Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fence Radio, or, usin' whatcha got

As I pull up to the north gate each morning, I turn the heater fan down (in the winter, anyway)  and turn on the radio. Along with 850 KOA’s Colorado Morning News, I also get a status update on my electric fence. Now that’s service! No wonder the AM radio station’s call letters KOA stand for King Of Agriculture.

Of course, April (Zesbaugh) and Steffan (Tubbs) don’t actually use their broadcasted words to tell me how the fence is performing. Rather, the fence tells me, through the signal it broadcasts over the AM band, and which my pickup radio detects.

The unit that powers the north fence, called an “energizer,” or more commonly a “fencer,” is powered by alternating current (AC) electricity. Electricity is supplied to the ranch house through the regional power company from the so-called national electrical grid. Electrons flow from the far away power plant, through hundreds of miles of steel transmission cables, booster stations and transformers, until it finally reaches the ranch at a standard household voltage.

The fencer is plugged into 120 volt household current at the garage, and uses an internal transformer to change the AC into direct current (DC) which it sends in pulses through the roughly five miles of electric fence it energizes.

As the 12,000 – 15,000 volt pulses course through the length of the steel fence wire, they excite electrons in the steel, freeing many of them to fly off of the steel and into the atmosphere, making the fence a radio broadcasting station of sorts.

Though the signal is powered by quite a bit of voltage, the amperage, or “push” of the current is quite low, and so is the range of the fence’s radio broadcasting capability. At 20 feet from the fence, my pickup radio can’t pick up a single “pop,” but at 5 – 10 feet it picks up the signal nice and clear.

As the hosts of the morning show report the news Coloradoans need and want to hear with their morning coffee or on their drive to work, I can hear in the background a soft “pop-pop-pop” as the electric charge travels through the wire, then the air, then to my antenna. Hearing that “pop-pop-pop” is a good thing, and it tells me a lot about how the fence is functioning.

If the popping sound is clear and strong, it means that the fence is working properly. If the sound is softer than usual, it means that the wire is slightly grounded, probably giving up some strength to a wet wooden fence post, or sometimes to overgrown grass or weeds. If the sound is intermittent, the wire has probably come loose from an insulator and is probably grounding as it swings in the breeze and occasionally touches a steel post or even the ground. If there’s no popping sound at all, there’s obviously no current flowing through the wire. The problem could be a continuous ground, a broken wire, or a power outage at the ranch house. The fencer might even be unplugged, as happens occasionally when nieces and nephews visit and “explore.”

If I get a strong popping signal in the morning, I can go about my chores with the knowledge that the fence is working correctly and needs no attention. If the popping is weak, intermittent, or absent, I know I probably have a repair to make. Once a week or so I drive the length of the fence, looking for missing insulators and listening to the steady “pop-pop-popping.” Having the radio detect the condition of the fence makes the job quick and easy. Most of the time.

The electric fence I check each day isn’t really vital to the success of the operation. It’s there only to keep the cattle out of shelterbelts and wildlife plantings which surround the pasture. On the other side of the shelterbelts and wildlife plantings is a sturdy four-wire barbed wire fence. Still, it’s best to keep the cattle where they belong, and my pickup radio helps me with the task.

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