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Thursday, November 29, 2012

That lovely smell of burning plastic and rubber

Back when I used to work for a school district, I may have supposedly been their Unix sysadmin, but I wound up dealing with a great many other things. One of them was a lot of desktop system support. Our users had only recently moved into the world of having their own "real computers" on every desk instead of just a select few having 3270 terminals connected to our big AS/400 box.

Poor little melted speaker

I got to see some interesting hardware destruction during this time. Have you ever used one of those coffee cup warmers that plugs in at your desk? It's basically a small square with an inset circle. You plug it into the wall and it generates heat to keep your drink warm.

Now, have you ever seen what happens when someone sets a "multimedia speaker" on top of that and forgets about it? I have!

It looks like what happened here is that it heated up and flowed down onto the heating pad. Then it started getting sticky, and when they went to pull it up, some of the material stayed behind, and this caused the soft plastic to deform as they wrestled it loose. It's even more obvious when viewed from the other side.

Front of melted speaker

I can only wonder what sort of horrible smells this must have caused.

I have another story about strange smells and melting things at that job. Once in a great while, there would be this unusual smell in our break room. My desk was not far from there, so I'd pick up on it. I eventually figured out that it coincided with biweekly meetings of another group which used our space. They tended to start 30 minutes before I would go home for the day, so I usually didn't put too much thought into it.

One day, something was different. I guess I was actually part of the meeting by virtue of being asked to present something, so instead of going home, I stuck around in the break room and waited my turn to speak. While this was going on, I noticed the smell getting more and more pronounced. After the meeting wrapped, I decided to find it for once and for all and started sniffing here and there to see where it got stronger or weaker.

Extension outlet

I finally found it: it was a long plastic extension outlet which had a built-in cover. This is one of those things which is about 10 feet long and is built into a rigid cover which is intended to keep people from tripping. It has a standard 3 prong plug on one side and a two-outlet receptacle at the other.

I picked it up off the floor and noticed the smell got much stronger. It was noticeably warm and I think I even saw little wisps of smoke rising from it. That's all I needed to see. I unplugged it from the wall, disconnected it from our devices, and took it by my boss's office. I declared that I had found the source of the stink and was removing our latest fire hazard. I told him we would need to install a proper replacement without the same problem, and then proceeded to chuck it into our huge outside garbage bin so nobody would get any bright ideas about reusing it.

The problem is that we used that little extension strip thing to power everything on our break room presentation table. There was a computer, a monitor, a flatbed scanner, a TV, a VCR, a laserdisc player, and then on top of everything else, an overhead projector. You know those things with a big lens held over a giant light bulb which pulls tons of power? Exactly.

Every time they had a meeting, they'd turn on that thing and would project their slides on the wall. We had this odd little see-through LCD device which hooked between our computer and monitor and which sat on top of the projector. They'd use that to run their Powerpoint slide decks, and occasionally they'd move it off and use actual old-school transparencies.

It all made sense now. That projector was only used during their meetings. At other times, people would use the computer with its various peripherals to get things done, but they never powered on the projector. It was only when they did the combination of all those devices that it started pulling way more than the extension cord could safely supply.

It would have been nice if this thing had used a properly rated circuit breaker or fuse instead of relying on my nose and curiosity.