Post #503: 21/150

Posted on January 2, 2020

Image Source:  Linked from the Dominion Power outdoor lighting website.

Maybe it’s because I’m so burnt out, writing about the Town of Vienna.  Maybe it was an exchange I had with somebody where I said that if you actually look at the “olde-tyme” streetlights along Maple, they look like hell.  Maybe it’s the fact that the Town is going to place four of those lights along Wade Hampton.   Maybe it’s just my knee-jerk reaction to quantify the data wherever that can be done cheaply and quickly.

In any case, the title of this post is the count of olde-tyme “acorn” streetlights that are burnt out (21), out of the total of such lights (150) along Maple.  In round numbers, one out of seven street lights along the “nice” section of Maple (Courthouse to East Street) is burnt out.

Just FYI, it took me about 5 minutes to count them, by taking a drive along Maple.  So this is the count, as I was driving by.  It might be off by one or two.  But it’s materially correct.

I can go an inch or two deeper into this, I guess.

These lights look pretty darned nice along Church Street.  One of these dark winter nights, take the opportunity to drive down Church Street and focus on the line of street lights.  There, against a backdrop of largely dark building facades, small buildings, and narrow sidewalks, the “olde-tyme” acorn lights look pretty good.  By my count, there was one burned-out light along the entire length of Church.  And they actually appear to be lighting the street.  It comes across as a well-thought-out coherent whole.

But not so along Maple.  After driving down Church, drive down Maple and focus on the streetlights.  In terms of actually lighting the street, it’s not even clear that they are necessary at all, given the modern parking lot lighting, the lighted signs, and the car headlights.  And stylistically, and in terms of scale, to me at least, they don’t belong.

Given all that, it comes as no surprise that nobody seems to care whether these lights are working or not, on Maple.  I think that’s perfectly rational.  On Church, they look right and you need their light.  And on Church, they appear to be maintained.  By contrast, they aren’t decorative in the Maple Avenue context, and there’s so much other light that you have to focus on them to be aware of how many are burnt out.  And so, on Maple, nobody really cares if they are lit or not.

The high fraction of burnt-out lights on Maple is consistent with a general air of neglect for these fixtures along Maple.  So, for example, there are at least two different colors of LED lights mixed along the street (yellow-ish and white, presumably older and newer generation bulbs).  A fairly large fraction of the lights appear to be permanently on — or, at least, on the last overcast day that I drove down the street, it sure seemed like every 10th light or so was on.  And for at least some, the bases of the plastic (fiberglass) light poles are cracked and broken.

As I said, if you look at them closely, they look like hell.

A further oddity of the burnt-out bulbs is that they are anything but uniformly distributed along the street.  Clearly, the bulbs have been replaced in sections.  In some places, (as in front of the Glyndon Shopping Center (e.g., Jammin’ Java)), the bulbs are uniformly new and in good working order.  In other places — particularly along the north side of the roadway — the opposite is true.

But my true point here is that this critique doesn’t even address the basic question of how inefficient and contrary to modern “dark sky”* lighting guidelines these lamps are.  After downloading the specifications for the LED bulbs that Dominion Power offers, at best, one-third of the light is cast upward where it does no good whatsoever for lighting the street, and merely adds to light pollution.  Two-thirds is cast sideways and downward.  Sideways just causes glare, leaving somewhere around half the light output directed downward, where it does what it is supposed to do, which is illuminate the pavement).

* I have been told by a colleague that those on the political right consider the term “dark sky” to code for some sort of international liberal plot, and that I should use a more politically correct terms “full cutoff fixture” or “night sky friendly”.  I find that so hilarious that I refuse to do it.   Fairfax County has required dark sky lighting fixtures (for outdoor lighting, in private construction, in most circumstances) for the past two decades.  You used to be able to download a pamphlet explaining that, but it looks like Fairfax County has removed that from their website in preparation for relaxing those rules starting next week (.pdf).  Dominon Power is slowly converting local street lighting to “full cutoff” fixtures.  You can tell a dark-sky-compliant (full-cutoff) street light because it has a flat bottom — no glass hangs down below the metal fixture.  There are a handful of these already installed in various locations around Vienna.  Specifically, you can see examples as you drive down Maple into Oakton.

But they are what they are — where they are already installed.  It really makes no difference whether or not anyone keeps them up, because, at least by eye, there’s plenty of light along  Maple without them.  While they serve an excellent decorative role along Church, along Maple they are just a weird anachronism.  And, unsurprisingly, since we don’t need them for light, and don’t need them for looks, they aren’t kept up well.  And, seemingly, nobody notices.

In fact, the only reason to bring this up is to look toward the future.  It looks like the Town is bound and determined to plant these along the other half of Maple now — from Courthouse to Nutley.  But in the year 2020, they are a poor choice from the standpoint of functionality and efficiency.  In a Town that seems to pride itself on appearing to be “green”, you’d think they’d actively seek the most efficient street lighting possible.  But that’s not going to happen.