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Serviceman's Log

The 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand last September caused widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure. It also took out a lot of PCs due to both impact damage and power surges.

by the Serviceman

Items Covered This Month

• PC faults after the Christchurch earthquake

• Aircraft flap actuator

• Mobility scooter repairs

• Intermittent car radio

In the electronics/computer repair game, it’s interesting to note the damage patterns resulting from certain natural events. For example, whenever we have a good lightning storm, there is always a flurry of power-supply related jobs coming through the workshop.

The major earthquake we had here in Christchurch last year was no exception. It happened at 4.35am and we lost power straight away. I immediately clambered over the wreckage of my house contents in pitch blackness to find my LED torch, which I knew lived on my workstation.

The torchlight revealed the destruction. In my corner of our home office, my Acer 24-inch flat panel had fallen face-first onto my ageing ergonomic keyboard and had smashed it. Miraculously, the monitor itself was undamaged (and unmarked), although I had to wait until power was subsequently restored to confirm this.

My PC’s tower case which sits on the desk hadn’t moved at all and nor had stacks of items on the upper shelf. On the other hand, out in my garage workshop, a 90kg drill press had been thrown two metres from its bench onto my radio-controlled model aircraft, destroying everything in its way.

It was a Saturday morning and as the day wore on, the work phones remained silent. Most people had far more serious issues than broken electronic gear or computers that no longer worked, such as houses broken in half or brickwork chimneys lying on their lounge room floor.

In the meantime, I had visions of my client’s computers chucked every which way at my workshop across town. It was likely that I was going to have to break some very bad news to a lot of people and I felt sick just thinking about it.

I spent the day cleaning up the mess at home and making some metal brackets to secure our bookshelves. After all, there was no point simply standing them up again if an aftershock, which we were experiencing every few minutes, was going to send them toppling back over.

When power was finally restored at 6.30 that evening, I hit the power buttons on all the electronic equipment in my house. Miraculously everything still worked except for my computer. The monitor was fine but the machine itself was dead.

The next day, one of my staff made it through the cordons to the workshop and reported back that the total damage was a screwdriver on the floor. And so, with that off my mind, I decided to take a look at my PC to determine why it wouldn’t power up. The first place to look was the power supply but with the nearest replacement at my workshop, I decided it would have to wait.

On Monday morning, the phones started ringing in earnest. I was expecting that most of the problems would be due to impact damage, caused either by computers falling off desks or having something fall on them. However, while we did get a few of those, the vast majority were machines not powering up, just like mine.

It transpired that eyewitnesses had reported several reasonably large electrical-type explosions at local power stations, which gave off an intense blue/white light. What’s more, those awake at the time the quake hit reported several severe power surges just before the power finally gave out, no doubt as emergency breakers kicked in (or out as the case may be). These surges apparently took out the power supply in my PC (and all those others), although it’s interesting to note that my wife’s machine was spared.

Ironically, my machine had an expensive modular supply, while hers is a standard, garden-type unit. Being less than a year old, it was fed back through the manufacturer’s warranty system and was replaced with a shiny new one. It was something they really didn’t have to do but was just one of the many acts of kindness I experienced in the aftermath of the quake.

Repairs to the majority of the machines we saw would ultimately be covered by the earthquake commission, as long as owners had some form of household insurance. For those that didn’t, we tried replacing power supplies and other dead hardware under manufacturer’s warranties and in most cases these were honoured, again a very kind gesture when they could have just as easily said “no”.

Machines that had suffered impact damage were assessed and reports raised accordingly, though owners without any form of insurance had to spring for the whole cost of repair or replacement. This was often quite expensive, especially in the case of laptops which required chassis and/or screen replacements. We reduced our normal charges when we could, passing on some of the goodwill we experienced, but many had to forgo repairs because they simply couldn’t afford the cost.

Aircraft flap actuator

In 1981, I was a second-year avionics engineering apprentice working for our national carrier. As far as technicians go, the guys there were regarded as among the best around and what they didn’t know about avionics wasn’t worth knowing. I couldn’t believe my luck; my electronics hobby was becoming my profession. However, all that was still more than three years away and in 1981, the gaps in my knowledge were still vast.

As part of our apprenticeship, we were rotated every few months to different specialist workshops such as Instruments, Electrical, Radio/Radar and Simulators for experience. This story comes from my time in the electrical workshop, where I was involved in component overhaul.

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