When considering all the many lighting applications that require a simple lamp change, the top of a wireless telecommunications or antenna tower stands out as one you may prefer to avoid. However, the extreme repercussions for a failed obstruction lighting system constantly haunt tower owners as they have civil responsibilities to warn pilots in order to avoid aeronautical accidents. With years of incandescent lamp failures, and the possibility of a future ban of this aging and energy-hungry lighting technology, tower owners are faced with expensive decisions to make.
Regulations set forth by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) force tower owners to modernize outdated lighting systems comprised of older technology such as incandescent bulbs and xenon tubes. The fines associated with light failures and the inherent safety risks involved outweigh the cost of maintaining existing lighting systems. If a tower owner has repeated failures and a history of non-compliance, the fines can sometimes be five times higher than those for the first-time offender.
Some may not realize that there has been a viable lighting alternative for marking aviation obstructions for almost ten years. Light emitting diodes, or LEDs, are the technology behind modern aviation obstruction lighting systems. For years, LEDs have been utilized in rugged applications such as traffic and railroad signals, where a failure can be catastrophic. Approximately 70 percent of traffic signals in the United States have been upgraded to LEDs as mandated by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as the only technology approved for cities and municipalities to legally purchase moving forward.
LEDs are semiconductors which are solid-state devices that require little power, generate little heat and do not rely on a fragile filament for illumination. They are resistant to shock and vibration, contain no mercury or harmful materials, allow for precise optical control, handle extreme climates very well and most importantly, last a very long time.
The common misconception with LED systems is that the cost outweighs the benefits, and that these systems are too expensive. While the upfront cost of a new LED system may seem expensive, the actual lighting system hardware is only part of the cost equation. Taking into consideration scheduled tower climbs, energy consumption, emergency repairs, replacement lamp costs and painting, LED lighting systems typically pay for themselves in as little as two to four years. Still, only 5 percent of the industry has made the switch to an all-LED system.
Current trends in the market
Tower owners nationwide are beginning to migrate away from type-A painted towers (which only require L-864 red lighting at night) toward type-C, D, E or F non-painted towers, which replace the "candy cane" paint style with an L-864/L-865 dual red/white lighting system for either night or day use. Since the introduction of an all-LED L-864/L-865 dual red/white system in 2007, mass deployment has begun with some of the larger tower companies having made commitments to install only these systems going forward.
Prior to a legislative ban, towers primarily used lead-based paint for visual markings during the day. Now, tower owners are facing significant challenges for existing towers with this paint type. For environmental purposes, repainting a tower previously marked with lead paint means the added responsibility of ensuring that not one flake of paint chipped away touches the environment. Faced with the potential of re-painting the tower every 5 to 7 years, tower owners can expect to spend a whopping $20,000 for each of these environmentally-friendly facelifts., Meanwhile, an LED system will operate as expected throughout this time period, with no added maintenance costs. In these situations, a dual L-864/L-865 LED system may be deployed to establish compliance, the old paint may remain on the tower and the payback period for an LED system becomes even more attractive.
The cost of unreliable lighting technology
The repercussions for a failed obstruction lighting system can be quite costly, in some cases reaching $25,000 in fines. The FAA requires that a light failure be reported immediately so that a "NOTAM" (Notice to Airmen) can be issued advising aircrafts of the outage and location. The FAA routinely alerts Federal Communications Commission (FCC) field offices when tower owners fail to report that lighting outages have been repaired within the 15 day NOTAM window. Recent decisions by the FCC's Enforcement Bureau state that failures for even a single day of non-operational tower lights will result in a fine.
Between January 2008 and August 2010, there have been 27 fines imposed for failed lighting systems, improper monitoring of lighting systems and/or improperly painted towers, resulting in nearly $300,000 in fines -- all of which could have been avoided with a reliable LED lighting system.
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