LED street light system was supposed to be better. It wasn’t, but it should be soon

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Faulty dimmers and glaring street lights in Bellingham should be replaced by the end of 2019.

The city will replace the computing system for 3,600 traditional lights while 353 decorative street lights will have LEDs replaced, both at the contractor’s expense. The lights were originally installed as part of the city’s 2015 LED Retrofit Project.

“The city will not be spending any additional funds to the contractor,” said Eric Johnston, assistant director of Public Works. “The amount of money coming back to the city for the failed control system will not be as great because we’re changing the LED fixtures, but the city is not spending any new money on the project.”

Bellingham residents have complained about the failing lights being on in the middle of the day. This issue should be solved when a traditional photocell replaces the computing system.

The computing system was installed when the lights were retrofitted with LEDs in 2016. The system was intended to allow the city to dim and brighten lights and to more efficiently notify city maintenance about issues; the mission being to save money, reduce energy consumption and meet goals set by the City’s Climate Protection Action Plan.

These goals were still met by the project, according to Johnston.

As part of the same project, the city’s 353 decorative street lamps were also retrofitted with a computing system and energy-efficient LEDs.

Those new decorative lights were problematic for some residents, one of whom described them as looking like “a strip mall in outer space.” However, most of the complaints were about the glare, brightness and color of the lights. Johnston believes the new LEDs should solve these issues.

Fixing the 3,600 street traditional lights involves unplugging the baseball-sized computing system on the top of the light and replacing it with a similarly sized traditional photocell.

Replacing the decorative lights involves replacing the LED and computing system entirely, which gave the city an opportunity to fix visual problems with the lights. Because the contractor failed to meet the expectations of its agreement with the city, the replacement will not cost the city any additional funds.

“We had some concerns and complaints about the aesthetic of those lights,” said Johnston. “And so, given the balance of everything playing into that, we said here is an opportunity where it’s better for our operations to remove the entire inside of those lights and put a new one in there. And when we do that, we have the opportunity to respond to some of the concerns that were raised about the perception of those lights.”

When the replacement happens, Bellingham residents will continue to benefit from a reduction in the city’s carbon footprint. According to Johnston’s demonstration at a public works and natural resources committee meeting last month, residents should also enjoy the reduced glare and lower temperature in the decorative lights.

Despite being unable to dim the lights independently or at a specific time, the project still decreased the city’s street light energy consumption by 40% and will not affect the city’s 12-year timeline for paying back its $3.5 million loan for the project, according to Johnston.

The city would have to change individual lights physically at the pole to reduce brightness.

Information about changing individual lights was corrected Aug. 5. 2019.

Warren Sterling in a graduate of Reed College of Media at West Virginia University. He interned at Politifact.com before joining The Bellingham Herald as a summer 2019 intern.