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RIMPAC v. remotes an open-and-shut case

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U.S. NAVY / 2008
Engineers say military radar or communications can cause interference by drowning out weaker signals, such as those used by garage door openers. "It has been an ongoing issue whenever (a lot of ships) come into town," said Victor Molcuta, owner of Alliance Overhead Garage Doors.

Mary Abe came home from a workout and shopping, pushed the button on her garage door remote and … nothing.

She then checked the remote on a second car, and still nothing. Neither remote control would operate the garage door at her Aiea home in Royal Summit, she said.

"That’s why we called the repair people, and the repairman said, ‘I’ve had so many calls,’" Abe said. "He said that there’s nothing they could do because there was some type of interference. He thought it might be (Rim of the Pacific war games), because he started getting calls on Saturday."

The biennial RIMPAC, the world’s largest multinational maritime exercise, officially started June 23, but many of the 32 ships participating started arriving late last week.

The exercise, which includes 14 nations, five submarines, more than 170 aircraft and 20,000 personnel, ends Aug. 1.

"When the ships are in, it does affect frequency," said Valerie Okemura, who is with H&H Overhead Door of Oahu, which installs and services garage doors. "Garage door openers fall into the range of frequencies that the military can use, so when the military is doing its exercises, apparently it can interfere with the frequencies the garage door openers are working on."

Okemura said this week she has been fielding two to three calls a day for faulty remotes.

"Other than that, we get them once in a great while," she said.

Victor Molcuta, owner of Alliance Overhead Garage Doors, said the interference is nothing new.

"It has been an ongoing issue whenever (a lot of ships) come into town," he said, although he has not received the recent spate of calls that H&H Overhead has fielded.

The problem particularly affects some garage door remotes that operate at 315 megahertz, Molcuta said. A lot of older doors operate at 390 megahertz and are not affected, he said.

"I don’t think we can pinpoint what’s causing what’s going on with the garage door openers, because there’s a lot of electromagnetic activity. It’s not just by the Navy," said Agnes Tauyan, a spokeswoman for Navy Region Hawaii.

On Monday in Pearl Harbor, a boxy-looking surface search radar was spinning atop the superstructure of the Singaporean stealth frigate RSS Supreme, which is participating in RIMPAC.

"We are required to test our commercial surface search radars in port prior to getting under way and as part of our scheduled maintenance," Tauyan said. "Surface search radars are readily available commercially, (are) used by civilian boaters and (are) not a safety issue."

Engineers say garage door openers have a radio frequency that decodes information from a transmitter, and a high level of radio frequency, or RF, can jam a receiver. Military radars or communications can cause interference by drowning out weaker signals.

"Based on the amount of power they are using, there might be interference," said Magdy Iskander, director of the Hawaii Center for Advanced Communications, which is part of the University of Hawaii.

When Abe had the door opener problem on Tuesday, she said her husband had to open the garage door from the inside. The opener has been intermittent since then and sometimes works, but she has to be in a specific location.

She and her husband checked the batteries on the remotes and then called H&H Overhead Door.

"(Wednesday morning) I had no problem when I went out. It’s got to be when they (the military) are operating something," Abe said.

H&H Overhead’s Okemura said the recent calls have come from homes that are in the vicinity of Pearl Harbor.

The situation has improved over the past, when H&H, in business for 25 years, "would get flooded with phone calls" during RIMPAC, she said.

The problem now is that some garage door remotes intermittently have no range, and they will not work "until you are right under the motor."

Okemura said the company has not checked with the Navy about the latest calls from customers saying remotes are not working.

"But we have in the past, and I’m pretty sure due to security measures, they don’t give us any information," she said.

Abe said the inoperable remotes and the need to call the repair company have been frustrating.

She said she never had a problem in the past with her garage door opener, which is about 5 to 6 years old.

Rather than charging customers for a trip out for an unrepairable problem, Okemura said H&H Overhead tells callers to wait out the testing or whatever the military is doing.

RIMPAC ships will head out to sea on Tuesday and Wednesday for training.


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