Originally posted February 25, 2012:
When I first began working at the power plant (in 1979), one of the people I spent a good deal of time with was Larry Riley. I was 18 and knew very little about tools, equipment, power plants and how to speak in the Power Plant language. I quickly found out that in those early days, when the plant was still under construction, a lot of people turned to Larry Riley when they were faced with an obstacle and didn’t know how to approach it. Larry Riley was a 24 year old genius. I was amazed by his vast knowledge of seemingly disparate areas of expertise. When he was asked to do something, I never heard him say that he didn’t know how. He just went and did it. So, after I asked Larry how old he was, I asked him how long he had been at the plant. He hadn’t been there very long, but he had worked in the construction department before transferring to the power plant.
Larry Riley already at the age of 24 had a beat up hard hat full of hard hat stickers. One indicating that he was a certified industrial truck driver. I think he had about 5 safety stickers and various other hard hat stickers. He was a thin clean cut dark haired young man with a moustache that sort of reminded me of the Marlboro Man’s moustache. He walked like he had a heavy burden on his back and he was rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth.
I worked with Larry off and on throughout my years as a summer help and during that time Larry taught me the following things (to name a few): How to drive a tractor. How to mend a fence. How to bleed the air out of a diesel engine’s fuel line (which is more important than you would think). How to operate a brush hog (a large mower on the back of a tractor). How to free a brush hog from a chain link fence after you get one of the bat wings stuck in one. Tie rebar, and pour concrete and operate a Backhoe. I remember asking Larry why a backhoe was called a backhoe. I think Sonny Karcher was in the truck at the time. You would have thought I had asked what year the War of 1812 was fought! I’m sure you are all chuckling while reading this (especially all the power plant men). But for those of you who are as green as I was, I’ll tell you. A Backhoe is called a Backhoe because the Hoe is on the Back. Gee. Who would have thought?
Later when I was a full time employee and had worked my way from being a Janitor to being on the Labor Crew, Larry Riley became my foreman. At that point on occassion I would call him “Dad”. He would usually disown me and deny that he had anything to do with it. On occassion when he would own up to being my dad, he would admit that when I was real little I was dropped on my head and that’s why I acted so odd (though, I don’t know to what behavior he was referring).
There was this other guy at the plant the first summer I was there that had the unique title of “Mill Wright”. His name was Gary Michelson. He evidentally had gone to school, taken some tests and been certified as a Mill Wright and this probably brought him a bigger paycheck than the other regular workers as well as a much bigger ego. He would spend days at a time at a band saw cutting out metal wedges at different angles so that he would have them all in his pristine tool box. I worked with him a few times during my first summer as a summer help. I will probably talk more about Gary in a later post, but just to put it plainly… I could tell right away that he wasn’t a real “power plant man”. The rest of the power plant men I’m sure would agree with me. I wouldn’t have traded Larry Riley for ten Gary Michelsons unless I was trying to help some engineers change a light bulb (actually. I have met some good engineers along the way. Some of them very good. But they were not the norm. At least not those assigned to power plants).
I have mentioned some different things that Larry had taught me and if you remember, he was the person that I worked with on my second day at the plant when Sonny Karcher and Larry had taken me to the coalyard to fix the check valve (in my post about Sonny Karcher). There will always be one day that first comes to my mind when I think about Larry. This is what happened:
I drove a truck down to the Picnic area on the far side of the lake from the plant. Jim Heflin drove a Backhoe down there. I believe he was going to dig up some tree stumps that had been left over after the “engineers” in Oklahoma City had decided where to put all the trees in the area.
What the engineers in Oklahoma City did was this: They cut down all of the trees that were in the picnic area and planted new trees. Some of them not more than 15 or 20 feet away from a tree that had been there for 20 years and was a good size. So, there were a lot of stumps left over from the big hearty trees that had been cut down that needed to be removed so that the sickly little twigs that were planted there could prosper and grow without feeling inadequate growing next to a full grown he-man tree.
Anyway. I had climbed out of the truck and was making my way around the picnic area picking up trash and putting it in a plastic bag using a handy dandy homemade trash stabbing stick. As Jim was making his way across the “lawn” (I use the word “lawn” loosely, since the area was still fairly new and was not quite finished) when he hit a wet spot. The Backhoe was stuck in the mud. There wasn’t much I could do but watch as Jim used the hoe to try to drag himself out. He rocked the backhoe back and forth. Use the stabilizers to pick up the backhoe while trying to use the scoop to pull it forward. I would say he worked at it for about ten minutes (even though it seemed more like half an hour). Then it was time for us to head back to the plant to go to break.
Back at the plant, Jim told Larry about his predicament and asked him if he would help him get the backhoe out of the mud. Larry said he would come along and see what he could do. At this point, I was thinking that he would jump in the Wench Truck and go down there and just pull him out. Instead we just climbed in the pickup truck and headed back to the park (notice how it went from being a picnic area to a park in only three paragraphs?).
When we arrived, Larry climbed into the Backhoe after making his way across the vast mud pit that Jim had created while trying to free himself before. He fired up the Backhoe…. cigarette in mouth… then the most fascinating thing happened… using both feet to work the pedals, and one hand working the controls in the front and the other hand working the levers in the back, Larry picked up the backhoe using the scoop and the hoe and stabilizers and cigarette all simultaneously, he walked the backhoe sideways right out of the mud pit and onto dry land just as if it was a crab walking sideways. I would say it took no longer than three minutes from the time he started working the controls. Jim just looked at me in amazement. Patted me on the back, shook his head and said, “And that’s how it’s done.”
Now that I’m on the subject of Larry Riley on a backhoe, let me tell you another one. I have seen Larry digging a ditch so that we could run some pipe for irrigation. Now picture this. The bucket on the backhoe is digging a hole in the hard red clay of Oklahoma, and Larry suddenly stops and says….. “I think I felt something”. What? (I think) Of course you did, you are operating this machine that has the power to dig a big hole in the ground in one scoop like it was nothing and Larry said he felt something? He climbed off of the backhoe, jumped down into the ditch he was creating, kicked some clods of dirt around and lo and behold, he had just scraped clean a buried cable. He hadn’t broken it. He had come down on it with the bucket and had somehow “felt” this cable buried under all that dirt. I wonder what it felt like that told him he had encountered something that wasn’t just dirt. I think the entire labor crew just went down on one knee before his greatness for a moment of silence – all right, so we didn’t really. But we were somewhat impressed.
The one thing that makes Larry a True Power Plant Man with all the rest is that he performed acts of greatness like what I described above with complete humility. I never saw a look of arrogance in Larry’s face. He never spoke down to you and he never bragged about anything. To this day, I still picture Larry Riley working at the power plant working feats of magic that would amaze the rest of us as he thinks that he’s just doing another day’s work. That’s the way it is with True Power Plant Men.
Originally posted on February 18, 2012.
I worked at Sooner Coal-fired power plant about a month during the summer of 1979 before I heard about the Indian curse that had been placed on the plant before they started construction. It came up by chance in a conversation with Sonny Karcher and Jerry Mitchell when we were on our way to the coalyard to do something. I was curious why Unit 1 was almost complete but Unit 2 still had over a year left before it was finished even though they both looked pretty much identical. When I asked them that question I didn’t expect the answer that I received, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear about an Indian Curse. It did explain, however, that when we drove around by Unit 2. Sonny would tense up a little looking up at the boiler structure as if he expected to see something.
The edge of the plant property is adjacent to the Otoe-Missouria Indian Tribe. It was said that for some reason the tribe didn’t take too kindly to having a huge power plant larger than the nearby town of Red Rock taking up their view of the sunrise (at least until the tax revenue started rolling in from the plant building the best school in the state at the time). So it was believed that someone in the Indian tribe decided to place a curse on the plant that would cause major destruction. I heard others say that the plant was built on Holy Indian Burial ground. At the time it seemed to me that this was a rumor that could easily be started and very hard to prove false. Sort of like a “Poltergeist” situation. Though, if it was true, then it would seem like the burial site would most likely be located around the bottom of Unit 2 boiler (right at the spot where I imagined the boiler ghost creeping out to grab Bob Lillibridge 4 years later. See the post Bob Liliibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost).
I am including an aerial picture of the immediate plant grounds below to help visualize what Jerry and Sonny showed me next.
This is a Google Earth Image taken from their website of the power plant. In this picture you can see the two tall structures; Unit 1 on the right with Unit 2 sitting right next to it just like the two boilers that you see in the picture of the plant to the right of this post. They are each 250 feet tall. About the same height as a 25 story building. Notice that next to Unit 2 there is a wide space of fields with nothing there. The coalyard at the top is extended the same distance but the coal is only on the side where the two units are. This is because in the future 4 more units were planned to be built in this space. Sooner Lake was sized to handle all 6 units when it was built. But that is another story.
At the time of this story the area next to Unit 2 between those two roads you see going across the field was not a field full of flowers and rabbits and birds as it is today. It was packed full of huge metal I-Beams and all sorts of metal structures that had been twisted and bent as if some giant had visited the plant during the night and was trying to tie them all into pretzels.
Sonny explained while Jerry drove the truck around the piles of iron debris that one day in 1976 (I think it was) when it was very windy as it naturally is in this part of Oklahoma, in the middle of the day the construction company Brown and Root called off work because it was too windy. Everyone had made their way to the construction parking lot when all of the sudden Unit 2 boiler collapsed just like one of the twin towers. It came smashing down to the ground. Leaving huge thick metal beams twisted and bent like they were nothing more than licorice sticks. Amazingly no one was killed because everyone had just left the boilers and were a safe distance from the disaster.
Needless to say this shook people up and those that had heard of an Indian Curse started to think twice about it. Brown and Root of course had to pay for the disaster, which cost them dearly. They hauled the pile of mess off to one side and began to rebuild Unit 2 from the ground up. This time with their inspectors double checking the torque (or tightness) of every major bolt.
This brings to mind the question… If a 250 foot tall boiler falls in the prairie and no one is injured… Does it make a sound?
In the years that followed, Sooner Plant took steps to maintain a good relationship with the Otoe Missouria tribe. Raymond Lee Butler a Native American from the Otoe Missouria tribe and a machinist at the plant was elected chief of their tribe (or chairman as they call it now). But that (as I have said before) is another story.
My first job, where I wasn’t working for myself, was when I was 14 years old and I became a dishwasher in a German Restaurant called Rhinelanders in Columbia Missouri. It felt good feeding dishes through the dishwasher, and scrubbing pots and pans because I knew that in the scheme of things I was helping to feed the customers the best German food in a 60 mile radius. Later when I went to work for the Hilton Inn as a dishwasher, I was serving a lot more people as they would host banquets with 100’s of people at one time. After that I went to work for Sirloin Stockade as a dishwasher, busboy and finally a cook. The number of people that would go through that restaurant in one day dwarfed the number of people we would serve at the Hilton Inn.
Nothing prepared me for the massive amount of people whose lives are touched each day by a Power Plant Electrician! Or any Power Plant employee for that matter. Our plant alone could turn the lights on for over one million people in their homes, offices and factories. As a summer help mowing grass and cleaning up the park each week removing dirty diapers and rotting fish innards it never really had the impact that becoming an electrician did.
Part of the routine as an electrician was to do preventative maintenance on equipment to keep things in good working order. We performed substation inspections, emergency backup battery checks. We changed brushes on the generator exciter, performed elevator inspections and checked cathodic protection to make sure it was operational. At certain times of the year we would check out the plant freeze protection to make sure the pipes weren’t going to freeze come winter. I also worked on maintaining the precipitator equipment. All of these things were needed to keep the plant running smoothly, but, though they were each fun in their own way, they didn’t have the impact on me that fixing something that was broken did. (ok. two paragraphs ending in the word “did”… what does that tell you?).
I used to love getting a Maintenance Order that said that something was broken and we needed to go fix it. It may have been a motor that had a bad bearing, or a cooling system that had shutdown, or the Dumper that dumped the coal trains had quit working. One of my “speci-alities” (I know. I misspelled that on purpose), was working on elevators. — I will save my elevator stories for later.
When I was working on something that was broken, I could see more clearly how my job was related to keeping the lights on throughout the area of Oklahoma where our company served the public. Depending on what you were working on, one wrong slip of the screwdriver and “pow”, I could make the lights blink for 3 million people. I will talk more about certain events that happened throughout the years that I worked at the plant where things that happened at the plant were felt throughout our electric grid. Sometimes even as far away as Chicago and Tennessee. There was a “club” for people that shut a unit down. It was called the “500 Club”. It meant that you tripped the unit when it was generating 500 or more Megawatts of power. I can say that “luckily”, I never was a member of that club.
Ok, so a broken elevator doesn’t directly impact the operation of the plant, but it was, during more than one occasion, a life threatening situation considering that a few times the elevator would pick the most opportune time to stall between 200 and 225 feet up the elevator shaft full of elderly visitors that were touring our flagship Power Plant on their way back down from experiencing the great view of the lake from the top of the boiler. (I know. My college English Professor would have a heyday with that run-on sentence). — actually, that sentence was so long, I think I’ll make it the only sentence in the entire paragraph, — well, except for my comments about it….
Charles Foster, my foreman and best friend, took me up to the top of the boiler soon after I became an electrician and showed me the “Elevator Penthouse”. I know. “Elevator Penthouse”… Sounds like a nice place…. Well. It wasn’t bad after you swept out the dead moths, beetles and crickets that had accumulated since the last Elevator Inspection. It was a noisy room on the top of the elevator shaft where the elevator motor buzzed as it pulled the elevator up and let it down. Stopping on floors where someone had pushed a button.
I told you earlier that my elevator stories will be in a later post, so for this story, I’ll just say that Charles set me down on my tool bucket (which doubled as my portable stool and tripled as my portable trash can), in front of a panel of about 100 relays all picking up and dropping out as the elevator made its way up and down. He told me to study the blueprints that hung on the side of the panel and watch the relays until I understood how it all worked.
So, one afternoon, I sat there for about 4 hours doing nothing but watching relays light up and drop out. On the other side of that panel were the main relays. There were relays there we called “Christmas Tree” relays because they looked like a fir tree. I made some notes on a piece of paper about the sequence that the relays would pick up and drop out that I kept in my wallet. I used those notes years later (in 2000) when I was writing task lists in SAP (our Enterprise Resource Planning computer system) on how to troubleshoot the elevator controls. Anyway, that was how I learned all about how elevator logic works. You know what? It is just like writing a computer program using computer code. It is basically a set of instructions with rules built-in, only it was done with relays.
Well. Back to helping humanity…. So, usually when we were working on something that was broken there was an operator somewhere that was waiting for the equipment to be repaired so that they could go on with their job. Sometimes the Shift Supervisor would be calling us asking us periodically when we were going to be done because they were running low on coal in the silos and were going to have to lower the load on the units if we didn’t hurry up. It was times like that when you fixed the kill switch on the side of the 10 or 11 conveyor that supply the coal to the plant from the coalyard that you really understood just where you stood with your fellow man.
I am writing about this not because I want to pat myself on the back. Though I often did feel really proud as I returned to the truck with my tool bucket after coming down from a conveyor after fixing something. I would feel like taking a bow, though I was often by myself in situations like that when I wasn’t with my “bucket buddy”. At least the Shift Supervisor and the control room operators were very grateful when you would fix something critical to keeping the plant operating at full steam (and I mean that literally…. The electricity is made by the steam from the boiler that turned the turbine that spun the generator).
No. I am writing about this because it would hit home to me at times like these how much each of us depend on each other. We all know about how important it is to have a police force keeping order and having fire fighters and paramedics on standby to rush to protect families in time of distress. People in jobs like those are as obvious as the soldiers that protect our nation.
I think the majority of us have a much bigger impact on the rest of society than we realize. I think the Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with never gave it much thought. Like the person washing dishes in a restaurant, they didn’t look at themselves as heroes. But they are (I know… Sentence fragment). Each day they moved through an environment where a boiler ghost could reach out and grab them. They distinctively know that they are standing next to a dragon that could wake up at any moment and blast them from the face of the earth, but they don’t let it deter them from the immediate job at hand.
When the boilers were being brought on line for the first time in 1979 and 1980, when you walked through the boiler area, you carried a household straw broom with you that you waved in front of you like someone knocking spider webs out of the way (I called it searching for the boiler ghost). It was explained to me at the time that this was done to detect if there was steam leaking from the pipes. If steam was leaking from some of the pipes, you wouldn’t be able to see it, but if you stepped into the flow of the steam, it could cut you in half before you even realized there was something wrong. When the steam hit the broom, it would knock the broom to the side, and you would know the leak was there. Kind of like the canary in the mine.
I remember one day when everyone was told to leave Unit 1 boiler because during an emergency, the entire boiler was at risk of melting to the ground. If not for the quick action of brave Power Plant Men, this was avoided and the lights in the hospitals in Oklahoma City and the rest of Central Oklahoma didn’t blink once. The dragon had awakened, but was quickly subdued and put back in its place.
I entitled this post “Serving Mankind Power Plant Style”, but isn’t that what we all do? If we aren’t serving Mankind, then why are we here? Today I have a very different job. I work at Dell Inc., the computer company. Our company creates computers for people around the world. We create and sell a computer about once every 2 seconds. At the electric company we had about 3,000 people that served 3 million. At Dell, we provide high quality computers for a price that allows even lower income families to enter the computer age. Computers allow families to connect with each other and expand their lives in ways that were not even conceived of a few years ago.
Even though I spend my days serving my internal customers at Dell, I know that in the big scheme of things along with over 100,000 other employees, I am helping to impact the lives of over a billion people worldwide! I wouldn’t be able to do much if down the road the brave men and women at a Power Plant weren’t keeping the lights on. It is kind of like the idea of “Pay it Forward.”
So, the bottom line of this post is… All life is precious. Whatever we do in this life, in one way or other, impacts the rest of us. We go through life thinking that we live in a much smaller bubble than we really do. The real bubble that we live in is this planet and just like every cell in our body is in some way supported by the other cells, it is that way with us. Don’t discount what you do in life. It may seem insignificant, but the smile you give to someone today will be “paid forward” and will impact every one of us.
This story was originally posted on February 11, 2012:
There are five main power plants in the electric company, and maintenance men from each plant would work at other plants when there was an overhaul. An overhaul is when a generator was taken off line for the purpose of doing maintenance on major parts of the plant that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. Such as repairing boiler tubes, and working on the turbine and generator. Because employees would work at other plants for months at a time, living in camping trailers or cheap hotel rooms to save money, most people were able to work with and had the opportunity to know the Power Plant Men from the other four plants.
I have noticed that most non-plant people have a general misconception about Power Plant Men when they first meet them. As a young 18 year old entering my first job with real men, I learned very quickly that they each possessed a certain quality or talent that made them unique and indispensable Sure there were some “bad apples”, but they were never really and truly Power Plant Men. They either left because of incompatibility or were promoted to upper management. I know more than once the plant hired someone new only to have them work one day and never show up again. There were few if any real Power Plant Men that ever left the plant where the character of the plant and its ability to be maintained properly wasn’t instantly changed.
While I am writing this post this evening a wake service is being held at the First Methodist Church in Moore, Oklahoma for a true Power Plant man; Jimmy Armarfio. He was an electrician at Mustang plant. I had heard some stories about Jimmy before I actually met him; most of them about humorous things that had happened to him at one time or other. Everyone liked his African accent (Jimmy was from Ghana, a country in Africa) as they would imitate his voice while telling the stories. It seems that Bill Bennett our Electrical A foreman had more than a few stories to tell.
He came to our plant on an overhaul and worked out of our electric shop. The first time I talked to Jimmy, he was leaning against a counter during lunch finishing a book. I happened to notice when I was walking by that the book was titled “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I had read that book before, so I stopped and asked him what he thought of it. He said that it was interesting how this man who was in a prison camp in Siberia living in a miserable state could go to bed at night thinking that he had a pretty good day. I think I said something like, “Yeah, sort of like us working in this Power Plant.”
Then he said something that has always stuck in my mind. He said that in the English language there are many words that mean the same thing. For instance, for a rock, there is pebble, rock, stone and boulder. In his native language there is one word. It means “rock”. You may say, large rock, small rock, smooth rock, but there is only one word for rock. It made me reflect on the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word…” Suppose there was one word that included everything.
What I didn’t know at that time was that not only was Jimmy Armarfio from Ghana but he was the king of his tribe. Steven Trammell said that his friends referred to him as “King Jimmy” after he was elected King of his tribe. When I heard that Jimmy had died, I looked at the funeral home site and saw that one of his coworkers George Carr said the following: “Jimmy was a beloved coworker and one of my personal heroes.” Another friend, Jack Riley wrote: “It was my blessing to work with Jimmy. The most cheerful person I have had the privilege of knowing.” I have included his picture below. Jimmy Armarfio…. Take a good long look at A True Power Plant Man! A Hero and a King!
The phone rang Saturday morning on March 17, 1984. Since we didn’t have caller ID at that time, I had to pick up the phone to tell who was on the other end. It was my foreman Charles Foster. He said he needed to go out to the plant to do some switching in the substation and he needed someone to help him. I had been an electrician for all of 5 months and this was the first time I had been involved with switching in the substation.
When I arrived at the plant 30 minutes later, the operators in the control room were busy putting Unit 1 online. Charles Foster had brought along his son Tim Foster. Tim was about 10 years old at the time. The operators didn’t have any certified switchmen available, and so the Shift Supervisor, Jim Padgett gave the go ahead for me to go with Charles and act as the “secondary” switchman. That is, I was the one that read and re-read the instructions while Charles would actually crank the switches.
Here is a picture of a typical substation you might run across:
I found this picture on the Department of Labor website. The Main substation at the power plant was much bigger than this one. Half of the substation was the 189,000 volt substation the other half was the 345,000 volt substation. For the particular switching that we were doing that day, we were in the 189 KV end of the substation. This is where Unit 1 fed power to the world.
This was my first experience doing something in the substation other than sub inspections and Transfer Trip and Carrier tests. I was a little surprised when Charles closed one of the air break switches and there was a loud crackling sound as an arc of electricity jumped from one switch to the next. Charles told me that was nothing. Just wait until I close the main switch from the transformer on Unit 2 in the 345 KV sub up the hill.
He was right. Later when I first opened that switch, it drew an arc about 3 feet long before it broke the circuit with a loud pop. You could hear the echo of the booming arc as the sound bounced off the nearby hills…..um…. if there had been hills… It was pretty flat…. being Oklahoma and all. I suppose it was bouncing off of the Power Plant and maybe some trees off in the distance. Well. Anyway. It did echo for a while.
After my first experience in the substation, I decided that substations were one of the neatest places to be. I later became certified as a switchman (multiple times, as you had to renew your certification every 2 or 3 years). Eventually becoming a Switchman trainer. Later when I was with my girlfriend, and even after she became my wife, and we would drive by a substation, I had to be careful not to run off the road since I was usually straining my neck to get a closer look at the substation.
This would result in Kelly become agitated (jokingly of course) that I was paying more attention to the substations than her. To this day, when we pass a substation, my wife Kelly will still let out a “hmmph” when I exaggeratedly ogle a passing substation. I mean…. Can you blame me?
Well. Throughout the years, Substation switching became more an more safe. When I first began switching, we would just wear High Voltage rubber gloves and maybe a face shield. Later we had to wear an Arc Flash Protective suit just in case something blew up:
One time one of the switches broke and exploded in the 345 KV substation and we found a large piece of insulator 200 yards away. This suit wasn’t going to protect you from that. It was only going to keep you from being burned if there was a flash explosion.
In the early 1990’s there was what was known as the “EMF Scare”. That was the belief that the high voltage electric lines caused Leukemia. It was true that children in cities that lived near high voltage electric lines had a higher risk of having Leukemia than the general population. It also happened that these High Voltage lines ran right down major roadways, so that these same children were breathing a lot more exhaust from the cars and trucks on the road than your average person also.
Anyway. When we worked in the substation we all knew that we were being bathed in electricity. If I took my volt meter and dropped one end to the ground and held the other end up by my head, it would peg my meter out at 1000 volts. One day in the evening when it was time to go home, Scott Hubbard and I were delayed because a fuse block had burned up in a breaker panel in the 345 KV substation.
It was drizzling at the time, so you could hear the electricity about 30 feet above our heads crackling and popping. Scott and I were standing behind the pickup truck looking for spare parts in my tool bucket and I had poured out some nuts, bolts and screws onto the bed of the truck. As we were sifting through them looking for the parts we needed, both of us were thinking that I must have had some metal shavings mixed in with the nuts and bolts. When we would move them around we kept feeling like we were being stabbed by metal shavings….. It turned out that it was just sparks jumping from the truck to our fingers.
10 years after my first encounter in a substation, while I was on the Confined Space Rescue team, we had to be out at the plant at night because some people were working in the condenser and the Confined Space Rescue team had to be on site. So, while we were there, we were doing things like cleaning up shop and stuff. Ray Eberle was working with me, and he asked me if I had ever heard about holding up a fluorescent light in a substation and having it glow.
I told him that I had, and it does glow. We went to the electric shop where I retrieved a couple of new 4 foot fluorescent lamps and we headed to the 345 KV substation around midnight.
When we arrived, we climbed out of the truck, and I demonstrated how just by holding the fluorescent tube upright, it would light up:
Ray was fascinated by this, and was noticing how the tube would light up from the point where you were holding the tube on up. As he was experimenting with this new found knowledge, there was an odd popping sound that would occur about every 5 seconds. I was standing there watching Ray in the dark. Ray finally asked me…. “Where is that popping sound coming from?” I pointed down to his shoes and said. “There are sparking jumping from you shoe down to the ground.”
Looking down at his shoe in the dark, Ray could see about an inch long spark jumping from his shoe down into the large gravel we were standing on. He was startled by this and decided that he had enough scientific lessons for one night. So, we climbed back in the truck and headed back to the plant.
Anyway. During the time that we were having this EMF scare (EMF by the way stands for Electromotive Force), there had been some movie or a 60 Minutes episode on TV about it and it was causing a stir. So, people from Corporate Headquarters were going around trying to educate us about it. One way they did this was to show us how low the levels of EMFs were in the plant.
Well. You can’t convince an electrician that we aren’t constantly being bathed in electricity when we are out in the substation, because we all knew better. This guy came around with a special EMF gun just to show us how the plant was safe… We had a meeting where the engineers agreed that we hardly had any EMFs in the plant. The highest EMFs were found in a drill that mounted horizontally using an electromagnet.
When I heard this, I became skeptical of these findings. And the horizontal drill made me even more suspicious. Not that I minded the EMFs. I found them rather refreshing. They seemed to line up all my thought bubbles in my brain so that I could think better. Kind of like “magnet therapy”.
Then a couple of weeks later my suspicions were verified. Doug Link came down to the electric shop with a guy from Oklahoma City that was going to go with me out to the Substation to measure the EMF levels. — OK. I thought…. Let’s see what happens now… Because I already knew the EMF levels in the Substation just my licking my finger and sticking it in the air…
The guy from Corporate Headquarters took out a roller with a handle much like you would have to measure long distances. Only this had a couple of probes sticking out from either side horizontally. — Now…. Horizontally is the key, and that’s why when they said the Horizontal drill had the most EMFs in the plant, I became suspicious in the first place.
You see…. EMFs have direction. The two probes on the instrument that the man was wheeling around the substation were parallel with the high voltage lines. Therefore, you wouldn’t measure EMFs between the two probes. If the probes had been turned vertically (up and down), I am sure that the voltage (and the EMFs) would have blown the circuitry in the instrument. I say that because the guy that was wheeling this thing around the substation was being very careful not to tilt it one way or the other.
My suspicions were further confirmed when we were in the relay house looking at the results from when he circled the large transformer between the 189 and the 345 subs, and there was a large spike in EMFs at one spot. When we went to look at that spot, it was at the point where the high voltage bus turned down to go into the transformer…. Just like the Horizontal drill…. The direction was across the probes. You see…. EMFs are perpendicular to the flow of electricity. Or straight down from an overhead line. I mean… duh. You had to hold the fluorescent light upright to make it glow….
Well. I thought…. What do I do? Here is a guy trying to pull the wool over our eyes to make us believe that there aren’t any EMFs out there. I felt insulted. On the other hand, I didn’t care about the EMFs. I liked the EMFs. So, after looking at Doug Link straight in the eyes with an astonished look of disbelief that this guy thought we were so gullible to believe this magic act, I decided to let it go. Let him think he relieved our worry that didn’t exist in the first place. Why ruin his day. He had to drive 70 miles back to Corporate Headquarters. Why should he go all that way back thinking that he failed in his mission? So, all I could do was smile.
Anyway. Tim Foster, the 10 year old boy that was with his father, Charles Foster the first time I went to the substation to go switching, later grew up and became an electrician himself. Not only did he become an electrician, but he became an electrician in the same electric shop where his father had worked for 30 years. He works there to this day, and I’m sure that Tim now has an occasion to go switching in the same substation where I first met him. Bathing in the same EMFs. Feeling the same thrill when you open a 345 KV air switch with a loud Pop!
This post was originally posted on February 4, 2012. I have added some detail and pictures:
Coal-fired power plants are built out in the country away from any major town. I used to think this was because they didn’t want to pour ash and fumes on the nearby civilians, but now I think it has more to do with the kind of people that work at the plant. They like wide open spaces. They like driving through the countryside every morning on the way to work, and again in the afternoon on the way home. In the morning, it gives them time to wake up and face the day ahead, as they can see the plant 20 miles away looming closer and closer as the dawn approaches. It gives them time to wind down in the evening so that by the time they arrive at their homes, the troubles of the day are long behind them and they can spend time with their families, their horses, and cows, and tractors, and their neighbors. But enough about Walt Oswalt for now.
Some brave power plant workers reside in the nearest towns 20 miles in either direction. This is where I was in 1986 when I moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma. I had a few good friends in Ponca City that worked at the plant, and so we decided it would be best for us to carpool to work each day. There were four of us and we would alternate drivers each day. We would meet early in the morning in the parking lot of a grocery store and all pile into one of the cars and make our 20 mile trek to the plant. Besides myself, there was Jim Heflin, Dick Dale and Bud Schoonover.
For those of you who don’t know these three, let’s just say that they were on the hefty side. At that time I was slightly on the pre-hefty stage of my life. I owned a little 1982 Honda Civic that would normally get 40 miles to the gallon on the highway.
But with all four of us in the car, I couldn’t get past 32 miles to the gallon, as my car would spit and sputter all the way to work like the little engine that could trying to make it over the mountain.
Bud was very tall and in the front seat of my little Honda Civic, his knees would almost touch his chin and his feet were cramped and his head had to bend down a little. It was comical to watch us all pour out of my car in the parking lot. it was almost magical how we could all fit in there.
Bud Schoonover and Dick Dale worked in the tool room and the warehouse, and Jim worked on a mechanical maintenance crew. I was an electrician and called the electric shop my home at this time. I had worked with all three of these men from my early days as a summer help and we knew each other very well. Jim Heflin reminded me of an old hound dog that the kids like to climb all over and he just sits there and enjoys it.
He rarely had a cross word to say. I could go on about Jim, but this is a story more about Bud Schoonover than it is Jim. I will save him for another day.
Dick Dale was a jolly kind of person in general, but he had more wits about him than his other companions, and that tended to make him a little more agitated at some things, which he would work out verbally on the way home from work on most days.
Once before I started carpooling with Bud, Jim and Dick, and Bud was driving home after work one day, and Dick was talking about his day. Every once in a while Bud would say “…and what about Jim.” After they had passed the Otoe-Missouri tribe and were close to the Marland turnoff, just after Bud had said, “…and what about Jim” for the fifth time, Dick stopped talking and said, “Why do you keep asking about Jim Heflin? What does he have to do with this?” Bud answered, “Well. Jim did ride to work with us this morning didn’t he?” Sure enough. They had left Jim behind. So, they turned around and headed back to the plant. 15 minutes later, they arrived back at the plant, and there was Jim just waiting by the roadside with his lunch box like a good faithful hound dog, just as sure that they were going to come back and pick him up as he could be.
Bud Schoonover (or Scoot-On-Over Bud as I used to call him from time-to-time when we were climbin in the car), was a tall large man. I want to say that I saw him angry only one time, and it was kind of scary seeing this huge guy chasing after you like a large troll with a big grin on his face and tongue hanging out flailing his lunch box like a giant mace. Bud was really a mild mannered person most of the time, and though he might complain from time to time each day, you felt like he was someone that made an art out of remaining calm when faced with an angry mob lined up at the tool room gate demanding tools and parts. He wouldn’t move any faster if there was just one person or an entire crowd.
I could go on about Bud, and I probably will later, but today I am focusing on the act of carpooling with Bud Schoonover. Each morning Bud would watch the weather on TV before heading out of the house, and he just couldn’t wait for someone to ask him what the weather was going to be like, because he knew in his heart that he was providing a service to his fellow man by making sure that he never missed the weather report in the morning. So I would always oblige him. I would wait until we were on the road on our way out of Ponca City, and then I would ask, “Hey Bud. What’s the weather goin’ ta be like today?” Bud would squint his eyes (mainly because Bud seemed to naturally squint a lot. Sort of like Clint Eastwood) and he would look off into the distance and say a long drawn out “Well…..” Then he would go into the weather report.
To Describe what Bud’s face looked like you will have to use a little imagination… First, by starting with Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son…
Then you need to make her a white person. Then you need to make her a man. Then you need to add about 150 lbs. And you would have Bud Schoonover. Actually, Bud would make the very same expression that Aunt Esther is making in this picture. I couldn’t watch Sanford and Son without thinking about Bud Schoonover. I think Aunt Esther probably took lessons from Bud about how to move your jaw back and forth at some point in her life.
I remember one morning when we were driving to work and Bud was telling us that it was going to start clearing up around noon, and Dick Dale and I were sitting in the front seats looking out the window at the cloudless sky and the morning sun shining brightly across the meadow, and I said, “…going to clear up around noon?”, and he replied, “Yep, around noon”. I answered, “Well, that’s good, it’ll be about time.”
There was another time where Bud’s weather report one morning said that if we didn’t get rain soon the wheat farmers were sure to lose all their crops. When Dick Dale and I looked around, the wheat fields were all just as green and growing like there was no tomorrow. — There was a drought, but it was in the southern part of the state and didn’t effect us.
Because of this daily report, Dick Dale and I developed a way of speaking to each other without saying words. We would look at each other and move our eyebrows up and down and make small gestures with our mouths, and we both knew exactly what each other was saying.
My favorite Bud Schoonover carpooling story has to do with one morning when Bud was driving us to work and we were heading down the highway when we topped a small hill and were getting ready to head down into a valley just inside the Ponca Indian tribe. Bud slowed down the car and stopped right there in the middle of the highway.
We looked around trying to figure out what happened. Bud acted as if everything was just normal, and so the three of us, Jim, Dick and I were spinning our heads around trying to figure out what Bud was doing stopping the car in the middle of the highway with cars beginning to pile up behind us. Ideas flashed through my mind of some Indian curse that had possessed Bud, and I half expected Bud to start attacking us like a zombie.
So, I couldn’t stand it any longer and I had to ask, “Bud? Why did you stop here?” He said, “School bus.” Dick then chimed in and said, “School bus?” Bud came back with “Yeah, the school bus down there”. Sure enough. Down in the valley about 1/2 mile in front of us was a school bus heading toward us that had stopped to pick up some children along the highway and it had its red flashers on and its stop sign out.
So, Dick Dale said something to me with his left eyebrow, and I replied by raising the right side of my lip while tensing it up some.
Finally the bus resumed its journey toward us, and Bud began moving again, much to the delight of the long line of cars behind us. The bus went forward about 300 feet and stopped at another driveway to pick up some more children. We were only about 1/4 of a mile away from the bus at this point, so Bud stopped his car again and waited for the children to board the bus. I think I could see Bud squinting to get a better count of how many children were climbing into the bus. It occurred to me later that maybe when Bud squinted his eyes he magnified his sight so that ‘objects appear closer than they really were.
Anyway, that was the first and only time in my life that I had waited twice for a school bus going in the opposite direction. It could only happen while carpooling with Bud Schoonover.
It is vitally important that a manhole cover be round. By just being square or even oval, it could mean death to some unsuspecting electrician. You see, only a perfectly round manhole cover will never be able to fall down into a manhole. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t fit a bigger circle through a smaller circle. An oval or square cover could fall through the hole when turned just right but not a round one. A typical cast iron manhole can weigh up to 500 pounds.
Not long after becoming an electrician, and shortly after the Rivers and the Rose story that I mentioned last week, we had a cable really go to ground between the main plant and the coalyard. The cable that went to ground was called a 500 MCM cable. What this means is that 500,000 circles of 1 mil (or one milli-inch) in diameter can be put in a circle that is 500 MCM in diameter. A typical 500 MCM cable is good for a 400 amp load at 6900 volts.
For large industrial circuits, 3 phases of electricity are used instead of just one like you have in your house. With three phases of electricity, you have a constant amount of power being applied to the entire circuit at all times. With a one phase circuit, you have zero power 120 times every second. So with any “decent” power circuit, you have 3 phases of electricity.
The cable that went to ground was the coalyard station power cable. Not only were there three phases of power, but for each phase there were two 500 MCM cables. That means that this circuit was good for 800 amps of power at 6,900 volts. Giving you a capacity of 5.5 Megawatts (or 5 million, 500 thousand watts) of power. These cables were so big that a typical industrial Wire cable chart doesn’t even go this high:
In a Coal-fired power plant, you have a redundant system for everything. So, the coalyard wasn’t completely in the dark. It had just swapped over to the redundant circuit. — This always amused me. In my English and Poetry classes in College I would have points taken off for being “redundant”, but in the power plant this was necessary to keep the plant running at all times.
As I said 15 years later, when I was training operators and electricians to be certified substation switchmen, “I know this is boring, but you have to learn it…” (but that is another story).
So, to make a rather boring lecture shorter, I will skip the part about how we had a hypot from the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department brought in so big that it had to come in a van. They attached it to the cables to find where the short to ground was located. I’ll skip the part about how it was decided to replace the faulty cables going to the coalyard 1/2 mile away. I’ll also skip the part about how Charles Foster was able to finagle the use of Stanley Elmore’s precious blue Mitsubishi mini-tractor to try to pull the cables from one manhole to the next (the first time anyone outside the garage was able to operate his most beloved tractor…..).
Oh, and I’ll skip the part about how 1000 feet of this cable cost about $10,000 and we had six cable to replace for a cost of about $320,000 just for the cable… I’ll also skip the part about how this little tractor was too small to pull the cables through the manholes from manhole to manhole up to the coalyard, so we sent in for the big guns from the T&D department to use their equipment that pulled the cables through the manholes as easy as pulling the wool over Gene Day’s eyes while playing a joke on him. (Don’t get me wrong…. I know in his heart, Gene Day really appreciated a good joke. Gene Day is one of the best men I have ever been able to call “Friend”).
Anyway, after this episode was all over it was decided that something needed to be done about how all the manholes from the plant to the coalyard were always full of water. You see, the manholes were easily deeper than the lake level so water naturally leaked into them. Each of them had a pump in them that was supposed to keep them dry, but somewhere along the line, in the 5 years the plant had been in operation, each manhole pump had failed at one time or other… When pumping out the first manhole, it took days, because as you pumped out that first manhole, water would run from one manhole to the other as you actually ended up pumping out all the manholes down to the point where the cables went from one manhole to the other.
So, none other than the “newbie” was appointed as the keeper of the Manhole pumps. Yep. That would be me. So, for the next few months I spent almost all my times pumping out manholes and repairing all the pumps that had been submerged in water for years. This was my first real job.
This was my real introduction to becoming a real plant electrician (You can see how I really like using the word “real”). The most common job of an electrician was to take a motor that had failed or was scheduled to be overhauled and repair it and put it back in place to continue on it’s “tour of duty”. It’s amazing how you can take a motor that has failed, and you can “rebuild” it and put it back in operation. — This has come in handy at home as the cooling fan motor on the air conditioner unit on your house goes out every few years. I have yet to call an air conditioner man to my current house where I have lived for 11 1/2 years.
I remember that Charles Foster had told me that “paperwork” was very important when it came to motors. A history had to be kept. Certain steps had to be performed before, during and after repairing a motor. It had to be meggared properly (see the post from last week to learn more about meggars: Rivers and a Rose of the Power Plant Palace).
So, I asked Ben Davis if he could show me what I needed to do to fix a motor. His immediate indignant response was, “What? You don’t know how to fix a motor?” My response was, “No, I don’t know. Would you show me?” Ben, who up to that point had presented himself with displeasure at my presence in the shop, suddenly smiled and said, “Sure! Let me show you what you need to do!”
Ben showed me all the steps you go through to repair and “document” a motor repair in great detail. I was glad that I had found that Ben was just putting on a front of disgust at my presence in the Electric shop only to show me at the “proper” time that I had been “misjudging” him as being a grumpy person when he wasn’t really….
I had figured, before this time, that Ben really had a kind heart because I figured that if Diane Lucas and Andy Tubbs, who I both admired greatly considered Ben as a good friend, then he must really be a good guy underneath, even though he was keeping this hidden from me.
I knew the moment he smiled at my response when I told him I really didn’t know anything, that Ben had a kind heart. He couldn’t hide it any longer. If I had asked the same thing to OD McGaha, one of the other B Foremen in the shop, for instance, he would have told me to go to hell. But not Ben.
I have more to tell you about Ben, but I’ll save that for a later post. For now, I’ll just say that though Ben may not have known it during the time I spent as an electrician, he has always been close to my heart. I have always had Ben and his family in my daily prayers from the day that he smiled at me and explained to me how to repair a motor.
So, how does a lone newbie electrician pull a 500 pound lid off of a manhole by himself? Well. He uses a Manhole cover puller of course.
Ok. Our manhole cover puller wasn’t blue like this, but it had a similar shape. With a simple tool like this a 500 pound manhole cover could be popped out of the hole and dragged away. So, I used this tool as my one man crew (myself) went from manhole to manhole, where I pumped each out and lowered a ladder into each hole and disconnecting the drenched motor and brought it back to the shop where I dried it out (using the hot box in the shop that doubled as a heater for lunches), and repaired it and re-installed it.
We had all the manholes in the plant identified. I painted the numbers on each lid with orange paint. It was while I was working in the manholes 15 feet below ground that I appreciated the round manhole. I knew that as long as that manhole cover was round, it couldn’t accidentally be knocked into the hole only to crush me to death below.
Other things were of concern in the manholes where I worked… For instance, many of these holes had been underwater for at least a couple of years, and the entire manhole was covered with a kind of slime. there were also high voltage cables that had splices in some of the manholes, and I remember Gene Roget telling me that he had seen sparks flying off of some of them when they were hipoting the cables looking for the ground. The dank smell of the manholes made you think that there were probably some kind of “swamp gases” in there.
Nevertheless, when I grew weary of dragging the heavy shellacked wooden ladder from hole to hole, I devised a way to climb down into the manholes using the drain pipe from the motor. This was before OSHA had implemented all the confined spaces rules in 1994 that would have prevented me from entering a manhole alone. I was improvising and taking a risk of falling and hurting myself each time I entered a manhole.
I ran into one of the reasons for not leaving a person in a manhole alone one time when I was working in a manhole near the intake house and another crew drove up and parked their truck near the hole I was working in. I remember that while I was working there, I suddenly became nauseous. Not sure why, I climbed out of the hole.
The truck that had been left idling nearby had been emitting toxic fumes that had looked for the lowest place they could settle, and that happened to be in the manhole where I was working. After that, I always kept an ear out for any motor vehicles nearby when I was in a manhole.
Ten years later, in 1994, OHSA added some new laws to the books that made it mandatory to have a “hole watch” stand outside a hole watching you while you worked in a manhole. You even had to have a safety harness tied to a safety hoist so that if you passed out while in a manhole the hole watch could pull you out without having to enter the hole.
Needless to say. I got my feet wet as an electrician popping in and out of manholes like the gopher in the arcade that you try to bop on the head.
One interesting story that happened during this time happened when Blake Tucker, who had been a summer help with me in the garage, and then later became a summer help in the electric shop, was sitting with me while we were going to fix a pump in manhole 215 (I believe this is the number of the manhole next to the intake where the fly ash pipes go over the intake).
The hole was full of water, and the pump had naturally tripped the breaker….. For some reason I decided to go into the intake switchgear and reset the 120 volt breaker to the pump in the Distribution Panel. When I did. I returned to the hole where Blake was waiting for me. I reached down into the hole with my foot and I kicked the drain pipe that rose from the pump and made a 90 degree turn up close to the entrance.
When I kicked the pipe, the motor actually began running. We could see it 15 feet below us in the clear water running. It was an open face motor, meaning that it wasn’t sealed and made to be a submersible pump, yet it was running under water. A year later we decided that it made more sense to replace all the open motors with submersible pumps.
Blake Tucker and I watched for 1/2 hour as the pump sucked out the water from the manhole. When the level of the water reached the top of the motor, the outboard fan that had been slowly rotating all of the sudden kicked into high gear and we could see that the pump had been running at full speed all along.
This fascinated me. I figured the water must have been pure enough not to be too conductive (pure water is a natural insulator…. oddly enough). We could easily see this pump through 15 feet of water, so it must have been pretty clean. That was the only time I have ever seen an open motor happily running submersed in water… It is not something you see every day….. for instance…. It is not every day that you see a janitor with a Psychology major acting like an electrician sitting beside a manhole staring down into the darkness in a power plant either. But there you are…