Posted by bob on July 8, 2017

I recently enjoyed a reminder of how helpful tools can be to solving specific problems.  About 20 years ago, I had wired an outlet plate in the middle of my home office.  I ran cables for telephone and network, and now I needed a connection to one of those.  The cable at one end was in the outlet box as expected, clearly labelled and documented as running over to a small wiring closet.

Unfortunately, the other end of that cable was nowhere to be found in the wiring closet.  Searching and examining wire markings was fruitless.  That wire was not where it was supposed to be.  I was mystified, because I knew it went somewhere.

I had always wanted one of those wire-tracing gizmos that injects a signal at one end of a cable and then allows you to sense that signal through a few feet of air-gap to find the other end of the same wire. 

So I purchased a tool with the trade name of Triplett “Fox and Hound.”  These tools are often used in crowded wiring spaces to find one wire among hundreds of candidates.  My problem should be simpler, I thought.

After adding batteries to the injector and tracer (the fox and the hound) I connected the signal injector to the cable end I had.  Local sniffing proved that the tools were working.  But in the wiring closet, no signal could be heard, no matter which cable was approached.  What the heck?  There weren’t that many possible wires, they were all clearly marked, and none of them showed a hint of the tracer tone when the probe was held near them.

I went back to the origin and started waving the tracer over the floor.  Sure enough, with varying signal strength, I could reasonably follow what appeared to be the path of the wire under the floor.  But about half way to the wiring closet, the path took a sudden left turn, heading for a different wall.  Predictably, there was a large, heavy printer blocking the way, so I guessed where the wire might be found after a little gap.  Sweeping back and forth, I finally found the signal again.  In fact, it was pretty strong and seemed to be leading into a space on a wall almost 2 meters from where all of the other wires appeared in the wiring closet.

Back inside the wiring closet, I could now find a strong signal, but at the unexpected wall.  Digging out some insulation, I found a nice circle of wire hidden inside a wall-space, coiled up and going absolutely nowhere.  Fortunately, there was enough wire there to route all the way to the connection spot. 

I can only guess that many years ago I had planned well, but not finished the wire routing job.  Maybe I was just tired, or knew that I wasn’t going to need that wire for a while.  But I certainly never expected the wire to be over there instead of here.

The point is that the tool turned my chase from what might have been a multi-hour adventure into a five-minute effort.  Honestly, maybe I never would have looked in that specific place for the missing wire.  Once I could see the wire, routing it and adding the appropriate connections took only a few more minutes.  (Some extra notes were added to my wire lists, so that I would never lose that connection again.)

Having the right tool paid back its cost in about 5 minutes, by saving hours of searching. 

Maybe there is a secondary point that I made a lot of bad assumptions along the way.  I assumed that I would remember coiling up that wire and leaving it with an incomplete route.  I assumed that it was not important enough to write down that this wire entered the closet in a place where no other wire entered.

This little adventure reminded me of how valuable tools can be to solving problems.  You need to have the right tool available, but you can own, rent, or borrow.  You need to have a good understanding of what the tool can do—and what that tool cannot do.

Could I have designed and built a tracer tool?  Yes, this type of circuit has occasionally been in electronic hobbyist publications for as long as I can remember.  But I found a particular joy in trading some cash for a well-designed and nicely built tool that will continue working long after I stop hunting for specific cables.

The make-versus-buy trade-off depends on circumstances.  When I was a college student with little available cash, I would have built this tool.  Although I am still cheap, these days I might trade a little money for time.

Are employees just another tool for a business? I hope not, but it is true that some businesses and some managers think that way.  I believe the difference is that a hammer cannot choose which nail to drive and how hard that nail should be struck.  The hammer cannot walk away from the job site.

In American slang, a tool can refer to someone who is not smart enough to know that they are being used (or abused) by other folks.

I encourage you all to become masters of the tools of your profession.  But please, don’t become a tool.