Sunday, April 17, 2016

Play me a tune

Imagine being in a special kind of orchestra, one were you are never sure just what instrument you will be playing that evening, which piece of music will be performed, or which of several conductors will be waving the baton. It has to be that way because the patrons who pay for the orchestra are the ones who provide the instruments, dropping off whichever ones they want to hear that day. Some days a whole bunch of oboes are left at the door, with an oddball scattering of flutes and bells. On other days everyone wants to hear trumpets and french horns.

The music to be played is picked independently of the instruments provided. Some days see reggae played with a tuba, Mozart on a banjo, or a waltz on a bass drum. Multiple conductors are required because the concert hall covers several acres of land, and some instruments can only be played in certain places, and by certain musicians.

Yet, somehow, it all works out. The instruments come and go, the patrons keep arriving, and the music gets played. Of course the action behind the stage isn't anywhere near that simple.

I'm not sure, but it wouldn't surprise me if, occasionally, I'm being a bit of a pain to Boss New, one of the Conductors. He is a busy man who can bet that, two or three times a week, I am going to be underfoot trying to make sure I understand just exactly what kind of tune I'm supposed to be playing. A good example is the bilge pump rewiring job that kept me busy for part of Friday, to be finished Monday morning.

The general consensus of the Board of Conductors was that this would be a short piece of work; done that day and on its way. the end of the day I had to admit that the piece was still incomplete. And I wasn't sure how that would go over, coming from the “new guy” who is supposed to be able to play multiple instruments in nearly any condition. They did, after all, hire me to play the music, not ask questions about it.

It would have been easy to bring the piece to an end, coming up with a coda. Jump into the hot wiring here, tap into the float switch there, pick up a ground somewhere else. Done and Dusted. But there are no wiring diagrams for boats, no “score” if you will. A fact that still astounds me. Hell, even the new control system being installed didn't come with a wiring diagram, just a list of “hook this wire to this, that wire to that, the the other wire to the other thing.” Electrical install for the tone deaf. Considering that the list is English translated from Chinese, the whole thing comes across as a bit off-key.

If one plucks a note by, say, jumping into the hot wiring here, there is no telling just where “here” really is in a electrical sense. Is it a clean run to the battery positive? Is there a minor cord of a fuse sulking in there somewhere? Will the bilge pump still pick up the rhythm if the ship's main battery switch is resting? Will some unusual combination of notes short some other system straight to ground, causing all sorts of smoke and consternation, screeching strings and tumbling timpani?

It isn't hard to figure these things out, but it does take time. Oh, and did I mention that, sometimes, the instruments provided were built by gorillas and tuned by the tone deaf?

On this particular boat there is a switch located on the main electrical panel labeled “Bilge Warning”. It doesn't actually turn on a bilge warning system, it just arms the bilge pump to run if water rises high enough in the bilge to close the float switch. And the bilge pump it arms is not the one mounted in the bilge, it is the one mounted in the lazarette back in the cockpit. The “system” makes use of the original float switch that powered the original pump. (More on that in a moment.) There is no “warning” involved at all. (Why the bilge pump would ever be left UN-armed while a boat is it the water is a mystery. And if the boat is on the hard, who cares that the pump is armed? The boat is going to flood with dirt?)

Facing anyone going down the companionway is another switch labeled “Emergency Bilge”. Flipping this switch starts the pump that is actually mounted in the bilge (the one once powered through the float switch) and, moments later, does set off an alarm. This, I guess, in case you forgot that, moments ago, there was reason to turn on the EMERGENCY Bilge system in the first place. Boss New called it a “crash pump”, which is a good description. But, again, who needs a horn to remind them that they just crashed into something and are taking on water?

(I am finding it endlessly entertaining, the utterly weird places various switches end up in boats, and what some of those switches do. I swear, someday, I'm going to find a “GAS” switch mounted in the head, maybe under the toilet paper roll, that turns on the light in the engine compartment.)

It was painfully obvious that the bilge system on this boat had already suffered a fair amount of abuse, tuning it up to make acceptable music taking more than a tweak here and a strum there. Indeed, even a half tune would be a huge improvement. We are installing a true bilge pump AUTO-OFF-ON system, complete with a counter (that records how often the bilge pump has come on since the last time the system was cleared) and an honest-to-goodness warning system that lets the crew know there is enough water in the bilge to turn on the pump. If nothing else, at least the bilge pump will actually be wired, somehow, to a switch labeled “Bilge Pump”. But a half-tuned instrument will still play a sour note, one the patron might well notice. (Particularly if it leads to him wading around ankle deep in sour notes.)

Anyway, Boss New who, I'm sure, wanted to hear that the piece was done come quitting time, allowed that Monday morning would be okay so long as we hit all the proper notes.

Which is not a bad place to play some music.


Robert Salnick said...

I have come to the conclusion that one of the most dangerously things out there is a new boat owner with a pair of dikes and a pocket full of crimp fittings

Mike Boyd said...

And now you know why the FAA repair and upgrade process is the way that it is (not that I would want the marine industry to go with the whole PMA/STC as it seems to severely limit the good too). ;-)

And I don't know that Robert is 100% correct on new boat owners...but certainly owners that overestimate their skill level or understanding of things electrical in a marine environment (or hire the cheapest guy/nephew/whatever to do work for them).

Glad you are trying to make boats safer one at a time. The owner of the boat with the bilge pump probably doesn't know how lucky he is to have you working on the solution for him/her.


Keith Wolfe said...

My bet is that 'Boss New' is fully aware of the challenges you are facing and that's why he hired you. He needed someone who could go with the flow while installing a new bilge pump. :-)