I've gotten a ton of positive replys to my last message and am
just sitting here thinking off all the other stuff that happened
while I worked as a commerical tower installer and thought that
perhaps you guys would like it if I would express just a bit more.
This is most likely a increase in noise, if that bothers you, hit
delete right away, and we'll be done with it.
Valcom was one of those most poignant times of my life, in all
senses of the definition. I've been to KL7, I've spent over three
hundred nights out of doors, over 120 in my car, sleeping on the
edge of roads, freezing-- but not much equals the things that
I worked there for a very short time, but got to know the industry,
its practices, and its people very well.
Every Monday we'd arrive to the shop at 7AM, on the wall would be
crew assignments and the corresponding projects. Checking this list
was a very apphrensive thing for me. If I saw myself listed with four
other people it meant I was on a tower crew, and would be have a
horrible time. If I was listed with just one other person I would
be on a radio crew, and be have a horrible time too, but in a
Radio crews were the more elite of the group. You only got to install
or touch the radios if you had technical job history, or an associates
degree in something electrical. Some of the radio guys were strictly
radio, but most of them were cross over. Being radio meant that you'd
generally get home around 6, 7, or 8pm and have a lot of weekends free.
About half the tower crews generally went home to pack after seeing
the crew assignemnts. Some people would bitch about their assignments,
knowing they were getting screwed from the head foreman. Which, honestly
they were. A few people were consistintly given horrible jobs because
they were either good at it, or mostly, were okay at it and didn't
complain about it as loudly as everyone else. You were given about a
hour to get your things together and get back. Per diem money would
than be passed out and everyone would get in the truck and drive to
where ever you needed to go. Sometimes it would be extremely far away,
5, 6 hours, sometimes 8 or 9.
Installing radios is not fun. They certainly don't look like radios.
It's terribly physical, which is counter intutive when you think of
being a radio tech. The first thing you do is pull up to the site,
which generally has a brand new tower, fence, building. Sometimes it's
on a old tower and theres a new building sitting amongst the others.
To get going you back your truck up as far as you can get it, than you
start bringing in tools. All the radios and components are sitting on
the floor in boxes. If it's a brand new building you would walk in and
see a overhead halo for grounding, a massive set of air conditioners,
a big fuse box. The air conditioners are extremely effective, the tonnage
on them is crazy. We'd usually zip tie our sodas to the vents and they
would be very cold. We left the door open in the 95F weather, of course,
because we often had to get our tools. The air conditioner was fine
with that too. If you were lucky you'd see huge batteries in the corner,
all sodered together. Lucky, because if you didn't it meant that you'd
have to bring them in later. Ericsson radios run off of 12 VDC and are
backed up by 12 VDC. Inside a working cell site you will find a set of
batteries that is as big as two kitchen refrigators. These batteries
are damn heavy. You can break your back carrying them. When things get
slow they have 'battery runs', which is a good day to call in sick (word
passes around). They go site to site dropping off batteries. After you
carry one 110 pound battery you don't want to carry 18 more, but you have
You start everything out by hammer drilling the floor for the radio
racks. The crew lead always makes the lesser hammer drill. It's one of
those things that isn't horrible, but it's not fun. Sometimes you will
hit a piece of rebar in the floor and the drill will pratically break
your arms when it catches it. This is precisely the reason crew lead
doesn't do it.
After you drill eighteen or so deep holes you lag bolt them, than
construct the racking. I never liked doing racking, it's very steady
stuff, you have earthquake stablizers, sway brakets, everything. You
also have to secure it to the overhead cable ladders. If you're unlucky
there won't be any ladders, and you have to install those. After that
you start stacking the systems. I forget the different acryonimal
names but theres about four. After you stack them you start plugging
them together. Theres at least thirty different connections that have
to be made. They cannot be wrong, obviously, but less obviously because
if you don't catch it you'll cover it with other wires, making everything
Wiring in cell sites is phenominal also. We contracted for Cell One,
which is now Verizon I believe. They would reject any site that was
not perfect. If you have four cables running anywhere, they had to
run exactly like this :: for the whole route. If you crossed cables
or if you lost the tight box of the package it would be unacceptable.
This is easy for 4/0, but not easy for small little coaxes, when you
have 16 of them. I would normally spend about 10 hours in front of
the radios organizing and tying down the wires. My fingers would go
numb from pushing them around so much.
The first time I installed radios my crew lead told me to make them
look perfect. I worked on it four about four hours, told him I was
done. He looked at it, said, "This is shit", and than cut all my
tie wraps, about a hundred of them. He told me what it was suppost
to look like, I did it again. He cut them again. By the fourth time
it was accepted, and I began to understand that inside the building,
perfect means perfect, while on the tower, perfect means, "as long
as it doesn't fall down until we're gone."
After you connect all the radios power, communication stuff, you
start hooking up the coaxial connections. I'm not extremely up on
how cellular works, but theres a lot of little radios, and they all
have their own coaxial switches. They come into some sort of multi
plexor, and than that is fed by 1/2" Andrew Heliax. The coax wires
follow the same strict pattern, perhaps even more, because these are
ontop so you can't hide mistakes (you learn to hide mistakes later).
It seemed like one of the most wasteful things in the world to spend
a whole day organizing wires to the point of perfection. Perhaps it
is, until you go into a cell site that is loaded wall to wall, with
a million cables overhead. After being the paragon of wiring grace
you get extremely frustrated with other installers who left wires
in loose bundles, or did not make exact 90 degree angles with their
After the coax side hooked up, someone would bridge the 1 5/8" Andrews
hardline to the radio. The first time I saw 1 5/8" hardline I just
about crapped myself, but after seeing spool, after spool, after spool
of it I didn't care if I saw feedline the size of coke cans anymore.
We'd than worry about hooking the radio to power. They had an accident
when I first got there, when someone hooked negative 24 to postive 24
at a main hop of Verizon's Anderson backbone and fried everything. I'll
talk about what frying means later, but after that we were only allowed
to connect the power to radio between Midnight and 6am. This sometime
meant that you'd work 7am until 8pm, go home sleep four hours, than
work Midnight to the next day. Sometimes you would work twenty four
hours straight, not really realize it.
Hooking the radio to power was one of the most dangerous things you'd
do inside, on the radio install. The power junction consists of two
large copper bars. One positive, one negative. You hook this to the
battery, than to the huge power supply, than you take 4/0, lug it,
and run power to each and every radio. Theres usually twenty or them
or so, so you're lugging all night long. The power wires also have
to be perfect, so if you missmeasure one 2" too long, you have to
throw it out, relug.
The thing about the 12 VDC was if you crossed your cresent wrench
across both the negative and positive bars (which were only about
four inches apart) your wrench would immediately lock to the bars,
weld itself onto them, and than melt off. This would ruin your wrench,
ruin the batteries, ruin the power supply, ruin just about everything,
not to mention melt all your 4/0 wires sometimes. I used to have a
bolt that was melted in half by the 12 VDC. My crew lead was talking
to me and mistakeningly started to hook -12 to the +12 bolt, it
immediately arc'd and the whole place went white for a split second,
you heard a huge pop, and than he got blown back to the opposite wall.
His wrench had a big chunk out of it and the bolt was also half
gone. It somehow was really damn amusing after not having slept for
thirty hours, and having been at work for 28 of those.
After power was hooked up, control cables were ran to other parts of
the place, cases where put on, things tested, you were done. A good
crew could go hammer drill to sweep up in about 30 hours. A bad one
would take a week.
That's inside radio install. Outside radio install is a pain in the
ass. You have to crawl under platforms, get gravel embedded in your
back while you do conduit runs. We'd always have to go to Greybar and
barter for the proper elbows. We also would usually buy ourself a new
tool when were there, cus our job sucked so much. Theres a lot of money
in the world, especially when you see yourself sign for 800 dollars worth
of electrical supplies a day.
Outdoor installs usually meant having to go figure out where the T1 was,
pulling the T1, punching down the T1. You had to make sure the GPS was
all happy (stratum timing is, eh, very important when you're splitting
your signal versus time). There was a lot of stuff to do, most of it
was stuck behind hard to get to places. You'd bruise your hands all up
reaching in there.
Sometimes we'd get to radios really didn't see much. It was kind of
amusing actually, because we'd honestly have no idea how to hook them
up. We'd call back, no one else would. We'd call the whoever techs,
and they promised they would swing by. Techs from the cell companies
are not to be trusted. They drive in with their clean pants, after
sleeping in their expensive hotel rooms, and talk to you in a language
that isn't knowledgable and isn't useable. We'd usually agree as much
as possible than look at the $80,000 radios user manual, which was
always right in the front of the door. The only thing we sometimes
couldn't figure out was the power. We honestly didn't care a lot of
the time. We hooked it up the best we could, than left. Usually it
With outside platforms, as well as with towers you'd always have to
Cadwell, which I never could do all that well. You basically mix some
magnesium up, put metal next to metal, and hope none of it drops on
your boot. One time I burnt through half the leg of a big self
supporting tower trying to Cadwell that bastard. I'm not kidding
either, half the tower.
That kind of reminds me of the grounding battles that would usually
go on. These cell towers were grounded obessively. They'd either
shoot down something like 500 ground rods and tie them together in
a network and (sometimes or depending on the ground type) dig up
the whole area under the tower 4', than lay down a mesh, than cover
it back up. They told us if we were ever in a lightning storm to
grab a hold of the tower, it was the safest place. I'm not sure if
it was a joke or not.
Sometimes we'd get to a site and this brand new, $250,000, 350'
self supporting tower (which is just monsterous when you're standing
inside it, underneath it) would be grounded with one ground rod, and
a piece of number 12 wire. That always made me laugh, because we
knew the guys were in a hurry. It also was a pain for me, because I'd
have to get a shovel, dig up all the grounding wires coming out of
the grounding matrix, than cadweld them to everything in sight.
The engineering boys always liked to get wood over their grounding.
They'd ground the heck out of the tower, than they'd ground the hardline
at the top of the tower (which sometimes could be slacked on -- how
many company represenatives are going to climb a 350' tower to make
sure its grounded if the radios are working?), than they'd ground the
hardline at the bottom of the tower. They'd ground it again when it
went into the building. At this point, they were positive that no
lightning was getting anywhere. We were at a tech meeting and someone
was saying something along these lines, showing us charts and graphs
while we are eating free donuts and being air conditioned. A crew
lead who is known to not have stayed awake for any of these meetings
but is very very field knowledgable raises his hand and says, "We'll
thats not exactly right..." The tech goes, "How do you know." He says,
"Um, I've seen it not work." The tech looks puzzled, says, "What do
you mean." He says, "I've seen the fucking lightning jumping around
ontop of my head." The tech looks even more puzzled and says that he
doesn't understand. The crew lead than goes, "Ontop of my fucking
head, that shit got into the building and started arcing around the
ceiling halo." He showed it preety convincingly with his hands, he
sort of ducked, had a crazyed look in his eyes. The tech learned
something I guess.
Tower crews generally had the rough life. They'd go out to the site
and they'd have to build the tower in sections on the ground, than
they'd work something out with the crane operator, and he'd come and
they'd start setting the pieces together. If it was a guyed tower
sections were put together on the ground in two large pieces. A 300'
guyed tower was often put together in a 140' "pick" and than a 160'
"pick." They could knock a tower out like this in a day. You pick
it twice, use a transit to make sure its all straight, than tension
down the wires, ground out, and go home.
Monopoles are kind of similar, but no one likes monopoles. They are
unfriendly. Its like the bastardization of towers for everyone involved.
It's not fun to climb, you have to use a little trolly on yourself,
for fall protection, which sometimes jams up. You have to make sure
the tension is all set properly, etc, just to climb. You also have
to run the wires up the middle, which becomes a pain when they get
jammed, or confused. (12) 1 5/8" lines feels like you're handling
a tree and trying to pick out one toothpick from the all together
truck. Plus they have those platforms which are scary, and a lot of
the time you have to hang off the edge to fix the elevation on antennas.
No matter how good your harness is, it's painful to hang in it for
any length of time. If also heard, but never seen for myself that
some monopoles actually will wiggle in the middle. So you can lean
over the edge, look down at the ground, and see the tower doing a
sort of hoola dance, which sort of wiggs you out.
Your crew lead, or the boys, can also manipulate you while you're
hanging. Tack and rigging is mans best friend and its his worst.
If you have a witty crew lead he can actually rig you in such a way
so that you get pulled away from the tower. This is kind of unnerving
when you're at hight. Sometimes if you piss them off, they will pull
you away from the tower, leaving you hanging in your harness at 160',
than go to lunch. Sometimes they take long lunches, when you're in
PA and the boss in in Indianapolis it's hard to keep track of time.
When tower crews are hopping they can put a self supporting up in
two days, a guyed up in half a day. Easy tower jobs are changing out
light bulbs, everyone in the world wishes they are on light bulb
duty. Also easy is measuring water towers. Why anyone needs to measure
water towers is beyond me, but its required sometimes. I guess they
figure tower peole are monkeys and can climb anything.
It's also kind of fun to sight microwave paths. When you have absolute
LOS your little handie talkie will talk 35 miles, over the microwave
Professionals align microwave dishes very careful. Mostly, the delicate
instrument of the steel toed boot is used. They just keep kicking them
until they are sighted in. Sometimes they'll hang on them, pull them,
push them. The SHP microwave dishes are no fun though. You wouldn't
believe the magic that is required sometimes. Valcom had the resident
microwave sightning voodoo rituals. Some people were just lucky. They
were thought blessed.
It's also neat when you're up on a tower and find a lot of bird crap
right in front of the gunplexor, a huge huge pile. You know they are
enjoying that GHz heat. I'm pretty sure that's half of the reason that
they protect them with the indiana drum covers. One should also never
look directly down waveguide. Everyone knows this. No one wants to go
When you're out, on per diem you can usually make a lot of money. You
also can blow a lot of money. Most all of the tower crew would usually
go get drunk after working all day. They'd get in fights, get thrown
in jail. They'd back their truck up to the motel and than start walking
around on the roof and swining down with their harnesses and looking in
windows and stuff. When they do that, they usually end up sleeping at
the site after the police come.
Normally everyone wakes up. Mostly they are all hungover, sometimes
still drunk and buzzing. These are the same guys you're going to be
trusting your life to in a few moments at 300' feet on a tower that
isn't even half put together yet. Sometimes crew lead has to head into
the middle of the county and bail out some members of his crew so that
he can get the job done. I'm pretty sure that petty cash has been wired
to rural locations for this purpose before.
People also like to go fishing and stuff, of course. But when you drive
a big ass truck around all day you get a lot of things in your head.
You're up there, being alpha-male, facing death, getting god awful skin
lacerations, refusing medical treament, coming down, drinking it away,
being alive. You want to drive your truck like you're a man too. So
they take them in all sorts of bad situations. We would take short cuts
through the woods, or across fields. If the parking lot didn't go through
we'd make the parking lot go through. We were able to go over parking
seperators, traffic islands, telephone poles without really noticing
them. This made things all the much more easier. But, anyways, if you
want to go fishing, of course you want to take your truck. So, why not
drive that thing right down the middle of the stream and fish out out
of it? Yea, it's a pretty good idea when you have a Bud in your hand
and you don't have to be at work all tommorow because you bullshitted
the day log records and you're crew lead. It's a bad idea when the
semi wrecker doesn't have a long enough winch to get you out and you
show a $2,000 tow bill to the boss.
They also had a box truck which no one liked to drive. It was collassal.
I'm pretty sure the biggest thing you could drive without a CDL. We all
had DOT physicals for commerical vehicles but not CDLs. We'll, actually,
about half of us had DL's. A lot of the guys had their licenses revoked
for DWI so couldn't drive. There was a certain symbol that was next to
the names of people like this. Under no circumstance where they allowed
to drive, but of course, they would drive after everyone got tired.
Whenever a unlicensed driver would wreck the truck or something everyone
would make up fantastic lies and tell them horribly well. It was amusing
as hell. They talked about how they saw some guy breaking into the tool
bin and chased him off with their boots, when in actuallity some guy
backed the truck into a tension wire.
This box truck was the black sheep of the shop. Whenever I would drive
behind it I would count how many curbs the driver would run over.
Sometimes it was so big that you'd get stuck in intersections, especially
downtown. The box truck had 1st gear, it sort of had 3rd gear, and had
4th gear pretty good. We think it had a 5th gear, but no one used it.
When I'd drive it I'd smash down the gas, pop up the clutch and hope
1st gear caught. Sometimes it didn't. If 1st gear caught you had to
really gun it so that you could make it through 2nd gear which didnt
exist, and than get smoothly into 3rd. Because no one wanted to drive it,
only people who didn't know how to drive manuals drove it. Who knows how
they got anywhere with it. That F550 collassal-cab felt like a Porsche
behind it. Small, compact, tons of room on the road. That box truck was
used to haul batteries around. Another reason everyone hated battery day.
All this might sound like the company I worked for was a rouge outfit,
but honestly, they were really well with it. Extremely ontop of things.
Sometimes you'd meet up with other tower crews out in the field and
you'd see how they were working, and you were really happy you were
working for Valcom.
To get to the top of where a monopoles steps start you have this little
compact ladder called the 'Big John', or something similar. It is a
compact and safe way to make it the 10' or so to do it. Other companies
don't really think that's neccessary, they just back their truck up to
the base of the tower, than stand on the cab.
Once we got to this monopole and the tower crew is sitting there, we
were doing radios. My crew lead goes, "What the hell happened to the
platform?" I look at it, and it's all crushed, seriously crushed. The
guy in charge goes, "Crane op hit it with the headache ball." He turns
to me, and says, "What a bunch of dumbasses." It was obvious that they
gave the crane operator bad signals and he hit the tower because they
told him too, not harming him at all, but almost killing them. They
were also climbing up inside the monopole, trying to figure out where
this lost piece of coax was.
Another crew we met was pretty good, but they were not too keen on using
protection all the time. They were making this giant race track on the
side of the tower with about 20 runs of 1 5/8" hardline. It was Heliax,
because you can't do that sort of thing with Comscope (everyone hates
Comscope because it's so rigid (so being realative to heliax 1 5/8")).
We asked them what in the world they were doing and they said that the
tower didn't have a permit to go above 200' yet, but they wanted the
site on the air so they were wrapping the extra 75' of coax in big loops
on the bottom of the tower. They had these complicated engineering
drawings about how precisely it was suppost to be done, and apparently
the engineers thought one can just raise a bunch of 20 heliaxs 75'
feet without too much effort. Looking at it it was obvious it was going
to turn into one giant cluster fuck (thats the actual tower term for it,
it's used quite often) when things were raised. Everyone who was ever
near a tower and had touched hardline knew this. Appartently the RF
boys didn't. But hey, 1 5/8" is only $13 a foot, right?
At this site I saw two kids my age auger the T1 across the road. I was
sitting there, thinking my job sucked, than I looked at the people on
the tower, and knew they had it worse than me, than these kids showed
up. They were completely covered in mud, sunburnt beyond recognition,
driving a old company truck with a huge auger trailer on it. They walk
the thing off, start digging the holes. They shoot the line across the
road than have to reach down to get it out. One of them notices this
huge deadly looking spider in the whole. They other kid walks up to
looks at it. Says, "pull it outta there." The kid at the hole takes a
breath, reaches his hand down, rips it out rapidly and up comes this
spider flying through the air, its huge and looks like a baseball. The
kid that told him to pull it out follows it down, than kicks it into
the field. I was sitting there, thinking, damn. Than the fence people
pull up, and they probably have the worst job of everyone. It was like
a convention of all the slaves of the world in one place. We all talked
about how much things sucked than finished up and went off to the 12th
site for that day.
All in all, I've seen as much cellular stuff as I ever want to see.
Whenever I pass a tower with a crew on it I say a prayer for them, than
think, you out of luck fools. Theres a million more stories to be told,
and I saw but a millisecond of everything. Perhaps this isn't exactly
how to turn your water pipe into a 80 meter monobander, but it's
something. I do think it's insightful to express how the professionals
do the job sometimes.
Good luck, God bless, and I'm always willing to trade tower work for
a beer. Note that.