Year 2000 could wreck many home appliances, House members warn Hearing is 4th on problem of programming clocks

March 25, 1997|By Robert Gee | Robert Gee,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

WASHINGTON -- The year 2000 could spell doomsday for many common home appliances such as microwaves, answering machines and VCRs, several House members warned yesterday.

Any product that operates with an internal clock -- even those that don't appear to keep track of the date or year -- could go haywire at one tick past midnight on New Year's Day 2000. The microchip that performs its automated functions might not be able to recognize the difference between the year 2000 and the year 1900.

Other items that risk malfunctioning or shutting down include security systems, light timers, air conditioning and heating systems, elevators, video recorders, sprinkler systems, automated teller machines and bar-code scanners.

Of the billions of products containing a microchip, only an estimated 2 percent to 4 percent may be unable to interpret the date conversion. Even so, "the economic and legal consequences could be substantial," Rep. Steve Horn, a California Republican, said at a news conference yesterday with Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican.

"Out of the 20 or so products [containing microchips] that you've got [in your home], maybe one or two of them won't work" on Jan. 1, 2000, said Mark Uncapher, counsel to a House subcommittee on government management and technology, chaired by Horn.

But few companies that use microchips in their products have recognized the potential problem, so it is almost impossible to know for sure which home appliances will continue to operate into 2000 and which will break down, said Ann K. Coffou, a consultant in Cambridge, Mass., who has studied the anticipated computer glitch, sometimes referred to as the Year 2000 problem.

In addition to consumer electronics, many government and commercial computers will need to be upgraded to recognize the new millennium.

Coffou testified at a hearing last week chaired by Horn and Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican. It was the fourth House hearing in the past year to address the problem.

After reprogramming clocks in several products to simulate New Year's Eve 1999, Coffou found that some microwaves, fax machines and programmable thermostats were still being manufactured with faulty microchips.

"You need to make the manufacturer responsible for checking this stuff out and knowing if it has a compliant product," Coffou said in an interview yesterday.

Tomorrow, Horn, Davis and Morella plan to send a letter to several regulatory agencies, asking them to require companies to manufacture proper microchips. If action isn't swift, Morella said yesterday, "the chances are good" that she will urge Congress to take legislative action mandating such compliance.

"It certainly is an urgent problem, and this usually takes a year or more to sort out and fix" in the computer programming, she said.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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