It was around this time of the year, a long time ago, that I got on a big jet plane, flew for hours, got off, rented a car and took a long drive into one of the most remote places I’ve ever been. They built this place in 1942, being sure to place it far enough inland so the Japanese couldn’t get at it easily. The area was very dry and ridiculously isolated, but that was good because what they do in this place is store lots of big bombs.
The final road into the place went on a good long while. It would have been nice if someone had told me big bombs have a shelf life and that the Army sets off the old bombs on the side of that mountain. I found this out on my own as the mountain exploded while I was still in the rental car. This event measured 9.9 on the Sphincter Scale, which I know is probably too much information, but you had to be there.
I was there to do a couple of seminars for the people who maintain the facility. They were winding it down at the time because the Iron Curtain had fallen and there didn’t seem to be an immediate need for that many bombs. Hey, who knew?
The base has a small hotel. I walked in and the clerk greeted me by name. I asked how he knew who I was and he told me I was the only guest in the place. As I said, it’s isolated.
The 15 or so hard-looking men and I got together early the next morning. I started yakking about all things hydronic. These guys looked like they had just eaten a bear with Rambo up there in the woods. I went on for a few hours and then began to realize these were not the sort of guys who like classrooms. So I stopped.
“You want to skip all this and go look at stuff?” I asked. They said nothing. Just nodded and got up.
We got in a bunch of pickups and that’s when I began to learn about standardization.
The 2-in. standard
But before I tell you about that, I first have to say I’m as much for economizing as the next guy, especially when it’s our tax dollars at work. If they can get a deal by buying in bulk, that’s good. And if they can get by with fewer items in stock by standardizing on things, that’s also good, right? Anyway, that’s how it seemed to me when they explained it to me in the truck. It made sense in the truck. But then we got to the first job.
“We’re going to the base commander’s house,” my driver said. “He’s complaining about noise coming from the radiators.”
Nothing like starting at the top.
The house was nice — very tidy and smallish. I liked that, this being our tax dollars at work. And it was chilly up there where the Japanese couldn’t find them, so the heating system was on. I could tell it was because I could hear the unmistakable sound of water screaming though pipes. The base commander had a dog that was sitting on the floor with his head tilted like Nipper, the RCA Victor pooch. He wasn’t hearing his master’s voice, though; he was hearing screaming frequencies we couldn’t register. Animal cruelty by way of an oversized circulator.
And, oh, it was big! They had built a frame for it out of angle iron. I suppose that was to keep it from tipping over the boiler. This beast had 2-in. flanges and a roaring motor. They had reduced the pipe size from 2-in. to 3/4-in. and sent that up to the simple baseboard loop. Nipper put his paws over his ears.
“What’s the deal with the big pump?” I asked.
“All our pumps are that size,” my guide explained. “We stock one size. If one breaks, we always have the parts. Everything is 2-in. around here.”
“Why’s it so noisy?” he asked. The other guys picked their nails with hunting knives and waited for my wisdom.
This made me remember a guy I once helped on Long Island. He had installed 15 3/4-in. zone valves on a job and then used the circulator that came with some other boiler. It was a small circulator. You know the sort that comes packaged with a residential boiler? That’s what he used. He wanted to know why, on a very cold day when all the circulators were calling, he couldn’t get all the zones hot. I told him the circulator was too small. You know what he said? He said that couldn’t possibly be true because the circulator had come with a boiler.
I explained to the guys at the Army depot that the noise was coming from the water moving too fast through the pipe and they would have to install a smaller pump.
“We don’t do smaller than this,” he said. “We standardize here. Isn’t there something we can do with this pump?”
“I suppose you can remove the impeller and run it on the shaft key,” I suggested, but then I had to tell them I was joking because one of the large men was going for a wrench.
Our next stop was at the steam plant. The depot had been closing buildings because of the peace, and they had very few buildings still drawing steam from the plant, which was a long way over there. They were making steam at 125 psi, moving it thousands of yards underground, reducing its pressure once it got were it was going, and sending it into shell-and-tube heat exchangers. Out of the tubes came 180° F water. Nothing whatsoever ran on direct steam.
“You really need that steam plant?” I said. “Seems to me its time has passed. Ever think about a couple of small boilers instead?”
“This is what we do,” he said.
The problem we were visiting had to do with the pressure-reducing valves. These were all the same 2-in. size. The pipe also was 2-in. Two-inch is a nice standard size, right?
The challenge, though, was the steam didn’t agree with the pipe size. High-pressure steam is compressed and takes up a lot less space than low-pressure steam does. When the steam enters a pressure-reducing valve, it screams out the other side much faster than it was moving on its way in. But since, in their honest attempt to economize, they had standardized on 2 in. everywhere, the much-faster steam was ripping the pipe apart through a process called erosion-corrosion.
“These welds keep failing,” my new friend said, pointing to one that had duct tape wrapped around it. “That’s just temporary,” he said.
Now while we were doing this, all the other guys were watching, of course. I told them about the power of steam and erosion-corrosion when the pipe was the wrong size. “It’s always been this way,” one of the guys said. The other guys nodded. “Always been.”
“It’s wrong, though,” I said.
“But it’s 2-in.,” another said. “That’s standard. Two-in. everywhere. What do you think’s causing the problem?”
In the distance, I could hear the bombs blowing up the side of the mountain. Standard stuff. Tax dollars at work.