LED shortcoming: Traffic lights in Chicago not hot enough to melt snow build up. Accidents on the rise.

by Mike
Posted December 16th, 2009 at 8:52 am

Energy efficient traffic lights seem like one of the best ways to save local governments significant amounts of money of the course of 5, 10, or more years. The lights which often use LED technology are much less demanding on the power grid which in turn means more money for other things. But there’s one side effect many have overlooked. Heat output.

Remember, the higher the heat output of a light, the more energy is being wasted. That’s all fie and dandy for indoor lighting or lighting or “non-critical outdoor lighting”. You see, the city of Chicago is discovering that the lack of heat output because of the new LED traffic lights’ increased efficiency is actually creating another problem — increased snow build up leading to a higher number of accidents.

It’s an easy concept to understand. Traditional traffic lights generate heat which in turn melts the snow off of the actual lights keeping them free and easily seen. LED’s with their much lower energy consumption and heat output allow snow to build up as temperatures aren’t getting high enough to melt the snow. It’s a sad side effect really as now numerous people are being injured and potential lives lost. Even still, it would be foolish and hasty for the city of Chicago to backtrack on their “green rollout” by replacing the more energy efficient traffic lights with the older style simply to melt snow for a few months out of the year. Though for an easy and quick fix, swapping the lights may be the only answer.

I’m not a civil engineer in Chicago so I don’t know how they went about the big switch to LED bulbs. Can they simply replace the bulbs with traditional lights or do they need to change the entire fixture? On the surface, such a switch seems like the best way to go as I don’t see any quick, easy, and cost effective way to “warm up” LED traffic lights. Future models of LED traffic signals could have an electric heating element of some sort built into the light housing as to melt the snow. But again, that doesn’t help the thousands of currently deployed lights on the streets. Not to mention, adding such a feature will no doubt add to the cost of energy efficient traffic lights — lights which are already a fair amount more than traditional lights.

Of course, cities employing LED traffic lights have another option — have city workers clean of the bulbs by hand. It’s not quick and it isn’t exactly a very good “fix”. For the time being however it is the only viable option to keep the LED’s and reduce traffic accidents.

To highlight the point further, many cities in Wisconsin have been migrating to LED lights for some time now. In fact, there are so many “modernized” traffic lights — numbering in the hundreds — that the state is saving over $750,000 per year in energy costs. It may not seem like it would make a huge dent in the state’s budget, but every little bit helps. Not to mention, I’m sure their are more than a few hundred traffic signals in Wisconsin. Just imagine the energy savings if all of them were converted to LED. Simple solution: Take a tad of that savings and hire an extra body or two during the winter months to aide in cleaning LED traffic lights off. Sound easy enough?

Some will never be pleased however as several are calling for the city to abandon the move to LED traffic lights until a new design emerges that can actually be self sufficient in cold, snowy weather. Such things are again short sighted. While a price tag can never be placed on a human life, removing technology — a very needed and important one at that — simply because of a minor problem is a bad decision.

Any Chi-town residents care to chime in? Have you personally witnessed any accidents due to LED lights being covered by ice and snow?

Chicago Tribune

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2 ResponsesLeave a comment
  • Angela
    December 17, 2009 at 11:29 am

    There is an easy and cost effective solution to this problem that is fast and uncomplicated; therefore helping cities quickly respond to the problem and alleviate more potential hazards this winter season. The solution is a scoop visor, available through McCain Inc. (www.mccain-inc.com/traffic/item/signals/signal-visors.html). The scoop visor is specifically designed to help reduce snow deposits and build up on the face of LED traffic signals. It’s a simple and straightforward fix that allows cities to continue pursuing their eco-friendly goals of installing energy efficient LED’s, without jeopardizing the safety of their citizens.

    • Mike
      December 17, 2009 at 12:53 pm


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