The Season in Sitreps

It's hard to believe it's been almost two months since I've posted here. Time really does fly by around mid-winter. That's my excuse, anyway. It's also been really cold the last few weeks, which has been keeping me very busy trying to deal with freezing fuel systems. Anyhow, I want to do something a little bit different here. As you may recall, I worked part time as a fuelie over the summer. What that translated to for winter is my responsibility for the weekly fuel usage and inventory report (the fuels sitrep). When I took over for the winter, I replaced the standard formal greeting on the sitrep distribution email with something a little more fun, usually along the lines of "This week in fuels, [something silly]." Looking back at all of them, it provides another way to look at the events of weeks past. So without further ado, a history of winter 2015 as told through the fuels sitrep.

March 28, 2015 - This week's fuels sitrep includes an attachment! That's certainly enough excitement for me.

I don't have any of my emails before the end of March, so this is as early as they go back. I had finally ended a three-week streak of forgetting to attach the sitrep to the email and was quite proud of myself.

April 4, 2015 - This week in fuels included multiple rounds of outbuilding fueling, some preventative maintenance on the surly, and a trained attack rabbit.

One of the primary duties of the heavy equipment operator in the winter is to drive a 953 tracked loader with a fuel tank mounted to the front out to the various outbuildings and fill all the tanks for the diesel furnaces. This winter, with no full-time HEO, that duty is split between myself, one of the maintenance techs, and our carpenter. By far, the biggest problem is that fueling has to happen weekly. If a building runs out of fuel, it goes cold, and that can be a big problem if that building happens to house hundreds of millions of dollars worth of telescopes. In early april, the fuel pickup in one of the observatory buildings broke and the building went cold. Because we didn't know how low the tank could get, we started fueling twice weekly. It was a pain.

April 11, 2015 - This week in fuels... wasn't very exciting actually. Which is good.

After working out a suitable fueling interval for the broken tank, things calmed down.

April 18, 2015 - This week in fuels, we dipped the tanks!

In addition to the main supply of fuel stored in the fuel arch, we also have an emergency supply stored about a mile downwind of the station in a number of 10,000 and 5,000 gallon tanks. Because they are out away from the station and not regularly used, we have to check how much fuel is in them once a month so we know they aren't leaking.

April 25, 2015 - This week in fuels was quite a bit warmer! Although come to think of it, that's more meteorology's problem than mine. But you won't find me complaining!

Ah, I knew nothing yet. It hadn't even broken -90. But I'm always glad to go out and fill tanks if it isn't so cold.

May 2, 2015 - This week in fuels, we cut the outbuilding fueling schedule in half! Yee-haw!

Everyone's favorite problem child tank was repaired and so we were able to go back to fueling once a week. It was tremendously exciting.

May 9, 2015 - This week neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail stayed these fuelies from their appointed rounds.... Eh, whatever. It was pretty cold.

It got cold again. I actually wasn't that cold, but a storm system blew through. I'll take really cold and still over not so cold and windy any day. The wind just cuts right through you.

May 16, 2015 - I don't have anything to say this week, so the sitrep is attached as normal.

I was well and truly over my "forgetting attachments" phase now.

May 23, 2015 - This week in fuels, we dipped the tanks again!

That time of the month.

May 30, 2015 - This week in fuels, we survived May! Woo-hoo!

It's funny how time passes down here. Days drag on, but the weeks go by so fast it's hard to keep track of them.

June 6, 2015 - This week in fuels, we discovered that it's pretty cold in the fuel arch!

In planning for future maintenance projects in the fuel arch, I was asked what the temperature was. There are three thermometers in the fuel arch, and none of them read even remotely the same thing. So I had to track down a known accurate thermometer (which is surprisingly difficult) and install it. For the curious: -52.

June 13, 2015 - This week in fuels, the station got launched into low earth orbit!


The meteorology instruments froze solid, causing a rather interesting reading from the barometric altimeter.

June 20, 2015 - This week in fuels, we replaced some of the beverages in the booze barn with fuel. That's one thing that won't be damaged if the furnace goes out!

The booze barn, officially known as the beverage storage facility, is a small cube-shaped building just downwind of the station. It is also the only building kept under lock and key because, as the name implies, it is where all the alcohol is stored. During a cold snap, the fuel line to the furnace froze and the building went cold. The maintenance staff fixed it quickly, but some of the drinks had already frozen. The club soda went first, then the rest of the sodas in order of decreasing water content. Some of the wine froze as well, meaning it could not be sold in the store. The galley made a large amount of sangria with fruit cocktail since no one here remembers what fresh fruit is anymore. Overall, I'd mark it up as a win.

June 27, 2015 - This week in fuels, we switched the active tank to one containing fine chardonnay. The power plant smells quite nice now.

There had been a small glycol spill during maintenance on one of the generators, with the result being the power plant smelling of hot glycol. Little did I know that three days after I sent out this email, we would have a mass casualty drill involving... a glycol leak in the power plant.

July 4, 2015 - This week in fuels, we said happy birthday to America with cold temperatures and gelled fuel lines!

This time period is actually on the graph at the top of the page, and was when I really learned what cold meant. We spent eight days with temperatures below -100, tying the record set in 1982. Over the course of this period, three buildings (one housing multiple telescopes) suffered gelled fuel lines and lost their furnaces. I woke up early on my day off to prevent to be a maintenance tech and get the heat going in the cryogenics storage building. That still makes me laugh. What, the south pole isn't cold enough?

July 11, 2015 - This week in fuels, we evaluated the feasibility of replacing heavy equipment with Siberian ponies for fueling in extremely cold temperatures. They worked well enough for Scott, didn't they?

One of the rules we have to abide by here is the minimum temperature limits for equipment. Most machinery here can't be run below -60, including the loader I use for fueling. Fueling, however, is classified as "mission critical," so it's OK to use equipment for it. That doesn't mean it's good for the equipment though. Air filters freeze up, and can strand you halfway back from the dark sector. Fuel can gel in the lines. Hydraulic hoses snap like twigs. So when it's really, really cold out (as it was recently), we have to make many trips out and back to fuel so the machines don't cold-soak too much. In effect, it turns a job that usually takes two hours in a day into a job that takes an hour a day for three days. In his attempt to be the first to the pole, Robert F. Scott attempted to use Siberian ponies to pull his sledges. They all died. And, well, we all know how Scott did in his quest. I figured maybe where CAT fails, ponies would succeed. Worth a shot, right?

And that brings us to the present, when it's a balmy -65 and the fuel flows like really cold water. Works for me.

Jeremy Bloyd-Peshkin

Machinist, Welder, Driver, Adventurer, Mechanic, Always smells like something flammable.