US POWER SUPPLY has been so precise that Americans have set our clocks by it. But time may be running out on that idea.
A yearlong experiment with the electric grid may make plug-in clocks and devices like coffeemakers with programmable timers run up to 20 minutes fast.
The group that oversees the U.S. power grid is proposing a change that has the potential to disrupt electric clocks in schools, hospitals and other institutions, according to a company presentation obtained by The Associated Press. It may also mess with the timing of traffic lights, security systems, sprinklers and some personal computer software and hardware.
“Is anyone using the grid to keep track of time? Let’s see if anyone complains if we eliminate it.”
Since 1930, electric clocks have kept time based on the rate of the electrical current that powers them (60hz). 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 experiment would allow more frequency variation than it does now without corrections. 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 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“Is anyone using the grid to keep track of time?” McClelland said. “Let’s see if anyone complains if we eliminate it.”
They will and they should, timekeepers say.
“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.
The changes, however, are out of the hands of timekeepers and in control of officials who supply the electrical power.
No one is quite sure what will be affected. This won’t change the clocks in cellphones, GPS systems 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…