I don’t get it.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Wickenburg, where I live, is the dark night skies. But as time goes on, that darkness is getting ever lighter.
We live on the edge of town where the homes are spread out and there’s lots of space between them. There’s no real “road” to get to our home. Instead, there’s an easement that neither the county nor the town want to maintain for us. It’s a steep, dirt road that is best climbed at at least 15 mph or, if you’re in a pickup truck, with 4WD turned on. There are only three homes that use the road and, unfortunately, not all of the occupants or visitors understand how to get up the hill without spinning their wheels. As a result, the road is usually full of mounds and ditches and can be quite a challenge to negotiate with a low slung car, like my little Honda S2000. Periodically, one of my neighbors, who owns a Bobcat, grades the road to make it smooth again. This is a good thing because the vast majority of traffic goes to his house.
Anyway, because we live on the edge of town in a place that used to be outside of town limits, and because we don’t have a real road, we also don’t have streetlights. That’s a great thing. Streetlights are a huge waste of resources and a nuisance to dark-sky lovers. Although they might be appropriate in downtown areas or areas where houses are snugged in close together, there’s really no reason for them beyond that.
If you’re a city dweller reading this, you probably think I’m nuts. You look at streetlights as a way to cut down crime, to keep the streets safer at night. But in Wickenburg — at least so far — crime is not a serious problem and we don’t worry about muggers and rapists lurking in the dark. Besides, very few people walk the streets at night and, if they do, they usually carry a flashlight. Of course, Arizona is also an open carry state, so quite a few of us honest citizens might just be carrying guns for self-protection. (I have a concealed weapon permit and a gun that could easily fit in my purse or pocket, should I decide to carry it.)
Some of the newer neighborhoods in town have installed streetlights. That’s unfortunate because it just adds to the overall glow of the town against the night sky. One of the newer neighborhoods in town chose street level lighting instead of overhead lighting. That’s a pretty good compromise. The lights are installed behind glass blocks in consistently designed decorative boxes at the end of each driveway. The boxes include the house number and mailbox. The lights aren’t very bright, but they do offer an easy to follow pathway down the road for anyone who happens to be on foot after nightfall. They also make it easy to find a specific house in the day or night.
Business Lights, Park Lights
There was a huge outcry in town years ago when a new gas station on the main road installed bright lights over its pumps. The lighting was poorly designed and shined not only down, but up. It was like walking into a 7-11 (or Circle K, depending on where you live) at night — except all that brightness was outside. You could see the gas station from quite a distance away because of its glow. The complaints did some good because the lighting was redesigned and adjusted. It’s not as bad anymore, although it’s still pretty bright.
Another new gas station on the other side of town is painfully bright, but since I no longer read the local paper, I don’t know if people have been complaining about it.
Wickenburg has several parks, each of which has at least one ball field. The lights over the fields are high and bright. That’s a good thing, if there’s a night game going on. In most cases, the lights are only turned on when there’s a game going. I think they might be on a timer to turn off automatically after a certain amount of time, because I’ve never noticed them on very late at night. That’s a good thing, too. Lighting like that must cost a fortune to operate, and townspeople already piss away enough tax dollars on wasteful spending by our Mayor and Council. (Don’t get me started about the pink sidewalks or man-made tourist attractions.)
The airport, of course, has night lighting. There are a bunch of overhead lights around the ramp and hangar area. They’re the old kind that shine down until you need them — then they apparently overheat and go out for a while, leaving you in shadows. When you’re done fumbling in the semidarkness, the nearest light goes back on. These lights are on a timer and, like most lights on timers, when there are power outages, the timers get screwed up and don’t work at the right time. When I ran the airport FBO, I discovered that the lights were going on about 3 hours later than they should have and staying on well past the time they should have been turned off. I whined to the town and eventually they sent someone to fix it. They’ve made some changes to the airport lighting since then and I hope they put them on a light sensor.
The airport also has a rotating beacon on a tower that has recently be adorned with cellular antennas. (I still wonder how they got that one past the FAA.) It has a green light on one side and a white light on on the other. It rotates, sending off a flash of white and a flash of green at a predetermined interval, which I probably should know but don’t. It’s triggered by a light sensor, so it automatically goes on at night and off in the morning. I love the way the rotating motor sounds in the predawn hours when I sometimes come to the airport to fly.
The runway lights are handled differently. It’s pilot controlled lighting (PCL) that works by pressing the mike button while tuned into Wickenburg Airport’s frequency. I think it’s supposed to be 3 clicks for low intensity, 5 clicks for medium, and 7 clicks for high. I’m not sure if it really works this way; it seems to me that 3 clicks is never enough to get them going and with 5 clicks, the taxiway lights don’t always come on. The airport’s runway lighting was improved when the runway was lengthened. They start out white on the approach end, then turn yellow about midway down the runway and are red near the end. It really helps pilots get a feel for the runway length. Very nice.
This photo by Jon Davison, is a cool night shot from the back seat of my helicopter as I landed, with Mike beside me, at Wickenburg Airport not long after sunset.
One of my favorite things to do when I fly at night is to approach the airport and get within 2 or 3 miles before turning on the lights. I love to watch the runway light up. I know airline pilots who play the same game on cross-country trips. Seven clicks on the right frequency must make a good show from 35,000 feet.
One annoying thing about the new runway lighting is the strobe lights on either end. Called Runway End Identifier Lights (REILs), they provide “positive identification of the approach end of a particular runway.” (I looked that up in the Aeronautical Information Manual; you can find it in section 2-1-3.) The trouble is, they’re designed for airplanes, which don’t have a particularly good view of the ground. A helicopter pilot, with a wide open view of everything in front of the helicopter, gets those flashes of light right in the eyes when landing at night. Good thing I don’t make as shallow an approach as airplane pilots do; I’d probably be blinded if I came in on the glide slope.
The people who buy homes at either end of the runway — where Wickenburg’s decision makers have stupidly allowed homes to be built — will have these flashing lights blinking in their bedrooms or kitchens or living rooms every time a plane lands or departs at night. To paraphrase Mr. T, “I pity the fool” who buys a home at the runway end.
But the kind of lighting I really don’t understand is the outside lights many people have on their homes. Yes, it’s nice to have a light over your garage or front door for when you come in late at night. And it’s nice to have a light in your backyard, for when you barbeque or let the dog out. But come on, guys. Do you need all those damn lights turned on all night long?
One of my neighbors is an example. They live high on a hill and have three bright lights that I can see from my home. These lights are on all night long. How do I know? I’m sometimes up in the middle of the night and I can clearly see them from my front window: three spots of yellowish light, shining into the night. Why?
A closer neighbor also illuminates his house all night long, but at least there’s some sensibility to his setup. He’s got adjustable motion-sensitive lighting. When nothing’s moving, the lights are at a dim setting — just enough to see the house. When something moves by a light, it goes bright. While this makes more sense than keeping bright lights on all night long, my question is this: if there’s nothing moving outside, what’s the sense of having any lights on at all? And it does nothing to explain the bright light over his garage that’s also on all night.
I took this shot last night, at about 8 PM. These are homes of my closest neighbors. In the original shot — not downsized for the Web — you could see the pinpoints of stars in the black sky.
A new house in the neighborhood that’s on an adjacent hill had a very bright light that pointed right at our house. It was on every night right after the electricity was turned on, even though no one yet lived in the house. It was so bright at our house that it cast shadows inside our house. I was on the verge of introducing myself and asking them to do something about it when they suddenly stopped using it. Now, there’s another new house between that one and ours, on the same hill. I wonder how they’ll like that bright light when it’s turned on. But they had their porch lights on all last night, illuminating the hill in a spray of light. I wonder how long that’ll last.
Our house is usually so dark at night that if you came down our easement road and didn’t know the house was here, you wouldn’t see it. We have two motion-controlled spotlights: one over the garage and one by the front door. They go on and off at night when it’s windy; I think the swaying saguaro cactus sets them off. They’ll also go on if an animal, like a coyote or javelina or mule deer, wanders into the yard. Oddly enough, they seem a bit sluggish when we walk outside at night. But eventually they go on to do their jobs, ensuring that no one can approach or depart without being illuminated. When nothing’s moving, they’re dark.
Think about Energy Use!
One of the things we all should be thinking about these days is energy use. Let’s face it: if you have a light on all night, it’s using energy all night. And do you really need to be throwing away energy (or energy dollars) when you’re not using the light?
So it’s not just the loss of dark night skies that concern me. It’s the excessive use of energy for no good reason.
How is your home or town illuminated at night? What lights can you turn off or replace with motion sensor lights? How much energy or money do you think you could save? What have you already done or observed? Your comments and insights are welcome. Use the Comments link or form for this post to share your thoughts.