cable coiler

so i spent the majority of the last couple weeks fabricating a cable coiler for Hollywood Lights, with Jason. HL strings out miles and miles of heavy gauge cable to power trade shows, festivals, concerts, etc. all over the place, and when the show's over, coiling it all back up is extremely labor intensive, strong back work. they use some pretty big cable in up to 100' lengths. often they'll put down literally miles of cable as heavy gauge as 4/0 (huge single-conductor cable, a little over an inch in diameter, weighing close to 100 lbs per cable at 100') and 2/5 or 4/5 multi-conductor (with 100-amp hubbell connectors, commonly called Hubbell cable, which is about 2.5" in diameter and weighs about the 85 lbs per cable in 50' lengths).

removing that cable from job sites requires pulling its entire length along the ground, and coiling it up to about 16-24" or so in diameter, and doing that requires rotating the entire length of cable once per coil. sounds rough, right? well, once you've done it for a while, you get the hang of it- but it's definitely hard work.

so, after decades of doing it the old-fashioned way, they decided to build a portable coiler, something they could take to job sites, and tow behind the flat-bed golf-style carts they use on bigger jobs, and cut down on the labor- by which i mean both effort and man-hours. Hollywood Lights' Portland branch recently built one of their own, and experienced 20% labor savings on 'outs' (removing the cable from the field).

with the usual healthy dose of Portland/Seattle rivalry, we wanted to make a cooler one. i think we succeeded.

Jason had it basically drawn up as much as possible, with some rough measurements, and the rest we winged. i did most of the structural work, and all the welding; Jason had some steel pieces cut and formed to extend the arms on the (purchased) fully-collapsible reel. the reel collapsing in the center makes the cable easier to remove (and it's really easy, it just slides off, no problem); that's one of the improvements over Portland's coiler. now that i think about it, i should've taken a picture of the reel collapsed, too...maybe i'll get Jason to take that one, and edit this post later. the extensions we added allow the reel to take up all their feeder cable except 100' hubbell (which is just huge, and they only own 5 pieces that long).

Jason also cut and fit the diamondplate, and bolted up everything that was mechanically fastened.

so, here's what the thing looks like.

motor side:
motor side

3/4 view:
3/4 view

coiling side:
coiling side

the little struts between the wheels and the front legs (they're pointed up in the pictures) are for loading it on liftgates of trucks. the whole thing's light enough to be lifted by hand, so the struts are a little taller than the clearance to the ground, which cocks the whole machine back slightly and makes it less tippy with the trailer-hitch end (and the front legs) not on the gate.

closeup of the reel & rollers:
reel and rollers

the cable runs from the ground up through the rollers, and onto the reel. the rollers are 2.5" in diameter (bought through Grainger), and the spindle for them is spring-mounted, so they could be mounted in a solid structure and still removed if they ever need to be replaced. another consideration for the structure for the rollers was that we wanted to be able to tip the whole machine upright to save space in trucks, and since the rollers needed to be on the back, we had to figure out a way to stand the thing upright and drag it around without damaging them. another consideration was that whomever's using the machine needs to feed the cable back and forth across the rollers, so the cable feeds evenly onto the reel. since this means someone's hand is in the area of moving parts, everything needed to be made as user-friendly as possible. the machine coils up to 250' per minute (variable speed, controlled by the orange foot pedal in the pictures), which means it's moving by the rollers pretty quickly, and jamming your hand into something sharp would not be good. everything's rounded off, especially the mounts that hold the rollers- don't want to score up that expensive cable, either. the mounts for the horizontal roller double as feet for when it's stood upright. most of the non-threatening welds on the thing were left alone in the interest of saving time, and i think it gives it a cool rough look. Jason's going to clear-coat the whole thing (except the diamondplate, which is the only aluminum part), and leave all the markings written on the steel when we bought it...sort of a Joe Sixpack fashion statement that totally fits the Hollywood Lights crew.

closeup of the roller assembly- this part was fun to work out and build:
roller closeup

the wheels were scavenged from an old electric tricycle the company had lying around. they have pneumatic tires, so as long as the rims don't get damaged they can theoretically be replaced.

wheel closeup:
wheel closeup

we needed to find something steel that fit the bearings in those wheels, and didn't want to spend money, so Jason hit on using a ground rod, 8' x 5/8" galvanized, which is particularly fitting since Hollywood Lights uses them all the time, to ground generators. since the (replaceable) wheel bearings do the rotating, we decided to cap the square tube the axle runs through on both ends, and i welded the axle in permanently. now we needed something to hold the wheels on with- and what better than an acorn? acorn clamps are what get used to secure the bare copper ground wire that runs from the generators to the ground rods. since it's made for the rods, all he had to do was drill it out, add a cotter pin, and it's perfect.

axle closeup:
axle closeup

the motor didn't need to be reversible, so they didn't spring for one. the variable control is all in the foot pedal, and you need to be on the other side of the machine to coil cable, so there's no variable control on the motor itself.

motor closeup:
motor closeup

we needed something to secure the end of the cable with, to get the coil started on the reel, and Chuck came up with using a piece of chain-link fence hardware, which Jason made a little backing plate for, and we mounted to the reel:

reel closeup:
reel closeup

and voila, a cable coiler.

i feel compelled to mention that Jason gets the John Henry award, for racing the machine today and coiling up a 100' piece of 4/0 faster than the machine did. he was moving fast. i personally doubt anyone's going to outwork the thing over the course of an entire day. there's also, as with all machines, a learning curve to operating it, so it's going to take a while to really compare coiling speeds.

another question that remains is whether it costs time uncoiling the cable after using it; that is, if not twisting the length of cable around 360-degrees for every coil loop makes it harder to uncoil the cable and get it to lie down straight. time will tell. in the meantime, it's going to save a lot of back strain on outs.

well, there you have it, finished today. back to the job hunt tomorrow. one thing's for sure: whatever job i have next, i'm gonna miss hangin' out with all the guys at Hollywood Lights, i've known them all a long time, and they're great guys. and i'm especially gonna miss hangin' out every day with my buddy, Jason's dog Dozer- the hardest working dog in show business.

quitting time:

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