When Your Invisible Fence Disappears...

 

When we arrived home Wednesday evening I pulled up to the garage door and hit the opener. As the door slowly rolled open I heard it: the telltale sound of the alarm on the invisible fence transmitter, indicating that there was a break somewhere in the fence. 

This is a more familiar sound than one might expect. 

The invisible fence is, overall, a wonderful thing. It was far easier to put in, as well as being less expensive, than a traditional fence. Its also much more reliable  as a means for keeping the dogs in the yard than traditional fencing, not having gates to be left open or spaces for the determined canine to work her way through. And, when there is a fault in the fence, it lets you know. 

But when it goes down, when that alarm sounds, it means it's time for a search. 

Our property is relatively small as rural spots go - a little over two acres. But the invisible fence circles the entire perimeter, which gives a lot of territory to cover. Fortunately, this particular break offered an opportunity to narrow down the area of focus. My cousin, who owns the farm land on three of the four sides of us, had plowed that afternoon. This meant it was likely that he'd accidentally clipped the fence wire with his plow. This had happened before, this past spring, and it seemed too coincidental for these two events to be unrelated. 

When this had happened before I'd gotten lucky. I walked along the edge of the field and came across the wires, sticking up out of the ground, clearly cut. Of course, that time I'd discovered it in the daylight. This time I was getting home at 8 in the evening, and the sun had long since set. Still, I grabbed a flashlight, put the dogs in their pen, and started walking the edge of the field. 

My cousin saw me doing this and drove up alongside with the tractor. He asked if I was looking for something, and I explained the situation. "Well shit" he said "I'm sorry about that". He helped me look for a while, but it was clear that we weren't going to find it in the dark. It's hard enough to tell, from looking and memory, where exactly the fencing wire runs. And each time my cousin plows or plants the landscape changes slightly, changing the landmarks in subtle ways. 

One might wonder: why is he plowing close enough to the edge of the property to hit the invisible fence?  And the answer is that the fence installer (yours truly) did not have the foresight to consider farm activity when he put the wiring in, instead opting for going out as far out to the edge of the yard as seemed possible. I didn't allow for a safety margin in that respect, and so the fencing is vulnerable to any mishaps with respect to plow placement. At some point I will likely need to re-run sections of the wiring to correct for that error - something that occurred to me multiple times as I was searching for the break - but for now I simply wanted to get it all back up and working. 

Even in the daylight it's hard to fiind things along here...

Even in the daylight it's hard to fiind things along here...

I gave up for the evening and took the morning off of work the following day to undertake my search in light of day. After multiple passes, even in daylight, turned up nothing, it occurred to me that I was not actually 100% sure where the line ran, and so could not be sure that I was actually looking in the right places for a break. It was time for some problem-solving - I am a man of science, after all. 

I started by digging a series of small trenches perpendicular to the fence in order to uncover the wiring (in the process of which, I managed to cut the wire myself on one occasion). I spaced these out in positions across the edge of the yard so I could extrapolate the position of the wire between them. Then I put down stakes and garden fence posts, and ran string between them to determine the line that the wiring was following. 

 

I felt pretty darn clever about doing all of this and, indeed, it made it clear that I wasn't always looking in the right place. In some cases, the wiring was several inches, and sometimes up to a foot or more away from where I'd been searching. And, of course, now that I knew where the wiring should be I could focus my search in the correct area which, of course, yielded... 

...Nothing. I still could not find the break. 

During all of this activity a colleague had texted me with an article about using an RF Choke and a handheld AM Radio to locate the break. The gist of this is that additional device causes the fence to emit a signal even though it's broken, and the radio reads the signal. In places where the fence is broken, the signal changes or stops. Amazon turned out to have a pre-made version of this available, so I ordered it up and planned to address it over the weekend. Given that we've had to address this issue more than once over the past couple of years, it made sense to have something on hand to more quickly detect the breaks. 

Wire Break Locator kit as it comes in the box

Wire Break Locator kit as it comes in the box

The kit that came contained, ostensibly, everything needed to find a break in the line. Unfortunately, the little transistor radio that it included - which looked to have cost approximately $0.23 to make - worked for about 30 seconds after I opened it. This send me on a different search. 

It really isn't terribly surprising, in this day and age, but it is fiendishly difficult to find a store that carries handheld AM/FM radios any longer. Indeed, part of the reason that I had ordered the complete kit through Amazon was that the original article my colleague had sent suggested that the reader "run down to Radio Shack" to pick up the parts needed - and Radio Shack has been gone for a little while now...

No place in town seemed to have radios, so I took a shot at Wal-Mart in Peru. I generally regard entering a Wal-Mart as an event equally as pleasurable as having a root canal performed, but I was desperate to get this project up and running. And, it turned out, the hated big-box store did actually have two different options for portable radios. The one I picked looked slightly more robust than the one that had come in the kit - perhaps costing up to $0.27 to build - so I also picked up some batteries and tried it out in the parking lot to make sure it worked before I headed for home. 

Neither of the radio options at Wal-Mart had an external speaker, so I had to go with headphones.  Does anyone else besides me remember that Memorex used to be an audio casette tape company? 

Neither of the radio options at Wal-Mart had an external speaker, so I had to go with headphones.  Does anyone else besides me remember that Memorex used to be an audio casette tape company

This is the setup you walk the fence using.  The handle telescopes, and the radio is attached to the end of it with zip ties.  Not very fancy, but it is effective.  Unfortunately, the headphones weren't quite long enough for me to fully extend the handle and still use them, and while I'm certain I have a headphone extension cord somewhere, I absolutely could not find it (of course), so I spent a lot of time hunched over while I was searching.

This is the setup you walk the fence using.  The handle telescopes, and the radio is attached to the end of it with zip ties.  Not very fancy, but it is effective.  Unfortunately, the headphones weren't quite long enough for me to fully extend the handle and still use them, and while I'm certain I have a headphone extension cord somewhere, I absolutely could not find it (of course), so I spent a lot of time hunched over while I was searching.

From there it worked like a charm. The kit put out a signal that the radio picked up, and I was able to find and repair the breaks - there were two of them fairly close to one another on the north side of the property. The repairs themselves, once you find them, are really pretty easy to perform, and there are few things as satisfying as plugging in the transmitter and NOT hearing the alarm going off any longer. 

Plus the dogs were happy because they could now run free.

Once you actually find the break it's a pretty simple repair.

Once you actually find the break it's a pretty simple repair.