Something strange is happening on Westhampton View Court.
Shortly after Christmas, garage door openers on all five homes on the cul-de-sac stopped working. So far, no one has been able to figure out why.
"You'd see one of the neighbors pull up to the garage and get out of the car," said Gilbert Ballman. "Pretty soon we were asking each other, 'Are you having trouble with your garage door too?'"
Local garage door companies say they have seen plenty of interference problems with individual homes in the last several years. Certain models of televisions, clock radios, headsets or speaker systems often turn out to be the culprit.
"There is so much radio frequency pollution now," said Butch Martin, owner of Martin Door Co. "Everything is wireless, and the more wireless stuff we get, the bigger the problem is going to get."
But an issue that extends to multiple houses, like the one involving Westhampton View, is more unusual, industry experts say. Mark Karasek, chief technology officer for The Chamberlain Group, which manufactures Liftmaster openers, estimated that they handle an outage that big only about a dozen times a year nationwide.
Westhampton View residents started noticing problems getting in and out of their garages on Dec. 26 and 27, and the situation got progressively worse.
They went through the usual trouble-shooting steps of changing the batteries and rebooting their systems. All but one have Liftmasters. Some called the manufacturer. Nothing worked.
First, Kathy Hoechstenbach's double garage door wouldn't work, but the single one would. Then the single door would work only if they got really close to the door with the remote. Soon it wouldn't work at all.
Joe Sullivan's doors have the same problem.
"It's a weird, weird thing," Sullivan said. "And the timing for it all to go haywire for everybody at the same time can't be coincidence, right?"
Wireless garage door openers consist of a remote, which transmits on a designated radio frequency, and a receiver, which accepts the radio signal and then opens or closes the door.
Today automatic garage door openers are used in 35 million U.S. homes, according to industry experts.
Seventy percent of homeowners use the garage door as their "front door" — the primary entrance to their home.
The newest remotes operate on multiple frequencies to try to avoid interference, but remotes made about five years ago, like the ones installed on Westhampton View, use 315 megahertz. That frequency avoids problems from cellphone towers and radios used by the U.S. military, which operate at 390 MHz.
When garage door openers quit working, the fix for an interference problem can cost about $400. It involves replacing the circuit boards, remotes, keyless entry and labor.
That's not something Hoechstenbach is willing to do. She's only lived on Westhampton View for two years, and she just had a door opener installed on the single door of her three-car garage last summer.
"Paying $300 or $400 is ridiculous," she said.
"It's not our fault, so it shouldn't be up to us to fix it."
The fix, which would require a switch to another frequency, also would mean that residents who have openers integrated into their cars would not be able to reprogram them. The new signal would be out of the usable range.
The homes on Westhampton View, near Kisker Road and Highway 94 in the St. Peters area, were built between 2005 and 2008. They all have three-car garages.
Ballman's double door will open with a remote but not the single door. An electrician by trade, Ballman was able to get his keypad to work by extending the antenna off the unit.
Gary Edwards said neither of his remotes will work, but Ballman helped him rig his keypad.
Once they realized they were all having some degree of the same problem, the homeowners met. Over coffee at Starbucks they quizzed one another about Christmas gifts.
Did anyone get any new gadgets? A new security system? An electronic fence perhaps?
Ballman got a TV, but no one else got any new electronics, so they dug further.
Hoechstenbach drove around the neighborhood to look for new antennas for ham radio operators. She found none.
Ballman contacted Cuivre River Electric. A serviceman checked equipment but found no problem related to the electric supply.
The timing of the problem was far in advance of a recent geo-magnetic solar storm that could have affected power grids. The National Weather Service had no reports of a lightning strike in the area.
The residents all filed complaints with the Federal Communications Commission, but it's unclear how long it will take the agency to complete an investigation. And on Wednesday, a technician with the manufacturer has agreed to help the residents run a test to try to identify the problem.
In the meantime, the neighbors are putting up with their garage door nuisances, and checking into a seemingly endless number of potential gremlins. The latest theories have included high-efficiency light bulbs and smart meters on utilities.
"We're about ready to chalk it up to something else," Ballman joked. "It's like OK, maybe aliens landed." source