big buts at the train tracks

Jon Henner

Jon Henner
November 26
full time father, full time deaf activist, some times writer, most times thinker, all times wandering.


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AUGUST 20, 2008 5:28PM

Capacitors I have Known and Loved: A Paean to my Baby Alarms

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Shortly before the birth of my son, my wife and I embarked on a quest to acquire a variety of baby cry signalers and receivers.  

The design of baby cry signalers and receivers is quite simple.  The signaler acquires a sound of sufficient volume and lets the receiver know.  The receiver then tortures those who depend on it by either shaking things up or by flashing lights.  A single signaler can let multiple receivers know that noise happens, which means that receivers can be set up in different rooms as necessary.  The suck about signalers and receivers is that those manufactured by different companies do not communicate well with each other.  Once a disabled person commits to a manufacturer, they are mated for the duration of product use.  Person-manufacturer divorce proceedings are messy and disadvantage the person involved.

We first decided on a manufacturer that provided a wireless receiver-slash-pager that could be carried on a mobile person.  To us, that sounded like a good idea because occasionally, once the spawn is placed down to sleep, we parents wanted full mobility around the house without worrying whether or not the spawn would awaken and find that its deaf parents weren't quite attuned to its needs. The problem was that we were a bit turned off by the device's "Medical Beige" look.  As young, hip, happening, aspiring parents-to-be, we wanted a device that looked more in place with our retro, IKEA-type furniture.  Medical Beige boxes may be suitable for old people, or for those who don't mind having hospital decor (hypochondriac chic, or something), but not us.  When I called up the company to inquire about color choices, they told me ugly was their only option.  We took it.

Setting up the signaler and receiver took me some time.  The communication switches had to be perfectly aligned.  Interference or a mis-switched switch meant the baby would end up horribly traumatized and nursing attachment issues.

When the baby finally came home, we learned how awful devices were.  The Son simply didn't cry loud or long enough for the signaler to recognize it.  That first night, my wife slept while cradling the Son.  In the morning, I called up the manufacturer and informed them how horrible their mechanizations were and that I'd be sending them future therapy bills.  Fortunately, Customer Service must have dealt with my ilk before.  They offered to reimburse my money ($300) upon receiving the returned items, and recommended a different manufacturer.

The second company's signalers and receivers were a bit better looking.  They came in a white plastic shell rather than the aforementioned Medical Beige.  But, their beautiful selves would not arrive for another week.  In order to ensure the survival of our little one, we began sleeping in shifts.  At least one fretting parent was awake at all times.

A week later, the new signaler and receiver arrived.  It didn't have a pager, but at least it was more sensitive than the previous edition.  I eagerly set it up, tested it out, then settled in for the night next to my wife.  We both woke up a few hours later to find the Son sleeping fitfully.  Some how, the wire that connected the vibrator to the receiver had come out.  The week old Son cried all night while his unaware Parents slept.

My wife and I felt horrible.  We resumed sleeping in shifts for the remainder of my vacation time.  After all my days were used up (FMLA only works for people who can afford non-paid leave), we initiated a ritual of testing the alarm again and again before heading to bed (still, the occasional accident leaves my son lonely through the night.  After one such incident, my son cried so hard he cut his face with his nails.  Can you imagine how we felt?).

While the receiver/signaler system works well, its various flaws manifest according to the Son's age.  The signaler cannot differentiate between sounds.  If a sound is loud, it signals.  Anything can set it off - toys, dogs barking, the spawn coughing, as we later found out when during the winter months when it seemed like he would never be healthy again.  Every couple of minutes, the bed would shake.  One of us would, like zombies, zombie-off to his bed only to find him asleep.  Eventually our sleep deprivation was enough that I found myself on the couch, sleeping with my son, just so my wife could sleep through the night without the bed constantly shaking.

There was one devilish week when my son began singing/takling in his sleep.  We adjusted the sensitivity on the signaler after that.

Some months ago, my wife and I decided it was time to disenfranchise ourselves from the fear and tedium of constantly checking the bed to determine if he was still asleep.  Getting through the day's tasks takes extra time when every five minutes the bed must be felt.  We ordered another receiver which would work with the signaler to flash lights when the baby cried.

It came.  I set it up.  It didn't work.  I sent it back to the manufacturer.  It came back to me three weeks later with a letter explaining that the device worked fine.  Am I sure that I wasn't just too stupid to make it work?  I called the company and after much convincing that I wasn't too stupid, they determined that the reason the receiver wasn't working was that the signal, which is transmitted through the wiring system in the house rather than wirelessly, was scattered.  The solution to all our problems was a small capacitor, which would be inserted into our electrical box.

The capacitor works by storing excess signal energy and dispersing it when the appropriate strength is reached.  Easy, right?  Well, we waited for the capacitor to come, then we scheduled a very expensive appointment with a local electrician who proceeded to boggle over the workings of everything involved.

Then, ah, bliss for a few weeks.  When the Son cried, we acknowledged his awakening from any room in the house.  But, one day, the receiver stopped working.  Further testing showed the capacitor died, probably from working in the Phoenix heat.

I contacted the manufacturer again and we were again confined to our bedrooms while the Son slept.

Now, I recognize that that when the new receiver stops working, the capacitor needs to be replaced.  As I write this, I'm awaiting the arrival of yet another new capacitor.  While adaptive technology is a boon to all disabled, sometimes working with it creates a new set of obstacles that must be overcome.  

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Great story. I appreciate the technical side of things, and how often do you get humor and suspense included free of charge?
Hey Jon--have you tried looking for/making a custom solution? You might not be an electrical engineer, but from my experience the folks over at Make Magazine are exceptionally helpful in providing such assistance. Try the forums, too.

I can imagine you might want something with a warranty, but while you wrangle with manufacturers you might work on becoming one.
Alexandria: This is awesome, thank you. Now to figure out a custom solution for making the time to make the electrical solutions I need!
Good luck, Jon -- what a frustration! All you can do is roll with it and have all worked out for the next child. Or, you can invent a better solution, sell it for a million dollars and retire. That would be great?!