Tags: computers, fire, good customers, smoking
I’m one of those guys who’s spent the majority of his life tearing things apart and putting them back together. Mechanical, electrical, electronic, whatever — been there, done that. I have a keen respect for all things well-engineered.
As far as computers are concerned, I’ve worked on them for so many years, I’ve forgotten more than most techs will ever know. A lot of people think I charge too much, but I’ve got a reputation for being the Indiana Jones of hardware and software issues. For anything more that simple grunt work, I’m the go-to guy. It’s been that way for twenty years and counting.
That’s why what happened on Wednesday was so bizarre.
I’ve never screwed up a customer’s computer, which is a real feat. However, back in ’97, I managed to completely trash a friend of mine’s machine during a BIOS upgrade — and quickly replaced with with a much newer model, much to his satisfaction.
The other day, I visiited a customer who wanted a bit of training. All was good, and we were going through all the steps, when the dreaded “Unable to read from Drive C:” popped up over and over. The hard drive was failing miserably. I quickly pulled it, and attempted to copy its contents to my notebook using a IDE-to-USB cable, but no dice. It wasn’t gonna read.
Eventually, I gave up. Told him I’d take it, pop another 20GB drive in it and he’d be good to go.
“Well, clean it out, while you’re in there,” he asked. The warehouse-style building it’s in has nearly forty years of accumulated dust, and the four inches worth at the bottom of the case was definitely cause for concern.
“No problem!” I told him. “I’ll have it back to you in the morning!”
It was an old machine I’d built back at the end of ’97. Pentium-II 333, 128 Megs of RAM, 8GB hard drive, 8MB AGP card, and a 128MB Wavetable Sound Card — all the bells and whistles for its time. But back four years ago, while I was out of the country, some local weiner decided to feed him a line of crap about needing a bigger hard drive (he was only using about 4GB), so he replaced it with a 20GB Fujitsu 3024.
Now, this local weiner has been a thorn in my side for a few years. He’s had a habit of low-level formatting every IDE drive he’s ever gotten hands on because he’s a moron. Every single customer of his has had their hard drives fail because he ends up erasing the bad cluster map when he does that. Sooner or later, all Hell breaks loose, and the customers start losing data. It’s purposefully done, so they’ll have to call him back and pay him a little more money. An underhanded trick.
And this was the case. The customer finally ran his disk space up to about five gigs, and it started hitting bad clusters. Due to issues with the embedded controller, eventually, the FAT table got ruined.
The next morning, I procured the replacement 20GB drive. Before installing it, I took the system outside and started blowing the ridiculous amount of dust from every nook and cranny in the machine. The power supply, of course, was full of it.
After it seemed sufficient and the air was running through the power supply cleanly, I took it back to the bench and plugged it in. I turned the machine on.
The drives spun up. An acrid smell filled the room. A tell-tale ribbon of black snaked its way to the ceiling. There was a pop. Then there was a hiss. And then black cloud, which began growing exponentially.
I sure hell wasn’t going to reach back there and pull the power cord, so I grabbed the case and middle and jerked it away from the wall. Apparently, that swift motion gave the smoldering power supply just enough oxygen to ignite into flames.
I’m standing there holding a burning machine, four inches of flame coming out the back, and noxious, black fumes filling the room. Molten plastic began to drip down into the case, which was quickly become too hot to handle.
System in hand, I ran downstairs, and outside, and threw the machine onto the balcony. I’d left my insulated coffee cup just inside the door (as I have a habit of leaving it odd places), and fortunately, it was half full. I turned the machine front-side up and splashed the cofee over the conflagration.
It hissed, and the flames abated. Clouds of grey smoke and steam began to erupt as the smolder cooled and the liquid turned to gas.
I called the customer, and explained that I’d set his computer on fire. Instead of getting the tirade of insults I expected, he laughed at me. “Don’t worry, I haven’t missed it yet. Just don’t burn your place down, and I’ll get it when I get it!”
It’s not often you get customers like that.
“What the Hell just happened?” I kept asking myself. I’ve done the same thing no less than five hundred times over the years. Why did it catch on fire?
Eventually, the reason became evident. Upon performing a forensic disection of said power supply, I found what looked very much like a burned, wadded-up cotton rag.
The four inches of dust in the bottom of the machine was a clue. When I’d taken the machine outside to blow out the dust, it was a terribly humid day. The compressed air had moved what was directly between the grill and fan at the rear, but pushed the rest of the dust tighter down against the components inside. The humidity outside wasn’t much of factor at the time, but when I stopped blowing it out and took it inside, the cooler air may have helped to condense moisture and solidify the blanket of dust. This blanket —- consisting mostly of carpet fibers, blown insulation (it’s an old building) and cigarette smoke — being highly compressed, became quite combustible and burst into flame.
The flame, in turn, began to burn the plastic components inside, causing the black, noxious smoke, and my subsequent flight to the balcony.
And there we have it. The customer gets an upgrade, of course, and I get to find an elderly Dell GX200 a good home, since it’s three times the speed of the burned-and-coffee’d system.
I’ll deliver it to him in the morning, and we’ll get back to the job that started all of this: the training.
Some days, you just can’t win.