FCC Enforces Against Owner of a Well Pump

Non-radio device causes interference to amateur radio communications.

The FCC has cited the owner of a “well pump” for causing harmful interference to radio communications.

Wait – a well pump? A machine that brings up water from a well? What makes the FCC think it has jurisdiction over pumps? Next, they’ll be regulating the bathroom fixtures.

The truth is, some of the greatest interference threats to radio communications come not from radio equipment, but from electrical devices such as elevator motors, photocopy machines, vehicle ignitions, and even fluorescent lighting. The FCC closely regulates radio transmitters and digital devices to limit the interference they can cause. You would think the FCC would also regulate the more important sources of interference.

It turns out they do. Just not very often.

The FCC rules lay out three categories of unlicensed devices: 

  • “intentional radiators,” which intentionally generate and emit radio signals – the things most people call “transmitters”;
  • “unintentional radiators,” which intentionally generate radio-frequency energy for use within the device, but do not intentionally emit that energy – including all digital devices and most kinds of receivers; and
  • of interest here, “incidental radiators,” which generate and emit radio-frequency energy, although not intended to do either – such as the examples listed above.

This last category is subject to two FCC rules. One requires manufacturers to use “good engineering practices” to minimize the risk of causing harmful interference to radio communications. This rule is widely ignored. The other rule says that operation of any unlicensed device, including an incidental radiator, may not cause harmful interference to an authorized radio service. As to incidental radiators, this rule is also widely ignored. Just ask Ruben D. Lopez, Jr. of Pomona Park, FL, who ignored it at his peril.

Mr. Lopez owns the above-mentioned well pump, whose operation caused harmful interference to an authorized radio service. Those versed in these matters will deduce immediately which authorized radio service complained of interference. We know of only one service whose users have the spare time and energy to track down a hapless well pump owner and pursue him through the FCC enforcement process. That would be the Amateur Radio Service, at least one of whose operators encountered interference at 1800 kHz, in the amateurs’ 160 meter band, and ratted him out to the FCC. The FCC sent Mr. Lopez a couple of letters suggesting he install A/C line filters on the pump.

Depending on how much power the pump draws and the severity of the interference, a suitable filter might cost anywhere from a few tens of dollars to a thousand dollars or more.

The record does not show whether Mr. Lopez ignored the FCC’s advice or the filters were unsuccessful – only that the interference reports persisted. No doubt with a heavy sigh, the FCC sent out field agents with direction-finding equipment that duly homed in on Mr. Lopez’s pump. The agents confirmed the pump was the source of interference by turning it on and off.

Now the FCC has sent Mr. Lopez an official citation warning him that, if the interference persists, he will potentially be subject to fines ranging up to $112,500. (Fortunately for Mr. Lopez, well pumps do not require an FCC license  – at least, not yet – so he is entitled to a preliminary warning, or citation, before the FCC can reach into his wallet.)

The only other recent “incidental radiator” case against an individual involved a motion detection light fixture that caused interference to cellular service. This should have been easy to fix. A few other cases against electric utilities addressed interference to an airport navigation system, to an individual amateur, and three incidents affecting unnamed radio services. (We’re betting on the amateurs, again.)

The spectrum is a busy and crowded environment. Interference is a fact of life. Certainly the amateur radio community has a legal right to interference protection from well pumps and other non-radio equipment. Unlike cell phone users, however, or pilots depending on navigation aids to land airplanes, amateur operators near an interference source can easily change frequencies, or even bands, if necessary, to avoid the problem. We would think that takes a lot less effort than calling in the spectrum gendarmerie. To be sure, people who cause interference deliberately, or who knowingly use noncompliant or overpowered equipment, are not entitled to leniency. We also think the electric utilities, due to the ubiquity of their lines, have a special responsibility to control interference arising from their installations.

Mr. Lopez, though, was presumably an innocent offender. Maybe we could just leave him alone.

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Comments (7) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Dane Ericksen - April 25, 2013 4:25 PM

Well, let's not overlook ET Docket 10-23, regarding Part 15 level-probing radars. Common applications are monitoring the level of a river below a bridge, or the amount of liquid in a storage tank. LPRs can use 5.925-7.250 GHz as intentional Part 15 radiators, meaning they can interfere with both 6.5 and 7 GHz TV BAS. The rulemaking proposed allowing Part 15 LPRs to increase their main beam EIRP from -21.3 dBm to +7 dBm, and EIBASS filed comments asking for certain safeguards to ensure that these high power LPRs are properly installed, only with their antennas pointing downward. The LPR manufacturers weren't in favor of additional safeguards. The National Academy of Sciences and National Radio Astronomy Observatory also filed comments expressing concern about a 28 dB increase in a Part 15 power limit. So when I saw the subject line for you blog I thought it might be a smoking-gun LPR interference case, but see that it isn't. I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed. Still waiting for a R&O.

Mike Bentley - April 28, 2013 11:06 AM

The FCC does deal with this sort of issue often. Are you familiar with the LightSquared situation?

http://www.gps.gov/spectrum/lightsquared/

"LightSquared Subsidiary LLC is a company seeking FCC approval to provide a wholesale, nationwide, wireless broadband network integrated with satellite coverage."

"LightSquared intends to combine its existing satellite communications services with a ground-based 4G-LTE network that transmits on the same radio band as its satellites. The band is right next to the primary GPS frequency (L1)."

"The GPS community is concerned because testing has shown LightSquared's ground-based transmissions overpower the relatively weak GPS L1 signals from space."

Mitchell Lazarus - April 28, 2013 11:15 AM

Mr. Bentley -- I am very familiar with the LightSquared situation, and many other cases of interference between different radio services.

What makes the well pump incident atypical is that the interfering device -- the well pump -- is of a type that is not usually regulated by the FCC.

Harold Hallikainen - April 30, 2013 9:33 PM

It would be interesting to know how this well pump created interference at 1.8MHz. I generally think of incidental radiators as things like motors with brushes that do not intentionally generate RF (as opposed to unintentional radiators that intentionally generate it, but unintentionally radiate it). So, what was it about this motor that made it radiate at this frequency? I suspect most well pump motors are 3 phase induction motors that would not generate any RF. Perhaps it was the controller, perhaps a variable speed controller. If it generated pulses exceeding 9khz, which would make it a digital device (an unintentional radiator). I'll assume, however, that the FCC properly classified it as an unintentional radiator. I just wonder how it radiated.

Harold Hallikainen - April 30, 2013 10:04 PM

I should read my stuff before hitting post! The second to the last sentence should read "I'll assume, however, that the FCC properly classified it as an INCIDENTAL radiator."

Todd - Water Well Repair - July 26, 2013 2:14 PM

This is a bit ridiculous. Do they give any replacements for objects they consider to interfere with transmissions? For well pumps for example, what few other methods do they propose?

Mitchell Lazarus - July 26, 2013 2:23 PM

Todd -- The FCC does not offer either replacements or advice. Presumably the owner is going to rely on people like you to solve the problem.

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