Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Pulling Cable

Pulling cable is a HARD, dirty job. We pull everything from telephone wire, to coax, to half-inch fiber optic bundles, to four-inch thick power cables wrapped in rubber and steel mesh sheathing. And we’ll do it anywhere, inside, outside, aerial runs between buildings, or through underground tunnels.

Sometimes it means digging a trench, laying a bed of crushed rock, and merely stringing the cable along before filling the trench in again. This works okay for outside power, but for comm. cables you usually have to protect the cable in some type of duct or conduit. If it’s a permanent install, you might put in an entire manhole-duct system. This is like a series of sewer pipes except instead of carrying waste, they are filled with different comm cables. I don’t mind new duct systems, but stepping through an existing manhole into an underground cement cable vault is always scary because of the spiders and snakes. I’ve seen some pretty nasty spiders out here, and a couple of even nastier spider bites.

Mostly, the big jobs are power. I swear to God some of those power cables are as heavy as anchor chains. We do a survey before hand so we know where we need to tap into the grid, and what route we need to take to get the cable where we need it to go. Usually this will be from one or more transformers to a series of two- or four-hundred amp distribution boxes, and from there to the individual pieces of equipment needing power. You’d be surprised how much electricity a fair sized building can eat up, especially when you take into consideration multiple networks, each with their own routers, switches, and servers. And everyone always wants more.

We’ll start during the day by pre-positioning the cable reel, usually with a forklift. Then we unroll and measure the length we need - usually between one and three or maybe four-hundred feet. It’s hard to work with the longer lengths just because of the weight of the cable. We wait until the sun goes down before we actually start the pull, though, just so it isn’t so hot.

This last time was fairly typical: We ran a length outside from the contractor’s generators, into a building, then up to the third floor, through the crawlspace between the floors to what would be the D wing, and then down the walls to the distro boxes in one of the server rooms. But to understand how convoluted this can be, I have to describe one of these buildings. I have surveyed a lot of former and current Iraqi government buildings, and they all share certain characteristics. First, they are all marble, cement, and cinder block. No wood frames, and no sheetrock. Secondly, no room is square. Even square rooms aren’t really square if you measure them, and you have to measure them all because there are never any drawings to work from. Third, they all have hidden passageways, service ducts, and crawlspaces. And I mean throughout the whole building, not even including the secret tunnels in the basements (once I saw bloody hand prints on the wall of a tunnel under the high court building). And last, the construction is always shoddy. This is very apparent from inside the guts of a structure, where you can see bare electric wires, ungrounded distribution boxes, and half-mixed pockets of concrete falling out of the pillars holding the building up.

So we have a couple of guys wrestling the cable through a hole in the exterior wall, and then a couple more dragging it to a service stairway that we’re using to route the beast up to the third floor. The stairway itself looks like one of those circular iron jobs, and it goes from the ground floor all the way to the roof. It’s very narrow, very steep, and looks like it was welded out of what appear to be bits and pieces of left over steel and angle iron (we call it the stairway of doom). There’s no way even a team of guys could carry the weight of this cable up the stairway, so we’ve hooked a block and tackle to the underside of the top of the stairs. Two guys work the tackle, while two more are crammed onto the tiny catwalk they call the third floor “landing” so that they can guide the cable (usually with much shouting and swearing) through a hole we’ve made in the wall.

On the other side of the wall, inside what we call the third floor “attic,” are two more guys pulling and guiding the cable across the crawl space between the floors. This space averages about 36 inches in height, and is pretty much 100% occupied by steel rebar, ventilation ducts, plumbing, electrical conduit, and miscellaneous other structural details. And by rats, although the closest I have come to personally seeing one is to have placed my hand on top of a dead one while crawling along several months ago.

The attic is by far the worst job. It’s dark (pitch black, actually), you’re always hitting your head, and every time you move you stir up enough dust to choke a camel. The last time I was in the attic I had to reach an area that was blocked off by a two and a half foot tall steel duct suspended from the ceiling, under which I had to crawl for what seemed like 30 feet. Did I tell you that I don’t like small spaces? And I especially don’t like crawling under ducts with 6 inches of space while breathing dust and asbestos and rat shit and who knows what else. Uggg!!!

Finally, there’s a guy who feeds the cable down the wall to where the distribution box is, or will be, if the electrician didn’t fuck up in figuring the cable length. We have a good electrician though, and he hasn’t made that mistake yet. The whole operation works sort of like an inch worm, where everyone moves their section of cable a couple of feet at the same time. Only the block gets caught on some pipes, or the tackle gets tangled, or the cable won’t bend enough to curve around a tight corner. Once we even had a guy get lost inside of a building – I mean really inside, as in inside the ducts and walls. So there’s a lot of standing around and cursing at whomever is down the line from you because you know if you were up there the rope wouldn’t have gotten tangled, or whatever. But then comes the call “Pull!!” and everyone strains and the cable moves. A little. And a little more. And a little more, until finally, after much sweat, many banged elbows, and several cuts and scrapes, it’s done.

And, in spite of all the bitching and complaining, we feel good about doing a hard job well. Democracy in Iraq is safe for another night.


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