Marnie Surfaceblow: An Engineer Never Sleeps, She Waits (for the Next Problem)

Long-time POWER readers may remember Marmaduke Surfaceblow, a fictional character whose engineering escapades were brilliantly portrayed in hundreds of stories published within POWER magazine’s pages over more than 30 years beginning in 1948. Today, the fictional series continues through Marmy’s granddaughter, Marnie, who is an engineering wiz in her own right.


Every power plant requires diligence for safe, efficient, reliable, and economic operation—especially when you mix old and new technologies. Never neglect to show care and respect toward even your “old tech” equipment.

It went against every iota of caution and prudence that she possessed, but Maya Sharma, lead field engineer for Surfaceblow & Associates International, had a job to do. Sitting in the middle seat of row 27 on the Boeing 737 headed to a trade show, she turned toward the window seat, said a short prayer for courage, and gently tried to shake her boss awake.

Slumped against the window, Marnie Surfaceblow, vice president of Surfaceblow & Associates International, murmured in her sleep as Maya tried to wake her. “Tohru … please make omurice tonight … Violet Evergarden is visiting,” she mumbled. After another minute of increasing oscillation of her shoulder, Marnie woke with a start, rubbed her eyes, looked out the window, and said, “Ye gods, Maya … what’s wrong?”

The Man in Seat 27C

“Nothing is immediately wrong,” responded Maya, “but the gentleman sitting in the aisle seat may need your help.” Maya motioned toward the young man sitting next to her, who eagerly thrust out a large, calloused hand, breaking into a smile.

“Mrs. Surfaceblow, by golly, it is you!” he exclaimed. “I recognized you from that article you wrote last year in POWER magazine. You know, the one where you had that great advice on keeping travelin’ water screens clear, and I sure did enjoy that zebra mussel recipe you shared!”

1. On a flight headed to a power-industry trade show, Willie introduces himself to Marnie while Maya looks on. Source: POWER

Marnie, still lost in a bit of a daze after having been awakened, stared at the hand and gingerly took it. Hesitantly, she replied, “Um, it’s Miss Surfaceblow, not Mrs., and that recipe was supposed to be a joke. You really tried it?” The man nodded his head eagerly (Figure 1). Marnie shuddered slightly. “And … what is it you’re selling again?”

“Ma’am, this gentleman is an engineer at a solar thermal facility, and he has doubts about how his power station is operating,” Maya said. “Mr. McCoy, would you like to …”

Still enthused, despite learning that he probably shouldn’t eat zebra mussel linguine again, the man said, “The name’s McCoy, Willie Boy McCoy, Mrs. Surfaceblow. I’ve been working at the Desert Moon thermal solar plant out at Silver Springs, just east of Reno, but before that I was in charge of keeping the condensers clean at the DeYoung plant right there on the Ohio River.”

“Ma’am, I had warned strongly not to tease with the ‘culinary treasures of the Ohio River,’ that was the term you used, yes?” Maya’s face was serious, but a slight smile wavered on her lips.

Marnie grimaced, then reached for her cold coffee and pushed the call button to request more. “Well, Mr. McCoy, we’re headed to a trade show in Seattle, so if you’ll call our office when the plane lands, one of our engineers will contact your boss and see about setting up a contract …”

“Well, um, ma’am, I told him we could probably help him right here on the aeroplane,” interrupted Maya. Marnie then noticed that Willie had a laptop open on his tray table, and her eyes narrowed toward Maya. “I told you, while I always adore a challenge, and grandpa always said to help anyone out whether they could pay or not, either of us giving advice about his power plant without a contract could put us at legal liability …” Marnie trailed off as she saw Maya holding out one of their pre-printed short-form technical services agreements, bearing the signature of one Willie Boy McCoy, Engineering Superintendent. Maya’s other hand held one of Marnie’s Montblanc Marilyn Monroe fountain pens.

Snatching her pricey pen from Maya and applying her signature to the contract, Marnie muttered, “Hmmm. Why not? This thing is written so diabolically I’ve never had anyone just sign one before.”

“That’s OK, Mrs. Surfaceblow, I trust you! You’re like the grandma of power plant engineers everywhere!” beamed Willie. Marnie shuddered at the word “grandma,” while Maya tried but failed to hide a smirk.

After the flight attendant arrived with fresh coffee, and, despite the offer of a large bribe, refused to leave the entire pot for Marnie, the weary vice president pinched the bridge of her nose and said, “Tell us your story.”

Problem-Solving on the Fly

“Well, Mrs. Surfaceblow,” Willie began, ignoring Marnie as she mouthed “Miss” again. “Out at Desert Moon, we’ve got more than 1,000 acres of rows and rows of shiny mirrors—you never saw such a sight. It is a super high-tech system compared to those old steam coal plants we had at DeYoung, but I reckon about the same thing. I mean, the sun heats the water into steam, and we send it through a double-casing reheat steam turbine at 2,400 psia. On a good day, we top out at 180 MW, but most of the time we run about 90 to 140 MW. One difference, we use an air-cooled condenser, so no more zebra mussels, although, we sometimes get bats hiding in it when the plant is offline for a major outage.”

“Bat country … I … see.” Marnie sipped her coffee and mused, “It’s funny. We love training new engineers, but most of them think steam turbines are old technology, nothing but mechanical dinosaurs, making every turbine deck like the Land of the Lost. Wait, I have an idea. Yes, dinosaurs. It’s so crazy it simply must work …”

As Marnie drifted off for a second, Maya shared a concerned look with Willie. “Moving on,” Marnie continued, “the truth is steam turbines are likely to be around for the rest of this century. Solar plants like yours, Willie, geothermal plants, nuclear fission—even someday nuclear fusion—are likely to continue using a steam turbine system to convert heat into power.”

“And let us never be forgetful, ma’am, fusion energy is only 25 years away. Always,” Maya deadpanned.

“Well, I don’t know about fusion power or dinosaurs,” continued Willie, “but I do know we got serious pump problems at this plant. Here’s the situation: we got one small electric boiler feed pump [BFP] to get us up to about 30 MW, one main electric BFP to take us to about 130 MW, and a steam BFP that can come online at about 120 MW and take us to the top of the cycle at 180 MW. Well, y’all may know the plant is only four years old, and it had a lot of problems with the solar reflector actuators—those little things that track the sun,” he said.

“I am aware of how power plants work, young man,” said Marnie between gritted teeth. “Maya, is there a problem here we need to solve?”

“Perhaps you could proceed to show Miss Surfaceblow what you demonstrated on your laptop, Mr. McCoy,” interjected Maya, seeing the exasperation beginning to emanate from her boss.

“Sure, um, anyhow, because we weren’t running very much, the steam plant only just had its first full maintenance outage last month, and nothing has worked right since,” Willie said as he tapped away on his laptop and showed Marnie some graphs from the plant’s distributed control system (DCS) historian. “Well, as soon as we came back online after the outage, the first thing we noticed was that the bearing temperatures on the two electric BFPs read –999F. Now, everyone knows that ain’t right, so I had the instrumentation and controls [I&C] techs check it out. Turns out they were covered with extra grease. In fact, there was grease all over the place. I guess they figured just spread it everywhere, and maybe some will get into the bearings, right? The steam pump uses a sealed oil system, so it wasn’t affected. Anyhow, the I&C techs cleaned up everything, regreased the bearings, and we started up the next morning.”

“Oh dear,” Marnie said and shook her head. Maya nodded for Willie to continue.

“But, the problem is, now the thermocouples are reading too high. Before the outage they ran about 100F, but now they’re running about 150–160F. So, the I&C guys replaced the thermocouples, but we didn’t see any change.” Willie displayed trend after trend on his laptop, confirming his observations.

“Maya, do you have an idea what went wrong?” asked Marnie.

“Yes, probably,” nodded Maya eagerly. “This is why I wished to do this work and help Mr. McCoy.”

“Well, shoot, if you two ladies know the answer, don’t keep a fellow waiting at the altar, so to speak,” Willie said, then regretted it immediately, as he was faced with two withering stares.

Maya cleared her throat. “Mr. McCoy, your I&C personnel, are they trained properly in the maintenance practice of lubricating electric motor bearings?”

Willie scratched the back of his sunburned neck. “Well, Miss Sharma, I assume since they are electric BFPs and the I&C techs deal with electric items, they would know the ins and outs of it all,” he said. “Of course, they were the ones who put too much grease in the first time.” Willie paused, faced again with two hard stares. “Maybe I should ask them if they read the maintenance job guide and did everything by the book, huh?”

Maya shook her head. “There is no need, as I am certain what happened. It seems very likely they set the grease pump at excessive pressure, or applied excessive volume of grease to the bearings. Perhaps … no, I will wager, as Miss Surfaceblow often says, the power station personnel did not remove the grease drain plug prior to adding new grease. This is done so the new grease can push the old grease out and not over-pressurize the bearings. Grease was then forced from the seals and leaked from the pumps, but I believe it has also leaked internally. We see this when too much grease is applied, and the seals are bypassed, and then the grease enters the motor windings.”

“That’s not good, but do you think that’s the problem?” asked Willie.

“I strongly believe it to be true,” replied Maya. “When this happens, the grease begins to cook onto the windings with a hard shell. Just as when my auntie Indira forgot to remove the frying pan from the heat after making paratha roti—the oil burned onto the bottom and never was it fully removed. This will increase electric resistance, and can quickly damage insulation. You can see the increase in resistance here in your trends after the outage. See? The motor amperage is rising immediately and leading the trend in the temperature increase.”

“Gosh,” replied Willie. “We’re going to have to take all the doggone motors apart and clean them out, right?”

“Maybe more than that,” Marnie added, staring out at the night sky and adding another empty paper coffee cup to the stack balanced delicately on her tray table. “You’re going to have to make sure the windings are so clean that they sparkle like diamonds, fully test the windings for shorts or arcing, test all the electrical components, replace every seal, and then carefully re-grease the whole thing over again, and using a grease gun at the pressure recommended by the manufacturer. And make sure you have the drain plugs out while doing this, so any extra grease takes the path of least resistance—better into a bucket than back into the windings.”

Willie nodded the entire time, typing notes furiously into his laptop. “I’m sending an email right now to my maintenance manager, and …”

Oil and Water a Bad Mix

“Wait a minute,” Marnie said, turning to face Willie. “You said you had other problems too? Well, let’s hear them.”

“Well, I think it’s only one other problem—I think,” Willie frowned deeply.

It was clear that Willie was both hopeful the duo could solve his next problem and afraid of looking stupid, so Maya said with encouragement, “Tell us the other problem, Mr. McCoy. Perhaps it is destined we can solve it before the aeroplane lands.”

“Sure, why not? By the way, you solved that first problem mighty quick, so I’m guessing that it won’t cost us too much, right?” asked Willie, with a cautious hope that was shattered when Marnie simply smiled in response.

“Anyhow … not only did we have electric BFP problems, but the steam BFP ain’t right either! We did a major overhaul during the outage because it sits idle most times—remember, we only bring it online at 120 MW. We worried about corrosion but everything looked good. After the outage everything seemed good, then our remote monitoring folks found a trend we hadn’t noticed. The steam BFP lube oil tank level was rising! We didn’t know what to think. We checked and it wasn’t instrument error or foamed oil,” Willie explained.

“And you tested the oil, yes?” inquired Maya.

Willie nodded eagerly. “Sure did, and it turned out it was water—about 200 gallons mixed with 500 gallons of oil! We figured steam was leaking into the oil, so we replaced every seal and gasket, polished every bearing surface, used all original equipment manufacturer parts and the recommended oil. The pump should be better than new, but after running for just five days, we already saw the level rising again.”

While Maya sat and thought, Marnie leaned across to look at Willie’s laptop. “My turn to solve the problem. I can’t let you have all the fun, Maya,” said Marnie. “Willie, are the steam seal drains instrumented to show you the volume of flow through the drains?” she asked.

Willie tapped away and clicked through the DCS historical data stored on his laptop. Maya thought harder, brow furrowed, while Marnie relaxed with coffee number 11, and was pleasantly shocked as the flight attendant left the pot, mumbling under her breath, “Don’t ring the call button again.”

“Mrs. Surfaceblow? We don’t have reliable flow readings on the drains, but we do have thermocouples. Looks like they go off the temperature and extrapolate or make a guess on the flowrate based on the temperature of the drains, since there ain’t supposed to be that much coming out of them,” Willie said, while displaying the trends. “And here it looks like we really tightened things up, since after the outage the drain temperatures are almost ambient. That’s good, right?”

Marnie sighed, “No, my friend, not in this case. I’ve seen this before, and my guess is one of two things happened, either the drains weren’t lined up right when they re-assembled the pump after the complete teardown, or maybe during the outage they blocked the drain lines and forgot about it. Sometimes someone stuffs a rag or rubber plug in the lines. Since the sealing steam can’t escape via the drains, it takes the path of least resistance—it’s pushing past the seals and into the oil system, and that’s where your water is coming from.”

Willie sat and stared at the screen silently for a minute, while Maya added, “The repair for this is easier than for the electric BFPs, but still requires work. You must clear or align the drain lines, and then replace the seals within the BFP as they will have been damaged.” Willie nodded as he quickly typed everything into the e-mail to his maintenance manager. Just as the chime sounded over the intercom announcing it was time to discontinue the use of large electronic devices, Willie clicked the “send” icon with a triumphant flourish.

As they prepared for landing—including the flight attendant removing Marnie’s precious borrowed coffee pot—Willie looked over at the duo and shook his head in amusement. “I cannot believe how lucky I was to be sitting right next to the famous Marnie Surfaceblow and Maya Sharma. You ladies really saved the day, and all without even being at the plant site! And don’t you worry, we will be paying whatever you bill us for all this help!” he said.

Remember to Gather Your Belongings

Half an hour later, having said farewell to Willie and walking to their connection (Figure 2), Maya asked her boss, “And how much shall we be invoicing Mr. McCoy for our service?”

2. Maya and Marnie rehash their encounter with Willie as they walk to their connecting flight. Source: POWER

Marnie shook her head. “Well, we have to bill something, after all we did provide value. And one has to maintain an eminence front, so to speak. Wouldn’t you agree, ‘famous Maya Sharma?’ ” Then she laughed as Maya looked down and blushed from the moniker. “Honestly, my faithful assistant, there are much worse ways to spend time on an airplane than solving engineering problems and making the world a better place. In fact, let’s just call this a free donation for the greater good of humanity!”

After a couple more minutes walking toward their connecting gate without speaking, Maya suddenly stopped and asked, “You left the contract on the aeroplane by mistake, didn’t you, ma’am?”

It was Marnie’s turn to blush, and Maya’s turn to laugh, as Marnie said, “Such is life. At least I still have my Montblanc pen—oh … rats.”

Una Nowling, PE is an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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