Meet the machine whisperer who keeps Burning Man up and running

Heavy machinery at Burning Man
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The sprawling metropolis of Black Rock City doesn’t emerge overnight, but it doesn’t take much longer than that. Built from the ground up every year for Burning Man, a festival celebrating “radical self expression and self reliance,” the city is a hodgepodge of geodesic domes, yurts, and stories-tall steel sculptures. Assembled in a circle, the city is clustered around a 100-foot tall effigy of modern man.

Building a city from scratch is a monumental task, beyond the reach of mere human strength. But that's what we build machines for—big, honking machines. Burning Man has an entire camp dedicated to housing the metal beasts. But maintaining and operating those machines in the middle of the abrasive Black Rock Desert is something else entirely.

Rick Rea is the mechanic that keeps these big beasts barreling along the desert. He’s been working on heavy machinery as long as he can remember, and he knows his stuff. Exploring the maze of equipment, I found him ambling between two large cranes, tending his herd. Weatherbeaten and grisled with a cigarette dangling between his lips, Rick wears workboots and grease-stained jeans like a badge. He’s not a hippy and he’s not a stoner. He’s not pierced or costumed. Rick’s a local and he stands out in this desert.

The Department of Public Works has a massive equipment contract with United Rentals. Their camp has more heavy equipment than every construction yard in my hometown. Huge cranes, every forklift imaginable, half a dozen skid steer loaders, cherry pickers, and countless generator-powered mobile light towers. This is Rick’s domain.

Rick’s a machine whisperer—a kind of mechanical Confucius of the desert. He understands machines so well that his fixes come across as magic. One of the theme camps asked for his help with a cantankerous diesel generator. Getting this particular diesel engine restarted had stumped Kohler's on-site repair technician for a full day, but that didn't faze Rick. He fixed it in less than five minutes with a quick shot of ether. The computerized starter timer refused to crank the engine as long as necessary to build up enough compression pressure to ignite the diesel, he explained to me. The ether boosted the pressure just high enough to start.

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Rick’s knowledge comes from experience: he runs a repair business (R&B Mobile Equipment Repair of Fallon, Nevada) fixing heavy equipment full time, but takes two months off every year to work Burning Man, tending to machines in the hostile desert environment. He knows why and how equipment usually fails, but he told me the patterns of failure at Burning Man are dramatically different.

The fine dust crams itself into every crevice, sticking to adhesive and clogging small mechanical parts. Despite bulletproof hydraulics, the conditions machines experience in this alkaline desert clearly exceed the roughest environments imagined by their designers.

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Counterintuitively, newer machinery tends to have more maintenance issues. Diesel engines used to be nearly indestructible and maintenance-free, but clean emissions standards are requiring more computer controls. Rick's perspective jives with common sense: "The simpler the better; the less to go wrong." Of course, if the machines stopped breaking, Rick would be out of a job.

That isn't likely anytime soon, as computer controls become more common across heavy equipment brands. Over 90% of the hardware issues Rick deals with are electrical. He fixes Genie's machines more often than other equipment for a simple reason: the controller computer is mounted in an unsealed metal box. The conductive alkali dust shorts computer boards just as easily as it kills alternators.

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The most temperamental machines are the lifters—scissor lifts, boom lifts, and cherry pickers. They have internal sensors to check whether their wheels are level—and refuse to operate if they off-level even slightly. This is a sound policy: if the wheels are just a couple percent off-level on the ground, that multiplies out to a precarious angle once you're thirty feet in the air. The problem is that the sensors are complex, computer-controlled systems. Rick told me he regularly has to "shut em off and reboot 'em just like any computer" to get the machines to realize they actually are on firm, level ground. He knows how to override the level sensors but never does, preferring to solve the underlying issue rather than risk the safety of his operators.

Before he heads out on a job, Rick downloads service manuals for the equipment he'll be working on. Even with dozens of years of experience, he'll readily admit that "no one can know everything." You're pretty hosed if you don't have a wiring diagram and have never worked on that particular machinery before.

Fortunately, the heavy equipment industry is more enlightened than consumer electronics manufacturers. Most companies post service documentation on their site for free. One company that eschews this open policy is John Deere. Farmers have to pay hundreds of dollars for John Deere service manuals—some manuals listed on their site cost $600! "That's a lot of money for a farmer," Rick says. Most farmers just work without manuals, but computer controls are making it harder—farmers generally don't have an electrical engineering background.

Rick doesn't either, but decades of experience have given him a spookily accurate intuition. As he shows me around the yard, he glows with pride at the condition of his machines. Like Rick, they're well-worn and coated with a fine layer alkali dust. But after six long weeks in the desert every last machine in the camp still works. The hardware may not have been designed for extreme windstorms and conductive dust, but you'd never know it with Rick’s attentiveness.

And he needs it, because the work out here is never done. I point out a hydraulic leak on a cherry picker, and he gives me a knowing smile. "I'll get right on that."

Want to learn Rick’s Houdini-like secrets for getting out of repair pinches? As I write this, his page on Facebook has just 41 likes. Give him some love and he’ll probably reciprocate. And invite the repair guru in your life to join iFixit’s repair community.

This is the latest in a series of posts Kyle has written about repair at Burning Man.

Tags: Burning Man | Repair