Incessant trivial alarms can drown out important warnings and cause headaches for control room operators. In this installment of Marnie Surfaceblow, our fearless heroine wades through all the noise to identify and correct what could otherwise have resulted in a serious plant problem.

It was a plant conference room like a thousand others in this permutation at an 80-MW wood-fueled boiler. Once painted a cheerful if tacky orange, the walls were now stained a depressing but more fashionable brown in the few spaces they weren’t covered with plant P&IDs, layout drawings, and monthly outage reports. Three people sat in grease-stained fabric chairs around an oversized wooden table, fighting for space with piles of three-ring binders and plant drawings. The feeble attempts of a HEPA filter could not compete with a mélange of resinous pine wood fuel and ancient power plant coffee.

Stanislav “Stan” Kominski, current plant manager and an engineer with more than four decades spent in the school of hard knocks, sat at the head of the table. He was a man whose exasperation showed clearly in the lines of his face and the slump of his shoulders. His doubt towards the capabilities of the two overpriced consultants he’d been forced to hire by his boss was also plain to see. One was late middle-aged and looked a bit too corporate for being at a power plant. Sure, she had a set of well-worn but proper personal protective equipment, and an air of quiet confidence and experience, but her Prada purse invited contempt, stained though it was with No. 6 oil. The other was much too young, with the tense alertness that broadcasted “summer intern.”

Stan sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose with his calloused fingers, and decided to get the meeting over with. “So, here’s what we’re dealing with—I printed out a copy for each of you. We installed a fancy new intelligent monitoring system to cut down on the alarms my operators get each shift, and maybe help optimize sootblowing so we stop turning our reheater into Swiss cheese. Now, we get just as many alarms as before, plus 50 more a day from this thing! My operators hate this new thing so much they won’t even turn the screen on. The vendor wants a fortune to debug what they sold us, and I’m hoping your company can help us do something useful with it. Any ideas?”

Marnie and Maya review alarms and evaluate operating trends in the control room with Brad.

Marnie Surfaceblow, vice president and lead field engineer of Surfaceblow & Associates International, flipped through the pages of monitoring system alerts, and frowned. “What do you mean you aren’t getting any good out of this system, Stan? I’m seeing all sorts of alerts begging for attention: ‘economizer outlet header overheating,’ ‘feedwater heater 4 emergency drain valve not closed,’ ‘wall blower IR-7 inactive’?”

Stan rolled his eyes and shook his head. “We already know all those things from our DCS, and we don’t even have a number 7 wall blower! Maybe you can get rid of that alert at least.”

Maya Sharma, age 28 but already a senior field engineer and Marnie’s assistant, asked, “But sir, is it not lesser cost to have the vendor fix this?”

Stan smiled grimly. “That sort of work comes out of our IT budget. That takes three months and a signature from God himself to get approval. But hiring you under my services budget, well that’s easy.”

“I … see,” replied Maya. “Does your data collection system also alert you that this sootblower number 7 is out of service?” Stan nodded. “Then, please sir, give me a list of all data points that do not exist, and I will disable them and reduce the alarms the operators must answer.”

Stan shrugged. “Sure, but it’s not that many. If you had more experience …”

“Stan,” Marnie said evenly as she looked up from the printouts, “Ms. Sharma was lead shift operator at a 4-GW coal plant for two years. She has personal experience in the human factors problem of unnecessary operator alarms. Even getting rid of just one an hour will help. And on the other subject, these intelligent monitoring systems can reduce operator stress, but if you don’t listen to what they’re telling you, you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

Stan turned to Marnie with a quick retort, and seeing the look of experience and wisdom in her piercing green amber gaze, he realized she was correct. He turned back to Maya and said, “I’ll get you a list of all the dead points ma’am, and maybe you can get rid of some of them.”

“I will slay them all; do not fear.” Stan met the dark eyes of the young woman, saw her intense and serious resolve, and nodded his head.

“Technically,” Marnie whispered to Maya, “you can’t really slay them if they’re already dead.” Maya whispered in reply, “Then, ma’am, I shall dispose of them and say an appropriate prayer. May I start now?”

Marnie stood up, grabbed her hard hat, and turned to Stan. “Take us to your control room. I saw something in this alert list I need to ask an operator about, and my assistant Maya has a mission.”

The History Behind Marnie Surfaceblow

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. Stephen M. Elonka was Marmaduke’s creator. He fashioned the character as a 6-foot-4, steelbrush mustached, marine engineer with a foghorn voice, who smoked acrid cigars, drank Sandpiper gin, and wore size 16 “canal boat” shoes. Elonka said the name was a combination of the Scottish name Marmaduke, and Surfaceblow, a method of removing dissolved solids from a steam boiler. He said the character was “a composite of all the tough, hard-working, hard-playing, but capable and ingenious stationary and marine engineers” with whom he had worked and sailed with aboard 21 merchant ships and two navy vessels during World War II.

A teller of tales. Marmaduke Surfaceblow was introduced to POWER magazine readers in 1948. He was known for his imposing size, signature mustache, and affinity for cigars and gin, along with an ability to solve complex engineering problems that baffled others. Courtesy: POWER magazine archives

Elonka used his experience to write elaborate stories incorporating ingenious, yet practical, repairs to keep energy systems operating using mostly common sense. The stories often included unusual and humorous incidents, and readers grew to cherish the character and his exploits. Some subscribers reported it was the first thing they read in every POWER magazine issue.

Elonka wrote more than simple fiction. In addition to chronicling Marmaduke’s adventures, he also authored or co-authored at least 10 technical books on subjects such as boiler, electrical, instrumentation, equipment, refrigeration and air conditioning, and general plant operations. Yet, his Marmaduke stories are perhaps his most beloved work.

Elonka died in 1983, relegating Marmaduke to the annals of history. However, in anticipation of POWER’s 140th anniversary this year, the POWER editors hope to recreate the magic that was Marmaduke. With a mission of reviving and adding to the unique history, the character Marnie Surfaceblow was crafted.

Like Marmaduke, the name Marnie is of Scottish origin. In POWER’s fictional world, she is the daughter of Guy Newcomen Surfaceblow and granddaughter of the late Marmaduke. Guy—a character that Elonka created in 1971—was Marmaduke’s son and a professional engineer himself. In 1978, Elonka wrote a new branch office into the dialog and subsequently had Guy update the firm’s name to Surfaceblow & Associates International. Today, we’re placing Marnie, an accomplished professional engineer in her own right, in the role of vice president and lead field engineer for the firm. We hope you enjoy reading the adventures of Marnie and her sidekick Maya.

From Conference Room to Control Room

It was a plant control room like a thousand others—uniquely arranged with manual readouts and controls, digital screens and computers, and innumerable personal items of the operators. As she took off her hard hat and attempted vainly to fix her hair, Marnie smiled as she noticed a Red Green Possum Lodge ball cap stuck to a monitor with duct tape. “So, I’m not the only one,” she thought gleefully.

Marnie waited patiently for Stan to lead the introductions—after all, as plant manager his imprimatur on their visit was vital. As Marnie passed out her business cards, she gratefully noted from the corner of her eye that Maya was writing down names and job titles. Although Marnie could remember innumerable engineering and science facts about any type of power plant, people’s names were … difficult. What she did know, however, was that a young operations and maintenance specialist, Brad Clinton, was the man of the hour. Marnie plopped down in a convenient chair.

“Hello, Brad. Stan tells me you’re the expert on plant lubrication systems, and I wanted to know why your new monitoring system flagged an alarm yesterday for the regenerative air heater bearing oil temperature. And while we go on that journey into mystery, my assistant Maya is going to try killing off some of your false DCS alarms to make life a little quieter for everyone.”

“Sure ma’am, but we don’t get bothered too much by the alarms,” Brad responded.

“I respectfully must disagree Mr. Clinton,” interjected Maya. “In the eight minutes we have been in this room, there have been 29 audible alarms, none of them serious. That is every 17 seconds, and this is resulting in great distraction for you.” Marnie nodded in agreement, adding, “And the constant hurly-burly of these alarms is keeping you from hearing a cry for help from your air heater. For months, temperatures trended from about 80–120F, but yesterday, they jumped to 160F and started cycling from 120F to 160F and back again. What are they right now?”

Brad clicked quickly through the DCS screens and produced a trendline of air heater lube oil temperatures. “Great. Now, add the air heater inlet and outlet temperatures, and flowrates over the last six months.” Brad nodded, and a minute later the screen was filled with a tangle of colored trendlines.

“Maybe it’s just got hotter because this week’s been a scorcher,” Brad suggested. Marnie scanned the screen and frowned. “But temperatures were stable for six months—winter, spring, and summer. What changed?” she asked.

“Sir, what is your alarming point?” asked Maya. Brad replied, “We alarm at 180F and trip at 200F, but we’ve never even come close to an alarm. We leave the system alone, and it just works.”

Marnie suddenly came to attention. “Show me the trends on every single tag you have on the air heater lube oil system, quick!” Rapid mouse-clicks led to a skein of trendlines appearing on the DCS screens. Marnie focused on the trends, green eyes shining in the light as she watched the patterns form and reform in her mind. “So, my young assistant, why would the lube oil temperature jump when nothing else changed? Air and gas temperatures don’t trend with it, flowrates are independent, the air heater rotation’s a little slower, sure, and the oil pump amps are … oh …”

Maya looked over at her boss, one eyebrow raised in question. “I heard an ‘oh.’ That means you locked the keys in the rental car, again, or you have found evidence of a problem.”

“Yes … to both. By the way, I hope you have the rental company number; I can’t even remember their name. Something that sounds like … food?” During the awkward silence that followed, Maya patted her pocket to confirm her spare keys were safely tucked away. Stan and Brad looked askance at Maya, who held one finger up to her lips and shook her head. The silence was split with a whoop from Marnie.

“I got it! Brad! Take me to the lube oil tank! Someone, get me a shop rag! And then some coffee, with enough cream and sugar you can make pancakes with it!” Grabbing their personal protective gear, the four left the cool of the control room and trekked into the hot din of the plant.

Solving the Issue in the Field

“That was a close one, Maya,” said Marnie as they journeyed toward the parking lot. “The oil level was just low enough that the pump was cycling from liquid to air. The clue was the oil pump amp readings—when the pump couldn’t draw oil, the amps cycled down and the bearing temperatures increased. Then, when enough oil returned to the tank, the amps cycled up and the bearing temperatures dropped. Also note, Brad said they basically left the system alone, telling me that with all the other planned and unplanned emergencies each day, they probably forget to check the oil. The good news is the monitoring system did its job, and they avoided a lengthy and expensive outage. For goodness’ sake, the air heater bearing alone can cost upwards of $20,000—and if you don’t have a spare handy, the whole plant could be down for a couple of weeks.”

Maya stopped to lean against a car, removed her hard hat and shook out her hair. “I must respectfully disagree ma’am. The monitoring system should also have noted the oil pump amperage and informed operations of the root cause. I will add logic to the system tomorrow so this will never happen again.”

Marnie nodded, and added, “Don’t forget, you were going to kill some dead DCS tag alarms. Or are they really undead? Oh great, next thing they’ll tell us is the plant is haunted. Grandpa Marmaduke would have gotten a kick out of that!”

“I have great certainty, ma’am, that even were the plant haunted, you and I would exorcise it together,” Maya retorted.

“Of course we would!” Marnie beamed at her assistant. “Now, do you have great certainty you can find our rental car? I’ll bet you dinner you can’t find it in five minutes.”

Maya smiled smugly, flourishing the spare key set, pressed a button on the fob, and the trunk of the car she was leaning against opened slowly.

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