Becoming one with the machine

March 27, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

Ok, so the headline of today’s post is all very zen-like but I am yet again reminded of the importance of becoming one with the problem, technology, machine, or stereo system.

Recently, my home’s heating system went on the Fritz. As Murphy will explain, heating systems never die in the summer: always the winter. Several thousand dollars of plumbers later it’s still intermittent. Since the “expert” can’t figure it out, time for me to put my troubleshooting hat on.

The first thing troubleshooters do is narrow all the variables down to one clear problem. That’s easier said than done especially when you don’t know diddly about a gas-fired circulating water heater. But, I reason, what’s to know? The problem I am experiencing seems more electrical than mechanical. When one of the thermostat zones calls for heat, the circulating water pump kicks in and the burner fires up—only that’s not happening. Calls for heat go unanswered and so, at the plumber’s suggestion, we replace the controller. It works better but still requires me to sometimes pound with my fist on the machine to get it to work.

I won’t bore you more than I already have with the details, but none of my periphery attempts at identifying the problem worked. Time to become one with the machine.

To become one with any machine the engineer has to mentally embrace its operation to the point where it can be easily modeled in one’s imagination. For me, it’s hands-on. I start with enabling and disabling subsystems to understand how the beast works. Once it’s been devolved from a mysterious complexity to the simplicity of subsystems, the machine is essentially a part of your consciousness: you can then apply if/then statements to narrow down the problem.

This oneness is essential, for example, with circuitry. To truly understand an amplifier’s circuit to the point you can manipulate its sound one must fully understand what each subsystem contributes to the overall. At that point, it becomes trivial to pull the levers and get what you want.

But first, you must become one with the machine.

Oh, and the problem the plumber couldn’t figure out and I did? A f***ing loose wire from the temperature sensor on a terminal block (which explains why on occasion I had success beating on the machine).


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51 comments on “Becoming one with the machine”

  1. Heating systems have taught me another well known concept – realise when you are out of your depth and find someone who knows what they are doing.

    In our case it is Glen The Heating Engineer. When you find a good one it’s best to legally adopt them or get your wife to offer them sexual favours. Whatever it takes. We get on because he’s a coffee aficionado and he sometimes just pops in for a coffee. Nothing ever gets looked at before a double expresso. He got into trouble because he went on honeymoon to Jamaica and on his way back filled his case with 8kg of raw coffee beans. Customs were suspicious, to say the least.

    I do remember one chap about 15 years ago who took a week to realise there was a 1amp fuse on the boiler control board and that it might have blown. That was an expensive fuse.

    I was one with my wife’s door release system recently, but normally I stop at wiring plugs.

    1. It’s amazing what services that you can get your wife to do for the good of your ‘castle’ if you just let her choose the main system loudspeakers.

    1. “My mind is going, Dave. I can feel it.”

      Those two sentences may very well summarize my greatest fear as an Old Fa-, ehr, Dude.

      “Daisy, Daisy. . .”

  2. It is a bit Zen in my experience actually. Not an electrical engineer but having had many years experience as the family ‘fix-it’ guy I’ve learnt the basics of enough ‘guy stuff’ to fix, fudge and f*@k a fair number of things about the house. Point is, after a while it seems like intuition kicks in, even without total knowledge of something new presentes to you. A kind of “uh huh, uh huh” occurs and you’re on to it. After 45 years of this there are now less f*@k ups more Zen successes. It’s like a light bulb coming on sometimes, all is revealed. Might be my Road to Damascus moment in that particular situation you might say (but then they also say that all roads lead to Rome, so part of me remains confused).

  3. We had our central heating fail a few weeks ago in the depths of a severe cold spell. I replaced the mechanical controller with an electronic one which I had bought years ago for just such an eventuality. No improvement. However the controller just sends a signal to the thermostat, which sends a signal to the zone valve, which sends a signal to the boiler when it is open to say that it is OK to fire up. We had a failed microswitch in the zone valve. Cheap and easy to replace, providing you are not in lockdown and the hardware shops are open. Since I am too mean to pay for a central heating engineer to come out and replace a $5 switch, I just set the controller to heat the hot water, which we normally heat with an immersion heater. That told the boiler to turn on and all was well.

      1. I’m sure that they’re just being facetious Paul.
        “Go on the fritz” is a well known expression.
        ‘Bauhaus’ is just being a sauerkraut 😉

      2. Quite a bit of Yiddish spoken here, but when the boiler stops working we say it’s [email protected]#ked, just like everyone else.

        Our boiler is made by Worcester Bosch, a company that may have won the war, or possibly lost it.

  4. When something goes faulty the imagination can start working overtime on all sorts of horror stories but often it’s the simple things. Doesn’t mean it’s easy to find though.
    Is it plugged in? Switched on? It does happen, particularly where people have no experience or enthusiasm. They might actually be pleased the office photocopier isn’t working, less so the kettle.
    The worst kind, the intermittent fault.
    Hence the oft used but much disliked by customers fault codes of FNF and RWT (found no fault and right when tested).

      1. “The perversity of the universe tends toward a maximum.”
        — A corollary to Murphy’s Law.

        Actually, no. The universe doesn’t really care. That said, the 2nd Law of Thermodyanamics will get you if you don’t watch out. And it will get you if you do watch out.

        “Daisy, Daisy. . .”

  5. There are actually two types of technical minds to troubleshooting mechanical and electrical problems; academic and intuitive.

    The academic mind relies on memorization and referencing of problems with similar symptoms.

    The intuitive mind creates a mental model of the machine as Paul describes. Because direct reference to a prior problem and corresponding resolution cannot be provided, people assume the solution just popped into ones mind. The truth actually resides with within the mind’s capacity for imagination. Which is still an engineers best modeling software;-)

  6. One line of code set to the wrong flag. In 2019, after at least 6 or 8 years of internal debate, we decided to “abandon” our in ground oil tank and our 40+ year old oil fired boiler and have natural gas run into the house. Now this is way too big and too complicated of a project for a man in his 70’s to take on even if I was once the leader of the advanced thermal technology group were I worked. A very special certified team took care of the oil tank and our ace plumber and heating man installed a 95% efficient state of the art condensing boiler and replaced everything in our heating system ( boiler, controller, circulaters, thermostats, and solenoid zone valves). Now, just like is usually the case in audio each of these items is made by a different company.

    Our house has five zones; four heating zones and the fifth zone is a heating coil in a 60 gallon water tank that supplies our hot water. So, when they fire up this all new SOTA system the heating zones are anemic, however, we had great hot water. Needless to say, I was PO’ed.

    I quickly figured out what the problem was. The new boler was only heating its water to 144F to 160F. This is fine for producing 130F hot water, however, the baseboard heat through out the house and the new Runtal radiator that I personally selected and sized to heat our master bath needs 185F water to work properly.

    Now the boiler has a microprocessor in it that controls everything it does. So simply tell it to do 185F water ( it is rated to produce water up to 200F ). Not so simple. It took the heating guys one year, four visits and I have no idea how many calls to the factory to figure out that on one line of code the boiler was told to set the supplied water temperature for the hot water heater and not the home heating system.

    I have often been told that everyone makes mistakes every now and then, but to really f$%k things up takes a computer.

  7. The difference between an Engineer and the person who fixes / builds it…

    Mr Fixit… I found an issue with the design or implementation. Here’s a fix.
    Eng… NO!!!!
    Mr Fixit… what would happen if things were done this way?
    Eng… NO way!!!
    Mr Fixit… ok
    Eng… 2 weeks or so later… I was thinking…
    Mr Fixit… 🙂

    1. First I laughed my ass off reading today’s post. Easy to relate to.
      Then my above post from a perspective of dealing with engineers on an almost daily basis.
      Now from the point of being the person who has to make it work again and interfacing with customers.

      Was the fact of the wall bang near the thermostat or controller ever communicated to the hired expert? Probably not. 😉

      1. Oh yeah. I even was able to demonstrate to him how banging on the boiler kicked it into gear. The controller electronics are integral to the boiler and we both thought it was likely a stuck relay. He wanted $1,500 to replace the controller electronics and after seeing it was nothing more than a PCB with Molex connectors I smiled and told him “I think I can handle this one”.

        Funny thing was the replacement board seemed to fix the problem for about two weeks and then it came back worse than ever. Obvious to me now it wasn’t the controller board – I even went so far as to put the old controller back in service and still nothing. That’s when I had to roll up my sleeves.

        Latest news flash. Now the boiler has sprung a fairly major leak. Sigh.

        The same guy is coming out Monday and Terri and I have decided just to replace the damn thing with a new one after all that. It was 15 years old and time for retirement.

        1. Water leak. Now time for a plumber. 🙂 Don’t bang the pipe 😉 get the kayak out for the grandkids!

          Wait until you see the choices using today’s technology- Especially with gas.
          Good luck and thanks for the reply.

          2 days seems like an unacceptable time to wait before the visit. But then again, grab a sleeping bag and cot and head on over to MR2.

          1. Do not knock gas. I grew up with gas heat in St. Louis, and then used it in Houston were I first worked. When we moved to rural NY ( the Hudson Valley ) I was shocked at oil heat, oil tanks, septic systems and even water wells ( clearly, I am city boy ). Now that it is programmed properly the new gas boiler does its job while being clean, quiet and efficient.

            1. Tony,

              Not sure who knocked gas. Living in the Northeast I have had both. When more suburban, natural gas and finally city sewer. (Still a well)

              Choosing to live rural now. Oil for the heat and hot water. Bottled gas (propane) for one of the fireplaces, the stove and the whole house generator. Still my own water well.

              If the area I lived had natural gas as part of the infrastructure I would jump on it. The infrastructure here has a tough time providing reliable electricity and high speed internet.

  8. Some repair folk have a knack but many more don’t.

    I once had a recurring problem of fresh exterior paint peeling off the soffits and Lamb Chops of my house. My painting contractor redid the work but three months later the problem returned so I called in Benjamin Moore who sent a specialist over but could not give me an adequate answer. In desperation I called in my house contractor, a retired teacher with a sharp mind who took a trip up to my attic then called me up to take a look. Seems that my house that was built in 1959 had such inadequate insulation that in the winter the heat from the lower levels would rise into the attic and moisture would form from warm and cold and penetrated the wood soffits to the fresh paint which caused the peeling. For $1700 he re-insulated the entire attic and voilà…problem solved.

    Problems have answers, at least most of the time.

    1. I’m surprised at this issue. It didn’t come up during inspection? You never noticed your upstairs so much colder in winter and hotter in summer?

    2. Moisture problems in the attic and inside exterior walls is also caused by humidity from inside the house reaching the colder space where it condensates. Vapor barriers are just as important as thermal insulation. Vapor barriers go on the interior side of the wall or ceiling.

  9. I commiserate with your boiler problems.
    Here in the Highlands of Scotland I’d maintained our 45 year old Potterton BOA kero burner boiler annually for 30 years, changing the jet, cleaning out the soot etc. In the middle of winter the circulation pump went on the fritz, its a very large pump sufficient for 30 double sized radiators and I couldn’t remove it so I eventually and reluctantly called a plumber. After hours of cursing under his breath the plumber managed to replace the pump (an expensive job). Two days later we heard a loud whoomph,I looked into the boiler house and found the cast iron combustion chamber had fractured – now the boiler was completely fritzed.
    The prospect of no heating here in mid winter was horrendous. Getting a solution during covid wasn’t easy. Finally I located an excellent plumber who fitted an exterior boiler and worked several days under the floor coupling up pipes etc. Now we have a modern ‘hive’ operated boiler after just four days work for both the hot water and heating. Every cloud has a silver lining 🙂

  10. A friend of mine bought a vacation home on some island in the Caribbean and wanted to install an in ground hot tub. Naturally, everything has to be imported and no one has had any experience with hot tubs, so he has one shipped in and hires some locals to install the thing and hopes for the best. The tub finally in place and the heater fired up, my friend discovers the thing is hard to keep warm and his electric bill has skyrocketed. Turns out the installers had discarded all the foam insulation that wrapped the tub.

  11. After the Woolsey fire, when our house received a lot of smoke damage, fortunately not fire inside, we had to clean the ducts and the heating and AC system of all the smoke. You couldn’t start it without feeling you were smoking a barbecue. We did end up with a loose wire inside the unit as well with intermittent starts. Fortunately, the technician found it right away. Uncanny similarity to your case!
    Another lesson, get someone that truly knows what they are doing.

  12. Welcome my son
    Welcome to the machine
    Where have you been?
    It’s alright we know where you’ve been

    You’ve been in the pipeline
    Filling in time
    Provided with toys and scouting for boys
    You brought a guitar to punish your ma

    And you didn’t like school
    And you know you’re nobody’s fool
    So welcome to the machine

    Welcome my son
    Welcome to the machine
    What did you dream?
    It’s alright we told you what to dream

    You dreamed of a big star
    He played a mean guitar
    He always ate in the Steak Bar
    He loved to drive in his Jaguar
    So welcome to the machine

    Songwriters: Roger Waters

  13. My living area HVAC had quit cooling. Had the AC techs (original installers) out 4 times to replace 3 blown transformers, a burnt out controller board, then a high voltage contactor. However, intermittent operation still persisted. Through all the service visits, I kept suggesting a short in the 24V control wiring, which would have pulled too much current, thus the damage to control components. Techs briefly looked at the wiring, but called it all good!

    Finally had enough with all the $$$ service calls, so I traced the condenser suspect “control wiring short” to the run entering the compressor housing penetration (vibration wore insulation and was shorting out on the housing)…4 wraps of electrical tape and installing electrical grommet…no more issues these past 7 years!! Spent $700 in “professional services” that couldn’t diagnose a simple shorting problem…sometimes Common Sense (and One-With-Machine) easily trumps Expertise!!!

  14. My heating system wasn’t working in my house my ex wife and my kids were living in. The last thing I thought it could be is the thermostat which I installed new so I didn’t check it. I installed a new transformer untangled the wiring that was a mess, made fresh new connections, installed a new electronic ignition control unit that diagnoses problems, went as far as buying a new gas regulator and blower motor but didn’t install those. I Installed a new spark ignitor. That Lennox furnace was very old so an overhaul was needed since those devices were causing problems even before the unit stopped working. The heat exchanger was in great condition, I always cleaned it. The blower motor was still good since for most of its life it only had to operate the furnace, a central air unit was installed onto the unit later so the fan does get more work now. You have to be careful with older fans because if they go while the furnace is running it could heat up and crack the heat exchanger, then you might as well toss it out and buy a new furnace. A leaking heat exchanger can be dangerous because carbon monoxide fumes could enter your home.

    Someone installed a manually operated exhaust flu vent that thermally opens and shuts rather than electronically. These are supposed to allow the furnace to heat up faster in the closed position before venting in order to increase efficiency and save on fuel costs, then once the furnace reaches the ideal operating temperature it opens up to vent the exhaust fumes. I was getting small carbon dioxide readings in the house so I said eff the efficiency and I gutted out the coil and allowed free flowing exhaust right from the start. My carbon monoxide readings in the house dropped to zero. Mission accomplished.

    Getting back to the furnace problem nothing I did worked but I was happy with my rebuild job that was needed. There’s an old saying that when everything is tried and it doesn’t work than whatever is left no matter how improbable is the problem. So I checked the thermostat. Low and behold one of the wires were broken. Now me being an audiophile connection nut I said how could that have happened to me? I mean Im the kind of person who is very careful with
    clean strong connections. In fact I was considering rewiring my entire furnace with Monster or audioquest cables. Just kidding…lol. I thought about it and thought about it while observing the nice new paint job on the living room walls. That was it! The man my ex wife hired to paint the room removed the thermostat to paint the wall so he wouldn’t get paint on the thermostat, probably just letting it hang by the two wires until one wire broke. I connected the wire and it worked like a charm, have not had her call me about furnace problems in over 5 years.

    My downstairs landkord also had a problem with his furnace. We knew what the problem was so he bought the fan that draws the exhaust out of the furnance. Not all furnaces have that and the unit would not run without it. Sensors trigger it to shut down and stay off until its repaired. A professional wanted 400.00 to fix it. I bought the part for 75 and saved him money he didn’t have and winter was coming and him and his elderly aunt were getting cold so I needed to spring into action.

    After installing the new part the furnace still would not kick on. So I replaced a few more parts I thought could be the problem and nothing, so I sent those back for a refund. I decided to go online and search for the schematics. On the schematics were 3 reset buttons in 3 different areas. These were tiny metal protruding buttons like the kind you use a pen to reset and in areas where tbey couldn’t easily be seen. After pressing all 3 the unit started right up with the new part working beautifully.

    Loved the look on his face when he felt heat blowing into his cold house. Me and the machine were one in the same.

    1. The thermostat I installed was a nice digial one with presets. She hated it and bought an analog one. Some people just don’t like complex thermostats.

  15. “Becoming One With The Machine” sounds just like the approach SoundMind used when he invented his system. I’m surprised he hasn’t chimed in today. Is it possible, Paul, that you’re on the threshold of a sonic breakthrough if you apply this to an entire audio system?
    BTW, I used this same technique with my snowblower this winter. Had to tighten the cable to the clutch. 😎

    1. The great Soundmind slayed: John Atkinson, Andrew Benjamin, John Curl and Michael Fremer. Then praised: Steve Guttenberg, Rachmaninoff, Edgar Villichur, and Mark Waldrep.

      Over the last ten years he posted the same twenty-one stories daily. Audiophiles neurosis, zero advances in audio design over the last 50 years, Concert Hall design, Engineering Degree, EEAS Patent (ignore the first three drawings), Pre-Med for one year, residing in Palo Alto and Europe, Electricity distribution systems, Lincoln Continental’s, Rottweilers, California Cabernet and Steak, Physicist’s are nuts, Florida collapsed bridge, AR speaker history, modified Bose 901 speakers, Empire 598 turntable, Casio digital watches are the most accurate timekeepers, Steinway Pianos, Praising President Trump, born and raised in the Bronx, Vampire legacy from Transylvania, and last but not least Lead Engineer at Bell Laboratories which was
      my personal favorite.

      Got news for ya’ll, Mark’s too proud to return.

      1. Not sure what pride has to do with return or how that’s good news . That implies loosing on some embarrassing level.
        I miss Mark’s writings, and the occasional glimpse of his humanity hidden behind the gruff exterior.

        1. If you had been here over the course of the last nine or ten years you’d feel differently. Have you considered why Paul wiped ten years of poster’s comments from his website? Do you really think it’s because they took up too many bytes on the server?

          1. Another conspiracy theory. Ok, as long as you’re happy.

            My guess from what I see about the new web/ posting site is…
            It’s a change. Right now there’s not a way to know if someone replies to you,
            That leads to one of too scenarios,
            1. Comments between posters aren’t really welcome
            2. The posting part of the new web site was never fully vetted or implemented.

            I may not have made the 10 years yet, (but I’ve done half of that time) When things got too redundant I skipped the post. I didn’t do the dance of joy or celebrate because a point of view I may not like was presented and silenced.

            I’ll leave it at that.

          2. It was a tough decision that I was asked to make and no, it had nothing to do with the number of bytes of data. The new website started out as a big project for which we were willing to invest $100,000 of scarce funds into. The old website was teetering on the brink disaster and had to be replaced. Decision made, funds allocated, we went to work. 6 months at the most. I won’t bore you with the details of how that decision became $50,000 more expensive and a year and a half later. It was definitely the finest definition of a CF I know of.

            The new website became the long standing joke. When a new product launch was late and a revised date was proffered by a project manager we’d smile and say “sure, just like the new website”. But then worse things began happening. The teetering structure of the old website began crumbling even more. Regular posters here may have noticed the site being down for hours at a time. It was getting worse. Then we got hacked. Fortunately, we were able to rescue the site back (we do not keep any of our customer data on site).

            I finally had to put my foot down and said “launch the site, and we’ll work out the kinks live”. That’s what CEOs have to do sometimes. The middle of March was agreed to and whatever obstacles stood in the way would be dealt with one by one.

            Data migration of a massive website with daily content is very difficult. You’re attempting to pull data in one form and parse it properly to another. Websites like ours are dynamic and based on databases and custom plugins to make them work. Those ancient custom plugins that managed the databases, built over the years by various skilled (and not so skilled) programmers were at the core of the problems. When it came time to migrate the data for Paul’s Posts, Ask Paul, Newsletter, etc. we could not get the data to migrate. It would require a few programmers a few days to copy all of the nearly 8,000 Paul’s Posts database by hand. To then transfer in proper order (meaning tying the taxonomy of the comments together) would have taken weeks, maybe more (there was an average of 25 comments per post times the 8,000 posts).

            I made the command decision to nuke ’em. It hurt. Nearly 8 years of my life and the comments from our valued community went up in a digital puff of smoke in that decision.

            It’s that “simple”.

            1. Paul thank you for the background. Never once did I think a conspiracy existed. I for one figured something big was happening in the background, and even though I didn’t know of the details what you did describe was noticed. Like you said, a tough decision had to be made. So my comment about “vetted” may have seemed harsh, but an even harsher and harder decision had to be made. So for now we all live with what have and adapt accordingly. I for one have a firm belief things will move forward and in the direction that you want.

              Again, Thanks for taking the time to explain.

  16. The simpler the machine, the easier it is to become one with it. My first car was a Mazda RX4 with a Wankel engine and simple distributor. Its seal lasted 110,000 miles and I did most of my own engine servicing. My car today doesn’t even have an oil check dip stick. Everything is electronic and requires dealer servicing. It’s a better car in many ways, but I am not one with it. I am at its mercy.

    Today’s appliances all have electronic control circuitry that go bad (too often right after the warranty period ends) and service people charge way too much to replace them. Being one with an appliance means knowing almost as much as the service people. With the internet it is possible for ordinary people to diagnose their appliances, order replacement parts and install them themselves. With older appliances the manufacturer intentionally stops making replacement control boards, so one has to go to Ebay and other places to find them, or places that repair them. Being one with your machine takes a lot of self-training and effort. Most people just divorce their older appliance and get a new one.

    I have an old BAT VK-60 tube amp that I am one with. I am comfortable experimenting with different tubes and going inside to upgrade the caps. When I replaced the original caps with Dueland CAST Cu capacitors (very expensive, and ranked among the best in the world) and replaced the Sovtek input tubes with NOS 1952 Sylvania Bad Boys (also expensive, and hard to find) the sound was gloriously transformed and I fell further in love with the machine.

  17. Terrific post Paul. One I can greatly identify with since I’m becoming more knowledgeable with electronics in audio equipment and single phase induction motors for swing stage operations. My work is allowing me to take a few courses to become a certified service technician for Pocket Climber motors made by a German company called Tractel.
    I’m excited a looking forward to having a more troubleshooting mind and become one with the machine.
    I’m gonna go listen to some Pink Floyd now. Great sonic mind training. 🙂

  18. Yaaaa.

    I call it back to the basic.

    As a mecanic we see at times a technician saying ho y’a that year and model his component does that….. and nop it’s not the case and we have to start over diagnosis and all is mixed up and all it was …… a bad ground.

    Methodical approach and le it simple is often the key.


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