When changing a light bulb is a really big deal

BBC Technology 14 Sep 2020 11:02
By Chris Baraniuk Technology of Business reporter, County Down
St John's Point lighthouseImage copyright Chris Baraniuk

"There is something you can't replace with an LED," says Eileen Peters. But she's not talking about the ambience in her home.

Mrs Peters is referring to the 176-year-old St John's Point lighthouse on the County Down coast in Northern Ireland - which is earmarked to have its old filament light source replaced with a more modern LED. She and fellow filament enthusiasts argue that, however subtle, any change to the light is an unacceptable assault on heritage.

In recent years, lighthouse authorities in the UK and Ireland have been gradually upgrading the technology installed in lighthouses. Part of this work has involved switching filaments over to industrial-sized LEDs, which engineers say use less energy and are easier to maintain.

In most cases, hardly anyone has noticed the change. But in County Down, a battle has been brewing for five years. One set of proposals for changes to St John's Point has already been vetoed by the local council, following protests by campaigners.

Out of 65 lighthouses around the island of Ireland, there are just a handful left that have not been switched over to LEDs. One is St John's Point.

Around the rest of the British Isles the two other main lighthouse authorities, Trinity House and the Northern Lighthouse Board, have also been carrying out upgrades.

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And about 20 out of 66 lighthouses around England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar managed by Trinity House have been modernised so far, according to a spokesman. Two or three are completed every year, on average.

"I relate to the locals who say that they want to make sure that the new solution looks and feels like their one," says Esko Sorva, product manager at Finnish firm Sabik Marine, one of a few companies that manufacture LEDs for lighthouses and similar structures.

Image copyright Sabik Marine

The system is intended to replicate as closely as possible the colour and character of the old filament-based light source.

The firm recently installed one of these devices in a traditional lighthouse in Helsinki.

The CIL's latest proposals for St John's Point, shortly to be filed, seek to retain the existing sweeping beam emitted by the lighthouse, says Robert McCabe, the authority's director of operations and navigational services.

The LED - like the one offered by Sabik - is now to be incorporated into a new rotating mechanism, preserving the beam, he says.

"It is a challenge still to convince those people," admits Capt McCabe.

But could the old technology not be kept in place at one or two lighthouses for the sake of local communities who want to preserve the light the way it is?

"The small things do make a difference," insists Capt McCabe. "Having our aids to navigation powered by renewable energy sources is a really strong message and we'd be really committed to it for that reason."

From 1,000 hours of operational use with an incandescent light, LEDs offer 50-100,000 hours instead, he explains.

"It is true that sometimes we'll upgrade a lighthouse and the characteristic of the light may change," he says.

However, the history of Trinity House stretches back more than half a millennium. For Mr Briggs, changes to lighthouses have come and gone as the tides - if not quite as frequently.

"LED technology is the next step, if you like, to providing what we think is the very best service… in terms of an aid to navigation for the mariner."

"We're determined to win," she says.

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St Johns PointMrs PetersNorthern Lighthouse Board