Brighter not necessarily better for new city lights in San Rafael

Blinded by the lights.

That's the concern in San Rafael, as the city converts its street lamps to energy-efficient LED lights. 

"When it's really dark out, it's just amazingly bright," said resident Lois Tucker, raising her living room shade to reveal a bright light outside her window. "The city said you'll get used to it but I don't think that we will," she added, noting others in her Gerstle Park neighborhood share her frustration. 

"Before, the light had a soft golden glow," recalled Tucker, " and now, it's like a car lot, I mean I could garden in my yard at midnight, because of the light cast from here." 

The city is almost finished done making a complete swap of the old amber-colored street lights to the brighter, cleaner light of LED bulbs. A total of 2,300 lights have been replaced on residential streets. About 400 lights on arterial streets remain.

The LED lamps last three times as long, and will save San Rafael almost $200,000 annually in electricity costs. 
"The number of complaints we've had, is over 100 now, " acknowledged Public Works Director Bill Guerin," but we ask people to give them a chance." 

High pressure sodium lights were the standard for decades, and their aesthetics are more familiar to people.

But light emitting diode is catching on, with about 13 percent of the nation's roads and highways now illuminated with the more modern technology. 

The brighter the white of the LED, the higher the level of short-wavelength blue light, which has detrimental health effects. 

The American Medical Association warns the glare is bad for eyes and the wavelength disrupts sleep.  

San Rafael's street lighting, at a color temperature of 3000 Kelvin, is within AMA guidelines.

But in response to complaints, the city, in partnership with PG&E, is making some tweaks. 

"We can install a shield on the light, so it redirects the light, away from someone's house," explained Guerin. 

Shields, dimmers, and adjusting the angles of the lights, are all possible remedies for those who find the lights intrusive. 

"We are being responsive to people who are concerned, we're being proactive, and we're actually going out and making changes now, in places we know it's a problem," said Guerin.    

Public works staff is also hearing positive feedback on the lights.

"I think they're great, and I walk with my baby and the dog almost every night," said resident Alan B. Jones, who often uses a flashlight to avoid pits and bumps in the sidewalk at night. 

"It was super dim, and now it's slightly less dim," Jones said, "and I don't see any negatives, I definitely don't need sunglasses out at night. I can barely see".

San Rafael joins many cities across the country to adopt LED lights, then make modifications in response to community feedback.