Palo Alto streets will be getting brighter in the next months as the city Utilities Department embarks on the latest phase of a multi-year project to replace all the city's streetlights with Light Emitting Diodes or LEDs.
But the lights are getting mixed reviews. Some residents find the bright, bluish light jarring; others are pleased, city officials said.
The replacement project was inspired by the Ten-Year Energy-Efficiency Plan that Palo Alto adopted in 2010, which hopes to reduce the city's use of electricity by 7.2 percent by 2020 through energy-efficiency programs, including streetlights.
Utilities spokeswoman Debra Katz said the main goal is to find the most cost-effective way to make it safer and easier for residents to move through the city and their neighborhoods.
LED lights use 40 percent less electricity than older, high-pressure sodium lamps. LEDs also have 30 percent lower maintenance costs and don't need to be replaced as often. The lights are also brighter, increase visibility and discourage illegal activity, she said.
The city ran a pilot program in April 2010. It tested LED lights from six different manufacturers and asked residents for feedback. The lights were installed around City Hall, on Ramona Street, Bryant Street, and Forest and Hamilton avenues and in parts of the Midtown neighborhood. The feedback was generally positive, Katz said.
An initial installation of 600 LED streetlights along El Camino Real and Alma Street took place in 2011 using federal stimulus funds.
The utilities department recently began installation on a citywide scale by putting in the first few thousand new lights. Officials expect to complete the project in all neighborhoods by 2015.
Some residents said the new lights are too bright.
"The main problem is that the energy-efficiency idea sounds great, but the implementation is totally unaesthetic. The lights are blinding bright, too white, and the fixtures are too tall (and) industrial," Rohini Chakravarthy said.
"When you look up, you see a row of over-bright LEDs versus the soft glow of the (sodium) vapor lamps on our street. These do not belong in a sweet neighborhood like Crescent Park -- more a Walmart parking lot," Chakravarthy said.
If the lamps are brought to her street, Chakravarthy said that she would start a petition drive.
Julianne Frizzell took the view that the lights are a work in progress. She lives at the corner of Channing Avenue and Center Street, where LEDs were recently installed.
"I definitely feel that the new LED fixtures are too bright. It's not the color that I find offensive but the intensity of the brightness. I did talk with someone in utilities about the issue. He had been fielding many reactions from folks.
"He did say the LED fixtures can be adjusted; that the brightness can be toned down. I definitely have the feeling that the city is willing to work with us on this. It will just take some time to get it right. I am pleased that they are using a more energy-efficient fixtures," she said.
Katz said the city is in a bit of a Catch-22.
"I can't overemphasize the extent to which people have very different reactions to all types of light. Even with the current HPS (high-pressure sodium) lamps, our department has gotten simultaneous complaints from the same area of the light being 'too dim' and 'too bright,'" she said.
In the past, the city has adjusted a lamp for one homeowner who complained that it was too bright, only to readjust the lamp years later when a new homeowner moved in, she said.
"The coverage of a light depends on more than just the light itself. The surrounding trees, landscaping and building sizes all influence how bright or dim an area is and how far the light shines," Katz said.
"What is noteworthy is the number of LED streetlights installed is in the thousands and the number of complaints about them are only in the dozens. Nevertheless, we are certainly taking concerns seriously and will make adjustments as warranted," she said.
If someone has checked with neighbors on the block, and there is agreement that the light level is a problem, he or she can email to Utilities Engineering at LEDStreetlights@cityofpaloalto.org. Residents should provide their name, location and contact information. People will be placed on a waiting list of locations to be evaluated. The city will determine which available options make the most sense in each case, she said.
But residents should not expect a change with the flick of a switch. It could take several weeks before an evaluation is done, due to the volume of requests, Katz said.
Some residents said the LEDs are a vast improvement over the old orange ones.
"When I walked out a few nights ago I was struck by the fact that there were fewer dark places on the street. Then I noticed the LED lamps.
"In talking with some of my neighbors, most like them and feel safer because there were fewer shadowy places. Our neighborhood has been hit three times fairly recently by burglaries and robberies. The tree prunings didn't seem to help much because the old orange lights were inadequate. This is much better," said Rita Lancefield.
Midtown Residents Association Chairwoman Sheri Furman said that, during the pilot program, residents liked some types of LEDs better than others. Getting used to the bluer light can take some time, she said.
An LED lamp has not yet been installed on her street, Furman said. However, she thinks that a light at the corner of Greer and Colorado provides light but doesn't spread too much.
Katz said the LED lamps come with three brightness settings. The city installs them at the lowest setting unless people find the light too dim. If the light is still considered too bright, the city can add a specialized shield to further mute the light. The shields were on order and just arrived on Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 26, she added.
The city's light-replacement schedule is as follows:
*Through 2012: Central Palo Alto from Embarcadero to Loma Verde Avenue (about 75 percent complete, with 2,000 lights so far)
*2012-2013: North Palo Alto from Palo Alto Avenue to Embarcadero Road, including downtown
*2013-2014: South Palo Alto from the Loma Verde Avenue area to the city boundary past San Antonio Avenue
*2014-2015: Palo Alto east of U.S. Highway 101 between city boundaries; West Palo Alto from El Camino Real to Foothill Expressway and Alexis Drive area in the foothills
Residents can read more and see a map of scheduled neighborhoods by visiting www.cityofpaloalto.org/utilityprojects.