Aug 12, 2009

Meteor Dribble

In case you haven't heard, these are the prime viewing nights for the Perseid meteor showers. And this year's show is supposed to be especially good. Except, when I stand in my backyard, all I see is a fireball.

Yes, our neighbor has taken to leaving her back patio light on at night. All night.

Apparently she's oblivious to the fact that the fixture is of a design that emits light up and out as well as down, or that the wattage of the bulb is enough to brown a turkey at a distance of 300 feet.

This could bode well for our Thanksgiving. But any other day, this is the definition of "light trespass": the intrusion of light across geographic or property boundaries. And it's a classic case of light pollution, a growing problem which is devaluing our quality of life, harming wildlife, and destroying our environment.

I bring this up because, if you haven't noticed, the nights have been lengthening for a month or so, and will continue until we reach the winter solstice on December 21 (at 9:47 am local time, FYI). As a result, we humans are using artificial illumination more; which I believe means we have a responsibility to use it more wisely.

The most common reason to use outdoor lighting is, in a word, safety. We want to see where we're going, make it easier to ourselves to navigate around and into our home, and make it harder for unwelcome guests to do the same. But when we commit the error of my neighbor, we actually decrease our safety. Think about it: do you enjoy staring straight into the halo of a 75-watt bulb? Of course not, so you look away. Which means you don't see the fellow in the black ski mask jimmying the lock on the door next to that light.

Even if you thought you saw something, it would be impossible to see much past the glare of that lamp. Is it your neighbor, or not? Hard to tell, and given that you want to keep your neighborly relations, well, neighborly, you probably won't call 911 on him. Once again, the design of the fixture has compromised its effectiveness.

Furthermore, because misdirected light is wasted light, and wasted light is wasted power, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) and others calculate that poor lighting may the US $2 billion or more annually. Nor is the cost just economic: the US alone may consume at least six million tons of coal annually to produce excess light — creating long-term environmental consequences such as air and water pollution, carbon dioxide accumulation, and acid rain that affect every species of life on Earth.

Whether you're planning your outdoor lighting from scratch, or retrofitting an existing system, there's a lot you can do to reduce these costs to yourself and your planet. I've written a white paper on dark-sky issues and effective lighting solutions, so please let me know if I can answer any of your lighting questions.

In the meantime, please turn down the lights. Your neighbors will see stars… and thank you for it.


Chookie said...

We have had similar problems to yours, only in our case it's three lots of people polluting our bedrooms with light!

I'd love to hear more from you about lighting at the juncture of house and garden, both for safety and for eating outdoors. Especially as I'm planning a new patio!

John said...

The good news is that (usually) our neighbors don't hate us and aren't trying to make us miserable. Typically it's just ignorance, which is why I'm so glad for the IDA's literature (much more persuasive than I am). If the situation is really bad I'll offer to chip in on the cost of a replacement fixture — then I also have some say in the design.

Safety lighting really isn't difficult when you consider the human eye is very sensitive to movement (especially in our peripheral vision), so even a low level of lighting will reveal anything/one scurrying about. In fact, a broad spread of low light is much more effective because it doesn't create pockets of deep shadow the way a single point of bright light does. Overhead lighting is fine, as long as it shines down and not out. I'm not a fan of motion-activated lights: they get tripped by raccoons, skunks, bugs, air… to me they're much more annoying than an actual prowler would be.

For entertaining outdoors I would consider putting patio lights on a hard switch, so you can turn them on when you want them and off when you're done. At the very least have them on a separate circuit — same with lights around a hot tub, where you usually want to stargaze rather than look up into glare. Some lighting around the perimeter will help define the space, while downlights tucked into an arbor/trellis can act as the "chandelier" above the dining table. If you don't have an overhead structure or tree, then I'd use tealights artfully around the table, such as these LED candles, perhaps in oversized lanterns to make a statement.

Jim/ArtofGardening said...

John, I feel your pain. I have some very well-planned subtle lighting around my entire yard. I have a hot tub that sometimes gets used late at night. My neighbor has a motion-sensor light that goes off when ever I walk out my back door. The light shines right on my deck/dining area causing harsh shadows and it is NOT conducive to late-night soaks.

I've been waiting (three years) for them to go away for a week so I can sneak over and re-adjust their motion sensor direction!

Light pollution was actually brought up at our block club meeting a couple years ago and the neighbor that brought it up–siting some of the things you did in your post–quality-of-life, annoying, ultimately not as safe and rude. He was not taken too seriously.

My posts on lighting for deck & dining can be found here:

John said...

Wow, Jim, what a "grate" idea! Thanks for sharing your resouces — the deck looks lovely.

I did find an article online by some chap who rigged a laser pointer to keep the neighbor's photocell-activated light disabled; perhaps similar ingenuity could fake out your neighbor's sensor.

Too many people are willing to be rude in exchange for feeling "safe" (even when their lighting makes them less safe, not more). I'm sorry to hear about your block club experience; hopefully with more good examples such as yours, the tide will turn.