Detroit’s LED streetlights going dark after a few years

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
The Public Lighting Authority in its complaint against Leotek Electronics USA notes that upward of 20,000 LED lights are "prematurely dimming and burning out" and putting the city's revitalization progress "in jeopardy."

Detroit — The city's lighting authority fears tens of thousands of streetlights are in jeopardy of failing just a few years after being installed, threatening to put some of Detroit's neighborhoods back into the dark.

The authority behind the state-of-the-art overhaul of Detroit's streetlight system filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the manufacturer of nearly a third of the city's 65,000 streetlights, saying a fix is expected to cost millions.

The Public Lighting Authority in its complaint against Leotek Electronics USA notes that upward of 20,000 LED lights are "prematurely dimming and burning out" and putting the city's revitalization progress "in jeopardy."

"Indeed, the PLA expects a system-wide failure of Leotek's luminaires in the short-term," the lawsuit reads. 

Read more: Detroit mayor: City's streetlight problem could cost $9M

The issue was discovered last fall during routine surveys of the lighting system, and it's tied to defective units that were either "charred, burned, or cracked," according to a February letter from the lighting authority's law firm. 

Defective LED units were either “charred, burned, or cracked,” according to the lighting authority’s law firm.

The California-based manufacturer acknowledged in a December letter to the lighting authority that it had experienced "a higher number of reports of failures" in models dimming city streets, primarily in west side neighborhoods and a number of Detroit's major thoroughfares.

In the Dec. 17 letter, Leotek administrator Hy Nguyen said the company had determined "the problem is excessive heat that can burn the lens directly above the LED." 

"We apologize for the problem you have experienced and will work with you to correct the problems," Nguyen wrote. 

But in recent weeks, Leotek officials have gone silent, according to the lighting authority. A representative for Leotek did not respond Monday to requests for comment. 

The lighting project has been held up by Mayor Mike Duggan and others as an early success in the city's effort to restore basic services. Before the three-year, $185 million overhaul, about 40% of Detroit's 88,000 streetlights didn't work.

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Bright street lights are surrounded by dimmed and discolored street lights on Gratiot Street at Gunston Street.

The LED lights provided by Leotek were anticipated to last for at least a decade. 

"The people of Detroit have been through a lot when it comes to streetlights," Public Lighting Authority Executive Director Beau Taylor told The Detroit News. "I want the people to know that we're doing everything we can to mitigate it, and we're not going to go back to where we were before."

The lawsuit notes that over the past five months, lights have failed in "large sections of Detroit," and that Leotek officials have refused attempts by the lighting authority to honor warranty benefits "even though they admit the problem with its luminaires and know that it is imperiling the safety and wellbeing of Detroit residents."

According to the lawsuit, the lighting authority entered into a purchase agreement with Leotek in March 2014 for various wattages of its E-Cobra model LED units. The lighting authority paid $3.9 million to Leotek for 25,320 of the lights. The installation cost was about $5.2 million. 

The company, per its 10-year warranty, had said it would correct and replace any defects, according to the lighting authority. 

Leotek was among four firms contracted by the authority in 2014 to provide LEDs. Taylor, who stepped in to head the authority in August 2017, said the selection went through a typical procurement process and decisions were "made in good faith."  

The lights, he said, are used across the country, and no one intentionally "made a bad decision."

West side resident Marcus Henry said he's frustrated the lights are already dimming, especially in his neighborhood near Joy and Greenfield where it's already too dark.

"If you spend money to put something in, it should work," said Henry, 34. 

Berkeley, California, is having similar issues with about 7,000 LED streetlights supplied by Leotek in 2014 to upgrade the citywide lighting system there. 

About a year ago, officials noticed a rate of failure that was "higher than we thought was appropriate," Matthai Chakko, a Berkeley spokesman, told The News.

Over that time, he said, the city was averaging one failure in its fixtures every other day.

In Berkeley's case, individual diodes within each lighting panel are failing, reducing the overall brightness. 

"Someone walking by may not notice," Chakko said. "But staff has noticed, and some people in the community have noticed."

The lights were under warranty, Chakko said, and Leotek has been replacing them for free. The original models used are no longer being manufactured, he said. 

Berkeley is currently in negotiations with Leotek over how many lights will be replaced and who will cover the labor costs. 

"We are negotiating in good faith, and they are, too," Chakko said. 

Detroit flipped the switch on the final section of its 65,000 new streetlights in December 2016, making it the largest American city to have 100% LED public lighting, the mayor said at the time. 

Duggan's office responded Tuesday morning on the LED failures.

”We have full faith in how the team at the lighting authority is handling this issue," said John Roach, a spokesman for the mayor. "They are doing the right thing by being proactive in replacing the dimming bulbs as it makes every effort to make sure the cost for this work is borne by the vendor.”

Of the LEDs purchased from Leotek, about 18,000 were installed in the initial build-out of the lighting system, Taylor said. 

"There are varying levels of degradation," Taylor said. "Some of them may be completely burned out or on the verge."

The main area impacted besides sections of city thoroughfares, he said, are communities on the city's west side. 

"A lot of them are in the residential areas," Taylor said. "They are all over, but the biggest density is obviously on the west side in the residential areas."

The Leotek lights also had been installed in other prominent sections of the city, including along Eight Mile from the Lodge to Kelly, a section of Livernois, and in Corktown, officials said. 

Lights in the city's downtown and Midtown aren't facing the same challenges since most  were installed by different companies. Much of the downtown lighting, Taylor noted, is decorative and part of an investment made around the time that the Super Bowl was held in the city in 2006. 

The lawsuit notes that the tens of thousands of lights purchased from the other manufacturers — Cree Inc., Cooper Industries Inc., and King Lighting Inc. — are performing to industry standards.

The lighting authority demanded in February that Leotek inspect, repair and replace all defective units at its own expense. 

A company representative was later given a two-hour tour of the city to see the failing lights. Promises thereafter to provide a timetable for the fixes by an April 17 deadline haven't materialized, the lawsuit contends. 

"This deadline has come and gone, and Leotek ceased all communications with the PLA," the suit reads. 

The manufacturer's failure to act, the suit notes, left the authority with no choice but to seek out its own replacements. 

Taylor said the authority selected multiple firms to provide the first 1,000 replacement lights. Installation is expected to begin as early as June in the most heavily trafficked areas outfitted with the defective lights, including sections of Jefferson and Gratiot as well as Woodward between Six Mile and Eight Mile. 

"We're going to get those taken care of first over the course of the next couple months and put together a project plan to sweep the rest of the city," Taylor said. 

The changes won't require new wiring or poles. It's a simple fixture change-out, he said.

A digital database tracks the authority's lighting units, including where the various models — and the problem lights — are installed. 

"If we do it properly, we can get it done in a relatively short period of time," he said. 

The authority hopes to have all of the lighting swapped out by November, he said. 

"What we're not going to do is put the city in a position where it's dark because we're negotiating with the manufacturer," Taylor said. "We need to address this problem, get our plan in place and then formulate a solution with the manufacturer around our strategy for replacing the lights."

Debra Hornbuckle, 67, of Detroit talks about the dimmed street lights on Marlowe Street.

Taylor said the cost of the initial batch of replacement lights is about $300,000, which for now is coming out of the authority's maintenance fund. The overall replacement cost will be millions of dollars. 

"It's a moving target, but our goal is to leave no stone unturned in our pursuit of recovery," he said. "We want to make sure that absolutely the taxpayers of the city are not being asked to pay anything more than they are legally obligated to."

The lawsuit further alleges the manufacturer breached its agreement by shipping untested and/or defective products assembled in Taiwan, which were required by contract, to be assembled domestically. 

The lighting authority's lawsuit is asking the court to grant a judgement against Leotek for its breaches and warranty violations. 

"This isn't a black eye or negative mark on anybody in Detroit," Taylor said. "I hope we get judged on how we respond. Not based on something that was beyond our control."

The lighting defects are just more bad news for Debra Hornbuckle, who already was displeased with the lighting system reconfiguration.

“We’re not happy because it’s too dark over here. We were able to see everything. Now we can’t see anything,” said Hornbuckle, a 35-year west side resident. “We’re paying for the lights, so we should be able to see when we pull up at night and it’s dark outside.”