US school runs lights 24/7/365: The smart lights have been broken since 2021

US school runs lights 24/7/365: The smart lights have been broken since 2021

The Minnechaug Regional High School.
Enlarge / The Minnechaug Regional High School.

Minnechaug Regional High School

The lights at Minnechaug Regional High School in Massachusetts are always on brightly. They never really turn off. she tip turn off. The intelligent lighting system for the entire building is defective and stuck in the “on” position. Apparently that had been the case for a long time now over a yearand the utility bills are really starting to pile up.

“We are well aware that this is costing taxpayers a significant amount of money,” the school district’s assistant treasurer Aaron Osborne told NBC News. “And we have done everything possible to solve this problem.”

The school’s entire “green lighting” system, some 7,000 lights, was installed over a decade ago and has been target to save money, but according to the report, “the software running it failed on August 24, 2021” and nobody was able to turn off the lights for the following 17 months. Teachers adapt by unscrewing lightbulbs at the end of the day and throwing out some breakers that aren’t connected to important parts of the school. Dimming the lights to project movies or something on a whiteboard was also difficult: the lights are at full brightness all the time.

News Editor Lilli DiGrande, writing for the Minnechaug student newspaper The Smoke Signal, wrote some great reports on the situation a month after it began. Smart lighting company 5th Light, which installed the lights over 10 years ago, has apparently changed hands several times and is currently owned by a company called Reflex Lighting. According to Smoke Signal’s report, what’s left of 5th Light no longer has access to the old, proprietary software to fix anything, so “fixing” the system means replacing it with new hardware.

The problem with new parts is that this was all in the middle of the pandemic and a massive chip shortage, so the parts were back-ordered and delayed multiple times. The system repair process was originally supposed to start in February 2022, but they can’t get the parts. The next missed date was October 2022, and the school does not anticipate a repair until February 2023. The lights remain on.

A lesson in proper smart building design

Even if you’re not responsible for the lighting design of a massive building, here’s a valuable lesson for anyone involved in smart home/building technology: Turn on technology additive to your setup, not a dependency. You still need to install physical light switches in each room, but as a bonus, you can choose light switches that can also be controlled over some sort of network. All sorts of smart light switches meet this requirement – regular paddles or even switches that can also be controlled via Zigbee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, probably Ethernet or whatever you want. That way, if the internet goes down, a server explodes, or a cloud company shuts down, the lights will still work.

Which you definitely should not Wire the power so it’s always on, and then hope the network is close to the lights or bulbs to turn them off. That apparently happened at this school, and now the taxpayers are paying the price.

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