Hot Stuff in Antarctica

For four months, I'm a mechanic apprentice at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. I look after furnaces and air handlers in 10 of the 40 or so buildings here. I also work on the commercial cooking equipment in the galley that can feed 1,200 people, and I change light bulbs.

The sun rose here on Oct. 23, and it won't set again until mid-February. It's summer in Antarctica! This is my crazy idea of going south — far south — for the winter. The cold of winter never bothered me so much as the darkness. Well, I fixed that. Here the sun is up around the clock.

For four months, I'm a mechanic apprentice at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. I look after furnaces and air handlers in 10 of the 40 or so buildings here. I also work on the commercial cooking equipment in the galley that can feed 1,200 people, and I change light bulbs.

The distance to McMurdo Station is 10,000 miles, by way of New Zealand. It's a place of surprises and juxtapositions. From where you are, the time is tomorrow minus a few hours. It's an isolated place. No one lives here permanently. The only way to get here is to be a scientist or worker and fly in by military transport. But it's a vibrant community. People love working here and return year after year. Everything is provided: transportation, room and board, clothing for work and extreme weather, tools and recreation.

Even though many of the buildings are old and pieced together, the doors are like those on commercial walk-in freezers, except that they open inward because of the wind. There are no cars, no cell phones, no billboards. But there is full Internet connection, and it's a local phone call to Denver where my kids are. Winter temperatures are far below 0°F, yet summer in January may get up to 50°F.

I'm working for a contractor to the National Science Foundation. The purpose of McMurdo — lovingly called Mactown — is to support scientists who study the extreme cold. For example, last night I attended a lecture by an anesthesiologist who corrals penguins into his penguin ranch and records their vital signs during dives. He thinks that if he can figure out how they have enough oxygen for a 23 minute dive in frigid water, he may be able to apply it to improving surgery on humans.

Last Sunday, I visited the aquarium at the Crary Science Center, allegedly the most expensive building on Earth. Not only is there water beneath all this ice, but there are critters living in it. I saw a fish that naturally contains a version of glycol, which keeps it from freezing! Sounds like hydronic heating!

How do we humans keep from freezing here? The heating is just like oil-fired systems at home except that the furnaces and boilers run on jet fuel. This fuel stays liquid at extremely low temperatures, and it helps inventory to have the heating system and the airplanes use the same thing. Indoor temperatures here err on the hot side.

Much of the heating equipment is old, and preventive maintenance is everything. Each furnace and boiler is visited by a technician daily. We make sure that there are no fuel leaks and that the equipment is firing properly. Additionally, essential buildings have an auto dialer to alert if the temperature drops. Unoccupied buildings have a red light outside to signal that the building is warm enough.

I tromp over the crusted snow drifts daily to visit the tiny furnace rooms of my buildings, including the medical center, firehouse, two bars, two small gyms, coffee house, guest house and chapel. If there's an oil drip, I get out my wrench and tighten the line. If it seems the furnace hasn't run lately, I jumper T-T on the primary and confirm that the furnace fires. On a wall chart, I document what I found. Then I put on my mittens, pull up the hood of my huge red parka and head (usually into the wind, it seems) to the next building.

Each furnace gets monthly preventive maintenance, including an air filter check and nozzle and electrode cleaning. There's more extensive quarterly maintenance and an annual tear-down. The extreme weather drives taking maintenance seriously. I suspect that extreme maintenance is behind the long life of the equipment.

Can you imagine getting replacement parts once a year? The supply vessel arrives here once a year in February. One ship brings everything for the next year, including food, except for a limited amount of fresh food and extreme emergency items. So you either find the replacement part in one of the warehouses or come up with an alternative. But there are few complaints. Everyone, including the janitors and dining attendants, worked hard to get here.

Everything here is extreme. The food here is like being on a cruise — fabulous and non-stop. The housing though is like being a college freshman. I share a tiny 8-ft. × 13½-ft. dorm room. The toilets and showers are down the stairs at the end of the hall. The view is like Club Med — right on the ocean, and the entertainment is unbeatable — 54 hours a week, six days a week of playing with oil burners and controls in the coldest and windiest place on earth!

Carol Fey is a technical trainer and the author of books and a DVD on electricity, troubleshooting and controls. You can e-mail her at [email protected] or visit her website at www.carolfey.com. See her Antarctica pictures at http://carolfey.blogspot.com.

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