Troubleshooting

Some thoughts on the art and science of troubleshooting, or how not to resort to the bigger hammer. What I offer up is based on my experience trying to solve problems across an array of disciplines, from truck repair to software debugging. There are common elements to all that are listed below.

1) Work from the known to the unknown not the other way.
This is best illustrated by working with electrical circuits. There are any number of      reasons why electricity is not reaching the end of circuit and working backwards through the circuit often leads down false branches. It is a lot easier to start at the closest panel box and follow the circuit out until voltage is lost.

2) Keep notes.
I am not talking an encyclopedic compendium, something more along the likes of a bread crumb trail to keep from going in circles or trodding down old paths. To extend the electrical example, was that the green wire with white trace or white wire with green trace?

3) All information is important.
I will not recount the number of times I ignored an error message because I ‘knew’ it was not important, much to my later chagrin.

4) KISS(Keep It Simple Stupid).
The poor mans version of Occam’s Razor. If the choice is between an alien gamma ray device flipping bits in the computer or poor quality memory chips, go with the latter.

5) First guess.
This is the you know more than you think principle. Also known as listening to the little voice. In the absence of definite plan, go with the first thought that strikes you. I use to spend a lot of time fighting the little voice, until I realized it was the part of me that was actually paying attention.

6) Walk away.
My dog has helped me solve many problems. I don’t know how many times I took a break to walk the dog and had the answer present itself while the dog was leaving a message. Disconnecting from the problem is often good way to make the connection.

Life Rule 2

“Easy is difficult.”

Subtitled the tale of two diesels. The principals:

Woods & Copland    1942 Cat

The machines pictured are two I had personal experience with. So what do a couple of pieces of heavy equipment have to do with the rule? In this case starting the beasts . The old Cat had a multiple stage means of starting. The primary motor was a diesel, but  to start it you first had to deal with a gas ‘pony’ motor. A rough outline; crank the pony motor, let it warm up, use hand clutch to have pony motor spin diesel, spin diesel for awhile, diesel coughs to life, let diesel warm up, do work.  For a more detailed account see (http://www.vannattabros.com/dozer3.html) and read the part ‘Starting an Old Cat’. Compare this to starting the Woods & Copland tractor; turn key . From the end user view point starting the tractor is easy compared to turning over the Cat. To make it easy though was difficult. The reason the Cat had the pony motor was that the electrical starter motor/battery combination’s of the day were not strong enough to spin the diesel motor. Over the years much work was done on this to get to the system that was on the tractor. Even so this particular tractor had a wrinkle. The earlier models from Woods and Copland used air starters to spin the 320 HP motor because 12V starters where not powerful/reliable enough. To make an electrical start system work this model actually had a 24V starter. The wrinkle was that the rest of the electrical system was 12V. How did this work you ask? Enter a electronic switch over module. The tractor had two 12V batteries. When you turned the key to the start position it switched the batteries into a series connection effectively creating a 24V battery. It also isolated the rest of the electrical system from the 24V. When you let the key return from the start position it put the batteries back into a parallel connection and reconnected the non-starter electrical system. Why do all this? 24V components are a lot more expensive then 12V ones and harder to find. This method was a compromise between power when you needed it and economy elsewhere.  Getting back to the rule. There is easy and there is easy. Many times what is presented as easy it really a veneer over a difficult process, think usability studies. Most I have seen are about hiding the complexity from the end user. Said end user hopefully comes away saying ‘that was easy’. What should not be lost sight of though is that the underlying process is still difficult.  Hence tech support.

Life Rule 1

Part of me wanted to do random(life_rules), but then the Dutchman in me kicked in. So I will start at the beginning.

“The good will take care of itself, its the bad you have to plan for. ”

Nothing too original, this is the basic premise of insurance. It is one of those things that people, myself included, often pay lip service to without really following through on. The importance of the follow through has more to do with state of mind than anything. Too many times I have seen manageable problems descend into crises solely because the people involved never entertained the thought that something could go wrong. The act of planning prepares you for the unfortunate. Even if you do not have a fully fleshed out plan, the mere act of anticipating the need is often sufficient to avert a situation from spiraling out of control. An example from my greenhouse days, no matter the amount of preventative maintenance you do, a boiler will choose  3 AM on the coldest night of the year to take a break.  A boiler is the intersection of several systems;  solid state controls, electrical wiring, vent plumbing, water plumbing and gas plumbing. Further, modern boilers are shrines to safety and have more interlocks between these systems than you can imagine. Coming up with a plan that deals with every eventuality is possible but ultimately counter productive.  Too much time spent studying the plan, not enough solving the problem. The key is to have a skeleton troubleshooting scheme either in your mind or on paper, preferably both. To complement this, sufficient tools and materials. I am using an expansive definition of tools to include written matter, such as control schematics. Materials would be common replacement parts i.e. flame sensor,thermocouple, relays,etc.  With the above in hand it is possible to bring a boiler back to life under trying circumstances. Truth compels me to also acknowledge that when ever possible I tried to hedge my bets by having redundant heat sources available.  Nothing like having a couple of unit heaters cranking along to lower the blood pressure a few notches. All part of the planning process. It is easy to get overly pessimistic if you carry this rule to the extreme. As in many things moderation is in order. Where that balance point is,  comes with time in the School of Hard Knocks. Taking a long walk down a country road because you had a flat tire, a spare tire  and no lug wrench is a tremendous learning experience.

Starting out

My attempt at extended thought on Facebook  ran into a character limit for status messages.  I have thought about cranking up a Blog for some time now;  the Facebook  limit has motivated me to start.  Per the title of this site the entries will cover a spectrum of topics.  To get a sense of where the ideas come from, some background. I am at heart a scientist. I have a BS in Fisheries Science and an MS in Environmental Science and my father is Geologist. Science is what I have known since I can remember.  That being said, it is not what I do now. At this point in time I am a duly licensed General Contractor in the  state of Washington. The reality is that I am a glorified handy man. The path to this has been anything but straight.  In roughly chronological order the stops have been– grocery store stocker, catfish farmer, crop duster loader, monument(headstones) installer, greenhouse worker, delivery driver, greenhouse maintenance supervisor, landscaper, retail nursery sales, budding software developer, self employed contractor.  Basically a testament to a restless mind.  The good is that I have learned a lot, the bad is it involved starting over many times. There are many lessons and stories to tell and over the course of time I will cover them one way or another. For now though I will stick to what I call Adrians Rules of Life. There are five and like most things they are not necessarily original to me.   They  do however seem to encapsulate my experiences. With out further ado the rules, further detail to follow:

1) The good will take care of itself, its the bad you have to plan for.
2) Easy is difficult.
3) Its all the same problem.
4) The more I know the less I know.
5) Don’t depend on a negative.