LEDs Poised for a Breakthrough in School Buses?

Steve Hirano, Editor
Posted on September 1, 1999

With their greater longevity, efficiency, reliability and safety, LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are beginning to make inroads into the school bus industry, albeit slowly. There are hurdles to overcome, however, not the least of which is significantly higher initial costs. There’s also the reluctance of fleet managers to forsake the tried-and-true for a relatively untested newcomer. “This will not be one of those quantum leaps,” says Tom Turner, engineering manager at Blue Bird Body Co. in Fort Valley, Ga. “It may be several years before LEDs become dominant.” Over the next few years, however, fleet managers will begin to spec LEDs with greater frequency as body manufacturers expand their LED product options. The trucking industry already has begun to embrace LEDs for their ability to reduce labor and downtime costs. “I think it’s something that’s going to pick up in the next year or 18 months,” says Vance Nofziger, sales manager at Mid Bus Inc. in Bluffton, Ohio. School bus fleet operators, he says, are seeing the LED units on large trucks and transit buses and beginning to inquire about their application on school buses. Mike Sykes, marketing manager at Carpenter Mfg. in Richmond, Ind., says he’s seeing an influx of orders. “I’m starting to see it pop up in the seven-inch turn signals and stop and taillights,” he says. “I think you’re going to see a lot more volume, because of the longevity factor. They just don’t burn out.” “LED seems to be the up and coming thing,” agrees Howard Berke, sales manager at Whelen Engineering in Chester, Conn. His company manufactures LED products for fire trucks, police cars and ambulances. “We’ve noticed over the past few years that LEDs are coming on strong,” Berke says. His company now is developing LED products such as brake lights, taillights and turn signals for the school bus industry.

Initial cost is key issue
But cost will play a large role in LED’s growth, especially in the budget-conscious school bus industry. Sykes says the factory will charge approximately $150 more to install a four-inch LED lamp than its incandescent cousin. “If that’s what the customer specifies, that’s fine, but he’s going to pay for it,” he says. “We can’t offer it as a standard, not with that kind of additional cost.” “For school buses, this is a new technology that is establishing itself in terms of durability, longevity and safety,” says Turner, of Blue Bird Body Co. “We think the demand for LED systems will increase. And as the volume goes up, the unit prices will come down.” Because the upfront cost of LEDs is substantially higher than incandescents, few fleet supervisors have been willing to gamble on LEDs without a critical mass of evidence that the higher initial investment will be recouped through increased longevity.

Florida LEDs the way
But some fleets have already taken the plunge. In Florida, LEDs already have a presence on more than 4,000 school buses. Bill Schroyer, director of school bus fleet management for the Florida Department of Education, says the state has been requiring LED taillights on new school buses since 1996. “They have worked astoundingly well for us thus far,” he says. “They don’t require any maintenance.” Schroyer estimated that the cost of the LED taillight is about seven times greater than a similar incandescent unit. The higher initial cost of the LED, however, is more than offset by its longevity. “We save the time and labor of replacing incandescent bulbs, plus the cost of the bulbs themselves,” Schroyer says, adding that the typical incandescent taillight needs to be replaced every three to six months. In 1997, Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev., received approximately 118 buses with LED clearance lights. So far, none of them has needed replacement. “They’ve been trouble-free,” says Frank Giordano, garage manager at the district, which operates 980 buses. By comparison, he estimates “a handful” of incandescent lights probably would have needed replacement. Because of its success with the clearance lights, the district has become more ambitious with its use of LEDs. Giordano says the district recently received 74 buses outfitted with LED turn signal lights, taillights and brake lights. “These seven-inch LEDs just became available to us,” he says. Giordano believes that the higher buy-in for LEDs may be preventing some fleet managers from installing the units. He concedes that it may be several years before he knows if his district’s investment in LEDs is successful. “We’re banking on the long term,” Giordano says. “When a light goes out, the driver has to bring the bus in and somebody has to bring out a ladder and take the lens off and replace the bulb. This keeps us from having to deal with that constantly.”

Safety benefits lauded
In February, the Richland School District in Richland, Wash., held a press conference to herald the arrival of a Mid Bus school bus equipped with LED brake lights, turn signals and running lights. The emphasis was on LEDs as a safety feature. Chuck Keane, who has since left his position as Richland’s transportation director for the same post at Kyrene School District in Tempe, Ariz., cited two school bus accidents in western Washington that might have been prevented with LED brake lights. Because LEDs respond instantaneously, they maximize the amount of time that a trailing motorist has to react. Incandescent lights, on the other hand, require about 0.2 seconds to heat up and attain full brightness. “At 60 mph, that makes a difference of about a car length, which can be critical,” says Brandon Billingsley of Heavy Duty Bus Parts in Willis, Texas. Billingsley is working with CRS Electronics in The Woodlands, Texas, to bring LED technology to the warning-light systems on school buses. Billingsley says the LED warning light is a high-intensity strobe system that pulses four times when triggered. The unit has been displayed at summer trade shows, drawing enthusiastic response. “We feel that it’s going to be a much safer light,” he says. In addition to lasting longer than incandescent lights, LEDs also require less power. They draw only 15 to 20 percent of the amperage that an incandescent does. That reduces the drain on the alternator. “Anything that is more efficient is an advantage,” says Blue Bird’s Turner. “If you can reduce school bus lighting energy by a percent or two, it might make a difference.”

The future of LED
Diode technology is constantly improving. LED manufacturers are finding ways to increase the intensity of each diode. This allows them to use fewer diodes per lighting installation, resulting in lower costs. LED lamps can also be programmed to flash in a pattern. For example, diodes configured in concentric circles could be programmed to flash from the inside out or vice versa, giving the illusion of a bull’s-eye pattern. Turn signals could be programmed to flash from left to right for a right turn or in the opposite direction for a left turn. But these “special effects” would increase the cost of what’s already a relatively expensive option. With the extraordinary life expectancy of the LED lamp, the weak link in the replacement chain has moved from the lamp to the lens. Many LED manufacturers now use polycarbonate or acrylic to produce sturdier lenses, and coatings have been developed to provide better UV protection. Down the line there could be a push to add LEDs to the bus body section of the National Guidelines for School Transportation, the document produced by the National Conference on School Transportation, which meets every five years. Although LEDs most likely will not be addressed next year at the 13th conference in Warrensburg, Mo., the following meeting in 2005 could generate some serious discussion about the merits of LEDs.

Related Topics: lighting, school bus specs

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