Editor’s Note: In 2016, John Ballun, released a collection of enlightening and sometimes humorous engineering stories based on what he learned over the years from numerous mentors.
He dedicated the book to those mentors, who he said were “talented and seasoned engineers and business professionals, who had many occasions” to save him from making mistakes. The central character, Duke Waters, is a compilation of the mentors; the stories are about what he learned.
Here’s an excerpt of the first chapter of Ballun’s book. VALVEMagazine.com will be running other chapters over the coming months.
My Beginnings: An Engineer in Training
Upon completion of engineering school, I took a seat behind my first engineering desk: one of those gray steel desks with heavy, clunky drawers. Armed with a yellow log slide rule strapped to my belt, I fancied myself a well-schooled and competent mechanical engineer. After all, I was trained at a top technical university in Chicago specializing in scientific problem solving and disciplined engineering analysis. Seated in a boiler room of desks with a dozen engineers and design draftsman, I was assigned to a valve design group whose mission was to develop innovative valves for the nuclear industry, which at the time was actively constructing nuclear power plants.
I was armed with my bachelor of science engineering degree designed to give geeks like me the opportunity and ability to apply advanced knowledge to the design of various valves and piping systems at refineries, nuclear power plants and marine tankers … or so I thought. I couldn’t know it would require several years of field work before I would gain an acceptable level of competence. Then, it would be a few more years before I met the legendary Duke Waters and could even fathom the need to acquire the advanced knowledge of engineered systems he had. In the meantime, I was referred to as: the young engineer kid who had a lot to learn.
I discovered quickly that only a small portion of what’s in engineering textbooks is applicable to your first engineering job because the technical workplace requires a vast array of industry-specific knowledge that can be acquired only through working with peers and actual job experience. During my first month, I was embarrassed and conflicted in that I could explain the metallurgical phase structure of alloy steels, but could not come up with the ASTM Specification Number for something like 18-8 stainless steel plate material.
Experienced draftsmen like my coworker Brad chuckled and passed along criticisms like, “that arrogant degreed engineer didn’t know how to order steel plate or that a ‘mil’ is a thousandth of an inch or that half-inch schedule 40 steel pipe is not half an inch in diameter.”
In engineering school, our mathematical minds learned equations, proofs and free-body diagrams, but little about how to apply knowledge to manufacturing a product or enabling a system that would function in actual working processes. Brad soon taught me that industry knowledge must be gained on a project-by-project basis through the tutelage of team members and superiors. Sure, engineers must have that technical education, exemplified by that crisp-looking diploma and maybe a professional engineering certificate. But they also must accumulate multitudes of details, facts and customer requirements necessary to apply their trade. Applying my trade was to come over the years.
Adventure at port
One of my first assignments was to fly to Boston and supervise installation of cryogenic pressure relief valves on a liquid natural gas (LNG) tanker ship. As a beginner with no fear, I made an attempt to find my way to the General Dynamics Shipyard. After swallowing my pride and asking for directions a couple of times, I eventually arrived at the dry dock just in time to witness the uncrating of four new 12-inch, Class 150 cryogenic pressure relief valves. They were designed to protect the ship’s massive spherical LNG pressurized vessels should the cooling system fail, which would cause the liquid natural gas to boil, build pressure, rupture the tank, and take out a good portion of the eastern seaboard.
As a rookie engineer, I didn’t design these valves; I was merely schooled in their operation. The valves featured some novel magnetic pilots that were invented by a senior engineer named Dan Schleiter for whom I had the greatest respect. He knew that the force exerted by a magnet quickly diminishes with distance as opposed to a spring whose force increases with distance. Using a magnet for a pressure relief valve pilot would enable the main valve pilot to pop open fully once the magnet’s pull was exceeded by the system pressure. This was good to know, but my job was simply to make sure the valves were installed correctly and the pressure pilots adjusted to protect Boston from Armageddon.
So here I was standing on the dry dock with this 10-story steel ship next to me and clueless about how to get work done. As it turns out, the labor unions ran the shipyard.
I was instructed by a wryly old foreman in full dress coveralls, “Son, please do not touch anything.”
Armed with this advice, I simply directed various packs of tradesman to uncrate, rig, bolt and adjust each valve. I must have put 50 guys to work that day installing four stinking valves. Nevertheless, observing skilled tradesmen was a powerful learning experience because they had the proper tools for any task and knew how to use them.
Luckily, I was so naïve I did not comprehend the seriousness of the responsibility I was given. I humbly verified the installation of the valves in accordance with the documentation; the “up” arrow on the side of the valve tag helped a lot. A few months later, the tanker set sail for trials supervised by the U.S. Coast Guard, and we learned that all the valve systems were approved for duty.
Meanwhile, I was settling into the engineering profession with mixed emotion. On the one hand, the work was technically challenging. On the other hand, I was facing the realization that engineers are “different.”
A joke made its way around the office that exemplified the situation quite clearly: A priest, a soldier and an engineer were convicted of treason and sentenced to death by guillotine.
The executioner told the priest, “You are first to die. Do you wish to wear a hood?
The priest said, “No, I wish to face my fate without a hood so I can see heaven when I die.”
The executioner raised the blade of the guillotine and released it. It came down fiercely but stopped short. The executioner announced, “God must have spoken!” and released the priest.
Next, the soldier was placed on the guillotine and asked if he wanted a hood. The soldier said, “A soldier’s life of battle and bravery demands I face my death without a hood.”
The executioner raised the blade, released it, and once again it stopped just short. The executioner took this as a sign of divine intervention and declared, “I hereby release this brave soldier.”
Finally, it was the engineer’s turn on the guillotine. He also refused the hood, but as the executioner slowly raised the blade, the engineer said, “Hey, wait; I see what the problem is.”
I believe the morale of this story is: “You can take the engineer out of the lab, but you can’t take the lab out of the engineer.”
Sometime later in my engineering tenure, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting a nuclear facility to face off with representatives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). A 60-inch butterfly valve had slam closed, blew out an adjacent rubber expansion joint and flooded the entire circulating water pump system building with 20 feet of river water, resulting in the immediate scram of the nuclear power plant. Oops.
Because this valve was located outside the containment building, it was a simple matter to be escorted to the circulating water pump facility to examine the damage. I was impressed at the sight of five, 60-inch Worthington centrifugal pumps, followed by a series of butterfly valves and a monstrous 120-inch pipe header. I felt like an ant in the boiler room of the Titanic engine room. I was asked to examine the valve drive equipment and piece together what happened to cause the butterfly valve to slam closed. It didn’t take long to see that the eight, 1-1/4-inch hex-head bolts that secured the electric motor actuator to the floor stand had sheared, allowing the entire actuator and valve stem to freely rotate.
I had learned earlier that large butterfly valves with an offset seat generate extreme dynamic forces from the water flow that create a high closing torque. In this case, this accelerated the butterfly valve disc closing in less than a second, stopping the fluid velocity instantly, creating an enormous water hammer, blowing out the adjacent reinforced rubber expansion joint and flooding the pump building. With this knowledge in my neat hardcover field notebook, I was asked to attend a meeting in the plant office building to discuss what happened. I figured I would be out of there in half an hour.
To my shock and dismay, I was escorted to a meeting room the size of the General Motors boardroom with two dozen people representing the utility, several engineers from the plant, the architect engineers and a team from the NRC in scary black suits and skinny ties.
An NRC honcho took charge of the meeting and explained, “We are looking at a Part 21 here,” which I later learned is a 1954 federal regulation that requires you to report to the NRC any defect in a nuclear plant within five days or be subject to criminal prosecution and prison time, probably without a trial.
As the engineer representing the manufacturer, I was asked to share my observations made at the “failure site.” Every pair of eyeballs in the room focused on me like laser beams. It was as if they thought it was my fault that the nuke plant was scrammed and the utility was losing a million dollars a day.
I snapped to attention and began throwing out every piece of technical valve jargon I could muster and then blamed the problem on “poor installation and maintenance.” After all, how hard is it for plant personnel to tighten some bolts once a year?
I tried to wow them with data like: “When properly tightened, the subject actuator bolt pattern provides ample torque capacity given a bolt tensile load of 30,000 psi, a surface friction coefficient of 0.25, a matrix of eight bolts, and a restraining moment arm generated by the bolt circle diameter,” thinking that would satisfy the fancy suits.
They weren’t satisfied because half of them had master’s degrees or Ph.D.s in mechanical engineering, and they explained that they mounted a strain gage on the stem yesterday and felt that the connection was not suitable for this service.
Somebody from the NRC said something like, “If these findings are correct, we should shut down every nuclear plant in the country with these valves until the issue is resolved.”
I learned that the second requirement of the Part 21 is to carefully conduct a failure analysis determining the root cause of the problem and developing a corrective action, which would immediately be implemented in every nuclear plant in the country, if not the world.
Holy cow. I thought I would be out of there in half an hour.
Over the next four hours, a detailed plan of action was formulated to address the bolting issue to the satisfaction of all parties involved, and I was on my way, a disaster averted.
After several years of such advanced, on-the-job training and other scary field experiences, I finally earned some degree of respect from my colleagues, even Brad. But why then was I still a mere shadow of the famous Duke Waters? Duke is basically a self-taught, semi-retired systems engineer who worked in the water and power industries for several decades. He somehow acquired the unique ability to comprehend any problem, no matter how complex, and systematically formulate the perfect solution. How did he get these superpowers?
Duke is a legend and I am proud to say that he affectionately referred to me in the early days as “Johnny B., the college boy,” but generously took the time over many years to explain the basis for his solutions in the hope that his insights would be passed on to the next generation. In keeping with the wishes and expectations of Duke Waters, my aim has been to document my many adventures with him so that we all might educate ourselves and gain a better understanding of problem-solving techniques and expert knowledge.
Stay tuned for the next installation of The Adventures of Duke Waters where you’ll learn how John met his mentor during another crisis: this one at a water distribution system where check valve slams were causing major headaches for an important client.