Kirt's Cogitations™ #234
FireWire of a Different Sort
FireWire of a Different Sort
Two items in the news headlines recently brought to
mind yet another memorable (funny) incident in my many-faceted electronics career. The first item is a survey of
the number of homeless people being reported in the latest accounting of Chicago downtown streets – an
astoundingly low number of just 24. According to skeptics, this number purportedly was designed to help make the
city look attractive as a location for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The second news item is the recent rash of thefts
of copper off construction sites countrywide – both plumbing pipes/fittings and electrical wire. Copper has
skyrocketed in price in the last couple years, as anyone who has lately bought Romex wire for a home project can
Back in the early 1990s, I worked as the lead re-design engineer on a van-mounted remote utility
meter interrogation unit that was used to collect consumption data for electric, gas, and water meters. According
to the company’s literature, the transceiver was capable of achieving something like 99.5% read rate on all
installed meters while traveling at up to 45 miles per hour. The system’s meters worked in the unlicensed 900 MHz
ISM (Industrial, Scientific, and Medical) frequency band, and so did the interrogation unit. Meters had to be
situated within 1,000 feet of the roadway, and not be enclosed in a metal framework. The system was first deployed
in the 1980s while there were relatively few users of the 900 MHz band. By the time I arrived on the scene, the
900 MHz noise floor had been raised significantly due to wireless baby monitors, wireless security camera systems,
wireless SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) systems, to name a few. Consequently, the remote meter
reading equipment performance had degraded significantly, to the point where many of the utility companies were
reporting read rates of 90% or worse, even with the van traveling at very low speeds. They were not happy.
Because our company’s remote meter reading equipment was expensive to install - all existing meters needed to be
replaced with ERT-based (Encoder-Receiver-Transmitter) models – the main customers were large urban utilities.
Part of the motivation for deployment of these remote reading systems was to eliminate the need to send human
meter readers on foot into some of the dicier sections of the city. It was (is) not uncommon for the utility
companies to have to hire armed, off-duty policemen go into some areas to read the meters because the crime rate
is so great. They told us stories of finding meters with bullet holes in them. Some meter readers had been shot at
while attempting to get into a meter room or into an alley to access meters, having happened upon a drug deal
going down or maybe a mugging.
Well, after a few months of studying the problem, testing the existing
equipment, designing retrofits, and testing new equipment, we scheduled a field test in one of the roughest
environments available – Chicago. I was not exactly thrilled at the thought of being a White-boy, riding with
another White-boy, in a minivan with curtains on the windows and a ¼-wave whip antenna on the top, through the
streets of some of the most notoriously crime-ridden sections of Chicago. Try as I did to convince the higher
powers that perhaps our own rural location in southern Minnesota might serve the same purpose, my persuasion
powers had no sway with them. Besides, we had to pacify our big $$$ customers. So, off we went for a four-day
extravaganza in the Windy City.
Let me digress to comment on the impressive level of ingenuity and
engineering that went into the original system. It was designed mostly by former employees of Johnson Radio (the
mobile and Citizens Band radio people), who really knew their stuff. The entire product was born out of an
alliance between this new company, a handful of utility companies, and the University of Minnesota – at least that
is my recollection. The ERTs were a marvel in and of themselves, using a custom ASIC (not so common in the late
1980s), a current-sipping superregenerative receiver and a transmitter sharing a single transistor, and a 12-year
lithium battery. A frequency-hopping spread spectrum scheme was used in the van-based unit to collect data from
the meter units. It was truly ahead of its time.
We arrived at the ComEd (Commonwealth Edison, part of
Exelon) offices early one September morning and met with their project manager, who briefed us on the areas we
would use for our tests. The HQ building was located near Grant Park. Reports were provided of problem regions
where read rates were the lowest. They were some of the worst areas in the city and, unfortunately, our chosen
targets. One of the ComEd engineers rode with us for the first couple passes, and then we were on our own. It
might be my imagination, but he sure seemed glad to get out of the van and wave goodbye.
We spent the next
couple days driving west of there, around the Roosevelt Street region, within about a 10 mile radius. I do not
recall the specific areas, but in a plot of places we were glad to heed the ComEd engineer’s advice of not even
stopping for red lights or stop signs. We drove past chop shops, strings of blocks where all the store windows had
heavy iron bars over them, red light districts, congregations of employment-challenged people, and many other
sights not normally seen by most people. We received some very threatening stares, and even had times when groups
of people would start moving toward our van (of course we scrammed immediately). To make matters worse, we needed
to make multiple passes through each planned route in order to get enough data for a statistical analysis. Other
than the time I made a wrong turn while driving through Philadelphia do I recall witnessing urban blight close-up.
I suppose I have lived a sheltered life, in retrospect.
Another side note: One of the most secure and clean
areas we traveled was a Section 8 housing project where signs were clearly posted that the residents had a zero
tolerance policy for criminals, and they constantly had people patrolling the streets. It was proof positive that
living below the poverty line is no excuse for criminality. I cannot recall the name of the project.
the routes we ran happened to include a metal recycling facility. They took in aluminum, steel, copper, iron, etc.
We would sometimes stop there to get a drink from the vending machine. All over the parking lot would be guys with
copper and aluminum electric cable stripping off the insulation – it had to be removed before any payment would be
made for it. They would tie one end to a fence pole and stretch it out, then take a pocket knife and strip off the
insulation. It was a lot of work to get all that insulation off, and it took quite a while to get enough copper to
buy a six-pack or a fifth. They came in a continual train off the street with their shopping cart filled with
copper wire and pipe. It did not take a genius to figure out that those guys did not get the material through
Now here is the good part. One day we were sitting there in the green zone, drinking
our Cokes, when we noticed a billowing cloud of black smoke coming from the other side of the overpass just past
the recycle station. It seemed to be getting slowly closer. Curious, we fired up the van and headed off toward the
As we crested the overpass, we just could not believe what we saw – some guy had figured out a way
to avoid all that tedious insulation stripping by burning it off in the shopping cart while walking toward the
recycle station. I kid you not. He struggled to keep upwind of the significant amount of smoke, never seeming to
care about the attention he had brought to himself.
We turned around to follow him to confirm our suspicion
of his ultimate destination. At least one police car just drove right on by him, never bothering to challenge his
So the question is, should the guy be condemned for polluting the atmosphere, or
celebrated as an early adopter of the recycling movement?