Massachusetts School Unable to Turn Smart Lights off Due to Software Failure

Supply chain issues largely blamed for the considerable time it has take for facility managers to repair the systems.

Massachusetts School Unable to Turn Smart Lights off Due to Software Failure

For almost a year and a half, a Massachusetts high school has been unable to turn off its smart lights. Since then, teachers have resorted to manually removing bulbs from fixtures in classrooms. Staffers have even gone so far as to shut off breakers not connected to the main system to cut power to exterior lights, all because of a software malfunction and nightmarish supply chain issues.

As NBC reports, the lighting system at Minnechaug Regional High School had been installed 10 years ago but it wasn’t until Aug. 2021 that it began to malfunction. Memos from the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District reveal the system’s safety measures and its connection to other systems made it impossible for building managers to turn off lights without impacting those other systems.

“We are very much aware this is costing taxpayers a significant amount of money and we have been doing everything we can to get this problem solved,” said Aaron Osborne, assistant superintendent of finance. “I would say the net impact is in the thousands of dollars per month on average, but not in the tens of thousands.”

When the 248,000-square-foot school was built in 2012, the school board voted to install a smart, money-saving “green lighting system” run on software installed by the company 5th Light. The system saves energy by automatically adjusting lights as needed. In Aug. 2021, employees noticed the lights weren’t dimming in the daytime and were staying on at night.

“The lighting system went into default and the default position for the lighting system is for the lights to be on,” Osborne described.

Osborne said he immediately reached out to the original installer but discovered the company had been sold multiple times. When the district was able to track down the new owner, Reflex Lighting, it took several weeks for the company to find someone who was familiar with the smart lighting system. The company estimated it would cost $1.2 million to replace the entire system but that its contractor would not be able to start the job until the following summer.

Osborne and Superintendent John Provost then hired a software consultant to determine if they could “patch the system” to override the default system but that proved futile. They next considered having timers installed but that was also deemed not possible. With Reflex Lighting as their only option, Osborne said with the help of the company’s electrical engineers, they came up with a “piecemeal” approach by replacing the server, the lighting control boards, and other hardware.

In Nov. 2021, the parts were ordered and the job was scheduled for Feb. 2022. However, due to supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, Osborne and Provost said “the remaining equipment has been back ordered multiple times” and the district was given a new delivery date of Oct. 2022.

The upgrade was finally scheduled for Christmas break but Reflex Lighting notified the district on Dec. 22 that it would need to delay the project, Osborne wrote in a Jan. 3 letter to the school committee, WCVB reports.

Paul Mustone, president of Reflex Lighting, said the parts they need finally arrived from a factory in China and they expect to do the installation over February break.

“I have been doing this for 42 years and I have never seen this kind of supply chain disruption,” he said. “We made a deal with the devil by moving the factories to China.”

Mustone assured the updated system will have a remote default override switch.

Another version of this article originally appeared in our sister publication Campus Safety.

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