Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving, the Incubator, and the Radio Station

From David Dinh in Uganda, UVP Board Member:
I have been working with a District Water Office engineering intern named Emma to carry out water sample collection and filtering/incubating the samples back at the water office. Water Quality testing turns out to be a tedious and time consuming exercise; on average, field testing starts between 11-12AM because of delays in procuring either transport or staff and ends at 5-6PM or within the recommended 6 hours after the collection of the first water sample. The membrane filtration consumes 10-15 minutes per sample. For a set of 10-12 samples and controls, it takes a total of 2 hours. After filtration, you have to sterilize new Petri plates and water sample collection bottles for the following day. On the days Emma could stay to help, I could leave shortly after 8PM.

On Wednesday, in eager anticipation of Thanksgiving in Uganda, I toiled to complete the necessary water quality preparations, recorded testing data from the previous field test, and organized logistics for field work on Thanksgiving Day. I was optimistic Emma and I would finish before 7PM the next day thus enabling me to bike back to the office with ample time to make dinner and, with high certainty, play Thanksgiving Scrabble with Mariam and Marcela!

Field work on Thursday consisted of traveling to Lambala, a well site boardering with Kamuli distict, and back to villages we missed the previous day in central and eastern Iganga district. “It’s only 6:00PM!” I said thinking I had a cornucopia of time (cornucopia being a great Scrabble word) to filter the 10 samples plus bottle water controls. Emma and I set off prepping and filtering our samples but, at the 8th sample, the power cut off. “Not a problem, there is a backup battery inside the incubator,” Emma told me but only to find that someone had switch off the outlet in the morning. The incubator switched on but the green power LED died, along with any hopes of leaving early.

More or less, I thought I had lost my right arm. Six hours of irretrievable field work, 43 liters of fuel, and all our testing reagents would go to waste if we could not find a power source for the incubator. The district was not going to allow me to go back to these sites to repeat testing. I dreaded the idea of repeating the task.

I waited 45 minutes before deciding on trying to charge the incubator at locations with a running generator. We had several generator options but they all necessitated me sleeping near the incubator to make sure the glorified $300 oven was not stolen. The initial plan was simple; rent a room at Mwana Highway Hotel and charge the incubator over night. We entered Mwana and inquired when they turn off their generators and whether we can get a room to charge the incubator to run our tests. I expected the cashier to say, “Ok, that will be 20,000 UGX and have a great night!”; instead he quoted 40,000 UGX and suspected we were carrying a biohazard cased in a blue metal box and called the manager. Before we could re-explain that we were working for the DWO and the incubator is as dangerous as a VCR, the cashier said to the manager, “Look at the box. They are trying to heat up chemicals.” After an unproductive discussion that involved blaming foreigners for causing generator outages during the summer by plugging in their laptops, we found ourselves walking to nearby gas stations with running generators. After two gas stations, however, it became embarrassingly obvious we were being rejected because no one knew what was inside the mystery container. It was better to show what was inside before explaining what was actually inside.

At this point, 2 hours elapsed since we put our filtered samples inside the incubator. I was exhausted. On our way to inquire about the hospital's generator, our last resort, I noticed the bright radio tower for Eye FM Radio, a local radio station across from Our supermarket. It never occurred to me that radio stations made more money and established a better reputations if they ran generators during power outages to continue broadcasting Ads and programs.

First line of action, we opened the case and showed the manager our Petri plates. Second, we explained the testing and emphasizing the large loss of time and effort if we did not find a power source for the incubator. I expected to get thrown out again, but the manager agreed to charging the incubator and even letting me sleeping on the floor next to it.

We plugged in the incubator and nothing happened. We tried a different extension cord and, still, nothing happened. Apocalyptic thoughts bombarded my exhausted brain. What if this glorified Easy-Bake oven is broken? How am I going to finish testing the remaining water sources? What if the DWO thinks I broke the incubator? Emma and I fiddled with different permutations of pressing buttons, trying different cords and extension cords, and different outlets until an electrician walked into the room to ask us what we were doing. Let me describe what happened again: an electrician walked into the office of an obscure radio station and offer to help two strangers bewildered to why their Easy-Bake oven was not turning on. It turned out the electrician was there before to fix a problem with the station’s radio transmitter. He inserted two prongs connected to a voltage meter into the incubator outlet and repeated with the wall outlet. Then, he explained the voltage was too low for the incubator and it is likely there is feedback mechanism inside the machine that switches off power after sensing fluctuations outside of a specific voltage range. It turned out my Easy-Bake oven is more sophisticated than what I had given it credit for.

Ran back to the office to grab the voltage stabilizer, a blanket, and a mosquito net I hung over my desk, and I set up camp on the floor of the radio station. The generator switched off at 3:30AM but the backup battery inside the incubator kicked in. Between 5:30AM and 6:30AM, the battery died but the casing that housed the Petri dishes remained hot until I took it back to the DWO in the morning. Power came back at 11AM today and I turned on the incubator to finish. While waiting for the remaining 4 hours (I thought since I switched off I would give it the maximum incubation time of 16 hours), I wrote this report, slept, and sterilized equipment and collection bottles for the last day of testing tomorrow.


Albert said...

How many watts does the incubator consume? I'm wondering if a solar powered or pedal powered generator would work for you? And how big it would need to be sized. If it's reasonable, there may be some good alternatives not needing a working power grid.

Dave said...

Attaching the incubator to a solar panel is a good alternative to the power grid. The incubator does not consume alot of watts but I am not sure of the number. However, one thing to keep in mind, bacteria require 12-16 hours to incubate so you would need one or two car batteries pre-charged during the day so it can last starting from when you get back from the field in the evening until the next day. Using a gasoline generator is also a reliable alternative although not as green.