized in maintenance alone can be massive.

Meanwhile, reduced energy consumption is a benefit that helps everyone. LEDs produce two to three times the amount of light per watt compared to HID lamps, translating to a significant drop in annual energy consumption. The energy savings potential of an LED roadway lighting retrofit is particularly relevant for small electrical cooperatives, as well as city lighting departments that own streetlights but buy power from the grid due to limited or no generating capacity of their own.

Decorative LED roadway lighting is growing

Nearly everyone is familiar with the standard cobrahead-style light fixture that adorns so many of America’s roadways. LED cobrahead fixtures are not new to the lighting industry. But the quickening changeover to LED technology in roadway lighting is creating a burst of new decorative options that offer aesthetic benefits beyond LED luminaires’ sharper, clearer light.

“As the technology improves and manufacturing costs decrease, lighting manufacturers are able to offer a broader range of decorative lighting options coupled with LED technology,” said Bednarick. “Now, modern LED lighting technology is being paired with lighting designs that emulate old-fashioned gas lamps, as well as four-sided carriage lights and pole-mounted acorns, globes and teardrops.”

The future is now

Just a few years ago, LED luminaires represented a tiny fraction of the roadway lighting market. The high cost of LEDs compared to HID lamps made it difficult for most cities and towns to make the switch. But today, falling prices and technological advancements are accelerating the pace of LED adoption as the LED lighting retrofit movement hits the streets.

In addition to the obvious benefits of improved quality, reduced electricity use and lower maintenance costs, LED roadway lighting retrofits may soon become necessary for cities that haven’t already bitten the bullet. The millions of HID streetlights that look like a hazy orange splotch from the sky are an endangered species, and Bednarick predicts that replacement lamps and parts will be unavailable within several years. “The market share of LEDs in street lighting is expected to swell from 53 percent in 2014 to 94 percent in 2023,” he said.[i] “We’re close to reaching critical mass, and it’s making less and less sense not to change.”

The future is now.