News: Bright Lights, City Lights

 How Many Bureaucrats Does it Take to Turn Off the Lights?

By Jeffrey Bradley

It’s midday, but overhead the streetlights are on. In an apparently randomless fashion, strings of anywhere from three to thirty brightly glowing lights burn around-the-clock, sometimes for weeks on end, all over Miami Beach.

And it’s not just a local problem. On a recent trip to Miami International Airport ninety-three lit streetlights were counted along the expressway, not including the dozen or more spotted on the Julia Tuttle Causeway that contended with the sun for control of the bright afternoon. Three days later, these lights were still on.

Some residents are angered at this apparent waste of energy. Howard Kaufman, President of the Association for Better Child Care, Development & Education and a concerned Beach resident, finds the issue disturbing. Referring to a string of lights illuminating the south side of Lincoln Road recently he noted, “Those lights have been on for eight days!”

In his search for answers, which he called “frustrating”, Kaufman has ferreted out some intriguing facts.

Statistically, it costs about a half-barrel of oil a year to provide the electricity to keep one streetlight burning for 12 hours. Even a modest calculation reveals an appalling loss of expensive energy, especially when the rising price of oil and the environmental costs are factored in.

“The president suggested we increase our tire pressure to save oil. The DOE (Department of Energy) sent me a brochure that says removing the plug from the wall after charging your cell phone saves energy. Even FPL asks me to lower my thermometer a couple of degrees.” He paused. “Soundbites and one liners.”

The problem appears to be widespread. Kaufman enlisted the aid of his son-in-law, a resident of Atlanta, to check on the status of streetlights in that area. He reported the same problem existing there.

“Do the arithmetic,” he sighed.

It could be as simple as faulty sensors keeping the lights on. Or it could be something more sinister.

“Municipalities pay a bulk rate for energy, which might explain why they don’t complain,” offered Kaufmann. “I don’t know how that rate is determined, but suppose it’s based on the amount of oil used. Now, suppose that amount doesn’t justify the rate…”

“This is supposition only,“ he hastened to add.

It could also be blamed on a phenomenon called “street light interference”, or SLI, that occurs when someone passing near a streetlight seems to turn it on. Hard-core SLI believers take it as a matter of faith that it happens personally to them all the time, or at least a lot more frequently than by chance. They use scientific terminology to explain brain electrical impulses interfering with the inner workings of lights. While this may be a valid explanation in some instances, in Miami Beach the cause for the ever-burning streetlights is probably something a lot more mundane.

This reporter’s own search for answers on turning off the perpetually burning streetlights indicated a complicated problem. Unraveling who is responsible for what appears complex, especially as neither the City nor County replied to repeated requests for information. (According to FPL, the City is responsible for the city’s streetlights, the County for the county’s, and the State for the state’s.)

A Google search revealed that streetlights mostly use light-sensitive photocells to turn on at dusk and off at dawn, or activate automatically under dark conditions, such as during a storm. Older lighting depends on a kind of ‘solar dial’ to perform this function. When these “sensors” act erratically the streetlight flickers, but when they fail the streetlight stays permanently on. A variety of systems can control and reduce energy consumption, including a controlled circuit of streetlights, or individual lights, with specific ‘network operating protocols’. This involves sending and receiving instructions by data networks at high frequency, or by wireless, all of which interacts compatibly with streetlight hardware.

But what this has to do, exactly, with streetlights burning 24/7 all over Miami Beach remains uncertain.

A spokesperson for FPL, the only entity that did reply, said that they “partner with the City.” Marie Bertot, the spokesperson, added “the City maintains the lights”, but if the company receives a complaint on a day-burning streetlight, “we will fix it immediately.”

That appears a reasonable approach for anyone reporting a single streetlight. But with strings of them burning furiously away, the problem would seem costly enough to warrant the city stepping in to request FPL do a Beach-wide survey of these rogue lights and fix them.

FPL refused to divulge how much the City pays for its power, only that it’s supplied “in bulk.” A perusal of Miami Beach expenses last year doesn’t break out the amount spent on electricity, but reveals a total of $5,380,000.00 paid in “utilities.” Electricity is measured in watts, and produced by fossil-fuels or nuclear power. That extra wattage used to illuminate the streetlights during the day is an expense ultimately borne by the taxpayer.

In fact, bulk rate, or “rate tariff”, means that taxpayers foot the bill whether the lights are burning or not. It also presupposes that the lights are unmetered, which is unclear as no administration official would comment, and that the City pays a flat monthly fee. It may be worse; if sodium vapor lights are being used, which is unclear as no administration official would comment, they may consume up to three times the energy as other kinds of lights, such as metal halide or the new LED lights that are coming online.
In difficult economic times and given the cost-cutting measures promoted by the City of Miami Beach, by DOE and by FPL, cutting the electricity bill of individual streetlights in half makes economic sense. Also called “light pollution”, wasted light’s total cost to the environment could well be staggering. The extra energy being consumed results in tons of carbon dioxide emitted from power plants (FPL’s closest station, at Turkey Point, is nuclear-powered and discharges heat into the water). But whether the power source is coal, gas, oil or nuclear, on a national level profligacy like this must have a dramatic, negative impact on the environment.

Which certainly doesn’t sit well with Luis Rodrigues, Executive Director of ECOMB, the Environmental Coalition of Miami Beach. “I’m 100% behind fixing the streetlights,” he said. Rodrigues would also like to see the traffic lights in Miami Beach synchronized to reduce another wasteful source of energy, idling in traffic, which also spews dangerous carbon emissions into the air. “Synchronizing the entire grid” of streetlights, he surmised, would be a better approach than relying on individual pole sensors.    

And not only the City of Miami Beach was unforthcoming on the subject; Miami-Dade County was less helpful. Although no official would confirm it, streetlights along rights-of-way maintained by the County, Abbott Avenue and Dade Boulevard, for example, in county jurisdiction, suffer the same malady.

The County’s Public Works homepage features a “Report a Problem” link to “Report stop/street signs down, street lights and/or traffic signals out” using a “ServiceDirect application” or by “calling 3-1-1.” Unfortunately, neither of these avenues of approach, not even a direct phone call, yielded anything more than a disconnected number.

But “We answer… to you”, according to their webpage.

This affliction strikes at all kinds of streetlights: nor do the new ‘acorn’ pedestrian neighborhood lights, the familiar overhead ‘cobraheads’ lining the major thoroughfares, even the many-storied ‘klieg’ lights that loom over the Julia Tuttle, give any indication as to which lights stay on, or why. There may be only one stubbornly burning, but they usually glow in sequential strings that may or may not suddenly jump the street to continue inexplicably on the other side.

For instance, on a recent day many pedestrian acorn lights were lit on the east side of Washington Avenue between 12th and 15th Streets. From 15th Street to Lincoln Road on both sides of the street cobraheads were on, and from 17th to 19th both kinds of lights on both sides of the street were on. That day, past the Convention Center, no lights were burning.

Although no official confirmed it, at bottom the problem apparently lies with the faulty sensors. As previously mentioned, these regulate the on and off positions of the lights; when they fail, the light stays on until somebody comes along to fix it. When this reporter asked FPL if they might not be better defaulting to the ‘off’ position and facilitate repair faster, the puzzling answer was the sensors “detect daylight.”

Unless the surmise is wrong, and no official would confirm it, failed sensors that keep lights off instead of on would stop wasting oil, electricity, and money. But keeping the streetlights off during the day is an issue that appears to rely more on citizen vigilance than on any official policy of diligence.

Repeated attempts for information by email and telephone to the City of Miami Beach Public Works Department on the subject, responsible for maintaining streetlights on city streets and roads, went unanswered, although a clerk finally testily informed that the requests were “under consideration”, but the response might be slow as “we’re busy with the storm.”

Why does it seem so hard for somebody to hit the lights during the daytime? The answer might be that no official is aware that the lights are on.
So, what can be done?

Howard Kaufman has answers. “My suggestion to FPL is, ask your customers to call in when they see a light pole lit during the day. Equip your trucks with sensors and instruct your workers to fix a light that is on when they see one.” He, too, questions why sensors don’t fail in the ‘off’ position. “When streetlights are out, people call in to complain and FPL turns them back on.”

This seems logical, as would a repair crew glancing the length of the street to see if other streetlights are on. (“Don’t these guys have cellphones in their pockets?”, he queried.) FPL labor surely doesn’t come cheaply. Would it not be more cost-effective to fix an entire stretch of the streetlights at once?

Kaufmann also urges using the Light’s Out! program (see Oil By The Barrel ), which essentially involves reporting any errantly-lit streetlight’s exact location to FPL. When this reporter tried it, the power company responded almost immediately. Kaufmann also suggests calling City or County Halls, depending on where the light is burning, to report the problem. And, he urges citizen-involvement with neighborhood associations to get action on these kinds of quality of life issues.

As to those lights burning on Lincoln Road? After inquiries by this reporter, FPL fixed them within hours. “Lights now off,” Kaufmann stated later by email. “But fifteen lights on Washington are still on.”

This Just In (and too late for the print edition…)

This reporter wants to commend the City of Miami Beach for providing the following answers. No one queried at any city department directly or otherwise indicated contacting the Office of Communications. Ms Rodriguez also informed that the email had apparently got caught in a spam trap.

You had contacted our Public Works Dept with a few questions regarding streetlights. We would have gladly provided you with assistance; however, we had no record of you contacting our office (Office of Communications).

Here is the information you were seeking:
Most of the lights use photocell that are individually controlled, and others, use one photocell for a bank of lights. Sensors cannot be adjusted to “off” when they fail. The City conducts monthly night inspections. As photocell failures are found, we replace them as well as, during the day when conducting maintenance on  circuits. At times, contractors are testing new lights during the day to test the circuit, which requires more than 48 hours. At times, a failure on a photocell requires a replacement.

FPL charges the City in kilowatts or a fixed cost per pole in some areas of the city.

I hope this answers your questions.

– Nannette Rodriguez, Public Information Officer


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