Let There Be (LED) Light: Lake Forest Replacing Gas with Bulbs in Historic Lamps
By David A. F. Sweet For 120 years, gas lights have been a fixture in Lake Forest, lodged in the community as deeply as the fountain in Market Square and Lake Forest College. The 431 historic gas lamps will still grace the town. But as part of a nine-year project due to be completed in 2027, the City of Lake Forest is trading gas for LED bulbs – the biggest in-house electrical project in decades.
The improvement in LED lighting is allowing the city to replace gas in its historic lamps. Why the switch? Since 1960, gas lights in town have burned 24 hours a day, a pricey expense that provides no help during daytime. When the wind howls, city workers need to roam about town to relight lamps. Keeping the globes clean as the gas light smolders is always a challenge. Lake Forest historian Art Miller is an important tie to the eventual implementation of LED lighting. Back in 2003, the City of Lake Forest discussed turning off the gas lights to save money, a stance that Miller and the Lake Forest Preservation Foundation – whose board he served on -- objected to. The foundation threw a Gaslight Gala to raise money for the lights to stay on the following year.
But with the evolution of LED, a solution arrived. “The key for the preservationists accepting replacement energy for the historic gas lights was the progress in LED lighting technology,” Miller said. “The color of the illumination today remains the same as the gas originals. The earlier LED hues looked too different.”
“Technology back then for LED was nowhere near what it is today,” said Superintendent of Public Works Dan Martin, who noted that today’s bulbs last about seven years (and their price is less than $2 apiece). “They don’t need much maintenance. We don’t have to deal with the high heat of the gas lamps, since a two-watt LED has no heat.”
How do city workers – led by Streets Supervisor Matt Brugioni --- transform the fixtures and poles? The whole light pole is taken down, brought to the Municipal Services Building and retrofitted for the LED conversion. So far, for the 179 poles that have been converted, 22 miles of wiring have been laid underground.
Why not buy new poles? They don’t exist anymore. And as might be expected with updating any century-old landmark, there are challenges.
“Every subdivision is different,” said Brugioni. “Lake Road and Woodbine, there can be 400-600 feet between lights, while others may be a much shorter distance. You can’t go in with the same plans as the time before.”
The biggest part of the project will be when the team tackles Green Bay Road. One of the busiest roads in town features gas lights on both sides. One gas light was converted to LED along on Green Bay, just to see if anyone could find it and notice the difference from gas. No one did.
“We make it so you can’t tell it’s LED,” Brugioni said. “We researched for a year the color tone we wanted.”
The city figured out using a contractor for the gas-lights project would be cost-prohibitive. At the same time, the Streets Section has many other responsibilities, which is why the installation is taking place over a number of years (Covid hurt too).
Once the 431 renovated lights are fully implemented, the estimated cost savings is projected to be approximately $50,000 annually in natural-gas costs and $27,000 per year in maintenance. But most importantly, the character of the town will be retained. Said Martin, “These lights are part of Lake Forest.”