Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Further Adventures in Baltimore

For the last month I've worked on the refrigeration control system for a brand new grocery store in Howard County. While Howard County isn't in Local 26's jurisdiction it is where I live. After working in Arlington, at Fort Belvior and Ashburn, Virginia it was incredibly nice to have an assignment that didn't have me driving on 95 and the Beltway every day! When I found out that I was being transferred to another job site I figured I'd be back on 95 every morning.

I was right. What I didn't expect was that I'd be getting on 95 every morning and heading north. My new job is to update the control system of a grocery store in downtown Baltimore that had recently been purchased by a different grocery chain and changed over and modernized to bring it in line with the new grocery store's requirements.

It's a fast paced project. Every day that the store isn't selling groceries the new owners are losing money so the days fly by. It also makes for interesting ways of doing things. I've never had a wire pulling cart so easy to roll around!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Back to Construction

For the past month or so I've been working at various grocery stores around the DC area installing the wiring and devices for new fire alarm and security systems. The grocery chain didn't want us working at night so we had to do the work during the day. In some ways, that's great. Night work can really mess with your schedule. But working in an active store with customers all around can be a problem too. As a sort of compromise work began at 5:00am. (Good for working in an empty store, bad if you have to drive from Baltimore to Dale City, Va every morning.)

Doing upgrades in an existing building was new for me. All of the work I had done in the past had been new construction. Sure you might be out in the cold (or inside in the cold) but at least you didn't have to deal with the mistakes, either accidental or deliberate, made by the electrician before you.

(See Photo.)

The number of MC runs laying on ceiling grid, hot wires hanging out of lidless troughs, panels without covers, etc. that I came across was remarkable.

But like I said, I'm back to new construction. And even better I'm working VERY close to home. I'm incredibly lucky to have a round trip commute of about eight miles! This means I'm technically working outside of Local 26's jurisdiction. And not that I want to say bad things about Local 24 but talking to the apprentices out of Baltimore, I'm incredibly grateful that I'm receiving a very good education.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Dark Side of the Electrical Trade

No, this isn't some deep creepy post. Or even one about Darth Vader. It's about something a lot worse.

Night shift.

It sounds alright and all at first. It's a four day week, Monday through Thursday nights, 9pm 'til 6am the next morning, paid for 10 hours. And then there's the shift differential. An extra 15% for working while the rest of the world is sleeping. And if you're young and single it's probably well worth it. But if you have a family it's absolutely wreaks havoc on anything resembling normal life. You only get a few hours each evening with your family between when they get home and when you have to leave for work. And then you spend most of the weekend trying to catch up on sleep because no matter how much you sleep during the day you're still exhausted all the time.

Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled to be working and the three months I spent in various grocery stores rewiring security systems while the customers were out of the store was MUCH better than being furloughed - which is how a bunch of guys at my company ended up. But it really does a number on your life. Especially since my wife and I were trying to buy a house - an incredibly stressful and crazy process to begin with!

Luckily, after three months of toughing it out, everything has seemed to work out for the best. My wife and I found a great new house (we're moving on Saturday) and I've been transferred to a dayshift job incredibly close to where I live. I have plenty to be thankful for this Thanksgiving season.

Expect a more rested and talkative blogger in the future.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I just wanted to congratulate my fellow JATC Local 26 blogger Tarn for a wonderful write up in The Electrical Worker, the publication that the IBEW sends out to all members. She is an inspiration to us all to stay involved in the Local as well as the national and international goings-on that have such a large impact on our careers and our lives.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

New Year, New Company...

It's that time of year again. August is all about hot weather and getting transferred. The JATC has each apprentice transfer to a new company each year to ensure that he or she sees a wide range of different aspects of the electrical industry. My first company (or at least the division I worked for) did work exclusively in hospitals. My second company was a large company that had me working in large data centers and on large federal jobs where I was lucky enough to get some excellent experience in low-voltage work.

My new company is much smaller than either of my first two companies. It has been doing electrical work for grocery stores, both new work and renovations/remodels for years. The power aspects of a grocery store are actually rather unique. The coolers and freezers require special attention especially because a loss of power (and with it cooling) would result in a huge loss of product (and money!) Each cooler is monitored separately, though I've been working on a power crew, not a control crew.

What I have been doing is replacing fluorescent fixtures with LED fixtures. Sounds pretty straight forward, doesn't it? It is. The only catch is that the fixtures are in the coolers and freezers! After weeks of working in the hot weather I'm carrying my sweat shirt and jacket to work because the coolers are 37 degrees and the freezers are -30!

So far I'm pretty thrilled to be working out of the heat.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Importance of Reading Directions

This post could also be called 'Pay Attention, Especially if You Think You Know What You're Doing.' (Clearly I managed to make a mistake of some sort.)

First a bit of background. In the fire alarm / low voltage world wiring isn't usually a hot, a neutral and a ground. Wiring is almost always only a positive and a negative. The rule for wire identification is that the darker (usually black) is negative and the lighter wire (usually red) is red.

The fire alarm system I'm installing has MANY components, but the problem revolved around the speakers and the combination speaker/strobes. The speakers have two terminals on the back with a brown lead and a white lead leading away from the terminals. The speaker circuit is a blue cable consisting of on red #16 wire and one black #16 wire. Logic dictates that the red wire (the lighter one) goes under the white terminal and the black wire (the darker one) goes under the black terminal. And, lucky for me, that turns out to be the correct way to wire the speaker.

The combination speaker/strobes have four terminals on the back, two (red & black) for the strobe and two (white and brown) for the speaker. The circuit for the strobe is two separate #14 THHNs with the light/dark color combinations depending upon which circuit the strobe is a part. The red and black terminals are labeled "S" for strobe and the wires are landed exactly how you'd expect. The speaker terminals, again white & brown, however, are NOT what you'd expect. After installing more than 50 of these, I noticed that there was something molded into the plastic beside the speaker terminals. The brown terminal was labeled 'SPKR' and the white terminal was labeled 'C' for common. In the low voltage world the negative (darker) wire is used as the common wire.

The two devices are from the same manufacturer. Each on has a speaker component. Each speaker is fed from a brown and white terminal. Except the color's polarities aren't consistent.

At least my foreman was understanding.

So, after that long and boring story, the root: I installed all of the speaker/strobes incorrectly because I put the darker speaker wire under the darker terminal. The moral of the story being that no matter how straight forward you think a task is, pay attention and read the directions.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Excuse me while I clean off the cobwebs...

So, it's been a few months. I wish I could point to some exciting reason why I've been unable to post lately. I wish I could say I was busy working endless weeks of six twelves. (Well, actually it's only my bank account that wishes it was endless 72 hour weeks.) I wish I could say I'd spent my last three months of weekends driving up and down the east coast writing reviews of different beaches. But really it's been the 'busy' that goes along with normal life that's kept me running from one place to another.

We finished the security system at MDA a month or so ago and I've moved on to a fire alarm system for another building on Fort Belvior. After a bit of reluctance at the beginning I'm really enjoying low voltage work. It's exciting because there's more going on than just delivering voltage to lights and outlets. I have loops of smoke detectors that need to be monitored and powered. Fire alarm and mass notification strobes and speakers are wired back to termination cabinets and then into the computerized fire alarm system. While I'm still doing all the fundamental things that 'normal' electricians do, pulling wire and making terminations, the variation and technical nature of what I'm doing is challenging. Circuits need to be wired with key-switched test points and relays need to be wired to allow the 24 volt fire alarm system to operate the 120 volt duct dampers. I get to be inside the roof top units (RTUs) that control the ventilation systems and connect into the rather complicated wiring systems for the HVAC system.

Yeah, like I said, complicated. And incidentally, this is what we're about to start dealing with in class - motor control and building automation. I'm actually really excited. The project for the book is to create a ladder diagram like the one in the second photo for an imaginary piece of a manufacturing facility.

Hopefully I won't regret my enthusiasm!