This Little Amiga Still Runs School District’s HVAC

It’s the rare tech worker that manages a decade in any one job these days – employee loyalty is just so 1980s. But when you started your career in that fabled age, some of the cultural values might have rubbed off on you. Apparently that’s the case for an Amiga 2000 that’s been on the job since the late ’80s, keeping the heat and AC running at Grand Rapids Public Schools (YouTube video link.)

The local news story is predictably short on details and pushes the editorial edge into breathless indignation that taxpayer dollars have somehow been misspent. We just don’t see it that way. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is somewhat anathema to the hacker ethos. After all, there’s no better time to “fix” something than when it’s working properly and you can tell if you’ve done something wrong. But keeping an important system running with duct tape and wire ties is also part of the hacker way, so we applaud [Tim Hopkins] and his colleagues at the GRPS Facilities and Operations Department for their efforts to protect the public purse. And a round of applause is also due not only to the Amiga design team, who produced a machine that can run for nearly three decades, but also to Johnson Controls, whose equipment – apparently a wide area radio modem linking the HVAC systems in the district’s buildings – is being run by The Little Amiga That Could. Sounds like they built stuff to last way back when.

So when this machine is finally retired, here’s hoping they give it a good sendoff. Perhaps we’ll see it with some other Amigas at some future Vintage Computer Festival. Or maybe it’ll be one of those active retirees and start a career in the music industry.

[Thanks Thinkerer!]

42 thoughts on “This Little Amiga Still Runs School District’s HVAC

  1. 2 minutes into the video he says the computer came from eBay. Which means that unit hasn’t been running the HVAC for 30 years.

    Can’t be saving much money that way..

    1. He says they look for parts on eBay… he didn’t say they’ve replaced the entire thing (though I wouldn’t doubt they have). Then again… where do they even get 5.25″ single density floppies and what not these days anyway?

        1. Except that they use 3.5″ same as a PC.
          3″ was used on Amstrads and other things.
          Oh and that’s forgetting some A2000 variants which came with a 5.25″ drive standard.

          1. Thanks, uh, dave. but I put “3-inch” in quotes. Thanks for your exactification. And the picture shows a three and a half inch drive (have it your way.)

  2. Energy management systems are pretty complicated systems to upgrade. I was recently party to the first of several phases of one.
    The existing system was a Siemens and communicated using a proprietary protocol. The new system communicates using BacNet. As a result the contractor had to install a temporary interface translator that allowed the Siemens backend to be replaced while the vav, fpb, chiller, ahu, and other Siemens peripherals can be replaced as they fail or upgraded.
    This took several months on one building.
    I can only imagine how much time and money this will cost as the building automation business has changed much in 30 years.

    I would reckon that some trivial controller like a RasPi could handle the workload currently being run by this Amiga
    Maybe they could hire the original programmer to port it over

    http://woodtv.com/2015/06/11/1980s-computer-controls-grps-heat-and-ac/

    1. Aa story was run on this about a month ago on a different site. They however wrote the story from the discovery that this system was being replaced by the district for a cost of $2.1 million dollars.

      My suggestion was to take $200k and pay the guy who originally set it up to build it from scratch with modern hardware and a modern platform. $50k for training, and $50k for lavish hardware budget. $200k for a professional install. So for 25% you’ve improved someones life, made a marketable product, and gotten a non-proprietary system that they can upkeep themselves.

      1. Why so that his original program continues to run these systems inefficiently costing extra hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in operating costs?

        Controls contractors are a plague on mankind and the BAS/ESCO industry is a giant scam. However it’s obvious that 30 year old HVAC controls are missing out on large and obvious easy and cheap savings that in a typical school will result in a $100k/year penalty in gas an electricity.

    1. Wild Guess: While the specifics of each building are likely different, I’d bet the majority of operation is pretty standard because this system probably isn’t handling the fine grained control at each site. In a 1980s build it’s very possible that only the main system on has digitally controlled on/off functionality and specific adjustment is in zoned or per-room analog thermometers.

    2. I agree. You can buy a simple used pc or Arduino or Raspi off ebay for cheap for each building and still have working systems way cheaper than spending millions.ada

      1. More than likely the millions being sought are not just to replace this controller system. Modernizing the control system is probably just a tens (or maybe hundred) thousand line item of the budget… the bulk of the money is probably intended to be put toward replacing aging boilers, pipes, windows, insulation, doors, maybe additional asbestos mitigation, things like that.

      2. Simple replace it with an industrial PC running UAE or better yet a new AmigaOne X1000 esp if the source is available for the software so it can be ported over to Amiga OS 4.1.
        As for the radio links there are drop in replacement modern equivalents from companies such as Zlinx that are less susceptible interference and have AES encryption.
        This actually would be more more reliable and secure then having control over the internet.

    3. Probably more of a master scheduler and monitoring system. For example, alerting them that the pressure or water level of boiler #2 over at such and such a building is out of whack… trying to head off the issues before they mean no heat or become more costly to repair. Allowing them to dial back heat if the buildings will be vacant, or crank the heat overnight if extreme cold is predicted to prevent freezing issues–lots of value in being able to push a button know it’s done vs. worrying about 19 different buildings all getting individually handled correctly.

    4. it makes a lot of sense to someone that has seen what happens when you can’t set group policy for every location.
      In location I worked at we replaced 30+ standalone thermostats with a EMS and local temperature sensors.
      All areas previously on local control fell into a group policy for temperature set points. Putting those thermostats into a localized control scheme ended up saving approximately $3k per month in energy costs.
      If you give each location a opportunity to control their own settings, they will, and you’ll have to pay for it

  3. I remember being at one of the first private demonstrations of the Amiga 2000 owned by a pilot at a hotel near Heathrow airport UK, everybody there was an engineer or technician. All of a sudden clouds of smoke came out of it. I ran to a set of fire door about 6-10 feet away and threw them open to get Amiga in the open in case it burst into flames. By the time I had turned around after opening doors 4 guys were already lifting the table with computer on it towards the fire doors. Two IBM engineers had within seconds as it was carried got CO2 fire extinguishers and emptied them so quickly into it that the smoke detectors on the hotel fire alarm did not have time to sound!
    Nobody screamed or said a word. When it was outside with no more smoke the cover was removed and found the fire was just inside the power supply unit. All the IBM and Pc engineers had a good laugh at the pilot’s expense.
    Amiga dealer sent somebody with a new computer the following morning and very quickly took the faulty one away.
    Seems it was a hushed up common PSU fault on first few models which were all secretly recalled and replaced within a few days. Remainder of computers internals were never damaged and just smoke but no fire inside PSU so no danger. I never bought one even at discounted price….

  4. I used to work at SGI and did some I/S work there. our group handled moves/add/changes and we had a ‘move team’ who physically moved the employee boxes from their old desk/building to the new one. back then, the O2 and Octane were the popular machines at sgi. well, turns out that the octane had some power supply issues and very often when you left it on for a long time, powered it off (for a weekend) and then back on, it would, uhm, catch fire! happened more than we wanted to admit.

    at the time, SGI had a marketing phrase they liked to use, “ignite your mind!”. well, it could ignite your mind; and your tie and your shirt, too, if you stood too close. LOL

    RIP SGI. you were cool, but sometimes your outsourced power supplies were not exactly very ‘cool’.

  5. On Shannon Airport Ireland in 2003, there were two Commodore PETs (pretty sure they were 40xxB machines) out in the open controlling… something. One was labeled Out of Order, the other blinked an asterisk (not a square – probably a login prompt), so it was still doing something. I wonder if they still have them. They were both hooked up to some huge cable that disappeared into the wall.

  6. The original Amiga was too expensive for Commodore and for Consumers. At a $1000 price point, there was little profit for Commodore, and consumers were really confused on it’s placing in the market. Was it a professional workstation computer or a home computer?

    Best Regards
    Anwer Ashif

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