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TROUBLESHOOTING


TROUBLESHOOTING — THEORY AND PRACTICE

Perhaps the most valuable but difficult-to-learn skill any technical person could have is the ability to troubleshoot a system. For those unfamiliar with the term, troubleshooting means the act of pinpointing and correcting problems in any kind of system. For an auto mechanic, this means determining and fixing problems in cars based on the car’s behavior. For a doctor, this means correctly diagnosing a patient’s malady and prescribing a cure. For a business expert, this means identifying the source(s) of inefficiency in a corporation and recommending corrective measures.

Troubleshooters must be able to determine the cause or causes of a problem simply by examining its effects. Rarely does the source of a problem directly present itself for all to see. Cause/effect relationships are often complex, even for seemingly simple systems, and often the proficient troubleshooter is regarded by others as something of a miracle-worker for their ability to quickly discern the root cause of a problem. While some people are gifted with a natural talent for troubleshooting, it is a skill that can be learned like any other.

Sometimes the system to be analyzed is in so bad a state of affairs that there is no hope of ever getting it working again. When investigators sift through the wreckage of a crashed airplane, or when a doctor performs an autopsy, they must do their best to determine the cause of massive failure after the fact. Fortunately, the task of the troubleshooter is usually not this grim. Typically, a misbehaving system is still functioning to some degree and may be stimulated and adjusted by the troubleshooter as part of the diagnostic procedure. In this sense, troubleshooting is a lot like scientific method: determining cause/effect relationships by means of live experimentation.

Like science, troubleshooting is a mixture of standard procedure and personal creativity. There are certain procedures employed as tools to discern cause(s) from effects, but they are impotent if not coupled with a creative and inquisitive mind. In the course of troubleshooting, the troubleshooter may have to invent their own specific technique — adapted to the particular system they’re working on — and/or modify tools to perform a special task. Creativity is necessary in examining a problem from different perspectives: learning to ask different questions when the “standard” questions don’t lead to fruitful answers.

If there is one personality trait I’ve seen positively associated with excellent troubleshooting more than any other, its technical curiosity. People fascinated by learning how things work, and who aren’t discouraged by a challenging problem, tend to be better at troubleshooting than others. Richard Feynman, the late physicist who taught at Caltech for many years, illustrates to me the ultimate troubleshooting personality. Reading any of his (auto)biographical books is both educting and entertaining, and I recommend them to anyone seeking to develop their own scientific reasoning/troubleshooting skills.

Questions to ask before proceeding

These preliminary questions are not trivial. Indeed, they are essential to expedient and safe troubleshooting. They are especially important when the system to be trouble-shot is large, dangerous, and/or expensive.

Sometimes the troubleshooter will be required to work on a system that is still in full operation (perhaps the ultimate example of this is a doctor diagnosing a live patient). Once the cause or causes are determined to a high degree of certainty, there is the step of corrective action. Correcting a system fault without significantly interrupting the operation of the system can be very challenging, and it deserves thorough planning.

When there is high risk involved in taking corrective action, such as is the case with performing surgery on a patient or making repairs to an operating process in a chemical plant, it is essential for the worker(s) to plan ahead for possible trouble. One question to ask before proceeding with repairs is, “how and at what point(s) can I abort the repairs if something goes wrong?” In risky situations, it is vital to have planned “escape routes” in your corrective action, just in case things do not go as planned. A surgeon operating on a patient knows if there are any “points of no return” in such a procedure, and stops to re-check the patient before proceeding past those points. He or she also knows how to “back out” of a surgical procedure at those points if needed.

General troubleshooting tips

When first approaching a failed or otherwise misbehaving system, the new troubleshooter often doesn’t know where to begin. The following strategies are not exhaustive by any means, but provide the troubleshooter with a simple checklist of questions to ask in order to start isolating the problem.

As tips, these troubleshooting suggestions are not comprehensive procedures: they serve as starting points only for the troubleshooting process. An essential part of expedient troubleshooting is probability assessment, and these tips help the troubleshooter determine which possible points of failure are more or less likely than others. Final isolation of the system failure is usually determined through more specific techniques (outlined in the next section — Specific Troubleshooting Techniques).

Prior occurrence

If this device or process has been historically known to fail in a certain particular way, and the conditions leading to this common failure have not changed, check for this “way” first. A corollary to this troubleshooting tip is the directive to keep detailed records of failure. Ideally, a computer-based failure log is optimal, so that failures may be referenced by and correlated to a number of factors such as time, date, and environmental conditions.

Example: The car’s engine is overheating. The last two times this happened, the cause was low coolant level in the radiator.

What to do: Check the coolant level first. Of course, past history by no means guarantees the present symptoms are caused by the same problem, but since this is more likely, it makes sense to check this first.

If, however, the cause of routine failure in a system has been corrected (i.e. the leak causing low coolant level in the past has been repaired), then this may not be a probable cause of trouble this time.

Recent alterations

If a system has been having problems immediately after some kind of maintenance or other change, the problems might be linked to those changes.

Example: The mechanic recently tuned my car’s engine, and now I hear a rattling noise that I didn’t hear before I took the car in for repair.

What to do: Check for something that may have been left loose by the mechanic after his or her tune-up work.

Function vs. non-function

If a system isn’t producing the desired end result, look for what it is doing correctly; in other words, identify where the problem is not, and focus your efforts elsewhere. Whatever components or subsystems necessary for the properly working parts to function are probably okay. The degree of fault can often tell you what part of it is to blame.

Example: The radio works fine on the AM band, but not on the FM band.

What to do: Eliminate from the list of possible causes, anything in the radio necessary for the AM band’s function. Whatever the source of the problem is, it is specific to the FM band and not to the AM band. This eliminates the audio amplifier, speakers, fuse, power supply, and almost all external wiring. Being able to eliminate sections of the system as possible failures reduces the scope of the problem and makes the rest of the troubleshooting procedure more efficient.

Hypothesize

Based on your knowledge of how a system works, think of various kinds of failures that would cause this problem (or these phenomena) to occur, and check for those failures (starting with the most likely based on circumstances, history, or knowledge of component weaknesses).

Example: The car’s engine is overheating.

What to do: Consider possible causes for overheating, based on what you know of engine operation. Either the engine is generating too much heat, or not getting rid of the heat well enough (most likely the latter). Brainstorm some possible causes: a loose fan belt, clogged radiator, bad water pump, low coolant level, etc. Investigate each one of those possibilities before investigating alternatives.

Specific troubleshooting techniques

After applying some of the general troubleshooting tips to narrow the scope of a problem’s location, there are techniques useful in further isolating it. Here are a few:

Swap identical components

In a system with identical or parallel subsystems, swap components between those subsystems and see whether or not the problem moves with the swapped component. If it does, you’ve just swapped the faulty component; if it doesn’t, keep searching!

This is a powerful troubleshooting method, because it gives you both a positive and a negative indication of the swapped component’s fault: when the bad part is exchanged between identical systems, the formerly broken subsystem will start working again and the formerly good subsystem will fail.

I was once able to troubleshoot an elusive problem with an automotive engine ignition system using this method: I happened to have a friend with an automobile sharing the exact same model of ignition system. We swapped parts between the engines (distributor, spark plug wires, ignition coil — one at a time) until the problem moved to the other vehicle. The problem happened to be a “weak” ignition coil, and it only manifested itself under heavy load (a condition that could not be simulated in my garage). Normally, this type of problem could only be pinpointed using an ignition system analyzer (or oscilloscope) and a dynamometer to simulate loaded driving conditions. This technique, however, confirmed the source of the problem with 100% accuracy, using no diagnostic equipment whatsoever.

Occasionally you may swap a component and find that the problem still exists, but has canged in some way. This tells you that the components you just swapped are somehow different (different calibration, different function), and nothing more. However, don’t dismiss this information just because it doesn’t lead you straight to the problem — look for other changes in the system as a whole as a result of the swap, and try to figure out what these changes tell you about the source of the problem.

An important caveat to this technique is the possibility of causing further damage. Suppose a component has failed because of another, less conspicuous failure in the system. Swapping the failed component with a good component will cause the good component to fail as well. For example, suppose that a circuit develops a short, which “blows” the protective fuse for that circuit. The blown fuse is not evident by inspection, and you don’t have a meter to electrically test the fuse, so you decide to swap the suspect fuse with one of the same rating from a working circuit. As a result of this, the good fuse that you move to the shorted circuit blows as well, leaving you with two blown fuses and two non-working circuits. At least you know for certain that the original fuse was blown, because the circuit it was moved to stopped working after the swap, but this knowledge was gained only through the loss of a good fuse and the additional “down time” of the second circuit.

Another example to illustrate this caveat is the ignition system problem previously mentioned. Suppose that the “weak” ignition coil had caused the engine to backfire, damaging the muffler. If swapping ignition system components with another vehicle causes the problem to move to the other vehicle, damage may be done to the other vehicle’s muffler as well. As a general rule, the technique of swapping identical components should be used only when there is minimal chance of causing additional damage. It is an excellent technique for isolating non-destructive problems.

Example 1: You’re working on a CNC machine tool with X, Y, and Z-axis drives. The Y axis is not working, but the X and Z axes are working. All three axes share identical components (feedback encoders, servo motor drives, servo motors).

What to do: Exchange these identical components, one at a time, Y axis and either one of the working axes (X or Z), and see after each swap whether or not the problem has moved with the swap.

Example 2: A stereo system produces no sound on the left speaker, but the right speaker works just fine.

What to do: Try swapping respective components between the two channels and see if the problem changes sides, from left to right. When it does, you’ve found the defective component. For instance, you could swap the speakers between channels: if the problem moves to the other side (i.e. the same speaker that was dead before is still dead, now that its connected to the right channel cable) then you know that speaker is bad. If the problem stays on the same side (i.e. the speaker formerly silent is now producing sound after having been moved to the other side of the room and connected to the other cable), then you know the speakers are fine, and the problem must lie somewhere else (perhaps in the cable connecting the silent speaker to the amplifier, or in the amplifier itself).

If the speakers have been verified as good, then you could check the cables using the same method. Swap the cables so that each one now connects to the other channel of the amplifier and to the other speaker. Again, if the problem changes sides (i.e. now the right speaker is now “dead” and the left speaker now produces sound), then the cable now connected to the right speaker must be defective. If neither swap (the speakers nor the cables) causes the problem to change sides from left to right, then the problem must lie within the amplifier (i.e. the left channel output must be “dead”).

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