Power grid change may disrupt clocks

June 24, 2011 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
In this Oct. 10, 2005 file photo, UPS delivery man Chris Carhart of South Boston, wheels packages past a store window featuring clocks at Quincy Market in Boston. Our power supply has been so precise we've set our clocks by it _ but time is running out on that idea. A yearlong experiment with the electric grid may make plug-in clocks and devices like coffeemakers run up to 20 minutes fast. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

A yearlong experiment with the nation's electric grid could mess up traffic lights, security systems and some computers - and make plug-in clocks and appliances like programmable coffeemakers run up to 20 minutes fast.

"A lot of people are going to have things break and they're not going to know why," said Demetrios Matsakis, head of the time service department at the U.S. Naval Observatory, one of two official timekeeping agencies in the federal government.

Since 1930, electric clocks have kept time based on the rate of the that powers them. If the current slips off its usual rate, clocks run a little fast or slow. Power companies now take steps to correct it and keep the frequency of the current - and the time - as precise as possible.

The group that oversees the U.S. is proposing an experiment would allow more frequency variation than it does now without corrections, according to a company presentation obtained by The Associated Press.

Officials say they want to try this to make the power supply more reliable, save money and reduce what may be needless efforts. The test is tentatively set to start in mid-July, but that could change.

Tweaking the power grid's frequency is expensive and takes a lot of effort, said Joe McClelland, head of electric reliability for the .

"Is anyone using the grid to keep track of time?" McClelland said. "Let's see if anyone complains if we eliminate it."

No one is quite sure what will be affected. This won't change the clocks in cellphones, GPS or even on computers, and it won't have anything to do with official U.S. time or Internet time.

But wall clocks and those on ovens and coffeemakers - anything that flashes "12:00" when it loses power - may be just a bit off every second, and that error can grow with time.

It's not easy figuring what will run fast and what won't. For example, VCRs or DVRs that get their time from cable systems or the Internet probably won't be affected, but those with clocks tied to the electric current will be off a bit, Matsakis said.

This will be an interesting experiment to see how dependent our timekeeping is on the power grid, Matsakis said.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp. runs the nation's interlocking web of transmission lines and power plants. A June 14 company presentation spelled out the potential effects of the change: East Coast clocks may run as much as 20 minutes fast over a year, but West Coast clocks are only likely to be off by 8 minutes. In Texas, it's only an expected speedup of 2 minutes.

Some parts of the grid, like in the East, tend to run faster than others. Errors add up. If the grid averages just over 60 cycles a second, clocks that rely on the grid will gain 14 seconds per day, according to the company's presentation.

Spokeswoman Kimberly Mielcarek said the company is still discussing the test and gauging reactions to its proposal, and may delay the experiment a bit.

Mielcarek said in an email that the change is about making the grid more reliable and that correcting the frequency for time deviations can cause other unnecessary problems for the grid. She wrote that any problems from the test are only possibilities.

In the future, more use of renewable energy from the sun and wind will mean more variations in frequency on the grid, McClelland said. Solar and wind power can drop off the grid with momentary changes in weather. Correcting those deviations is expensive and requires instant backup power to be always at the ready, he said.

The test makes sense and should not cause too much of a hassle for people, said Jay Apt, a business professor and director of the Electricity Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

But Tom O'Brian, who heads the time and frequency division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, expects widespread effects.

He said there are alternatives if people have problems from the test: The federal government provides the official by telephone and on the Internet.

Explore further: Big names pony up for power-line broadband

More information:
Official U.S. government time: http://time.gov or call 202-762-1401

North American Electric Reliability Corporation: http://www.nerc.com/


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3 / 5 (2) Jun 24, 2011
Fix my powergrid and I'll accept 30 minutes of my stove clock going faster, but no more...
1.9 / 5 (10) Jun 24, 2011
No this is a tragedy! Hammond organs never go out of tune provided the power is 60hz. I'm gonna bust out Horowitz and Hill and come up with a circuit to fix the problem.
not rated yet Jun 25, 2011
you get what you pay for? I hope this doesn't happen in Greenwich.. actually where I live seems to be a bit out of it, the sun used to rise at 5 am, set 6pm in winter, now ~ ten years later its rising 4 am, setting 5pm in winter
not rated yet Jun 25, 2011
Paving the way to a future society where all clocks are synchronized.

This should prove to be interesting..
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 25, 2011
No, any appliance that has the smarts to blink 12:00 almost certainly keeps time with a quartz oscillator and merely loses track of time because it is powered from the AC input. @FrankHerbert - The instantaneous accuracy of the 60 Hz will probably improve! Currently when the grid slowly drifts off (especially during peak demand periods), it has to be actively drifted back again to keep the total daily cycle count at 5,184,000 cycles per day.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2011
Fer God's sake dinosaurs, move on with the time! You have accurate time on your phone, mobile phones, Ipads, e-book readers, PCs, Macs, watches, radio and tv pograms, and you are STILL complaining "Don't fix the power grid for better supply because it will affect my clocks!". Incomprehensible. No wonder the Earthings are regared as retards of the Galaxy and nobody in their right minds would consider contacting them, for another 10,000 years at the least!
5 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2011
I was occasionally directed to operate my small, 4 MWe, power plant at 50 Hz to confound the enemy.

We periodically ran ours on my Sub at 59 hz in an attempt to detect the enemy, just in case someone was trailing us.
1.9 / 5 (9) Jun 25, 2011
Only the GREATEST INSTRUMENT EVER relies totally on 60hz power. There are many horror stories of Hammond organists attempting to power their organ from a generator at outdoor concerts.

@Doug and SteveL
Neat stories!
3 / 5 (2) Jun 25, 2011
That's a problem. My record player will no longer play at the correct speed. I'm going to have to trash all my vinyl!! End of the world!
1 / 5 (2) Jun 25, 2011
It will be funny when they start messing with the hertz and it affects people close to the electromagnetic fields associated with electrical infrastructure.

Then they will probably realize they can mind control the whole world by subjecting us to the correct hertz or sequence of variation of hertz.

Kind of like the secret montauk microwave experiments where they fried people using a couple Mw of microwave energy and used to it mind control a whole county for a few weeks or whatever...

Or was that an episode of the X-files? i forget which one is reality and which is fiction sometimes....
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 25, 2011
It will be funny when they start messing with the hertz and it affects people close to the electromagnetic fields associated with electrical infrastructure.

More pseudo science.

The other news was never reported. In 1950 the US standard for household electricity was 125V/250V at 60hz. Now the nominal voltage is 108/215. Lovely times as we p!ssed away the infrastructure
1 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2011
Let's go back to DC power and Edison's incandescents lights. There would be no frequencies fcuk ups and the warm light and heat would satisfy the masses. After all, we CONTROL the oil from ME and would keep wasting it anyway we can, as long as we can for the sheer joy of being able to do so until...
1 / 5 (1) Jun 26, 2011
What better way to try to force a kickstart of the economy than to make every person go out and buy new small appliances?
1 / 5 (2) Jun 26, 2011
What better way to kickstart the economy than by making electricity too cheap to meter?
1 / 5 (1) Jun 26, 2011
Well it be a great time to switch it to 86.4 hz. After which we can Metricate the clock to Metric time. 10 hr with 100 minutes and 100 seconds. Then the 86.4 hz would be 100 Metric Hertz.
not rated yet Jun 26, 2011
Or we could switch it to 57.87 hz, but in Metric time it would be 50 Metric Hertz.
not rated yet Jun 26, 2011
The majority of non-net connected devices use 60HZ (with a zero crossing detector) to keep time. It's very cheap and was very accurate :(

Imagine the future - your microwave, alarm clock, and stove will no longer have the correct time.

I don't think ISO knows what it's doing in this case. Do they realize the majority of people's appliances won't keep time ?

not rated yet Jun 27, 2011
@ Shootist: Either your circuit is heavily overloaded at 108/215 vac or your transformer needs to be re-tapped. Lower voltages place a heavier current load on the circuits and require higher ampacity wires. Provided you don't exceed the ampacity of your wattmeter, it doesn't care if your voltage is high or low. Watts are watts.

@ EotB: 86.4Hz = 100 "metric"Hz and 57.87Hz = 50 "metric"Hz? Is this new math? Also, transition to the metric time standard would be incredibly painful and expensive.

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