City Light: It’s Time for Change

New bulbs, and a new way to keep streets lit.

How many Seattle City Light workers does it take to change a light bulb? Trick question! In a program to be announced this week, the city is changing its entire streetlight-bulb-changing system. Most of it will be performed by a private contractor, not city workers. So the answer may be zero. But the answer also depends on how you count the city's 80,000-plus streetlamps, and how you identify broken, flickering, or burnt-out lights in need of replacement or repair. That's where the math gets tricky—and urgent—as we prepare for daylight savings hours to begin this Sunday. Under the old system, according to City Light spokesman Mike Eagan, citizens would report dim bulbs via phone (684-7056) or Web site (, resulting in "trouble tickets" that took, on average, nine business days for city crews to address. The city was essentially outsourcing the task of identifying dead streetlamps to ratepayers. "Right now, we get about 20,000 calls a year," says Eagan, quoting a figure that also includes Web site reports. Unlike in the sunny summer months, Eagan acknowledges, "As it gets into winter, and as we get darker earlier, we'll get more reports." Before, four city trucks with two workers each would drive around the city replacing bulbs. "It's an expensive way of doing things," admits Eagan. "Most utilities have a regular replacement cycle. It's kind of like painting the Golden Gate Bridge"—a constant system of maintenance rather than spot repairs. Seattle is now shifting to the maintenance model. In a new four-year contract that the city recently bid out to Potelco (the Sumner division of a national electrical-services company), which began rollout late last month, private crews will begin systematically replacing bulbs in four quadrants of the city, working from south to north—every lamp, block by block, on a regular service schedule. "Long term, there'll be significant savings," says Eagan. "Right now it costs about $117 for each light we go out and fix. With this new program, it'll be about $50." Multiply that by 80,000 lights, and we're talking about $5 million in savings. The city is paying Potelco "$945,000 for Phase One, the replacement of the first 21,000 streetlights." "We expect the number of people's reports to drop down to 2,000" [10 percent of current volume] per year, says Eagan. Seattleites can still report dead bulbs for roving city crews to replace, but the lag time should drop to three days, he estimates, with the northward progress made by Potelco. Based on citizen reports, Eagan estimates 345 streetlights currently need replacing—about 0.5 percent of the system. But that's just the reported number, not the absolute number. Explains Eagan: "There's no crew that drives around in the dark looking for them."

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