7 Tactics for Tackling Troubleshooting Tasks

NOTE: Go to the end of this story to see descriptions of some of the key components of multi-tester parts.

In many ways, great technicians are like great doctors. A doctor is often revered for his or her diagnostic and repair techniques. It is something we very rarely question.

Many would not consider fixing a security system to be on the same level as a serious health problem. However, many security functions deal with multiple life-safety issues and a defective system could cause fatalities. Besides, I have seen doctors worship technicians for promptly taking care of problems we all face with today’s heavy reliance on technology.

What makes a great service technician? Is it a person who is really good with their hands and mind? Is it a person who has many years of experience? Is it a person with many years of training, both on the job and in the classroom? Is it a person who has highly developed analytical and diagnostic skills? It is all of these and more, but most of all it is the person who has mastered the art of troubleshooting.

“Great troubleshooters are born, not taught.” Let’s get rid of this myth right now. While natural ability always helps, anyone can substantially improve their troubleshooting skills by learning and practicing certain techniques. The most important concept is for the technician to have a good frame of mind about troubleshooting and realize they can learn steps to being a better troubleshooter.

Troubleshooting is an art form with skills that many senior technicians have developed and refined through many years. Remember, any technician can improve and accelerate their own troubleshooting skills by learning some of the techniques and tips we will look at this month in seven easy steps.

Step 1: Collect Information
Did you talk to the operator, even though the manager called you for the trouble? Did you check with the central station for other signals? What documentation do you have? Do you have those wiring diagrams and service records inside the control panel door? Were there any (un)documented modifications made to the system? Did you check the repair logs? Have you, your fellow techs or the manufacturer observed a similar problem before? You get the picture.

Make a similar query list of your own choosing. Put it on a 3-inch-X-5-inch card or small pocket-sized booklet and go through the checklist when troubleshooting your daily service problems. It will seem like a lot of extra work at first, but soon will become second nature.

Step 2: Understand the Trouble
Having all the information you can gather at your feet, ask yourself these questions: Do you know how the system normally operates and have you been trained on it? Do you remember and understand all those important formulas, like Ohm’s Law (E = IR)? What are the functions that are not working properly? What would cause this problem? Some very simple, but direct questions are needed.

If you do not have good answers, make sure you know how to use your tech support numbers and resources. Customers don’t like it when you learn on their dime.

Step 3: Identify Test Areas, Methods
Do you have all the parts of the puzzle? Do you have the right test equipment? Many times, you will need to improvise. One of my all-time favorite homemade test devices was a simple continuity tester with a penetrating Sonalert sounder. It was used for finding shorts, opens, intermittent swingers and stray voltages (see photo on page 32 of March issue).

I even remember having one wired up to a modified radio transmitter for testing throughout an entire building. This would allow me to tap on an alarm circuit until I noticed a change in the tone and found the intermittent connection. Practice using isolation techniques such as “divide and conquer” — thereby breaking a large system up into smaller sections to help isolate the problem.

If you run across an alarm loop with 20 windows and doors on it, talk to the customer about putting in subjunction boxes with test points to break up the large circuit and help with any future repair. My favorite homemade tester was originally patterned from an inexpensive multipurpose tester presented in John Sanger’s “More Kinks and Hints” (Elsevier Science & Technology Books).

The original diagram (see diagram on page 30 of March issue) came from Thomas Starks, at that time an installer for REM Security of New York. Check out the sidebar after the end of this story for descriptions of some of the key components.

Step 4: Confirm Source of Trouble
As we go along, have you noticed that all these steps are not very complicated? However, you would be surprised how often they are skipped or not completed when troubleshooting. Many times, I have seen a technician mysteriously fix a (intermittent) problem only to have it arise again, resulting in a late-night service call.

Can you reproduce the problem? Did you check to compare the same problem — such as programming — with another similar, known good piece of equipment? It may actually be a manufacturer’s problem. Didn’t get the memo? Did you actually find the broken conductor or burnt fuse or resistor? Save the item, as it is good evidence to show your customer when submitting your bill.

Step 5: Taking Care of the Trouble
Did you have enough time to fix the trouble? Remember the old saying, “Why is there never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it over?” Ask the repair questions: Do I have adequate tools, time, system and troubleshooting knowledge to get the job done?

Step 6: Verify the Repair
Here again, the tech’s attitude is often, “It is [or appears to be] fixed; have a nice day [customer name].” Is everything running correctly? Did you try to simulate what may have caused the original (false) alarm? Part of your verification process can be demonstrating to the customer everything is OK.

Yes, I have had embarrassing moments when there is still a problem and have had to go back to … Step One. But if everything is fixed, the customer gets that extra reassurance that you have taken care of their trouble.

Step 7: Do a Root Cause Analysis
Many will stop at Step 6. I have saved the best and often most expensive step for last. Up until now, all these troubleshooting steps seem to make sense. But what is a root cause analysis (RCA)? Think of it as an investigation into what really caused the problem in the first place.

Use the knowledge gained from your troubleshooting process to see what other steps could be taken to make the system more reliable. Don’t forget our earlier talk about the importance of life safety. One of the reasons you do not hear much about RCA is the process can be labor intensive and costly.

As we go step to step through the troubleshooting process, you will notice a slightly different purpose in each step. In order to become a better troubleshooter, make sure to read this article over several times. The redundancy is not designed to bore you but to change your ATTITUDE about troubleshooting. If that happens, we have all then entered the next level in what can be thought of as the technician’s nirvana.


Multi-Tester Part Descriptions

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Diagram Reference

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