By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 3/9/2007 7:04:54 PM ET 2007-03-10T00:04:54

Despite dire warnings that electronic clocks gone wild could cost businesses hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s unlikely you'll see any serious impact from the earlier-than-usual switchover to daylight savings time this weekend.

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But it's also likely that the energy savings that were the supposed reason for all the confusion will be minimal. In fact, Americans could end up expending more energy driving to shopping malls to take advantage of the extra hour of daylight.

“The general feeling is that it's an inconvenience at worst for most enterprises — involving mainly an issue of installing patches,” said Michael Shirer, a spokesman for IDC, a technology research and consulting firm. Industries potentially most affected are those whose businesses rely heavily on accurate timekeeping, including financial services, telecom and utilities, he said.

Meanwhile, although estimates are hard to come by, it turns out that the energy savings that were supposed to be achieved will likely be minimal. By extending daylight saving by three weeks in the spring and another week in the fall, the intent was to cut power consumption by providing an extra hour of sunlight, delaying the hour when electric lights are switched on. But a 2001 study by the California Department of Energy found that the energy conservation from the annual switch to daylight saving was marginal.

Assuming everyone keeps to the same schedule, the study said, extending daylight savings would reduce peak power use by 2 to 5 percent in the evening, but morning use would rise by almost the same amount. The net effect, the study found, was savings “on the order of one half of one percent, but savings could just as well be zero.” The analysis found a one in four chance of a very small increase in net power consumption.

To be sure, if left unfixed, out-of-sync computers could throw sand in the gears of commerce. Financial transactions booked early could carry the wrong date. Services with different peak and off-peak rates could generate erroneous bills. Out-of-whack airline and trucking schedules could result in delays or missed connections. From utility meters and factory time card systems to automated locks and heating systems, the cost of faulty electronic timekeeping could add up quickly.

Though some businesses may have paid incremental costs to tweak their systems, the earlier time shift could boost the bottom lines of others. Candy makers, seeing the opportunity for a sweeter Halloween with an extra hour of daylight, were among those that lobbied for the change. Retailers and theme parks could enjoy extra after-work traffic. Insurance companies could see fewer claims if the added safety of daylight reduces traffic accidents. Golf courses may squeeze in a few extra evening tee times, and barbecue equipment makers could see sales pick up earlier in the season. (A lot, of course, depends on whether the late March weather behaves like a lion or a lamb.)

But U.S. businesses have been coping with the time switchover since daylight savings was first established as a voluntary program under the Uniform Time Act of 1966. And this year, businesses seem to have everything under control.

At Duke Energy, one of the largest power producers in the U.S., the annual switch to daylight saving time has always involved having staff on site to make sure everything goes smoothly, according to company spokesman Tom Shiel.

“We’ve simulated the time change to test our systems, and everything checked out,” he said, adding that very little expense was involved.

The current anxiety about the risk of widespread computer clock confusion can be traced to an act of Congress. In the final stages of writing the Energy Policy Act of 2005, a package that included billions in subsidies for oil and gas producers, utility companies and ethanol makers, the bill’s proponents were looking to placate supporters of conservation, which critics said had been largely overlooked.

Among other measures, a provision was included ordering an earlier start to daylight savings time, in hopes of squeezing a little more energy savings out of the seasonal lengthening of sunlight hours in summer -- without adding to the law’s swollen $12 billion price tag. At the time, energy conservation advocates pointed out that the potential energy savings of the move were trivial compared to provisions they had championed, like increased fuel efficiency standards for cars, home appliances and industrial power equipment.

The law was enacted, and the extension of daylight savings was ordered. Unfortunately, millions of computerized timekeepers — already programmed to make the switch on the old date — would have to be tweaked.

Some compared the potential snafu to the costly date-related fix known as Y2K, when computers that allocated only two digits to keep track of the year had to be reprogrammed before the 2000 to avoid jumping back a century instead of moving ahead a year. Many companies used that exercise to upgrade their computer hardware and software.

But worst-case Y2K scenarios — from chaos in air traffic control towers to widespread disruptions in the global financial system — failed to materialize. Even measured against the largely unrealized fears of Y2K, some analysts who’ve looked at "the DST problem" say the comparison vastly overstates the potential impact.

The law gave businesses two years to get ready, and by all accounts, they are.

“We updated software and hardware with changes from vendors and made the appropriate updates,” said Bank of America spokeswoman Shirley Norton. “We expect to be fully prepared for the Sunday change.”

In an information age when downloading software patches and installing upgrades has become fairly routine, switching computer clocks turns out to be a relatively simple task. At American Airlines, this year’s switchover is business as usual, according to Tim Smith, a company spokesman.

“All of our operational computers that are used behind the scenes for dispatch and the like have been changed or will be changed manually — which is the way we always do it,” he said.

For many businesses, the biggest inconvenience has been making sure the appointment calendars on desktop computers are up to date. That’s because the software hosting PC-based calendars like Microsoft’s Outlook has to be updated on the company’s computer system; and each person's calendar has to be updated as well. Microsoft and other software makers have created updates and tools designed to correct appointment calendars to conform to Congress' new timekeeping. (MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

But even with those fixes, workers who rely on their computers to get to meetings on time may face disruptions and missed connections. Microsoft advises that you “exercise caution with the appointments and meetings in the extended DST period” and “when in doubt, verify the correct time with the organizer.”

In the end, the best insurance policy may be to simply print out your appointments before the switch.

Worst case, for the next three weeks, you'll have a great excuse to be late for meetings.

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