Switching in the Power Plant Substation Switchyard

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:

Parts of a Typical Substation

Parts of a Typical Substation

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?

Don't Substations look cool?

Don’t Substations look cool?

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:

An Arc Flash Protector

An Arc Flash Protector (that’s a pretty creepy looking guy in there)

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:

Holding up Flourescent tubes under high voltage lines

Holding up Flourescent tubes under high voltage lines

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!

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52 responses

  1. I always felt it a little “spooky” in substations. The amount of power that is flowing close by you (almost undetectable) is phenomenal! Great post, Kevin.

  2. While in the airforce I would mess with people by focusing the weapons radar of the F4 fighter on light plants that were turned off (portable trailer with gen. light sources) while on the flight line. I could light those lights up and people knew the unit was not running because no engine noise was heard. You could really mess with the newbies. Just the same only differant as the bulbs you had in the sub.

  3. You bet I do
    Tim Foster

  4. Days we may never see again…
    I’ve known electricians from those days or maybe earlier, who used their fingers for a voltmeter… (on 110 stuff)

    1. Yes. I must admit I have done that as well though not usually intentionally. 🙂 I know one guy whose fingers were callous enough that could put his fingers between two contacts to tell if it was hot. We had little voltage detectors that would light up when something was hot, We would put one lead on the contact point and sometime touch the other lead. If it was hot, it would light up, but not really shock you…. that is, if the voltage was low enough. Later we were each given voltmeters so that we didn’t all have to share the two that we had in the shop, and it made the lights obsolete, and made us much safer.

  5. Come out in the desert southwest and ride mountain bikes along the rutted access roads used by the crew that [rarely] comes out to check high voltage lines running over the prairie. Usually they only show up if something breaks.

    Anyway, I always had to be careful in a couple spots that would switch forth and back underneath some of the monster lines instead of parallel and alongside – if I let my hands wander off the rubber grips on my aluminum handlebars, I’d catch a burn on my hand every time.

  6. This was a fascinating read. I understand ‘homeowner’ electricity. I have pulled wire and even added/replaced breakers, but this is the stuff of dreams and imagination for me. Thanks for sharing and thanks for doing this work because we would be in deep if you didn’t.

  7. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
    HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED—FOR THE GOOD AND SAFE!

  8. Hi Plant Electrician. Very interesting I’m always weary of overhead power lines. You certainly need to respect electricity. Thank you for calling by and liking ‘ Morgue!’ Best Wishes. The Foureyed Poet.

  9. Thank you for visiting my blog and for liking one of my posts. I hope you will come again some time. Blessings, Natalie 🙂

    1. Thank you Natalie. I look forward to reading more.

  10. Thank you for choosing to follow my blog. I’m looking forwar to getting to know you through your posts. Blessings, Natalie 🙂

  11. I wish I could “line up all my thought bubbles so that I could think better.” Love that line! I appreciate your visiting and liking Clump A Day.

  12. I thought this was going to be boring, but I was totally fascinated. I love your pictures. Loved the story about the guy from corporate, who should have known better. Loved the light sabers! Very fun to read.

  13. createthinklive | Reply

    Reblogged this on createthinklive and commented:
    High voltage and fluorescent lamps that look like lightsabers

  14. We have a large substation near where I live. I am going to think about it a lot differently now. The things, I didn’t know, or just assumed, or never thought about deeply enough…

  15. Thank you for reading TAXDALisms on my web site Connie Taxdal ~ Lust, Love, and Life. Good luck with your endeavors.

  16. Fascinating glimpse into another world. Thank you.

  17. Thank you for liking my poem. Your blog looks intriguing–how rare to see an authoritative personal source of information about something most of us know little about and are all too likely to take for granted. (Ignorance is bliss–especially if you’re a lazy shmuck, right?)

  18. EMF’s. They’re the things you’re surrounded by when you’re sitting in the middle of all your electronic equipment at home, right? Yeah, right! 😉 Oh, the hoo-hah I’ve read about that subject. Glad there’s a man who can tell the real story 🙂

  19. Quite dangerous kind of job you have and no sufficient protection in case of accident. Luck to you for having a wife so patient. A bit complicated kind of work, thank you for at least it gives an info about how an electric plant is being cared of. My two sons had a bit of it.

  20. Hello plant electrician, I trust you read “how much is that doggy in the window”?

  21. Fantastic post with high tech. knowledge to the Glory of God! God bless. Thanks for following

  22. Fantastic post with knowledge to the Glory of God. Thanks for following. God bless.

  23. Thanks for taking time to read and like my recent posts. Just read your latest and, wow. The awesome power of electricity! I am appropriately impressed. Well written, I enjoyed reading on a topic completely foreign to me 🙂

  24. Thank you for liking my post; just looking here quickly, do you write SciFi? If not, you should,.. I mean you could. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your suggestion about writing Sci-fi. Sometimes I think I’m living in a sci-fi adventure.

  25. AEP P&CTech Sr. 18yrs….good read! Alot of changes has come upto date, and wait a few more years, seee what happens..:) Phaseing? 3/120/360..now we have…3phase into 6…next 15-20 years…all thoses who have ears to hear..Collegiate understanding into s world (outside of most) can pay pay big! And on top of that ……It’s simple…Repect the Power…for “some” know who controls it all..:) peace

  26. Once…when I was a child..I would walk “up ontop” on a circuit……”Wisodm”came and took me to a place where I now can see “from below” it…and be “inside it…..(humbleness?) Understanding “things” that one has been “given” (believer) wonder what I may see next? QM has already revealed it to I, and not I alone, for I am not the only one “who has understanding”….:) Lifting an “EAR” higher…Who saith that?…120 years (give or take -/+ 7) will be the longest (time wise, in this space “some/we” occupy, for it was written..Sulry, I will attest, any/and all “LOADS” will be granted….for those who “WANT” it is given….Bottome feeders will not know the law, but the ones above understand ……they…….are requesting such “load” and will give it (because its written…better to give than to recieve, is it not…and those shall be given, for ONE has the power to shut down all “current” does one not? Is there not a “valve” a “MAN” can turn at a DAM to CONTROL things……..It’s already been wriiten and prescribbed. (Book of Rev..) So….For those who come here to see “knowledge”…keep seeking in understanding. If one if true of heart, ask in your “closet” He shall giveth upon yea, and ony those! Rememeber……Not all will be allowed in a “Place”…..So..maybe a study in resistors? may provide a clue……Dont stop seeking, because you dont understand what I say, but I say to “YOU” that’s a good things too….”He” calls ALL…but few……………….are CHOSEN!. Yes, it is true…144,000 at a time…Cane one figure out a time? Can one bend space/time?..It’s allways been HERE! STUDY THE PRAYER.. AND I MEAN STUDY (THINK ABOUT THE WORDS IT CONTAIN)…..it’s the only way to “Wisdom”….

    Peace

  27. I haven’t heard the substation and switching language since my father died. He was an electrical engineer who designed high voltage power systems and took the family to see them for outings. Congratulations: few people can keep readers interested in this subject–certainly my lovely dad didn’t. It bored us all stiff! One story I never understood was about splicing a line. An explosion occurred, and Dad was said to have been extremely lucky to come out alive. If I’d had a clue about electricity, it might have made sense.

    Good reading! And thank you for dropping by my site.
    Judy

  28. Thanks for following Humorous Interludes. I wrote a novel involving a power substation and aliens. Also, I was an aircraft electrician many years ago, so I have a little experience with electrical power. 🙂

    1. That’s great Ron. I look forward to learning more about aliens in substations.

      1. The substation comes in at the end. But, the main character’s father is an electrician (trouble shooter) for a power company. I probably got a lot of things wrong, but it’s fiction after all.

  29. Love your stories. I’m still flummoxed as to why you, especially, read my drivel. But, I do appreciate it. Thanks.

  30. Goodness! This was like the best science lesson ever. My first boyfriend was an electrical engineer and told me off for talking to him on the phone (long before mobiles or wirelrss technology) so I said “you phoned me” and he said “how do you thinks it [the phone] works?” So I said “magic?”. This explains how the “magic” works. How wonderful to learn something fifty years later!! Thank you for dropping by, I might never have found you.

  31. I forgot to say I was in the bath at the time!!!

  32. That is really fascinating stuff and I enjoyed the entire read. Electricity is truly amazing, and I`m not sure where we would be without it these days. So thanks for all that you do, stay safe, keep writing, and I`ll read you later. God bless.

  33. his post was so interesting! I too loved your comment about all your bubbles getting aligned. I feel like I need that sometimes. I have had 4 strokes and 2 bouts of spinal meningitis. Things that do mess with your cognitive skills! yet to the Glory of God, I seem to be able to write, to work at a high pace, placing corporate attorneys!
    thank you for following my blog… I am always amazed at who God brings to my blog and to what I write…

    1. Thanks Cindy for your kind comment.

  34. Is it true that in the U.S. we aren’t “quite ready yet” when it comes to truly utilizing ‘alternative renewable’ energy such as solar and wind power? I understand that the whole power grid infrastructure needs to be re-tooled to use stored solar, etc. What’s your take on this? I appreciate any response you have…
    For now, we are hoping we didn’t jump the gun installing the solar panels on our home…
    :/

  35. Amazing! I’m a biologist with a heavy dose of physics thrown in there and I totally get where you’re coming from.
    What a cool collection of stories your blog is; looking forward to reading more of your adventures!
    Have a wonderful holiday!

    1. Thanks Diana.
      I hope you enjoy my stories of gallant power plant men.
      Kevin

  36. Thanks and Have Blessed Christmas! God Bless You

  37. Hi and thanks for following my blog. I’ve switched from art posting to musings for now. We’ll see
    how it goes. Your stories are filled with interesting facts I would not have known otherwise.

  38. What an extraordinary Post. Thanks also for visiting my Blog. Glad to have come across you.

  39. Kevin – thank you for visiting my blog. I have to tell you, electricity scares the daylights out of me! I’m fine changing outlets and switches in my house, but that’s the extent of it. Your post was fascinating; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and look forward to reading more. God bless you!

  40. Thank you for liking my post on renhir movie rating.

  41. Thank you for liking my post. I found your post on the electric substation absolutely fascinating. I really enjoyed it! This is the most informed I have been by one article in a long time.

    1. Thanks Deacon for your kind comments. Kevin

  42. You’re right, substations are absolutely worth ogling. I’m the same with gas plants, container ports… any sort of brutalist, utilitarian infrastructure.

  43. Great post. I certainly will be a follower. I love information like this and I think the readers really gain value-added from a post such as this.

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