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January 29, 2023
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The lights have been on at a Massachusetts school for over a year because no one can turn them off

The lights have been on at a Massachusetts school for over a year because no one can turn them off

But there’s hope on the horizon that the lights at Minnechaug will soon be dimmed.

Paul Mustone, president of the Reflex Lighting Group, said the parts they need to replace the system at the school have finally arrived from the factory in China and they expect to do the installation over the February break.

“And yes, there will be a remote override switch so this won’t happen again,” said Mustone, whose company has been in business for more than 40 years.

Minnechaug is the only high school in its district and serves 1,200 students from the towns of Wilbraham and Hampden. The original high school building, which dates back to 1959, was replaced with the current 248,000-square foot structure in 2012.

One of the cost-saving measures the school board insisted on was a “green lighting system” run on software installed by a company called 5th Light to control the lights in the building. The system was designed to save energy — and thus save money — by automatically adjusting the lights as needed.

But in August 2021, staffers at the school noticed that the lights were not dimming in the daytime and burning brightly through the night.

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

Osborne said they immediately reached out to the original installer of the system only to discover that the company had changed hands several times since the high school was built. When they finally tracked down the current owner of the company, Reflex Lighting, several more weeks went by before the company was able to find somebody familiar with the high school’s lighting system, he said.

In the meantime, Lilli DiGrande, who is now a 16-year-old junior and a co-editor of The Smoke Signal, the online high school newspaper, published an article on Nov. 3, 2021, with the headline “What’s Wrong With The Lights?”

Lilli DiGrande wrote a story about the lights for the school’s news site in November 2021.
Matt Nighswander / NBC News

“The teachers were complaining because they couldn’t dim the lights to show videos and movies on the whiteboard,” DiGrande told NBC News. “The teachers now try to get around it by unscrewing light bulbs. But the lights seem to be on everywhere in the school.”

Soon, Wilbraham’s town selectmen began hearing complaints from residents.

“The Board of Selectmen members have received, and continue to receive, complaints regarding the lights being left on at night at Minnechaug Regional High School,” they wrote in their Aug. 8, 2022, letter. “The lights that are being referred to are the classroom lights, not the outdoor lights. There is a significant amount of concern expressed by citizens that this is a waste of energy and, in turn, taxpayer dollars.”

The town leaders added that “this issue may be one of lesser cost or importance in the overall operation of the District, but it is, unfortunately, a visible one.”

Osborne, along with Schools Superintendent John Provost, assured the town leaders they had been working on the problem.

“After many weeks of effort, we were provided a rough estimate in excess of $1.2 Million to comparably replace the entire system,” Osborne and Provost wrote in an Aug. 26, 2022, response.

That estimate was from Reflex Lighting, Osborne told NBC News.

But with the pandemic raging, the contractor would not have been able to start doing the job until the following summer, Osborne said.

So Osborne and Provost, in their letter to town leaders, wrote that they hired a software consultant to see if it would be possible to “patch the system” to override the default system. And when that proved unworkable, they explored the possibility of having simple timers installed or even an on/off switch.

Matt Nighswander / NBC News

“This was eventually deemed not possible and the district moved on to looking at physical solutions that would retain some of the energy-saving intent of the original lighting management system,” Osborne and Provost wrote in their response.

Osborne said they had no choice but to go back to Reflex Lighting and, with the help of the company’s electrical engineers, they came up with what he described as a “piecemeal” approach to solving the problem by replacing the server, the lighting control boards and other hardware.

In November 2021, the parts were ordered and the repair job was supposed to start in February 2022.

But the replacement main server wasn’t delivered to Wilbraham until March 2022, which Osborne and Provost described in their letter to town leaders as “relatively on schedule.”

“It was very frustrating, but we were dealing with the pandemic and supply chain issues,” Osborne said.

Osborne and Provost also reported that “the remaining equipment has been back ordered multiple times” and the district was given a new delivery date of Oct. 14, 2022.

“While we are hopeful this will be met, we are of course skeptical,” they wrote. “So, for now, the lights are stuck on.”

It turned out they were right to be skeptical.

The Christmas 2022 season came and went and the replacement parts were not delivered and the lights remained on at Minnechaug.

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