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Focal Plane

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Focal Plane: Remote utilities

This is the eleventh instalment of the GoobNet Focal Plane, an occasional series wherein we highlight an unimportant social problem, trying to make you care about it. Previous edition: Personal Aviation.

Try this: Stand on a block of ice measuring two metres by two metres by one metre. Put a pipe on it. Put some insulation on that pipe. Connect it into your house's plumbing. Run water through it. Install a water heater with a large enough capacity to let one hundred people take hot showers every morning.

Now do it all again, only this time replace the 2m × 2m × 1m block of ice with a block measuring one thousand kilometres by one thousand kilometres by five kilometres.

That's what will have to happen at the British Antarctic Survey's bases in Antarctica. The plumbers who rise to the challenge can earn up to GB£18,888 [US$30,070] per year. This week in Cambridge, England, interested plumbers will meet the BAS and audition for the job - fifteen plumbers will head to Antarctica to maintain water flows during an eighteen month stay, including at least six months in darkness.

What would motivate a man or woman of the leadfree pipe industry to spend so much time in isolation for the relatively low wages on offer? A desire to take risks? The high quality scenery? The opportunity to meet interesting people? The search for achievement? The pride of being "one of those Antarctic plumbers"?

'What nobody's ever done'

"Most of us simply want to accomplish what nobody's ever done," says Alfred McWhirter, media relations officer for the Extreme Repairs and Utilities Guild based in Boston, MA, USA. "The world may never remember the name of the first person to install a toilet main south of the Antarctic Circle, but that doesn't make the work any less important. Every time someone does something new like that, it should make all of us feel proud to be humans."

The ERUG is an association of several groups around the world that specialise in fulfilling contracting work, property improvement, and repairs in unexpected surroundings. From the Bay Area Extremophile Electricians in San Francisco, CA, USA to the Cape Town Underwater Plumbing Association in Cape Town, South Africa, the desire to do all kinds of work in all kinds of places is booming.

According to the ERUG's most recent survey in MAY 2002, 424 contracts for work in extreme conditions have been completed in 56 nations over the past 30 years. These include underwater power lines off the shores of twelve cities, ventilation stacks in the middle of remote deserts, and a complete overhaul of the electrical system atop one of the world's tallest skyscrapers.

Plumbers' friends

But it seems that extreme conditions are the friends of plumbers more than anyone else. Nearly half of all the work in extreme conditions has been on water and sewage systems, mainly because maintenance is so difficult in such places.

"Of course electrical systems break down, but at any given time the sewage is much more likely to have a failure," says Rosalind Franklin Dubois. At the Netherlands' Stam Research Facility at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica, she specialises in the plumbing and thermal control systems, with occasional forays into electrical repair. "Hot water flowing through these pipes all the time can bugger up anything. Insulation comes loose all the time, and that can freeze up a pipe like you wouldn't believe. People dump the weirdest shit down the drains, and when those things hit a pipe wall, there's a good chance it'll just freeze there to it."

The Stam Research Facility has a fairly complex sewage system for its size, which makes Dubois and her two partners, Jacques O'Reilly and Yukio Shea, some of the most popular people on the base. Recently they have decided to phase shift their schedules in such a way that at least one of them is awake at all times, so that they may better handle the emergency calls that come in at odd hours of the day.

Dedication to cold pipes

Dubois began her plumbing career in Winnipeg, MB, Canada at the age of eleven, when the cousins who raised her began bringing her along on their own plumbing jobs. Her curiosity about the profession could not be sated, and before long she had seen virtually every type of cold weather piping problem known to humanity.

Once she became eighteen, she jumped from one plumbing agency to another, working her way around the Canadian provinces. At the age of 34, she happened upon the opportunity of a lifetime.

"An ad was running in one of the trade magazines for a job in Antarctica. I figured, hell, I may as well have grown up in Antarctica," she recalls. "But make no mistake, Antarctica is like no other location on Earth. It's more like space in a lot of respects. We're so far from others, we're almost entirely self sufficient."

For three years Dubois has been the facility's plumber. O'Reilly and Shea, who joined her for this field season, have cold piping experience in Iceland and Maine respectively, and after some initial troubles adapting to the unique environment, both are capable of responding to most common problems.

However, the fifteen plumbers that accept the British Antarctic Survey's call for assistance will have their work cut out for them. Dubois is already considered the world's best at cold climate plumbing in difficult locations. Her dedication to cold pipes has earned her an important place in one of the most advanced research bases on the planet, and she may soon achieve international recognition: the ERUG may soon begin a competition for the elite extreme plumbers around the world.

"It's dangerous to start feeling like the best in the world," Dubois warns. "Hubris is probably the extreme plumber's worst enemy. I'm just trying to avoid falling into that trap, because once you do, you quickly lose everything."