Clocks may go a little cuckoo with power grid change


Running late for work or just miss that bus? You could have a good excuse: Your electric clock might be running a bit cuckoo.

Because of a change in federal energy regulations, some scientists say your trusty, older plug-in clock may be losing or gaining a few ticks over time.

Electric clocks keep time based on the usually stable and precise pulses of the electric current that powers them. In the U.S., that's 60 hertz (cycles per second). In the past, regulators required power companies to immediately correct the rate if it slipped off the mark. But that precision is expensive to maintain, so last year, the correction part was quietly eliminated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Energy officials insist other standards will keep the time in check, and so far the problem has not amounted to more than a few seconds here and there. But some scientists looked at what could happen without the time correction rule and concluded clocks could gradually go off-kilter if the grid's power was delivered consistently at higher or lower rates than 60 hertz. That can happen when power demand surges or slows because of weather and the grid can't adjust right away.

This would affect clocks that get their power from a wall socket, such as alarm clocks and those on microwaves and coffeemakers. Cellphones, newer clocks with GPS, those connected to cable TV and modern ones that don't rely on the grid to keep time aren't affected, experts said.

The changes could be just matters of seconds and all but unnoticeable, but the time could drift by as much as seven and a half minutes between time changes in March and November, when people reset their clocks, according to a study conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Naval Observatory.

In some extreme cases, Americans might miss their bus, parts of television shows and even be slightly late or, shudder, early for work, said Demetrios Matsakis, co-author of the study and chief time scientist at the Naval Observatory.

"They'll think something is wrong with their clock but they won't know what," said Matsakis, co-author of the study.

The request to retire the long-standing time correction rule came from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which coordinates the grid. NERC standards director Howard Gugel says newer standards prevent veering from 60 hertz so the rule isn't needed. NERC has guidelines for what to do if time corrections are necessary, he said in an email.

Without the rule, the fixes will still be made but maybe not right away, said Terry Bilke, who works on time coordination for the Indiana-based Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which provides power to 15 states and Manitoba.

Earlier this year, in the eastern half of the country, a time error of 10 seconds too fast went uncorrected for a week or more. It was during a bitter cold snap and utilities didn't think it was wise to tinker with power levels, said Bill Henson of the system operator for New England. Generally, time errors are fixed every three to five days in the eastern U.S., he said.

An advocate for the rule change said worries about time slips are unwarranted. Don Badley, a recently retired systems operations manager for the Northwest Power Pool Corporation, said any lingering errors will be corrected when people reset their clocks twice a year.

___

This story has been corrected to show the last name of the New England system operator is Henson.

___

Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears . His work can be found here .

___

The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Nation World

Meghan Markle's rescue dog, Guy the beagle, goes from shelter pup to royal pet
Meghan Markle's rescue dog, Guy the beagle, goes from shelter pup to royal pet

A new member of the royal family is making headlines – and no, we're not talking about Meghan Markle. According to the Guardian, a beagle named Guy was in a Kentucky kill shelter until Ontario-based A Dog's Dream Rescue saved him and offered him for adoption at a 2015 event in Canada. That's where he met his new owner, Markle, who went on...
Local man gains national attention after bassoon mistaken for rifle
Local man gains national attention after bassoon mistaken for rifle

Eric Barga has been on the national stage before. As band manager for Kenton Ridge High School, he was part of the group’s performance in the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. It was his bassoon that propelled him into headlines about a month ago — but it had nothing to do with music. In April, Barga was sitting on...
Royal wedding: Kitty Spencer stuns with resemblance to her aunt, Princess Diana
Royal wedding: Kitty Spencer stuns with resemblance to her aunt, Princess Diana

Bride Meghan Markle wasn't the only one turning heads at Saturday's royal wedding. Many fans of the royals said Lady Kitty Spencer, niece of the late Princess Diana and daughter of Earl Charles Spencer, Diana's brother, looked just like her famous aunt. According to the New York Daily News, the 27-year-old model wore a forest green Dolce & Gabbana...
Royal Wedding: Meghan Markle, Prince Harry wed (live updates)
Royal Wedding: Meghan Markle, Prince Harry wed (live updates)

Actress Meghan Markle and Britain’s Prince Harry got married Saturday in a highly anticipated, star-studded ceremony in St. George’s Chapel at England’s Windsor Castle.  Update 6:21 a.m. EDT Sunday: The British royal family took to Twitter late Saturday to congratulate Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and thank their guests...
Big money, political muscle on display in payday lending clash
Big money, political muscle on display in payday lending clash

Payday lending stores dot the landscape of Ohio’s small towns, suburban strip malls and inner-city thoroughfares. To hear one side tell it, they give their customers — many with bad credit — much-needed access to quick money for emergencies and everyday expenses. To hear the other side tell it, they take advantage of the poor by charging...
More Stories