s the Times Square ball in New York City begins its descent during the final seconds of 1999, many New Year's Eve revelers will have one question in mind: Will the year 2000 (Y2K) computer glitch spoil the party?

Will camcorders be able to capture the historic millennium moment? Will coffeemakers with automatic timers brew that important morning cup of java? Will VCRs programmed the previous night still record the New Year festivities and bowl games?

According to worst-case scenarios, the Y2K bug will trigger widespread chaos on the stroke of midnight, Jan. 1, 2000. Doomsayers forecast major disruptions for utilities, telecommunications, and transportation services, and for thousands of government agencies, manufacturers, retailers, and service providers. Worldwide, the scramble to achieve Y2K compliance could cost anywhere from $600 billion to more than $1 trillion.

But the good news is you probably won't have to scrap any electronic household gizmos before the millennium. In fact, most of the nation's estimated 1.6 billion consumer-owned electronic products either should continue to operate normally or require relatively painless adjustments, according to the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA), Arlington, Va.

The Y2K concern focuses on systems that will fail to recognize the rollover from one century to the next. Many older computer programs and microchips have real-time, month/day/year calendars that recognize the current year by its last two digits (99, for example) and assume the number "19" precedes them. So, when the clock changes to "00" in January, those devices will interpret the date to be 1900. The greatest worry is that malfunctioning electronic calendars could shut down complex equipment such as air-traffic control systems, power plants, medical devices, and other vital systems.

     Time-shift features
     on older VCRs
     probably will
     after Jan. 1.

Most of the
1.6 billion
electronic products
are bug-free.

Minor bug bytes
Assuming there are no power outages on New Year's Day, you should be able to operate most, if not all, of your electronic goods. Many common appliances—coffeemakers, microwave and conventional ovens, bread-making machines, dishwashers, washing machines—contain embedded microchips with 24-hour clocks. But programming those products to perform time-related functions requires only time-of-day and/or day-of-the-week features, so Y2K readiness is not an issue.

Likewise, devices that rely on built-in timers should continue to operate. These include garage-door openers, sprinkler systems, security systems, and heating and air-conditioning units. Some of those systems, particularly in apartment buildings and condominiums, may have embedded chips with a maintenance program that could cause a system shutdown if its clock rolls back to 1900. Residents should make sure that their building managers test all computer-controlled devices well before Jan. 1.

Consumer products with real-time calendar functions that might require updating include older VCRs, camcorders, and cameras with date-stamping features, personal computers (PCs), portable electronic organizers, and digital watches. Few will totally cease to function if you don't correct the problem.

VCRs manufactured since 1990 should be Y2K-compliant. Here's a simple test to check your machine: Set the date to Dec. 31, 1999, and the clock to a minute or so before midnight. When the clock displays 12 a.m., the date should change to Saturday, Jan. 1, 2000.

If your VCR's clock reads Jan. 1, 1900 (or some other date), and you can't manually reset it to display 2000, don't worry. Your machine still should be able to record programs off the air and play prerecorded tapes. However, the time-shift feature that lets you program the machine to tape events days or weeks in advance may not work. Contact the manufacturer or visit its Web site for information about Y2K product compliance for your model.

Most camcorders and still-shot cameras with calendar functions will continue to function, even if the date doesn't roll over to 2000. If you consider the date-stamp feature to be important, it's worth checking with the manufacturer to ensure that your model is millennium-compliant or to find out how to correct the problem. The same advice holds true for pocket organizers and digital watches with date features.

Home office equipment such as printers, scanners, and copiers may have embedded chips but generally don't have calendar functions. Fax machines do use calendar data, and those machines built before 1990, as well as a few post-1990 models, may malfunction and print the incorrect date on incoming and outgoing faxes.

Because PCs rely on microchips with real-time calendar functions, many manufacturers now provide free Y2K-compliant upgrades. Some older models even may require a new start-up chip. Computer components (modems, monitors, sound, and graphic cards) and peripherals (backup drives) with embedded chips also could suffer Y2K-related disruptions. Again, contact the manufacturer if you have a concern. One bright note, at least for some computer owners: Apple Computer Inc. promises that its Macintosh hardware and operating systems will breeze into the new century with no problem.

On-line links
There's no lack of Y2K sites on the Web. At least two that specifically answer questions about consumer electronics products are the Federal Trade Commission and CEMA. CEMA's site also provides links to Web pages of manufacturers belonging to the association.

Several sites also provide free diagnostic software to test PCs for Y2K readiness. These include www.righTime.com, www.quidham.com, bonneterre.net/y2k.html, and www.4x-inc.com. RighTime's site also provides links to other Y2K-related sites and to major manufacturers, including Apple and Microsoft Corp.

     Some older PCs
     may require
     new start-up chips.

©1999 Credit Union National Association Inc.