Check for Leaks
I recently had to replace a high pressure gage on the regulator for our helium tanks. The helium tanks are the carrier gas for our GC/MS system. (For a crash course in Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry, check out Wikipedia here and here). The whole system had been giving us fits for several months now. We would install a new tank of helium (99.999% pure to be precise) and in about 2 weeks, the tank would be almost completely empty. We weren’t running a heavy load on the instrument so there had to be a leak somewhere. I finally solved the mystery recently and it gave me some new realizations about the process of solving problems.
When I first started working with GC/MS, I honestly thought that this was a normal pace to go through gas. Having no previous experience with this instrument, and having to teach myself the majority of this stuff at the beginning, I thought it might be reasonable. To make matters worse, I didn’t have to go through my advisor to order new tanks, I could just call the people up and they’d send us new tanks. I finally made mention of how rapidly it seemed we were going through gas, and my advisor piped up and said, “Yeah, that’s not normal.” So off I went to try and figure out why we were going through so much helium.
I checked all our programs and the basic flow rates and everything seemed within normal limits from what I could tell. The pressure in the system was good, and all of my previous samples looked good as well. Nothing out of the ordinary there. From this information I concluded that there had to be a leak in the system. I took some Snoop, no not that Snoop, that I randomly found and started squirting it into every nook and cranny that I could find trying to determine where the heck I was losing all this gas. Snoop is basically a soapy solution that should bubble up whenever you squirt it on a leak. I practically soaked all of the gas lines trying to find it. I couldn’t find a single spot where it was leaking. So I sort of forgot it about it for a while.
Fast forward about a month, and probably three tanks later, and I’m cleaning the ion source. Part of the cleaning process includes turning off the rough pump which, when off, makes the lab about ten times quieter. I walked to my lab bench to get something and as I was passing the tanks I heard this little hissing noise. Aha! I thought to myself. I’ve discovered the source of the leak! As it turned out, the high pressure gage on the regulator was defective and had a fairly massive leak. Squirting some more snoop up into the gage caused it to spray back out, but not form any bubbles. I was so pumped to actually discover the leak that my immediate conclusion on how to fix it was to replace the entire regulator.
I started looking up prices for new regulators and trying to figure out who I was going to order from. I was planning on spending about $300 replacing this entire apparatus. I went to my advisor with the order form for this new regulator and I tell him the whole story and he looks at me and says, “Well why don’t you just by a new gage?” I metaphorically slapped my forehead and silently chastised myself for being ridiculous! Of course I should just replace the gage! Why would I replace the entire thing when only part of it is broken? Sure enough, I ordered a $15 gage from Grainger and it was the panacea for all my helium troubles.
So what did I learn from this experience that took way too long to play out? Two things mainly: the first is to really think through and be thorough when trying to find something, and the second is to think about other possible solutions to fix a problem. When I first recognized that there was a problem (the leak), I didn’t take the time to fully think about how to go about determining where the leak was or how to fix it. I just started squirting Snoop everywhere in the hopes that I would magically find the problem. Had I spent the time thinking about it, I would have shut of everything but the gas flow, used both the snoop and my ears to detect the problem, and I would have tried to eliminate possibilites by testing different parts of the gas lines. This would have saved a lot of time, gas, and money and it would’ve solved my problem a lot quicker.
The second problem was that once I figured out it was the high pressure gage, I went all out with the first solution I thought of: replace the regulator. Again, if I had taken the time to think about whether or not this was the best solution, I would have avoided the embarrassment of asking my advisor to spend $300 when all I really need to spend was $15. A short pause to think, hey, is this really the best way to solve this problem, would’ve helped me out a bit.
Now that we have a working pressure gage and no leaks, we’re barely using any helium. We’ve had the same tank for over a month and the needle’s barely budged. I learned some pretty basic lessons about really thinking through problems and checking to make sure I’m making the smarter moves. Hopefully the next time there’s a problem, I won’t take forever to figure it out and when I finally do, it’ll be the best possible solution.
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