the Only Way to Find a Leak, Stick the Magic Finger in the Hole

This is the story I was beginning to tell last week and then I got half way through it and then realized that first I need to explain what the magic finger is. Now that that is done we can move on. In the rest of this story every time I mention a finger realize that it is the “Magic Finger.”

Our story this week starts once again at the feet of Socrates.

We were finishing a major boiler outage we had performed over 1000 tube welds and were getting ready for our first hydro, we were going for a final hydro pressure of around 3600 pounds.
Socrates pulled me aside and said, “Kid ,the only way to find a leak is” he sticks his finger up in the air “to stick this in the hole, you can never tell where the water is coming from and often what looks one way from 10 foot away is completely different when you stick your finger in the hole.” He was indefatigable and he made me promise I would forever more find leaks this way.

This was Socrates; of course I would do what he asked. After I agreed to always do this he then said “Now you not going to listen to me, there will come a time went you don’t stick your finger in the hole and you will have to re-hydro because you did not….that’s when the lesson sinks home.” I assured Socrates that this would never happen. He just smiled and said “when it happens and you feel miserable just remember everyone messes it up at least once.”

The Hydro began; we (my “magic finger” and I) found a total of 3 leaks and one potential leak. The potential leak was up high in the corner of the boiler above the burners, there was no obvious water coming out just a wet spot on the tubes. I have the men hang a single man climber (For those of you not familiar with this scene let me describe it to you, Imagine an upside down milk carton where one side is 60 feet long and the other 100 feet and the milk carton is approx. 11 stories high. Now to get somewhere inside the milk carton you need to rig up a window washing platform (like you see on skyscrapers) and they come in all various shapes and sizes). The climber couldn’t be hung directly where the leak was so I would have to have a rope hung from a different location to pull myself over to the leak.

So let’s take a minute to paint this picture, my body type is Shrek meets Luca Brasi with a dash of Bear thrown in. Now take this impressive human form and put him in a metal basket hanging from a 5/16th steel cable, then have this menagerie of attributes go straight up about a 100 feet in the air and then, much like the circus, the bear has to swing the climber back and forth like a pendulum on a grandfather clock until I can catch the rope hanging from the corner. Once I catch the rope I can pull myself to the corner resulting in the climber hanging at about a 30 degree angle me hanging on the rope with one arm and flash light and magic finger in the other looking for the leak.

Not to mention, I don’t like heights and I am not terribly coordinated at all.

So there I hang looking for where the water is coming from. When all of a sudden I hear a loud rumble, I have no idea what to do, let go of the rope, hang on the rope etc. etc. no idea. So I just lock up, rope coiled around my left arm hanging on the climber with my right when all of a sudden water comes raining down on me from everywhere and I wind up completely drenched. Moments go by I have no idea what’s happening but eventually the water stops. I’m shaking soaking wet and hanging about 100 feet up, I slowly let go of the rope and let the climber swing straight. The motor of the climber was not working because water and electric don’t play well together, so I had to hand crank myself to the bottom. It took about an hour.

When I got back to the trailer, I learned that someone had pulled the gag out of the safety and that’s where the water can from.

Socrates asked me if I found the leak. I told him that I did even though I had not stuck my finger in the hole; I didn’t want to go back there I was terrified. He held up his finger, as if to say “are you sure you stuck your finger in the hole”, I lied and nodded yes.

With my Lie, Socrates made the decision to drop the water in the boiler and fix all the leaks that we had identified. When it came time to fix my leak I thought for sure I would be able to find it. I lit the area up inspected each tube inch by inch. I even flapper wheeled the tubes clean and PT’d them (Dye penetrating testing) NOTHING!!!!. I eventually had to fess up that I had not “stuck my finger in the hole.”

When I told Socrates he was not mad, he said “I told you, you wouldn’t listen.” I immediately tried to defend myself “I was hang there, soaking wet had to crank myself down” He held up his hand to stop me and rubbed his pointer finger across his thumb “You know what this is?” I shrugged my shoulders with “I don’t know”, He continued” it’s the smallest violin in the world”, “I told you, you wouldn’t listen and you didn’t, I’m not surprised”. I left the trailer ashamed and dejected.

The next day in the morning Socrates asked me how I was doing” I feel like shit” he said “Good, now I know you will never make that mistake again”. We had to re-hydro the boiler which took days and I eventually found the leak. It was a cold side attachment and if not caught could have killed someone if it let go during the operation of the unit. Once I found that leak we then looked at other spots in the boiler typically to that and replaced all of the corner tube so that no one would be hurt, the outage was extended for about a month so that we could address this very important issue.

When we were done and in the process of the final Hydro, Socrates and I were sitting in the control room. He turned to me and said “You did good, If you hadn’t found that leak someone could have died”, I responded “But I F’d up the first hydro” he said “what did you expect” “you have to satisfy the boiler gods, you have to respect how simple and yet difficult this job is. You’ve learned that now and you will never forget it.”

In the many years, hundreds of hydro’s and the countless times I have passed this lesson on. The simple truth remains. The only way to find a leak is to stick your finger in the hole, it sounds sophomoric and simple and in truth it is, but that’s what works every time all the time. The” boiler gods” need to be respected because at the end of the day people can die, that is the truth.

Moral of the Story:

There is only one way to find a leak, stick your finger in the hole. Simple things are not often thought of as important. In outages the simpler things are the better, there are enough curve balls that you cannot expect so making everything else simple lets you handle those curve balls better

Rule of Thumb:

Whenever possible whoever is going to repair the leak should be to one to stick their finger in it, Holes with water coming out are easy to find maintaining the discipline to do the simple thing is the tough part

One thought on “the Only Way to Find a Leak, Stick the Magic Finger in the Hole

  1. Matt Baldacci

    Jay, I think the lesson is that you were incredibly lucky as a young man to have a wise mentor like Socrates. Now you’re trying to pass on his wisdom. That’s the right thing to do. As usual the hardest thing to do is the right thing.

    Reply

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