Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline.  The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators.  This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust.  The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”.  The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust.  When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air.

Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop.  These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator.  I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post:  Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant.  It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years.  You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant.  I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.

When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it.  He likes to get dirty.”  At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop.  Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning…  Now those words took on their full meaning.

I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning.  Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post:  Singin’ Along with Sonny Kendrick).  I was his chance to be from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey.  I had accepted that.  I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.

So, here I was…  One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post:  Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door).  Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers.  I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit.  Just a rain suit.

A man wearing a half faced respirator -- not me... just an image I found on Google Images

A man wearing a half faced respirator — not me… just an image I found on Google Images

Not a lot of protection….

I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul.  I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string.  I had  a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world.  It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon.  We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point.  We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.

Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart.  He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above.  At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me.  Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip.  There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.

Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip.  Then even lower.  About 10 feet above us.  A third clip.  — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“),  then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….”  A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.

Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate.  Every clip must be in their place.  Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so.  Ok.  I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 plates per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and  7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…

Bill explained….. Clean each insulator.  there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers.  there were 84 hoppers,   Great.  Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks….  Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof.  two on section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension hosue on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a ciip or broken.  Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force.  That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below.  Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each.  There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers.  In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.

Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates.  In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly.  There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers.   This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul.  Oh.  And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.

So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units).  Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators.  Some of my closest friends were precipitator components.  Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.

We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me.  I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment.  I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.

Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas….  I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”.  I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash.  I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby…  Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it.  He apologized.  He explained that he meant it with affection.

At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it.  The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter.  That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs.  Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.

I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu.  This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so.  I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth.  I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.

I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator.  So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters.  They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles.  I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.

To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell.  The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors.  Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals….  Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.

You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate.  Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.

I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post:  A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff.  He said it had some kind of  a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….

He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell.  You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.

There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name).  She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical.  Unfortunately, we never found out what it was.  In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces.  This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.

I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of  an electron microscope.  I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one.  I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.

So, I just continued wearing the organic filters.  This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms.  Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator.  When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands.  They knew everything I did.

One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job.  One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma.  They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had.  They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.

Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be.  I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously.  No.  I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it.  I loved it.   I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.

I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator.  I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them.  Coaxing them.  Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job.  If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”.  Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7.  But they were each my friends in their own way.

You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?”  I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me.  I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.

I have my own understanding of who I should be.  My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is.  I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again….  What was I going to do?  Give up?  How could I do that to a friend?  I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma.  That isn’t going to change who I am.”

Today I am called an IT Business Analyst.  I work for Dell  Computers.  It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world.  I see the same pattern.  When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job.  You become invaluable.  Almost unreplaceable.  People look to you for answers.  They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business.  I am glad to be able to serve them.

Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?”  Arnold replied, “Oh.  nothing anyone wants.”  (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators.  No.  I wouldn’t do that.  Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.

Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good.  His son, Tim Foster has taken his place.  One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator.  I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim….  I know Scott understands….

Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them….  Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness.   Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly…  Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good…  next row….

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

Originally published on May 25, 2012:

Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime in September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had  shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced. While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.

Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.

Half-face respirator

Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.

Yellow Flashlight similar to the one I carried

The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to take out the tension, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.

The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.

Fly Ash Hoppers. Our hoppers were 12 foot by 12 foot at the top.

I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.

I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper. I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time. I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.

I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.

Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.

After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.

So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.

All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper. I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.

Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”

Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.

It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.

While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened. I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my fingers). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.

Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.

I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!

Comments from previous repost:

  1. Dan Antion May 27, 2014

    Scary thought there at the end. Sounds like quick sand.

  2. Ron May 27, 2014

    I’m glad you chose to “give up” on going after a flashlight! There is a Proverb that says “There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof is the way death.” Sounds like you found one of those “ways”. To choose to find your flashlight and lose your life would be the ultimate bad choice. God, give us the wisdom to choose the way of life.

  3. A.D. Everard August 4, 2014

    Wow. So close! You have a book with all these adventures, you really do. I’m enjoying reading these pages very much. I’m so glad you survived to write them!

  4. inmytwisteddreams August 17, 2014

    You are a very good story teller! I was drawn in from the first sentence, and engulfed in your words until the last. Great Story! I mean, not so great at the time, but glad you brought it full circle in the end! I always say, “You must never hesitate” – a simple statement, whose words most might take for granted. As humans, it’s typically against our nature to trust our first (or gut) instinct, but as you know, it is there for a reason! Good story! :)

    ~Nikki

Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?

August 6, 1996 in Corporate Headquarters America, jaws began dropping a few minutes before 8 a.m.  At first the security guard just thought some Power Plant Giant had taken a wrong turn and showed up at Corporate Headquarters to ask for directions.  When another one showed up, this time carrying his Playmate lunch box, hard hat on his head, and lip quivering looking for a handy spittoon, the men in their suits and women in their fine dresses began running for cover.  That was the day eight Power Plant Men took over the floor in the building where the Corporate Engineers usually lived.

If you want to understand the shock that emanated throughout the building, just picture the following bunch showing up on your doorstep:

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy acting like Power Plant Men!

We had come from the four corners of the Oklahoma Electric Company  Power Plant Kingdom and we were there in Oklahoma City because Corporate America needed our help!  Two Power Plant Men from each of the main Power Plants were picked to help the company transition from the old Mainframe computer system to a new computer application called SAP.  SAP was going to combine all of our computer needs into one big application that runs on the new computer network.

SAP Logo

SAP Logo

Ernst and Young was the consulting company that was helping us install and implement SAP at our company.   The company began the implementation some time in March, and the big bang go live date was going to be January 1, 1997.  According to Ernst and Young, this was a physical impossibility.  There was no way we could convert all of our requirements into SAP realities in such a short time.

The Maintenance Module for SAP hadn’t even been fully developed.  We were actually working with SAP to design the module.  Our company had demonstrated how a Best In Class Maintenance process worked, and SAP was designing their module around our needs.  Everyone insisted that our aggressive timeline was too unreasonable and would never be met.

The Electric Company in Central Oklahoma had one Ace up their sleeve (well, maybe more than one)… That was “Power Plant Men!”  As I mentioned in last week’s post (See the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God“), I was told on Monday, August 5, to show up for work the following day in Oklahoma City to work for 10 weeks on an SAP project.

Mike Gibbs, a mechanic from our plant was going with me.  Our task was to convert all the Power Plant parts in the Inventory system in searchable strings that had a limited number of characters.  Mike Gibbs used to work in the warehouse, so he was a  good candidate for knowing what odd parts actually were.

Mike Gibbs

Mike Gibbs

We were a cross-section of mechanics and electricians, and warehouse people.  To give you an idea of how big our job was, we had over 100,000 different parts in the system.  75,000 of those parts were in the warehouse at the power plant where I worked.  There were over 5,000 different types of Nuts and Bolts… just to give you an idea of the task ahead of us.

Ernst and Young said the task would take the eight regular employees four months to complete the task.  The Electric Company said, “Power Plant Men can do it in 10 weeks.

We were able to use the office space used by all of the engineers because they all happened to be at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma where I normally worked because of the big explosion that destroyed part of the Turbine Generator room early Monday morning.  While they packed up to begin the work of reconstruction, Mike and I packed up and headed to Oklahoma City.

Most of the “out-of-town” Power Plant Men stayed in hotels for the next 2 1/2 months, but Mike Gibbs and I decided that we couldn’t be away from our families that long, so we decided that we would drive back and forth to work each day from Stillwater, Oklahoma.  This was about an hour drive with going to work traffic.  We would meet in the parking lot of a Mexican Restaurant at the edge of town and take turns each day driving to Oklahoma City.

Normally, in an instance like this, we would get paid a mileage that was farther than if we drove to the plant and maybe even driving time to and from work each day, but when our Plant Manager Bill Green found out we were driving back and forth, he refused to pay us anything.  He told us that it was far enough away that he would only pay for us to stay in a Hotel (which would have cost more than the mileage), he wouldn’t pay us mileage or even a per diem (which is a daily amount for expenses).

Bill Green knew that we were family men that wouldn’t want to be away from our families during the week if it was only an hour drive, so he played his card and said that we had to stay in a hotel, and he would pay the expense for that or he would pay nothing and we could drive back and forth all we wanted at our own expense, already knowing that we would rather wear our cars out and pay the extra gas each day to be with our families.  I just thought this was pay back for me being so rotten all the time.

The first week I was there, I worked on converting the 5,000 different nuts, bolts and screws into cryptic search strings that all began with the three letter search word for bolt:  BLT.  If you wanted to search for a Bolt in the SAP inventory, you would know it begins with a the letters BLT.  This only made me hungry all week, because to me, a BLT was a sandwich.  A mighty good one too, I may add.

Bacon lettuce and Tomato Sandwich

Power Plant Man sized Bacon lettuce and Tomato Sandwich

After the first week, it was decided that having Power Plant Men roaming around between offices asking each other questions about parts was a hazard waiting to happen, so the engineer that was running our project Mark Romano had a special holding pen… um… I mean, cubicle built just for us.  It was decided that we should all be together in what is called a “Bullpen Cube”.  All nine of us.

There were nine, because a young Corporate executive had been assigned to help us with all things “Corporate”.  His name is Kent Norris.  He was lucky enough to stay behind to work with us, instead of having to go spend the next 2 1/2 months at our plant up north helping to repair the fire damage.

Well.  I say lucky.  Lucky for us, maybe not for him.  After all, he was someone from “corporate” stuck in a cubicle with 8 rascally Power Plant Men that kept themselves motivated by playing practical jokes on whoever was willing to fall for them. Not ever having experienced the likes of us before, Kent was in for 2 1/2 months of relentless practical jokes being played at his expense.

I must say that we had a terrific time teasing poor Kent, but he was such fun and took our jokes so well, that we could only admire his resilience to bounce back and smile after we ran him ragged with one joke after the next.  I will go into more detail about the jokes we played on Kent in a later post.  For now, I am just mentioning our situation, so that you can get a picture of our situation.

Kent helped us with our expense reports each week, and showed us all the good places to eat lunch.  He helped us adapt to corporate life.  He even showed us how to use our temporary badges to badge in and out of the doors when we entered and left the building.

Mike Gibbs discovered a better way.  He just put his badge in his wallet, and since he was tall enough, when he walked up to the badge reader, he just pressed the back pocket of his blue jeans against the badge reader, and voila!  The door would open like magic!  Onlookers were always staring at this strange assortment of men in blue jeans and tee shirts walking through the office building during lunch.

I tried to remember all the people that were there in the cube with us… I remember that I was there, and so was Mike Gibb from the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

Our Coal Fired Power Plant

Ken Scott, who was the Maintenance Superintendent at the Gas-fired Power Plant by Konawa, and David Roe who worked in the warehouse at that plant.

Seminole Power Plant at night outside of Konawa Oklahoma.  This picture was found at:  http://www.redbubble.com/people/harrietrn/works/1425122-seminole-power-plant

Seminole Power Plant at night outside of Konawa Oklahoma. This picture was found at: http://www.redbubble.com/people/harrietrn/works/1425122-seminole-power-plant

Doyle Fullen, an Electric Foreman from the coal fired plant in Muskogee, and Robert Christy, a mechanic also from that plant.

Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma

Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma

I believe Dan Hayer, the warehouse man, was there from the gas-fired plant in Harrah, Oklahoma on a small lake called Horseshoe Lake.  I don’t remember who else was there from that plant.  I remember seeing someone there, but I think he was a more of a quiet type and for some reason, his name has escaped me.

 

Horseshoe Lake Plant as it looked back then

Horseshoe Lake Plant as it looked back then

I was a sort of a computer programmer at this time, so I created small programs that would make our jobs easier.  I created icons on the computers so that people didn’t have to log into the apps, and I created a couple of other small programs that just automated the monotonous manual steps that we would have to do over and over again as we plowed through the 100,000 different part descriptions.

After the first week, we had converted over 15,000 parts, and were on our way to meeting our goal.

So, how did we do?  The Power Plant Men were able to convert all 100,000 parts in the inventory system to SAP in eight weeks!  Two weeks ahead of schedule.  This was typical for Power Plant Men, especially when you tell them it is impossible.  This was another example of doing things that others said couldn’t be done.

We were all scheduled to go back to our home plants two weeks early when Mark Romano, our project manager came to our cube to give us the news… We had performed our job so well, they wanted to expand our scope.  It seems that another department… I won’t mention which one, but their initials are T&D had been working on their measly 60,000 parts for the past 4 months and had only completed about 10,000 of them.  They wanted to know if the Power Plant Men would be willing to give them a hand to convert the 50,000 parts in their inventory system the same way we did for Power Supply.  Otherwise the go-live of January 1, would not be met since we were coming up to the end of September already.

Our Plant Managers had agreed that we could spend the next four weeks converting T&D’s parts as well, so of course, we agreed to stay on.  I’m not sure if Corporate Headquarters was ever the same after that.  Because we were able to stay on for the next four weeks, we were invited to an SAP banquet that we would have otherwise missed.  We stood out like a sore thumb.  I will write more about that banquet in a separate post as well as go into detail with some of the jokes that we played on Kent Norris.

Spending the 12 weeks in Corporate Headquarters was an important turning point in my career as a Power Plant Electrician.  When we were in the bullpen cube, I was sitting in a chair where I could turn my head to the right and look out a window over the parking lot for the building.  During the day I would watch people walking to-and-fro going about their business.

I had worked most of my adult life up to that point at a plant out in the country where when you climbed to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack and looked around, you could see fields and trees for 20 miles in any direction.  Looking out that window at people made a big impression on me.  Here I was sitting in an air conditioned office.  No Coal Dust.  No Fly Ash.  No ear plugs to deafen the sound of steam shooting through the pipes turning the turbines.  No 100 degrees in the summer.  No freezing my fingers off in the winter.  Just Power Plant Men quietly tapping on their computer keyboards, while they played jokes on Corporate Executive Kent.  — This was the life.

I thought… things don’t get better than this.  I was in computer heaven.  Even though it was unconscious at the time, something stirred in me that thought… maybe… just maybe, I’m ready for a change…. I’ll wait and see what God wants me to do…

Runaway Fire Hydrant Leaves Power Plant in the Dark

Originally posted May 17, 2014:

Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.

A notepad like this

Power Plant Notepad

One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.

The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.

Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.

Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.

I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.

 

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.

 

An example of  part of an Auxiliary Substation

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.

Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.

When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.

When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.

Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.

 

From the movie "The China Syndrome" where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

From the movie “The China Syndrome” where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait)  See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.

With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.

While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.

A High Voltage Insulator like this

A High Voltage Insulator like this

Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.

By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman is the one on the left in the plaid shirt

The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.

The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.

So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”

So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.

Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….

George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.

Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.

This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.

You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).

Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.

Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….

Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.

I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.

Telephone Grounding Panel

Telephone Grounding Panel

In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically was all “mechanical”.

Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.

Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.

 

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode "Night Call"

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode “Night Call”

I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.

It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.

He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?

The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.

When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.

That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…

I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.

 

Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.

Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.

Comments from the Original post

    1. Ron May 17, 2015

      That was an exciting day! Another great story. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Dan Antion May  17, 2014

      I like the mix of storytelling and information sharing you deliver here. Thanks again

    1. Dave Tarver May 17, 2014

      Aug 8, 2011 I lost all reserve in and lost both units in 2 separate storms and A1 would not start for a few minutes and A2 was leaking antifreeze terribly not a scratch and back online in 34 hours both units and no one ever asked me one question even with a Safety Dept not one question asked of me the SS on duty. Not many men on the planet have ever experienced an uncontrolled total plant outage- you would of thought a learning opportunity would of took place. Feb 2011 worst winter temps in years 50 Units or more tripped in Texas let alone the trusty units of Redbud and McClain were fighting Sooner rolled right along with storm warnings for two weeks ahead – the ICS still went to Detroit for just tours of other facilities once again the fall guy Tarver McArthur stood alone. I had authored a Freeze Protection Plan for the plant and that seemed to save the day and explain to the regulatory bodies how we were online and everyone else in Texas was off and enjoying rolling blackouts in a terrible winter weather situation not to mention our powers that be were all stranded in Detroit and very few people could get to the plant without getting stuck trying to get there as well – but a few health heart issues later I am still here to tell about it all you would think folks would want to take advantage of someone that had went through the fire and Ice but thats ok I want them someday distant to get all the credit they deserve when the trumpets sound as that is truly what matters most. DT

  1. NEO May 17, 2014

    Great story, and yes, you took exactly the proper lesson from it, and it is too bad that many of our bosses haven’t learned it.

    And yup, I’ve buried a lot of electrocuted squirrels over the years.

 

GE Geriatric Gentleman and Power Plant Transformers

Originally Posted May 17, 2013:

I remember the day when I walked into the Electric Shop office to begin the lunch break, and four guys from the T&D department (Transmission and Distribution) came in from the door leading to the Main Switchgear. They were obviously worn out, and were complaining. The first one said that he couldn’t believe that the guy from GE had made them work through morning break. The second guy called him a slave driver. The third guy replied that he couldn’t believe how that GE guy just kept on working from the crack of dawn without stopping all morning without even coming up for air. The fourth guy just collapsed on one of the chairs.

I remember the name of the last guy. His name was Foote. I remember him because he was real proud of his heritage. The first time I had met him, I asked him his name twice, because when he told me it was “Foote”, I wasn’t sure I heard correctly, so I asked him again. I guess that he must has guessed what was going through my mind because he must have had the same reaction from a thousand other people in the past. I figure that because my last name is Breazile (pronounced “Brazil”) and I have had many conversations with people explaining the origin of my name.

Anyway. I don’t remember Foote’s first name because I think he only had initials for his first name on his hard hat, and I’m more of a visual person when it comes to memories. I clearly remember his last. If I remember correctly, one of his ancestors was a naval officer in the Civil War, though, I don’t remember for which side. I guess it doesn’t really matter much now, since both sides were Americans, and both sides loved their country and the lives they knew — that they were fighting to hold onto or to change.

This reminds me of a side story that I must tell…. Years and years later in 1997, when I was on the Confined Space Rescue Team, one guy that was from North Dakota named Brent Kautzman was constantly being “harassed” for being a Yankee, because he came from a Northern State. This was kind of a mute point to me, because I knew that North Dakota didn’t become a state until well after the Civil War.

Anyway, one day when Brent was trying to defend himself from the hardcore confederates of the group, he pointed out that the North won the Civil war. A couple of other members disagreed, claiming that the South was going to “rise again”. One of those that believed in the Confederate resurrection turned to me and asked me, as if I was the resident historian (well… I did have a college degree… and I did have a minor in History…. and I was known for telling the truth when it really came down to it), “Kevin…. Did the north win the Civil War?”

Not really wanting to hurt the feelings of my southern friends, and also wanting to stand by Brent who was really correct about the outcome of the Civil War, I replied with the following explanation: “Yes. The North must have won the war. Otherwise the South never would have let all the carpetbaggers from the North come down there and steal their property and their dignity.” Brent was satisfied, and the southerners had to agree with my logic. They still insisted that the South would rise again. I couldn’t argue with them about that…. It has never ceased to amaze me how bigotry can be passed down so easily.

With that said, I would say that the Power Plant Men that I worked with that believed that the “South would rise again!” didn’t really understand what that meant. I say that because they never would have given a thought that the men that they worked with that were African American such as Floyd Coburn, or Bill Bennett, were nothing less than members of their own families. I know that they each personally loved these men with all their hearts. I thought it was more of a nostalgic feeling than a desire to see the return of slavery or even the bigotry that crippled the southern states for decades after the Civil War.

End of the Side Story…. Back to the worn out T&D workers.

By the sound of it, I figured that this guy from GE (General Electric) that had come to work on one of the Main Auxiliary Transformers on Unit 2 that had a problem with the Tap Changing Mechanism, was some kind of slave driver. Some hard line guy that wanted to work our employees to the brink of exhaustion because he wanted to be done with the repairs as quickly as possible so that he could move on to some more important work. You see. For this job, GE had called on one of the top Main Power Transformer Geniuses in all the country to work on this transformer.

The T&D guys sat there for a while and then walked out into the shop to eat their lunch. Shortly after that, the slave driver from GE came in the back door…. In stepped a man that immediately reminded me of Arthur Fielder from the Boston Pops.

Arthur Fielder from Boston Pops

Arthur Fielder from Boston Pops

He sat down…. opened his brown paper bag. Pulled out his sandwich. Carefully unwrapped it and began to eat. Charles Foster and I were sitting there watching him. After hearing the horror stories from the T&D crew, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to engage this seemingly mad man in conversation, so I waited a while. I ate some cherry tomatoes and Banana peppers that Charles brought for me each day…. and with each bite, I took a bite out of my ham sandwich. Then I looked over at “Arthur Fielder….” (I don’t remember his real name).

Finally, I decided that this slave driver in sheep’s clothing (well, an old frail man costume really), might come up with some interesting conversation so I asked him…. “Say, old man…. how old are you anyway?” He looked up from the total enjoyment of his sandwich, and with food still un-swallowed said, “I’m 83.”

“83?” — Either I said that or Charles did… because we were both stunned by his answer….. “Yep… They called me out of retirement to work on this transformer. Seems I’m the only one that knows how to fix ’em. But I’m teachin’ your fellows how to do it so they don’t have to call me again.”

Charles and I were so flabbergasted by his reply that we couldn’t leave it alone. One of us (Charles and I were always on the same wavelength, so usually when one of us spoke, it was what we were both thinking)… So, one of us asked…. “You’re retired and they called you up to work on this transformer!?!? Are you such a Transformer guru that you were the only one they could send?” (hmm… must have been me…. I don’t think Charles would have used the word “Guru”. He would have used something like “expert” or “talented” or maybe “genius”). He said, “Yep. They paid me enough that I agreed to take a week away from my wife to come here to take care of business. It would have to take a lot to take me away from my Jenny.”

Then this feeble old man with the white moustache explained that he didn’t like to be away from home. Every night since when he was young he has played the piano for two hours. — Wait… I wasn’t sure if I heard that right, so I asked him…. “What? You play the piano for two hours… every night!?!?” (notice… already I have used “!?!?” twice in one post… just goes to show you how surprised I was to run across this man). He reaffirmed what he said, “Yeah. I had to find a place that had a piano, so I could sit in the lobby and play it before I go to bed. I can’t sleep well unless I have played the piano first.

After that, he began to tell us about his career in the Music Industry. He had played for many Big Band orchestras in the past. He talked about playing with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. Names that I had learned from my Aunt Pam Sorisso in Kansas City that gave me an Eight Track Tape of Big Band music when I was in College that I used to listen to often. I had become a fan of Big Band and had a great respect for these Big Band Leaders.

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman

Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey

Here sitting in front of me was one of the geniuses of the Big Band era in the electric shop at a Coal-fired Power Plant in the middle of North Central Oklahoma. All I could think of was, “Who woulda thought it?” Though I was impressed as all get out… I tried to act calm….. I wanted to jump up with a piece of paper and ask him for his autograph….

This old guy suddenly had all my respect. It cracked me up to think that this 83 year old man was out performing the younger T&D workers. He was running them ragged. He explained that he didn’t like to stop for break. It made the day go a lot faster if he just kept working until he had to stop. He wouldn’t stop for lunch if all the workers hadn’t just dropped all their tools and left.

It amazed me even more that this man who was a big band musician of the highest caliber had ended up working for GE Not only had he worked for GE, but he had become the ultimate authority in large transformer repair. I mean…. How cool is that?

I can’t tell you how much I instantly fell in love with this guy. He had talked and talked about his days as a big band piano player. What really came out of his conversation what just how much he loved his wife. The two things he loved in the entire world was his wife and to play the piano. He said there was nothing more soothing than playing the piano. As he walked off to go back to work at the end of lunch… the only thing I could think of was one of my Big Band favorites…. Louis Armstrong….

For those people who stopped to really think about it…. This truly is….. A Wonderful World!

Comment from the Original Post

Ron Kilman May 18, 2013:

  1. Great story. I met a lot of really neat guys at the Power Plant – experts in their fields – bladers, winders, crack-checkers, boiler gurus, balancers, . . . I remember making a factory “balance expert” really mad. He was sent to balance the Buffalo Forge FD fans at Seminole. He was the “lead” and I was just “checking” him. We used a modern IRD balance analyzer with a Teflon shaft rider and he used a pencil! When we both had taken our “readings” we shut the fan down. When it coasted to a stop, he began yelling “My marks – my marks – you wiped out my marks!” (with a German accent). On the next balance run, I took my readings first, then he put his pencil marks on the rotating fan shaft. We got the fan smooth. He was a cool guy, but used 19th century “technology”. I never asked him if he played the piano too.

A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid

Originally Posted May 18, 2013

George Pepple was the chemist at the plant when I first arrived in 1979.  His last name is pronounced  “Pep-Lee”.  A chemist plays an important role in a power plant.  The plant treats their own water and has it’s own sewage system.  The chemist spends their time with these activities.  They do other things like check ground water for contaminates, and lake water for bacteria, and a host of other things.  Hydrochloric Acid is used to balance the PH of the water.  As far as I know, George Pepple was the only one at the plant with a PhD, which gave him the title of Doctor.  No one called him Dr. Pepple (which sounds like a soda pop).  We either called him George or Pepple (Pep Lee) or both.  He had a sort of Einsteinian simplicity about him.  To me he was the perfect combination of Einstein and Mr. Rogers from “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”:

Albert Einstein

Mister Rogers

One other thing I would like to add about George was that he developed a special process for Cupric chloride leaching of copper sulfides.  This was a patented process (1982) which is now owned by the Phelps Dodge Corporation which is a copper and gold mining company.  As humble as George Pepple was, he never mentioned this to anyone at the plant as far as I know.

When he would page someone on the PA system (gray phones), he would always do it in a straight monotone voice. putting no accents on any of the words and he would always repeat his page twice.  Like this:  “PaulMullonLineOne.  PaulMullonLineOne.”

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Before I get to the point where George is dancing in the acid, I first need to tell you about Gary Michelson, since he had a role to play in this jig.  In an earlier post: In Memory of Sonny Karcher, A True Power Plant Man, I remarked that Sonny Karcher had told people when he introduced me to them that I was going to college to learn to be a writer (which wasn’t exactly true.  The writing part I mean…. I was going to college… and I am writing now), and that I was going to write about them.  In doing so, some people took me in their confidence and laid before me their philosophy of life.  Jerry Mitchell being one of them (as you can read in an earlier post about “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“).  Jerry had filled me with his own sense of humility, where it was important to build true friendships and be a good and moral person.  His philosophy was one of kindness to your fellow man no matter what his station in life.  If there was someone you couldn’t trust, then stay clear of them.

Gary Michelson was another person that wished to bestow upon me his own personal wisdom.  We worked for about 3 days filtering the hydraulic oil in the dumper car clamps and in the coal yard garage.  While there, he explained to me why it was important to be the best in what you do.  If you are not number one, then you are nobody.  No one remembers who came in second.  He viewed his job performance and his station in life as a competition.  It was him against everyone else.  He didn’t care if he didn’t get along with the rest of the people in the shop because it is expected that other people would be jealous or resentful because he was superior to them.  According to Gary his family owned part of a uranium mine somewhere in Wyoming or Montana.  He thought he might go work for his father there, because truly, he was not a True Power Plant Man.  He reminded me slightly of Dinty Moore.  Like a lumber Jack.

Dinty Moore

As I mentioned in the post about the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“, Gary Michelson had the title “Millwright”.  Which no one else in the shop seemed to have.  He had been certified or something as a Millwright.  Gary explained to me that a Millwright can do all the different types of jobs.  Machinist, Mechanic, Pipe fitter, etc.  I remember him spending an entire week at a band saw cutting out wedges at different angles from a block of metal to put in his toolbox.  Most mechanics at this time hadn’t been issued a toolbox unless they had brought one with them from the plant where they had transferred.  Gary explained to me that his “superiority was his greatest advantage.”  Those aren’t his words but it was basically what he was saying.  That phrase came from my son who said that one day when he was imitating the voice of a video game villain named Xemnas.

Filtering the hydraulic oil through the blotter press was very slow until we removed most of the filters.

An Oil Blotter Press Similar to the one we had, but our press did not have “NAKIN” written on it.

It was a job that didn’t require a lot of attention and after a while became boring.  That gave me more time to learn about Gary.  He filled the time with stories about his past and his family.  Since I hadn’t met Ramblin’ Ann at this point (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was not able to contribute my share.  In the middle of this job we were called away to work on a job in water treatment where a small pump needed to be re-installed.

During this time at the plant every pump, fan, mill and turbine were brought to the maintenance shop and disassembled, measured, cleaned, honed and reassembled before the plant was brought online for the first time.  This is called doing a “check out” of the unit.  The electricians would check every motor, every cable and every relay.  The Results team (Instrument and Controls as they were later called) would check out the instrument air, the pneumatic valves and the control logic throughout the plant.

Gary had me go to the tool room and get some rubber boots and a rain suit.  When we arrived at the water treatment building George Pepple was there waiting for us.  The pump was in place and only the couplings needed to be connected to the acid line.  Gary explained to me as he carefully tightened the bolts around the flange that you had to do it just right in order for the flange to seat properly and create a good seal.  He would tighten one bolt, then the bolt opposite it until he worked his way around the flange.  He also explained that you didn’t want to over-tighten it.

Pipe Flange

Anyway.  When he was through tightening the couplings I was given a water hose to hold in case some acid were to spray out of the connections when the pump was turned on.  After the clearance was returned and the operator had closed the breaker, George turned the pump on.  When he did the coupling that Gary had so carefully tightened to just the right torque using just the right technique sprayed a clear liquid all over George Pepple’s shoes.

Gary quickly reached for the controls to turn off the pump.  I immediately directed the water from the hose on George’s shoes while he began to jump up and down.  In last week’s post I explained that when I was working in the River Pump forebay pit shoveling sand, there was a point when I realized that I was covered from head to foot with tiny crawling bugs, and I felt like running around in circles screaming like a little girl (See “Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River“).  If I had done that, I probably would have been singing the same song and dance that George Pepple was doing at that moment.  Because he indeed was screaming like a little girl (I thought).  His reaction surprised me because I didn’t see the tell tale signs of sizzling bubbles and smoke that you would see in a movie when someone throws acid on someone.  I continued hosing him down and after a minute or so, he calmed down to the point where he was coherent again.  He had me run water on his shoes for a long time before he took them off and put on rubber boots.

After hosing off the pipes, Gary took the coupling apart and put the o-ring in place that he had left out.

Rubber O-Ring

I made a mental note to myself.  — Always remember the o-ring.

Besides those two jobs, I never worked with Gary Michelson again.  When I returned the next summer Gary was no where to be found.  When I asked Larry Riley about it, he just said that they had run him off.  Which is a way of saying…  “He ain’t no Power Plant Man.”  George Pepple on the other hand was there throughout my career at the power plant.  He was a True Power Plant Man, PhD!  When George was around you knew it was always “A wonderful Day in the Neighborhood”.  When I would hear George Pepple paging someone on the Gray Phone (the PA system) in his own peculiar way, I would think to myself… “I like the way you say that.” (As Mr. Rogers used to say).  I will leave you with that thought.

Comments from the original post:

  1. neenergyobserver May 18, 2012

    Funny isn’t it, how the ones that are the best (in their own minds) do stupid stuff like forgetting the O-ring. Apparently they can’t see for all the jaw-flapping involved in patting themselves on the back. Not that I haven’t had a few days I’d rather not talk about too.

    1. Plant Electrician May 25, 2012

      Nebraska, if you think that was dumb, wait until you read the next post.

      1. neenergyobserver May 25, 2012

        Well, that was dumb, but not the dumbest either of us has seen. I’ll look forward to it.

  2. onelifethislife May 27, 2012

    You are master storyteller! I know nothing about power plants and I was right there with you. This was fantastic read! Thank you for sharing your work.

    1. Plant Electrician May 27, 2012

      Thank you for your kind words.

      1. onelifethislife May 27, 2012

        You are most welcome!!

  3. bryanneelaine May 28, 2012

    LOL @ “Dinty Moore”

     

    Ron Kilman May 23, 2013

    Great story! Thanks,
    I remember George as – competent, consistent, happy, supportive, and a great “team player”.

Destruction of a Power Plant God

Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend.  It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened.  We have a natural tendency to worship something.  It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water.  I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed.  August 5, 1996.

The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant.  It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer.  Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance.  The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual.  It must have been a cloudy morning.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset (only we were arriving before sunrise)

We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant.  It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant.  We weren’t really sure what we had seen.  It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.

There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual.  there was a guard or an operator standing out there.  He waved us through the gate.  about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot.  It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.

The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks.  They seemed to be pulling away just about that time.  Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor.  The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky.  I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.

We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away.  We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT).  The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.

Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year.  That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive.  Our job was going to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.

Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:

The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT.  Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control.  He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded.  The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest.  This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).

Turning Gear

Turning Gear

At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine.  The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames.  The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above.  The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete.  The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor  melting the roof as if it was butter.  The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.

The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator.  This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on.  The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should.  As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone.  It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.

Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight.  The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools.  Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator.  The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights).  Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.

Charles Patton

Charles Patton

By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down.  Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion.  I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before.  There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode.  I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.

The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River.  One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong.  I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.

When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once.  The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris.  I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine.  It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it.  I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff.  I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.

Like this only with a mop handle

Like this only with a mop handle

We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation.  The soot didn’t just wash off.  Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room.  The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.

We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner.  This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again.  All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.

The thought was too overwhelming.  I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now.  If I do, I’ll go crazy.  I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind

With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe.  Are clothes were now black.  We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators

Johnny Cash Man in Black

Johnny Cash Man in Black

literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face (Google Image)

We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!”  I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot.  Then he explained.  “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project.  You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”

Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world?  Well.  I am.  I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.

Now for the hard part of the story to write about:

So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test?  What happened to cause the explosion?

The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage.   The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.

Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target.  A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time.  No one really understands some of the things he works on.  Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion.  I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion than the person responsible.  The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion.  Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners.  I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions.  You see, I haven’t completely decided.

There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover.  The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof.  I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy.  You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.

The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered.  That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump.  When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.

A large coupling

A large coupling

It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged.  It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling.  In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage.  The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.

I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me.  The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth.  This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place.  You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.

The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation.  Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.

Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage.  It was ruled as “equipment failure”.  Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.

I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen.  Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong.  I know that.  That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant.  A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity.  Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.

That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone.  To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then.  My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.

On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen.  It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred.  It gave me a little of my faith back in the system.  When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.

All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator.  I just exaggerated that part a bit.  But let me ask this question… Who in this story did?  Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”?  Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important?  That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.

The question is never, “Is there a God?”  The real question is “Which God do you worship?”

Doing Dew Point Tests and Lowering Expectations

Originally posted May 9, 2014:

There were times when I was working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I wondered if there was anything that we couldn’t do. Surrounded by True Power Plant Men I found that when we were facing a seemingly impossible task, a Power Plant Man would come up with an extremely creative solution to the problem. One such example was during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I talked about this program in an early post called “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” so I won’t go into detail here about the program itself. I will just say that we broke out into teams to find creative ways to operate more efficiently, and to cut costs.

I was a team leader of our team, and looking back I must have had two criteria in mind when I picked the team members that would be on my team. The first would have been that they were True Power Plant Men (and woman) with a higher than average intelligence. The second criteria would have been that they were friends of mine. I say this, because everyone on my team fit the bill.

During out team meetings, Terry Blevins would often say some bombastic statement that the average person may be inclined to dismiss immediately as being absurd. I say that because I remember more than once thinking that what Terry had just said wouldn’t amount to much. As it turned out, our biggest money saving ideas were those truly bombastic statements that Terry was making. One such idea had to do with the heaters on the precipitators that kept the hoppers and the insulators on the roof too hot to collect moisture.

The Precipitator is a very large box that takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack (how many times have I made that statement in the last two years?). Anyway, the exhaust from the boiler after the coal has been turned to ash in the fireball in the boiler contains a large amount of moisture. The last thing you want to happen is for the temperature of the flue gas to fall below the dew point. When that happens, moisture collects on the structure in a form of… well… of Acid Rain. Basically eating away the precipitator and the duct work from the inside.

Somewhere along the line, it had been determined that the dewpoint of the flue gas was not higher than 250 degrees. So, as long as the structure was at least 250 degrees, no moisture would be collected. Four heaters were mounted on each of the 84 hoppers (on each of the two precipitators) and heaters were mounted on the roof around each of the insulators that held up the wire racks on both ends.

When Terry walked into the office to attend one of our first “We’ve Got The Power” team meetings, he said, I think we could save a lot of money if we did something about the heaters on the precipitator. — He may remember being greeted with blank stares (at least from me). Um. Ok. Heaters on the precipitator. I knew they were everywhere, but I never gave them much thought.

I think Terry could tell right away that I hadn’t taken his idea seriously. I don’t know. Maybe he was bothered by the sound of my eyeballs rolling around in circles as if someone has conked me on the head. So, he explained his idea further. He pointed out that the roof heaters on just one of the precipitators used about 211 kilowatt-hours and the hopper heaters used about 345 kilowatt-hours. Together it more than half a Megawatt of power. — This definitely caught our attention. That meant that between both of the Precipitators (since we had two boilers at our plant), we could possibly save over a Megawatt of electricity every hour we could shut down the heaters.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only it is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

After discussing all the aspects of the idea, we decided that in order for the idea to have any merit, we had to know if the dew point really was around 250 degrees, or was it possibly a lot lower. 250 degrees seemed high to begin with since the boiling point of water is 212 degrees. If lower, then we could have a workable idea. Originally, I wanted to tackle the task of finding the dew point. So, I went about it in a Science Experiment sort of way.

I figured that if we were able to lower the temperature of the flue gas to a known temperature below the dewpoint, and by knowing the volume of the gas, and the amount of liquid we could condense out of it, we could determine (possibly) the dew point. So, I brought my Graham Condenser to work, and Scott Hubbard and I went up to the 250 foot landing on the smoke stack with the intent of sucking a known amount of exhaust from the smoke stack while the unit was at full load.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

We would run it through the condenser while running cool water through it to lower the temperature.

The Exact Graham Condenser used in our experiment Spring 1990

The Exact Graham Condenser used in our experiment Spring 1990 (and that’s my hairy hand in this selfie)

I could measure the output of the vacuum pump by filling up an inverted Erlemeyer flask with water and then letting the flue gas displace the water. — I always loved doing experiments like this in the 9th grade science glass with Mr. Godfrey our Physical Science Teacher (Donna Westhoff, who may sometimes read this blog was in my class and sat right behind me).

An Erlenmeyer Flask (from Google Images, not from my Chemistry Lab)

An Erlenmeyer Flask (from Google Images, not from my Chemistry Lab)

Ok. Side Story, since I mentioned Donna Westhoff from the 9th grade 1974-75 school year.

I knew that Donna’s father was a fire fighter, because one day during a special outing when we were with a group of bicycling Junior High School students and a teacher, we stopped at Donna Westhoff’s house to get a drink of water. On the walls in her house were different types of fire fighting treasures. Donna explained that her father was a fire fighter… That was the Spring of 1975 in Columbia, Missouri

Fast forward 16 years later (1991) at the Power Plant in the middle of nowhere in North Central Oklahoma. Just about a year after the story I’m telling now…. I left the logic room and went to catch the elevator to the Control room. When the doors opened, Tony Mena was in there with a bunch of college age students giving them a tour of the plant. I entered the elevator and turned around to face the door as it closed.

As I was standing there, I suddenly became aware that the person standing next to me was staring right at me. So, I turned to see who it was. Standing next to me was someone that looked very familiar wearing a big grin as if she knew who I was. I recognized her, and while my mind was going through filing cabinets of memories trying to index this particular person, I asked her, “Don’t I know you?” She shook her head and said, “I’m Donna Westhoff!”

A High School picture of Donna Westhoff  who is on the Lower Left

A High School picture of Donna Westhoff who is on the Lower Left

As the elevator door opened and we stepped out, Donna and I began talking about what we were both doing there. She was surprised to find that I had become an electrician at a power plant instead of some kind of scientist in a lab somewhere. Donna was going to school in Stillwater where one of the best Fire Fighting Schools in the country is found. Following in her father’s footsteps, I thought. After a while I could tell that Tony was getting a little perturbed that the wisdom he was imparting about the fire protection system on the Turbine Generator wasn’t being absorbed by Donna, so I cut our conversation short. It turned out that a very good friend of hers lived just two houses from where we lived, and her friend’s mother was my landlord. Peggy Pickens.

Ok. End of the side story, and another example of how I occasionally run into friends from my childhood in the most unexpected places (see the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“).

So. Scott Hubbard and I tried using the Graham Condenser and the Erlenmeyer Flask, but we quickly found out that this wasn’t big enough, to capture a large enough quantity. So, we increased the size of the condenser by winding a garden hose around inside of a water bucket and filling it with ice. Then we captured all the water that condensed in the hose.

A 5 gallon water bucket we used as our condenser with a garden hose and ice

A 5 gallon water bucket we used as our condenser with a garden hose and ice

When it finally came down to it. Even though it was fun trying to do this experiment halfway up the 500 foot smoke stack, I never was able to figure out how to calculate the dew point given the data I had collected.

That’s when we decided to look at dew point sensors in the parts catalogs. If we could stick a probe down into the precipitator and measure the dew point directly in the flue gas, that would be best. After looking at a few in the catalog, Terry Blevins said he thought he could make one. So, he went to work.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

The next day he came in with an inch and a half conduit with hoses hanging out the back and a homemade sensor on the other end. I won’t go into detail how the sensor was built because some day Terry may want to patent this thing because, as it turned out, it was so sensitive that it could detect my breathe from about a foot away. If I breathed out of my mouth toward the sensor, it would detect the moisture in my breath. This was perfect!

We went to work on the roof of the precipitator sticking the probe down into different sections of the precipitator. It not only measured the moisture, it also had thermocouples on it that we used to accurately measure the temperature of the sensor as we varied the temperature by blowing cold air through the conduit using the same ice bucket and hose from before.

I could go into a lot of detail about how we performed our experiments, but it would only excite me and bore you. So, let me just say that we came up with two very important results. First of all, at full load when the humidity outside was at 100% the dew point was around 150 degrees! A full 100 degrees below what the plant had originally assumed. This was very important, because a lot of energy was spent trying to keep the flue gas above 250 degrees, and just by lowering it down to 210 degrees, still a safe amount above the dew point, that extra energy could be used to create electricity.

The second thing that we discovered was that the middle sections of the precipitator was a lot cooler inside than the outer fields. We realized that this was caused by the air preheater coils that rotated between the flue gas and the Primary Air intake duct. This took the last amount of heat safely possible from the exhaust and transferred it to the air going into the boiler so that it was already hot when it was used to burn the coal. Because of the way the air preheater coils rotated, the part of the duct toward the middle of the precipitator was a lot cooler than the air on the outside.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler. See the Air Preheater? Flue Gas on one side and ambient air on the other

Lower temperatures in the precipitator increased the performance, so we decided that if we could mix the air around as it was going into the precipitator so that the outer edges were cooler, then it would increase the overall performance. One suggestion was to put a mobile home in the duct work because in Oklahoma it was a known fact that mobile homes attracted tornadoes and it would probably cause a tornadic reaction that would mix up the flue gases. — We just couldn’t figure out how to convince management to put a mobile home in the duct between the economizer and the precipitator.

Thanks to Terry’s handy dandy Dew Point Sensor, we were able to prove that the hopper and roof heaters could be lowered to where we set the thermostat at 180 degrees. At that setting the heaters that used to always run at 250 degrees would remain off anytime the ambient temperature was above 45 degrees. In Oklahoma, that is most of the year. This turned out to save over $350,000 per year in energy savings at a cost of about 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Not to mention the unknown savings from being able to lower the flue gas temperature by 40 degrees.

Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy

Originally Posted on May 11, 2013:

If you crossed Walter Matthau with Howdy Doody you would come out with someone that would remind you of Bob Kennedy. All right. Bob Kennedy looked more like Walter Matthau than he did Howdy Doody, but I could tell that when Bob was younger, even though he didn’t have red hair and freckles, I could picture him as a little boy playing with his stick horse wearing a cowboy hat, and to me he would have looked a lot like Howdy Doody…

Walter Matthau

Walter Matthau

Howdy Doody

Howdy Doody

Cowboy Bob Kennedy on his stick horse

Cowboy Bob Kennedy on his stick horse

The day I first met Bob Kennedy I instantly fell in love with him. He was an electrician at the Power Plant in Midwest City and I was there on overhaul for three months during the fall of 1985. Bob was assigned to be our acting foreman while Arthur Hammond and I were there for a major overhaul on Unit 5. — Yeah. Five. They actually had 7, but all of them weren’t operational at the time.

Actually, I think it was Unit 4 that was a small generator that came from a submarine. — Half of the plant was like a museum. I used to park at the far end of the plant just so that I could walk through the museum each morning on my way to the electric shop. I think years later they may have torn that part of the plant down, which should have been illegal since to me it easily was a historical monument.

I called this post “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy” because Bob was tall and when he walked he sort of lunged forward and walked as if he was a giant walking through a forest that was only knee deep to himself. Bob had been an electrician for over 35 years. I know this because one of the phrases he would often say was, “I’ve been doin’ it this way for 35 years!”

He had some other phrases, that I will probably mention in a few minutes. First I want to tell you about the relationship I had with Bob…. So, often in the morning after the morning steam horn would go off signalling that it was time to go to work (yeah… .isn’t that cool? A horn powered by steam would go off when it was time to go to work! My gosh… That horn alone was a monument of the 1930’s each morning when I heard it!),

Bob would come out of the office to where I was standing in the shop and say, “Kev. Follow me. I’ll show you what you’re goin’ ta be workin’ on today. Then he would head for the door. I would follow along behind him. I could tell that he preferred that I walk behind him. When I would walk faster, he would spread his lanky legs even farther to keep me one step behind him… so I quickly assumed my place two paces behind Bob.

He would have these large strides when he walked that would cause his body to move in a left and right motion where his arms were swinging at his side. I loved everything about Bob. I loved the way he talked… I loved the way he walked… I wished that I could be a miniature Bob. So, I started to imitate him.

As Bob would walk across the Turbine-Generator floor toward Unit 5 from Unit 7 (where the electric shop was located)), I would follow along two paces behind him trying my best to walk just like him. I would make very long strides to match Bob’s. I would swing my arms and lean left and right as I walked just like Bob. Bob was my hero and I wanted to let everyone know that I loved Bob and I wanted to be as much like Bob as I possibly could. So, as I walked I had a tremendous grin on my face. My expression was full of the satisfaction of knowing that I was literally following in Bob’s footsteps!

Operators and other maintenance workers that would see us instantly understood my intentions as they would grin, or laugh, or fall down in a total convulsion of uncontrollable laughter, sharing in my elation of being a miniature Bob.

I wish I could say that my time with Bob was one of total contentment and joy at being a miniature Bob that had “done it this way for 35 years”, but there were some setbacks. The first problem was that Arthur Hammond was with me on overhaul, and there was one major flaw in this combination….. Arthur liked to argue. See my post from two weeks ago called “Power Plant Arguments With Arthur Hammond“.

Before I go into the contention part, I want to first tell you about my second best Bob Kennedy Phrase. It is…. “I have a tool for that.”. You see. At this older gas plant where Bob Kennedy had spent the greater portion of his life, he had created a tool for just about every difficult job at the plant to make it easier.

Often in the morning when Bob would show me the job that I was going to be performing for the day, he would qualify it by saying, “I have a special tool for this.” Then he would take me back to the shop, reach under one of the work benches and pull out a work of art that comprised of chains, levers, pulleys and specialized cables that would make s seemingly impossible job, possible. He had a tool for everything.

So, when Arthur and I realized that Bob had a tool for everything we came up with a song for Bob that went to the tune of Big John. And old song about a guy named Big John that worked in a mine that collapsed one day. If you are older than I am (52), then you may have heard it before.

In case you haven’t, here is a YouTube version of Big John sung by Jimmy Dean:

Now that you have listened to the song about Big John, here is the song that Arthur and I devised about Bob Kennedy:

Big Bob…. Big Bob….

Every morning when he showed up at the plant, You could see him arrive.

He was 6 foot 6, and weighed more than than 145.

Wore a chip on his shoulder

And kinda wobbly at the hip.

Everyone knew he didn’t give a flip… That was Bob….

Big Bo ahh… ob… Big Bad Bob. Big Bob….

Bob didn’t say much ’cause he was quiet and shy,

He hummed and we hawed and we didn’t know why.

That was Bo ahh…. ob…. Big Bad Bob….

When he would say, “I’ve gotta job… for the two of you…

Follow me… and I’ll show you what to do…

” That was Bob…. Bahhh….ob… Big Bad Bob….

When somethin’ didn’t work, he would say real quick,

Just spit in the back and give it a kick,

That was Bob…. Baaahhh…ob…. Big Bad Bob.

When you’ve been doin’ it this way for 35 years,

It doesn’t matter what problem you’ve got sittin’ right here’s….

‘Cause I’m Bob…. Baaaah….ob…. Big Bad Bob…..

You see, I have a tool to fix it up just right,

Let me show you how it’s done. I’ll show you the light….

That was Bob….. Baaaah…..ob… Big Bad Bob!

Arthur and I would sing or hum this song as we worked. It made the day go by so fast that we wondered if Bob himself wasn’t warping time using some tool he kept under a workbench in the electric shop.

Like I said…. I love Bob, and I have since the day I met him, and I always will. There came a day when there was contention in the ranks…. I saw it beginning when Arthur was arguing each day with Bob. I think it had to do with the fact that Bob liked to argue also… and neither of them liked to lose an argument. So, each morning, either Arthur or Bob would win the argument (which sounds a lot like a Dilbert moment today)….

My two friends whom I love dearly (to this day) quickly were at each other’s throats. I didn’t realize how much until the morning of December 18, 1985, just before I left the shop and Bob Kennedy said to me… “That Arthur Hammond…. He sure can dish it out, but he just can’t take it”. I walked straight from that conversation down to the the mezzanine level of unit 5 where Art was working on a motor. The first thing he said to me was, “Bob sure can dish it out but he just can’t take it.”

At that point I told Art to just wait a minute. There was something I had to do…. I went back to the shop and told Bob that there was something at the motor where we needed his help. As I was walking with Bob across the mezzanine and down to the motor, my heart was split in two. Here were two of my friends at odds with each other….. Two people whom I would spend the rest of my life praying for their happiness. Yet they viewed each other as mortal enemies…

I had to figure that both of them were right in their own way, yet both of them were wrong about each other. So when Bob arrived at the motor I told them both (as if I had suddenly turned into their mother)…. A little while ago, Bob told me that ‘Art can sure dish it out, but he just can’t take it.’. Then I walked down here and Art tells me the exact same thing about Bob. Now…. what is going on here? Bob?

Bob looked at the two of us like the time had finally come to let it all out…. he said, “Every time we have an argument about anything Art here runs to Ellis Rook complaining about me. If he has something to say, he should come straight to me. Not run to our supervisor!”

Art said, “Now wait a minute! It isn’t me that is running to Ellis Rook! Ellis just spoke with me this morning about sending me back to the plant because I don’t get along with you (meaning Bob). Each time we have an argument, you run to Ellis Rook. Ellis has been telling me that he is thinking of sending me home because you can’t get along with me! Bob had a shocked look on his face.

Playing the facilitator role, I asked Bob… “Is this so?” Because I remembered that one day before (on December 17, 1985) when I had to leave for part of the day to get my blood test because I was going to be married (and in Oklahoma you still needed a blood test to be married)…. when I had returned, I met Ellis Rook (the electrical supervisor) in the elevator, he had asked me about Arthur Hammond.

As a side note, because of the new changes in overtime rules, if I left the plant in the middle of the day, I wasn’t supposed to stay long enough to collect overtime. Ellis Rook started to tell me that I shouldn’t have come back to work after getting my blood test, because I wasn’t eligible to work overtime after taking off part of the day. After apologizing to him (humbly and profusely), he said, that it would be all right just this once… I figured it was because I was going to be married that Saturday on December 21, 1985. Ellis said that he had heard some bad things about Arthur and he was considering sending him back to our plant.

This would have been a terrible disgrace for Arthur and would have been on his permanent record as someone that wouldn’t be able to go on overhaul anymore. I assured Ellis that Arthur Hammond was the most upright of employees and that there wasn’t any reason to send him home.

So, I asked Arthur…. was it true that he had been going to Ellis Rook (the electrical supervisor) to complain about Bob each time they had an argument… Arthur assured the both of us that not only wasn’t it him, but that it was Bob that had been complaining to Ellis Rook about him each time they had an argument. That was why he said Bob could dish it out, but he just couldn’t take it.

Bob replied, “It wasn’t me! It was Arthur! Every time we had an argument Ellis Rook would come to me and ask me about it. That is how I know that Art has been running to Ellis complaining about me. I would never tell Ellis about it! I would deal with it directly with Art. Art said, Ellis Rook was asking me the same thing!

So, I asked…. How would Ellis know if neither of you went to him to complain? I wouldn’t have told him…. This led us to the third person that was present during every argument….

You see, there was another electrician from the plant across town that was there every time Ellis came to Bob asking about Arthur after an argument… Let’s call it Mustang Plant (since that was the name). In order not to embarrass him, I won’t tell you his name, but his initials are “Randy Oxley”. Randy Oxley desperately wanted to move from Mustang Plant to the plant in Midwest City… (all right… since I’m already naming names of plants, I might as well say “Horseshoe Plant”)…

For a time during this overhaul I spent a great deal of time in the electric shop working on motors. Each day I would stand at a workbench disassembling motors, cleaning out their sleeve bearings (yeah. these old motors at the old plant had sleeve bearings) and measuring them, and re-assembling them. During that time there were two things that I listened to. The first thing was the radio…. At that time in history… the leading rock radio stations would play the top 20 songs only. That meant that after listening to the top 20 songs, the only thing left to listen to was the top 20 songs all over again…. To me… It was like a nightmare.

The songs I listened to 100 times were songs like

“Say you Say Me” by Lionel Riche,

One More Night by Phil Collins:

Every Time you Go away by Paul Young:

We Built This City by Jefferson Starship:

Something in the Air Tonight by Phil Collins:

I’m sorry to do this to you, but this last song I know I must have listened to about 50 times as the top 20 played over and over again about every two hours as it has been drilled into my head. I know. I can feel the pity from every one of you who have just read this post.

Today I have “Something In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins on my iPod only because when I listen to it once each week it reminds me of the time I spent in the electric shop at Horseshoe plant working on those motors working around Reggie Deloney, Steven Trammell (otherwise known as ‘Roomie’), Paul Lucy, and the others that were there during that overhaul.

The second thing that I listened to while I was working on the motors in the electric shop was Randy Oxley. Randy was much like Steven Higginbotham, the summer help that I had worked with the first summer I had worked at our plant. See…. “Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown“. He liked to talk.

Randy didn’t consider me as an important asset, so he didn’t talk much to me. He did, however, talk to one of the Maintenance Supervisors, who happened to be his uncle. You see… Randy wanted desperately to move from Mustang Plant to Horseshoe Plant. There was an opening for the B Foreman at Horseshoe plant, and he figured that one of the men in the electric shop would surely get the new foreman opening, which would leave an opening for an electrician.

So Randy would try to butter up his uncle (His uncle was called “Kincade, or Campbell… or some such name). He didn’t seem to care that I was standing right there carefully honing a sleeve bearing for an old GE motor. He openly expressed his opinion. It is only because of his blatant disregard for discretion that I don’t feel any guilt to pass on the conversation.

The one phrase that sticks in my mind is that Randy, while trying to convince his uncle that they should hire him in the electric shop at Horseshoe lake, said, “I am the best electrician at Mustang Plant. The only problem is that I’m the only one that knows it!”

I’m not kidding…. “I am the best electrician at the plant… the problem is that I’m the only one that knows it….”

This became one of my favorite phrases of all time. I couldn’t wait to share it with Arthur…. I told him… “I am the best darn BS’er of all time… the only problem is that I’m the only one that knows it…” Art would say…. “I’m the best <bleeping> goof ball of all time… only I’m the only one that knows it…” I know I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard.

Actually, I use this phrase to also remind me to never get such a big head that I really think that I’m better at something than others think I am… because they usually know better than I do.

So, this brings us back to the Art and Bob Cage Fight….

It became obvious that both of them had become snookered. Every time Art and Bob had argued about something and Randy Oxley was around, Randy would run up to Ellis’s office and tell him that Art and Bob were at each other’s throats.

Randy was trying to butter himself up to Ellis so that he would hire him when there was an opening in the electric shop. Art and Bob each thought the other had run to Ellis complaining about the other….

That was when the other shoe dropped….

Many years before, when I was still a summer help, and when I was a janitor, there was an electrician at our plant named Mel Woodring. Mel had decided that he didn’t have a future at our plant so he applied for a job at Muskogee. Of course, Bill Bennett and Leroy Godfrey were glad to give him a glowing recommendation because they thought that when Mel left, it gave them an opportunity to hire someone that would…. let us say… fit their culture in a more effective manner.

Because I was a janitor at this time, I was not eligible to apply for an Electrical job, even though Charles Foster had become my mentor and had me begin taking electrical courses through the company.

I had worked the year before I was working with Bob Kennedy at the plant in Midwest City, Oklahoma at Muskogee plant around Mel Woodring. I never worked directly with him, so I will just say that he met the expectations that had been set by my bucket buddy back home, Diana Brien.

Fast forward a year later to when I am on overhaul at Horseshoe plant….. Steven Trammell, Bob Kennedy and a few other electricians that had spent many years at the plant, all thought they would be possible contenders for new foreman’s job. Any of them would have been excellent candidates.

To their stunned surprise… Mel Woodring from Muskogee was given the job! To me, this was an obvious case of the “promote someone in order to get him out of the shop” syndrome.

It turned out that the foremen at Muskogee (John Manning), including our illustrious Don Spears, that I had the momentary lap dance with the year before (see, “Lap O’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant“), had decided to give Mel the highest rating possible so that he would get the job at Midwest City, thus relieving Muskogee from the burden that our plant had placed on them by suggesting that Muskogee transfer him from our plant.

Not only was the Horseshoe plant in a state of shock, but so was Randy Oxley. This meant that there wasn’t going to be an opening in the electric shop, and all of his “schmoozing” had been for naught.

The last day of the overhaul was December 20, 1985, the day before my wedding. I remember that Paul Lucy wanted me to go to a “gentleman’s club”(quite the oxymoron if you ask me) to celebrate and have a sort of a bachelor’s party…. I remember looking straight at Art Hammond right after Paul asked me, and Art shook his head and said…. “Don’t listen to him. Do what is right.” I assured Art that I had no intention of ruining the rest of my life the day before my wedding.

I went directly home.

The next day, Art Hammond was at my wedding with his wife. It was, and still is, the most blessed day of my life. Partly because Art was there at the reception dancing alongside me. I was lucky that I didn’t have a black eye… (which is another story)… and lucky that Art and Sonny Kendrick (who sang at my wedding) were there. Of all of my friends at the power plant, they were the ones that came to my wedding reception of all the people my mom had invited from the plant.

Years later, I traveled with Bob Kennedy on a bus from his plant to Oklahoma City to visit the new Transmission Control Room and back. We sat together and it was just like we had never been apart. Bob talked… and I wished in my mind that I could be a miniature Bob walking behind him every step of the way.

Today any time I have to take a big step for whatever reason…. Bob Kennedy immediately comes to mind. I think about when Bob climbed out of that bus… These words come to my mind….

Through the dust and the smoke of this manmade hell walked a giant of a man that ‘lectricians knew well…. Like a Giant Oak Tree, he just stood there all alone….Big Baaah…. ob…. Big Bad Bob…. Big Bob….. Everyone knew it was the end of line for Big Bob…. Big Bad Bob…. An Electrician from this Plant was a Big Big Man… He was Big Bob! Big Bad Bob! Big Bob!

Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River

Originally posted May 11, 2012:

The Power Plant sits on a hill where you can see it 20 miles away looming in the distance.  The lake that provides cooling water for the plant is also built on a hill.  If the Electric Company had waited for the rain to fill up the lake we would still be waiting 34 years later.  Fortunately the Arkansas River flows near the plant below the Kaw Lake dam near Ponca City and before it runs into the Keystone Lake near Tulsa.  There are 4 large pumps alongside the river in a fenced in area that draws water from the river and sends it a mile up a hill where it pours into the lake.  It is a beautiful lake and most of the area around the lake is a wildlife preserve.  A part of the area around the lake is reserved for hunting.

The lake on the hill with the Power Plant in the distance at sunset

Bald Eagles and Pelicans make this lake their home in the winter.  During the winter months you can watch a web cam of a bald eagle’s nest on the lake.  http://www.suttoncenter.org/pages/live_eagle_camera

I have included this map so that you can see the layout.  the wide blue line in the upper right corner is the Arkansas river.

Map of the Power Plant Lake

The River Pump station is just off the edge of this map.

During my second summer as a summer help at the Power Plant I was assigned to be the “gopher” for a maintenance crew that was going to be working down by the river for a week.  Being a “gopher” means that you drive back and forth between the plant and the river bringing (in other words: “go for”) tools, supplies, food, water, and anything else that the Power Plant Men may need while they were working at the river.

At first I wasn’t aware of what job the Power Plant Men crew were assigned.  I just knew it was down by the river.  I towed a large air compressor behind the flatbed truck and a lot of air hoses and air powered tools.  Then I watched as the men began to setup the equipment.  At one point Ray Butler who was overseeing the job asked me to go back to the plant and get a Y-connector for the air hoses and some more hose.

Air Hose Y-Connector

I drove back to the plant and when I returned I was standing there with the coupling in my hand watching the men dragging air hoses down into the river, someone asked me to help them move something.  So I laid the Y-connector on the top of the Air Compressor.  Thinking that would be a safe out of the way place for it.  When I did that, it fell down into a cavity that was about 6 inches wide and 5 feet deep where there was the air intake for the compressor.  It was too deep to reach it.  You can see the air intake section on the front of this air compressor:

This is the exact size and type of air compressor

After trying to figure out how to take off the front grill of the compressor to retrieve the connector and not seeing an easy way, I told Dale Hull what I had done.  He just smiled (well… Dale Hull had a perpetual smile or grin on his face anyway), and he went over to a tool box and pulled out a spool of wire.  After cutting some off and fashioning a hook on the end, he quickly snagged the connector and pulled it right out.

Honestly when I saw him start fishing for that coupling I thought to myself that this wasn’t going to work and I was resigned to driving back to the plant again for another one and being humiliated by my failure.  It’s too hard to hook something that far down with that flimsy wire.  I was surprised and relieved when he quickly pulled it out with little effort.

Maybe he had a lot of practice doing this.  In True Power Plant Man fashion, there was no ridicule.  From the moment I told him I had dropped the connector, he went to work as if it was his job, not doing anything to attract attention.  Until this moment, Dale Hull and I were the only two that knew that I had dropped that connector into the compressor housing.  Even though I already had, I marked him down again in my book as a True Power Plant man.

Dale Hull was one of those surprise mechanics that had a lot more skill than you would think by looking at him.  He reminded me of John Ritter.  The actor on “Three’s Company”.  I carpooled with him a lot during the first and second summer and one thing that stood out in my mind was that he had over 100,000 miles on his car and still had the original tires.  He did his own wheel alignments.  I spent many hours alongside Dale on weekends doing coal cleanup.  I helped him move one time from one apartment to another.  I remember that he had his own set of precision machining tools.

John Ritter looking like Dale Hull in 1980

When I carpooled with him and Ricky Daniels, we would go to the gas station just north of the plant where Dale and Ricky would purchase some beer to drink on the way home.  At this time, the place was crowded with construction hands that were still building the plant.  I would sit in the back seat and watch the back of the heads of Ricky and Dale who, after a long hot day at work were relaxing by drinking beer and trying to stay awake until they reached Stillwater.  I would see Dale’s head bobbing up and down as he would struggle to stay awake.  Every day it was the same.  We always made it safely home.  I don’t know if it was the Novena to St. Jude that I was saying in the back seat or it was Dale’s ability to drive while nodding off to sleep or both.

Anyway.  Back to the river.

In the river just below the surface of the water next to the River Pump Forebay there are 4 “coffin houses” where the water can flow into the pump forebay. From there it is pumped up to the lake.  The 4 coffin houses (which get their name because they are rectangular shaped boxes that put you in mind of coffins) are mounted on one large concrete slab.  The Power Plant Men were setting everything up so that they could drill holes in the concrete slab which was about 4 feet under water.

Why were they drilling holes in the concrete slab?  According to the EPA, it was required that the Electric Company continuously monitor the temperature of the water in the river at the point where the water enters the intake into the forebay area (As if the electric company was somehow going to be able to change the temperature of the water). So they were mounting a thermometer out in the middle on the concrete slab at the bottom of the river.

Hence the use of Air powered tools.  :)  It wouldn’t have worked well with electric tools.  I remember Power Plant He-men like Bill Gibson standing out in the river (the water had been lowered by lowering the output of Kaw Dam about 20 miles upstream) taking a deep breath, and dropping down into the water.  A few moments later a rush of bubbles would come blasting out of the water as he operated the air operated power drill.  Each time someone went under the water, they had to find the hole they were drilling, put the bit back in it, and try to drill some more of the hole all while holding their breath.  A lot of times they came up laughing because once they started drilling they couldn’t see anything because bubbles were flying in their face.  Needless to say, the 10 or so holes they had to drill took almost an entire week.

Of course, they had to take time out for cookouts and swimming in the river.  Fortunately there were no Power Plant Women down there at the time, because when it came time for lunch, a group of men in nothing but their skivvies would take a dip in the river.

When they were through there was a thermocouple mounted at the bottom of the river with a cable that led up the bank and into a small galvanized metal building that housed a recorder that took one month to make a full revolution recording the temperature of the water.

Thermocouple – detects temperature using the voltage between two different types of metal

Temperature Recorder

There was one other time when I worked for a week at the river.  It was when I was on labor crew and we had to shovel the sand out of the river pump forebay.  This is a concrete pit about 30 feet deep.  Animals would fall in there from time to time and drown, so usually there was a rotting dead possum and a dead bird or two floating in the murky water when the pumps weren’t running.

A P&H crane would lower a large bucket into the pit and a couple of us would shovel sand into it until it was full, then the crane would take it up and dump it out, then lower it back down again for some more sand.  We would be standing in the water or on a pile of sand shoveling sand all day.  I remember my first day doing that, after a while I looked down to see that there were little tiny bugs crawling all over under the hair on my arms.  I called them weevils because they weeved around the hairs on my arms.  I quickly realized that my entire body was covered with these little crawling bugs.  From the hair on my head down to my ankles.  They really weren’t weevils, because those are much bigger than the tiny bugs that were crawling all over me.    They put me in the mind of flea larva.

Flea Larva

My first reaction was to panic, run around in circles screaming like a little girl.  Instead I resigned myself to these bugs and just kept on working. They weren’t biting me.  I think they were just looking for a way out of the pit.  You climbed in and out of the pit using a ladder permanently mounted on the concrete wall.  When it was lunch time I would take a dip in the river, clothes and all to wash them all off.

It’s a  funny thought now to think that after I became an electrician a trip to the river pumps always felt like a vacation.  Maybe because we were outside of the normal plant grounds.  There usually weren’t any supervisors around.  There was wildlife.  There was a river you could play in if you felt the need.  I never found myself working less while I was there, it just seemed enjoyable to have a change in scenery.

Anyway.  I don’t think the EPA every really cared what the temperature of the river was, they just wanted us to go through the exercise of measuring it.  But that is how that lake ended up on the top of that hill.  The water is used to cool the steam in the condenser in the Power Plant.  The fish and the birds also enjoy it and all the wildlife around the lake.  All made possible by the diligent maintenance of the Power Plant Men.

Comments from the original post:

  1. rjdawarrior May 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    Loved it! The pictures really brought the whole story to life. You have a way with words that in trigs me.

    My favorite part was the flea larva, I could just see you out there in a field full of testosterone, running around in a panic screaming like a little girl…..

    Thanks for the enjoyment of the employment RJ

    Plant Electrician May 17, 2012, at 5:21 pm

    Thanks RJ, No matter how I try to forget it… I still remember it all too well. :)

    Comment from last Repost:

    1. Dan Antion May 13, 2014

      I love using air tools but I’m very glad to have only ever had to use them on land. I’ve used them in the rain, but I was always able to breath :)

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