Shear Pins, Slip Clutches, Pressure Valves, Fuses, and the Unsung Nobility of Sacrificial Parts

Balance and Configuration:

I was helping my employer troubleshoot some electrical problems we were having in the barn. They had followed a ground wire outside and wanted me to cut it and put it on a new pipe. I pulled out my trusty multitool and made short work of it. That night suddenly the silos unloaders wouldn’t run, I checked the breaker box, ah, an easy fix, one of the breakers was tripped, I went to reset it. The ensuing flash and thunderclap as I tried to reset the breaker is probably as close as I’ll ever come to being hit by lightning. Once I managed to swallow my heart back down my throat, it was definitely time to call the electrician. It wasn’t long before they tracked down the issue, what my employer had thought was a ground wire was actually part of the silo electrical circuit. Needless to say it was brought up to code, and it was the final nail in the coffin for my giving people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to competency.

Our modern world is full of nifty devices and technology that constantly safeguard infrastructure and people. If a load goes beyond intended or safe parameters there are built in points and components that will fail, and are more easy and cheap to replace than the entire assembly. They can be single use like fuses, shear pins and rupture discs (for electrical, mechanical and pressure applications respectively) or breakers, slip clutches and pressure release valves which will reset themselves or are much quicker and easier to reset once the problem is corrected.

Well adjusted people have similar mental mechanisms. They have the drive to do things with their life, and enough strength of conviction to persevere consistently even as the going gets rough, but they also don’t get catastrophically bogged down in the insurmountable quagmires, they know when to quit.

The Cascading Failure:

How many times have you had seemingly one thing go wrong, and then nothing else seemed to go right? A friend of mine related a story where they had a flat tire, this being at night they left their lights on but shut the engine off, after they changed the tire the car of course wouldn’t start, their cell phone had no connection and they had to walk. Gremlins, right? One of those days!

“One of those days” is a terrible superstition to carry around with you, because they are self fulfilling prophecies. The sooner you can stop repeating that saying and taking mental control of the situation, the sooner you’ll sail into smoother waters.

Cascading failures are a common phenomena however, and I would hazard the guess that they are most commonly brought about by MERH buildup. Let’s look at my friends example and see how this could have been prevented or mitigated.

Malaise: Things just aren’t quite right. While there are road hazards which can flatten tires and bad luck can just happen, how often do we perform our routine maintenance? How old was that battery? Were the tires properly inflated, did they have enough tread, etc? In a word, it comes down to preparation, say it with me, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. We lead very frantic lives and let’s face it, sometimes we just drop the ball and don’t see where it rolls and soon enough forget about it until it shows up somewhere problematic.

Emotional Response: This will be the momentum and leverage of the problem. Usually, it is anger or rage (focused or unfocused hostility) that really screws us over. My friend was pissed off that the tire went flat, it was probably late at night, they were tired, and just not in any sort of mood to deal with such BS. Shutting the engine off may have been a matter of safety, but like as not, they simply didn’t think it through. We can’t consider every implication of every consequence of every action even in good circumstances, but in the fog of emotion our sight is further limited. This is where discipline is of great help, we won’t engage the negative thoughts, rather let them be, and muster our logic and rational behaviors to our side. Yes, easier said than done!

Haste: the final nail in your coffin of waste. While it is critical to keep up a good pace to get things done in life, it is just a fact of life that the faster you go, the larger the scale and scope of the fallout from screw ups will be. Throw an old vinyl record against a wall and it will shatter, but in a tornado, that same record can embed itself into a telephone pole.

Contraindication and Nuance:

There are many different grades of sacrificial parts for many different applications, and although for instance you could place a 25 amp fuse in a 5 amp fuse to effectively bypass the safety rig and get a job done, it would be risking a much more costly (and unsafe) situation. Likewise we can draw a line in the sand and insist we get our way on something, and in plenty of matters in life this is what honor demands, but we must consider the costs. Priority should always be set in context. In your day, beating a particularly frustrating video game should get a 5 amp fuse; games are fun but the return on investment is nominal, and so if you are getting unduly miffed over something, let it go quickly. Beating a personal best weight lifting record should get a 15 amp fuse, do your best because there is so much to gain, but don’t risk injury which will only cause you setbacks (if not a broken back). Beating a rival and getting a great payday and recognition should get a hefty 25 amp fuse (if not an entire proverbial relay setup!) because this will be a great challenge, you’ll be diverting a great deal of energy to the matter and things will heat up, you’ll need to be strong under pressure. But, say if it is going to come to blows in a 40 amp situation, let it go.

The amazing thing about people as opposed to machines is that when you subject a person to a difficult situation (with appropriate recovery) they will adapt and grow to meet the challenge again. In this way you can upgrade your fuses to accommodate heavier loads, or, to allow you to drop petty matters much quicker.

The person who takes up the inverse of the sacrificial part mindset would be a pretty sorry individual indeed. This person would be very noncommittal and lacking in initiative, get little done and have plenty of setbacks, but would also be that person to dig their feet in over the most senseless and petty affairs. Most unfortunately for us in our day and age not only do hapless people paying no particular direction to their lives get caught up in this quagmire, but it is actively prescribed by certain elements of society. Plenty of good people choose to confront such ilk, but personally I see it as a self defeating menace.

The value of balance, of yin and yang, drive and rest, has been acknowledged throughout the ages and across cultures because it has so much merit, yet its lessons become so quickly forgotten.