Do you remember that time of life when you were a kid, and adults all seemed infallible? All knowing? I remember when I was little, I thought my Dad was the most amazing Dad ever. He could fix anything, and he knew everything. I never once saw him come across something that he couldn’t figure out. Once I asked him about this – what he might not be able to fix, or understand. In not so many words, it came down to something like a space shuttle, or an atomic bomb. Because he couldn’t get the raw materials, he might not be able to build one. He didn’t say this, being a humble man, but his answer implied that if he had the time and raw materials, he could just about do anything.
Well, I’m much older now, and I no longer see all adults as all knowing, but I still think my Dad is the most amazing Dad ever. He can still fix and build anything. It’s true, my dad is probably smarter than your dad. I don’t mean any disrespect to your dad. It’s just that once, for fun, I gave him some mensa quizzes to do – turns out he is literally a genius.
One of my favorite things to do, when my car makes any kind of a noise, or has the slightest wobble, is to phone my dad and describe it to him. He can usually tell me over the phone what the problem is, and how to fix it. He’s always right. It works for the house too. A few years back when I was newly single and living alone, I came home one day and found out my gas hot water heater was not working. I figured out, (on my own, I might add), that the pilot light had gone out. I re-lit it but it refused to cooperate. Of course I knew what to do next – I phoned my dad. He told me there was one of three reasons why it would be doing this, and then told me how to figure out which of the three it was. Turns out it was the thermo-coupler. When I asked him how to fix it, he said a furnace guy could do it, but it would cost me at least $50 to get him down the driveway. Or, I could just buy that part of about $8 and install it myself. Of course, when he said it that way, I knew I had to rise to the occasion. So I bought the part, spent about half an hour lying with my head cramped into a corner between the cement wall and the hot water tank, on the cold basement floor, and I replaced the damned thing. And it worked! I must say, I was quite proud of myself. And my dad of course.
He came to Yellowknife this summer to visit us, and his visit was a gift from the Gods of Just In Time. While he had some other things in mind for his time with us, he wound up spending several days figuring out the systems on Houseboat 28. He crawled around upstairs in the equipment room, the small space that houses the batteries and their accoutrements, like the inverter, as well as the feed from the wind generator, the hot water heater and the water pump to pressurize the water lines. He searched the internet, downloaded manuals and read them thoroughly. Who knew that those manuals were meant to be read? He measured the electrical output on the wall plugs and the stuck various meters around various electrical wires here and there. He learned our system better than anyone who’s come before him, including the folks that built it. He discovered many, many things.
Remember those needy, child-like, solar batteries? Well, after they were watered, and measured, and fed, and fed, and measured, and fed again, he figured out that two of the six were essentially dead. Even though they were almost new, they weren’t pulling their weight in amps even one little bit. (Ok, I might actually mean volts or watts, but whatever.) We replaced them, a task in itself as each one weights 120 pounds and is full of acid, so must remain upright at all times. They also needed to be carried down the ladder, loaded into the SS Minnow and carted to shore. (Don’t ask me how my husband managed it – luckily I had to go to work that day!) Since we killed off the first two kids and replaced them with two new ones, we have a much bigger power supply.
He also discovered that even though we have a large copper wire leaving the house and going to the bottom of the lake, to the ground in fact, our house was actually not grounded, as we thought. This is because someone connected a wire the wrong way around. Not only was the house not grounded, but the generator was charging the batteries backwards. By this I mean the wrong way around – the current was flowing through the out wire, instead of this in wire. You can imagine how this might confuse the inverter, the collection of wires and circuits and parts, who’s job it is to control the charge to the batteries. (I’m quite sure that if my dad was reading this, he would know that I am not telling you this in exactly the right way, the way an instrument mechanic who really understands electricity would tell you, but I’m sure you get the picture. Dad spends lots of time trying to educate me on these matters, but a great deal of it is right over my head. Good thing I had to take physics in university or I’d understand absolutely nothing.) So we had one confused inverter and one floating house with various electrical bits here and there with no safety back up. Great. But, turns out is was an easy fix, just a matter of switching a couple of wires around. (I say this with some jealousy – very little of what I do at work is as simple to change.)
I must say, I’m feeling a whole lot more level headed since I know I’m grounded properly.
He fixed our water filter. He found out the water pump wasn’t very effective, which is ok because just after that, or perhaps because of that, it promptly had a hissy fit and quit all together. The new one is much stronger and creates much more water pressure – something like 40 psi, if you really want to know.
He found out the wind generator was dead. Not only did he find out it was dead, but he found out why. ( I forget why exactly, but I think perhaps the shaft inside was bent). Basically it was worn out, and he also found out that this is as expected; they don’t live longer than about 5 years. He also was able to figure out just exactly how much we could expect to generate with a new one. Although its very windy here (have I ever mentioned that before?) the wind generator doesn’t add much to life. They cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, and for that, will give you a little bit of power. I hate to tell you, but you can get the same amount of power by putting a couple of tanks of gas in the generator. I hate to be consuming more fossil fuels, but that is the sad reality. My life here is entirely dependent upon fossil fuels. I would starve without them. (And be in the dark all winter.)
He told us the safe way to run the generator, so as not to blow up my beautiful new large mac flat screen computer monitor, which we tried to do in the first week. Turns out it’s a three step process. And he also told us we need to change the oil in it – I mean, who knew these things? How do other people manage without the smartest Dad in the world? I feel sorry for them.
The good news is there is nothing wrong with the hot water heater. We thought there was, as initially our showers alternated between blistering hot and breathtakingly cold, but when he explained the finer points of turning on the taps, that problem resolved itself.
He created a drawing of our entire electrical system. This is just his draft copy, but I think its pretty cool.
Through all this he also became a bit of a local hero when he helped fix the neighbors generator problem at a moment’s notice. He does house calls.
Initially I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t completely understand our electrical system (that lack of electrical engineering education aside). It’s a simple, small house, it can’t be that complicated, right? Wrong. Turns out there is a million possible variations to each component and step along the way to building a system. Every single one of the houseboats out here has a different system. Its a favorite topic of conversation at gatherings of houseboaters – “Now J, just how often do you have to run your generator in the winter?” “Now S, do you think I need to upgrade my inverter, now that I have new batteries?” Etc etc etc, ad nauseum.
So, now we are all powered up, grounded, cleansed, and our thirst is quenched. We also have an encyclopedia of knowledge a phone call away. And I learned something about myself this summer. Like my dad, I too love to solve problems and fix things. I like to take apart broken things and see what went wrong, make something to replace the broken part, and put it all back together again. It doesn’t always go as planned, but sometimes it does. While I don’t have my dad’s depth of knowledge of all things digital, electronic and mechanical, I do understand the human body. I’ve realized that I love my job in emergency medicine because I love figuring out what is wrong. I love making the diagnosis. I love putting the parts back together again. I love finding creative solutions when you can’t get the part you really need. I love fixing the problem. On a good day, I can even save a life. Thanks Dad, you’re the best.