How To Plan Outdoor Lighting That Minimizes Night Sky Light Pollution

The next time you walk through your downtown after dark take a minute to notice the lights – on buildings, on poles and post tops, along sidewalks.

How many of these light fixtures put the illumination only where it is required to meet the purpose of the fixture installation? There is a good chance you will see light spreading well beyond the intended target.

Much of the light will be illuminating the night sky, where it serves no purpose other than to obscure the enjoyment of stars. Often called “light pollution”, outdoor electric lighting, unshielded from the sky, has only been increasing with the growth of urbanization worldwide.

In the U.S. alone, there are about 16.2 million public and commercial outdoor light fixtures including streetlights, parking lot lights, and lighting on commercial buildings. Much of this light is lost to the sky and shows up dramatically in satellite photos over urban centers.

Light pollution can also be seen in residential neighborhoods. Post top lights, landscape lights and security lights often produce omnidirectional illumination sending light both up toward the sky and across the property lines lighting up a neighbor’s yard and house – “light trespass”. Although residential outdoor lighting isn’t as bright as that of public and commercial outdoor light fixtures, there’s certainly a lot more of it – about 1 billion light fixtures in all!

Light pollution affects our enjoyment of the night sky and it affects astronomer’s ability to do their research. Light trespass can aggravate neighbors and produce glare which detracts from the benefits of well designed outdoor lighting.

Use These Decision Guidelines for Outdoor Lighting

When planning any outdoor lighting project, consider these basic guidelines:

  • Select light fixtures that put the light only where it is needed.
  • Select light bulbs for the fixture that produce an appropriate brightness level.
  • Minimize blue light emissions – use 3000K color temperature or lower.

Select Dark Sky Friendly Light Fixtures

The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA) publishes a light “cutoff” classification system for outdoor fixtures that describes how much of the light distribution will go above the horizontal plane of the fixture – in other words toward the sky. There are four fixture cutoff categories: Full Cutoff, Cutoff, Semi-Cutoff and Non-Cutoff. To minimize light pollution from pole mounted area lighting and wall mounted security or decorative lighting choose fixtures the manufacturer specifies as full cutoff. These fixtures will direct the light toward the ground where it is needed and not allow light to escape to night sky.

Select an Appropriate Brightness Level

Residential outdoor lights are notorious for brightness levels that cause glare and detract from the appeal of the lighting. Generally warmer color temperature lights (2700K to 3000K) produce more pleasing results. But even where whiter light is desired, the lumen output should be chosen at lowest level that accomplishes the purpose of the light fixtures. This may require experimenting with different wattage bulbs..

Minimize Blue Toned Light

With the increasing use of LED and metal halide light sources for outdoor fixtures, blue wavelength light has raised concerns. Metal halide bulbs, often found in street lights and area lights tend to product light with a strong blue wavelength. LEDs are available in a broad range of color temperatures from warm white to very bluish-white light.

To visualize blue-white light, remember the last time a car coming toward you emitted headlight illumination that was distinctly more blue and appeared almost uncomfortably brighter than the headlights from other vehicles. Similarly, the LED landscape lights often found in home improvement stores, tend to produce more blue toned, high brightness white light.

The concern over blue toned light is health. Blue wavelengths affect sleep cycles in humans by suppressing melatonin which keeps people awake. While it could be argued this is a safety feature of blue rich light from roadway lighting, much outdoor lighting gets no benefit, and more likely aesthetic harm, from blue-rich landscape and building lighting.

The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) promotes municipal codes and provides information on limiting light pollution and light trespass. The IDA is an excellent source for more detail on these issues.

Shop Dark Sky Friendly Fixtures

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Dave Burtner

Dave has been active in the lighting industry since 1994. Formerly a member of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America and certified by the National Council On Qualifications for Lighting Professionals, Dave now writes blog posts, lighting tips and provides lighting product assistance for the Topbulb website.

2 thoughts on “How To Plan Outdoor Lighting That Minimizes Night Sky Light Pollution

  1. It’s interesting to read about what actually causes night sky light pollution and how it can be avoided. I didn’t realize that there are things like lights specifically designed to minimize light leak into the sky. This could be helpful for me to remember in the future but right now, I want to have decorative lights and think that candle lanterns could be a good way to have nice lighting without it being too bright as to leak into the sky.

  2. Rojer says:

    Thanks Dave for this post.The first step in designing any lighting system is to determine what you want the light to do for you.Your tips are really helpful to understand the importance of outdoor lighting.Outdoor lighting improves visibility and safety.Attractive home lighting that is strategically placed can greatly improve your outdoor’s edge appeal.Outdoor lighting creates a pleasant ambiance when properly applied, allowing people to be comfortable and relaxed. Instead of just illuminating the area where people will be gathering, consider placing subtle lighting around your entire yard so that you don’t feel like you’re under a spotlight and surrounded by darkness.

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