Night in a new light: Encinitas swaps sodium for LEDs

Old+streetlights+are+slowly+being+replaced+by+new+energy-efficient+LED+fixtures+as+the+city+of+Encinitas+plans+to+replace+the+approximately+3%2C000+streetlights+throughout+the+community.+On+Encinitas+Boulevard+looking+east+toward+Cerro+Street+late+April+1%2C+the+old+lights+give+off+an+amber+glow+on+the+left.+On+the+right%2C+the+new+lights+produce+a+bright+blue-white.+%28Photo+by+Scott+Allison%29

Old streetlights are slowly being replaced by new energy-efficient LED fixtures as the city of Encinitas plans to replace the approximately 3,000 streetlights throughout the community. On Encinitas Boulevard looking east toward Cerro Street late April 1, the old lights give off an amber glow on the left. On the right, the new lights produce a bright blue-white. (Photo by Scott Allison)

Christopher Earley

Encinitas recently joined a growing number of California communities that have taken steps to improve energy efficiency by converting many of their street lights to LED technology.

Funded by grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy, the city began converting a portion of the older high-pressure sodium street lights to LED (light-emitting diode) last June.

The entire project, which is expected to take nearly a year to complete, has already been under way in several areas, including sections of Encinitas Boulevard and El Camino Real. Once all the lights slated for conversion are completed, the city has estimated an annual energy savings of more than $40,000.

Known as the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG), the U.S. Department of Energy program provided Encinitas with nearly $300,000 to convert the streetlights. But it wasn’t quite enough for a citywide conversion. And because it wants to avoid any issues with complaints of too much light, the city is staying out of residential areas for the time being.

“Because we didn’t have enough to do the lights citywide, we had to be selective,” said Nestor Mangohig, associate traffic engineer with the city of Encinitas. “One of those things that we’re not touching with this phase or this grant money are the decorative lights on (Highway) 101.”

While experts agree that LED lights are more energy efficient, not everyone feels that they are the best choice.

According to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), an organization concerned with the effects of light pollution on wildlife and astronomy, LED lights can cause more light pollution than their high- and low-pressure sodium counterparts.

“One of the things that’s true about LED compared to high-pressure sodium is this tremendous amount of blue light in it,” said Scott Kardel, public affairs Director for IDA. “Any color of light can cause light pollution, but blue does so at a disproportionately greater amount.”

According to Kardel, LEDs, with their greater amount of blue light, may seem brighter. High-pressure sodium lights tend to give off a dimmer impression with the orange color they emit.

And with the current LED technology, the city is still unsure of what it plans to do with the decorative acorn-style lights, which shoot light directly into the air.

“We don’t want to just throw that light into the air before we understand it,” Mangohig said. “We’ll have to see what the technology is when we do that.”

Mangohig said that while choosing the type of lights they would install, Encinitas was careful to bring in representatives of agencies such as IDA to make sure that all perspectives were given careful consideration.

The city of Carlsbad also recently converted its streetlights, but instead chose induction technology. And while LED and induction are similar, each city weighed several variables in determining what was best for their respective projects.

In addition to meeting with organizations such as IDA, Encinitas also consulted with regional work groups in other cities to get perspectives from law enforcement.

“The CRI (color rendering index) of the new (LED) lights is typically preferred by law enforcement,” Mangohig said. “CRI basically determines whether and to what degree color shading can be recognized under a light. The new lights have a CRI in the 70-80 range, so different shades are much more apparent at night. This is good when trying to describe the color of a car or the color of clothing someone is wearing.”

Mangohig also said that there has been very little opposition to the new lights. So far, the city has only received one complaint, which came from a resident who said that the light shined too far into his window. The light was later readjusted, Mangohig said.

“I’ve done some work with LEDs, and I think that’s going to be the wave of the future,” said 49-year-old Martin Villamar, whose family has owned and operated Encinitas Barbers on Coast Highway 101 for 30 years. “I think that within 10 years, everything is going to be LED.”

Chris Earley is a San Diego freelance writer