The instant-on feature of LEDs also makes them easier to see in flashing applications like turn signals and warning lights. Flashing incandescent lights slowly reach full brightness then dim off. The ability of LEDs to turn instantly on, stay on at full brightness and then instantly turn off creates a light pattern that is far easier for the human eye to recognize.
Justin Wilczynski, assistant transportation director at Clark-Pleasant Community School Corp. in Whiteland, Ind., believes the enhanced safety of LED lights should be factored in to spec’ing decisions. “Why would any supervisor in transportation pass up the opportunity to make their buses that much safer?” he asks.
Lights that last
The appeal of LEDs from a maintenance point of view is undeniable. A high-quality LED lighting system should last the life of the bus. Maintenance costs with LED lights should be virtually nil.
Most incandescent lights have an expected lifetime of 1,000 to 2,000 hours. They need to be replaced every few years or so, depending on usage. Most LEDs have a life of 100,000 hours — far longer than any school bus would be in operation through its lifetime.
Clark County School District in Las Vegas was one of the first school districts to install LEDs in their buses, primarily because of their long-term ease of maintenance. Frank Giordano, vehicle maintenance coordinator, says the annoyance of replacing, say, a burned-out clearance light is becoming a distant memory. “Since we’ve gone to the LED lights, I don’t have guys out there balancing on a ladder having to change those things,” he says.
Says Wilczynski, “I have about 30 buses equipped with SoundOff Signal lights and have had to replace only two lights. And that was because a strand of LEDs was out. We probably could have run the lights in the condition they were in, but our warranty allowed us to have a replacement.”
This sturdiness and reliability of LEDs are an obvious benefit. Says Terry Applegate of Weldon Technologies: “If you make the right choice, on the right LED, you don't have to worry about it. That’s assuming that you don’t back into something.”
A matter of economics
The primary reason many operators cite for not switching over to LEDs is cost. The price of LED lights is usually six times, or more, than that of incandescent lights. The cost to retrofit a bus equipped with incandescent lights to LEDs can be even higher. It’s no wonder that sticker shock has scared away some school bus operators from the new technology. Many bus operators simply have a hard time justifying to superiors the higher cost of LEDs.
But the higher initial cost is more than compensated by the reduction of vehicle downtime and labor costs. “If you add the cost of the maintenance — actually pulling off the lens and replacing the bulb two or more times — you’ve pretty much paid for an LED light,” Applegate says.
Fact and fiction
Because the maintenance cost benefits of LEDs only arise if they don’t need to be replaced, it is important to choose the right LED lighting system. And because LEDs are relatively new to the market, information about them is sometimes scarce, and sometimes wrong.
One popular myth advises to always pick the light with the most LEDs. The belief is the more LEDs a light has, the more light it puts out. This used to be true, when LEDs first hit the market. But since then, a new generation of LEDs has been developed, and these new diodes put out more light than older models.
“Just because you have a lot of LEDs doesn’t mean that the LED light is brighter,” says Scott Comisar, general manager of Doran Mfg. “People think more is better, but LED lights are going to get where instead of having five or six LEDs, there may be one or two.”
As with any new technology, it pays to research before you buy. Be sure to get information about third-party testing of any lighting system you’re considering, and compare the warranties of several manufacturers.
The future of lighting
Prices for LED products have been dropping since they were introduced in school buses, and all indications are that prices will continue to go down. Lower costs should allow even the most budget-conscious fleets to be equipped with LED lighting systems.
Recent advances in technology have allowed LEDs to expand their color range from red and yellow to white light. As more and more are produced, their cost will fall, making them economically feasible for use all over school buses, from dome lights to stepwell lights to exterior flood lighting.
Lower costs and increased versatility mean that in the next few years, LEDs will move from an expensive option to the primary choice in school bus lighting.
Travis Kott, national account manager for SoundOff Signal, has a prediction: “I would say in the course of the next seven to 10 years, you’re probably going to have to ask for incandescent lights, because LED will more than likely be standard.”
Rob Slusser is a freelance writer in Manhattan Beach, Calif.