Category Archives: Best of Site

Longer articles featuring the best of SBE36.org. Biographies of local engineers, news event coverage, and “Making Waves” commentary.

Making Waves: RFI – My Unwanted Visitor

Considering the number of switching supplies these days powering everything from cell phone chargers to computers and televisions, you’d think radio frequency interference (RFI) would be a bigger problem. I dabble in ham radio just enough to notice that, except for a few birdies, overall HF spectrum is generally pretty quiet.

Our channel 6 transmitter just south of the border is most vulnerable being low band VHF, relatively distant for most US homes, and dependent on AM receivers for video. We do occasionally get the viewer phone call suggesting we fix the swirling video noise on his TV. I’ve never received any confirmation that anyone followed my suggestions to turn off appliances or even circuit breakers to find the source of the noise—just an occasional repeat call to say that the noise in Lakeside is still there, suggesting my work there remains.

Recently, though, I was surprised to find that my brand new Sears DieHard power tool “Multi-chemistry” battery charger produces enough RF to effectively overcome all incoming signals at home, pretty much DC to daylight. The entire AM band sounds like hash, the FM band is a screechy mess, and many of the ham bands have multiple carriers rapidly sweeping through all frequencies as heard with my fan dipole antenna some 60 feet away. I can’t imagine that this Made in China beauty, model 315.259260 passed FCC Part 15 subpart B testing, but I haven’t yet filed a complaint.

Have you discovered a similar hash transmitter in your home or neighborhood?

Getting Greener with Age

You don’t have to be a tree-hugger to appreciate the value of going green in your broadcast facilities. With energy costs now outpacing inflation by a wide margin, saving energy and recycling are obvious expense cut targets.

If you are planning a new facility, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification makes sense for long term energy cost savings as well as public relations value. But you don’t have to go all that way to shave costs while not overwhelming your capital budget.

Utility companies are motivated to boost energy savings. Less demand means fewer generation plant and transmission facilities investments required. And public utility commissions are demanding accountability in conservation efforts during rate setting hearings. The state government and local utility provide generous tax credits or rebates on efficiency projects as long as you follow the rules. There are some initiatives in which the utility will hire someone to come in and upgrade your facility at no cost. I’ve attended San Diego Gas and Electric’s Energy Symposiums for the past two years and have been surprised at the depth of the presentations and sheer number of low cost energy savings products and services available. The continental breakfast, full lunch, and door prizes weren’t bad, either. Check out their website for more information.

What you can do

Insulation

For our facility, this was the low hanging fruit. We could stand on the third floor on a sunny day and literally feel the heat radiating down from the roof. In 2005, I had R30 insulation stuffed between the metal roof trusses and that changed the atmosphere on the upper floor drastically. SDG&E later announced rebates on commercial R30 insulation upgrades, and they’re still available. Investment payback depends on a few factors, but it looks like our investment will break even next summer.

Lighting

Lighting takes a surprising proportion of your facility’s electric bill. SDG&E will pay to upgrade your fluorescent lamp ballasts to low consumption types, and someone will just show up to count the fixtures and change them out. Consider installing proximity detectors for less used lights in hallways, break rooms, and restrooms. For exterior wall offices, if you have the proper window film or awnings, you may be able to turn off your office lighting altogether and save on air conditioning at the same time. I like awnings on south and west facing windows because you can block the high summer sun and pass the low winter sun. If your building uses single pane glass, you can get rebates on window film installation in San Diego. Single story buildings can use skylights and light tunnels. Some people like to use simple task lighting instead of harsh overhead fluorescents, so passing out a few LED desk lamps may save substantial money over a few years.

TV Studio lighting is going through a revolution, converting to fluorescent and LED fixtures. You’d be surprised at how well manufacturers are addressing the colorimetry, dimming control, and focus issues. The fluorescent guys claim LEDs have a way to go with color spectrum, but I liked the demo I saw at the NAB Convention. The White House Press Room recently converted to LEDs, as did some CBS studios. This is huge because you not only save on lighting power, but air conditioning.

In a session on LED lighting, I learned about new parking lot lamps that detect motion and turn on in groups to serve only those active regions. This not only decreases consumption and light pollution, but increases security since bodies in motion activate lighting. You can change your exit signs with LED versions to save 95% of consumption. And if your signs are near a window, the luminescent versions need no power at all.

Air Conditioning

I was bothered by coming into our news studio unoccupied during the day and on weekends and finding the air conditioner on full cool. You can’t put that function dependably on a timer because the studio might be occupied at odd hours with production. And putting in a manual thermostat means that it will be invariably left at full blast cool. Our HVAC management program, still running MS-DOS, just wasn’t smart enough to deal with more intelligence. So we had our junior engineer Mina Zaki program a small embedded computer to take inputs from a lighting current transformer, an exit door, and a proximity detector. Now, when the studio lights aren’t on, the HVAC backs off from full blast to a comfortable room temperature. And if no one is detected in the room or someone leaves the hall door open, it backs off to an even higher temp. We’re saving about $8,000 a year in electricity costs.

There are huge advances in facility controls and HVAC science that lead to reduced consumption. New chillers, controls that use proximity detection, and more efficient heat exchangers and motors all help to save.

Generators

SDG&E has just adopted Critical Peak Pricing, meaning that your medium or large business will be hit with big rates during critical system consumption peak periods this summer. Unfortunately, broadcasters can’t readily control their consumption during hot summer afternoons–the 5 PM news must go on. What can you do?

Our facility was just outfitted with generator controls and pollution filters that will take us to go off the grid during times when SDG&E determines there is a “Critical Peak.” Their contractor installed all the equipment and will maintain and fuel our 600 kW generator at no cost to us. This will allow us to bypass the critical peak rates and still use the generator during emergency power outages.

The only thing green about the peak generation program is that the utility can avoid installing new generators. Given some capital, I’d rather install solar or fuel cell generators and really cut the bill.

Last year, we toured the fuel cell generators at the Sheraton Hotels on Harbor Island. They’re truly off the grid except during cell maintenance periods, and they use the excess heat for their pools. Jeff Cox of FuelCell Energy explained that you may be able to do the conversion at zero, or near zero cost. There are investment companies willing to lease the power plants to you for about what you pay for your energy bills. The “gotcha” for us was that the fuel cells work best under constant load. A TV station with incandescent studio lamps going on and off at various times means you would have to plan the generators for the lightest load, and the savings may not be there. A hotel, with its guests using air conditioning by day and lights in random numbers by night is a nearly ideal load, as would be a multiple shift manufacturing plant.

The climate in San Diego inland seems to say solar is the way to go, but the payback is still pretty far out. There’s nothing to keep you from installing a few cells on the roof and applying for subsidies, but cell chemistry is changing rapidly enough that I’m staying on the sideline for the time being.

Data Processing

Our IT guys started putting some of our servers on VMWare recently. The idea is to consolidate your servers to maximize the processing so that you use one processor running at 40% duty cycle rather than, say, six each running at 5 to 8% duty cycle. It turns out that this trend is huge, and processing intensive companies are realizing millions in savings in power and cooling costs, not to mention the savings just in square footage of IT racks. You may not want to do this for critical media playout and capture servers, but everything else can share.

Are you ducting your heat away from your racks? If you are just cooling a room full of racks without consideration to thermodynamics, you are wasting a huge amount of energy. Middle Atlantic has a great white paper on thermal management that will help you keep from reheating waste air.

How do your IT facility policies deal with energy? For one, with Windows, you can now enforce desktop energy savings by having your monitors go black after periods on non-use. You can also have processors hibernate and have their hard drives spin down.

Just Do It

Being able to turn in a few thousand dollars of expense savings for your plant can’t hurt your career. And know that you don’t have to go it alone. There are plenty of resources to help out for free or on the cheap, so you have no excuse.

BPL’s Off–What’s Next?

Technically, Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) always seemed to me the electrical equivalent to pushing rope. The San Diego Gas & Electric experiment on the two blocks that surrounded my home in 2006 involved an impossibly expensive array of wireless and wired transceivers and multiple high and low voltage couplers. All that gear was required to get the VHF signal a block or two at the most before it faded and required a repeater and more coupling and decoupling gear. See, VHF doesn’t travel well down an unbalanced open wire. The HF signals used in an earlier pilot didn’t do much better.

The poor closed transmission qualities of the power lines meant they radiated most of their energy. While the industry worked hard to protect incumbent users of the spectrum–read ham radio and land mobile emergency services–the lines radiate so much that there really is no way for them to reliably comply with the original FCC Part 15 rules unless amended to specifically excuse the industry. In local trials, we measured little radiation on frequencies used by hams and the state. The worst emissions were produced on parts of the AM band by one of the power supplies used for a BPL modem. SDG&E involved hams, emergency communications users, and me as representative of broadcasters in an effort to monitor their BPL experiments, and that was a commendable move. Nonetheless, they energized power lines and radiated RF.

BPL has reminded me of the huge coal plant 16 miles from the Grand Canyon. The haze harmed the view of the canyon from the day it opened, but why should we purposefully foul the air anywhere if it isn’t necessary? Your government backed an inherently harmful technology when it could just as easily require scrubbers or not allow the burning of coal for power at all. It’s legalized pollution.

Follow the Money

Terry Snow, local engineering coordinator for SDG&E, told me they ended local BPL trials in mid-2007 and removed the equipment soon thereafter. The utility determined that BPL simply isn’t economically feasible.

Why is this? BPL as an internet service alternative for consumers, as envisioned by non-technical regulators, doesn’t pencil out. All the stuff required to modulate power lines designed for 60 Hz service simply is too expensive to supply a few homes in a neighborhood. The FCC said they wanted a competitive internet service for consumers to keep the price down, but they assumed the science would work economically. It hasn’t.

So how do utilities with BPL now, like those in Manassas, Virginia, make it work? First, you have to ignore those who complain about spectrum interference. The American Radio Relay League, the ham radio lobby, has battled the FCC for years to get them to enforce their own interference rules. Manassas hams are screaming for relief from the blanket of noise.

Second, BPL isn’t about internet service for you and me–it’s about advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). The derivative of AMR, or Automatic Meter Reading, is the technology that allows utilities to measure and control how much power you use at what times of the day. In fact, Terry Snow says, the California PUC specifically forbade them from selling internet service to the public.

You see, companies like those in Manassas can’t afford BPL unless it is subsidized by rate increases for all electric power users, and  the CPUC said they could use the rate increase for AMI. But they aren’t allowed to charge all consumers for a service that would benefit only those few consumers willing to pay an additional premium.

Power generating plants and lines are not only very expensive to install, nobody wants them in their neighborhood. And once the systems are in, the power companies don’t want to have to rebuild them because you are using more power for your new spa or third TV. Peak power is the problem. Utilities are very good at providing power for your normal needs day after day. But when it gets hot around here, they can just barely supply enough juice at 4 PM.

The utilities have asked us to conserve power, but nothing works as well as good, old-fashioned supply and demand. If the electric company charges, say, 10 times as much for power delivered at 4 PM on a hot day than they do for power delivered at 4 AM, people will be more mindful of their air conditioning settings and run the dishwasher when demand and rates are lower. It makes sense if you believe in classical capitalism. But remember that this is a regulated monopoly. Utilities like demand pricing because they can profit from figuring the rates in such a way that the median charge for energy increases.

It turns out that the cost of implementing AMI for the general public is big. So big, the utility group UCAN says the best case scenario is for a 25-year payback, and worst-case has the costs just never paid off. UCAN suggests for peak demand control a series of measures from conservation incentives to large-user controls to voluntary peak cutoff systems. I had a radio subcarrier receiver in an apartment in Utah that the utility could use to cutoff the air conditioner if peak demand in the neighborhood grew too high. At Bay City TV, we participate in a peak generation program, running a generator and taking our facility off-line by request when demand gets dangerously high.

SDG&E and other utilities continue to explore peak demand controls and AMI, but the definitive method of measuring and controlling electrical power delivery hasn’t been determined or implemented yet.

Fires Disrupt San Diego Broadcasts

The record-breaking fires in San Diego County are serving to bring us both opportunity to prove itself worthy of its slice of the public spectrum, and the challenge to cover all the breaking news with limited resources and without any income whatsoever.

Fire safety officers warned late the previous week that it might be a tough weekend when extremely low humidity and desert “Santa Ana” winds combined to prepare the dry underbrush for burning.

Sunday, October 21

Fire breaks out at 9:00 AM in the relatively unpopulated area of Protrero and Harris Ranch Road along state highway 94 southeast of San Diego. Fire later starts east of Romona northeast of San Diego in the Witch Creek draw.

In the evening, as the fires head toward Romona with its 30,000 residents, stations begin going live wall-to-wall with neither commercials nor the usual primetime programming. Notably, all seven Clear Channel radio stations start simulcasting, mostly using KOGO radio news crews, with veteran newsman Cliff Albert anchoring. Independent KUSI goes full-time with an ENG crew in Romona, then NBC’s KNSD hit the air after their NFL broadcast. ABC affilate KGTV, Fox affiliate XETV, and CBS affiliate KFMB each go live.

Stations use their existing alliances to simulcast, with the BCA stations XEPRS (AM) 1090, XEBCE (FM) 105.7, and XEPE (AM) 1700 rebroadcasting KUSI’s audio.{mosimage}

Monday, October 22

Lincoln Financial Media’s KSOQ-FM 92.1 satellite station becomes the first casualty as the Witch Fire crossed Mt. Whitney, burns electrical power lines feeding the station. It goes silent.

The Harris Fire on Monday night burns over the top of Mt. San Miguel, home to San Diego UHF TV stations KNSD, KPBS, KSWB, and KUSI and radio station KPBS-FM. Low power Spanish TV station KSDX 29 is completely destroyed, with photos showing the heat seemingly coming from the inside, out. Live video from KNSD’s tower camera shows the fire approaching, then cracking the lens from excessive heat. San Diego Gas & Electric’s 230 kV line to the area fails as over 20 transmission poles burn, and telephone service goes out. Most TV & FM stations on top are able to continue broadcasting using generators. KPBS-FM and -TV go off the air for lack of generator power. Telephone line outages causes failures of remote ENG microwave antenna controllers there for KGTV, KFMB, and XETV.

While less publicized, enormous fires also break out in Baja California, Mexico. One such fire, a few miles south of the Harris Ranch Fire, burns the electrical transmission lines feeding broadcast facilities on Cerro Bola near Tecate. XEBCE (FM) is off the air until the line is prepared.

Tuesday, October 23

The Witch Fire far to the north in Valley Center causes phone outages at Palomar Mountain, where ENG relays no longer take remote commands for TV outlets.

After KPBS-FM goes off the air, Lincoln Financial Media’s KBZT (FM) (94.9, alternative rock) begins broadcasting fire information from the KPBS studios on a ISDN link, and continues to do so through Wednesday.

Tuesday night, KPBS crews bring a spare 1000 watt transmitter from their desert station in Calexico back to the San Diego State University studio site. Bext supplies a two-bay antenna from their shelf stock downtown, and KPBS staff mounts it overnight on their STL tower. By morning, KPBS-FM 89.5 is back on the air from Gateway Center at about 400-ft elevation AMSL.

Meanwhile, XETV FOX6 takes a portable ENG receiver to its transmitter site in Tijuana and begins relaying live news from the Harris Fire near Chula Vista, using a recent FCC ENG license endorsement that allows the station to beam over the border on 6.5 GHz.

Wednesday, October 24

SDG&E crews quickly installs new poles, restoring power at Mt. Whitney, and KSOQ (FM) resumes rebroadcasting KSON-FM.

The Witch fire climbs Palomar Mountain, threatening homes near the top, as well as radio sites and the famous telescope. News crews report that firefighters make a particularly risky stand at the South Grade Road and stop the fire before it gets to those homes.

By late afternoon, the Santa Ana winds subside, temperatures cool somewhat, and humidity begins to increase, slowing the spread of flames, but bringing the very real possibility of easterly spread on the north on south fingers of the fires.

Thursday, October 25

A motorcade of fuel trucks and broadcast engineers drives up Mt. San Miguel, refueling the generator storage tanks. Utility representatives forecast having all the replacement poles serving the mountaintop in place within two weeks.

Late in the afternoon, AT&T restores phone service to Palomar Mountain, once again allowing for the control of microwave relays there, but the fire rages on the southwest slopes of the long ridge.

Friday, October 26

KPBS puts a temporary generator in place, by late afternoon powering its FM and DT transmitters to the legal limit, and its analog transmitter at half power.

Epilogue

To date, the Harris Fire burned 90,750 acres. There were 34 injuries to firefighters, 21 civilians burned and 5 civilian fatalities.

The Witch Fire burned 197,990 acres. There were 38 injuries to firefighters, and two civilian fatalities.

The Rice Fire burned 9,472 acres. Full containment was obtained on October 28th. There have been five injuries to firefighters.

The Poomacha Fire burned 49,150 acres. There were 20 injuries to firefighters.

In total, 346,890 acres burned, 1,588 residences destroyed, 320 residences damaged, 2 commercial properties destroyed. 640,000 citizens were evacuated. Suppression costs so far are estimated at $93-million.

Rockley Curless, KPBS transmitter engineer, took a series of photographs of the site and posted them on Flickr.

Normal Town – Setting Audio Levels for San Diego TV

If Bob Vaillancourt, Engineering Manager for local NBCU O&O KNSD has anything to say about it, San Diego’s TV audio is about to improve. In spite of great new pictures with high definition broadcast TV, one of the lingering complaints about the technology is the audio. It’s all over the place. Compressed commercials can blow out the audience after a soft dramatic scene. Local material doesn’t always match network material in an automated master control. And different local stations can have very different levels as viewers surf through channels.

Bob said he had recently spoken with NBCU’s Advanced Technology guru, Jim Starzynski, who laid out a plan to address loudness using the Dolby dialnorm setting that is a part of the Advanced Television Systems (ATSC) standard. That plan starts with each of the ten network owned and operated stations, but he said it needs to spread to the other digital stations in each market, and ultimately to all ATSC stations.

Dolby dialnorm is part of the specification written into ATSC that helps normalize audio levels based on metadata that rides along with the audio. Normalization, unlike compression or limiting, doesn’t change the dynamic range—only the level of audio. Researchers learned that people who watch TV like to set their volume levels based on dialog instead of music or background. Dialog normalization, or dialnorm, attempts to automatically adjust dialog levels based on the standard of the source. Without dialnorm, Dolby interprets the dialog amplitude as being averaged around -31 dBFS. With a Fox dialnorm setting of -25, they are commanding the end viewer’s Dolby decoder to release its audio to the amplifier with a 6 dB attenuation. With a local setting of -23, the decoder attenuates the local material 8 dB.

How do you derive those settings? That’s where Bob comes in. NBCU bought for KNSD a Dolby LM-100 Loudness Meter that specifically reads loudness with respect to digital full scale only during dialog. Bob sampled all the San Diego area English language DTV stations over a two-week period in early July. He took readings during primetime, fringe, daytime, and even overnight. He put the readings into a large spreadsheet to share with local broadcasters.

The results are interesting. First, all the stations in the market except KNSD and KPBS had their dialnorm settings on their Dolby encoders at the Tandberg default of -27. KPBS had theirs at -31–the setting that signals Dolby decoders not to normalize levels. Bob had set KNSD’s dialnorm at -22 to begin with, then adjusted it during the week to -23. He recommends XETV FOX6 set its dialnorm to -23 based on an average of 43 loudness readings ranging from -20 to -29. Readings at KPBS swung the most, as you might expect of a public station with widely varying content and no dialnorm action. Readings at KUSI were the most consistent, as you might expect of an independent station heavy with news and talk content.

XETV has adjusted its dialnorm to -25 based on a recommendation from Fox Network, though we intend to adjust that figure after analyzing it more. Jim DeFilippis, Fox VP of Engineering, said that they will be working with affiliate stations and the other networks to implement dialnorm. FOX6 will soon be applying normalization to all local recorded content.

Bob says that they now have the Dolby Loudness Meter at their ingest station where operators use it to help them set levels. He is looking forward to working with all local engineering crews to get their dialnorm settings programmed. Once this is done, viewers should hear more consistent loudness when switching between stations as well as when the stations switch between local and network content.

You can learn more about dialnorm in this Broadcast Engineering magazine article.

 

SBE36.ORG Ten Years Later

In July of 1997, Dave Biondi in Texas offered free webhosting for SBE chapters wanting to create a site. Having wanted to learn HTML and the various allied technologies, I went for it. Netscape’s browser came with a decent HTML editor, so with a Sams book in my lap, I created the first chapter web page. We registered an independent website a couple of years later, still using the Texan.net servers. That first web page still exists, though the logo has been updated and the site is now hosted in San Diego at Aplus.net.

The idea of informing the San Diego broadcast engineer about the SBE chapter and local industry news seemed obvious. At that time, Ron Foo and John Barcroft at KGB were working hard publishing the monthly SBE chapter print newsletter. I wanted more local content and eventually to help relieve them of some of the laborious processes of composing, copying, folding, stapling, stamping, and addressing. Some chapters, like Portland, do such a consistently good job of covering local events that it just seemed possible to do that here. And the intended audience was supposedly wired, so wouldn’t it also be possible to set-up web and e-mail distribution?

In 1997, I had a brand new screaming 160 MHz Macintosh Performa 6360 and quickly bought the BBEdit text editor and some cheap graphics software. With some Apple Quicktime macro programming, I could create a webpage from plain text paragraphs in seconds. I created web banner ads for our sponsors and at one time had 24 in circulation, some artistically pleasant, others not so much.

The only problem with this technique is that it creates static web pages. If your design later changes or you get new sponsors and need different banners to rotate, you have to re-render the HTML. I looked around for a more dynamic web page publishing technique, but I couldn’t find anything well enough documented that I could learn it in what little spare time I had. I did learn and implement Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS, which is a cool way to write a central design structure with a single text document.

In 2001, when I gave the job a rest for a year, webmaster Tim Toole won the SBE Chapter Website of the Year award.

In 2004, I created a potentially commercial site called Benx.us (Broadcast Engineers’ News & eXchange), but it really demanded collaboration and everyone else had their own gig going and didn’t want to combine efforts. Hackers seemed to enjoy exploiting the PHP forum vulnerabilities so that I had to reload the site daily for a while. With respect to the forum, people had different interpretations about freedom of speech. I took it down after a few months.

In 2005, I discovered the underworld of open source content management systems (CMS). These systems, depending on the increasingly popular open source PHP web task language and SQL database, automate all the dynamic web pages. All you have to do is customize a template and install the desired working modules. If you are seeing this in the summer of 2007, you are looking at the Mambo CMS with a customized JW Tribute template. Look at this site for a peek at what it looks like elsewhere.

I haven’t seen much discussion about this, but that pile of code makes the site seem vulnerable. First, many of the modules they distribute don’t work. That’s probably due to the classic mistake that amateur programmers make in writing for their particular circumstance and not to the greater design framework. Often they just lose interest while chasing all the bugs. We tried to use Mambo for an intranet at work, but customizing it got us into a mire of spaghetti code that we didn’t have the time to devote to–time is money. All that PHP code and that one, big, increasingly vulnerable database make me quite afraid that one day the site will be broken and I won’t be able to reconstruct it. Yes, I back it up, but what happens when the host updates PHP and MySQL and some of the code stops working? Meanwhile, the webpages from before 2005 just sit there as little text files, ready for viewing–simple, like an old car.

So for SBE36 version 3, I’m looking for a simple implementation of PHP and CSS, from which I can make a site from a structure of stored HTML insert text files. Sort of like the original site, but with dynamic style, banners, and menus.

Ideally, there should be one SBE supersite with virtual chapter sites built-in. You contribute articles and checkoff boxes as to where they should be read. But that’s not in the spirit of the ever independent web.

Why do all this work?

I thought about this question and at first came up with noble answers about informed citizens in a democracy and all that, but it’s more primal, really. Writers are simply compelled to tell the stories of their time. You ask Bob Gonsett of Fallbrook, Clay Freinwald of Seattle or Kent Randles of Portland and I suspect they would have to admit the same thing–that telling you about what is going on is something that just has to be done and we’re just going to do it.

Not that my work is as consistent or as high quality as theirs. In fact, it’s simply a product of the time and interest I have to devote to the task–no more, no less.

I try to use a couple of principles to guide me. One is to confirm information. Another is to give others a voice–especially if they disagree. Another is to try to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a small community. We all make mistakes.

So we do it because we like to inform, because we like to read our own taut script, and because once in a while someone says, “I read that article you wrote and really (liked it) (learned something) (it made me think) (laughed).”

Thank you just for reading.

Making Waves: RIP Gateway Electronics

Those of us who love to homebrew and tinker have lost a friend when Gateway Electronics in San Diego closed their doors in late April. The store sold a couple of years ago, but Manny and Fong couldn’t keep the cash flow positive, and a new lessee was to take over.

Here’s why I think Gateway closed:

  • People don’t have the time to tinker;
  • The integration of electronics has become so cheap and large-scale that small-scale projects don’t have much value;
  • Specialized small electronics items can now be found online;
  • The internet has made it possible to repurpose surplus gear through auction and direct sale sites without using retail outlets; and
  • Because of all of the above, retailers additional cash streams through either technical services, web sales, or local sales of higher traffic computer gear.

My favorite Gateway find was when, while looking at their selection of LEDs at the front glass counter shelves I saw in my peripheral vision a small container of tiny mechanical clocks. These are the kind of sealed, elapsed time counters they put on very expensive equipment that allowed you to log and time maintenance. This was in the mid-1990s when KFMB-TV had in service four Philips LDK-6 Plumbicon studio cameras that made great pictures. But their camera head timers had a habit of making a terrible noise when they presumably wore out their internal gears or just lost their lubrication. Philips charged $400 each for the neat-looking devices the size of your thumb. As far as I know, the LDK-6 may have been the only product they made that used this special 400Hz clock, and they had to manage their inventory and pay tax, year after year. Having worked in manufacturing, I understand parts costs. But here they were at Gateway, small, matte black, 400Hz, 100,000 hour elapsed time counters, $5 each. I bought four and we installed at least two of them over time.

I also liked their supplies of cheap LEDs, connectors, stainless hardware, and a great line of prototype circuit boards. They also stocked all kinds of transformers, switches, basic kits, and computer cables. Some items, like used switches and some really old test gear, you might not want to take home for fear of creating more of an expediture of time and energy than a savings that good engineering practices would dictate.

Gateway wasn’t the only surplus electronics supply store in the region, but they were the only one in Kearny Mesa within a short drive from most broadcast outlets. Industrial Liquidators doesn’t really count–they’re useful for some tools and pneumatic supplies, but have very little electronics stock. Murphy’s and California Surplus continue to operate from the same neighborhood of Johnson Avenue in El Cajon, and I’ll be the first to say that they do a good job of keeping their shelves tidy enough to make hardware relatively easy to find. If you ever have to replace or install a new one of those mil-spec MS “Amphenol” connectors, Cal. Surplus has a huge barrel of them that has saved me from the misery of waiting 8-10 weeks for a new one. Willy’s Electronics in National City still stocks some hobbyist electronics supplies, but its all new stuff and you pay full retail price. There’s the monthly Santee Swap Meet, but with the internet and declining electronics hobby, it’s become more of a big garage sale. I visit once a year for a load of tools, hi-fi cables, and fresh avocados.

The king, the acme, nay, the apex of surplus electronics is Apex Electronics in Sun Valley in the heart of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. I happened by there once when, during a visit to my mother-in-law’s, I took a side trip. With an acre or so of indoor shelves that must be 20 feet high and an outdoor lot of surely another couple of acres, this place is big. Good luck in an earthquake, pal. Take the virtual tour on their website. Microwave gear for pennies on the dollar, though that was before the price of copper went through the roof. If they don’t have what you want, then you should reconsider your design.

Epilogue

When Manny and Fong closed the Gateway doors, they handed out little pieces of paper with contact information and a promise of opening a new store. I tried to call and write to ask a few questions, but have yet to receive a reply.

What are your experiences with surplus buying? Are there other Southern California stores you know about? Tell us about it.

Making Waves: DST Means Work for You and Me

On March 11, 2007, Daylight Savings Time starts earlier than last year. Congress moved the date with a simple vote. Now you and I have to do all the dirty work to make our computerized world fall into place. Are you ready?

When I was 15 and enthused about ham radio, I bought from Allied Radio one of those 24-hour wall clocks and set it for Greenwich Mean Time. Yeah, I was that geeky. What that clock showed me is that all the fuss about time zones and daylight saving time is completely unnecessary. Why couldn’t the whole world run off one time and change their local school and work times to whatever they wanted? Does it really matter if they’re going to work at 0800 in London and we’re going to work at 1800 in San Diego? Instead, governments and corporations spend enormous resources tracking zone boundaries and daylight saving periods. DST serves only as a way to change the numbers on the clock, and is more meaningless the closer you get to the equator where sunrise and sunset times don’t change much. If safety and conservation are important at the upper latitudes, why don’t we just change the starting times of the school or work day to suit the daylight available?

In 1973, they messed with daylight saving time briefly because oil supplies were squeezed. They wanted more daylight in the afternoon so that we didn’t run so many lights at work. But what I remember is that we were suddenly getting up in utter dark, running the heat and lights at home an hour earlier than before. The problem was that at the 45th parallel, there was only so much daylight. At the time I worked at a small daytime only Class IV AM station in Oregon, and during December and January I would sometimes work weekends from the 8:30 AM sign-on to the 5:30 PM sign-off. According to Wikipedia, studies of the effects of DST have variously concluded savings of energy and traffic deaths as well as loss of savings to economic efficiency and increased energy peak loads at sunrise.

On March 11 this year, we’re changing from the usual early April changeover to DST to March 11. The United States change is part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Again the justification is to synchronize the workday to the hours of daylight available so that we are less dependent on Middle East oil.

The international ramifications are interesting. Canada decided to adopt the U.S. plan to move DST; Mexico did not. For the first time that I can remember, Tijuana will be in a different time zone from San Diego from March 11 until April 1. My station, XETV Fox 6, will be in the uncomfortable position of advertising programming times to its majority U.S. audience in Pacific Daylight Time, while the country of license observes Pacific Standard Time.

You may have work to do in preparation for March 11 this year. If you run Windows XP or Vista on the internet, you should be able to download their normal maintenance update to change the automatic DST switch date. If you run a machine isolated from the net, you’ll have to schedule a download or just change the time zone of the workstation in question.

It turns out that the Dallas Semiconductor real time clock (RTC) chips that control time in many computers have hard-coded DST changeover dates so that can’t be overcome except by manually changing the time or GMT offset.

You can program Macintosh computers to change automatically on the correct dates by editing the /etc/localtime file. Instructions can be found here. Linux.com has a clock howto with DST information.

If you depend on Java runtime applications, see Sun’s DST FAQ. It appears that if you accept the Java RT update being pushed to your workstations this month, you should be okay.

You’d do well to look around for time-dependent systems that may need your intervention. Some vendors are offering software upgrades to automate the GMT offset at the new time. Triveni, for example, is asking $500 to upgrade its PSIP management software that includes revised DST changeover dates. If you have a collection of similarly needy boxes around your broadcast facility and you can’t get away with simply changing the GMT offset yourself, this time change is going to cost you.

Making Waves Commentary: The Shotgun Approach

A little over two years ago, Fox 6 photojournalists were showing up at our service shop with odd, seemingly unrelated problems with their camcorders. The symptoms involved anything from servos to color encoding to erratic controls. We learned that the solutions, however, were almost always the same–change out a group of surface-mounted electrolytic capacitors or replace the entire circuit board. The DVCPRO camera or studio deck always went away working again until another, unrelated, failure occurred. Repair veterans like Greg Capalbo of GRC Electronics were warning us that the failed capacitor scenario was an epidemic, especially with Panasonic gear, but also to a lesser extent with Sony and other brands. And Panasonic was not supporting out-of-warranty fixes with either parts or labor.

As we saw more electronics come in with bad capacitors, it became increasingly clear that the future duties of our ENG specialist Ladd Prier might involve an endless, daunting series of tracing erratic component behavior to a circuit, then buying new caps, awaiting their arrival, then swapping them out and hoping the bad behavior would disappear. We visualized the coming stack of broken equipment and unhappy users. There had to be a better way.

Ladd and I come from a time when a technician took pride in tracing an obvious equipment failure to one or more components directly responsible. When an RCA TR-3 2″ videotape player headwheel wouldn’t spin up, I would get the four-inch thick manual, an extender, and Tektronix 545 oscilloscope and through a series of calculated guesses, eventually find the open or shorted germanium transistor or diode, then replace it and check a couple of waveforms before pronouncing the monster ready for duty.

Fast forward 25 years. Today’s equipment contains little undocumented black boxes. When the servo fails, you change out the servo board. But what if all boards fail on all news equipment? We were looking at a potential of essentially having to replace part-by-part all of our five-year-old Panasonic equipment.

A Better Way

On a whim, I called our temporary agency, TLC Staffing, and asked if they had any registered rework specialists. In manufacturing, these are the people who take circuit boards with errors on them, either by design or by manufacturing defect, and change out components as ordered to resurrect those boards. {mosimage}They are skilled at performing Lilliputian surface-mount technology soldering, and with incredibly tedious repetition.

TLC sent us Vu Le, who appeared businesslike, cheerful, and ready for action. Over the next ten weeks, he replaced nearly every surface-mounted capacitor in every Panasonic DVCPRO deck, both from the field and from inside the plant. He changed up to 400 caps a day for a total of nearly 20,000. Total cost: nearly $16,000 including parts. Every VTR and camcorder finished worked like new, especially when heads were changed at the same time. There were no more mysterious misbehaviors, a fraction of the downtime, and Ladd was now free to take care of the more normal maladies of ENG.

Months after Vu went on to other work, we noticed more equipment failures that seemed as though they could be capacitor related. Modules in our Wheatstone TV-80 mixer started having problems with bandpass and open circuits. Our digital Hitachi studio cameras had assorted color problems.

This time we didn’t hesitate. We hired temp Daniel Yanez to swap out all the electrolytics in those devices, though less careful to estimate the extent of the project. Now some 10 weeks later, Daniel is still slaving away, module after module. He began filling a three-gallon plastic jar with the tiny devices, and now it’s nearly a third full.

Obviously, if we knew the more about the exact nature of the failures, we could be more selective about the replacement. Were some of the caps higher grade? Which values really fail? If temperature is a factor, couldn’t we perform an IR scan to find the hotspots? Since we didn’t have a good composite history of the mixer and cameras across their user base, we didn’t have the knowledge to pick and choose what devices to replace, so we replaced them all. The basis for doing so was 100% empirical and 0% scientific.

Epilogue

Industry experts continue studying the science behind the SMT chip capacitor failures. It surprises me to learn that they blame not just chip chemistry, but physical conditions during manufacturing and board assembly. It appears as though bad things are happening to good companies with respect to their products not living as long as expected.

We bought replacement capacitors that were labeled as having a long expected life, but there’s no assurance that we’ll even double their life. In fact, we’ve replaced the camcorders in a surprise blast of capital funding. I expect the 7-year-old standard definition cameras and analog audio mixer can’t be far behind.

Daniel is looking for his next gig. Got bad stuff?


Comments

Courtesy CGC Communicator

The capacitor saga dates back to about 1998 and the wide use of surface mounted electrolytics. Those parts have a time and temperature rating. The ones supplied in most gear do not have the most generous ratings. While we deal with Sony, Panasonic, JVC, etc., their original board assembly may all be
done at one outside vendor. Thus, plenty of gear was built with marginal capacitors.  I first ran into this with Panasonic DVC-Pro recorders.  One audio card that was troublesome had 50 of the beasts on it.

The best way to test for bad capacitors is with a Capacitor Wizard that uses a high frequency to measure reactance. It works fine testing caps with no need to unsolder.

Roy Trumbull, roy547 (at) msn.com

 


 

The Panasonic DVC-Pros are the first and worst detected.

We tried Panasonic replacement kits and they didn’t fix all symptoms. I decided not to test the capacitors, figuring that we would have too many iterations of failure/remove/disassemble/test/replace/reassemble/return. Our rework guy could replace 400 caps per day, so I just said to heck with testing –replace them all!

It’s been my experience that measuring in-circuit reveals the problems in only one point in time and doesn’t address future cap failures. In our case, we haven’t had any symptoms in our DVCPRO decks since the mass replacement of capacitors.

Gary Stigall


URLs FOR ELECTROLYTIC PROBLEMS

Scroll down to the Great Capacitor Scare:
http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/Risks/22.73.html#subj9

This article discusses acidic leakage damaging circuit boards in mobile radios:
http://www.repeater-builder.com/motorola/spectra/spectra-caps.html

While this article is oriented towards PC board mounted caps, the cause is the same – bad electrolyte:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capacitor_plague

And more links yet:
http://www.ttiinc.com/object/ME_Zogbi_20050919.html
http://www.badcaps.net/
http://www.theinquirer.net/default.aspx?article=24596 (re Dell)

All in all, it looks like bad electrolyte is the root cause.
In some cases it causes a reduction in capacitance value (which
changes circuit performance), in others it blows the tops off the
caps, in others the electrolyte eats its way out of the cap and
eats up the board.

Mike Morris, WA6ILQ

KSDS Gets FCC OK to Raise Power

(Disclosure: The author is employed by Bay City Television, San Diego-based programming, advertising, and marketing arm of XETV Tijuana)

The FCC issued on October 31 a construction permit for KSDS (FM), 88.3 MHz, to increase power from their current 3 kW vertical to 22 kW ERP vertical, upgrading the facility from class A to class B1. The station, operated from the campus of City College downtown, but transmitting from a tower at Mesa College in Linda Vista, has been operating since 2002 with 3 kW ERP vertical polarization after a compromise worked out with Fox Television affiliate XETV, channel 6 in Tijuana.

The latest CP approval comes as a surprise to XETV, which has fought the increase in power since 1995 on grounds that it creates a substantial interference zone since the stations are only separated by a minimum of 200 kHz between allotments, or 550 kHz between carrier centers. The stations represent a unique situation in the U.S., where a border non-commercial FM had protected a channel 6 TV signal broadcasting in English-language from Mexico. The new construction permit appears to change the crossborder relationship by declaring previous protections null and void.

The new FCC ruling says that previous international broadcast treaties do not specifically deal with the TV-FM interference issue, so the XETV signal has no rights to protection from U.S. non-commerical FM stations after all. At the same time, the order gave recognition to XETV public service efforts and ordered that KSDS broadcast its increased power in vertical polarization only. KSDS must provide a shallow null to the southeast, and they must remediate any known interference and report unsolved cases to local FCC inspectors.

KSDS intends to have its facilities ready for increased power by spring 2007.

Making Waves: BPL Comes Home

What happens when you suddenly find your dipoles surrounded by BPL couplers? I’m about to find out.

The Broadband over Power Line (BPL) pilot project continues in San Diego. The test observation committee set-up by SDG&E power systems engineer Terry Snow, of which I am the token broadcasting representative, met last during the recent NAB Convention, but Terry was kind enough to forward a copy of the meeting minutes. 

{mosimage}So imagine my surprise when I looked at an enclosed map to see that the third vendor pilot would surround my University City home. The system power-up is scheduled for this week, and the amount of activity in the neighborhood has been very high. Truck crews have been installing wireless receive antennas and data couplers on poles and electricians have put data modems in a test  home…which happens to be a next-door neighbor.

I won’t comment much on the BPL pilots to date except to say we haven’t found any measurable interference to the broadcast bands that you care about. I’ve agreed with SDG&E to patiently await results of spectrum analysis tests before drawing any conclusions. There is something a bit childish about berating a scientist as he’s performing his experiments, whether you agree with the science or not.

It appears as though Terry and his co-workers are genuinely interested in getting feedback on interference caused by their BPL pilots, and they are studying similar pilots around the country for experiences with interference. In fact, they added a vendor to their pilot series that was known for reduced interference. There are at least three of us on the committee who are licensed ham radio operators. Whether the board at Sempra Energy takes their, or our, final recommendations to heart is another matter.

I have to believe that my neighborhood was chosen because it was one of the last with overhead electrical lines, and due to the lack of CC&R’s, it has has a higher incidence of ham radio operators than later built neighborhoods. If Terry chose specifically to surround my house, that’s very funny Terry. Very funny.

As a ham radio licensee for 35 years, I haven’t been very active for the past few years. I have enjoyed 6 meter E-skip operations from time to time, but that’s about it. I have a dual 10 meter/40 meter dipole and a decent collection of 40-year-old Drake equipment, so I’ll be firing that up to make sure there the HF interference characteristics haven’t changed. It’s been amazingly quiet here considering the urban nature of the neighborhood. I hope it remains that way, but the future’s not bright. 

One of the surprising findings on a previous pilot project site test was that the primary radiators in the fake home office was a plasma TV generating a big, raspy signal on the upper portion of the AM broadcast band. When we turned that off, we found another device radiating in the middle frequencies of AM–this was the power supply of the BPL modem, not the power lines themselves. We saw a heterodyne on channel 6, but turning off the BPL system made no difference. 

Ever played Whac-a-mole at Chuck E Cheese?

Making Waves Commentary: Gonsett Fights Satellite Receiver Makers

(Commentary) The popular industry email bulletin CGC Communicator published by Communications General Corporation consulting engineer Robert Gonsett ran a series of summary articles this year on the emissions of what he terms “mini-transmitters” used for getting audio from satellite receivers to automobile FM radios. At question was the power and frequencies chosen for the job.

Sometimes taking on entrenched forces of big business and big government becomes a hopeless morass of stonewalling and legal manuevering; the one with the most expensive den of attorneys wins. At other times, the system works. Follow along as we piece together the story of how one person can shed enough light on foul activity to make a difference.

This story began nearly two years ago, shortly after I took the job as Chief Engineer at the XETV Fox 6 studio in San Diego. Disclosure: XETV retains well-known consulting engineer Robert Gonsett specifically to deal with matters of interference, be they intentional or incidental. The actions taken by Bob were largely done by his own initiative, though I am left personally grateful and somewhat astonished from the lesson of power in process and persistence.

The Punching Bag of TV Spectrum

Pity the poor channel 6 over-the-air viewer in San Diego. First of all, the signal’s low band VHF, which means viewers must contend with urban electrical noise and the visual blight of a large antenna, if they bother at all. Then there’s the distance from the transmitter in Mexico to viewers north of Mission Valley. Add that the XETV’s power is split between horizontal and vertical polarization so that unless you have a special circular polarization receive antenna, you can’t receive the full signal. And then we deal with the adjacent band noncommercial FM broadcasters who want nothing worse than to improve coverage for their deserving listeners. The latest assault, however, comes from the proliferation of little FM modulators people use to transfer without wires the audio from their file players and various satellite receivers to a stock automobile FM stereo radio.

Those FM modulators are termed by the FCC “intentional radiators,” which means that their radiation is intended, in contrast to the unintended radiation from, say, your computer’s switching power supply. Under FCC regulation 15.209(a), such intentional radiators must have a fundamental signal within the FM band measured at no more than 150 uV/m at 3 meters distance, and they’re just plain not allowed on TV channels 5 and 6.

The  Journal

2005 – I begin receiving occasional calls from viewers who say that they are watching us when the colors  flash and they can hear music or voices unrelated to the video emanating from their TV speakers. Their interference comes and goes as do their neighbors. Obviously, this must be occurring with other channel 6 outlets around the country.

December 2005 – Gonsett’s newsletter, the CGC Communicator, relays a report from an LA radio chief engineer that a pirate broadcaster he picks up on his car radio is actually an XM satellite receiver FM modulator. “It amazed me how far I could hear the FM modulator….at least 250 feet if not further. This is the second time that this has happened to me while driving around…I strongly question whether these XM modulators are Part 15 compliant because they are able to radiate signals over 250 feet….”

March 11, 2006 – The Philadelphia Inquirer runs a story about the interference to non-commercial FM stations caused by satellite radio receivers. By this time, it is common knowledge that the default frequency on many of those receiver modulators is 88.1 MHz, much to the dismay of stations like KKJZ in Long Beach. Mike Starling, NPR Director of Engineering and Operations in Washington, promotes using 87.9 MHz as a default frequency—understandable in light of the fact that many, if not most, of these mini-transmitters come equipped to transmit only on non-commercial frequencies at the lower end of the FM band.

March 29, 2006 – Bob Gonsett writes a detailed letter to Sirius Radio Public Relations officers, with copies sent to various FCC contacts. In it, he asks that the satellite radio companies provide proof that they have received from the FCC a specific waiver that allows them to market satellite radios with FM modulators, “intentional radiators,” operating outside the FM broadcast band on 87.7 and 87.9 MHz.

March 30, 2006 – TV Technology magazine, in Doug Lung’s RF Report, highlights the FM modulator issue as a result of correspondence with Fred Lass, director of engineering at WRGB channel 6 in Schenectady, N.Y. Doug names the names of several modulator manufacturers that advertise illegal modulators and clarifies the FCC rules regarding continuous intentional radiation either misunderstood or ignored by those manufacturers. Doug reveals that Lass has notified the FCC Office of Technology about these transmitters. Lass tells Lung, “All that is required to find [illegal transmitters] is to do a Google search of ‘87.9 MHz’ to get a list of manufacturers and retailers selling these devices in the U.S.”

April 8, 2006 – Bob Gonsett “gets the ball rolling” by filing a complaint with the FCC in Washington against Sirius Satellite for incorporating 87.7 and 87.9 MHz into the intentional radiator mini-transmitters that are built into many Sirius consumer satellite receivers. He chooses to focus the filing on a single high profile case in order to simplify the process, shed light on the problem, and hope that the FCC would itself broaden the investigation.

April 27, 2006 – XM Radio files an 8-K form with the SEC in which it reveals to investors that it has received an inquiry received from the FCC OET on April 25 regarding the emissions of the Delphi SkyFi2 radio. The company states that it is making an internal review and anticipates “responding to the letter shortly and cooperating fully.”

May 8, 2006 – Bob Gonsett posts on his CGC Communicator an anonymous comment from a Los Angeles FM broadcast engineer favoring modulators operating below the FM band. “My feeling on any small transmitter for an XM, Sirius, HD or MP3 players is that they SHOULD use these out of band frequencies. Currently, FCC Rules do not allow this, but the situation deserves careful examination and consideration. Given the interference these devices cause to mobile on-channel reception of legitimate stations, we should give them out of band authorization (but not above 107.9 MHz). As a user, I cannot find a clean channel to use in Los Angeles for my XM receiver. As a licensee, I would not want them on my channel.” A sort of spectral NIMBY statement, but who wants mass transmitters on his frequency?

May 16, 2006 – Reuters reports that Audiovox Corp. suspends shipments of its Xpress Model XMCK10 XM satellite radio receiver after the FCC says the unit “did not comply with either operating bandwidth or related emission specifications.”

May 30, 2006 – XM Radio files another Form 8-K with the SEC in which it reveals to investors that it has suspended marketing of radios made by Delphi and Audiovox in order to comply with an inquiry received from the FCC on April 25. XM says it will modify the radios in question and submit them for Part 15 compliance testing. “We plan to have modified devices shipping to retailers in the near term.”

May 31, 2006 – Orbitcast.com quotes Sirius Radio EVP/CFO David Frear as saying that “all SIRIUS Satellite Radio receivers are in full FCC compliance. Some letters were sent regarding some Sirius devices that were out of spec. Frear stated that they then went to the receiver manufacturers and took care of the problem a while ago. All SIRIUS Radios are in full FCC compliance. Case closed.” Phewww.

Like the Whac-a-mole amusement at your local Chuck E Cheese, getting a couple of vendors to change their ways through FCC inquiries will inevitably result in another vendor producing a replacement product. After all, consumers demand a convenient way to transfer audio without wires. And none of this activity has yet dealt with the multitude of transmitters out there designed to transmit Apple iPod audio over FM. Some of those mini-transmitters are reported to put out suspiciously high signal levels. The work continues.