25 July, 2010


One of the most practical skills learned by any mechanic is the ability to troubleshoot. In this case, troubleshooting is evaluating a machine that isn't working properly, usually by talking to people who used it last, trying to get it going, etc. Eventually the mechanic builds up a knowledge of what should be happening, observes what isn't happening, and investigates what it will take to make it work.

Sometimes, I'm called upon to troubleshoot a machine that is far away from my workshop. Sometimes I'll be asked to troubleshoot something over the 2 way radio, or through a series of e-mails or even letters. I call this long-range troubleshooting "troublesniping".

Recently I was asked to troublesnipe a generator out in the Sandaun province, which is hundreds of miles from here, and the only way to get there is to fly as far as you can, then catch a ride on a series of local trucks the rest of the way. It takes days to get out to the village, and it's not practical to haul a 300+ lb. diesel generator out of there unless you REALLY have to.

After talking extensively with the translators who work out there, looking at photos of a broken part, and spending a few hours researching on the internet, I finally decided that the problem must be a bad capacitor. Unfortunately I didn't have any capacitors of the type we needed in stock and the people who built the generator were very unhelpful when I tried to find out if they had the parts we needed, so I did a bit more internet research and finally took an educated guess at what we needed. I tied to find a part that was much heavier duty than the one that had failed, in the interest of longevity.

Now the fun part! I had originally planned to get out to the village and install the part myself, but for various reasons this ended up not being possible, so I talked to the translator and expalined to him that he would have to install it. Unfortunately, he wasn't going to be going out to the village as he had originally planned, so he asked me to write up a set of instructions so that his village language helpers could install it.

Well, if it had been a simple case of removing the old part and replacing it with a new one, it would have been easy. But the heavy duty part I had chosen to replace the original one was a good deal bigger than the original, so, with the help of another similar generator I built up a nice little rubber mounted holder for the new capacitor and a set of extended wires to connect it to where the original capacitor used to be plugged on. Then I took a bunch of photos of the part in various stages of installation, wrote a set of directions and hoped for the best. The final curveball came when the translator asked me if I could "pre-charge" the capacitor before sending it out to the village. (In order for the generator to work properly, the capacitor needs to be charged up, sort of like a battery, but imagine a capacitor as a battery that releases all of its stored energy at once.)

I admit it, I really didn't think that pre charging the capacitor was going to work, or at worst I feared somebody might shock themselves while trying to install it, but I went ahead and gave it a go anyway, remembering to carefully wrap the wire ends with electrical tape before shipping it out to the village. Somehow I didn't have a photo here at the house--how boring! I'll have ot add one later.

Anyway, here's what happened, in the words of the translator who works out there:


I talked to Emil today. Some of the translators have arrived for the
translation workshop. Kenny, Petrus, Dominic, Jack & Joe, Peter & Emil are
there so far.

Emil said, "We looked at Andrew's instructions, and then we went out the
power house together. We had Pastor Peter read the instructions to us one
step at a time. We talked about it together as we followed his instructions.
Then we started up the generator and it gave us 230 volts and 49 Hertz.
Please tell him the translators say thank you for building the capacitor and
for giving us such great instructions!" "

So! Success! Apparently the guys in the village who are working on the translation usually like to work until 10 p.m., and they wouldn't be able to when the sun goes down at around 6 p.m. Whew! I'm so glad that worked.


The Larsons said...

Evan says: "That's freakin' awesome!"

Karen_H said...

Hi, Andrew,
You have prowess as a clear communicator, as well as a mechanic-three cheers for a job well done!!
Karen H

Andrew the Mechanic said...

Hi Karen, no, I haven't finished the safe yet. And as for the rest of it being done, well, "done" is such a strong word...