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What, exactly, is a troubleshooter?

February 2013

By Chuck Newcombe


Yesterday I received an email from a friend that brought the term "troubleshooter" to mind.

“Hi Chuck. We just had a weird experience in the boys’ bedroom. The main ceiling light went out and the boys came and told their mother. When she went in, the light was back on (not sure if the boys did that or not) and her older son said that when they turn on their light his remote-control battery-operated crane moves. Their mom tested it and sure enough it moved! Any ideas? Should we be concerned? Perform an exorcism?”

Check the connections

Intermittent lighting circuit - hmmm. My immediate first thought was that the lightbulb was loose in the socket, and the next was that a connecting wire was loose under a terminal screw at either the socket or the switch.

We’ll get back to my friend’s conundrum, and the unusual (and seemingly unrelated) symptom later. For now, let’s focus on the question in the headline.

I was contacted because I have a reputation for being a good troubleshooter. Many of you reading this certainly qualify for this title, and I’d bet there are many different stories about how each of you developed your skills and how you apply them. [We’d like to hear a few.]

An introductory summary definition from Wikipedia [with a few edits by me] says:

Troubleshooting is a form of problem solving, often applied to repair failed products or processes. It is a logical, systematic search for the source of a problem so that it can be solved. Troubleshooting is needed to develop and maintain complex systems where the symptoms of a problem can have many possible causes. It requires identification of the malfunction(s) or symptoms within a system. Then, experience is commonly used to generate possible causes of the symptoms. Determining which cause is most likely is often a process of elimination - eliminating potential causes of a problem. Finally, troubleshooting requires confirmation that the solution restores the product or process to its working state.

There are a few key words and phrases in this definition that might shorten the definition.

Problem solving; a logical, systematic process based on experience, leading to a process of elimination of possible causes until a cause of a problem is found. Troubleshooting requires confirmation that the solution restores the product or process to its working state.

Troubleshooting is needed to develop and maintain complex systems where the symptoms of a problem can have many possible causes.

Maintaining systems

I developed most of my troubleshooting skills in the context of automotive, electrical and, later, electronic repair. I usually worked under the logical assumption that the system had previously worked correctly, and that something had changed to cause a problem.

One of the things I learned fairly quickly was that I needed to understand how the system was designed to work in order to develop a systematic test process. Then, as I solved similar problems, I was soon able to categorize the most likely causes, based on experience.

So, how does a battery-operated crane with remote control fit into a household electrical circuit problem?

Enter Heinrich Hertz and Guglielmo Marconi.

Marconi, an Italian inventor, had an idea for a practical use of electromagnetic radiation, also known as radio waves, first described by Heinrich Hertz in 1888. Marconi developed a scheme to communicate without the need for wires, and as his idea was developed, the simplest method for producing the radio waves was to use a spark-gap transmitter.

I’m not sure how this solution was arrived at, but a good guess from my troubleshooting mind is that someone observed that the radio receivers of the day, known as “coherers,” picked up static during a thunderstorm, and that the noise heard was correlated to the lightning flashes in the storm. It’s likely that you have observed such behavior in an AM radio in similar situations.

Process of elimination and confirmation

Loose connections in an electrical circuit can easily cause arcing and sparks - good sources for broad spectrum radio signals - so my first thought for the cause of the problem described seemed to fit. Experience suggested a second possible source, as I noted in my response to my friend.

My guess is that the lightbulb may be loose in the socket, or there may be a loose connection in the socket or at the switch. The little arcs that may result could cause intermittent operation and could produce a burst of radio waves that might affect radio control devices. On rare occasions, a lightbulb that is about to fail will act in a similar manner.

Why did I add the last sentence? Somewhere in my deep dark past, I noticed static on the radio that went away when a nearby light was turned off. The next time the light was turned on, it flashed and burned out. Add powers of observation and memory to experience in the troubleshooter’s toolkit.

My friend confirmed that the problem went away with the replacement of the lightbulb.

Darn! I was looking forward to the exorcism. I’ve never participated in one of those.

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