Sometime in late 2020 or early 2021, people started noticing strange, bluish-purple streetlights cropping up all over the East Coast. The Triangle was no exception; purple lights have been spotted everywhere from Franklin Street in Chapel Hill to the six-lane Triangle Expressway.

Multiple theories were floated to explain their existence: the colors are to reduce light pollution, they’re there to help wildlife, the purple hue makes it harder for intravenous drug users to find their veins.

In fact, they’re just the result of faulty bulbs.

Jeff Brooks, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, says the purple lights across North Carolina—and the several other East Coast states Duke Energy serves—are the result of a “bad batch” of LED streetlights from a certain manufacturing partner.

Brooks says the purple light is caused by the wearing off of a yellow-laminate coating on the exteriors of the light bulbs—which is responsible for turning the bluish-purple hues white. Brooks notes that the lights weren’t installed as purple, and that the change happens gradually over time.

“In some cases, one light may be purple now, and then based on when the other light near it was installed, [the other light] may turn purple later,” Brooks says. “Otherwise, the light works fine. The light function hasn’t changed.”

Brooks says that in central and western North Carolina, the purple lights make up less than 1 percent of nearly a million lights operated by Duke Energy, and just over 1 percent of LED bulbs. Still, despite providing bright (albeit perhaps distracting) light to streets, Brooks says Duke Energy is still eager to replace the defective bulbs, and that the company could use everyone’s help to identify them.

“We are also asking the public to help Duke Energy identify these lights so that we can replace them more quickly,” Duke Energy said in a written statement. “If you see a light that is purple or not performing properly, please report it using our online streetlight repair tool or by calling our customer service center.”

Because of the variable nature of when the lights turn, alongside the fact that Duke Energy doesn’t know the specific locations of the defective “batches,” the company is encouraging people who are still seeing purple streetlights to use an online mapping tool to identify and request repairs. The site displays a map of Duke Energy–owned streetlights, shows past work orders, and allows people to put in specific requests for “discoloration” in bulbs.

There’s just one hitch to this method: some people like the purple lights.

Stephen Conrad, a resident of Old North Durham, says that he prefers the purple lights “any day” to the strong, white light of functional LED bulbs.

“Please don’t report these lights,” Conrad says. “This is a nice middle ground.”

Conrad is not alone. Ken Ray, another Durham resident, says the purple lights are a nice change not only from the white LED lights but from the orange color of older sodium-vapor streetlights. Plus, they remind him of His Royal Badness.

“When I see that purple light, I think about Prince shining down from heaven,” Ray says.

Conrad says he feels the same way. “I refer to them as the Purple Rain lights,” he says.

Beyond Prince, there are other reasons people like the lights. A Twitter user noted they were “fantastic” for selfies. One Reddit user said they make them feel more relaxed; another said they like the “otherworldly” vibe. Regardless of the reason, these defective bulbs have a bit of a fan base.

Still, it’s likely that eventually most, if not all, purple bulbs will be replaced. Brooks says once a repair is ordered, the process of replacing the laminate only takes a few days. Given that the bulbs are still on a limited manufacturer warranty, Duke Energy is eager to get them fixed before repairs start incurring additional costs. In addition to the online reporting process, Brooks says Duke Energy scouts streets at night to identify and repair discolored bulbs.

While, unfortunately for purple light enthusiasts, there’s no official way to request that Duke Energy does not repair a discolored bulb, Brooks says he and his team have noticed, and been surprised by, the positive reception to the purple bulbs. Despite being a total accident, it’s at least got some folks at Duke Energy thinking in new ways.

“It does raise the question; we’re always looking for new offerings for our customers, but no, as of right now, there are no custom purple LEDs,” Brooks says. “But I’m a Wolfpack grad, so it would be interesting to see Hillsborough Street bathed in all red.” 

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