Friday, September 08, 2006

Promoting the Field of Engineering

The website touts itself as a resource that should help pre-college students decide whether engineering is good career choice for them.

The link that immediately caught my eye was Engineering Life Profiles. The target page is titled "Life of an Engineer," and it sports a list of links to the job descriptions / professional biographies of seven practicing engineers.

As an eletrical engineer, I was curious to read the profile of Carl Allison (Electrical Engineer).

Mr. Allison is employed by Walt Disney Imagineering, which is hardly a typical destination for an average engineering graduate. I'm glad that he's happily employed producing things that entertain people. Unfortunately, many engineers wind up in a cubicle dungeon, spending days just poring over one parts list after another in order to identify and replace pure tin-leaded components with components that have leads plated with palladium silver. And this is for some space hardware hardly anyone will ever see. There are engineers that spend their entire careers studying the long-term reliablilty of resistors, or think of ways to reduce the cost of an assembly by a few cents.

If you're a pre-college student who thinks engineering might be a good career, make sure you talk to a few engineers first. Don't just read glitzy promotional websites and think that's how your life will be. Try to shadow a few real engineers during the summer before your final year of high school. Although the summer camps that TryEngineering has listed are probably too oriented to having fun, they're probably better than nothing. They at least help you determine whether you have the aptitude for cool design and problem-solving aspect of engineering.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Highs and Lows of Being a Luddite Geek

It isn't easy being both a Luddite and a Geek. Each encounter with new technology evokes a Dr. Jeckyll / Mr. Hyde response. Sometimes it's quite strong, like the day my new, computer-controlled boiler was installed.

The old boiler was installed when the house was built, about 1950. It still was heating water very well, but over the last few winters, it wasn't maintaining pressure. And a few weeks ago, it started to leak intermittently from the circulating pump.

Here's how both the Luddite and the Geek in me responded to the new boiler.

So the guys took out the 60-year-old furnace yesterday. It was still delivering steaming hot water, as it had always done faithfully (except for the times that the igniter and transformer had to be replaced).

They put this new, computer-controlled thing in its place. After it's all connected, filled with water and pressurized, they flip the switch, and guess what. Nothing. The burner doesn't fire up. Nada. Zilch.

The guy tinkered with it for three hours, until 7:30pm actually, and then said the piece of crap module was bad.

My wife was especially upset. Not only did she not have hot water last night and this morning, her formerly-white kitchen floor is filthy, the light beige carpet on the stairs and landing is smudged with greasy, sooty footprints, and our daughter has a cold and needs a nice, steaming bath.

What on Earth compelled me to buy a boiler with a computer in it? All it has to do is switch two relays on and off -- one for the burner and one for the circulating pump. How hard can it be? I can't believe I spent more on this than my car.

If you ever want to ruin a good, reliable piece of equipment, add a computer to it.

Things didn't go too well yesterday, that's for sure. Well, the owner came today. He couldn't believe there was anything wrong with the computer. So he tinkered with it for a while. When he realized he wasn't getting anywhere, he tried to jury-rig it to bypass the computer controller. Fortunately his helper noticed something peculiar about one of the jumpers on the controller. It was not connected! Bingo. Connect it up, it fires right up, and we have burning hot water.

[days go by...]
Over the past few days, I got to go through the manuals that came with this feat of engineering. I navigated the menus and chose one of the week-long day / night programs and altered it to our family's schedule. This will ensure that our boiler won't turn on at night during "summer mode" when it's not needed. And in "winter mode," it will govern at what times the temperature setback should kick in / out.

With its temperature sensors for outdoor and indoor air, plus knowing what the room setpoint temperature is, it's able to taper the boiler temperature as the room temperature reaches the setpoint. It follows one of a few pre-programmed heating curves that adjust based on the outside temperature. And the outdoor temperature sensor can be used to switch the unit between its summer and winter modes. The temperature at which it makes the switch also is programmable.

It delivers hot tap water the same way it heats the house. As the water in the tank reaches the setpoint (which, of course is user-adjustable) the boiler can shut down since it has enough remaining heat to finish heating the water.

I tried lowering the hot water setting to 125F, but I noticed that the dishwasher's heating element was coming on. So I set it back up to 130F (where the installer had left it) to keep the dishwasher's electricity use down.

The first time I took a shower, I was really impressed. It's just like at the health club. No more turning the faucet toward the hot position as the shower progresses. I set it, and it stays. Wow. And forget about turning off the heat ten minutes before taking a shower. The computer will give priority to heating tap water over heating the radiators.

You want to know a secret? I paid more for this boiler than my car. But it's worth it. I'm not queer or anything, but I really want to invite my buddies over for a shower.