Troubleshooting Rabbit Holes

Have you ever tried to troubleshoot something and no matter what you throw at it, you just cannot fix it. Everything you try ends up in disaster. You shotgun parts at it, only to make things worse. I’ve been there, and done that. Here are some potential troubleshooting rabbit holes and safety pitfalls to consider.

Trusting that a brand-new component will always be good.

Yes, most of the time components are good, and have been thoroughly tested in a factory under several tests and stamped by Quality Control. But that doesn’t mean that things can fail either in shipping, the part was mislabeled, or is just bad. When troubleshooting and nothing is working, it just might be that the brand-new part is bad.

With that said, there were times I damaged a brand new part while replacing it. Components like transistors and IC chips are heat sensitive, and when you’re replacing them especially on a multilayer circuit board, it takes extra heat and finesse to get it done right.

This also goes with replacing parts like car headlamps or photocell drums in laser printers. If you touch these parts with your bare hands during the installation process, the oil from your skin will seriously damage the part or at the very least shorten its lifespan.

Replacing OEM part with inferior one.

When it comes to automotive electrical systems, nothing is more notorious to send you down the rabbit hole than replacing an Original Equipment Manufactured (OEM) part with an aftermarket one.

Twice I owned a 2007 Honda Fit. Loved that car. I loved it so much that after it was destroyed in an automobile accident, I bought another one exactly like it. But on my way back from a jobsite over 300 miles from home in the middle of nowhere Iowa, I blew an ignition coil. Found a mechanic and he was able to replace the part several hours later. About two months later I blew another one; then another one. After replacing them all several times (thankfully all under warranty after the first time) I knew something wasn’t right. Yeah think?

So after some investigating I discovered that when it comes to electrical and ignition systems, Honda requires OEM parts that are carefully fine-tuned beyond regular specifications. Once I had a Honda dealer replace all four ignition coils and spark plugs, I never had the problem again.

Assuming there is only one failure that is causing the problem.

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me. Though single-failure problems are ideal in troubleshooting, it’s not always the case. Sometimes whatever catastrophic things happen, it winds up blowing multiple components — thus creating multiple issues. One thing that drives me crazy is when people just replace fuses, keep replacing fuses till one works. Here’s a hint: it won’t. Something is causing the fuses to pop, and you need to find that cause.

Not Checking Your Test Equipment.

In some of my jobs, I had to have all my test equipment checked once a year. It was a great practice, and wish all my jobs did this. Whether it is electronic multi-meters, signal generators, voltage supplies, oscilloscopes, or spectrum analyzers. If you don’t have a good signal or voltage in, or reading the wrong signal or voltage out…it will always send you down a rabbit hole. Now, if you suspect a meter not working, and you you get a different reading when you swap it with another one — which one is bad?

Also, it may be as easy as replacing the batteries that can cause issues and wrong readings. Most meters should be equipped with a low battery indicator, but some do not.

Also, for safety’s sake, when testing potentially dangerous voltage, remember to test the meter on a good known source of voltage before and after the servicing the circuit.

  1. Test a similar known good source of voltage. If the reading is correct, proceed to the testing circuit.
  2. Test the circuit you are testing. If the circuit is open, then do the repair.
  3. Test the circuit that you repaired.
  4. Test the known good source of voltage before leaving or packing your meter.

Thinking two failures on the same equipment can either be a coincidence, or a casualty.

This can get weird when you are working on something and find two or more things wrong with a unit. They can be coincidental that they failed at the same time, or one caused the other. You can try to duplicate the problem, and isolate the separate problems, but I have to admit, one of the toughest ones to solve.

You’ve looked so hard you’ve become blind to the problem.

Sometimes when you’ve troubleshot a problem for so long that you’ve become blind to the obvious or overlook crucial clues to the problem. It’s best to take a break, and if you can, have someone else look at it. A new set of eyes on a problem is usually what you need to find the issue.

With that being said, “too many cooks spoil the soup.” You may have other people trying to fix an issue and replacing parts, making adjustments, and thus sometimes causing more issues. It is best to create a logbook of all the adjustments, parts replaced, and what was done by each technician. But, I have been on jobs when I’ve been fighting something for three hours and a colleague comes by, makes a quarter-turn screwdriver adjustment, and everything works like brand new. It’s a humbling experience, but we all have been on either side of the coin at some point.

Failing to question the troubleshooting work of others on the same job.

Don’t ever think that questioning another technician’s skills or troubleshooting, that you are mean or critical. If the person you are questioning ever gets mouthy on you for questioning them…they need to be slapped. Not really, but — we all make mistakes. We are human. We all fall short (Romans 3:23). Like we saw in the previous section, sometimes others are so tired, they either overlook or forget to do something to test or adjust.

Also, never assume the other technicians know exactly what they are doing or checked everything in the system. Even worse, some people lie to get away with something they did to make it worse. I’ve seen machine operators try to fix something, make it worse, and not “fess-up” to what they did being afraid they will get in trouble or fired. An example of this happened when I was called to a site and a belt fell off a machine and an operator put it back on wrong. It looked good from my point of view, but he had added an extra twist onto a pulley. Refusing to tell me cost me two hours of my time, and time he wasn’t working. Sometimes operators even intentionally broke the machines so that they didn’t have to work! Trust me, I’ve seen it all.

Being under pressure or rushed.

There is so many problems with this section that can either be disastrous not only to the equipment, but also the technician or operator using it. It’s not worth being in a hurry and overlooking safety and then end up hurting yourself, others, or leading to death. “Time is money,” but also being rushed can be even more costly if you just took your time and evaluate concerns. Hasty repairs can also result in further damage than before the repair was made when a system is restarted.

If the potential for greater harm is present, the troubleshooter needs to politely address the pressure received from others, and maintain their perspective in the midst of chaos. Politely tell them the dangers of rushing others, and how things can be worse if not addressed. Interpersonal skills are just as important in this realm as technical ability!

Blaming others

Blaming others for reasons of ignorance, pride, laziness, or other human issues, never works out to our advantage. We must remember that we are a team, especially when maintenance is divided between shifts, crews, and departments.

Instead of blaming others for problems, we should come together and show how you came to that conclusion in a calm, positive manner. We are all human, and we all make mistakes. But instead finger-pointing, it is best to show the receipts and the proof of what you found. The other crew, technician, or group is not the enemy; the enemy that needs to be defeated is the mechanical or electrical problem. It is even better when you can help the other person or crew fixing the issue hands-on instead of abandoning it and saying, “Not my problem.”

One way to get around this, especially if there are several technicians fixing the same problem, is to start a log of all the troubleshooting tactics that were used, by whom, and document what they did. Not only does this help in solving the problem, but also you have a record of how to fix it…hopefully faster the second time around. The hardest part is to get everyone on board to write it down.

System is good, documentation bad

People are flawed. That goes without saying. This is even true when it comes to documentation, manuals, schematics, and so on. This is especially true when dealing with new equipment in a testing scenario.

I can’t tell you how many times I went on a rabbit hunt only to discover that the schematic or test was written down wrong. Even my coffee maker’s instructions do not show how to shut off the cleaning light. I actually had to find an online video to show it. But what is worse than finding a mistake in a manual is not reporting it.

Though some of these are worst case scenario’s, they do happen and should not be overlooked, especially when you have exhausted all resources.

Did I leave something out? Feel free to add your ideas in the comments below.

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