Contacting the mothership
March 8, 2013 6:45 PM   Subscribe

My new downstairs neighbor put something on the roof of our three family apartment that is causing horrible interference with all the electronics in my apartment. What is this thing?

The thing on the roof looks like two poles some distance apart with a slack wire hanging between the two of them.

The interference is so bad that my USB keyboard stops working and my screen intensely flickers. ALL of the speakers in the house make horrible noises that sound like muffled talking. Sometimes I can make out some of the words and they sound possibly related to airplane traffic.

This happens for 10-30 minutes a few times a week.

I might confront him at some point but not yet so please don't suggest that. I'd like to get some idea of what I'm dealing with first.
posted by laptolain to Technology (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
From your description, it may be a shortwave or ham radio antenna; here's an illustration of something similar. That might explain the speaker interference.

The things about your USB keyboard and monitor failing sound improbable to me - that would need to be a serious amount of electromagnetic radiation. What makes you think the thing your neighbor put on the roof is doing those?
posted by wayland at 6:55 PM on March 8, 2013

Sounds like a ham radio or CB antenna. Either way, they must not operate is such a way to cause nuisance. Say hello, and tell them what you're experiencing.
posted by scruss at 6:56 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

He moved in very recently and one of the first things he did was put this thing on the roof.

I know the keyboard thing sounds ridiculous but it's true. I wish I could predict when it happens I would make a video. If someone told me that interference disabled their keyboard I would call bullshit but it is really happening.
posted by laptolain at 6:57 PM on March 8, 2013

Here is another illustration of a shortwave antenna that sounds like the one you're talking about. Here is a FCC document that describes electrical interference caused by ham radio stations.

From the document:
If your equipment is reacting to transmitters such as an amateur radio or CB, you will have interference only when the radio operator is talking; you will be able to hear only half of the conversation. This type of interference is normally intermittent during specific times of the day. You will probably be able to verify your conclusion if you see an antenna mounted on a nearby house or car. Stereos, electronic organs, home intercom systems and other devices can react to nearby radio transmitters and will function as radio receivers. Cordless telephones use radio frequencies and have no protection from interference. If you are experiencing interference on your cordless phone, you should contact the manufacturer for assistance.
posted by GeekDad at 7:09 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

they must not operate is such a way to cause nuisance

Not true, at least for amateur operators. Most likely the user of the consumer device that is receiving such interference must accept the interference.
posted by ryanrs at 7:12 PM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Alternate 1: Shortwave antennae, but only if an amplifier is involved (suggesting your neighbor is transmitting, not just receiving)

Alternate 2: Clothesline. A magical one. That transduces air traffic control commands.
posted by arnicae at 7:14 PM on March 8, 2013

I vote shortwave radio antenna. we have one next to our office and it interferes with our wi-fi, bluetooth devices AND sometimes transmissions can be heard on our Mac speakers.

many things operate in the 2.4GHz spectrum, so lots of weird stuff happens when an amplifier is in use for transmitting.
posted by bobdow at 7:48 PM on March 8, 2013

> Not true, at least for amateur operators.

That varies by country. In Canada, the operator should assist in resolving interference. Elsewhere, it is generally considered good form to do so.
posted by scruss at 8:21 PM on March 8, 2013

Low gain antenna
posted by mattoxic at 8:27 PM on March 8, 2013

Sure, many HAMs will help their neighbors with interference problems. But beware quoting made-up internet law to someone who holds an actual FCC license and definitely studied the rules in order to get it. A more friendly, "can you please help me?" approach is warranted.
posted by ryanrs at 8:31 PM on March 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

My dad ran a ham radio antenna much like this over our house (from a tree in the front to a pole in the back) when I was a kid and it infuriated everyone else in the house because it would make the phone, Internet, and television all completely unusable. He liked to tell us that it was our equipment, not his, with the problem.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:35 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, that sounds very much like a ham with an HF transmitter. The interference with your USB keyboard is kind of unexpected, but a lot of consumer electronics aren't really up to snuff when it comes to rejecting RFI, so who knows.

I agree with ryanrs, start with a friendly request, as if they were just playing their music too loud sometimes. They might be able to change their setup to cause less interference, or offer some change on your end (put a ferrite core on your usb cable, ground something better, etc), or maybe there's a timeslot the ham can operate in that won't bother you. If that doesn't work out, then start checking on the law.
posted by hattifattener at 11:48 PM on March 8, 2013

ryanrs: I am an amateur radio operator in the United States, and it is not permissible to generate harmful interference.
posted by teatime at 1:18 AM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yep, you have a ham living next door. You have my sympathies. On the bright side, that counts as an asset in a zombie apocalypse, if you expect one in the near future. ;)

You can ask him to play nice, perhaps moving his antenna just a small amount will solve all your problems. If not, I can tell you how to drive him completely batshit - When your electronics start going wonky - Run the blender. Seriously. And the older, the better... If you can find a 1950s vintage piece of crap at a yard sale that still runs, buy it.

Within a week, you'll have him begging you to work with him on rearranging his antenna. :)
posted by pla at 2:00 AM on March 9, 2013 [9 favorites]

teatime: I am an amateur radio operator in the United States, and yes it is permissible for licensed amateur radio operators to cause harmful interference to unlicensed users such as the original poster. In fact, since the asker's trouble is with non-radio devices like USB keyboards and computer displays, from the FCC's perspective they aren't even an unlicensed user, they are nothing at all.
posted by ryanrs at 2:48 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just to clarify my position, I'm not trying to argue that amateur radio operators should create interference that disrupts the electronics of everyone around them. And I'm not saying that the original poster should just give up and live with it. But you're unlikely to find an FCC rule that will favor your USB keyboard over a licensed amateur operator. This sort of interference is not grounds for prohibiting your neighbor from transmitting, at least according to federal law. Maybe you can find something in your (their) lease, I dunno. But a cooperative approach is probably the most likely way for you to reach a compromise you can live with.
posted by ryanrs at 3:01 AM on March 9, 2013

Run the blender

Old vacuum cleaners work really well too, in my experience, especially ones with belt drives. The more worn the belt and brushes, the better.
posted by bonehead at 6:16 AM on March 9, 2013

I'm wondering if this guy had permission from the landlord to put the antenna up. An angle worth checking.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:26 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mr. MayNicholas is also a ham radio guy. He says to just go talk to the neighbor. He should be able to tweak it so it stops causing interference. Causing such interference is illegal (FCC laws).
posted by MayNicholas at 9:30 AM on March 9, 2013

I too am a ham radio operator. Some important points to consider:

- If this is indeed someone operating a ham radio, and you are in the US, and they are operating within the bounds of their license, the FCC will be on their side if it interferes with your devices in almost all cases.
- Nevertheless, most hams would rather not interfere with their neighbors, so a conversation is worth having. There are often a number of simple things that can be done to mitigate the interference.
- They may well not be allowed to have an antenna on the roof. If you complain and cause it to be removed, there's a fair chance they will just use an internal antenna. This is unlikely to make your problems better. There's a good chance it will make them less likely to cooperate.
- The blender and vacuum ideas are cute, but overall I would not recommend getting in a radio interference battle with a ham.

Out of curiosity, about how far is the computer from the antenna?
posted by bitterpants at 11:23 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might find the PDF at this link helpful as a starting point:
posted by bitterpants at 12:58 PM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

thanks everyone

I just wanted to be informed before talking to the guy...but I'll be using that blender tip at least once
posted by laptolain at 5:57 PM on March 9, 2013

Blender tip is a really bad idea. You don't want to get in a feud with a neighbor.
posted by ryanrs at 6:32 PM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding getting the landlord involved here. And maybe the neighborhood association - it might be an eyesore.
posted by Rash at 7:25 PM on March 9, 2013

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