If you’ve ever visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, you probably remember the wonder of seeing a kelp forest from the fishes’ point of view. The outer bay exhibit, with its ocean sunfish and yellowfin tuna, was probably a highlight, too. And no doubt you saw the most famous aquarium residents – the southern sea otters.
Not famous at all, yet essential to the survival of every living creature at the aquarium, are the technicians who work in the facilities systems department. These behind-the-scenes heroes keep a 24-hour watch on the support systems that keep the aquarium functioning.
"Essential to the survival of every living creature at the aquarium are the technicians who work in the facilities systems department"
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is home to more than 250,000 plants and animals, with just under 700 individual species. The kelp forest exhibit holds 335,000 gallons of water, and the outer bay exhibit is even larger – holding 1 million gallons behind the world’s largest window. Getting the water into the tanks, keeping it at the right temperature, and filtering it when appropriate are just some of the facilities systems team’s responsibilities.
No Such Thing as a Typical Day
“I used to try to plan my work week a few days in advance, but eventually I gave up,” says Facilities Systems Supervisor Eric Quamen. “No matter what I plan, it doesn’t turn out the way I’d envisioned.” The same is true for the systems operators who work for him.
There are, however, clearly-defined procedures that must be carried out regularly to maintain the two systems for which this group has responsibility: the seawater system that keeps the exhibit residents alive and the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system that keeps aquarium visitors comfortable and safe. Each week the department’s computer generates a list of preventative maintenance tasks. (There are 202 individual tasks on 507 pieces of equipment that must be done routinely.) These run the gamut from fairly basic jobs, like greasing a fan or backing up the computer system, to much more complicated tasks, such as cleaning out the pipes of the primary seawater line (a four-person job) or inspecting and performing maintenance on the kelp tank surging machine.
Systems operators on the day shift arrive at 6:00 a.m. and do an initial systems check, which takes about an hour. Then they go out on rounds, looking in or at every tank, mechanical room, and piece of equipment. “In addition to what the computer tells us, we want to look at everything ourselves.” Quamen explains.
Rounds typically take a couple of hours. Often, by going equipped with the computer-generated list, the operators can complete some of the maintenance tasks along the way.
“After rounds, we sink our teeth into the projects of the day,” Quamen continues. These are the large maintenance tasks or equipment repairs, such as fixing a bad oil seal on a pump or a leak in an ultraviolet sterilizer unit.
Systems operators must also respond immediately to customer service calls – whether that means adjusting the aquarium’s air temperature to make visitors more comfortable or helping an aquarist fill or change the water temperature in a tank. Then there are the emergencies, like when a sprinkler head in the Splash Zone exhibit broke off, sending water everywhere...
"The aquarium can’t function without this team. Now, that’s job security"
Quamen supervises a team of six operators and two senior operators. Together, these nine individuals keep a watch on the aquarium facilities twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Because the work is so varied, the knowledge and skills these technicians must possess are wide ranging, too. They fall into four main areas: water systems and plumbing, electrical skills, mechanical skills, and computer skills.
Quamen looks for experience in one or more of these areas, but he doesn’t expect new employees to know everything, and he’s willing to teach some skills. In fact, in-house training plays an important role at the aquarium. “We operate almost like an apprentice program,” Quamen explains. “Newer employees learn on the job. Whenever possible, less experienced workers are matched up with a partner who is more experienced or who has complementary skills.”
Several of his employees come from different industries but possess skills that transfer easily to the aquarium environment. For example, two recent hires had worked for the Air National Guard as a helicopter mechanic and an aircraft mechanic, respectively. “They brought strong mechanical skills on critical systems – they know how to work on O rings, seals, and nuts and bolts,” Quamen says. “In addition, they understand that perfection the first time is essential. Because we are maintaining life support systems, this is key.”
Two other employees came from the waste water industry. They had experience in areas such as water treatment and big plumbing systems as well as specific computer skills like remote control, automatic controls, and programmable logic controllers.
Quamen isn’t insistent on a particular educational background, although he says a four-year degree is fairly typical. “I’m not tied to any particular profile; I want a good combination of experience and education,” he explains. He also wants to see dedication. “Have you learned all you could on the job? Are you keeping up with different licenses? Are you taking industrial computer classes? – these are the kinds of things I want to know,” he says.
“A Ship That Never Leaves the Dock”
“We run this operation as if we’re a ship at sea that never leaves the dock,” Quamen says. The similarities are, in fact, striking: working with constantly moving water, dealing with corrosiveness and other challenging properties of seawater, keeping equipment running all the time, and doing a watch and taking the responsibilities of that watch very seriously.
Further, the team relies heavily on one another. “If you’re sick, you just deal with it,” Quamen explains. “With our limited crew and resources, we may not be able to pull someone else in at last minute.”
Clearly the facilities systems technical workers are vital to the aquarium’s operation. “We’re just part of the picture,” Quamen points out, however – mentioning the engineers, water quality technicians, aquarists, and others who work together to keep the hundreds of plants and animals alive and well.
Still, the aquarium can’t function without his team. Now, that’s job security.
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