Chapter Corner

Troubleshooting Success is a Mix of Personality and Process

Posted in: Features, August 2014

The keys to making money and enjoying a long and healthy career, according to a couple of veteran electrical troubleshooting pros, are: Live by the three Ps and follow a proven problem-solving process.

The methodical five-step approach to safe troubleshooting is anchored in a lifetime of experience. Chris Harris, an electrical instructor at the Harriman Campus of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT), says students have to exhibit the three Ps: Patience, Perseverance, and Perfection.

“Patience helps a lot, but it’s a different kind of patience where you have to sit and look at something and be able to zone everything else out,” says Harris, a former Marine who draws comparisons from his Tennessee roots.

“It’s like a race horse with tunnel vision when they put the blinders on it; you have to have the ability to shut everything else out.”

For Warren Rhude, whose career with Ontario Hydro spanned 18 years before launching a software electrical simulation training company, the five- step approach reinforces a way of addressing and solving a problem.

“I could see that troubleshooting was not being taught,” recalls Rhude, who went on to develop training programs for Toronto Hydro.

“Too often I would see guys approach a problem and just start taking meter readings all over the place,” he adds.

“A lot of random meter testing is a dead giveaway that a person doesn’t have a plan or a process to tackle a problem.”

By definition, a troubleshooter is a person skilled at anticipating or solving problems. Whether handling machinery and technical equipment or dealing with a diplomatic or political dispute, the job involves identifying a problem and fixing it. In the industry settings observed by Harris and Rhude, the troubleshooter is viewed as the person who is curious and creative, always keen to tackle a technical problem. The result is that the trusted troubleshooter is like a superhero, called in to save the day – or the night – when the phone rings at 2:00 am, the production line is down, and workers have been forced to the sidelines.

The Five-Step Approach to Troubleshooting

  1. Observation
  2. Define Problem Area
  3. Identify Possible/ Probable Causes
  4. Test
  5. Repair/Replace and Confirm

From the moment that a troubleshooter receives the call to solve a problem, Rhude says that it’s vital that the person knows how the equipment works and then prepares by packing tools and testing equipment along with schematic diagrams, incident reports, and a notebook. At every stage, troubleshooters should always follow the safety rules and policies of their organization or school and make sure that the circuit is locked out before disconnecting components or wires.

Here Are Some of Tricks and Tips to Become a Successful Troubleshooter

Observation

It is important that troubleshooters pay attention and observe so they understand how the equipment is designed to operate because it is careful observation combined with reasoning that helps identify the cause of many faults. Then make notes on all the features that are operating improperly and watch for signs of mechanical damage on equipment including chafed wires, signs of impact, loose components, and parts lying on the bottom of the cabinet. Look for evidence of overheating, especially on wiring, relay coils, and printed circuit boards.

Define Problem Area

At this stage logic and reasoning should be applied when pinpointing a problem area so that specific zones can be ruled out for not being linked to the problem.

“If I open the door and the hinges squeak then I don’t need to grease the door knob,” says Harris with a laugh before advising that a little bit of common sense can go a long way when problem solving. Anchored on a deep knowledge of the circuit, common sense will help troubleshooters rule out sections that are obviously unrelated to the problem. Troubleshooters should always have their schematic diagrams near at hand and make plenty of notes when tracing the failure.

Identify the Possible Causes

Using a notepad or another device for recording observations, make notes of all of the possible causes that could be the source of the malfunction.

Adding to the information that can be gained through vision, Rhude says that effective troubleshooters should also use their senses of hearing, touch, and smell and include these details in their notes.

Prioritize

Once the list of possible causes has been made, then troubleshooters should prioritize the list based on the likelihood that the specific cause is the actual culprit. Rhude suggests that troubleshooters start by looking at the components and be aware that it’s not very likely that two components could fail at the same time.

Here are some tips to help when setting that priority list to predict the problem’s cause:

  • Look for components that can burn or have a tendency to wear out, for example, mechanical switches, fuses, relays, contacts, and light bulbs.

  • The most likely cause of a failure can be found in the coils, motors, transformers, and other devices with windings because they usually generate heat and can malfunction.

  • Screw and bolted connections can loosen over time and cause a high resistance that overheats and results in a burn open.

  • Connections on equipment that are subject to vibrations can loosen.

  • Check for defective wiring and watch for the areas where insulation may be damaged and causing a short.

  • It may be a long shot but look for incorrect wiring on new equipment.

Test and Repair

Troubleshooters must tackle their list of problems and either confirm the source of the problem or rule it out. This step requires these problem solvers to draw from experience and the knowledge they can gain from the circuit schematic so that they can predict a meter reading.

A surprising meter reading is a red flag that there may be a problem. With each positive test the size of the problem area can be reduced until the trouble area is narrowed down and the defective component identified, fixed, or replaced.

“You have to understand the language that the meter speaks to you,” says Harris.

After replacing the faulty component, the next step is to test-operate all the features of the circuit to make sure the problem has been resolved.

“It can be really embarrassing to tell the customer that you have repaired the problem only to have the customer find another problem after you leave,” warns Rhude, with a nod to Harris’ perfectionists who excel as troubleshooters.

After moving through the fifth step of testing and repairing, troubleshooters should follow up to complete the problem-solving and learning process. At this stage, troubleshooters should take the time and make the effort to look back at the process, the steps that were taken to confirm and correct the problem, and make sure the right answer was arrived at and that only the correct parts were changed.

There are many benefits when a problem has been safely and efficiently resolved, the production line is back up and running, and all workers have returned to the job. Some of those benefits include cementing a reputation as a trusted troubleshooter who is the go-to person when the next problem arises. But, there is another important benefit as well.

“Bottom line, I teach people how to make money,” Harris adds.

“If you have the skills to read diagrams, bend conduit, and troubleshoot a problem, then you can be successful and make money.”

Jay Innes is the Marketing Manager at Simutech Multimedia Inc. Founded in 1995, Simutech Multimedia Inc. is a leading developer of electrical troubleshooting training software that provides better learning through simulations. Innes can be reached at jinnes@simutechmultimedia.com.