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Time Experts Agree: Meter Company's Explanation Doesn't Add Up

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The Parking Ticket Geek

The Geek is an idiot, who gets a lot of parking tickets, and knows how to fight back.

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Al Rentschler understands time.

With close to a lifetime spent in the clock manufacturing industry, over 30 years to be exact, you could call him a time expert.

The President of E.A. Combs Inc., a manufacturer and distributor of time pieces based in Lake Geneva, WI, has had a lifelong fascination with time, having assembled an extensive collection of clocks and other time pieces over the years.

"I'm not exactly sure how many  I own, but it's well over a hundred," said Rentschler of his collection. "I started playing with time when I was just five years old."

So Mr. Rentschler seemed like the perfect person to talk to in our quest to better understand the timing controversies swirling around Chicago's new parking meter pay boxes which have sprouted up on city streets all over the city.

According to a statement on Monday from Avis LaVelle, spokesperson for Chicago Parking Meters, LLC,  these new meters have their clocks updated every night via a cellular connection to a computer server.

"Pay boxes contact a central server every night wirelessly," said LaVelle about the process the meters go through to retain an accurate time. "At that time, the pay box programs are updated and refreshed, and the pay box clock synchronizes with the server clock. The server clock is an atomic clock, and atomic clocks conform to the most accurate timekeeping standards."

But according to Rentschler, their explanation does not add up.

"I doubt that it's true," says Rentschler about CPM's atomic clock explanation. "If it were true they (the clocks) would all be right on the money. There is no reason to be off by even a few seconds."

The problem is, the vast majority of the 60 Pay & Display meter units we've inspected over the course of the past few weeks, do not keep proper time and there seems to be no consistency to the amount of time each unit is off.

Rentschler explains that quartz controlled clocks are not perfectly accurate and concedes they can lose seconds and even minutes, over the course of time.

"Plus or minus two seconds per day," says Rentschler. "That's the maximum (time loss) allowable in the industry. State of the art clocks are in that range."

So, if most of Chicago's new high tech meters are chronically off by more than two seconds, how is it possible the new meter company is actually refreshing the clocks on their meter pay boxes every night?

"It's apparent that they're not," Rentschler said firmly in regards to CPM's claim. "That's  bogus . They (the units) would all be the same time in the morning if that were the case. A crystal should only lose one to two seconds per day."

Jeremy Fischer agrees with Rentschler.

"Whatever their time source is, it is not working," said Fischer, who does tech support for Franklin Instrument, his family's 40 year old Pennsylvania-based clock business. "It sounds like something is not set up properly in the time configuration. You can tell by the large deviation in time. If this (nightly syncing) was actually happening, the times (of the clocks) would be off by just milliseconds."

Fischer and Rentschler both believe that, because of the extreme deviance in time and the inconsistency of deviance between the different meters it's impossible for CPM to be refreshing the clocks on their meters every night.

According to these two industry experts, without nightly external adjustment, each unit's clock is left to the mercy of their inherently, but mildly inaccurate, quartz timing. Thus the wild time discrepancies between pay box machines.

But Fischer went even further in his analysis of Chicago's meter timing problem.

"Based on the number of seconds the clocks are off,  it makes me believe that these meters have not had their time adjusted since they were installed," speculated Fischer. "If I got a ticket in Chicago I could beat it (easily)."

Fischer explained the longer a clock goes without a external time adjustment, the more extreme the time difference.

This would seem to explain why so many pay boxes in the Wicker Park neighborhood are so far off true time, to the tune of nearly two minutes in the case of four units we inspected.

That's because some areas of Wicker Park were the first to receive these new units back in mid-April of this year.

Buffalo Grove resident Barnet Fagel is also baffled at the explanation given for the meter clock inaccuracies.

Fagel, who has 19 years experience in the GPS and tracking, an industry that is completely reliant on timing accuracy, is also Illinois' Safety Advocate & Traffic Researcher for the National Motorists Association.

"How about a couple of nano seconds," said Fagel when asked how much deviation a clock being synced nightly to an atomic clock server should have. "If the meter boxes get a time sync once a day from the atomic clock they shouldn't be any humanly discernable discrepancy."

"If they're getting their sync from the atomic clock in Colorado, then it is strange their machines are off by so much," Fagel elaborated. "If they are (syncing every night) it's not an accurate sync. My point is, if they can make a $9 watch keep time and only lose a few seconds a year, why can't a meter keep proper time?"

But Fagel thinks this meter timing issue requires further governmental scrutiny.

"Where is the regulatory standards (for these clocks)?" asks Fagel. "Shouldn't they have to meet certain standards of accuracy? If you're renting a metered parking space, the value of the space is based on the accuracy of the time."

"Look at taxis and taximeters," Fagel says. "The meter in the taxi must meet certain standards of accuracy. Why not these parking meters?"

This website made multiple attempts to contact spokespeople for Chicago Parking Meters, LLC and the Chicago Department for comment on thisarticle, but calls and e-mails were not returned.

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4 Comments

ryanbytes said:

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Everyone is missing the elephant in the room. The boxes use a cellular network to communicate with the main servers every night. If they're using a CDMA provider like Verizon or Sprint for their connections the clocks should be as close to perfect as possible. The CDMA technology depends on extreme accuracy to function so their time references are provided by GPS satellites. The satellites have their own atomic clocks that are updated regularly. I assume GSM networks receive their time references from the GPS satellites too. So if the pay boxes dial in with any wireless network the only excuses for bad time are VERY poor design or deliberate fudging.

JW said:

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Could there be something wrong with the meters' power sources that is causing them to "lose" time?

JW said:

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Could there be something wrong with the meters' power sources that is causing them to "lose" time?

Steve Dale said:

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What do you do if you pay money - and the little piece of paper doesn't come out....
SICK AND TIRED; I NOW PAY USING A CREDIT CARD - for only a few bucks, the company actually loses money on me because I used a credit card, it costs them! And if there is a problem, retroactively, I can call Visa and ask for a credit.

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