Video: Time warp

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updated 6/17/2007 11:30:17 PM ET 2007-06-18T03:30:17

Utilities, governments, airlines and local businesses have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to shield you from the headaches of the early start of daylight saving time this weekend. But as Americans prepare to spring forward Sunday morning — three weeks sooner than usual — experts say they can’t think of everything, and they warn there could be some serious frustrations.

It’s not on the scale of what computer people predicted ahead of Jan. 1, 2000, when companies and governments burned billions of dollars retrofitting aging systems to understand dates that didn’t start with “19.”

After all, most Americans have been shifting the clock back and forward twice a year for more than a century. It’s just a part of doing business, said Jesus Pantoja, owner of JP’s Clock Shop in Los Angeles, who said the annual spring forward/fall back ritual costs him five hours of resetting hundreds of clocks.

But the last time daylight saving time changed was in 1986, and many of the computers and devices that run our lives today are programmed to think it won’t come until the end of the month.

The whole idea two years ago when Congress changed DST was to give you more daylight when you’re out and about, which should mean fewer evening traffic accidents, less use of light bulbs and a small savings in energy costs.

‘Those can cause huge headaches’
We’ll have to wait to see if that plays out. It’s what’s going to happen Sunday and Monday that we don’t have a good grip on.

“There are a lot of devices in our life that have ‘state,’ if you will — they’re aware of what time it is,” said Brian Cooley, editor at large for the computer publisher CNet Networks. And because they’re hidden inside so many everyday appliances, he said, some won’t be noticed until they bite you out of nowhere.

The tech types in your office have been hard at work for weeks to minimize the impact on the job, but “there’s a whole variety of computers out there we rely on for everything from banking to travel to restaurant reservations that are out of our control,” Cooley said Friday. “We really hope they’re going to get patched, because those can cause huge headaches.”

Some of them won’t be “patched” — which is just tech-speak for “fixed” —  either because they fell through the cracks or because they can’t be, Cooley said.

For example, “I have one of those digital timer light switches on my front porch, and it knows daylight savings, but it won’t anymore,” he said. “It’s going to be turning my lights off at the wrong hour for four weeks out of the year, and I can’t fix it. I have to replace that switch.”

Leaving on a jet plane? Start worrying
Come Monday morning, a whole lot of people will be cooling their heels on hold with customer service operators, Cooley predicted, because all sorts of little glitches will accumulate.

“A whole bunch of other devices have to be fixed, and many of them are computer-ish,” Cooley said, like automatic coffee makers that could give you a cold cup because they started up too soon, or older VCRs that might record an hour of infomercials instead of the first half of that basketball game.

Regular cell phones should be OK, because their networks will update automatically. But if you have a smartphone, a Pocket PC or a Palm, it probably needs an update.

“Make sure you get the latest updates,” said Phillip Bond, president of the Information Technology Association of America. “It’ll be very clear to you on those you want. To check your devices, make sure they’re reading the correct time.”

Cooley said, “I don’t see the world ending, but there could be a lot of headaches from this” — none bigger than for those who are flying.

While there shouldn’t be problems if you’re flying domestically, a lot of “people are already holding tickets that were issued way before this change was made, and the airline computers are struggling to catch up,” said Peter Greenberg, travel editor for NBC’s TODAY show. “The problem is they got caught, because most airlines do connect times of only 90 minutes, so all of a sudden, if you start losing time on either end of that trip, you’ve got a problem.”

(The switch will be especially jarring for the folks of Pulaski County in Indiana, which was left in Central Time two years ago when the rest of the state switched to Eastern Time. It will also switch to Eastern Time at 2 a.m. Sunday — jumping ahead two hours at once.)

More seriously, U.S. airlines will be out of synch with most of the rest of the world for the next three weeks, so “if you land in London, in Frankfurt [Germany], in any other European gateway city and you’re going by the old schedule, you better start running,” he said.

Greenberg warned that “it’s going to be a little crazy,” and he had this advice: “Call ahead — double-check, triple-check. They will be fine next year, but this weekend is going to be the fun weekend if you’re traveling overseas.”

Don’t assume your computer’s ready
And don’t think that, just because Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc. are uploading automatic fixes to home users, you’re in the clear with your hardware.

Many people — too many, computer security experts complain — have automatic updates turned off. Others still use slow dial-up accounts, and their updates may have repeatedly aborted when users hung up. Moreover, if you’re running Linux, the preferred operating system for computer servers, you’re largely on your own.

There are numerous flavors of the open-source operating system, each of them slightly different, and there’s no master controller like Microsoft or Apple to fix everything. Research compiled by CNet shows that many larger organizations have hundreds of servers “running dozens of different versions of Linux and Unix operating systems” — all of which will have to be fixed locally.

Then there’s the cost. No one really knows if the extra daylight will save enough energy and spur enough extra shopping to recoup the costs of fixing everything, which includes overtime for IT specialists who are working around the clock.

In Lakewood, Colo., for example, engineers have been working for months reprogramming and timing the traffic lights. “I don’t think they’re really saving,” said Steve Beavers, a traffic signal supervisor.

In California alone, utilities have estimated that updating electricity meters — many of which had to be upgraded to digital systems to accommodate the change — will end up having cost $160 to $170 per meter. That amounts to about $40 million, just a fraction of what utility retrofitting will cost nationwide.

As for the expected energy savings — which the government pegs at about 1 percent — researchers at the University of California released a study in January that said the extra daylight won’t come anywhere near that. It could, in fact, end up costing more.

The study looked at the extension of DST by two months in Australia in 2000. “Using detailed panel data on half-hourly electricity consumption, prices, and weather conditions, we show that the extension failed to reduce electricity demand,” it said.

In fact, utilities had higher peak loads in the mornings than before the switch, significantly driving up morning wholesale electricity prices, the researchers found.

The conclusion?

“These results suggest that current plans and proposals to extend DST will fail to conserve energy.”

Alex Johnson is a reporter for MSNBC.com. Stephanie Stanton is a reporter for NBC News. MSNBC-TV’s Amy Robach and CNBC’s Bertha Coombs contributed to this report.

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