Editor’s Note: We continue the series written by John Ballun, President and CEO of Val-Matic Valve and Manufacturing Corp. and released in 2016 as a book dedicated to the mentors who saved him and others from making costly mistakes in the field. Ballun’s enlightening and humorous stories are a popular read in the valve world.
The central character, Duke Waters, is a compilation of Ballun’s mentors; the stories are about what he learned. In this fifth installment, while out playing golf Duke and Johnny B notice the course’s irrigation system acting up and offer a solution.
It’s not often that you run into a valve problem on the 18th hole of the Blue Monster at Doral. But that’s what happened one day around dusk when Duke and I were trying to squeeze in 18 holes before dark. At 8:45 PM with our shadows, long as freight trains, landing across the plush fairway, we saw the sprinklers pop up and ruin our game. Oh well, at 10 over par at the time, I found the sprinklers more interesting than my upcoming 250-yard, left-to-right, three-wood approach shot over water to the green on 18.
The sprinklers spit and sprayed like a case of cheap champagne on an open fire. They drooped and then fired up again. Duke looked at me and said, “Boy, do they have a serious air problem in their irrigation system or what?”
I happened to know the course superintendent and offered, “You know Duke, I say we make a house call to my old buddy Newton, the course superintendent, in the morning and solve his water problem. Then we’ll be back out here later in the day with the full VIP treatment.”
What could Duke say? He was not one to pass up a free round of golf at Doral.
So we headed back to the hotel, changed into some church clothes and wandered over to the Blue Parrot Bar on the waterfront for some grub. We were shown a nice table when Mark, the owner, stopped by to greet Duke with a couple of complimentary Cuban mojitos. It was amazing how in every establishment we entered, Duke was treated like royalty.
So I asked Duke, “Are you a part-owner of this place or what?”
Duke said, “Hell no, it’s just my main watering hole after a round at Doral.” He added, “I am not a big fan of Trump’s stuffy leather-lined lounges, so I choose to take the trip over here to the oceanfront.”
After a long evening of cigars and cognac, I mentioned, “It will be a pleasure to see old Newt again. He has been a great client for decades.”
Duke said, “That’s for sure. He is one sharp guy as opposed to some of the Bozos we run into.”
I returned to an old question. “So Duke, how is it that an engineer can hang out at Doral and drive a Jaguar XKE?”
Duke simply said, “I can’t say.”
After a minute or so, Duke added, “I remember this one stupid client that installed some 4-inch air valves upside down and then fired up the water plant high service pumps for the first time in front of the City Council, only to create a geyser that washed away the newly sodded yard and the crowd of dignitaries.”
I said, “In fairness, though, those valves are threaded on each end and none of the manufacturers mark the inlet.”
“But if they would simply look at the plans, they would see that the cover of the valve is always on the top for God’s sake,” Duke replied in exasperation.
“That’s nothing.” I said. “I once got a call from a goofy client in LA who said he had a large butterfly valve stuck open.”
Duke asked, “So why didn’t they just close it? Was there something wrong with the actuator?”
“Worse. This was a brand-new, big-ass 120-inch butterfly valve installed with a horizontal shaft holding back the water on the end of a 10-mile-long water pipeline under construction. During installation, the contractor decided that he needed to remove the actuator and rotate it 90 degrees. So without dewatering the pipeline, he put some slings around the actuator, popped the bolts, and removed the actuator from the side of the valve.”
Duke laughed and said, “Let me guess. The guy had no clue that the differential pressure gradient across the face of the disc with the horizontal shaft will produce hydrostatic torque, which caused the butterfly valve to swing open like a trap door.”
“Worse,” I said. “When I got there, you could see the disc spinning like a turbine as water flowed from the open pipeline and flooded seven miles of the LA freeway.”
Duke added, “A stunt like that will ruin your whole day.”
We both laughed at that one.
We eventually saw that we were holding the bar open and decided to call it a night. We rose at dawn the next day with our sticks in tow to see old Newt. We found Newt at the pump house swearing up a blue storm.
He looked up and said, “Well I’ll be. If it ain’t a couple of angels arriving just in time to stop me from throwing myself into the lake.”
We exchanged greetings, including hugs, all around. Newt went on to explain how his pump blows air into the sprinklers ever since he installed a new 12,000-gallon hydro-pneumatic tank. He thought that maybe the pressure switch dead band was too tight, but I knew that the tank was full of air or “air bound.”
Duke explained to Newt, “Vertical lift pumps send a huge bubble of air into the tank every time they start. The tank is then supposed to automatically maintain an air-over-water mixture to store water under pressure and allow the pumps to cycle less frequently.”
So Newt said, “OK, hotshot. Then why doesn’t the water simply squeeze the air that we are blowing into the tank?”
Duke explained further, “It does, but the tank is pressurized with air to the point where air has completely filled the tank, all the way down to the water discharge pipe. You see, because air is lighter than water even when compressed, it displaces the water out of the tank.”
I was happy to see someone other than me getting a lecture from Duke and piped in with, “It looks like we need to put an air release valve on top of the tank.”
Duke said, “Nice try Johnny B, but putting an air release valve on the top of the tank would discharge all of the air out of the tank and the pump would constantly cycle.”
Duke sketched out a typical layout for an air release valve on the side of a hydro-pneumatic tank with an air equalization pipe above the air release valve and explained, “The bottom water connection feeds the float chamber and closes the air valve when the water level in the tank is even with the air valve. When too much air accumulates in the tank, the air release valve automatically opens and discharges air from the top of the tank through the small orifice of the valve.”
He added, “You need to remember that air release valves discharge air at full line pressure whenever the water level in the valve body drops. So, presto! The air release valve automatically maintains the water level in the tank at the height of the air valve.”
Now with a good understanding of the system, Newt and I went back to the shop and got an air release valve and a box of pipe nipples and fittings. We made sure that the water pipe below the air release valve was one-inch to match the inlet size of the air valve. Next, Newt and I drained the tank and installed the valve while Duke broke in a new 460 cc titanium driver on the range.
When we were done, Newt just smiled, scribbled a note onto an old scorecard, and sent us up to the starter on the first tee as a reward. “Have fun, boys.”
Duke and I played 36 that day. But the day was not complete until precisely at 8:45 p.m. when we saw the sprinklers fire a smooth stream of water onto the fairway. We packed it in and headed back to the Blue Parrot to celebrate with another round of cigars and cognac.
Up next in the series: Duke flies in to help solve the mystery of slamming swing check valves in a wastewater treatment plant.