University employs 300 GPS clocks

The new wireless atomic clocks update six times per day to keep clocks precise within one second.

Emma Carew

There were 300 fewer clocks for Facilities Management to turn back for daylight saving time last weekend.

Those clocks in classrooms around campus have been replaced during the past few weeks with Global Positioning System wireless clocks, assistant director for Facilities Management Sean Schuller said.

After more than a year of planning, Facilities Management teamed up with the Office of Classroom Management to purchase 300 clocks from Wisconsin-based Primex Wireless, he said.

Primex developed the technology using GPS to keep time in 1999, Primex Wireless marketing manager Anita Carrel said.

The system uses transmitters around campus to pull the signal from GPS satellites and then communicate to the clocks, Carrel said.

The clocks automatically sync their times six times a day, at 4, 6 and 10 a.m. and p.m., she said.

There are about two dozen U.S.-operated satellites that make up the GPS, Shashi Shekhar, McKnight Distinguished University professor in the computer science department, said.

The satellites are equipped with four atomic clocks each that synchronize with the national standard, he said.

“Essentially each GPS satellite has a very precise clock,” Shekhar said, “and any receiver can get very precise times.”

The new wireless system has a master receiver on the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses that communicate the accurate time to all other clocks, he said.

The University will save up to $18,000 each year in labor costs by using the GPS clocks, Schuller said.

The weekend crews won’t lose hours, he said, but instead will be able to work more efficiently.

Wallace Marlow, a senior buildings and ground worker, said he likes the new clocks because they have helped him and his colleagues save time, which gives them more time to focus their efforts elsewhere.

The clocks also run on “long-life lithium batteries, which last about five years,” compared to the old clocks, which either ran on AA batteries or were wired to the building’s electric circuit, Schuller said.

The new clocks are also “guaranteed to be accurate within a second,” Schuller said.

Facilities Management invested $50,000 toward the system, and the Office of Classroom Management paid $30,000 for the clocks and installation labor, he said.

Through surveys of students and instructors around campus, the Office of Classroom Management found one of the concerns in classrooms was consistent time, classroom planner Jeremy Todd said.

In past years, Facilities Management manually changed the clocks on campus for daylight saving time, he said.

“As good as (Facilities Management) is,” Todd said, “there’s always a potential for labor breakdown.”

This past weekend, the facilities management teams still had to change about 800 clocks by hand, but the classroom clocks were changed automatically by the GPS signal.

Now Facilities Management will evaluate the success of the test run to see if they want to pursue the system for the rest of the clocks on campus, Schuller said.