Students get a charge out of class |

Students get a charge out of class

Jim Grant/Tahoe TribuneRick Madrid of Sierra Pacific uses a model to stress electrical safety in a science of building class at LTCC on Wednesday afternoon.

It’s not necessary to be a rocket scientist to take the Science of Building class at Lake Tahoe Community College, but it helps to grasp the theory if it’s taught by one.

Steve Brown, a retired engineer who once worked with missiles and astronauts, wrapped up a session on electrical circuits Wednesday with the promise of an open discussion during Saturday’s final for the class of 14 students.

“Now I want participation. I want to know if you find this information useful,” Brown said.

In a scene reminiscent of the movie “Good Will Hunting,” the engineer even left the class with equations in need of solving that were “beyond the scope of the class.”

The students seemed as open to the challenge as Brown has been committed to giving the students practical material and scheduling guests who are in the top of their field and can teach well.

He’s lined up contractors Steve Yonker and Hal Cole to talk about project management. Other topics include solar energy, job estimates, contracting law and conservation relative to Best Management Practices.

On Wednesday, Sierra Pacific Power Utility Designer Rick Madrid addressed the class to review the importance of safety and advantages of energy efficiency in dealing with electrical circuitry.

Absolute no-nos may seem obvious — using aluminum ladders and climbing trees that carry moisture near power lines.

Madrid said Sierra Pacific has been more aggressive than ever at clearing the limbs from the power lines because of the high fire danger this summer, among other reasons.

Madrid said the most common problem homeowners face in dealing with a project to lay out circuits is balancing the electrical load. He also advised hiring licensed electrical contractors.

Kim Lambert, a student, may take this tip to heart. She’s decided to blow off the social norms, taking the building class to keep from getting ripped off by unscrupulous contractors.

Lambert, who’s heard horror stories, wants to put in another bathroom because having only one won’t accommodate all her guests.

“I like to be educated,” said Lambert, who has returned to school after a career of professional horse jumping.

Her no-fear approach to horse jumping kept her from being intimidated by a roomful of men — many learning or honing their trade. Others would like to remodel, a trend reflective of the South Lake Tahoe building economy.

The city building department reports that in the last year it’s fielded 54 permits for construction of residential homes. Additions and remodels dwarf that number with 120.

“That’s where the contracting business is,” said Jim Armlin of Meyers, who will eventually try to get his contracting license.

Armlin wants to seize the construction opportunities on the 1,200 lots left in the city, while Tom Brooks said he wants to stay up to date on the latest theories of construction.

“To me, it’s interesting to see the progression of what’s taking place in the field,” Brooks said.

Brown agreed.

“It’s exciting to see the technology improve in providing devices and ultimately providing better sources of power,” the LTCC instructor of 11 years said.

The class is designed for craftsmen, contractors and do-it-yourselfers.

“We’re not trying to make engineers out of the class, but the value is to let students understand the physics of what is going on and appreciate more fully why we have building codes the way we do,” he said. “All city and county codes are predicated on safety.”

He explained how midrange power sources like 440 volts are more dangerous than low or high supplies.

“With low voltage, you can still release (the power source). With a high of 1,500 volts, it’s strong enough to knock you away. In almost every case you can test circuits,” Brown said.

Science of Building applies the principles of engineering, physics and mathematics to the design and construction of buildings.

Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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