By Heidi Zemach for SCN –
Transitioning city lights downtown to LED is a great idea if one hopes to improve the city’s energy-efficiency and save city taxpayers money in the long run. But when Seward City Council members recently decided it was a good way to go, beginning with the 24 decorative lights downtown that needed maintenance, they soon came to realize how complicated, and potentially costly the proposal was. The issue may return to the city council at an upcoming meeting in January.
With the return of evening darkness, residents and city officials had noticed that many of the decorative light bulbs along Third Avenue weren’t working, and closer inspection confirmed that some of the bulbs, the rusty old ballasts that powered them, and fixtures needed to be replaced or repaired.
The five-bulb decorative globe lights were installed decades ago to lend a historic wintertime feel to downtown. The Alaska Department of Transportation purchased them. In retrospect we now realize they are extremely inefficient, and their ballasts are particularly heavy and costly to maintain or replace, said City Manager Jim Hunt at the first December meeting. Each broken ballast, of which there are five in each light fixture, would cost the city $355 to replace, and they cost even more when adding in the city electric department’s time and labor, Hunt added. Council unanimously agreed to have him arrange to transition the lights to LED bulbs. As others failed over time, they too would be replaced with LED lights.
Mike Insalaco, the owner of Alaska Efficient Energy Solutions, an alternative energy company in Seward, and member of the Seward Energy Group which advises the city on practical energy efficiency measures it can take, had already given the city a rough estimate of what he felt the city would realize in savings with the project. The conversion would initially cost the city about $21,000, including $9,000 in materials and $12,000 in labor, he wrote the city. The city also would realize $5,000 savings in annual maintenance costs with LEDs, which have a 10-year warranty and 100,000 hour life span, and $2,300 in annual energy savings, Insalaco said. The city’s return in investment (ROI) would be $53 thousand dollars over the next decade, or 253 percent. It wasn’t a firm estimate, however, as he is a private contractor and also did not have access to the streetlights to inspect them, or try to transition one to LED, which would have required the City Electric Department’s assent.
The LED lights would emit the same amount of light, and are available in a variety of hues, including ones that can produce soft, warm, lamp-like glows, said Assistant City Manager Ron Long. Their toppers, if switched to single-bulb light systems, would have historic-looking designs, similar to the decorative lights at the Small Boat Harbor.
By the next meeting however, additional questions had arisen about the cost of the materials required, and who would be able to perform the work, which warranted council direction. According to Local 1547’s contract with the city, the electrical worker’s union must sign off on any outside contract work performed on the city lights and electrical infrastructure, and that would not happen unless the project was deemed important and necessary, Long said. Over the past couple of winters, the Seward Electric Department linemen had said that working on the rusted-out decorative lights takes them a great deal of time and effort, and the timeliness of the work had also become a recurring issue. Converting the lights to LED light fixtures would also be a new skill for the line workers to acquire. A few on council wondered whether Local 1547, the electrician’s union, would actually do the work, or would agree to allow an outside private sector contractor to do it.
City Electric Department Head John Foutz did not reply to requests by Seward City News for an interview to clarify the situation, but later told the council that he had not spoken about the matter with the electrical worker’s union representative. “But it’s my perception that they’re not likely to let go of anything considered their work,” he said. There are certain union subcontractors that the department already does contract work with, however, especially during weather emergencies.
“It’s been suggested that because it’s a union contract that if we could just do it ourselves and cut the union out of the loop, that we’d be in good shape and save a lot of money,” Long told the council. “I love a good brawl as much as the next person, but not when it takes dollars out of the project and puts it into attorney’s pockets to settle a dispute that doesn’t do anything to move the project (forward)”
City administers offered five alternatives for council to review, each of which had a higher cost than Insalaco had estimated, and the work also took longer. The options included doing nothing but maintaining the status quo; replacing the bulbs with high pressure sodium lights; transitioning all to LED light toppers; or removing the five branches from the poles and transforming them into a single pole system with a single LED bulb. Each option came with the city’s own estimated the cost of materials, plus city labor at the union pay scale of $80.58 per hour, multiplied by the city’s projected estimate of the time it would take. In the city’s preferred alternative—transitioning to single-bulb LED light tops, estimated labor costs were $3,800, for a sum of $63,000. If the city replaced all five bulbs per assembly with LED, the projected cost increases to $83,500.
Some council members preferred the single-bulb LED option, but not Councilwoman Iris Darling, who has long owned and run her historic Seward family business, Brown & Hawkins. Darling argued that the five-arm lights had been carefully selected by the Seward downtown merchants for their historic accuracy, and that its design should therefore be retained. Before making a final recommendation to administration, she agreed to discuss the matter with other downtown business owners, to see how they felt. Darling, who supports transitioning the lights to LED, recommended that the city hire Insalaco, whose rough estimate was lower than the city’s, or an independent contractor who should win the city’s competitive bid process if city electric workers can’t or won’t do the job. The issue is expected to return to the council at its first January meeting, Monday, or soon thereafter.