April 2010


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Keeping Customer Service Visible
Customer service is as vital and germane to our business now as it was in the days of automation overlays.

  Thomas Hallett


This is a story of a valuable and enduring lesson learned many years ago. The tale of a young cadet techie and a grizzled old steamfitter in the hot and muggy boiler room of an old Texas hospital. Straight from the early years of the marriage of silicon and scfm's, when the road to automation was travelled with the fitter in the driver's seat and the tech just along for the ride.

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Back when a GUI was a 35mm carousel slide projector and point status or value was displayed on nixie tubes, the true beating heart of the the control system was the compressor and its attendant filters, after-cooler, and prv stations.

Yesterday's control air compressor was just as visible as today's server, GUI, keyboard, mouse, and display, AND just as deserving of service.

Let me now share the abiding lesson learned so many years ago.

The Cadet meets the Vet

After some six months of control business experience, I was tasked with a small point add job at an old Texas hospital. Built in the 50's, the hospital had the conventional plant, steam heat, big 19C R-11 chillers, large med/surg AHU's, induction units, fan coils, unit vents, etc.. VAV was unheard of. The control system was extensive, twin Joy Mfg. compressors delivered air to every panel, AHU, fan coil, induction unit.....and countless leaks unseen. Overlaid on that control system was a spanking new state of the art automation system; from the operator's control room one could view status, read hot deck temp, log steam pressure, and even listen to the squeal of belts as an AHU was commanded to start!

My job was to add a sump supervisory switch to the system, a level switch to annunciate a high level in the sump. A simple task involving a dangling mercury switch, a digital input card, and the requisite strapping to display alarm/normal. But I had never been to the site......where to park?.........who to see?........where to fish the twisted pair?

Enter Bob, a 60 something steamfitter who was a journeyman fitter before the second world war had started. Bob was a fixture at the hospital, tasked on a 40 hour per week service contract the firm had with the hospital for control system preventive maintenance. Bob gave me all the skinny on where to park, who to see, and where to find him (no cell phones in those days). Bob, bless his departed soul, also gave me a lesson in customer service that abides today.

Pressure ValveYes, I Do Windows...and You Shall Too

I found Bob at the compressor station. The thrumming Joy compressor's din hid my approach, so I waited to catch Bob's attention as he worked.

Bob was reverently wiping the lag compressor with rags and Virginia 10 solvent, tagged out, the compressor was unpowered and the lead took the load. Bob had rags, degreasing solvent, paper towels, and Windex all neatly arrayed off the housekeeping pad. Once I moved into his field of vision, Bob put down his rag, capped the solvent, and motioned towards the control room......I followed.

The relative quiet of the control room allowed for conversation, "Boy, (I think he called anyone under 50, "boy"), I have little time". "The lag is locked out and I've some cleaning to do.......here is the riser, look at your sump and find the closest panel.......I'll be back". So I spread out the drawings and found what I needed to add the point.

Slightly miffed, I looked out across the plant to see Bob spraying Windex on gauge glasses......he was cleaning glass while I stewed in a control room!

Bob did finish up his janitorial duties and returned to the control room.  Wise to most young, Bob said (again boy), "Boy, that is the most important thing I do 'round here, I can change the belts, check the oil, blow down the tank, replace an overload, and fix a leak.......but if it's dirty I've not done my job".

Sure, Bob barely knew the difference between an analog input and a digital output........but he knew the value of customer perception. The compressors were clean and spotless, the prv station's gauges were crystal clear, our firm's logo and decal shown at the station looked just applied.

So here was a man, who I learned only later actually knew Doc Carrier, telling me of the virtue of Windex for a control system. Bob went on to share his accumulated wisdom, telling me to be sure the point I added would bear the descriptor "alarm/normal". You see, Bob took the brunt of complaints about mis-strapped descriptors, freeze-stats that read "on/off", mod motors whose arrows indicated open when in fact they were closed, and unreadable tags on valves and actuators.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] ValveOh Say Can You See The Nameplate?

Bob taught me a valuable lesson which I carried to the automated world of bits and bytes. To keep clean the screen, to label the panels with addresses, to identify the valves consistent with the shop drawings, wipe the electrostatically precipitated dust from the nixies, and be sure the freeze stat indicated either "nomal or alarm".

Some several years later, armed with a pack of big yellow Brady markers, I fondly recalled Bob's instructions as I labeled the panels of a central Texas university with their respective addresses. I had taken over the account and sought to improve this client's view of our firm's service; how better than to right away identify the panels by address? Stop the bewildering search for AHU number 5's panel each time we entered the machine room........label the panel and search no more!

You see, customer service is as vital and germane to our business now as it was in the days of automation overlays. Sure, we techies are now in the driver's seat with DDC and the near elimination of pneumatic controls.......but service is still service, customer perception is still perception, and valves beg for attention.

I cherish the memory of Bob who himself held memories of the early days, who knew Doc Carrier, who created fabulous racks of gleaming copper tubing, and who wielded a Windex bottle. Bob taught me a lesson no formal schooling could ever invest.


Your skill as a database programmer, your intimate grasp of psychrometrics, your talent with pixellated graphics, or your knowledge of TCP/IP networking will amount to less than a hill of beans if the customer perceives he's been shortchanged. Sure, you're a skilled C++ programmer......but can you operate a Windex bottle?

This industry begs for more than the computer jock.

It begs for old Bob.


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