Can Computer Date Problems Really Cost Millions?

Ann Couffou related this story in her testimony before the House Subcommittee on Technology.

A small manufacturer of industrial liquid solutions found their production line completely stopped on January 1, 1997. It was discovered that their [computerized] process control systems were not designed to account for a leap year (1996) and subsequently shut down when they changed from 1996 to 1997. Before company personnel could remedy the situation, the liquid solutions that were in the process pipelines hardened and could not be removed. The company was forced to replace the process pipelines at a cost of $1 million. They were unable to manufacture products for several days, thereby, causing late deliveries to customers. In addition to the cost to repair the pipelines, the company believes they lost three new clients because their shipments were delayed.

Can Computer Date Problems Really Shut Down Power Plants?

Tom Becker, a consultant for year-2000 problems, related this account of a power plant test in Scotland. The plant had been shut down for routine maintenance. The managers decided that they would test for year-2000 compliance by setting all of the dates in the various computers and equipment to late on December 31, 1999. All known bugs had been removed from the software. As the computer dates reached midnight, the power plant shut down!

Why? A small sensor box used to detect the amount of toxic gas being emitted sent the signal to shut down. The sensor automatically kept track of when it was calibrated (serviced) and was designed to shut the plant down if it was not serviced on time (no one would want the plant to poison the atmosphere just because a sensor had not been maintained and stopped working). However, due to faulty programming within itself, the sensor wrongly "thought" that it had not been serviced for 99 years, so it gave the "shut down" order. It did not take long to find and fix this problem, but other power plants may not find it so easily.

In most places, power plants are interconnected, so one failure will not deprive anyone of electricity. But collective failures of many plants will probably cause blackouts (no power at all) or brown-outs (low voltage) over large areas.

Once Discovered, Are Date Problems Always Easy to Fix?

In the first of what could be a blizzard of related suits, a Detroit-area produce supplier has filed suit because its cash registers can’t handle sales billed to credit cards expiring in the year 2000.

Mark Yarsike and Sam Katz, owners of Produce Palace International in Warren, Michigan, said they are tired of losing business due to the problem, and have filed a lawsuit against cash register maker Tec America and its local service vendor, All American Cash Register Incorporated, seeking $10,000, plus damages, interest, costs, and attorney’s fees.

The problem, according to Yarsike and Katz, is that their cash registers cannot recognize the year 2000 as a valid credit card expiration date. They said that between April 30, 1996 and May 6, 1997 their registers crashed 105 times when they attempted to ring up sales billed to credit cards expiring in 2000.

"Ten registers would go down all at once," said Yarsike. Ever since they bought the registers back in 1995, they’ve made 150 service calls to Tec America and All American, he said.

—Internet Post

[This credit card expiration date problem has become much bigger. Several credit card companies have stopped issuing credit cards that expire in 2000 because many stores have trouble with them. Tec America desperately wants to fix the problem, but cannot. Why? The problem may be in a program that they did not write. They may have used "library" of "helper programs" in their cash registers which they acquired by purchase, obtained free as "shareware," or "stole." The author of these helper programs is almost certainly not obligated to fix them. Tec America’s only option may be to completely rewrite their cash registers to use a different library of "helper programs." That is a big job. We can expect the same thing in 2000—large systems will fail due to errors in small programs that were bought or borrowed. —NSE]

Nuclear Accident 2000 or Nationwide Power Loss?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), in a meeting on October 7, 1997 stated that all nuclear power plants must prove that their software is year-2000 compliant or must shut down before that year arrives. Many important aspects of nuclear plant control occur too quickly for human reaction, so they must be controlled by computer. Even if all of the main plant-control software functions, there are questions about other systems: Access to rooms is controlled by security computers. Other computers keep track of who is trained and licensed to perform which tasks. Still other computers authorize employees to work after they have been through selective drug testing. If any of these computers fail, the plant might be working, but the people may be prevented from doing their jobs. The plan whereby Nuclear plants will be declared year-2000 compliant is not completely formulated yet. It may be completed in time for the power-generating plants to prove compliance. But if the plants cannot get ready, the U.S.A will lose about 20% of its electricity generating capacity—assuming that all of the other non-nuclear plants work.

Embedded Computers Are Everywhere—Start by Testing the Ones in Your House!

Embedded computers are usually small computers that make a device "smart." They are found in everything from tiny watches to the largest earth-moving equipment. The most common embedded computers in your home are found in watches, clocks, VCR’s, fax machines, timed kitchen appliances, even set-back thermostats. The only ones that you need to be concerned with are those that have a way to set a date, or those that connect up to other computers that may set a date. In order for you to be concerned, these dates must include a year—there are watches, telephones, and other devices that just maintain a month and day—they require an adjustment during leap-year, but they will work fine no matter what year it is. (A very few "surprise" devices do not have an easily evident date—or have a date that only a a service-person can set. You need not worry about them at home, but critical business systems should check with the manufacturer of devices of which they are not certain.)

In order to test many embedded computers, you will probably need the manual that came with them. Now is a better time to look for the manual, than January 1, 2000! We will use a VCR as an example of how to test home devices:

(1) Program the VCR to record beginning 1 minute after midnight, January 1, 2000. (If you are testing a clock, set an alarm to ring—just set the device to do something that it can do.) If this step fails, go directly to step 6.

(2) Then set the VCR’s internal clock to 11:59 PM, December 31, 1999.

(3) Watch the VCR for two minutes. It should flip over to the correct date in one minute, then begin recording the next minute.

(4) If step 3 works, your VCR will probably work for you into the year 2000. You might want to turn it off and turn it back on again and make sure that the 2000 date is still there. If that is fine, then go to step 7.

(5) If any part of step 3 fails, try manually setting the date in your VCR to Midnight, January 1, 2000. If that fails, too, go to step 6. If it works, your VCR will be completely usable in the year 2000, but you should make a note to manually reset its date and time on January 1, 2000. Your VCR apparently has the ability to process dates in the year 2000, but not the ability to flip from 1999 to 2000. Go to step 7.

(6) Apparently, your VCR does not have the ability to process dates in the 2000s. You may continue to use in the year 2000 by setting it to an incorrect year. NOTE: This method will not work for devices that connect to other computers—the differing dates would cause errors among the computers. (This is not a problem in most homes). It does matter which year you set it to. Since 2000 is a leap year, you must set it for another leap year, otherwise your dates will be wrong after February 28. If you want the day of the week to display correctly, you must set your VCR to 1972, 1944 or 1916—the calendars are the same for those years. If your VCR will not accept any of those years, then you can try 1996 or 1992 and your VCR will display a correct day and month, but wrong day of week; or, use 1993 for the right day of the week, but wrong day and month.

(7) Remember to reset the VCR (or whatever device) to the current date and time after you are finished.

The above procedure should work for most home devices with embedded computers. By testing them now, you will know what will and what won’t work before 2000 gets here. That will allow you attend to more urgent matters or help others at that time.

Special note for "caller-ID" telephones and boxes: The dates in these units are often set by signals from the telephone office each time you receive a call. When year-2000 comes, you will get whatever date they send you. &

Will Your PC Work For You?

Personal computers (PCs) are subject to a number of year 2000 related problems. Over half of the ones currently in operation will not work properly in the year 2000. Believe it or not, the "internal clock" on nearly every PC contains only a 2-digit year. The BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) is another "chip" in every PC that reads this clock and tells the operating system (DOS or Windows) what date and time it is. The BIOS in some computers simply will not work at all with dates 2000 and over. Every time you turn the computer off, it will reset back into the 1900’s. If this error happens to your computer, you will need to either get a new BIOS chip or a new motherboard—or set the date every day.

Other computers can function with dates 2000 and beyond, but they cannot get there by themselves. They need either a little program to help them, or they need to be manually set once at the beginning of 2000. This is the most common error found on PCs. If yours is more than a couple of years old, it probably has it.

You can download a tiny test program to find out if you computer is year- 2000 compliant, along with a correction program from this web site: <>. It is all free to individuals, there is a charge for business use. Easy to follow instructions are included.

Once you have made sure that your PC will boot up with the right date, then you are ready to test application software. One approach is to look at vendor advertisements or web sites to see if they claim year 2000 compliance. You may also find information there about which versions are not year 2000 compliant. If you have older questionable versions, you may need to upgrade to the newer ones.

Next you may want to test your personal computer software. Do not try this test unless you are confident you can backup and restore your hard drive. It is not worth destroying a computer system now in order to solve problems that might occur in two years.

(1) Make two (in case one is bad) back-up copies of your hard drive.

(2) Set the system date to 12/31/1999, about 6 P.M. Do some of all the kinds of work that you normally do—run programs, enter transactions, create files, etc. The more thorough you are in this step, the better your test will be.

(3) With your main applications running, set the system date to 12/31/1999 at 11:59 P.M. so it will flip over to 01/02/2000. Display or insert the current date in all of your applications—be sure that it matches the date you just set.

(4) Enter more transactions and process the transactions you entered in 1999. Try to use as many related computer functions as possible. Make notes about any problems with dates. If anything has obviously failed, you will need to get your software replaced or fixed.

(5) Then, restore the entire computer system from the back-up—that will eliminate all of the test transactions and files that you created.

(6) If you have custom written programs, you can probably find some problem date calculations by scanning the source code for ‘19’—most complex date calculations contain that number somewhere. Scanning for names of known date fields is also effective.

(7) Make sure you have enough supplies for your printer for several months. Before 2000 comes, print a hard copy of your mailing lists, critical documents, etc. That way, no matter what happens to your computer, you can keep working.

From the office of Eastern Carolina University (ECU) Administrative Computing Services:


Most people don't realize that many computer based systems, as well as equipment with computer chips, will not work in the year 2000 unless they are changed. For our part, we are correcting Administrative Applications—like Payroll—so they will work.

The Office of State Controller has estimated that it will cost ECU $724,355 to fix the problem. We have determined that it will take 7 programmer years of effort. Actually, we are way ahead of other universities as all of our Student Systems are now year 2000 compliant. For comparison, it will cost $2,000,000 to fix applications at North Carolina State University. For computer centers everywhere, the Y2K [year 2000] effort must take priority over other work.

As a word of warning, we are only changing software that we support. If you have software that you purchased or developed without our assistance, you will be responsible for making changes. We can't fix what we don't know about.

[People who have worked inside of university, big government, and corporate computer environments know there are thousands of programs that have been purchased, written or stolen and used for significant work without official approval. It is impossible to know how many programs fall into this category worldwide, because the entities using them have no "official" record of them. —NSE]

Internal Revenue Service

Request for Comments (RFC) for Modernization Prime Systems Integration Services Contractor

May 15, 1997

[This 116 page document is the first stage of a proposal to find a private corporation that will modernize the IRS computer systems. This proposal freely acknowledges the IRS "Century Date Compliance" problems (the same as what most everyone else calls "year 2000 compliance"). The proposal refers to another 7-volume document that describes the details of the problems that this private corporation will need to know to help fix the IRS computers. The contract to the private corporation will not be awarded until Oct 1, 1998. Can these massive problems be fixed in 18 months? Below, we reprint section III of the table of contents of that document with a few underlines and translations in brackets. The entire document is available in acrobat format on the web site:]


III. Today’s IRS Information Technology Environment

A. The Challenge: Core Business Applications Systems are Fragmented, Inaccessible and Asynchronous [Main software programs don’t work well together.]

B. The Challenge: The Mainframe Infrastructures are Aging and Lack Century Date Compliance While the Distributed Networks are Duplicative and Suffer From Interoperabilty and Connectivity Problems [Hardware and software is old and won’t work in the year 2000; networks cost a lot more than they should.]

C. The Challenge: The Century Date Conversion Project Compounds the Risk for Failure Within an Information Technology Organization Already Overburdened with Workload [There is so much regular work to do now that there is little chance the programs can be made year-2000 compliant before 2000.]

D. The Challenge: The Information Systems (IS) Organization Lacks Sufficient Technical Management Capacity to Simultaneously Support Today’s Environment, Effectuate the Century Date Conversion and Manage Modernization. [The IRS knows their computer people cannot do what needs to be done. Of interest, an organization chart at the end of this document listed 32 top IRS computer positions: 8 were currently occupied by temporary people, and 3 were completely vacant. They are obviously having trouble retaining managers to do the job.]

When Will Whatever Happens Happen?

I do not claim to have any revelation from God on this matter, but this is one case where setting dates is completely reliable. Knowing exactly what will happen is the uncertainty.

1998. This is the year to get systems fixed in an economical manner. Help from computer vendors, consultants, and temporary workers will be available and affordable. Start now!!!

1999, January. Systems that project one year in advance will begin to fail. There are many more of these systems than there were 2- and 3-year advance systems. These failures, and the "2000 is only one year away" motif will probably bring year-2000 problems to the mainstream press. One by one, computer firms will announce that they are busy till 2000.

1999, August 22. Possible global communications failure. Timing signals from Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) are used to synchronize telephone & computer communications. These timing signals are communicated as the mathematically precise number of weeks that the GPS has been in operation. On August 22, the GPS week number will be 1024—which may exceed the internal capacity of some receiving stations—just as year 2000 exceeds some computer’s capacity. This is not directly related to the year-2000 disaster, but is very similar, though limited in scope.

1999, Fall. US government will probably begin to publicly talk about the issue. There may be a great effort to say "everything is all right" or there may be concrete plans to avert disasters—maybe a method of credit or a new kind of cash in case the checking system breaks down. Businesses and government will probably announce certain services which simply will no longer be provided after 1999. They may curtail some services sooner with the simple excuse that they need all effort on the year-2000 problem.

1999, November. This may be the last chance to transact business in any sort of "normal" way.

1999, December. A lot of billing statements will begin to fail—errors associated with due-dates in the year 2000. Some will be wrong, others not sent. Nearly everyone will be convinced of the reality of the problem by this time. Banks or regulatory agencies may set limits on cash withdrawals. Other commodities may be rationed.

1999, December 31, Friday. Major computer failures will begin as computers calculate tomorrow’s date and can’t cope with the results. Also, a lot of mainframe computers maintain internal clocks in Universal time (approximately the time in England), so these computers may begin to fail in the late evening of the 31st. We will find out about embedded computer failures first: power plants, hospitals, telephones, etc. Banking and billing failures will come later. Since new days begin west of the international date line, we will hear about the problems in Japan and Australia, first.

2000, January 1, Saturday. Most of the embedded systems that will break down will do so on this day. Most major radio stations have emergency power supplies, so they can broadcast without public electricity. While some radio stations may be down due to computer disaster, not every station uses the same brand of equipment, so some are likely to function. Keep a radio handy. Many businesses will not be "open" on this day, but will want their computer people to be present to check for unknown problems.

2000, January 2, Sunday. People will attend churches in record numbers. Many businesses will still be "closed," but working on computer systems

2000, January 3, Monday. The new-year holiday will be on this day. Many businesses will continue to remain "closed for repairs."

2000, January 4, Tuesday. Provided that utilities and telephones are working, we will all have a chance to see how much of our business world is still operating normally. It may be a little, it may be a lot. You may be back to your regular job, or you may be meeting with your neighbors to determine how you will live in the days ahead. If you work in any computer-related field, you can expect people coming to your door—even if you are at home.

2000, January to ??? We can expect inconsistencies of all kinds. Computer systems that appeared to function, but created corrupt data will be discovered haphazardly. Some will be in such bad shape that companies that appeared to remain in business will have to shut down until the problems are resolved. Also, programmers in a hurry to implement 2000-compliant programs will have made other mistakes that will not be caught by testing—expect unusual errors. Businesses with good software will be very profitable!

2000, February 29. Some computers will fail or create bad data because they will think this is March 1. Every 100 years, we miss a leap year—except in years divisible by 400. Not every programmer knew about that rule, and very few ever tested their programs for it.

Servants’ News Experience

So far, we have tested some embedded computers: fax machine, a VCR, watches, clocks, and found all of them year-2000 compliant. Of four different personal computers, two will not properly "flip over" to 2000 from 1999, but should work afterward if their dates are manually set.

We still need to test our personal computer applications software, some of which uses a lot of dates.

Return to December index