Two years passed, and then all of a sudden I went from no updates on my status as an applicant in the electrical workers’ union to working four 10-hour shifts and either one or two full 8-hour days of overtime per week. With brand new steel toe boots strapped on to my feet, I stuffed the tools that I was told to bring into a cheap, old backpack that would last a month under heavy strain and use. To be fair, the seams of the shoulder straps held on longer than expected for the thin, single-stitched nylon and resembled a fully spent inquisition participant after being put to the rack for heresy, blasphemy, and farting in a general direction.
The following tools contributed to backpack strap failure:
Old, beat up wood handled hammer
Large Channellocks, blue handle
Crescent wrench, 10″ with red plastic comfort handle
Beater slot headed screwdrivers, one small and one large
Klein 10-in-1 screwdriverKlein electrician snips and knife
Large Kleen Canteen, dents from bopping ling cods on the head
Google gives me a little information about the company I will be working for. They automate buildings and specialize in setting up massive HVAC systems on industrial scales. I will be working as a Low Voltage Electrician, also known as an “06”, or as a tech, or technician. We make less money than “Electricians” or “01’s”, however the work is less physically demanding and employment is less of a feast or famine situation. Also, the field is expected to continue expanding as more low voltage is utilized with modern infrastructure needs. Also, it is shared with me, 06’s are a more diverse pool of humans and tend to have a higher ratio of minorities and women (whom are yet to be seen by me).
I will come to find out that we play the specific role of installing low-voltage devices, such as temperature probes, thermostats, air pressure probes, CO2 monitors, occupancy sensors, light sensors and other devices, to networks that allow the HVAC processes to be automated. We basically turn buildings into giant computers. I will come to find out that building a PC or tinkering with a Raspberry Pi and linking peripherals up is not too different than what I will do. The main difference is big, namely the scale of the project. I will walk, climb, scamper, crawl, sit, crouch, and strain all day within the giant computer. It will take close to 10 minutes to briskly walk the perimeter of my first computer…But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Training consisted of being issued a hard hat with a heavy duty face shield, rubber-coated gloves, safety vest, and safety glasses. I got refreshed on basic scene safety on construction sites and how not to get seriously hurt by using the powers of observation with a liberal application of “common sense” (Thomas Paine, you had no idea the ironic combination of words that would become, did you?).
Summary of training: Gravity is dangerous, use tools properly, and use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to prevent injury
Day 1: I show up to a busy construction site off of a windy country road that bypasses new housing projects intermingled with nicely maintained older houses surrounded by hilly woodlands, wide open parks and a lake, with a smattering of small businesses that benefit from the ebb and flow of tourists.
As I pull in 30 minutes early, my tires crunch over fresh base rock, basalt ranging from grapefruit to orange in size, that feels like it might high-center my Prius. Thankfully, I pass over it without touching my undercarriage. I park next to a heaping dumpster, and pallets of large quantities of construction material.
I meet my foreman, who immediately sends me to orientation, mandatory for those setting foot for the first time on site. We are working on building a new elementary school, consisting of five interconnected areas, with services areas in mezzanines above. They go over basic safety, and give a talk about the importance of using face masks on site. “Use of masks is mandatory, so wear one. Don’t show up to work if you feel sick, or else this site could get shut down and put a lot of guys out of work”. We are issued stickers for our hard hats to put on, my first piece of flair that shows that I am now Safety Trained.
Next I go to the COVID-19 Screening Area, have my name and company recorded along with the answers to the questions “are you feeling ill?” and “have you been around anyone recently who has tested positive for COVID-19 or had any of its symptoms?”. After a “No” and “No”, I get my forehead temperature taken, and am cleared to work for the day.
Walking to meet my team for the first time, I realize that the simple task of walking is somehow taking more–much more mental bandwidth than usual. Wearing a helmet, mask, and safety glasses that fog up due to my breath are messing with my perception. Extra momentum from the heavy boots makes the nature of my stride feel a bit different. Gloves are providing and shielding tactile input, and my baggy safety vest is also part of the noise that is impeding the signal I am trying to prioritize. The act of walking safely, weaving in between workers who are working on things and especially paying attention to heavy machinery and making sure I’m not in anyone’s way is actually a minor challenge that will become second nature within the end of the week. But not before I trip over an exposed sprinkler head in front of an amused crowd of Pacific Islanders, who delight in giving a greenhorn some morning shit. I reflect that I’m kind of glad that a minor fuck up has spread cheer and joy, and ponder the irony of good-natured schadenfreude.
My team is small, consisting of my foreman and a fresh journeyman who recently joined the company. The lessons of the day include simple tasks that will lay the foundation for the following weeks.
Insulated plenum-rated wire – these range from 18-22 gauge, and CAT-6, and come in large boxes. There will be other wires, but these will be less common. We ID cable by jacket color. Pink and purple wire are the same hues as grape and strawberry flavored Nerds, orange is Starburst, brown is a Hershey’s bar, white is mint Tic-Tac. Green and burgundy wire are not dissimilar from the colors favored by Subaru during the 90’s, and the Blue Cat-6 is a dead ringer for FJ-Cruiser.
Wires are used to provide power, some to facilitate signals. They will link devices to the network, being run in J-hooks affixed to the walls, grid-wire, and other structural supports above the drop-panel ceiling, using “bat wings”. To pass through walls and between floors, wires are routed through rigid EMC (Electrical Metal Conduit) sleeves that are secured by “Florida Bobs” with easy anchors, and other fixtures. Lengths of EMC and flexible conduit are joined by junction boxes, either 4″ or 4-11’s, with flexible conduit joined by “straights” or “90’s”.
We will have to quickly calculate lengths using what is readily available, doing arithmetic by knowing that an average arm length is about 5 feet, and the standard dimensions of materials. Standard grid tiles are 2’x4′. Electrical Metal Conduit (EMC) comes in 10 foot lengths, and the drop from ceiling to floor is usually about 8 feet. My coworkers are used to calculating footages quickly in their heads, even with long runs that have convoluted pathways. I will start out drawing out the path, and writing down my equations rather than keeping it all in my head. This will turn out to be a good habit to cultivate.
We start pulling a wire between rooms through a sleeve above the ceiling grid, standing on 8′ Lean-safe ladders. The tension required to pull a bundle of cables proves to be more than expected, and is similar to doing balance yoga and pilates or pulling in a big rockfish with a handline. Wearing the mask and glasses while exerting myself makes me focus on maintaining balance and equilibrium. It doesn’t feel particularly dangerous, but then again I remember that ladders are the tool that people hurt themselves the most seriously and frequently with. Some mental hot sauce flavors an otherwise mundane task.
Sharpies – These are used to write on the wire, a potentially difficult task if you have to hold the wire and support it in space while wearing gloves. They are also used to write on face tape(light colored electrical tape used to create reference tags for temporary use or as a final label). Tag location, legibility, terminology, and syntax in some cases are things that must be known. Also, tags are written in the spirit of the standard measurement system, which is to say that they are not a standardized set of words.
A “different strokes for different folks” approach results in a confusing patois that lends itself to taking up unnecessary bandwidth. It’s interesting that the trades use confusing sets of terms that could be standardized, but isn’t due to tradition, habit, an aversion to conform, or just the satisfaction of using a larger vocabulary or whatever other reason. This is reminiscent of how fishermen like to name fish. Olive rockfish = Johnny Bass = Sebastes sp.. Orange 18-2 Non-insulated cable = Start/Stop (S/S) = Enable (Enab) = Run, etc…
I have a lot to learn, but I relax a bit remembering that as an apprentice, I have two things going for me. Right now is my opportunity to learn a lot, and I have a drive to do so quickly. Reason number two ties directly into reason number one: I am expected to make mistakes. This is great, because I learn the best from my mistakes. I am going to make the most of my mistakes, and I will strive to make them less frequently by using observation and sense.
A political slogan crosses my mind and mutates into something else that doesn’t induce nausea or fire up the ol’ amygdala. I wish, to my imaginary genie, to “Make sense common again”. Was it ever? Could it be within the foreseeable future? Dunno, I’ll probably have to revise it to make it a wish that won’t have negative intended consequences. But I like the sound of it.