It’s not your imagination. Nighttime Tacoma really is the color of moonlight

The era of the orange street light is over.

In its place, moonlight now shines on Tacoma.

The city has just completed a 10-month-long changeover of its old orange-colored street lights to white LED lights. The $5 million project is saving taxpayers money and giving the city a new look at night.

Tacoma’s Public Works Department and Tacoma Public Utilities collaborated on the project that replaced approximately 75 percent of Tacoma’s streetlights with new, energy-efficient LED fixtures.

Installation started in December 2017 and finished in October 2018, three months ahead of schedule and $2 million under budget.

The remainder of the city’s streetlights consist of ornamental and specialty lighting that were not part of the project but will be replaced over time. By the end of 2019, 95 percent of the city’s 22,000 lights will be LED fixtures, said Leigh Starr, an assistant manager with the city’s public works department.

TPU provided the money to purchase and install the fixtures. The $5 million cost is built into the rate the city will pay for its street-light bill over the next 15 years, said Roger Peery, a lighting supervisor for Tacoma Power.


Since the 1970s, the United States has been covered in an orange glow at night, the result of the ubiquitous high pressure sodium vapor light bulb. The light’s color balance falls between a candle and an incandescent bulb (see chart below).

The energy crunch of the 1970s ushered in the energy-efficient light.

Its even more-efficient cousin, the low pressure sodium vapor bulb, was never popular in the U.S. Its monochromatic light creates a world where only orange exists. Other colors are indistinguishable from one another.

The new LED lights along Tacoma’s arterials are the same color balance as moonlight and render colors close to how they are seen in daylight.

“The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s a much whiter light,” Starr said. “It gives you better sight distance, and it’s distributed more evenly.”

There still are areas in Tacoma where a few high pressure sodium street lights exist near new LED lights. The difference is striking.

The bulbs of the sodium vapor lights are far more visible and glaring. The light from those bulbs falls on the ground in a circle with a bright center and dim margins.

“That’s hard for the eye to adjust to,” Peery said.

The LEDs, in contrast, create broad areas of light that have an equal brightness and merge seamlessly with their neighboring lights.

“These (LED) lights are putting the light exactly where we want it,” Starr said.

Tests show that the LED lights render color better and increase viewing distance, Peery said.

What the average person can see at 78 feet under high pressure sodium lighting can be seen at 135 feet under the type of LED lights Tacoma is using for arterial streets, Peery said. That means drivers will see obstacles far sooner with the new lighting.

“We’re hoping that this will lessen the pedestrian-versus-vehicle wrecks,” Starr said.

Some say the LED lights make it harder to see in fog, but Starr said he has not seen studies that prove that.

A single LED streetlight on South Yakima Avenue stands out for its white light among the yellow high pressure sodium lights that illuminate the rest of the street, January 16, 2019. Tacoma Public Utilities is swapping in the more efficient LED lights all over the city. Peter Haley phaley@thenewstribune.com


The city developed the specifications for the new lights and managed their installation by a contractor. TPU provided the funding for the project.

“We couldn’t afford the big cash outlay to buy all the new fixtures,” Starr said.

The fixtures — which seldom burn out — will eventually become dim and need replacement in 20 to 25 years, Peery said. The old fixtures needed a bulb change every four to five years, Starr said.

Tacoma is not the only Pierce County city that’s upgraded its lighting to LED. Fircrest, Lakewood and Fife switched as did Joint Base Lewis-McChord — TPU’s biggest customer.

JBLM is now saving $1 million per year in energy and maintenance costs, Peery said. The switchover was aided by $1.5 million in rebates provided by TPU.

As more municipalities, businesses and residences switch to LED lighting, pressure is taken off existing energy needs.

“Conservation is the best way to meet growing demand,” said TPU spokeswoman Chris Gleason.

Until recently, overhead high pressure sodium lights accounted for 83 percent of the total energy used by street lights in Tacoma.

The typical high pressure sodium residential street light, often called a cobra head if rounded or a shoe box if square, used 120 watts of energy. The LED fixture that replaced it uses 35 watts.

The bigger lights used on arterials used 470 watts each. The LED replacements use 135 watts.

Before the project, the city’s monthly street light bill was $72,000, Peery said. After two rate increases, it would be $88,000 now.

Following the LED installation, the monthly bill is now $18,000 just for electricity. However, the funding repayments make the total bill $73,500.

Around a quarter of Tacoma’s streetlights are specialty and ornamental, many reproductions of historic streetlights. At the public works’ maintenance facility on Orchard Street, a warehouse holds dozens of different styles and sizes.

Many of them have globes. While they add a vintage look to a street, the originals made inefficient lights because they sent a glow up into the atmosphere.

“There’s absolutely no benefit to uplighting,” Starr said. It’s the scourge of those who preach against light pollution, particularly stargazers.

“We’ve had some complaints from amateur astronomers,” Starr said.

The reproductions the city is using now have mirrored surfaces or a diffuser to reduce uplighting while still giving the tops of the globes a romantic glow.

The tall cobra heads and shoe box lights project light in a carefully controlled zone.

“There’s absolutely no uplighting on these new fixtures,” Starr said.

street_lights_1_lead photo for print
Gary Baublitz, a signal-streetlight apprentice with Tacoma Public Utilities, covers the sensor to turn on a newly-installed LED streetlight near S. 38th street, January 18, 2019. Peter Haley phaley@thenewstribune.com


Take a night drive beyond the city and you’ll find a world lit only by headlights, the occasional porch light and sometimes the moon.

So, why do Tacoma and other cities even bother with street lights?

“We’re a first-class city, and there’s an expectation that we look like a first class city,” Starr said.

Street lights provide safety for drivers and pedestrians. They are not intended to keep burglars away from your back door.

Many residents don’t want streetlights shining into their homes and complain when they do, Starr said. Others, he said, complain when they don’t.

“My job isn’t to use tax payer dollars to light up your yard,” Starr said. There is no legal expectation that the city provide lighting of residential or business property, he said.

But, the new lighting is helping Tacoma’s crime fighters.

“Along the main arterials, it is much better,” Tacoma police officer Shelbie Boyd said. “There is definitely a difference.”

The new lighting helps her see around parked cars and further down the street. Boyd patrols the East Side.

“Not only did it help me, as an officer, improve my ability to see, but it looks better,” she said of the new lighting.

There have been some complaints from the public. Most don’t like the color of the light, Starr said.

“They said they didn’t want it looking like a Walmart parking lot,” Starr said. “But, I have had just as many compliments on the color of the light.”

Color temperature of various light sources

The lower the number on the Kelvin scale, the more orange the color is. The higher the number, the more blue the light is. Kelvin does not refer to the intensity or brightness of the light.

Candle, sunrise/sunset: 1,900 K

High pressure sodium light: 2,200 K

Incandescent light bulb: 2,700 K

Tacoma residential LED street light: 3,000 K

Tacoma arterial LED street light: 4,000 K

Moonlight: 4,100 K

Direct sunlight: 5,000 K

Cloudy day: 7,000 K


Tacoma Power offers an off-street lighting rental program for home or business owners who desire additional lighting. The utility will install a 70-watt LED light for $14.81 per month or a 146-watt LED floodlight for $33.32 monthly. The price includes installation, maintenance and removal. The lights can only be installed on Tacoma Power poles. Call 253-502-8618 for more information.

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.