SLAC Networking Team, Contractors Credited for Marathon Effort to Keep Work on Track

October 27, 2011

Planners suspected there might be trouble lurking under PEP City, a ragtag trailer compound that was about to be torn down to make way for the new SLAC Research Support Building (RSB). Cables that ran through conduits 18 inches below the site had been designated a “known unknown”: There may be live telecommunications lines down there.

The trouble was, no one had any way of knowing what those cables did. They had been installed decades ago, back when private phone companies owned and controlled those lines, back before anyone maintained accurate “as-built” drawings of each installation.

So when operations supervisor Fred Hooker and his boss, Les Cottrell, who, between them have 86 years of SLAC experience, were asked to identify what was where, they needed to do some sleuthing.

The more they sleuthed, the more concerned they became. Working with outside contractor VoX Network Solutions and Cupertino Electric, they ultimately discovered 3,500 pairs of phone lines inside those PEP City cables, serving more than 2,500 active telephones and data connections.

By then it was mid-July, the “known unknown” was unknown no more, and there was plenty of fast work required if the formal RSB groundbreaking celebration was to occur on schedule on Sept. 14. Hooker and Cottrell enlisted Information Technology department head Norm Ringgold to help develop a solution that wouldn’t require pricey project delays.

Fortunately, while puzzling out which cables went where, Hooker had noticed six conduits leading from the PEP City site into the central phone switching equipment in Bldg. 50. Only four conduits actually entered the switching center. Where did those other two conduits go?

Turns out that one of those five-inch-diameter conduits had no active cabling, while the other contained a relatively simple fiber optic cable that connected straight into the steam tunnel that runs through the heart of SLAC. By first moving the fiber optic cable and then re-routing the PEP City lines through that conduit to the steam tunnel, technicians would have easy access to myriad smaller connecting cables needed to maintain service to the campus.

There was a collective sigh of relief. Now it was just a matter of figuring out how to get the work done on a tight timeline without disrupting SLAC operations.

Enter Joel Prado, Eric Miller, Christine Brochon, Denise Cornely, members of the RSB project team, and a supporting cast of characters from general contractor Overaa and Cupertino Electric. By doing prep work Monday through Friday and then conducting the actual re-routing straight through two weekends – and without an easing of any of their day-to-day responsibilities – the team managed to get the work done in time.

Not that there weren’t a few nail-biting moments along the way.

“This wasn’t just one solid, big trunk,” Ringgold said. “It was seven, actually – two large and five small. Everyone realized that cables had been spliced here, there, and everywhere over the decades. So this was a superhuman effort.”

Before Cupertino Electric could pull the new cables in, SLAC’s team needed to make sure that all the older cables were pulled out of the newly-discovered conduits, Brochon said. The team managed to do so in four hours one night. During the first weekend’s work, Cupertino Electric re-routed two 900-pair cables, cutting and splicing them in bundles of 25 lines called binders, Cottrell said. “When you open up these two-inch diameter cables, they’ve got desiccant in there that keeps them dry. It’s awful stuff,” he said. “There are usually two people doing the work. They find one pair at one end and then look for it at the other end and once they’ve got it right, they get the 25 pairs back together and punch them down.”

Ringgold gives 100 percent of the credit for the operation’s success to the individuals who pulled off the feat. “They performed a superhuman effort for three weeks, including four consecutive 12-hour weekend days, for no other reason than to keep the RSB project on track for the sake of the lab,” he said. “Their efforts reduced project costs for all of SLAC’s scientific programs.”

Site surveys to plan for future projects already are under way. “Lesson learned,” Ringgold said. “Each building that we’re going to touch over the next few years must, at the very least, have a detailed survey conducted to reveal and document the as-built environment before we go ahead.”