The rumble and buzz would start like clockwork.
Gregg Mulder noticed the static every night when he finished dinner and turned on his ham radio. The noise kept Mulder from communicating with other amateur radio enthusiasts.
So Mulder, who lives in Dimondale, built an antenna device called a sniffer and tracked the interference to a house a few doors away. The problem, Mulder determined, was a high-powered lamp used by his neighbor to grow cannabis.
It is legal for Michigan residents to grow marijuana in their homes under certain circumstances. But some amateur radio operators complain that grow lights are interfering with their signals.
Problems can arise from products that exceed Federal Communications Commission emission limits. Non-certified products, typically ballasts that send energy to light bulbs, are often made overseas.
“I didn’t really want to get into a screaming match”
Mulder said he clashed with his neighbor in 2016, but only got his cooperation when the FCC sent a warning letter on his behalf. After receiving the letter, the neighbor agreed to install filters that limited the interference.
“I didn’t really want to get into a fight with my neighbor,” Mulder said. “But it was interfering with one of my longtime hobbies, and I wasn’t just going to sit down and let it happen.”
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More than grow lights
Grow lights aren’t the only items that can interfere with radio frequencies, especially those used by amateur operators.
The FCC prohibits the use or manufacture of products that create high levels of interference, but unauthorized products, such as electric fences and light dimmers, may end up on the market. In some cases, the interference could be significant enough to create problems for police and fire dispatchers.
Ed Hude, a state government liaison for the Michigan chapter of the American Radio Relay League, believes interference is increasingly common in Michigan after the state legalized marijuana.
Under Michigan law, it has been legal since 2008 for licensed caregivers to grow plants at home for medical purposes. In 2018, Michigan allowed adults 21 and older to grow their own cannabis for recreational purposes. Drugs remain illegal at the federal level.
Michigan local authorities have discretion as to whether or not to allow commercial cultivation of marijuana in their communities and these businesses require special licenses from the state.
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The Michigan section of the American Radio Relay League has received “a few” complaints about increasing light interference in recent years and the problem is likely underestimated, Hude said.
Several years ago, a neighbor’s grow light near Mason gave off static electricity that prevented Hude from communicating with other amateur operators. The whistling stopped, Hude said, after contacting police about it.
Hude and Mulder started tinkering with amateur radios when they were teenagers. Mulder enjoys chatting with people from other countries using Morse code.
But, Hude says ham radio is more than a hobby. The ARRL conducts training to prepare members to assist with emergency communications in the event of a disaster.
The village of Kalkaska, one of the few towns in northern Michigan to open its doors to cannabis companies, has a specific provision in its marijuana ordinance that states that lights must be FCC compliant.
The director of the village of Kalkaska, Scott Yost, is himself an amateur radio enthusiast.
“We are doing it not only to protect amateur radio operators, but we are also doing it to protect police and firefighters so they can communicate,” Yost said. “This is our biggest concern – the police, the fire department and also our airport.”
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The FCC declined to comment for this article, but the agency may impose fines on people who manufacture or use devices that emit too much interference.
Allowed lamps must be accompanied by a label certifying FCC compliance, although there are counterfeit products with false labels, said Ed Hare, engineer and laboratory supervisor for the American Radio Relay League.
High wattage lights can be used to grow all kinds of plants, such as orchids and tomatoes, although marijuana can be one of the more popular options.
Cyclical interference with radio signals can be a sign of a grow light, as many horticulturalists put their lights on a timer.
In many cases, compliance can be achieved through a conversation between neighbors, Hare said. If a conversation doesn’t work, an FCC cease and desist letter often does the trick.
An amateur radio operator can help a neighbor install filters to limit interference, for example. Or a neighbor might agree to turn off the light at certain times of the day.
“We’d rather get things done than literally make it a federal matter,” Hare said.
Contact reporter Sarah Lehr at (517) 377-1056 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGLehr.