Friday, December 9, 2016

the hawaiian shirt crew

I haven't told a random school story in a long time...

I mentioned before that I didn't really fit into my undergrad geology department. Part of the problem was possibly my own class-based awareness/resentment. The whole thing came to a head right at the end of my senior year.

The geology department had a field study course requirement. The department would alternate between a "cheap" (a couple hundred dollars extra) field course and a "fun" (sky was the limit) field course annually. They were pretty damn breezy about how one was to pay for the "fun" field course, and so I did the cheap one. Fine.

So one year the fun field course was in Hawaii. All the "cool kids" who made up the core of the "real geology students" went and they had a great time, all sorts of bonding, etc. They all came back with Hawaiian shirts, and the shirts became a sort of symbol of the department.

I went to a small liberal arts school (SLAC) which was inundated with long-running, somewhat quirky traditions. One of those traditions was that the president of the school held a series of dinner parties with the seniors, organized by department or group of departments. It was considered a breach of etiquette not to attend, but I had no interest in mingling with people who'd made it clear I didn't fit in, so I skipped it. As it turned out, the other students who were also on the outs with the department mostly skipped it as well.

Word had gone around to "the cool kids" that all the geology department folks (including the professors) were to wear Hawaiian shirts to the dinner party. Nobody told me; I heard about all this later from students in other departments. So most of the department, including all the professors, came to the dinner party wearing Hawaiian shirts. And the few who didn't, because they weren't told about the arrangement, got teased mercilessly by all the other students for not matching the rest of the department. Fun party.

Those damn Hawaiian shirts precipitated my complete break with the rest of the geology department. But that's ok; I persevered without any institutional or educational support. And I'm still out here, poking at rocks, doing cool science even if I never did become one of the cool kids.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

cold weather skin

I am prone to dry skin. My face is extremely sensitive, which means I come in looking sandblasted when it's cold or windy. So I moisturize and use barrier creams and super hydrating lip balm and douse myself with sunscreen in the hopes that I don't slough off most of my face after a long day in the field.

Now that I'm older, I have a new problem. My eyelids.

My eyelids have gotten that crepe-y texture reminiscent of someone with eyes... much older than mine. And they recently started cracking in the cold.

What do I do about my eyelids once they've cracked? I must have tried every super moisturizer on the market, and they uniformly say "not for broken skin" in addition to "not for the eye area". I've been slathering them with non-medicated (non-mentholated) lip balm before going out, under the theory that if they're ok for lips, they're ok for eyes.

Do you run into this problem, and if so, what works for you?

Friday, December 2, 2016

frac tank ice cubes

Now that it's the beginning of December, it's about the time to start worrying about ice cubes. Really big ice cubes. Like, 21,000 gallons.

I complained here and here and here about frac tanks, which we use when we need to containerize large volumes of water. That large volume of water will turn into a big problem in the winter when it starts to freeze. We do try to expedite things and button up the fieldwork for the winter, but if we're not in time to get rid of the water, it will turn into a giant ice cube and then we're stuck renting the tank until spring.

I have occasionally witnessed various attempts to un-freeze frac tanks. If you catch them before they're totally frozen (say, a couple of inches thick), you can break up the ice into giant chunks with a pickaxe or other deadly object, and toss the chunks into drum to be thawed. But once they're mostly frozen, you're looking at a huge thermal mass that you need to warm up. I have witnessed giant propane heaters aimed at the walls, elaborate warm-water recirculation plans, and other hairbrained schemes. But really, the rental fee on a frac tank for 3-4 months is not as much as it would take a crew of professionals and various bits of equipment to spend days on end trying to melt a ice cube of that size.

I will admit that I have not worked in an arctic or subarctic environment, where the threat of freezing frac tanks is present for much of the year. I assume, however, that the plan would still be the same: deal with the tanks as quickly as possible, and get them emptied and off-site before they freeze.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

frac tank berms

This will be the week of frac tanks.

I complained about frac tanks in this post, but I wanted to mention something specific to those 21,000-gallon tanks that I find ridiculous and technically dumb: the berms you can rent.

So, if you have a very particular client or sensitive site, they may want the frac tank to have a berm around it. These can be rented along with the frac tank. Example below from here:
This doesn't have a frac tank inside it, but it's the same thing that I've rented in the past.

A few notes:

1. The berm is made of reasonably thick stuff, but it's not all that strong. If renting one, you are just as likely to get a beat-up old thing with pinholes everywhere. You can make the delivery person spend ages patching it with chemicals (probably not good for your chemical evaluation/inventory) or heat-sealing with open flame (also a problem for many sites) or make a stink and get them to deliver another. Even if you get a pristine berm, the action of backing a 21,000-gallon tank over it (whether it's on pavement or gravel), lowering the tank, and inevitably scraping the bottom along the ground will put new holes in it.

2. Say the delivery person did not make a hash of the berm/tank placement. Note the relative amount of water in the tank vs. the amount in the berm (less than a foot). This is not appropriate for anything except very incidental spills during filling. The kind you could eliminate by just draping some poly sheeting around as needed. Also, if you've parked the thing on any sort of slope, you'll lose a big chunk of the already-limited storage capacity.

3. What the berm is very good at is collecting rainwater, especially in a reasonably moist climate like most of the east coast. So you'll leave it alone for a while (for example, while you're waiting for your wastewater characterization) and then a regulatory person or adversarial inspector drops by and it's a crisis because "the tank is leaking!". You could eliminate the rainwater issue by stepping on the edge and letting the excess water out, but to say that's bad optics is an understatement. So you end up pumping that rainwater into the tank, causing premature filling and unnecessary dilution.

One way to minimize rainwater collection is to pull out the L-shaped supports (you can see them as metallic glints in the picture above) and flatten the thing until you're actually going to start slopping water around. But those supports aren't actually all that easy to pull out, especially close to the sides of the berm. Far better to just tuck in some poly sheeting and maybe some spill pads as needed and then gather them up as you finish.

As far as I can tell, frac tank berms are an excellent example of "optical remediation" - they're functionally useless, but they make decision makers feel like they're being extra clean and careful. Far better to use actual good housekeeping to keep a site clean, but that doesn't look as good on the check box, I guess.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

shared hotel rooms

The second question in the AAM post I linked to in my last post is about shared hotel rooms. The original poster complains about coworker who are frequent travelers and who are refusing to share a hotel room. The OP thinks that the coworkers are being ridiculous/whiny, and Alison (and the commentariat) think that the OP's expectations are ridiculous.

I have only had to share hotel rooms in two situations: once, when a group of ladies were doing fieldwork just inside the "standard" radius to allow hotel stays, and we suggested that we'd prefer to share a room rather than commute every day; and in grad school, when my female research buddy and I would split a room for conferences. In both situations, the travel was of an extremely short duration (just a couple of days).

Long-term fieldwork is a whole other beast. If I'm going to be traveling on a regular basis, or for more than a couple of days, it's no longer some sort of emergency situation but a significant part of my life. And in the long term, I need to be able to recharge at night and develop my own system for making the room my own. I agree with the commentariat that I would far prefer a cheaper hotel room with minimal amenities over a shared fancy hotel room.

With that said, I know that some of my contractors (such as drillers) do share rooms. They tend to avoid the room as much as possible, and I often hear endless complaints about snoring and room temperature wars and bedtime disputes and bathroom habits in the morning. That's when the guys are friendly. If they're not, mornings can be... tense between crew members.

As a consultant, my travel is generally directly chargeable to the client. My travel costs are part of the package. I don't need to stay in fancy hotels (usually the government per diem for an area is a good rule of thumb for reimbursement), but I do expect to be comfortable enough to stay at there for weeks on end without it being a hardship, often working back at the hotel room long after the field day is complete. As I've mentioned before, I travel enough that it is a significant part of my life. If my traveling causes long-term misery, I'm going to be job-hunting to find a more reasonable employer.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


The fourth question in this post a couple days ago was more of a complaint, about being forced to punch in and out, including for lunch. The poster thought that this was "blue collar" and demeaning. Setting aside the "demeaning" bit, which came in for a torrent of criticism, it is strange to me that being accountable for ones' time is considered non-professional. Maybe I have spent too much time around consultants and lawyers, but I have always been required to track my time. That's how the clients get billed. Even for a lump-sum contract, we still have internal controls and time tracking, so that the organization has some idea of the level of effort expended for the work.

I do not use a time clock, however. Given that sometimes I end up flitting from one project to another, a time clock would be counterproductive. I picture something like:

Client calls with some crisis or another. *PUNCH!* I get off the phone, make a few notes, and then someone calls from the field on another project. *PUNCH!* My computer stalls out and refuses to reboot. *PUNCH!* While waiting for the IT department to do its thing, I get cornered in the hallway for a side discussion. *PUNCH!*

This is why I have a little notebook to jot down the time and a word or two about what I'm doing. It takes no time and is accurate enough for toting up all the hours at the end of the day. Really, it's neither difficult nor demeaning.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

voting and fieldwork

Having election day on a Tuesday is damn inconvenient for fieldwork. This is especially true for environmental consulting, which often involves close coordination with multiple organizations/contractors and work planned on short notice.

I do know a few people who had reasonably long (multi-day) fieldwork commitments this week, and they were able to put off that work a day and travel in the morning after voting yesterday.

For the most part, I have either had office work or was able to postpone fieldwork on election day. The one exception was my first presidential election after graduating from college. I wasn't terribly assertive with my own management back then, and when I was the sole representative for my firm on a drilling job, I didn't push back and try to reschedule the work around the election.

I ended up spending most of election night at the hotel bar after dinner, watching the returns come in with a handful of strangers who were also stranded there. We were all coming from different states and we all had our own particular local interests, so it felt like a group of expatriates.

Now that early voting is more of a thing, hopefully I won't miss any more elections. Or at least I'll be better about getting my absentee ballot just in case.

Was anyone else out in the field or otherwise traveling yesterday?