Press Ctrl-P for power outage

A user reports that her computer reboots every time she prints, and the tech pro finds a surprising reason why

While working in desktop support at a major university, I received a frantic phone call one day from one of the administrative assistants.

First, the backstory: Phone calls from this particular user, "Mary," were always interesting. She was at least 70 years old, had worked there probably since the dawn of time, wore high heels and blue jeans, and smoked like a chimney. She lived way out in the country and told me one day that part of why she worked was so that she wasn't home all day with her husband because one of them would kill the other with a shotgun. I thought, "OK ..."

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On the technology side, Mary's computing platform of choice was an ancient Sun Workstation with a monochrome monitor. She typed up all the exams for her professors on this Sun using LaTeX, and only grudgingly was starting to use the Windows machine that we were trying to get her moved to. She was very good with vi and the command line, but didn't know how to use Word and was confused by a GUI. The problems she'd call about were either somewhat complex Unix questions or insanely simple Windows problems.

On this particular day, Mary called with a Windows question and explained that when she printed, her computer shut off. I figured the problem might be driver related and tried to talk her through describing what was happening. I didn't really get anywhere over the phone, so I headed down to her office.

When I entered her office, I noticed it was unusually cold. She had the thermostat turned down to 59 degrees.

While shivering, I asked her to demonstrate the print job for me. Lo and behold, as soon as she tried to print, the laser printer fired up and the PC shut off, then rebooted.

I bent down to look at the power strip and felt intense heat. I asked her to move over for a second, and I saw a 1970s-era exposed coil space heater glowing bright red. It was plugged into the same power strip as the printer and the PC. In addition to causing brownouts, the space heater also posed a serious fire hazard, especially with all the papers she had piled everywhere.

I asked Mary about the setup. She said she got really hot, so she kept the air conditioning in the office turned on, but then her feet got cold, hence the space heater.

Working with the facilities department, we managed to persuade Mary that the temperature controls in her office could be adjusted rather than running the air conditioning at meat locker levels, then using a space heater set to high. I guess facilities is much like IT in that users would rather come up with their own solutions than simply call and ask for help. It was very much against university policy for her to use a space heater with red-hot exposed coils, so she was asked to take the item home.

I walked out laughing because her description of the problem was surprisingly accurate. Printing was indeed powering off her machine, just not in the way I would have expected.

This story, "Press Ctrl-P for power outage," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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