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Ideas For Better Water Tower Lighting

After seeing the new illuminated water tower in Mishawaka, IN, with its dancing colored lights aimed skyward, I immediately visited the Water Division to ask about their intentions. Perhaps, I mused, the display I had seen was merely a testing phase of their new technology. At the utility's office I was well-received, and followed up with a letter of recommendations for better water tower lighting.

Top of water tower with name "Mishawaka."

Approaching the counter at 401 E. Jefferson Blvd., I was outwardly reserved but internally angry. I asked who was responsible for the lighting of the water tower, and a gentleman sitting nearby politely responded, "That would be me." Manager Dave Majewski totally disarmed me with his welcoming and sincere conversation. He explained how he anticipates the display of the tower with the city's name illuminated will beget civic pride and promotion. My anger quickly transitioned to a realization that my belligerence wasn't the answer. Rather, the parties responsible needed better information about the impact of so much upward lighting, for even the most basic adjustments to time of and intensity of display would lessen the explosive impact of their light pollution bomb.

After I had proposed multiple bullet points for responsible outdoor lighting, I said I would send the suggestions in writing, which Dave Majewski welcomed. In an August 2, 2023, email he noted the Water Division is still working on a response. Fair enough.

Letter to Water Division-May 2023
Download PDF • 65KB

Below is the letter emailed on May 18, 2023:

Hi, Dave,

Thank you for speaking with me at the Mishawaka Water Division office this week. I write to suggest lighting considerations for the city’s water towers and other illuminated infrastructure.

Uplighting has consequences. When the man-made light hits aerosols and small particulate matter in the atmosphere, the light scatters. Shorter wavelengths scatter more, which is why the sky is blue by day. A significant amount of the light sent skyward bounces back down to earth, often many miles from the original source. The collective light spread across the sky causes sky glow, a form of light pollution. By brightening the sky, the sheen of artificial light overwhelms the natural light of the background stars and the surrounding region never gets truly dark.

Relentless light throughout the night means we don’t experience the darkness in which we and the entire natural kingdom evolved. Our bodies need that darkness for certain functions to perform. For example, only in the absence of light does our body produce melatonin, which is effective at suppressing some diseases like breast cancer. If receptors in our eyes detect light, they signal to our brain that is still day and the body delays its nighttime functions, like sleep and melatonin production.

Excessive light at night contributes to sleep disorders in part because our circadian system has its peak sensitivity in the blue part of the spectrum. Without question, blue lighting is particularly offensive to the body. That is why staring into the screen of a typical electronic device or monitor late at night is not recommended. The screens put out blue wavelengths that trick your body into thinking it is or just recently was daytime, so there is a lag in being able to fall asleep.

Sky glow also trashes the natural wonder of the firmament. Humans have had a long tradition of observing the night sky at day’s end, and elements of that history are embedded in many cultures. The simple pleasure of stargazing under a dark sky is getting out of reach for most youths around urban centers, and with it goes the common experience and awe-inspiring rite humans had enjoyed for eons. Each light aimed upward contributes to the diminution of that history. People in urban areas deserve to see the spectacle of a starry night, too, so urban lighting should not be excused simply because their sky is already degraded.

Light at night disrupts the nocturnal animal world as well. Omnipresent light complicates everything from foraging to movement to mating. For example, the Indiana State Insect is the Say’s Firefly, but we don’t do a firefly any favors by increasing the background light level. Birds are especially impacted by artificial light at night during migration season. While some of them use stars for navigation, others get attracted to and disoriented by a bright structure and will circle it until they get exhausted and often die.

Another issue to consider about uplighting is waste of energy and money. Our nation is challenged in how we can lessen our consumption of energy, not increase it. We are giving our children an increasingly compromised environment because of our excess consumption of carbon-based products when we could mitigate their future woe with the flick of a switch. When people install LEDs they often succumb to the rebound effect, in which we fail to bank the gains of increased efficiency from technology. Because LEDs are, say, seven times more efficient than incandescent lights, we’ll use maybe four times and many lights as necessary yet rationalize it by saying we’re still saving money over that much conventional lighting.

You can find other examples of the hazards of uplighting at the International Dark-Sky Association, and there is plenty of scientific literature about light pollution that I won’t cite specifically but merits perusing.

Moving forward, the City of Mishawaka should commit to several actions that will serve its desire to light the tower yet lessen the negative effects the uplighting will certainly create. At a recent MACOG meeting I presented five steps for responsible outdoor lighting; unfortunately, Mishawaka blew through the first three. However, the latter two steps—use solid state controls and shift away from the bluer wavelengths—are viable options. Here are some initial suggestions:

1. Cut back on hours of illumination. I question how many people are changing their behavior or the opinion you are trying to elicit when they see the water tower ablaze at 3 AM. I doubt the dollars and energy spent in the wee hours are returning a reward that outweighs the deleterious effects of light pollution cited above. I suggest stepping down illumination levels at 10 PM.

First, lower the overall intensity of the lighting. A reduction by any percentage is a reduction in impact.

At 10 PM, completely turn off the 18 lights encircling the base. I do not know what the objective is for lighting city infrastructure throughout the night, and I wonder if the city would spend so much money on energy if the name Mishawaka was not on the the tower. If I assume lighting the name is important, then I assert lighting the vertical column is not important late at night.

At 10 PM, turn off the light fixtures mounted on poles that illuminate the back side of the water tank where there is no printed name. People living around the structure are going to want some relief, not the unrelenting and oppressive presence of a white (or colorful) elephant.

2. Lessen the bluish wavelengths and shift to the so-called warmer hues. LEDs are sufficiently white at 3000K, and lower should be prioritized. If you are featuring blue lights for a special occasion, limit the overall time and intensity of those wavelengths. While correlated color temperature (CCT) is not as accurate an indicator of blue output as the spectral power distribution, it is a reasonable proxy. Avoid the blues. Red and orange are simply easier on the eye at night.

3. Slow down the dance of the colors. Rapidly changing light colors on the monstrous tower is an over-application of technology. A digital billboard cycles through multiple ads per reader encounter, and by racing through the colors the tower takes on the semblance of a billboard. It’s just more digital media screaming for my attention, and at night I’m screaming back at the distraction when I can’t get it out of my vision. Suddenly the behavior or opinion you are in fact eliciting about Mishawaka has become derogatory epithets hurled your way. At some point a continuous bright light show becomes lipstick on a pig, not an inspiring city message.

4. Eliminate illumination during bird migration season. Urban initiatives vastly reduce bird deaths, and in response many cities that dial back see significant improvements in bird mortality.

Over a decade ago the City of Mishawaka suggested it prioritized energy efficiency, asserting the Mishawaka Water Division plans to continue to improve lighting. Not long thereafter the area around the new water tower was being considered for development.  At the Mishawaka Common Council meeting of January 8, 2014, I publicly advocated for dark skies near this site. I asked the City and the developer to constrain light pollution, thereby showing how "development can be done right while respecting the night.”  

Frankly, with the first iteration of the water tower’s illumination scheme, the City’s purported responsibility to the environment is absent. Yes, the City has the capability and money to make a splashy display, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily should. Mishawaka could also create beautiful iridescent colors that gently flow like a ribbon through the city, but it opts not to create an oil slick on the St. Joseph River. Sky glow is a light sheen, a light slick. I hope the City reigns in its ambition to overlight the night by dialing back on the water tower lights. Our future is best served by saving energy, not finding new ways to use it in excess.

Thank you for receiving my written comments as constructive criticism. I appreciate your consideration and welcome further dialogue.

Chuck Bueter

Lights (circled) on and around the water tower aim skyward.


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