Don’t Go Hunting for Zebras in the Jungle

I once had a teacher who was old school—he couldn’t explain the math on why something worked one way or the other, but he could figure out problems and fix stuff. He was a technician for over 40 years and had tons of real-world experience. One of his favorite sayings was, “Don’t go hunting for zebras in the jungle.” You may be as confused as I was when I first heard it, but the saying turned out to be wise advice when applied to troubleshooting. It means that when faced with a problem, start with the easiest and most likely solutions first, as they will usually solve the issue. It’s easy to get lost looking at things that have no relation to what the actual problem is. Instead, start with what you know and work on identifying the most likely issues till the solution is found.

I applied this recently on a service call where steam humidifiers were not working in a hospital. The humidifiers were buried in the ceiling above a finished common area in the hospital—not an area that is easy to start tearing into. So, in order to not go hunting for zebras in the jungle, I began by identifying the problem: the humidifiers are not getting steam which is causing them to not work. The lines are cold to the humidifiers and the steam traps are cold.

In this case, the place to start is not tearing apart the ceiling and looking for problems with the humidifiers. That would be hunting for zebras in the jungle—something an inexperienced tech may do. The first logical step is to verify in the boiler room three floors below that there is steam being fed to the humidifiers. I verified the boilers were running and that the PRV was operational, and visually checked that there was low pressure steam exiting the boiler room on the pipe connected to the humidifiers. So, if steam is being fed to the humidifiers there has to be a blockage either before or after the units.

I knew that water was being held in the steam and condensate lines around the humidifiers, so the blockage was most likely after the units. The next logical place to look is the condensate return point in the boiler room. That is the end point of the system and the problem has to be somewhere between the tank and the humidifiers. I shut down the steam and cracked a union and water came pouring out; not just any water, cold water. Now I immediately knew that the problem was between the union and the return tank, as it was physically impossible for water to be above the union and the tank to only be half full unless there was a blockage.

After more inspection I found the last pipe before the low-pressure condensate return to the tank was blocked. I replaced the pipe, got steam up to pressure again, and the humidifiers started working. Problem solved, and I avoided wasting hours looking at piping that was never really the issue. I knew condensate lines get blocked and that steam traps usually fail to open, so the most likely issue was the condensate return. This problem and solution could have had someone looking in ceilings for hours for an issue that would have been at the bottom of the list of the most likely solutions— hunting for zebras in the jungle. On your next service call, work from top down and start with the most logical solution. You’ll most likely will find what you are looking for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *