Streetlights Revisited October 2014 – Part One

By Barbara Clowers

In January of this year, the city of Davis entered into a contract with Siemens to retrofit the city’s high pressure sodium street lights with LED lamp heads to be placed on existing poles. This project did not have to go through a competitive bidding process because the savings to the city would exceed the cost of the project.

The Siemens bid was, however, 10% higher than a similar bid from PGE from July 2013. This was justified by “value added components” offered by Siemens. The value added, according to the contract, was “a strong component of savings and leverage to other longer payback facility improvement measures in the overall City project and its goals” and “strong financing options to leverage provided by this lighting component.” It is unclear how “strong financing options” are relevant to this project as it is self-funding.

Siemens is under contract with the city to perform an energy audit for city buildings and infrastructure. Apparently, they began the inventory of streetlights in the fall of 2013 before they had a contract for replacing streetlights which was signed in January 2014. Their contract requires them to:

  • assume all risks in terms of fixed firm price and payback
  • include photocells for fixtures
  • replace badges (labels) on poles where they are missing
  • deal with PG&E to see the City gets the new lower rate structure
  • work with City staff to complete the project on time
  • provide full-time project oversight
  • train city staff and ensure optimal results during warranty period
  • furnish all materials, equipment and labor to provide a turn-key street light replacement project

The City’s goals for this project were not comprehensive. They simply wanted to save money, reduce greenhouse gases and replace burned out fixtures and this is where the project went wrong. When a city contemplates infrastructure changes that will be in place for 20 years, some thought and research should precede action. One hour of staff time looking at information from non-industry sources would have alerted them to significant problems they might encounter changing over to LED luminaries. Warnings about the problems with blue-rich white streetlights have been common knowledge since 2009.

In a era of energy conservation, any energy conservation proposal should look at how much energy we use vs how much we need to use, when we use it and if we use it more than necessary. Indoor lighting is a good example. We used to turn the lights on in buildings in the morning and leave them on until maintenance finished cleaning and locked up at night. Now we have room sensors so lights turn off when the rooms aren’t in use.

The first step in this project should have been a science based determination of when, where, how and why we provide light at night and that should have involved members of the community as well as experts in the field. Currently, our municipal code says it is “essential for provision of general traffic safety and security and safety of persons and property within the city.”

The Davis Dark Sky Ordinance creates standards for outdoor lighting, “to create standards for outdoor lighting to minimize light pollution, glare, and light trespass caused by inappropriate or misaligned light fixtures, while improving nighttime public safety, utility, and security, and preserving the night sky as a natural resource and thus peoples enjoyment of looking at the stars.” There is a balance between the need to provide light at night and our inclination to make the night as bright as possible. Every upside has a downside.

Regarding our liability versus our responsibility to provide lighting, there is no law mandating we provide street lighting. California law consistently finds for cities if they are sued for failing to provide lighting, however, when a street light exists and isn’t maintained, the city does become liable. Lucas Frerichs has tried to have burned out street lights replaced since he was elected but he has been put off every time by this street light retrofit project.

When the project began replacing streetlights, they started in far west Davis and worked eastward. They did not replace burned out lights first and there are still many burned out lights. The city says they will fix burned out or flickering lights in 7 to 10 days when they are reported. We should hold them to that. Repair should not be held hostage to a flawed retrofit program.

Once we establish updated criteria for providing light at night, we need to determine IF we are meeting those goals. That requires a review of where we have streetlights and an process to evaluate them. Most streetlights are installed by developers when a subdivision is built. Some lights are installed in response to accidents regardless of whether light was a contributing factor.

Some lights are installed on utility poles by PGE. I learned recently of a home here in Davis with a streetlight place in the driveway, dividing it at about one third its width. There is NO process in place to remove or relocate this streetlight. I count eight street lights at many intersections.

This is probably more than is needed. Why should we pay for eight street lights IF four are not only adequate but may actually improve safety? It is time for a comprehensive re-evaluation of municipal lighting.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Alan Miller

    The lack of replacement of burned-out streetlights, as repeatedly pointed out by Lucas Frerichs, for whatever reason, is unacceptable.

    The City Council will be discussing staff recommendations on a strategy for streetlight replacement of the blue-white glare flares on residential streets, and continuation of the program with a new fixture, at the upcoming Tuesday meeting, partially based on the citizen survey of streetlights from seven test lights in West Davis.  I spent quite a bit of time evaluating each of these lights by specific criteria:  1) Light Frequency (warmth/color); 2) Glare Intensity; 3) Brightness; 4) Shadow Integrity; 5) Light Reflection into Indirectly Lit Spaces.  Based on initial inquires, the City appears to be listening to the citizen input, and possibly an acceptable fixture is being considered that may have the added advantage of even lower energy consumption.  We shall all know more definitively when the staff report is released.  

    It appears citizen complaints and input, and positive Council and Staff response, may have yielded a positive result for our community. If this is an issue you care about, please come to the Council meeting on Tuesday night (check your City council agenda on Friday to confirm).

    1. DavisBurns

      Alan, if you have looked at the spectrum, you will appreciate the new article.  LED lights have problems with all the things you mentioned.  There are better lights out there.  The city may be listening but they are very secretive about what they plan to do.  They are not responsive to our questions and I believe they will make a decision, announce it next Tuesday and if it isn’t good enough for us it won’t make any difference.  The couple who spoke at the city council meeting, Deborah Burnett and Jim Benya, VOLUNTEERED their services to the city in May.  They were contacted 12 hours before the last city council meeting and asked to present something.  A couple of hours later, the street lights were taken off the agenda.

      Mitch Sears and the city council may have listened to complaints but they have not been responsive to complaints and they have avoided involving residents with a stake in the outcome in ANY WAY WHATSOEVER.

  2. Michael Harrington

    Alan, from what you know, what will these new lights mean to the old style, soft yellowish lighting in the historic Core and Old North and Old East?  Thanks.  MJH

  3. Alan Miller

    Old North and Old East are residential.  The warmer lights are closer in frequency to the sodium vapor (soft yellow), a little brighter, but without the harsh characteristics of the blue-white LEDs.  I don’t want to assume what little I’ve heard is gospel until I’ve seen it in a report.  My best understanding is the decisions on historic fixtures and greenbelts are not yet finalized.  If the streetlight chosen is what I believe it is, I am good with it, WAY better than the blue-white glare flares.

  4. DavisBurns

    The current project does not include the historic “acorn” lamps downtown.  There are 505 of that style and the last quotes they got for those was as much as replacing the 2,661 cobra head street lights.  Or 3,000. Depends on whose talking and if they like to round up.  A lot.

    I say it’s a good thing we didn’t include them in this mess.  Another problem will be the lights on greenbelts and parks.  We should have wildlife friendly yellow shifted lights in those areas.  And since non-human critters use the greenbelts while we sleep, why not give them a break and turn those lights out after midnight?

    Please come to the city council meeting next week–pro or con, show up because we will live with our decisions for 20 years.

  5. DavisBurns

    The old lights are a warmer color spectrum. They don’t mimic daylight like the blue-rich white LED lights. Wildlife flora and fauna evolved on a planet with a cycle of day and night with the night being unlit. If they had a vote, they would vote for dark. If there has to be lights, every living thing will function better with lower light in the warm spectrum.

  6. tribeUSA

    Good article and comments.

    I’m glad to see people concerned about the light replacement and the city responding to this concern. The quality of night lighting is one of these things most people don’t think much about; but it does affect overall ambience and quality of life.  Glad to see and support that the spirit of Partansky lives on!

    1. DavisBurns

      Lets hear what Julie had to say about this subject…From 1999

      Towns direct efforts to clear sky
      By Craig Wilson, USA TODAY

      More stories
      in the series

      DAVIS, Calif. – Remember when you could walk out the back door, look up and see nothing but stars? Countless thousands of stars. Big stars. Small stars. Shooting stars. Enough stars to make every wish come true.

      Today, more often than not, your wish is just to see a star.

      Stars, once the spectacular midnight show for most Americans, are vanishing from the skies overhead. Seventy-five percent of America lives in highly lighted urban areas, which basically means 75% of us rarely see stars unless we venture to the dark countryside.

      As Chet Raymo, a professor of physics at Massachusetts’ Stonehill College, wrote this year: “The night sky has been washed away in a sea of artificial light.”

      Julie Partansky, mayor of this university town just west of Sacramento, thinks that’s a shame. And she wants to do something about it.

      A glaring problem: In an image taken over 40 minutes, the stars and an airplane are streaks in a glowing sky above the windmills of a Mojave Desert power station (Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY).

      “I remember the skies at night when I grew up. I remember looking up at the sky and all the stars and just saying, ‘Wow! Look at us just sitting here on this little planet Earth,’ ” she says. “Even in Davis 30 years ago, you could see a lot more stars. This light pollution just crept up on us.”

      A member of the Green Party, Partansky is everything one might suspect of a woman of a certain age in northern California: an artist, a musician, a bike rider, a home restorer, a lover of all things natural.

      She also is a star lover, and she made a name for herself last year when she proposed and ushered through the City Council a law that she hopes will see the return of a dark night sky.

      Partansky is not alone. She joins a growing number of people across the country who are trying to turn down the lights and turn up the stars.

      San Diego, Tempe, Ariz., and most recently Ames, Iowa, are a few of the municipalities passing laws against light pollution.

      This spring, the governor of New Mexico signed the Night Sky Protection Act. The New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance lists the state’s night skies as one of the most endangered symbols of New Mexico’s heritage.

      Helping the cause along is the 3,000-member International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), based in Tucson, Ariz., which offers a Web site ( providing everything from petition information to ordinance updates and advice on how to institute quality outdoor lighting practices.

      Night light watcher: Julie Partansky, mayor of Davis, Calif., was the driving force behind the city’s light pollution ordinance (Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY).

      Don Davis, president of the IDA board of directors, says there’s hope: Lighting fixtures that are full-cutoff luminaires (no light is emitted above the horizontal plane) are becoming more and more common.

      “Many manufacturers are becoming more interested in making such fixtures, since the market for them is expanding rapidly,” Davis says.

      Partansky, strolling a downtown park on a recent summer’s evening, points out city lampposts that are star-friendly and those that aren’t. The friendly ones project light down, not up and out.

      “Every year, we’re going to retrofit a portion of our light fixtures,” she says. “Because of the new ordinance, there will be no increase in the sky glow. It will do nothing but go down. All we’re doing is making sure the light goes down. 

      “I get so many positive comments about this. I think it strikes something in people. I think they realize they’re missing out on something.”

      Partansky went so far as trying to get the city to turn the lights off after midnight, especially along the “greenbelt” bike and hiking paths, but the City Council balked.

      “They were against it for safety reasons, but there are areas where they do go off at 10,” she says.

      Safety issues come up often when dark-sky ordinances are discussed, although a landmark Justice Department study concluded years ago that street lighting has no effect on crime.

      “There’s no evidence that supports crime goes up when the lights go off,” Partansky says. “I think it’s people’s primal fear of the dark that supports those theories. You know, the bad guys have to see, too!”

      “It’s a natural concern,” says Robert Brucato, assistant director of the California Institute of Technology’s Palomar Observatory, near San Diego, “but if you look at the numbers, it’s just not there.”

      Brucato should know. He has dealt with light pollution and dark skies since 1982 in an effort to keep Caltech scientists in contact with the stars.

      “We began on this years ago, working with all the local communities around the observatory,” Brucato says.

      Astronomer-friendly, low-pressure sodium street lighting was installed by cities, and local lighting ordinances were passed to control the use of private outdoor lighting.

      “We got in on the ground level. The light pollution that would have occurred without these ordinances has not occurred,” he says. “The communities have stayed with the program over the years. It’s just a matter of enforcement and application now.”

      Brucato says the observatory’s neighbors also won in the bargain. “They want to enjoy the night sky, too. People intrinsically want to see this stuff.”

      What people don’t need to see, Partansky says, is such places as under eaves. She pointed out such wasted lighting on a Davis building the other night, lighting that glares up and out for no apparent reason. Under the new ordinance, such lighting will not be allowed.

      Then there’s the economic issue.

      The math is simple, say the dark-sky activists. If the public would accept turning off 25% of city light, it would see a 25% cut in its electricity bill, saving billions of dollars. The IDA estimates $2 billion a year is wasted in the USA on light that flows upward rather than downward, where it’s needed.

      The IDA also reports that light pollution affects not only people, but animals.

      The Florida Department of Natural Resources has asked that beach front lighting be turned off during sea turtles’ nesting and hatching season because light affects the hatchlings emerging from nests.

      Partansky is all for that. She championed building a tunnel for toads so they would no longer get squished crossing the highway here.

      “Davis has long had a reputation for being a wacky community, and I’m just carrying on the fine tradition,” Partansky says proudly.

      “Now maybe we’ll be known as the star city, and that’s fine with me, too.”

      –sorry Julie, there aren’t any lights that turn off at 10 pm anymore and the light levels haven’t stayed the same, its gone up 14% since May 26, 2014. And no one wants to talk about reducing light by 25%.  I wish your were here to help out with this one.

  7. Frankly

    The LED side light is a problem.  We have one shining into our backyard messing up our spa privacy.  The old incandescent light was more shining straight down and not out.

    I’m fine with LED lights… just not those that shine sideways.

    1. DavisBurns

      The old incandescent wasn’t incandescent.  It was high pressure sodium.  That is was is being replaced.  They were inexpensive to purchase but had a much shorter life therefore it was more expensive to maintain.  These LEDs cost about four times the HPS and last theoretically about three times longer.  The projections for 15 year life is based on lab tests not actual field testing.  I have heard they have problems with high temperatures so some places in the southwest have tried them and been disappointed.

  8. DavisBurns

    Frankly, LED street lights are here to stay.  The city can put a side shield on that light for you but I am perplexed as to how to make them act. We got shields on two of our numerous lights.  They just appeared one day.  It takes a guy in a cherry picker less than five minutes to install. You have to write to Mitch Sears at public works and ask for mitigation but I can find no rhyme or reason as to what motivates them to act.  After they decide what they are going to do about the problem we have, maybe they will be inclined to act.  Rumor has it they will be installing warmer color lights in residential areas but leave the blue glare bombs on main arteries, the problem with that is there are lots of people who live on those streets.

  9. Alan Miller

    I don’t want to say definitively until I see the staff report, which we may see today.  However, I believe the City chose what I believe to be the highest quality fixture among the seven available for evaluation as test lights for the survey, and apparently they also use less energy.

    The idea of shutting off the greenbelts at night will not fly, even in a town like Davis.  There are people out at all hours.  I bike the greenbelts late at night, sometimes in the wee hours, and people use them.  I love the darkness and am annoyed by blue-white light, but darkness on City transportation corridors won’t fly politically or for safety reasons.  There were two blue-white test lights and two yellow-white test lights for greenbelts.  While no decision has been made, either of the yellow-whites would be acceptable, and I can’t imagine from the way things are going the blue-white would be chosen.

    I was rather shocked in recent visits to Berkeley, Oakland and Palo Alto that these so-called progressive cities have gone to blue-white light as their night-time standard.  Davis may lead the way in this one.  This an example of Davis working.  Sure, it would have been better if the research was done in advance, but sometimes staff doesn’t see the problem up front.  The City Council paused the program, staff responded, and it appears a solution suitable for most-all has been reached.  At this point I hope we can support the City in this general direction, and work on the detail to comply with dark-sky ideas as we go.  There’s a lot I’d like to see, but getting the light-frequency right and the glare reduced on the residential lights is 80% of the solution.  Applause to Council, staff, citizens, process.

    I hope that we can get some press on this, the issue, the complaints, the research, the solutions.  That could place Davis as a positive innovator as other cities look to replace their streetlights with night-friendly versions of LED lamps.


  10. DavisBurns

    Alan, I can’t find staff reports on the city website, can you give me a clue where to find them?  I thought it should have been posted two weeks ago when street lights were on the agenda but it wasn’t.  Or I could not find it.  I even emailed and asked for it but got no response.  The the item was taken off the agenda about 10 hours before the meeting.  How far in advance does the city have to provide the report?  Seems like it should have been available the day of the meeting but I could not find it.

  11. Tia Will

    I agree with Alan that this is an example of Davis citizens and community leaders working together to problem solve in a collaborative, if belated, manner.

    My hope would be that we could see the same kind of collaborative ( after the fact) approach to the MRAP issue and in a proactive way to the decisions we will have to be making with regard to addressing our short term and long term financial issues. My thanks to Barbara Clowers, Alan, city staff and  council, for working diligently to  present information on this issue which has also been delightfully free of put downs, claims of ignorance or stupidity, and the other vituperative comments that tend to come up when there are differences of opinion on how to proceed.

  12. DavisBurns

    Tia, I wish I could agree that community leaders have worked with Davis citizens.  They have been amazingly unresponsive.  They may have listened to complaints but I don’t know that they have listened to intelligent constructive input because there has been no response.  They may have studied the issues more and they may have come to an acceptable plan of action but it hasn’t had any community dialog.  It has been done in secret.  I am with you about remaining civil.  It isn’t constructive but I feel the powers that be have gone out of their way to keep us out of the loop.  I also hope to collaborate, but it looks like the decisions have been made.  Please read the second article I posted.  There are more issues that need to be addressed like over lighting.

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