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 (18) 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.

Corey - May 23, 2014 9:34 AM

There are lots more services where the station engineers have plenty of time to go and track down interference which is causing them lost ad revenue...

Namely, broadcast band services.

WD50 - May 23, 2014 9:56 AM

FH&H can trivialize and ridicule Amateur Radio operators all they like. This in non-trivial:

“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.”

Mike Rochwell - May 23, 2014 10:19 AM

Mr. Lazarus, please understand that radio amateurs are users of licensed spectrum allocated by the FCC to their use. There are requirements for testing and use of the spectrum that limit what can be done with it by these licensees.

Encroachment of noise sources is an increasing problem due to non-compliant devices spewing RF interference all over the spectrum. Radiolocation and navigation services are adjacent to the 1.8MHz-2.0MHz band, and the same interference with amateur radio allocation is going to impact critical adjacent services. The FCC must enforce these violations or its mandate to regulate the radio spectrum will be compromised, even if in your estimation it is just a radio amateur who found them.

As for the individual with the pump, it is obvious that they have an issue with a clearly non-compliant device. That individual can seek relief in a civil court against the manufacturer of the pump for being an emitter of excessive RFI, or the distributor who furnished it for sale with a particular suitability which is now in clear doubt. The individual can also look into RFI remediation using RF chokes on the wiring to and from the device, again with the help of the radio amateur or another expert.

This isn't the first time this has happened. A large office building in Los Angeles was given an FCC notice due to the fluorescent light ballast interfering with cellular frequencies. The building owner was forced to change all fixtures at substantial cost, but with the idea that cellular interference is encroachment on the spectrum licensees.

I agree that the regulatory regime needs a second look to provide solution along with notification of problem by the regulatory authority, but implementation and compliance is still the responsibility of the offender. Until court precedent forces manufacturers of such devices into compliance for RFI, we will continue to have these issues periodically appear. Either way, it's a real problem that the licensed party is entitled to relief first and foremost.

Justin - May 23, 2014 10:23 AM

There are a few points about this article that stand out to me. First, the assertion that the radio operator can simply 'switch frequencies or even bands' is misleading. While hams have several bands to choose from, each has different physical properties and requires different equipment. Further, incidental radiators often spam noise across a range of frequencies. The 160m amateur band consists of a mere 200kHz of bandwidth. While not stated in the article, it is more than possible for the entire band (or even multiple bands) to be simultaneously interfered with by an incidental radiator.

Second, the blog states that the FCC identified the well pump as the incidental radiator prior to sending out a RDF team. This is remarkably specific unless we assume that the amateur operator attempted to work with the owner of the offending equipment to find the source of the noise prior to making the complaint. If true, why did the ham complain to the FCC? Did the owner of the pump refuse to take responsibility for the noise? I don't think we're seeing the whole story.

Third, why focus on the amateur operator as the villain of the article? Why not the manufacturer of the well pump? It's reasonable to address the inconsistency of a technical regulatory body communicating something of this nature to a non-technical citizen, but I am surprised that an attorney would spin this against the amateur rather than against the well pump manufacturer. Shouldn't the purchaser of the pump have a reasonable expectation that the pump is engineered according to the law?

The FCC acted appropriately, although I don't think this blog tells the whole story and it certainly fails to communicate an awareness of the technical and physical ramifications of its recommendation.

(Full disclosure: I'm an amateur radio operator)

Chris - May 23, 2014 11:13 AM

I dislike how the author makes the amateur radio licensee the villain in this situation. Clearly the manufacturer of the well pump is to blame for designing a pump that spews MF radiation.

The author clearly doesn't care I am certainly glad our laws value the integrity of the RF spectrum.

Redd - May 23, 2014 2:43 PM

If you don't assert your rights, you lose them.

Weebles - May 23, 2014 3:03 PM

It is interesting to see someone who uses language for a living picking choosing their terms sooo carefully.
I agree that they were most likely informed by a ham radio operator that their well pump was making noise and ignored it. I would also laugh at a figure of thousands to fix the problem their well pump is causing. The filters most commonly used to filter power like noise are less then a dollar each.

I would also point out that buying a well pump that is properly constructed and installed would prevent the issue altogether.

Also the pump is not just interfering with the 180m band. It is throwing out interference on a much broader spectrum. The article avoids this altogether.
So we have greatly exaggerated claims of costs to fix. And a white washing of real damages to a significant part of the radio spectrum. Also no mention of how he is sure it is a ham that filled the complaint other then vague guesses. I am betting that if it was a ham they contacted him directly and were blown off by the well owner. All this fuss over not enough pocket change to buy a coffee... Grudge much?

schilling - May 23, 2014 5:33 PM

“Lazarus specializes in obtaining FCC approvals for innovative technologies.”

How can Lazarus advise anyone on innovative technologies when he fails to see the potential liability in a simple water pump?

Worse, his opinion that “Maybe we could just leave him alone,” is the opposite of of what the FCC is doing as he himself wrote.

Jeremy Hall - May 23, 2014 5:43 PM

I don't like how you're casting the Amateur Radio service into a negative light here. There has to be a lot more to the story than you're bringing out in your article.

First of all, it would be nearly unheard of for a ham to find interference and go directly to the FCC for action. Usually what happens is a ham will work through a process of elimination to find the issue. If it is determined to be on someone else's property, they attempt to work with that person to confirm or deny the source. If confirmed, they attempt to work with them, many times offering to buy the parts needed to stop the interference.

When that process breaks down, it is generally because the owner of the (let's face it, illegal) device isn't willing to work with the ham to resolve it. They either incorrectly feel they aren't responsible to fix it, try a couple of ineffective things and again incorrectly feel it was enough, or feel they can't afford to do anything about it. This is usually the point where a complaint is made to the FCC.

When this takes place, usually a letter is sent to the owner, stating that a device is operating illegally and they have X time to remedy the situation and inform the FCC of their action. A couple of follow-up letters follow when an unsatisfactory response (or no response) is received. Only then do they actually send field agents out to confirm the interference. More notices are then sent. When that entire process fails, then fines are issued.

As you can see, a lot happened for the issue to be escalated to the point it has here. These laws have been in place for decades, manufacturers are aware of them and are choosing to ignore them to save money, and it is biting their customers. The owner of the well pump here should have contacted the dealer that sold/installed the pump, informed them it is malfunctioning, and pressed the issue until they resolved it for him.

Yes, I am a ham myself. I have dealt with interference from neighborhood devices, and have had issues with my transmissions interfering with devices too. Regardless of inconsistent enforcement, the laws are there, and a protected service, be it ham, police, military, or broadcast media, legally has the right to complain and have the interference removed.

If a neighbor's dog is barking too much and the neighbor won't take care of it, police are called. If a house has a rotting carcass in the back yard, making it a nuisance for a neighbor to use their own yard and refuses to remedy the situation, police are called. This is the same situation, only electromagnetic rather than visual or scent based.

Some people just refuse to work together to solve a problem. "It's my land, I have a right t do what I want on it. You can't tell me what I can or can't do." That is all fine and good, but when you're doing something illegal on your property that is preventing me from enjoying something legal on my property, that right no longer exists.

Another Justin - May 23, 2014 6:45 PM

I entirely concur with the other Justin's statement. Number 1, the amateur spectrum is a very small resource, allowed to licensed operators by the FCC. The 1.8 MHz band is absolutely tiny, and because of its size can be made entirely useless by incidental radiators.

Think of it like your next door neighbor (unintentionally) blasting ultra-sonic frequencies, and your dog reacting. It's nothing that directly affects you, but that dog in agony. As a pet owner, should you just "change dogs" to one that isn't sensitive (i.e. deaf)? No.

Amateur radio operators were given explicit permission to operate on their allowed frequencies. They have also been given the authority to actively seek out and attempt to remediate (or assist in the remediation of) emissions that interfere with their lawful operations. If the situation cannot be resolved amicably, then the regulatory arm of the FCC can be brought in. I appreciate that the FCC is responsive (if slow) and heavy handed in their dealings with these issues. Especially when considering that 95% of interference can be remediated with fewer than $10 of parts.

That cellular phone you have in your pocket, the TV you have in every house are directly related to a lot of experimentation that amateurs did in the first days of radio-communication. Permit these inquisitive people to continue to experiment in their "tiny back-yards" without molestation, and let's see what the "next big thing" is.

Disclaimer: Also a licensed amateur radio operator.

Andrew - May 24, 2014 5:34 PM

How would you feel if this person's well pump was interfering with your favorite TV channel? You can just change channels, right?

The law applies equally to everyone. I'm surprised the tone of this article is such that it shouldn't.

Disclaimer: I'm another amateur radio operator.

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