On the back of your desktop computer, somewhere on the power supply unit, there might be a little red switch that toggles between 110/115 and 220/230 volts. You’ve probably never had to use that little switch, and you’ve likely avoided flipping it unnecessarily, lest bad things might happen. In fact, had it not been for the preceding sentences, you might not have even thought of that switch for at least a few more years. That had certainly been the case for Byron Schield, until he took a new job as an “IT Generalist” for a burgeoning logistics provider.
“Hey, Bryant… err Brandon… Brian?” The IT manager was clearly struggling to remember Byron’s name. In fairness, it was Byron’s first day – his first minute of his first day – and they had only met one time before. “Byron! Yes, Byron. Can you run to Workstation 306? The PC there is having some issues.”
Byron hadn’t even taken off his jacket, let alone received any introductions, allocated workspace, overview on the network infrastructure, or even any tools for diagnosing and fixing computer problems. But no matter, after a good thirty minutes of searching, he finally located the 300 block of workstations.
Now had it been a normal office building, it wouldn’t have taken him half an hour to find a numbered workstation. But the logistics company had very recently relocated to 500,000 square-foot factory, and the obsolete “to loading bay” and “hardhat required” signs offered him no navigational help.
Let the diagnosis begin
Having found Workstation 306 amid a grid of other desks, Byron went to diagnose the problem to the best of his abilities. The first clue that something was amiss was the fact that the computer didn’t have a working power light. Initially, he assumed it was a hardware problem, but when he plugged in a radio to the outlet, he immediately noticed it didn’t turn on. Plus, the PC started just fine after plugging in to another outlet.
“It looks like it’s an electrical problem,” Byron proudly told the employee at Workstation 306, “the wall outlet doesn’t work properly.”
“Oooooh of course,” the worker said, slapping his forehead, “an executive from the states used my workspace yesterday and I forgot to flip the switch back.”
“Ah yes, the electrical infrastructure is rather weird in this building,” he explained. “Since the executive comes from the US, he cannot plug into the 240 volt outlet I normally use. Because they forget their power adapters so often, we just put in a few switches that allow electric currents to be changed for the entire electrical group.”
Byron was even more confused. “So why can the other people still work if they change this on room level?”
“Well,” he explained, “I am one of the few that cannot change current on the PC itself. The others run on 120v trough a red switch on the back. Heh, you don’t know how many representatives used to plug their laptops into a 240v outlet!”
A wiring problem
Having never been trained as an electrician, Bryon’s knowledge on the topic was limited, but it seemed pretty obvious how things were setup. The entire factory was capable of handing both the US 120v currents, and the European 240v. Most of the PC’s in the building had a little red switch that allowed them to utilize either of the currents, but some users (such as the one he was helping) didn’t have such a switch. So instead, there was a switch at the wall outlet for his.
Electrical current was configured to be different throughout the factory, though. One of the rooms more often used by US executives ran on 120v, most of the workgroups ran on 240v, and the large factory hall ran on 120v.
It all struck Byron as rather odd, but since it was his first day, he didn’t really want to complain. Besides, he knew that the building still needed to complete renovations, and he had assumed that the voltage would be fixed soon. Well that, and he was still rather baffled about not receiving introductions or even given any “new employee” paperwork to fill out.
Over the next few days, Byron quickly learned what being an “IT Generalist” was all about. As it turned out, currents were switched rather often due to the representatives moving around the factory. Before they plugged in, Byron would have to switch to 120v and, when they left, he’d switch back to 240v.
One room in particular was pretty obnoxious, since it was a quarter-mile journey from his desk to the electrical safety box outside the room and back. Having switched that particular room over thirty times in a period of four days, he was growing rather weary of the trip. Especially after his boss told him to “swap it back to 120v” just after he returned from switching it to “240v.”
Back and forth, back and forth, ad infinitum
Frustrated over the constant back-and-forth trips, Byron angrily opened the box and angrily slapped the voltage switch into the needed position. And less than a second later, It happened. He heard an ear-shattering BANG from the factory floor. A few seconds later, while he was still recovering from the daze the sound had caused, he heard a lot of screams from the floor. Running that way, he smelled some foul odor resembling burning rubber.
Arriving at the factory floor, he saw a mess. Some people sat dazed and stupefied from the blast, a few where running about, and a quite a few were uttering quiet swears at the mess. It seemed almost not a single of the 50 or so PC’s worked anymore. Most had smoke around them and two or three were actually on fire.
After (literally) putting out the fires and spending the next week repairing the computers, Byron’s boss filed his report on what happened. Apparently, he had accidentally hit two switches in the safety box: in addition to the small room for the executives, he also set the main factory floor to 240v. Unfortunately, the circuit breakers didn’t quite function correctly and took quite a while to break the circuit.
Fearing that he’d get fired and possibly even sued for negligence, Byron was surprised when the entire incident was swept under the rug. Since the factory-turned-office didn’t exactly meet safety guidelines in its current state, it would have been rather “unfortunate” for the incident to have been made public. Even better, Byron was never asked to switch voltages again. As his boss sarcastically put it, “having you run around like that was a real blast, but I prefer to keep it at one blast!”