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Some of Detroit's new LED streetlights are burning out; city sues manufacturer


In December 2016, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan flipped a switchand lit a streetlight along Detroit’s riverfront—a symbolic act to represent the complete transformation of the city’s streetlighting infrastructure, from traditional and shoddy to an all-new, energy-efficient LED-based system.

But just a handful of years later, around 20,000 — one-third — of the city’s LED streetlights are dimming and burning out, and the Detroit Public Lighting Authority expects a “system-wide failure” of those lights in the “short-term.”

That’s what the PLA wrote in its complaint for a federal lawsuit targeting Leotek, the California-based lighting manufacturer that it says gave the city defective lights. That lawsuit was filed this week.

The PLA claims that over the past five months, it’s repeatedly contacted Leotek about a defect in the lights. But so far the company hasn’t honored its ten-year warranty on the product.

The problem, which Leotek appears to acknowledge in a December letter to the PLA, is that the LED panel is improperly ventilated. That causes heat to accumulate, literally burning the light out from the inside.

Meanwhile, the PLA observes that tens of thousands of lights purchased from other manufacturers “are performing throughout Detroit according to industry standards and without abnormalities.”

On April 11, the PLA says it gave Leotek until April 17 to provide a timetable for replacing the faulty lights. The lawsuit says “this deadline has come and gone, and Leotek ceased all communications with the PLA.” It says the PLA therefore “has no alternative” but to buy and install new lights itself. The lawsuit seeks for Leotek to cover those costs, which the PLA estimates at around $10 million.

The lawsuit also notes that a similar court case is pending in California, where the city of Berkeley is dealing with the same Leotek lights models are prematurely burning out. Leotek has also apparently refused to honor its replacement warranty in that case. Additionally, filings in that case accuse Leotek of importing “untested and/or defective products assembled in Taiwan to municipalities which were required by contract, as here, to be assembled domestically.”

A Leotek spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment on the matter Tuesday.

PLA spokesperson Dan Austin says the Authority has already ordered new lights from other manufacturers, and “once those bulbs come in, we’ll have those crews ready to go.” Replacements could begin as soon as next month.

Austin notes that the problem appears confined to the Leotek lights, and that the foundation of the city’s new LED-based lighting system appears to be working fine.

“We didn’t design the lights. As Leotek admitted, there is a design issue. So we’re just doing what we can to get those lights in place and avoid disruption in service,” Austin said.

Leotek lights are spread throughout the city, but concentrated in residential neighborhoods on the west side. Replacements will begin along some of the city’s main thoroughfares and then move into neighborhoods. Austin says the PLA plans to complete the re-installation process by November.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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