Hardware

The ancient Commodore PC that haunts a Michigan public school system

A 1987 Commodore Amiga runs the heat and AC system for 20 public schools in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Somehow, it still works, but the system desperately needs replacing.

Everything was dead.

Many years ago the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) had a heat and AC system run by a 1987 Commodore Amiga. And on a fateful Friday, the air compressor died. No one knew due to the lack of an alarm system.

So, the freeze protection system went into place. Valves were opened for floor heat to run wild and keep the building warm. By Monday, the building was 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

"It killed every plant, every fish, every animal. Every living thing that was in that building was gone," said Tim Hopkins, maintenance supervisor of GRPS.

The crazy thing is, that same system is still controlling the heat and AC for 20 schools in the GRPS system.

cdoresystem.jpg
A 1987 Commodore Amiga runs the heat and AC system for 20 GRPS schools.
Image: Grand Rapids Public Schools.
That's right — a nearly 30-year-old PC has been running 24/7 for almost three decades to keep these schools at the right temperature.

How does something like that slip through the cracks for so many years?

Basically, it hasn't been at the top of the list of things that needed to be fixed because it still works. It wasn't made a priority for the bond money that GRPS received in 2011.

But, Hopkins said, it is necessary to get the word out that they need to get the system replaced, because there's really no guarantee that it will remain operational for much longer. If it fails, all of the adjustments will have to be made manually. A $175 million bond is up for a vote later this year, and Hopkins is hopeful that some of the money could be used to replace the system.

The problem with the existing setup is two-fold. First, you have the Commodore, which is a unique piece in an of itself. It's not the kind of hardware that one could run down to the local electronics store and replace. The programming is also specific, and it can't be replicated exactly the same way on a modern machine, Hopkins said.

The second part of the equation is the backend — the control system that is run by the Commodore that Hopkins said is even older, from 1978.

"I can't buy that stuff anymore," Hopkins said. "So, when that fails I have to figure out how to either resurrect with with the spare parts that I have, or remove it and put some other control system in its place."

The system runs on a 1200-bit modem and uses radio signals to communicate among the individual buildings it controls. However there can be interference in the radio signal from other radio systems in GRPS.

The Commodore originally came about as a replacement for the old, refrigerator-sized mainframe system which used a removeable and a fixed platter.

"The original system was a Johnson system," Hopkins said. "It was built by Modcomp, I believe they're out of Georgia. There was only two systems like this that I knew of that were installed in the United States."

They were paying a lot of money to have maintenance done on the original machine, so they had a computer whiz student at the time see if he could come up with something better. The student decoded it, rewrote it, and put it on the Commodore Amiga. According to another story about the system, that original programmer still lives close by and troubleshoots it from time to time.

Hopkins said GRPS currently has eight systems controlling heating and AC for the 50+ buildings in the district. Deployment time and cost would be different for each building and would depend what tools the building currently has in place. It could cost as little as $10,000 or more than $100,000 to upgrade a building.

A new web-based system would provide better management of the system and could page out alerts for issues to help prevent another school from getting up to 140 degrees over the weekend.

Despite its age, the Commodore soldiers on. But Hopkins is hopeful that he'll be able to retire it soon.

What's your story?

What's your craziest story about old tech in the workplace? Tell us in the comments.

Also see

About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox