It's 4am

It's four am, and your children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in a white house, and it's ringing. Something is happening in the lab.

What do you want to answer that phone? Is it a physicist with the experience and knowledge to deal with the apparatus?

Even if he's only just gotten back to bed after two hours of dealing with a colicky baby? Well, tough, because you're stuck with him.

Yesterday was Not A Good Day...

The Empress of Eastern New York decided to get fussy Saturday and Sunday nights, which was officially brushed off diagnosed as "colic" (that's medicalese for "your baby cries inconsolably for no clear reason") yesterday at the pediatrician's (we did, however, learn that SteelyKid is gaining almost 2oz/day-- she's up to 9lbs 1 oz, a gain of 9oz in the not-quite-five days since her last appointment). She wouldn't go back to sleep after her 1am feeding, and it took a couple of hours of soothing to either get her calmed down or just wait out the crying.

At 4am Monday, we got a flurry of phone calls-- first Campus Safety, then one of my astronomer colleagues, then Campus Safety again, telling me that there was a flood in the basement of the science and engineering building, where my lab is. The third call said that the lab was 1-2 inches deep, and the on-call plumber was on his way.

"Well, he's a plumber, he can figure it out," I said, and tried to go back to bed. But, of course, I was now Awake, and ended up going over to campus to see what the hell was going on.

This is the third time my lab has (at least partially) flooded, all of the issues relating to the incredibly kludgey way that the water situation in the basement is handled. The drains for the building are higher than the level of the basement labs, probably because they used the low-bid architect, so some sort of pump needs to be used to get the water out.

The sink in my lab drains into a barrel under the sink, which contains a sump pump that pumps the water back up to the level of the first-floor sewer drains. As you might guess, this cause some problems when the power goes out-- the sump pump wasn't put on the emergency backup circuit until after the last flood-- or when the sump pump burns out. This is a problem, as I have a water-cooled turbo pump and some big electromagnets that require cooling water, with a flow rate of a couple of gallons/minute (measured by running it into a bucket for a minute according to my wristwatch). The cooling water is on 24/7, so no matter when the power goes out, it's a problem.

After the last disaster, when the power went out and my lab flooded an inch deep, we took two steps to avoid future problems: one was to put the sump pump on the backup power, the other was to add a line to divert the cooling water into the floor drain (this was cleared with the appropriate people, so it's not a waste disposal violation). I thought we had the whole thing taken care of. How foolish of me.

Yesterday's flood happened because the floor drains for the building work on the same principle as the sink drain in my lab, only bigger. Any water going into the floor drain runs into a tank somewhere, with a great big "sewer ejector pump" to pump it out into the sewer system. There are three of these pumps for the S&E building, and all three went down Sunday night, when they lost one phase of the three-phase electrical power. No pump, no drain, and my 2 gallons/minute of cooling water backed up into, well, every lab with a floor drain, plus a couple where it just seeped under the walls, somehow.

So, at 5am, I had to shut the vacuum pumps down, and move stuff around so Facilities could wet-vac up the lab. For the third time in seven years (well, this is the first time Facilities has done it-- I wet-vacced it myself the first two times).

My project for this week is to spend a couple thousand dollars to acquire a hefty recirculating chiller, and set up a closed-loop cooling water system for my lab, because I am well and truly sick of this shit. I'm also looking forward to getting somebody else to pay for this, because running water is not something I should have to be spending my time and grant money on.


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The chiller is an excellent idea, to be sure.

In some locales it is legally required for labs to have them to save water costs and prevent accidental release of VOC's and/or metals into the waste stream (most potential arising from bench chemists w/ condensers, etc etc).

Chillers are great, just make sure to check the water levels (once a week or so) and CLEAN OUT THE FILTER once a month, minimum for synthetic labs where you change tubing frequently but even with your setup you probably want to keep a close eye on the chiller.

By cookingwithsolvents (not verified) on 26 Aug 2008 #permalink


My sympathies on the colic. As a father of two (one of whom was colicky), I HIGHLY recommend a short, easy, but dead-on book called "The Happiest Baby On the Block". It will be well worth your time. I'm not sure I would have made it through the first four months without it. The author's basic premise is that as humans evolved larger heads, mothers needed to give birth earlier and earlier in the baby's development, so that today essentially all babies today are premature - mentally and emotionally, they're designed for a fourth "trimester", and that colic is a side-effect of that compromise. Trying to recreate the womb as much as possible for the first 4 months helps mitigate the fussiness. He also looks at cultures where colic doesn't exist at all, and recommends several standard practices from those places that are less common here.

Again, very short, very easy to read, and a major lifesaver.

From the perspective of this morning, SteelyKid's colic over the last couple of days may have been caused by my incompetence--paying very careful attention to positioning while she's feeding, so she gets as little air as possible, resulted in a colic-free night last night. Also a night where she wanted to eat a little more often, but hey, I'll take it.

Which is not to say we won't get inexplicable howling episodes in the future, I'm sure.

It is 5 AM...

I know you were referencing the Clinton ad, but it made me think of this before, and now yours even more so...

On the upside, you can surely split off a teensy line from your chiller and have a monstrously overclocked gaming PC in the lab now, right?

My, much younger, sister was very gassy as an infant. Luckily my dad has the perfect shoulder/collar bone for putting pressure on a baby's tummy and simethicone is a wonderful wonderful drug. I don't know if gas is her highness's problem or not but it can't hurt to try. Good luck with the colic.

On the other issue - aren't low-bid contractors just great! Oh, the stories I could tell. (like why I'm wearing a sweater right now)

By marciepooh (not verified) on 26 Aug 2008 #permalink

Be careful with the recirculating chiller - there was a nasty accident when I was in graduate school with a basement lab that had an ethylene glycol recirculating system for an o-chem lab. A tube popped off a distillation apparatus in the middle of the night, which ended up pumping the entire contents of the recirculated cooling system out into that lab bay, and meant that there was no more cooling liquid circulating in the system.

I don't know what you're cooling, but you'll want some sort of alarm on it so that if you pop a leak in the system it will alert you before all your equipment overheats - like the -80° freezers in biology labs.

I truly feel for you. Ours was colicky for a good long time. My husband was working on a hot project at work, and he seldom got home before midnight and would wake up and take care of the baby for me if he hadn't fallen asleep by 5 a.m. One night, a tech called at 2 a.m. because some of the equipment was malfunctioning and he couldn't get his work done until someone came in and figured out what was wrong. Not fun.

Consider a battery-backed autodialer alarm hooked to the recirculating chiller and aimed at your cell phone. If it goes down power, mechanically, or popped connection you want to know ASAP.

If you have ferrule connections, Swagelok snugged to spec. Don't go cheap on the connections. Do NOT use a rotary tubing cutter - it hardens metal were the ferrules sit. Hacksaw, fine abrade burrs off the end, wet wipe clean inside (cotton swab - mind the lint) and outside with solvent, dry. Polymer tubing must be braided and over-rated - it degrades. Use formal fittings or, if you wire onto hose barbs, do it right: One wrap of Zonas sports tape so the tubing is not cut by the wire. Double bight of wire, firmly twisted but not near falure, and do *two* of them. "It can't possibly come off!" comes off. A few months later redo all your ties - plastic tubing relaxes. Before and after, work with your Safety people. If they know anything, fine. If not, they signed it off anyway and they can scream at each other not at you.

The drains for the building are higher than the level of the basement labs

That would be because the architect in question was an idiot. He may have been the low bidder, too--you get what you pay for--but even a halfway competent low-bidding architect should not have done that. It doesn't take a Ph.D. physicist to recognize that water flows downhill.

I agree with Marcie that low-bid contractors tend to ultimately be more expensive than they are worth. The past couple of years I have been spending thousands of dollars dealing with the consequences of contractors doing stuff around my house on the cheap (mostly before I bought the place). Things like retrofitting a foundation to the addition (don't ask) as well as additional bracing for undersized rafters. The contractors who have been doing the work also have some horror stories to tell--people who have jeopardized the long-term integrity of a house to save $100 or so on materials, and similar foolishness.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 26 Aug 2008 #permalink

We had a similar problem at the lab I worked in at Berkeley: it was in the second basement of Birge Hall, which is actually below the water table. So water was constantly leaking in and had to be removed by a central pump. Whenever the power went out, the floor would start to flood...

You do realize you are using 1 million gallons of water a year, right? 2x60x24x365 Whether you need it or not?

Water is cheap compared to a chiller system, but remember it had to be treated before it got to you and treated again after it goes into the city sewer.

It wasn't the contractor who designed the basement (or the contractor who did the work on #9's house for a former owner). It was the owner who wanted it that way at that price. I wouldn't necessarily blame the architect either, since it was probably the college that wanted the labs underground rather than on the 1st floor, for classroom convenience. Even you made a decision to leave a gravity fed faucet on in a room that didn't have a gravity fed drain.

One solution is to design it so that everything shuts off when the power goes off. You don't need cooling when the pumps are off. One master control. You could even decide if you wanted to have it shut off and stay off until it was reset, protecting everything from over- or under-voltages (or 2 of 3 phases) in a power incident. At minimum, you should go back to a sump pump and design it so everything shuts off if the sump pump is off or stops working, say with a water level triggered relay.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 27 Aug 2008 #permalink

In my experience the best cure for colic is sleep-deprivation induced amnesia. If you don't remember it when the kid is 8 years old, did it really happen? Just try to make sure Kate doesn't remind you of it years from now and you should be fine.