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Life lessons from a geotechnical lab, Part 1

In my undergraduate days as a budding civil engineer, I landed a part-time job working for a geotechnical firm. It was part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer. It was a great job that exposed me to some ‘real’ engineering during my studies.

A large percentage of our work focused on making sure a planned structure was going to have an adequate foundation to support it and its intended use. We sampled and tested the underlying soil and checked the overall site to determine how to properly design the facilities. The long-term success of any project depends on an adequate foundation. What follows are life lessons I learned from this experience.

Lesson: A solid foundation is essential. This applies to many areas of life: spiritual, relational, educational, physical, etc.

Drilling and sampling a soil profile behind the drill rig provides many challenges. You really never know what you will find until you start pulling samples. Most of the important information is invisible from the surface.

Lesson: Often the important things in life are not initially and readily apparent. You have to have patience and dig a little to discover them.

It is always a challenge to determine how much sampling to do, and where. If you have a site of one acre, how many samples do you need to adequately identify the soil and determine its strength? Most project budgets do not allow enough funding for rigorous sampling and testing. Consequently, most projects require the use of educated assumptions. This balancing act brings to mind several particular life lessons.

Lesson: It is always helpful to get the big picture before you act.
Lesson: The more information you have, the fewer assumptions you have to make.
Lesson: The more data you have, the better decision you can make.

In the beautiful Upper Midwest, we enjoy considerable loess and glacial till deposits. Back in the day, we performed Standard Penetration Tests to help determine the soil characteristics. This involved dropping a specified weight a specified distance onto a split-barrel sampling tube. This provided both the number of blows to advance the sampler a specified distance and a disturbed soil sample on which you could run useful tests. To answer your question, yes, the operators may have also been a little disturbed. Thank you for asking…

Lesson: Sometimes to move forward you have to keep pounding away at the obstacle. The more effort required, the better the result.

Sampling is often accomplished by drilling holes with truck-mounted augers. These are exposed, rotating threats to health and safety. You always have to keep safety in mind. The value of a sample is far less than the value of the life of the operator. If you get clothing caught in the auger, it can kill you.

Lesson: Most things in life are simply not that important. Don’t let yourself get ‘wrapped around the axle’.

Sometimes the auger hits something really hard and refuses to advance. We call this ‘auger refusal’. (When my dentist brother did my root canal I introduced him to this term, and he loved it.) Sometimes you could break through the small obstacle into more soil, and sometimes you were at bedrock and you were as far as you were going to get.

Lesson: Sometimes an obstacle just requires extra effort to overcome…sometimes it represents the end of a course of action and an opportunity to take a different approach.

There are more lessons, which will be described in my next blog post.

About the author

Marlon is our account executive in the Power market. He has more than 35 years of experience with all aspects of planning, design and construction of 12.5 kV-345 kV distribution and transmission systems, including right-of-way, design, regulatory coordination, public information meetings, public testimony and project management. With an extensive background in power transmission and distribution, Marlon brings a wide variety of knowledge in discussing the energy industry and the issues it faces. From education of future engineers to critical infrastructure analysis, he offers a unique perspective on the industry and where it's headed.