Oh, glad you asked!
On the road at 0615 for the second of my trips to other stations. Tuesday I was in South Louisiana, a few miles north of Morgan City, Louisiana, birthplace of the offshore oil industry. That trip was for one of my copyrighted “Not only will it kill you, but you’ll hurt the whole time you’re dyin’.” safety training sessions.
Today was into central Louisiana, twenty miles north of Alexandria, and we were supposed to look at a recalcitrant transfer switch. It’s supposed to sit there looking at the electricity coming in from the utility company. If the utility company drops the ball, a frequent event when you’re stuck in the middle of the piney woods, then the switch is supposed to start the generator and when the generator is actually, you know, making ELECTRICITY, then it’s supposed to switch the station over onto the generator. Then, when Podunk Electric, the local electric company, gets its stuff together and their electricity shows back up, the switch notes this fact, waits a half-hour to make sure they’re serious, and the switch is supposed to switch back over to the utility power, and let the generator run a cool-down cycle for five minutes.
That’s how it’s SUPPOSED to happen. This switch, best and brightest of 1980, does the first part okay, up to the part where it’s supposed to switch back to the utility company. It reportedly does not do that.
So I drive over two hours to the station, walk in, chat, and we come up with a plan. Since I get conflicting reports of what happens, we decide to run it through its paces and see where it stops. That’s easy. Go to the circuit breaker that feeds electricity into the station from Podunk Electric, and open it.
The operator pulls the handle down. “Thunk”! Breaker is open, lights go out, alarms (on battery backup, one of those notorious UPS systems) go off, and in a few seconds, we hear the generator crank up. It’s a big natural gas fueled piston engine in another building. As soon as the switch sees power from the generator is available, there’s a thump as the switch transfers, and the lights come back on.
Nice, so far. I elect to go sit down, use my computer to look up data on the antique (almost) switch on the internet. Three of us are in the office, chatting and the lights go out, followed by an ominous and loud POOOM!. didn’t take us long to get out of the building to where we could see the building that housed the generator. The SILENT building. With a thin cloud of smoke rising out of its vent.
I admit to an expletive or two. My two compatriots are solid denizens of the Bible Belt, so they were all “Gee!” and “Golly” and “Gosh darn it!” on the two hundred yard walk through the station. Into the generator room. No bits on the floor, no puddles of oil, no holes in the crankcase, all good signs. The two station guys did a few checks around the engine and we elect to try a test run.
By now we have the roll-up door to the engine room open, so I back out of the door and let the operator do his thing. This engine has a starter that operates on compressed air. It’s not subtle at all. He tries a short starter run. The engine does not fire. Visible through the end of the generator housing is the head of a big bolt that I can observe to see the shaft turn. I didn’t see it turn, so let’s try it again. Okay, it turned.
One of the guys gives the throttle arm a wiggle, like “Maybe the throttle’s stuck and didn’t open on the start attempt”.
Easy enough. We walk around to that side of the engine and the operator gives it another start. Nothing. But BINGO!!! I, poor ol’ electrical me, spotted the problem. On these big ol’ engines there’s a device that tells the ignition system when to fire each spark plug. No, it’s not a distributor like on a car, because this thing is all electronic and sends signals to an ignition controller that fires each plug through its own coil. That thing is NOT turning. The coupling that ties it to the accessory gear on the engine, that coupling is broke. The engine side turns. The sensor doesn’t. Hence, no spark.
By the time I left, they’d found a spare coupling. There are some steps to checking the ignition timing and such before they can run the engine. They’ll call me back.
Thus far this week, I have six hundred miles on the odometer.
I LOVE this job!