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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Another reason to hate those energy-saving light bulbs

Here's a story out of Wisconsin that will give you yet another reason to hate those energy-efficient light bulbs that are being mandated all over the place.
Cities around the country that have installed energy-efficient traffic lights are discovering a hazardous downside: The bulbs don't burn hot enough to melt snow and can become crusted over in a storm — a problem blamed for dozens of accidents and at least one death.

"I've never had to put up with this in the past," said Duane Kassens, a driver from West Bend who got into a fender-bender recently because he couldn't see the lights. "The police officer told me the new lights weren't melting the snow. How is that safe?"

Many communities have switched to LED bulbs in their traffic lights because they use 90 percent less energy than the old incandescent variety, last far longer and save money. Their great advantage is also their drawback: They do not waste energy by producing heat.

Authorities in several states are testing possible solutions, including installing weather shields, adding heating elements like those used in airport runway lights, or coating the lights with water-repellent substances.

Short of some kind of technological fix, "as far as I'm aware, all that can be done is to have crews clean off the snow by hand," said Green Bay, Wis., police Lt. Jim Runge. "It's a bit labor-intensive."

In St. Paul, Minn., for example, city crews use air compressors to blow snow and ice off blocked lights.
So how much energy is spent by having employees going around to heat up the traffic lights?

I guess this is part of that green jobs stimulus we keep hearing about.

Link via John McCormack.


tfhr said...

Truly a winner just waiting for a "Dim Bulb Idea" award.

Pat Patterson said...

At least living in So Cal has its advantages. Namely being snow free. But if it did snow that much then crusted over traffic lights would be the least of our problems. Gotterdamerung anyone?

Freeven said...

This is a marvelous example of the law of unintended consequences -- a humorous and relatively inexpensive reminder that even the simplest and best intentioned ideas are prone to unforeseen complications.

Now take this small idea and extrapolate it out to a trillion dollar health care bill -- or a trillion dollar "cap and trade bill", or a trillion dollar "stimulus" bill, or a trillion dollar budget (or even a modest "cash for clunkers/caulkers" or any of the various bailouts). It's entirely predictable that these endeavors will take all kinds of unexpected turns and become inefficient and unmanageable.

This is why it's so important that, to the greatest extent possible, we keep Washington out of the mix and keep projects small and local. They'll still be prone to unintended consequences, of course, but small mistakes are cheaper and easier to recover from.

When we pursue the notion that a small group of bureaucrats have the wisdom and knowledge to manage the affairs of 300 million people, we set ourselves up for failure on a very grand scale.

tfhr said...

Pat Patterson,

I'll see your Götterdämmerung and raise you a Fahrvergnügen because in this game of high stakes driving, someone with some entrepreneurial spirit will create a dashboard GPS that screams "STOP!" as you approach the red light. Of course here in the DC area it won't say it in a language understood by any driver but it will tell you to "FLOOR IT" as the light is transitioning from yellow. All will understand.

Locomotive Breath said...

Your hate is misplaced. Or at least you're hating for the wrong reasons.

Those LED lights have been around for a while and have nothing to do with the current global warming mania. They started with red because the technology wouldn't let them do yellow or green. I remember seeing mixed traffic signals in Raleigh ten years ago with red LEDs and incandescent yellow and green. We engineers notice these things.

Then they figured out yellow and finally green. Google wide bandgap semiconductors. It's the same reason that you can now get white LEDs and even the ultraviolet LED in that Blu-ray DVD player you've been putting off buying.

Their main advantage is that they last a long long time. Forget the energy savings, the main savings is not having to have a crew running around town changing incandescent lights - all year long. Accidents are obviously avoided due the reduction in signal light malfunctions - all year long.

If you've been paying attention, you'll notice that they've also completely infiltrated automobile tail lights - for exactly the same reasons. They rarely go out.

For localities that get a high snow/ice load, it should be fairly easy to design a thermostat controlled electric heater just like the one that clears the frost off the back window of your car. Why no one has yet done so baffles me. I suspect this problem was already known and the localities involved just failed to do their homework.

While having to run an LED heater occasionally (Wisconsin) is less efficient than not having to run an LED heater (Arizona), it's still waaay more efficient than with an incandescent light which is, in effect, running a heater all the time.

You're going to see these dominate home lighting. I skipped the compact fluorescent phase and went straight to LEDs. No warm up time, dimmable by a conventional dimmer and no mercury if you break them. I haven't crawled up a ladder in quite a while now. I'll pay money for that. They have also made a noticeable difference in my electric bill. They were expensive but the payback period on energy alone I calculate at about 18 months, leaving out the cost of replacement incancesdents.

Pat Patterson said...

And another entrepeneur will figure out a way to turn off that function.

Bintohead said...

Locomotive Breath,

What you explained is a perfect example of the law of "unintended consequences".

I'm sure municipalities probably were patting themselves on the back thinking about how "green" they were - how they were saving the environment, etc.

You're right that they save energy - and work in a variety of different applications - however, clearly, they (by themsevles, without some add on) don't work well as traffic lights in areas where they get snow fall.

In my lifetime, I don't believe I've ever seen an incandescent traffic light "burned out" - I've seen traffic lights completely out due to power outages, I've seen flashing reds & flashing yellows - but in 26 years of driving - I don't believe I've ever seen a traffic light burnt out (and please spare me the "you can't see a burnt out traffic light" comments - you know what I mean).

Anyways, my point was - how many accients will this prevent - considering it is increasing accidents in the winter time in snowy areas. It's possible that it might reduce accidents from burnt out lights during the rest of the year - but it will increase them during the winter time.

tfhr said...

Locomotive Breath,

I guess I won't need to patent that LED toaster I've been designing. Maybe I'll teach it to balance on a dashboard and give directions....

Locomotive Breath said...

I have noticed incandescent lights being out at different places and times but I agree it is rare. The reason it's rare is that diligent people do preventative maintenance. They keep track of how long each and every incandescent light has been installed. They have to maintain a crew in continuous operation all the time and all they do is travel around town to replace incandescent traffic signals.

Since it's so expensive to replace them, and the cost of the incandescent itself is not that great, once they have someone up on a cherry picker at a traffic signal, they take out the still functioning lights before they die and put in new ones. Which means they can't even extract the full lifetime of the incandescent signals.

I lived in northern Illinois for three years. Incandescent traffic signals get snowed over all the time. I can't count how many times I came to an intersection in a snowstorm and people were stopped in all four directions because the signal was snowed over. It's only AFTER the snowstorm that the incandescent light melts the snow and ice.

These lights were introduced a decade ago. It's not "unintended consequences" if the consequences are well known and you just fail to pay attention.

stubedobedu said...

I worked for the Oakland County road commission and I assure you that Locomotive Breath is correct, this is a dumb (and ironic) attack on "green". 1) the lights burn out frequently enough that crews exists pretty much solely to continual work replace the bulbs. Besides the expense of replacing them (and the cost of running them), a common risk is the crews getting hit in the process of performing the work. I recall 3 trucks in the Pontiac yard beyond salvage and while I was there a guy in the boom when the truck was hit was but into a coma (not resolved whether he lived or died when I returned to college).

This is considered a minor concern by road and safety engineers, and is a risk with wet and heavy now, common here in Michigan.

Detroit News just did an article on this (

(by the way, I consider this ironic as a usual argument against 'green' is the effect of the change is not thought through...)