Some LEDs on the Bay Bridge Literally Won’t Turn Off

“The Bay Lights” installation along the Bay Bridge is so broken, even the switch to turn it off was “on the fritz” until Monday night. But some LEDs refuse to go dark.

It’s been over a week since “The Bay Lights” — the 25,000 LED art installation on the Bay Bridge that beamed for just over a decade — went dark. Backdropped by a gloomy, chilly, rain-soaked evening, the vast network of glowing diodes was turned off amid financial woes. 

A recent fundraising campaign started by Illuminate, the nonprofit behind the public artwork (as well as many others in the Bay Area), has raised over $107,000 toward “The Bay Lights 360” project, which would see the Bay Bridge light up with LEDs again come fall with a host of improvements; the fate and likelihood of the artwork again lighting up the Bay Bridge remains TBD.

However, in the days since “The Bay Lights” were shut off… it’s clear that some of the LEDs refuse to go dark. They literally won’t turn off. And it’s happening across the western span of the bridge.

Ben Davis, the founder of Illuminate, manually turned them off on March 5th due to the failure rate of the LEDs. But actually, the off-switch was broken at the time… so the lights have sporadically been turning on at night.

“They’re failing so badly, even the off switch is on the fritz,” Davis explained in a text message to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight Sunday. “They are not supposed to be on. We are working to shut them off again.”

Apparently, the described glitch was resolved sometime Monday night: “The brief return reminded us all of the beauty of The Bay Lights, but also its current failing state,” David Hatfield, Illuminate’s chief of opportunities, told Knight, helping shed better light on the unique problem.

Though last night, March 14th, it was clear some of these LEDs are hella stubborn — and still won’t turn off. 

Photo: Courtesy of author

(When I saw “The Bay Lights” go [mostly] dark on March 5th, I noticed that there were strings of LEDs along the western stretch of the bridge that radiated when all others dimmed. I thought it was a quirk — a blip in the system. Something that would resolve itself in time. Or when it received enough attention. Alas, I was wrong; the bloody LEDs are still glowing now coming up on two weeks post-shutoff.)

These evergreen LEDs are represented in vertical clusters on “The Bay Lights,” rather than the entire illuminated strands the artwork is famous for. I spotted no less than three such groupings on a night run, the brightest one hovering close to San Francisco. Given the fact that the switch fix appears to have been outright fixed, it’s unclear why these are still lit. And if they’ll ever turn off.

Or the lights could, in fact, die.

Most LEDs are rated anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 hours of use before they burn out. In most circumstances, a single LED can last at least 20 years. Though one might argue the sub-optimal weather conditions along the Bay Bridge could severely curtail that timespan. But even at the shortest end of that spectrum, coupled with the night-only operation of “The Bay Lights,” these persistent LEDs have at least a few more years of life in them before they’d burn out.

In a chapter of San Francisco so rife with unease, it’s welcomingly symbolic that there are signs of resilience all around us; these still-lit LEDs are like our encased light vials from Eärendil’s star (IYKYK).

*Edit: Ben Davis emailed Underscore today that the remaining LEDs will go off Thursday: “Killing power to the affected LEDS requires a special trip to the Center Anchorage of the Bay Bridge. That is happening on Thursday.”

Feature image: Courtesy of the author

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