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Published June 26 2012

Electronic signs rarely agree on temperature

FARGO – The sign at the Fargo Civic Center says it’s a comfy 78 degrees outside. The sign at the school says it’s a sultry 91. The funeral home says it’s 82.

Somebody, it seems, is a liar. Or at least confused.

As a string of balmy summer dog days descends on the area, many of the thermometer readings that turn heads – and inspire people to scoff at the meteorologists who never said it was going to be this hot – will be tilted by sunshine, scorching pavement and other inexactitudes that make the high temperature a moving target.

“In my perfect world, I would love to give a temperature range,” said John Wheeler, chief meteorologist for WDAY-TV. “It’s really not realistic for us to hit the high temperature on the number. I’ll do that maybe a few times a year.”

That doesn’t stop most establishments with an electronic display sign – from banks to restaurants to high schools – from telling you just how hot it is out there.

And they very rarely agree with one another. In a spot check just before 4 p.m. Tuesday, The Forum noted eight different locations around town giving six different readings, with a 13-degree spread from top to bottom. None of them agreed with the official measurement from the National Weather Service of 84 degrees at Hector International Airport.

Mark Ewens, data manager for the weather service’s office in Grand Forks, said the placement of the thermometer makes a big difference.

For starters, it has to be out of the sun. Otherwise, it’ll

measure the temperature of the cooking sensor, not the air.

Ideally, a thermometer will also use a fan to circulate air rather than taking a reading from a stagnant, overheated spot.

And the thermometers located in big flashing signs? They’re “notoriously horrible,” Ewens said, “because they’re typically located inside the sign over concrete” or other materials that soak up solar energy.

That doesn’t mean they’re all wrong, though. Even if readings differ from location to location, “it may be precise for that location,” Ewens said.

“I don’t think people understand the variability in weather,” he said.

At Gate City Bank in downtown Fargo, the bank makes sure the thermometer for its own sign isn’t in direct sunlight or another easy-bake location, said marketing manager Janess Sveet.

So how did banks and other businesses become armchair weathermen in the first place? Sveet said it’s been like that ever since electronic signs became in vogue.

“It’s become a standard. It’s something people are used to seeing,” she said. “It’s something that I think the public really looks to.”

WDAY’s Wheeler said the ubiquity of temperature readings speaks to a deep-seated desire to put a number on what we’re experiencing when we step outside – even if the answer doesn’t tell the whole story.

“There’s a fascination with quantifying weather for some reason,” he said. “It’s not good enough for it to be a warm day. I want to know what the temperature is.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502