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Avoiding a Motor City Mess, Part I

Avoiding a Motor City Mess, Part I

As Detroit grapples with the mass replacement of defective LED streetlights from a low-cost provider, the Executive Director of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Street Lighting shares her city’s experience with that manufacturer’s product and how LA has avoided a situation like the one in the Motor City.


Successful city-wide lighting upgrades are often large-scale projects that can position these cities – and the lighting manufacturers they select – as superstars of sustainability and stewards of taxpayer savings.

But sometimes they can go horribly awry.

Such is the situation currently unfolding in the Motor City. Earlier this month, the City of Detroit’s Public Lighting Authority began replacing nearly one-third of its LED streetlights only a few years after they were first installed because of defective equipment. While products from several LED manufacturers have been successfully installed in the city, the Authority noted that more than 20,000 LEDs from low-cost provider Leotek Electronics USA have caused premature dimming and failures; the city has since filed a federal lawsuit against the manufacturer on the grounds that the defective lights have put the struggling city’s revitalization progress “in jeopardy” and will cost millions of dollars to fix.

Last November, lightED interviewed Norma Isahakian, Executive Director of the Bureau of Street Lighting for the City of Los Angeles, on that city’s model LED upgrade. In this first part of a special two-part series on the industry’s perspectives regarding low-cost LED providers, lightED reached out to Isahakian again for an update on the status of her city’s upgrade, their experience with LEDs from Leotek Electronics, and the measures LA has taken to avoid a situation like the one in Detroit.

lightED: Can you share an update on the status of the City of LA’s LED upgrade? 

Isahakian: The City of LA is approximately 95% converted to LEDs. We have 220,000 streetlights with a diverse number of streetlight and circuit types. The City still has some high-voltage units as well as some units in tunnels and underpasses to convert, but we have a strong LED program that continues to convert each year and we expect to be 100% LED-compliant in two years. The quality of lighting is good; we have great color rendition, good illumination coverage, and positive feedback from constituents and City departments. In addition, our conversion to LED technology is now allowing us to venture into the ‘Smart City’ realm and to use our streetlights to continue to enhance Angelenos’ safety and quality of life.

lightED: How many different LED manufacturers are represented in LA’s new LED lighting configuration? Is Leotek Electronics one of your providers and, if so, where are these products installed?

Isahakian: I would say that the City has approved 10 different manufacturers, with Leotek as one of our larger suppliers. Leotek is mainly used for our cobra heads, which are located throughout the city.

lightED: Have you experienced any similar problems with your Leotek fixtures as the City of Detroit has? If so, how did you handle it?

Isahakian: Our City has an extensive testing and evaluation process and periodically reevaluated units in the field. Leotek has many different types of LED fixtures and about two years ago, we noticed that their E-Cobras were having a significant lighting problem. Fortunately, these units were less than 10% of the Leotek units we’d used. The City approached Leotek at that time and it was decided that all of the units were going to be replaced with their newer model, which eliminated the issue. Leotek provided approximately 10,000 units for replacement and since the replacement program, the newer units are operating as expected and we haven’t experienced any issues with their other product lines.

lightED: Were you aware of the situation in Detroit? What do you suspect led to the situation there (e.g., poor-quality product, failure of the city to do adequate testing beforehand, etc.)?

Isahakian: We recently heard about the problem in Detroit and assume it involves the same Leotek product and issue with the design of their LED’s chip housing. We’ve been working with various manufacturers since 2008 to test, evaluate, and install their products. Due to the evolution of LED fixtures, sometimes something occurs in the design process that’s unforeseen.

lightED: In the City of LA, what kind of testing or other quality assurance does your team conduct to ensure that lighting will be operable in the field once it’s installed? Do you take any other measures to ensure that the City will be protected in the event of a quality issue or product failure?

Isahakian: We use remote monitoring units that are placed on top of the streetlights to turn the lights on and off. These units also record the amount of energy used and the amount of time the light is on. At times, these units will indicate when there’s a problem with the operation of the unit. In addition to the warning indicators on these units, we have a night shift that can evaluate units when we hear or receive indication of a problem. As part of our testing process, we also have several high-use units that we run 24/7 to age them faster and reveal any problems. In addition to these measures, we establish good relationships with other cities, utilities, and counties to share best practices and keep a group in place that completes our testing and evaluation of new and existing products. They’ve become very knowledgeable about evaluating LED products and anticipating future problems with the units. We always share our findings with the manufacturers in an effort to improve the product.

lightED: How does your team balance quality with low cost/affordability when it comes to considering and approving LED manufacturers? Do you tend to avoid low-cost lighting providers?

Isahakian: We have an elaborate matrix that factors in many aspects of LED fixtures when we test them. This matrix does take into account the cost of the unit but, due to other factors, that doesn’t dictate the outcome of the evaluation. The City of LA always looks at the quality and illumination output of the product before we let products in the door, so many low-cost options never make it to the final phase. We always do extensive testing in the field to rate their performance and only then do we take into account the cost of the product.

lightED: Finally, what tips can you offer a city that’s upgrading its lighting to help them avoid a situation like what happened in Detroit?

Isahakian: We’ve always advised other cities to be wary of manufacturers’ claims and to do their own internal testing. We know that not all cities can put together a testing group, but they should at least evaluate the units at night and not just accept the internal testing specifications that the manufacturer provides, sight unseen.


Tune in on Monday, July 8, for Part 2 of this series as distributors weigh in on low-cost LED providers and how to avoid city-wide lighting upgrade disasters.


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Susan Bloomis a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.

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