Buzz Kill: Could LED Street Lights Drown Out Ham Radio Signals?

When he decided to become a ham radio operator, Charles Dillenbeck, of Bristol Township, went all out for his new hobby.

He purchased the Cadillac of radios — an $8,000 model that allows him to chat for a few hours every night with amateur radio enthusiasts around the world. Five antennae surround his house.

Then one night this spring, the static he normally heard on different frequencies became much louder, so loud he could barely hear the the people with whom he was chatting.

"I can get rid of the noise (by turning down the volume), but then I wouldn't hear anything at all," he explained.

A few days later, as Dillenbeck — a Navy veteran and retired commercial heating and refrigeration engineer — stared out a window in his home trying to figure out the problem, the street light came on. Immediately, the static started again. Was it the light, he wondered.

It turns out Bristol Township installed a new LED fixture in the light in front of his house as part of its plan to replace incandescent street lights with cost-saving LED bulbs.

"The old lights didn't interfere at all," Dillenbeck said. He talked with another ham radio enthusiast who lives in the township who also had the same problem. He used a "noise finder" piece of equipment to test other street lights. The same static occurred, he said.

The electronics in the new lights appeared to be causing the static.

A recent report supports his theory. LED lights and other electronic equipment are creating more radio frequency interference for the more than 725,000 amateur — or ham — radio operators in the United States, according to the report issued in June by the American Radio Relay League, a national association for amateur radio users.

And the problem could affect emergency communication centers, because LED lighting is gaining popularity since the federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 required more energy efficient lighting equipment. National Public Safety Telecommunications Council statistics show that LED lights, which can use 75 percent less energy and last 35 to 50 percent longer than incandescent bulbs, are expected to account for 52 percent of lighting used commercially by 2021.

In Bucks County, several municipalities — including Doylestown and Doylestown Township, Falls, Lower Makefield, Lower Southampton, Middletown Morrisville, Quakertown, Upper Southampton and Warminster — are using them.

A NPSTC survey in January 2015 was sent to governmental and commercial entities that use radio communications — such as county emergency call centers, fire departments, state transportation departments and telecommunication companies. Of the 76 agencies that responded, 21 reported RF interference.

"While cases of interference to communications from energy-efficient lighting is not yet at epidemic proportions, NPSTC believes additional attention should be paid to the issue," the report said. "NPSTC expects the instances of interference to expand going forward as building codes and interests in saving energy further increase the pressure to deploy energy-efficient lighting."

In both Bucks and Montgomery counties, radio frequency interference from LED lights hasn't been an issue with county emergency communications, officials said.

"We have not had any reports of that whatsoever," said Audrey Kenny, director of emergency communications for Bucks County.

In Montgomery County, spokeswoman Jessica Willingham said that while the county's Department of Public Safety "isn't aware of any issues on either county or municipal levels, MCPDS is aware of the (concern) and will be monitoring any reports of interference."

She said LED lighting primarily affects radio transmission in the 300 megahertz bandwidth range and is most pronounced in lower range frequency measurements where ham radios operate. County emergency communication systems operate at higher bandwidths, about 600 to 700 MHz, she said.

Tony Cuttone, president of the Warminster Amateur Radio Club and a Bristol Township resident, said he hasn't heard of any issues with LED street lights but has heard of issues with lights used to grow plants indoors.

The ARRL's Mike Gruber agreed, saying that in states where marijuana growing has been legal, ham operators complained of the RF interference from grow lights — high intensity lights, some LED, used to grow pot and other plants indoors.

Gruber, an electro-magnetic combatability engineer, said radio reception is affected by a variety of electronic devices, and LED lights can be a source of the static because, unlike incandescent lights, they have electronic parts.

The issue of interference with ham radio communications isn't just a nuisance but is breaking FCC laws, Dillenbeck said.

The Federal Communications Commission has regulations that require the operator of devices that interfere with amateur radio communications to alleviate the problem, said Will Wiquist, an FCC spokesman, but the regulations are not as stringent as they are for public safety communications.

"With respect to the interference that the amateur may be experiencing, municipalities should rectify any problems relating to interference within a reasonable time if the interference is caused by faulty equipment owned or operated by the municipality," Wiquist said. "Under our rules, the LED lights would typically be classified as an intentional radiator. These devices intentionally generate radio-frequency energy as part of their normal intended operation. The rules mandate, however, that such devices must not cause harmful interference. If and when interference does occur, the burden falls on the device operator to correct it."

Dillenbeck called PECO Energy and the Bristol Township administration to see what could be done to stop the static that prevents him from using his radio after dark. He said the problem doesn't occur on rainy nights, so he wonders if the rain affects the light.

An energy technician went to Dillenbeck's home on May 25 and ensured that the utility's electrical equipment was functioning properly, said PECO spokesman Greg Smore.

Dillenbeck said he is trying to work with Bristol Township to resolve the issue. But council President Craig Bowen said the administration is dealing with more pressing matters. The township administration could not be reached for comment.

Dillenbeck said he would take up the problem with the FCC if it isn't resolved at the local level.

"The federal government says they can't interfere with my radio," Dillenbeck said. "There's a law that protects us. If there were a disaster and the government's equipment broke down, they would go to ham operators to make contact."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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