Matriculation!

Dearest Readers,

I am thankful and grateful and proud to announce that as of June 1st 2011 (that’s today), I am no longer an Apprentice Wireman with Local 26 — my dues receipt now says Journeyman Wireman! What an accomplishment. Looking back, I still remember starting out in this program… the apprehension, the proving of wit and skill, the meeting new people, the not-knowing, the anxiety before a test, the grades, the nights at school that seemed endless sometimes, learning of new terms and words that only make sense to other electricians… and more recent memories… the meeting new people and the long conversations with old friends, the “shop talk”, the comparing of notes about this job and that, the extension of skills and knowledge to others just starting out, recognizing that blank look when you say “I need 10 lamps” and finally giving in to say “yes, 10 bulbs”. 😀

Five years is indeed a long time, but MAN! The satisfaction of finishing is like nothing else. When I bump into fellow apprentices who will be walking across that stage with me on Saturday, there’s a little glimmer in our eyes that communicates it all. No need to go on and on, because we all know it deep down inside. We’re proud of what we’ve learned, all that we’ve been through, and we can all say “It’s been a heck of a ride!”

These days at work, I’m still learning: that I must embrace my codebook to size things right the first time; how to balance the energy levels of my crew… motivate when necessary, antagonize for fun, have teaching moments when we can; how not to blow my top when it’s really not necessary; how to keep an eye on falling levels of various material that my guys need; how best to prioritize multiple projects that all have very close deadlines. Now that’s a far cry from learning to identify: 1/4-20×3/4″ bolts, 1/4″ fenders, 3/8″ flats and the fact that “strut” is also another name for “kindorf” or “C-channel”. Yes, we’ve come a long way!

Congratulations to every one of my peers, and here’s a toast to the next chapter!

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It’s That Time of Year…

September seems to have flown by, and now we are midway through October. Already. On the job and around the school, conversations with other apprentices remind me that certain other years are going through the process of “transferring” from one company to another. It’s a mixed bag as to various feelings about the matter. Depending on which company you’re currently with, the transfer time is either a blessing or a blessing in disguise. You never know what’s on the other side of the fence. You may think you’ve got it good where you’re at, and then realize in a month with your new contractor that you HAD NO CLUE what good really is! Or you might land yourself in a mud pit. In the middle of December. Mud in December? Is that possible? Yes ladies and gentlemen, it surely is. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. My point is even if you find yourself in a mud pit in the middle of December, there is always something to be learned from the situation. You might come to understand that you really enjoy working outside. Or on that job, you *just might* bump into someone who could have a major influence in your future. At the very least, there’s a good story that will come of it. (And you know how we electricians LOVE to recount stories!)

On the classroom front, I’ve been having a lot of fun with my current exploits. I’m in the Trade Teaching course, which is designed to teach apprentices and journeymen how to take the lead; on the job and in the classroom. We’ve thus far covered the concept of public speaking and presentational materials. My most recent class focused on Power Point Presentations and we even had some lab time with the computers. Our first task is to design a five minute presentation on whatever subject we like. I thought it would be simple, seeing as how it’s only five minutes long. But therein lies the problem — it’s only five minutes long! Five minutes goes by in a blink of an eye. Surprisingly, I found that I still needed to prepare an outline before designing the final presentation. Quite a bit of time goes into these slideshows, and if you’re a perfectionist about visual elements, then it’s entirely too easy to fall down the bunny hole. Thursday we present. Fun fun!

Keeping it in Perspective

Through my time as an apprentice, I’ve had the opportunity to experience a multitude of working environments. I’ve seen the typical “construction” site, where hardhats and safety glasses are everywhere. I’ve seen “occupied tenant spaces” where we’ve had to be careful of all debris that we create — no dust on this or that person’s desk! I’ve worked in the same office as someone who’s working at his/her computer and let me tell you, that’s nerve-wracking. But where I’m working now has been by far the most difficult environment I’ve ever experienced. I’m still at the National Zoo, still working in the Amazonia building, which by the way is a simulated rain forest in case you weren’t aware. We have to be careful about everything we do; we don’t want to step on the plants, lest they be crushed; we can’t leave ANY trash behind because the tiniest piece of plastic can wreak havoc on the animals’ intestines if consumed; we can’t leave extension cords plugged in crossing any pathway because children and adult visitors alike are not accustomed to the added trip hazard; oh and it rains INSIDE, EVERYDAY. The building itself has very few straight walls, and even fewer 90 degree corners. It seems like with every step, we’re towing a huge weight that drags and drags the job, climbing over obstacles (literally), tripping over ourselves and working in piecemeal. This is a challenge for both myself and my mechanic, who prefers the ability to “run with a job”. Who ever thought that I would miss the days when I had a foreman who wanted things done “rush, rush, rush”; when it was possible to throw that pipe run up, easily getting 200-300 feet up… ahh, those were the days.

It’s easy to get caught up in the daily fusses of how your current situation could be better. You think “if only” this, or that. Your first instinct is to find a better way, because after all, most of us who are drawn to this sort of work are natural problem solvers. But sometimes, as I’m finding out, this terribly slow crawl is in fact the best way. You simply have to be determined to hunker down and take it one step at a time. Sometimes that means taking it one hour at a time. I find I have to silence the brain about all other concerns, and focus on the task at hand. Bite-sized chunks of a job eventually winnow out a huge scoop.

Last week we finally finished one portion of our rather large project. When we got to the stage of pulling wire to the lighting dimmer controller, I got a breath of relief. After struggling with the entire lighting project from burying flexible conduit throughout the rainforest, hiding lighting fixtures amidst the plants and pulling hundreds of feet of wiring while balancing between spiky trees and curious monkeys, I knew that the finish line was in sight. I knew that wiring the final switches and pulling the final legs of wire back to the electrical panel meant that we could soon turn on those forsaken lights! When troubleshooting the system only took one day, I really felt proud of what we had accomplished. Everything was watertight, and there were no shorts. Quite an accomplishment.

So I’ve found the best way to keep insanity at bay on a challenging job is to remain vigilant against negativity, remind myself of the all the milestones, and seriously take it one step at a time. It’s too easy to get overwhelmed if you let the flood gates of criticism run rampant in your own head.

Another Year, already?

During this past week’s evening class, I spoke with a few other 4th year apprentices, and was reminded that we’ll be getting our 5th year bump in pay very soon. In fact, it’s much sooner than I expected! Because I’m a creature of habit, I had in the back of my mind that we would be re-classified as 5th year apprentices in August — just like every year in the past. However, because we are in night school now, the re-classification comes in June, when we have completed our 2nd night course! That means I will be receiving pay at 80% of A-Journeyman scale within 3 months. I absolutely can not believe how fast these past years have come and gone. In other jobs that I’ve had before joining this trade, five years would have seemed like a lifetime! I suppose routine and boredom set in long before five years ever approached. As an electrician, I feel like 5 years has just barely scratched the surface. Even after three intense years of day-school training, and four+ years of on the job training, I honestly feel like there’s so much more to learn and get my hands on. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked under various foremen who have allowed me the opportunity to jump right in, from prints to production, that I have a pretty strong grasp of blueprints and can basically do the work on my own, from “roughing-in” all the way through to “finish” work. But that’s only one aspect of the trade. There’s control work for mechanical systems, lighting controls for extremely large and complex systems, building automation that integrates mechanicals, hvac and lighting, hospitals, theaters, schools, emergency generation, telecom, data centers… and the list can go on and on. What’s amazing is that for each and every one of these extra categories, there are special rules, regulations and specifications that go along with them. I’ve seen glimpses of these other aspects, but in no way could I say I’m an expert, and I would seriously question anyone who claims they are. Our trade just encompasses so many facets of the construction industry, you could spend a lifetime studying it or working on it and still have room to learn about something else. And that’s just the installation side of it! Then there’s the flip-side — personnel management: overseeing a helper, running a crew, being a truck-driver, estimating, purchasing material, material handling, being a foreman, being a general foreman, superintendent, project manager, etc. There are so many opportunities to learn and grow in this field. It’s rather astounding. So, to keep it in perspective, five years is nothing really.

Working at the Smithsonian

It’s not everyday you get to say that you’re doing electrical work in a rainforest. But for the past 2 months or so, I’ve been able to say just that! In the deep freeze of winter, I’m wearing my thinnest work pants and t-shirts to go work inside the Amazonia — one of the many habitat/exhibits found at the National Zoo.

My current employer, Tex/Am Construction, happens to work closely with the Smithsonian Institutes on a number of projects. I’ve had the opportunity thus far to work on two different generator jobs, dealing with switchgear, big pipes, fire alarm and all the controls necessary to maintain emergency power at the Museum of Natural History, and at a Montgomery County Public School. I’ve also seen some time in a muddy ditch, getting pipes ready for a concrete pour. And the most interesting work environment thus far — the Amazon Rainforest habitat. It’s 80+ degrees and humid everyday, you’re surrounded by over 300 species of tropical flora and best of all, you have to watch out closely for the two monkeys that roam free. They’re curious creatures, and one is especially courageous and will sneak up on you to steal what he can from your tool bag. In fact, one day as I was preparing to put liquidtite conduit along on the the “living” herbaceous walls, the sneaky critter came up to my staging area and proceeded an attempt to take my foreman’s keys. Not exactly your “normal” obstacles and challenges you’d find on a construction site. So far, it’s been an interesting ride and I’m exposed to a variety of work with this company.
Enjoy the following pics!
Here’s a small sampling of the vegetation you’ll find at the Amazonia.
My ladder is actually set up inside one of the fish-holding tanks. This is the first time I’ve ever worn waders.

This little guy really wants me to give him some goodies.
This shot was taken moments before the monkey’s attempt at key-theivery.

Copper or Aluminum Lugs: How Should You Decide?

Copper or Aluminum Lugs: How Should You Decide?

(Posted using ShareThis)

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Today at work the question came up of whether we should use NOALOX on our switch gear connections and on all the terminations we’ve been working on. None of our wires are aluminum, and thus I claimed it wasn’t necessary. However the worry was about the fact that the lugs are aluminum and the conductors are copper. One guy said it’s in the code, another guy said it’s not. (I love these conversations by the way!) Of course, no one actually had a code book handy, so my foreman said he would check on it. While I was online researching this question online today, I discovered the above article which in my opinion answers the question pretty definitively.
Also I stumbled upon the NFPA website which offers the NEC online for free! All you have to do is register for the website. It’s actually not a bad interface. All you can do is turn the pages and use the table of contents as a method for jumping through the code book, which is just enough access for the convenience of getting it online. If you need to copy and paste, then it’s not for you. However, if you just need an answer on the fly for when you’re on your computer, then it’s perfect.

Control!

In my most recent class, we talked more about Building Automation, which revolves around “control processes”. (That would be turning equipment off and on at particular times, or when otherwise called upon.)

Traditionally, when we think of the work that electricians do, lights & power comes to mind. That is, we install all the parts of an electrical system that allows energy to flow to end devices that utilize it, ie. lights and receptacles, and other miscellaneous equipment in between that either uses power or controls it. (Often we supply power to HVAC components like condenser pumps or Variable Air Volume units for example.)

Originally, large equipment like motors and big industrial machines were controlled the same way that we basically control lights — manual switches that get flipped on and off. However, industrial switches are rather souped up and reinforced to withstand the higher voltages & currents. As more and more systems go automated vis a vis computerization, we’re seeing more “control guys” out in the field. The issue right now is, to whom does this type of work belong?
When I first started in this field, I wondered who these “control guys” really were. What trade actually does this kind of work? Telecom? Inside wireman? Mechanical contractor? It seems currently that the job is up for grabs because there’s always new technology reaching us in the field, yet the majority of installers who work on these control systems are in fact Mechanical contractors. I find that very interesting, seeing as most of the control work involves electrical components, varying from transformers & fuses to circuit boards and programmable logic controllers (industrial computers). What’s even more interesting is how few electricians are actually comfortable with this type of work.
One of the topics that we covered as 3rd year apprentices was Motor Control. We learned how to interpret and even build a very basic control diagram. The stuff I thought was gobbledeguke at the beginning of the lessons turned out to be very simple (once we learned it of course). Strangely enough, I have yet to come across a Motor Control Schematic per se, on the job. However, I have found that the knowledge I gained in those lessons prepared me to feel comfortable with control diagrams of all sorts. Lighting control, fire alarm and other low-voltage systems aren’t so intimidating to me anymore.
My question is, if control work is “big brain” work for electricians, then why are the mechanical guys doing it all? Is it that electrical contractors just don’t want to bother with it? I understand that there may be somewhat of a disparity as to how many electricians are qualified to do it, but just like fire alarm systems, electrical contractors must pick and choose which individuals they’d like to train to do the highly specialized work. Shouldn’t it be just as important to train a few to work on mechanical controls?