Along the Line

English: Cameron, LA, 11-10-05 -- Lineman Mari...

English: Cameron, LA, 11-10-05 — Lineman Marion Chappell from Utah repairs a damaged power line from Hurricane Rita. FEMA is helping Local governments get Roads, Bridges, and Utilities back in operation so residents can move back. MARVIN NAUMAN/FEMA photo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Audre says all politics, all the time will not only make Neo a boring old curmudgeon but won’t do his blood pressure any good either.

She’s right, and while I try to wrench my mind out of the excrement fouled trenches of politics for a few days at least, here’s a post of mine from 2012 about what I used to do for a living. I left the link to The Watchtower in because it is a very good article from Jessica, which is just as relevant now as it was then, followed by an even better comment stream. So enjoy, and I’ll try to remember some more stories.

The other day over at The Watchtower we started off discussing relevance as applied to the church, and as often happens with that brilliant group of commenters we wandered a bit off-topic. In this case, Jess’s co-author and I had a quick aside on teaching theory. We were talking about the generation raised in the ’60s for context.

ChalcedonThere was much folly in that generation and its response to ‘student rebellion’. If you let the young think that they know it all, you are not telling them anything they do not already know. If you tell them they don’t, you stand a chance of teaching them something. In 40 years of teaching that has stood me in good stead. Probably explains why they stay away.

Me: To amend a bit, if they stay away, I would bet that you can be quite intimidating, I suspect SF and I also have the knack, it cuts down on the nonsense. Those who want to learn will persevere. 🙂

Chalcedon: Neo – in relation to your comment, I have always found that the students who stayed away were most welcome to do so; those who came seemed to learn something. University is meant to be fun as well as a place of learning; too often people forget the second part of that.

Me: I agree, although my teaching is of another kind entirely, those who are too busy skylarking to pay attention are better off elsewhere, and so are the rest of us, they cause accidents and injuries. I’ve sent a couple home on foot.

Jessica: In your line of work, not paying attention can be rather serious.

Me: Indeed it can. I need to write a post on some of the stupid things that happen when attention isn’t paid. The funny ones, not the deadly ones.

This is the result.

A line crew is a team, I know that’s very trite but, it’s also very true. every man is important as is his job. It doesn’t matter whether your the grunt running the shovel, the operator on the digger, the lineman up the pole, or in the bucket, to be safe and effective it has to be a smooth functioning team. one of the key parts of that is that you pay attention. About 25 years ago I was working for a contractor, replacing poles, hot, of course. I was the second lineman on the crew so most of the time I was playing grunt, backfilling, tamping, framing poles, all the stuff you do learning the business. It’s in some ways the hardest job on the crew because you can really screw up production if you’re slow or get things wrong. Physically, it depends on conditions. I enjoyed it then, and probably still would, at least sometimes. We had a great crew, if we had the proper soil type and pole selection we could drive up and change out a pole in 15 minutes, hot. And we had fun as well.

Anyway, I got jerked off this crew about the 4th of July because one of our tree trimming crews got caught without a hot qualified lineman on it, (most linemen detest tree trimming but it’s part of the job). So, I spent most of the rest of the summer out in Montana screwing around with a mess of trees (which mostly seemed to be Russian Olives, which are ugly as sin itself) after the cottonwoods bloomed, with so much seed that we were cleaning radiators every half hour on our chippers. Anyway, that contract ended Labor Day and I came back and worked with Art’s crew again through about Thanksgiving, and then a week in North Dakota’s Bakken field. And then I got laid off for the winter, as is normal.

Shortly after New Year’s the office called and asked if I wanted to head down to Kansas for a job they had running, and liking money, I said yes, and again hooked up with Art. The point to all this is that when I was playing grunt for Matt, our senior lineman, or him for me as well, the framing was nearly perfect and because we both knew the sequence to follow, the next part needed was always hanging on the handline, ready to go. We paid attention to what we were doing.

A few weeks later, they asked if I’d come up here because the new kid lineman they had on vegetation management (as we call tree trimming now) thought he was too important to do it and wanted to build line. So, that’s how I got to Nebraska.

A few months later, Art’s crew was doing a job a few miles away from us so one Sunday we popped over for a few beers with them. By then I had heard the story but wanted to hear what Matt and Art said.

While they were still down in Kansas we had heard the had energized a 3ø extension without deadend insulators (Bells we call them, that what the insulators in my Gravatar are) which of course burned the pole down, nobody got hurt but it’s expensive and embarrassing. Knowing who was there, I thought I knew what happened, and I was right. After I left, they had a couple of new graduates from lineman school assigned. Like so many kids in the trades, they were too busy screwing around, skylarking we call it, instead of paying attention.

What Matt told me that day is a good lesson for us all. This is very nearly a direct quote.

If you had been there, Neo, it would have never happened because even if I forgot, which I did, when I reached for the assembly on my handline, the bells would have been there, and if I had tried it you would have stopped me because you always paid attention to what we were doing.

He’s right and it’s also true that if I had been in the bucket, he would have caught it for the same reason. We are professional linemen, and because we are professional, we know we’re not perfect and so we check each other’s work. Doesn’t matter if your a 60-year-old lineman, like Matt and I, or a 22 year old fresh out of school. The first thing you need to learn is to pay attention. The Devil’s always in the details, like insulators, because a piece of southern yellow pine slightly bigger than a 4X4 eight feet long isn’t going to stop 13,000 volts for long. I bet it was pretty spectacular though, somehow they didn’t get any pictures of that one 🙂

OK here’s the quiz for today.

Mary’s father had five daughters, the first was January, the second February, the third March, and the fourth April. What was the name of the fifth daughter?

And here’s your reward

 

National Lineman’s Day

The energization of the first house on Kankakee Valley REMC in 1939; courtesy KVREMC

Most of you know that I am (or maybe was) a power lineman, as well as an industrial electrician. Frankly, I love both, but was prouder of being a lineman, and as we used to say, qualified to work hot. It’s a pretty good job, except at 2 am when you’ve been out since 8 the previous morning in 80 below wind chill during a blizzard. But that too engenders a certain pride.

It’s also a job that often runs in families, my dad was one too. When he started a man (and they were all men in those days) had about a 50% chance of dying on the job. By the time I came along, it was quite rare, Why? Better tools and much better work rules, and management that valued their people. And for that matter, Grampa ran the town light plant, as did one of my uncles, another was a district manager for Northern States Power, and dad was eventually general manager of a rural electric coop.

I was taught from childhood on both by dad and by others in the company: There is no such thing as a no-fault accident, somebody always had a way to prevent it. Fault is a legal term and means something else, but all accidents are avoidable by taking (or not taking) some action, or list of actions. Let’s start here:

I’ve worked 2200 in plants, and it’s safe if you follow the rules. But electricity is an unforgiving b*tch. It’ll kill you, sometimes quickly, but often fairly slowly and painfully if you screw up.

I’m sorry but such a list of blown safety rules, to me, makes this little less than suicide, and him a poor employee, and you know what, once he thought about it, I’ll bet his supervisor wasn’t surprised, although saddened. But that’s fine, he failed as well.

 

I have a strong preference for overhead lines because you can see enough to make sense of it, that’s not always true of underground, but I’ve worked both. Not really very different than how we did it in the 60s, but a world apart from how dad did it in the 30s. And he was one of the people who saw how much better it could be, and sold it to his board and wrote the book.

It shouldn’t happen, but it does, and frankly, it is why you never see electrical utility crews leaning on our trucks, which we specifically do ground. The advice given here on what to do if this happens to you is the same that I have been taught all my life.

One thing that causes us out here to lose a farmer every once in a while, is when they get something to close to a power line, note that you don’t have to touch it. Think about a farmer holding a 20-foot section of 8-inch aluminum pipe getting close to a line. Most years out here it happens once or twice, or a grain elevator, or even a combine sometimes. As our Public Power Districts keep saying, Look up; For safety’s sake. It’s good to go home at the end of the day.

And finally, most American power companies have demonstration rigs like this that are available, and the skilled presenters that go with them. if you haven’t seen one (or even if you have) pay attention, this is the straight scoop from our side of the meter.

And yes, I have killed more than a few generators (and sometimes the tractors they were attached to, when I safed a line. DO IT RIGHT, or be prepared to kill a lineman, or to replace your generator, cause after a storm, we simply don’t have time to drive the line first, and often have people from other companies or contractors helping who don’t know the system.

Curious where I learned this? Here.

On his last day before retirement, I asked my dad what he was most proud of. The answer could have been many things, when he had started with them, the coop was a shoebox of paper, when he retired it was a multi million dollar company and one of the biggest employers in town, of which every employee was a local, and so many other things. He looked at me and said, “Come with me.” He took me out into the lobby of the office and pointed to a plaque on the wall, and said, “This.” It was a plaque from the insurance company proclaiming that the company had worked one million man hours without a lost time accident.

And you know, at the other end of my career, I don’t have a plaque about it, but I’ve never had a man seriously hurt either. My people always went home safe at night. And for me as well, it is one of my proudest achievements. And you know something else, Dad and I were both considered hard asses to work for. It’s connected. And that is about a century’s worth of electrical work done right, without casualties.

 

Guilds in America

Over in The American Spectator Andrew Wilford had a few things to say about how state licensing restricts trade. In fact, he, like me, calls it the guild system. We do that because that is exactly what it is. Here’s some of his.

Occupational licensing remains one of the most effective methods of restricting employment in the country. Experts have estimated the economic costs of excessively strict occupational licensing around the country at $203 billion. Burdensome licensing rules function as a way for entrenched professionals to restrict competition in their industry—licensing rules have resulted in 2.8 million less Americans employed. A study out of Alabama shows how effectively these anti-competitive professionals lobby for excessively restrictive licensing rules to keep the number of new licenses issued at a minimum.

If anything, he underestimates. And don’t think that it is only a problem for hair-braiders and barbers and such. It permeates construction, while not doing anything at all to improve either quality or price.

Let’s revisit something I wrote about it back towards the end of 2012.


Guilds, Licensing, Inspections, and Code, Oh My

Guilds and Licensing

You’ve often heard me say that trade licensing is like nothing so much as the medieval guilds. Here’s why.

You decide you want to be an electrician, so you go get a job with one or you go to a community college, now you can get your apprentice card, you lucky boy or girl. Either way, once you’re on the job site, you’ll carry parts, run a broom, maybe bend some conduit, dig a trench, the stupid stuff that young people always end up doing. That’s fine, it’s been that way forever, I did it, and so did my dad.

You keep doing that for a few years (it varies with school or pure apprenticeship) and you’re qualified to take the journeyman test. They claim it has some electrical knowledge on it but, for the most part, it’s a code test, which is important, but not the be all-end all you think. Let’s say you pass, many don’t, 5 or times isn’t uncommon. I think it’s a ridiculously stupid test and open book at that, but it’s not up to me. Now you’re a journeyman.

As a journeyman you can supervise three apprentices (these are all Nebraska examples) in theory you could be in charge of wiring the new skyscraper in Omaha, as a 25-year-old journeyman. (Don’t worry, you won’t be, usually, that job will have 50 or so electricians on it). But most likely you’ll be in charge of a crew, and as you learn what you’re doing your responsibilities will increase. It’s not all that bad a system.

The next step and many never take it, is to take the contractor’s test, it’s a little more difficult but not much. If you pass and buy insurance you can be an electrical contractor. Woo-Hoo!

Say you decide to go out on your own, which is really the only point to that license, you might be a good electrician, many are barely OK and lazy to boot in my opinion. But here are some things you need to know:

  • How do you do a fair estimate?
  • How do you figure out how much of which material to use? [Most house plans leave all that up to you, and if they’re three or more years old, they’ll need revision for the current code cycle]
  • How do you figure a fair return? Not that you’re going to get it on residential work.
  • How does accounting work?
  • What do you have to do to comply with OSHA?
  • What is and when do you have to apply NFPA 70E or NFPA 101
  • What is the UL White book, and why does it matter.

My point is, there’s a lot to being a contractor that a journeyman rarely sees.

Oh, did I mention that your present contractor has to sign off on you taking the test? That’s where the guild thing comes in. It’s nothing less in my mind than using the government in restraint of fair trade.

Inspections

Here inspection is done by the State, and they’re pretty good, knowledgeable, fair, and consistent. Just about all you can ask, really. Or is it? See the thing is, their job is to enforce the code, period. And as we’ll talk about in the next section that introduces some problems.

What I would like to see is this, when you buy a home, if you want insurance (and most mortgages require it) why couldn’t the insurance companies require that electrical, plumbing and whatnot be brought up to code, using their own or contract inspectors, which would mean that every once in a while homes would get inspected and not the messes that some so-called handymen leave behind them.

Nothing new about this either. When I was young, nearly every factory in America was insured by Factory Mutual. Factory Mutual not only required compliance with a very strict code, that covered lots of things, they even had their own labs for rating products, and if your product didn’t have an F-M label it couldn’t be used. But if you complied, the insurance was pretty cheap. Why? Because the losses were low. You know, the free market at work.

Codes, Codes, and more Codes

Residential

For the most part, electrical work is covered by the National Electric Code (NEC, NFPA 70), it’s a good code. Like it plainly states it is not a design manual, although if I want the job, I’m usually not going to go very far beyond it. If wired in accordance with the code, your house will be safe, it may be adequate and convenient, or it may not.

But there are problems. If your house was wired in the 50s or before, it may still have a 60A main, you will find it inadequate. If I remember the code started requiring 100A in the early 60s as it still does. So if you have that 60A service, usually it will have two sets of cartridge fuses labeled main and range, which is what they are normally used for, in addition, it will have four of the old plug fuses, we call them Edison base, same as a light bulb.

Here’s the kicker, say you blow a fuse, and you call me, and by some miracle I can come right over, if that panel shows any sign of overloading, like too big a fuse for the wire size, or pennies behind the fuse, or even if it’s hot (and I’ve burned myself on a few). I can do one of several things, I can replace all the fuses with the proper size Type S fuse and its adapter so that you can’t overfuse, although you’ll be very limited on load, I can replace the panel, or I can refuse to work on it. That’s it.

The best option for Joe Homeowner is to replace it. That’s problematical too though. In the current code, I have to protect just about every circuit in the house with either a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) or a combination type Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI) instead of using a regular circuit breaker (I can’t even buy a fusible panel anymore).

GFCIs work fine here, no problem, it’s one of the very few ways I can replace a two wire outlet as well. AFCIs can be an entirely different kettle of fish. Invariably if I try to put one on the old cable with the woven covering, it won’t work, it could be something as minor as a staple driven too tight or something. If I’m in that spot, from the get-go, I’m going to tell you, you have to rewire your house. You really do need to anyway, but here we are talking about it on a cold winter’s night while we watch your pipes freeze.

OK, that’s settled, right? Oh, you want an estimate or a bid. OK, that better for both of us, anyway. It’s gonna cost you about $5000 dollars, more or less.

Why?

Because times have changed, in 1965 or so we went to grounded outlets, first with a small conductor and then with a full size one, it was a very good idea.

In about 1980 we started required bathrooms and kitchens to have GFCIs essentially wherever we are within six feet of water, and in the basement, garage, and outdoors. Again a good idea.

Now we require AFCIs on almost anything else in a dwelling unit. It’s not a bad idea, they detect an arc in the wiring and shut off the circuit.

Not least of the problems is that instead of about $5 for a circuit breaker, these (and GFCIs) are about $50. They also change some of our methods of wiring, and yes the new ways are more expensive in both time and material but, it can’t be helped.

Now the fun begins. Under the code, certain things are required.

  • An outside light, wall switch-controlled at each entrance
  • An outside outlet, as described above
  • Outlets, not more than 12 feet apart in all rooms of dwelling units, including any wall more than 18 inches long, except some halls and stairwells.
  • Wall switch controlled luminaires, or in some cases outlets, in all rooms, controlled at each entrance.
  • Bathroom circuit, 20A GFCI cannot serve anything else (sometimes it can serve another bathroom)
  • Kitchen, 20A GFCI, outlets every 24 inches over the countertop (not excluding that fancy island), two circuits required minimum.
  • There are limits as to how many outlets can be on a circuit 7 for a 15A circuit if I recall.
  • Any appliance that has a nameplate that calls for a separate circuit, has to have one. Invariably dishwashers, garbage disposers, freezers, furnaces, and icemakers do
  • A laundry outlet that serves nothing else.
  • Usually, I’ll spec a circuit for the refrigerator because they don’t always play nice on GFCIs or AFCIs and I hate call-backs.

So where are we, somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen or more circuits, electric dryer add 2, electric water heater add 2 more, air conditioning add 2 more. If I remember, and I’m writing this from memory, the biggest 100A box I can buy has about 15-20 spaces in it, and it’s very poor design not to leave room for expansion, so you’re looking at a 200A service. In truth, I haven’t recommended anything else in 20 years, and I’ll bet those that insisted on saving that 50 or so bucks regret it now.

Did I mention that I have to use tamper-resistant outlets too? It’s not a big thing, only about a dollar more per outlet.

So after you cry for a while (I don’t blame you for it either) you say OK and pay the deposit which will be in the neighborhood of $2500. Now we can pull the permit and get started.

Everything I’ve mentioned above is required by code. I and the inspector have no choice. What we used to be able to do is to stage it, we could figure out the whole job, change the panel now, and rewire later, and occasionally it still can happen. Oh, don’t forget to schedule the drywall guy and painters, cause we’re going to damage your walls.

But, here’s the problem, remember where we started this story, when I walked in, I burned my hand on your panel. Let’s say you just got a job that pays say $10 dollars an hour, and your house payment is $300 a month. How are you going to be able to pay me? The short answer is, you can’t. I know it, you know it, and the inspector knows it too. But we’re all stuck.

Thing is, a competent electrician can do other things to make it reasonably safe, without all that drama. But the way the code is written we can’t.

That’s one of the reasons I like the system I outlined above, when you’re buying the house, you’ve got options, maybe the seller will help, in the worst case maybe you can include it in your mortgage,  instead of trying to do it right now when you have a problem.

Basically, we’ve made code compliance so expensive that we are leaving very dangerous situations in homes because no can afford to fix them. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in their quest to make electricity safe for a two-year-old, have priced fixing actual real-world hazards out of reach of the average homeowner.


Now mind, electricity can be dangerous, and complying with the code is important. But the roadblocks we place in the way of somebody wanting to do the work are ridiculous.

When I lived in Indiana, which had no state license (still doesn’t, I think) the work I did still had to pass inspection, and that is proper.

The real problem is contained right here, to get the license you need your employer to sign off on it. If you’re a decent electrician, why exactly would he? It’s directly against his interest to do so unless he’s your daddy. Usually, he won’t, and so you’re stuck. The other thing is, the ECs control the commission, which can take your license back for any or no reason.

A system designed to use the government to hurt the consumer, and that’s pretty close to a working definition of a guild. Something they told me in school is one of the things that stifled progress in the middle ages. I’m sure it did because it does now.

Lights Out!

Illustration on the risk of EMP attacks on the nation’s power grid by Linas Garsys/The Washington Times

As far back as when I was in college, farther really, but as solid state equipment increased it was becoming more urgent, warnings have been sounded about an EMP attack. I wrote about it as far back as 2012, here, in relation to Iran. Nothing has changed in all that time, except the threat has gotten worse, especially with the addition of North Korea, and our vulnerability increasingly worse.

Our vulnerability has gotten worse because while vacuum tubes had many weaknesses they had some survivability against current surges, transistors have less, and integrated circuits have almost none. That is why we have to protect them from static electricity. When I was in school, our stereos were beginning to be solid state, our TVs were mostly tube type, our cars had transistor radios but were controlled by mechanical means, and our industry was controlled by men and relays.

Today, all of these things are controlled by solid state electronics, computers, as are trucks, farm equipment, railroad locomotives (and the railroads themselves), and nearly everything else in an advanced civilization. It has become our Achilles heel.

Writing in the Washington Times, Peter Vincent Pry tells us that the bureaucracy again knows how to deal with a threat, kill the messenger.

The Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack terminated on September 30, ironically, the same month North Korea tested an H-bomb it described as “a multifunctional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated even at high altitudes for superpowerful EMP attack.”

For 17 years, the EMP Commission warned about the existential EMP threat.

Rogue states or terrorists can blackout national electric grids and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures, topple electronic civilization, and kill millions from sea to shining sea, with a single high-altitude nuclear detonation, generating an EMP field covering North America. Natural EMP from a solar superstorm could blackout the whole world. EMP is considered a cyber weapon, not a nuclear weapon, in the military doctrines of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

On October 12, before a House Homeland Security Subcommittee chaired by Rep. Scott Perry, the EMP Commission staff delivered a final testimony, lamenting Washington bureaucrats are still oblivious to EMP.

The Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Energy (DOE), still largely staffed by Obama-holdovers, did not ask Congress to continue the EMP Commission.

The Secretaries of DOD and DOE ignored repeated requests to meet with the EMP Commission. DOE thinks the EMP threat is unproven and plans to partner with the electric power industry on studying EMP until 2020 and beyond.

DOD is letting DOE waste millions of dollars on unnecessary studies while DOD sits on a mountain of classified studies proving the EMP threat is real — which is why DOD has spent billions EMP hardening military systems.

Experts who have worked on protecting military systems from EMP for decades know how to harden our critical national infrastructure, but electric power organizations such as the Electric Power Research Institute and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation are not asking them for help.

A senior DHS official, speaking anonymously, recently told Fox News that EMP is a “theoretical” threat and lower priority than “real” threats, like cyber-attacks and sabotage. […]

Real world failures of electric grids from various causes indicate nuclear EMP attack would have catastrophic consequences. Big blackouts have been caused by small failures cascading into system-wide failures:

• The Great Northeast Blackout of 2003 — that put 50 million people in the dark for a day, contributed to at least 11 deaths and cost an estimated $6 billion — happened when a power line contacted a tree branch, damaging less than 0.0000001 (0.00001 percent) of the system.

• The New York City Blackout of 1977, that resulted in the arrest of 4,500 looters and injury of 550 police officers, was caused by a lightning strike on a substation that tripped two circuit breakers.

• The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, that effected 30 million people, happened because a protective relay on a transmission line was improperly set.

• India’s nationwide blackout of July 30-31, 2012 — the largest blackout in history, effecting 670 million people, 9 percent of the world population — was caused by overload of a single high-voltage power line.

In contrast to the above blackouts caused by small-scale failures, nuclear EMP attack would inflict massive widespread damage to electric grids.

A protracted blackout endangering millions will be the inevitable result of the EMP attack described by the North Koreans.

But the EMP Commission won’t be around anymore to help prevent electronic Armageddon.

Via Warsclerotic/Dan Miller

This particular threat is just as theoretical as watching a robber pointing a gun at you, while his finger tightens on the trigger. And it is just that existential to us as a nation.

Dan followed this up with a report from Forbes

Unlike a conventional ICBM which launches and then goes into a suborbital flight before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, an EMP warhead need not re-enter Earth’s atmosphere before exploding hundreds of kilometers above its target. Super-EMP weapons are designed to produce a high level of gamma rays, which generate the sort of high-frequency electromagnetic pulse that is most damaging to the broadest range of electronics, the report concludes.

And if the EMP device just happens to be part onboard an orbiting satellite, North Korea need only detonate the device remotely via encoded signal. Pry, Chief of Staff of the now de-funded Congressional EMP Commission, told me that at an altitude of 300 kilometers, the resulting electromagnetic pulse would affect all 48 contiguous states.

A warhead fused for an EMP in a satellite or ICBM could work on a timer, via GPS, or using an altimeter, says Pry, a nuclear strategist formerly with the CIA, who has a certificate in nuclear weapons design from the U.S. Air Force nuclear weapons lab. He says North Korea could even rig the warhead to detonate in the event that it was intercepted by our own missile defenses.

The consequences of such a detonation would be dire.

“The U.S. can sustain a population of 320 million people only because of modern technology,” said Pry. “An EMP that blacks-out the electric grid for a year would [decimate] the critical infrastructure necessary to support such a large population.”

In three days, the food supply in local grocery stores would be consumed and the 30-day national food supply in regional warehouses would begin to spoil, says Pry. In one year, he contends that up to 90 percent of the population could perish from starvation, disease, and societal collapse.

After generating gamma-rays that interact with air molecules in Earth’s stratosphere, a so-called fast pulse EMP field of tens of kilovolts would only last a few hundred nanoseconds.

But in the event of such an attack, aircraft electronics would be fried, as well as electronics in air traffic control towers, and navigation systemssays Pry. “Airliners would crash killing many of the 500,000 people flying over North America at any given moment,” he said.

Pry says electro-mechanical systems which regulate the flow of gas through pipelines would spark; causing the gas to ignite and result in massive firestorms in cities and large forest fires.

There would be no water; no communications; and mass transportation would be paralyzed, says Pry. In seven days, he contends that reactors in U.S.’ nuclear power plants would essentially melt down, spreading radioactivity across most of the nation.

What could be done to ensure a quick restoration of the grid?

Some 2000 extra-high voltage (EHV) transformers make up the foundation of the U.S. grid, says Pry. But as he notes, since they each weigh hundreds of tons, they are extraordinarily hard to transport. Thus, if most are destroyed, there’s no quick fix.

So, how do we best protect against an EMP?

The U.S. should be prepared to also include limited surgical strikes to destroy North Korea’s ICBMs, says Pry. But he says the best, safest, and least provocative solution is to EMP-harden the electric grid and other critical infrastructures.

Via (again) Warsclerotic/Dan Miller

When we talked about this in the early seventies in college, we knew then the grid was vulnerable, because many of the control parts are susceptible to this type of damage. It is now at least an order of magnitude worse since control has been centralized and computerized, without regard for hardening against this threat. It has often been said that the best defense is a good offense, in this case, at least in the medium term, the ONLY defense is a good offense.

And understand, while the consequences for the United States are dire indeed, they are also for the world as we know it. America feeds much of the world – and that will end that day, as we go from the indispensable nation to a bunch of people who cannot feed themselves with the tools they have. Just about every machine in America, built since the 70s, will be so much scrap iron. Recovery will take likely centuries. In truth, it won’t happen.

But hey, we won’t have those busybodies from the EMP Commission preaching doom and gloom at us anymore.  As Charlie Sheen would say, “Winning!”

Grenfell Tower

So let’s try to unpack this horror a bit, shall we? I happened to watch it almost in real time (on Sky) and I was appalled as it went up. As I said yesterday, it reminded me of the WTC more than anything – essentially all the heroism in the world from the emergency services (and they were, as always) of very little utility, the effects were more like the actions of a particularly malevolent god than anything else.

The best general write up I’ve read as to underlying causes was, not surprisingly on The Conservative Woman. In the immense comment stream, it degenerates a bit into partisan backbiting. Well, what doesn’t these days?

But here’s what I think I know.

  • It’s a high rise (24 stories) with one staircase and two elevators. Not uncommon, there or here, but one must always remember that once you get past roughly 10 floors the fire department is restricted to internal access. 150 feet is about all mobile equipment can reach.
  • Supposedly it was constructed to contain fire, reinforced concrete construction, fire doors and such. Normal stuff, not all that expensive, usually effective. Failed here.
  • A cladding was applied to the building, for appearance and insulation. Some reports say it was not fire resistant. It’s possible it wasn’t, but apply enough heat and almost anything will burn. What appeared to happen here is that fire got behind the cladding and into the insulation. I’ve heard that insulation described as Celotex (may or may not be true), but almost all insulation will either burn or melt, and if it does behind the cladding, it will form a flue (much like a chimney) and heat will rise very quickly feeding the flames. That is what the fire looked like on TV.
  • No sprinklers. May or may not have mattered in the public spaces. Which is all that is usually required. If they had been installed in the apartments may well have contained it, and most also have an automatic alarm, both local and fire department, which would help. Apparently, this building grandfathered the requirement, but best practice would have seen them installed.
  • No (or inaudible) local fire alarm. Inexcusable, in my mind at least.
  • Open windows. England has little air conditioning, and none here, so windows were open, increasing draft for the fire. Well, not really a lot you can do about that.
  • Lots of immigrants in the building. Not a big deal, maybe, but cultural practices do matter. May have been lots of flammable artifacts about, prayer rugs, this, that, and the other. I have also seen immigrants here cooking over open flames (improvised firepits and such) very dangerous in a multi-story building. Don’t know, but might be worth looking at. Also were firedoors kept shut? Canada, for instance, requires that the door to a connected garage have an self-closing mechanism.
  • One that will surprise Americans. There are reports of an exploding refrigerator. That’s something that just doesn’t happen here. Why? Because we use CFCs for refrigerants. If they leak and burn, they can cause phosgene poisoning, but the systems are sealed and pretty much bulletproof. Never, not once, in the last 50 years have I heard of a problem. Europe is different. They use Isobutane, essentially what we call LP gas. Yeah, the same stuff that we use in our barbecue grills, and sometimes stoves and furnaces where natural gas is not available. I won’t have it in my house for any reason, not least because, unlike natural gas, it is heavier than air and will accumulate, and a very small spark (static electricity from a woolen rug, say) can set it off. The other thing is, it’s a small molecule (unlike CFCs) and much harder to seal permanently. LP is every bit as flammable as acetylene that is used for welding, in fact, Oxy-propane is very often used for cutting torches because it burns hotter. Now get a leak in your refrigerator, and a spark in the thermostat, and you have an explosion, and not a small one. Why do they do this? Because the EU has banned CFCs for environmental reasons (we’ve changed our formulations too. The new ones aren’t as effective, but less damaging to the ozone layer).¹

Overall, this was a systemic failure, old Murphy was working overtime. The problems just piled one on the other, and as a result, likely more than a hundred people are dead and died horribly. If I understand the building was council owned (rather like an overpowered city council combined with the zoning board) and managed by a (no doubt connected) non-profit. Strikes me as plenty of room for corruption to sneak in as well, although I have no proof of anything like that. But the one thing we know about bureaucrats is that they can almost never be forced to take responsibility for anything. I doubt anything different than that here.

And yes, the pseudo pious virtue signaling, blame passing, and all those games have already started. Not to mention the wingeing about how we don’t have enough money.

¹ ISOBUTANE

50 Years Ago

apollo_1_patch-768x773last Friday, Apollo 1 burned on the pad at Cape Kennedy, lost with it were  Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom as Command Pilot, Edward H. White II as Senior Pilot, and Donn F. Eisele as Pilot. I was a disaster that all Americans, and in fact, the world shared with us. And as the details became known, it only became worse. From NASA

“Something about it just doesn’t ring right”:

One week prior to CM-012’s arrival at KSC, the crew and Apollo Spacecraft Program Office manager, Joseph F. Shea, participated in a meeting at which the crew expressed their concerns about the amount of flammable material in the CM.

Shea ultimately passed CM-012, over the crew’s specific concerns, through inspection.  In response, the crew sent him a photo of themselves in prayer over the CM, inscribed with the words: “It isn’t that we don’t trust you, Joe, but this time we’ve decided to go over your head.”

Shea subsequently ordered the manufacturer to remove all flammables from the CM, and CM-012 was moved to Kennedy with a “conditional Certificate of Flight Worthiness” – with 113 “significant, incomplete, planned engineering changes” needing to be addressed at KSC.

Subsequent to delivery, a further 623 engineering changes were ordered to CM-012 – significantly compromising simulator engineers’ ability to provide an accurate representation of the craft to the crew during training.

Nonetheless, the CM and SM were mated together in September, and the CSM underwent a series of altitude chamber tests, first unmanned, and then with both the prime and first (then second) backup crews between September and December 1966.

But technical issues with the CSM persisted.

An Environmental Control Unit in the CM had to be sent back to its manufacturer twice for design changes and operational leaks.

Moreover, the mated CSM had to be de-mated for inspection of the SM’s propellant tank after a tank on another SM ruptured during testing at its manufacturer.

In the latter part of 1966, Apollo 204’s backup crew was changed to Walter M. Schirra, Donn F. Eisele, and R. Walter Cunningham.

There’s lot’s of technical information in the article, and it’s fascinating. So is how it affected NASA, and provides a clue as to why it was so long until the next, the Challenger disaster.

Moreover, with all of these changes came new practices and manufacturing standards for Apollo and NASA.

But the culture change began far earlier.

On 30 January, just three days after the fire, Gene Kranz held a meeting with his staff in Mission Control.  Addressing his team, he said, “From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent.

“Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do.  We will never again compromise our responsibilities.

“Competent means we will never take anything for granted.

“Mission Control will be perfect.  When you leave this meeting today, you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write “Tough” and “Competent” on your blackboards.  It will never be erased.

“Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee.  These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”

With this message, Kranz guided his team through numerous test flights, shakedowns of the lunar equipment, and successfully – and as safely as possible – landed the first two men on the moon on 20 July 1969, fulfilling President Kennedy’s goal.

Resonance with today:

Launches are exciting.  For many, they are the main event in spaceflight – the most visible aspect to missions that are otherwise unnoticed.

But a desire to launch – as Apollo 1 showed – should never be driven by schedule pressure from a company/agency or from the general public.

Nor should such a desire suppress a need to speak toward things that don’t seem, look, or feel right.

As SpaceX now prepares to return east coast launch capabilities via historic LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, it’s easy to clamor for a launch – to be excited for it – and become verbal as the launch slips due to pad readiness.

But a desire to launch should never override a calm, measured return to launch capability – whether that launch is a crewed or uncrewed mission.

For as much as NASA learned the lesson of what can happen when schedule pressures override safety with Apollo 1, they learned that lesson again 19 years and one day later when schedule and mounting delays overcame judgement and the advice of engineers – for which the Challenger seven paid.

So too was this lesson painfully re-learned again 17 years and four days after Challenger, when an unspoken but building schedule desire to launch Node-2 Harmony to the ISS led – perhaps subconsciously – to a “dispensation” of the External Tank foam debris problem, to which the crew of Columbia was lost.

(Images: NASA)

via 50 years on, reminders of Apollo 1 beckon a safer future | NASASpaceFlight.com

While our failures are not as spectacular as Appolo 1, this catastrophe is a reminder to us all that we need to do it right, no matter the time it takes. Brave men’s (and women’s) lives may well depend on our decisions. I’ve had a long career in technical fields, and you know, one of my proudest boasts is this: Nobody ever died because of what I have done wrong or wrongly left undone. Part of that I learned from Apollo 1. So did many others, at NASA, and many other places as well. It crossed my mind often as I walked into Grissom Hall at Purdue. There are many lessons to take from the American space program. This may have been the hardest, losing brave men always is.

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