Solar Collector Mishap Knocks Station Off Air

WDIY, 88.1-FM, was knocked off the air when solar concentrator burned radio station's microwave antenna cable.


A mishap involving the on the roof of the Flat Iron Building in South Bethlehem knocked , Lehigh Valley Public Radio, off the air for four hours on May 31 and took two days beyond that before it could be completely repaired, according to a news release issued by the station last week.

The roof has been shared in recent months with CEWA's prototype solar concentrator that employs a huge reflecting metal dish to focus the sun's rays down into a narrow ribbon. When the sun is shining brightly, about 30KW of solar thermal energy is concentrated into this strip, that in normal operation is focused down on a heat exchange unit that can heat up to 400 degrees. 

Two weeks ago, upgrade work was being performed on the solar concentrator, and it was parked in a non-normal vertical position and without the heat exchange unit in place, leaving the focused beam unblocked and uncontrolled in its direction.

WDIY went off the air abruptly at 5:45pm during the sunny early evening on May 31, as this strip of intense heat slowly tracked across WDIY's black microwave cable, melting it. As the sun tracked across the sky, the ribbon of intense heat moved off WDIY's cable and onto wooden panels covering an old window opening on the elevator motor tower, which charred and began to smoke.

WDIY initially suspected that its FM transmitter had shut down, but quickly ascertained that this was not the case, and station Operations Director Neil Hever went up to the roof to check on the status of the microwave antenna, only to find smoke rising from the side of the elevator tower. 

The fire alarm was activated and Hever and WDIY's Executive Director Bill Dautremont-Smith evacuated WDIY volunteers from the building prior to the arrival of the , which doused the smoldering wood before it fully ignited.

WDIY was off the air for the next four hours, while Hever and volunteer engineering committee leader and board member Joe Cassano worked to implement a temporary workaround solution.

Adverse weather conditions on June 1 prevented repair work to replace the burned out cable, causing WDIY to continue using the lower bandwidth web stream connectivity giving reduced audio quality for all of Friday and most of Saturday. Normal audio quality was restored on June after the successful microwave cable replacement allowed the Studio-to-Transmitter Link to be reactivated.


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