Marnie Surfaceblow—Once an Engineer, Always an Engineer: Don't Let Technology Hide Simple Problems and Their Solutions

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.

When facing the unknown, power professionals must use their skills, draw from their experience, and think creatively. Marnie and Maya do just that while off the clock at Marnie’s high school reunion.

“Hi there!” announced a mound of taffeta surrounding a middle-aged woman. “And who … are you?” Shuddering inwardly, Marnie Surfaceblow, vice president of Surfaceblow & Associates International, picked up the sticker—misspelled as “Marie”—from the table, looked for a place where the sticker wouldn’t ruin her Chanel dress, then gave up and stuck it on her purse.

“Oh Marnie!” exclaimed taffeta lady. “Still using your maiden name I see. Remember me? I’m Jennifer. I was on the Drill Team and married Jason, you know, our senior quarterback? And good for you, I knew you’d figure out how to dress for success some day!”

Teeth set, Marnie ignored the taunt and headed for the ballroom, but was blocked by Jennifer Taffeta. She glared at Marnie’s lead field engineer, Maya Sharma, who was dressed in a black pantsuit and sunglasses reminiscent of a Secret Service agent.

“And WHO is THIS, your … um … significant other? Well, you never DID fit in, so I shouldn’t be surprised.” Thinking quickly to preempt an explosion from her boss, Maya physically intervened and said, “I am Ms. Surfaceblow’s personal bodyguard. Kindly return to your duties, thank you.” Jennifer, stunned speechless, pointed them to the ballroom.

Filling Solo cups with slightly spiked punch, Marnie had to giggle. “You continue to surprise me, Maya. Simply flawless improv.” They found an empty table, and surveyed a room filled with middle-aged familiar strangers, talking in cliques while a cover band passably played “Take on Me.”

“Ma’am, you have been dreading this high school anniversary, and spoke often of persons called ‘mean girls.’ As your assistant, it is my duty to keep you safe from this gang of miscreants. Remember, I hold an E2 patch in Krav Maga, and I have trained by watching films of your generation: ‘Pretty in Pink,’ ‘The Breakfast Club,’ and a reunion film with the name ‘Grosse Pointe Blank.’ ”

Marnie laughed, spilling her punch. “Most people wouldn’t remember me—I spent my time studying and playing synthesizer for a couple of Goth bands.” Marnie pulled her coat around her and shivered. “It’s really cold here! I know it’s November and all, but this is beyond frigid.”

“Indeed ma’am, it is like winter in Uttar Pradesh. Also, there is no hot water in the ladies’ sink.”

“This cold and no hot water … I wonder if the boiler is even on?” It took mere seconds of thought, then Marnie stood suddenly and said, “Come with me if you want to be warm.” Maya needed no other invitation.

The Dungeon (Er, Boiler Room)

“This school is more than 100 years old with a positively primeval hot water radiator system. I used to sneak into the boiler room and hide from … bullies. And I explored the steam tunnels. They’re really neat, really dirty, and a good way to get detention when you’re caught. Later, I made friends with the maintenance chief, Mr. Jefferson, and he taught me how the boiler worked. It started my interest in power engineering.”

“Oh?” Maya asked. “Having the legendary grandfather Marmaduke Surfaceblow was not the reason?”

Marnie shrugged. “I was a rebel. Mr. Jefferson had a patient way of teaching that clicked with me. Everyone learns differently. Ah, here’s the boiler room, and something’s up!”

They descended a half-flight of concrete steps to face a giant drum boiler from the Roosevelt Administration—Teddy, not Franklin. Two young mechanics were looking at a computer control board 100 years younger than the boiler. One of them noticed the two women, and yelled, “Excuse me ladies, you can’t be down here, it’s …”

“Well, bless my soul! Is that you, Marnie? Miss Marnie Surfaceblow?” A wizened African-American man in sooty coveralls and wearing a monstrous stained tool harness walked around from the back of the boiler to greet them.

“Saint Sara be praised! Mr. Jefferson! You must be … um … long past retirement?” Marnie responded quizzically.

1. Marnie and Maya talk to Mr. Jefferson in the boiler room. Source: POWER

The maintenance chief smiled (Figure 1) warmly. “I’m 87 years old this month, and they won’t force me out ‘cause no one else can make this boiler run. I’d shake your hand, ma’am, but I’m covered with grease and …” He paused with a surprised grunt as Marnie, completely uncaring of her designer dress, stepped forward and warmly hugged her mentor.

“Stop that miss, you’ve gone and messed up your nice clothes.” Eyes slightly damp, Marnie stepped back and introduced Maya, who very respectfully greeted the maintenance chief.

Mr. Jefferson fixed Marnie with a sharp gaze. “I’ve read about you in the tech journals. Young lady, you did just fine. I remember you, studying here and listening carefully to what I taught you about this old thing,” he said pointing to the boiler. “But, she ain’t workin’ so good right now, even with these two folks helping.”

“Can we help?” asked Marnie.

“I reckon you can,” replied the maintenance chief. “You there, fellas, this here is the world-famous engineer, Marnie Surfaceblow. Tell her what’s goin’ on, and if you talk down to her, I’ll be a mite cross.” Brief introductions were made by Keith and Caleb, technicians from a local HVAC company. Keith described the problem.

Troubleshooting Begins

“The boiler’s been converted from coal to oil, and just this last summer to natural gas. It’s a nightmare of old tubes and wires—everything’s a rat’s nest. It ran fine until yesterday when the cold snap started. The exhaust fans run for half a minute, the pilot light starts, the main gas burners run with a nice blue flame, the main fan blows the heat over the water heat exchanger, then the main water pumps start. It runs for about two minutes each time, then the gas shuts off. It goes into purge mode, and about five minutes later repeats the cycle.”

“And you don’t know what’s shutting off the gas?” asked Maya. She received an exasperated gaze from the technician. “A valve, what do you think?”

“Keith!” yelled Mr. Jefferson. “You go and have a coffee break. You don’t talk down to these gals. They’ve forgotten more ‘bout boilers than you ever learned.”

“No sir, it is good, we need these men to help. All are working for common cause.” replied Maya. “Mr. Keith, what signal shuts the valve?”

“I apologize. It’s been a day. We just don’t know what’s shutting the valve. There are 200 wires going into this 50-year-old control board. We’ve got no manual or one-line drawing, so we’re having to test everything,” Keith explained.

Marnie bent down and looked through the open inspection hatch. “Close the hatch and let’s watch the flame through the sight glass. Do you have a CO probe in the flue?” Receiving a nod from Caleb, Marnie continued. “Good. Let’s watch the cycle again.”

Minutes later, there was no progress. “Well, the flames have a nice blue color. CO is practically zero. The exhaust fan works. The main pump works … wait a minute,” Marnie paused, then smiled. “Mr. Jefferson, have you replaced the main fan or the water pump?”

The maintenance chief shook his head. “We replaced the exhaust fan ‘bout five years ago when a bearing seized, but the fan and pump are older than you.”

“And it always runs for about two minutes, right?” Marnie asked. “Give or take about 15 seconds, yeah,” replied Keith.

“OK. Shut everything down for 15 minutes. Then, when I signal, start it up. Maya, please time how long the gas runs, and do you still have … of course you do … can you take that little thermal camera you have on your phone and scan the outlet gas duct from the water grid? And, by the way, Mr. Jefferson, do you still drink that scrumptious Blue Mountain coffee? Can I have about a gallon please?” Mr. Jefferson nodded and chuckled to himself as he went to fetch some.

The Test Run

Fifteen minutes later, giant mug of coffee in her hands, Marnie gave the signal. Keith and Caleb started the boiler. Maya watched her timer and thermal camera, and after nearly six minutes the system shut down.

“Ma’am, this outlet temperature is both very high and stratified with very low hot gas flow. Oh, I see now,” Maya reported.

Marnie beamed at her assistant. “I knew you would. I had the advantage, however. I spent hundreds of hours here and know how that fan should sound. And something isn’t right. Mr. Jefferson, where on earth did they move the air filter?”

“With this new gas system, the main air and combustion air intakes are on the roof for safety. It’s a real pain to change the filter. These old legs don’t like climbing that many stairs,” Mr. Jefferson replied.

Bracing herself with a hot gulp of coffee, Marnie announced, “Right! Everyone to the roof!”

Heat Restored

Five engineers examined the main air and combustion air intakes in the bleak November night. The combustion air intake was shielded and unobstructed, but the main air intake filter was choked with dust and a scattering of hard frost. Marnie whooped with joy.

“Yes! I knew it from the sound of the fan! The air flow’s choked, so the heat exchanger was overheating. There must be a safety thermocouple shutting the system down. That’s why when we let the whole system cool between cycles, it ran longer before overheating. Mr. Jefferson, replace that air filter if you please, and tomorrow Maya and I will come by and help design a better air filter that doesn’t require climbing all those stairs,” offered Marnie.

As Keith and Caleb went downstairs for a new air filter, Mr. Jefferson smiled at Marnie and Maya. “Thank you, Miss Surfaceblow and Miss Sharma. You kept our old friend running another year. Let’s get out of this big chill, have some more coffee, and maybe you can tell me about some of your engineering adventures.”

They filed down the steps, cold and grimy, but happy. Maya observed with a semi-pout, “I confess to being disappointed, ma’am. This reunion was nothing like ‘Grosse Pointe Blank.’ I was never required to apply even one joint lock on a ‘mean girl.’ ”

Marnie laughed and put her hand on her assistant’s shoulder, “Hopefully, next year, my friend.”

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

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