Seattle City Light has finished converting all of its residential lights to brighter, bluer, LED lights. But some neighbors aren’t happy with the change. Photo by Sarah Radmer
Seattle City Light has finished converting all of its residential lights to brighter, bluer, LED lights. But some neighbors aren’t happy with the change. Photo by Sarah Radmer
It was quite a few years ago when Seattle City Light decided to replace all residential streetlights with light-emitting diode (LED) lights. Queen Anne and Magnolia were the last areas of the city to get the new lights, and some residents aren’t happy with the change.

Magnolia’s Kurt Owen began noticing the new, brighter, blue lights about a year ago. He thought those lights would be in high-traffic areas only — that’s where they make sense, he said.

The decision to switch the residential lights was made more than four years ago, said Seattle City Light spokesperson Scott Thomsen. The conversion started in 2010, hitting different Seattle neighborhoods in waves. Queen Anne and Magnolia were part of the last group of neighborhoods to get the new lights in 2014.

The conversion project was spurred by federal funding, and after that, City Light made the commitment to go all-LED, Thomsen said.

The installations have now wrapped up, and all residential areas have the LED lights — a conversion of 40,000 lights total.

The change is “positioned to save the city $2.4 million each year in maintenance and energy costs,” Thomsen said.

Now, City Light will begin replacing the lights in commercial and arterial areas.

Different views

Owen, who has a background in photography, said this bright, blue-toned light is hard on the eyes and ruins ambience. The amber glow from older lights mimics sunsets, whereas the new lights remind him of light in the early morning hours. He’s concerned about how those lights will affect people and their sleep.

“Now, they’re going to bombard us with these blue lights,” he said. “It’s ambience; it’s health and being blinded at night.”

Owen said the lights are too bright when he drives home through Magnolia at night. He normally takes advantage of the dark to look at the city views, but now he thinks it looks like daytime. He’s concerned these lights will ruin Magnolia’s ambience and make it look like a “penitentiary” or “junkyard.”

“We don’t need to look out at the city and have it look like a computer monitor,” he said.

Owen’s arguments aren’t with the LED lights themselves; he’s annoyed with the color City Light settled on, arguing the agency could have filtered the light to not be so blue or bright.

As City Light was making the decision over the change, it tested the coolest, bluest LED lights available in Capitol Hill. The customers hated them and called them “zombie blue,” Thomsen said. The utility ended up putting a filter on them to get a warmer, but still bright, light.

When Owen complained to City Light, they told him the installations were done. “I think it’s done because no one is complaining,” he said.

City Light has received complaints on less than 2 percent of the new installations, Thomsen said.

The most obvious thing is the different color. Typically, people are unhappy with the color for an adjustment period, and after a few weeks, they become accustomed to it, he said.

There have also been complaints about light intrusion. In those cases, crews would go back out and reposition the lights.

The existing lights were all about 30 years old and needed to be replaced, Thomsen said, and even though the LEDs are more of an investment upfront, they save money in the long term.

The LED lights also give off a more true color, whereas the older lights skewed colors — this can be an issue in instances when people try to identify a car color to police, he explained. The older lights gave off more light pollution, but the new ones cut down on wasted light. There’s also the lifespan, which is up to 12 years for fully functional LED light bulbs and about five years for the previous lights.

The newest lights reduce energy use by 60 percent — 20 percent better than the previous LEDs, Thomsen said.

Saving money for other priorities

The payback period for the project is a little more seven years, Thomsen said, but costs continue to come down.

The money for city lighting comes out of the city’s general fund, and streetlights are typically the biggest fixed cost for a city, he said: “Anything we can save [on]...the money can be spent on other priorities. Any time we find a way to reduce costs, that’s a big win for the community.”

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