Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant

Resistance is Futile!  You may have heard that before.  Especially if you are a Star Trek Fan.  If not, then you know that there is always some form of resistance wherever you are.

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that "Resistance is Futile"

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that “Resistance is Futile”  Like that is ever going to happen

I learned a lot about resistance when I first joined the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1984.  I was assigned to work with Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers on the Precipitator during overhauls and when I wasn’t working on the manhole pumps and there wasn’t any other emergencies going on.  Actually, from 1984 on, on, the Precipitator for the next 17 years I continued to work on the precipitator… (if I had only known my fate….).

Not only did I learn a lot about resistance, I also learned about capacitance, reactance, transformers, rectifiers, power supplies, diodes, transistors, op amps, and pots (also known as potentiometers).  Bill Rivers was the brains of the outfit.  Sonny was the Electric Specialist banished to the Precipitator by Leroy Godfrey (See Singing Along with Sonny Kendrick).  Bill thought up the ideas and Sonny went to work to implement them.  I just jumped in where I was needed.

The Precipitator is the large box between the boiler and the smokestack (maybe you can see this in the Power plant picture).  The purpose of the electrostatic precipitator is to take the smoke (or fly ash) out of the exhaust before it went out of the smokestack.  The controls for the Precipitator were all electronic at that time.  That meant that there were circuit boards full of resistors, capacitors, transistors, operational amplifiers, diodes and potentiometers.  These circuit boards controlled the way the power was distributed throughout the precipitator wires and plates through high powered transformers, and how the rappers and vibrators operated that dropped the collected ash into the hoppers.

Bill had me take an electronics course at the Indian Meridian Vo-tech so I would know the basics.  Then he taught me all the shortcuts.  I had to be able to look at a resistor and tell right away what the value of resistance it was.  Resistors are color-coded and you had to learn what each of the colors represented…

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

I was expected to know this by sight.  Bill would test me.  There was a mnemonic device that I was taught to remember what each color represented, but it is not appropriate to repeat it, so I won’t.  It is enough to say that the colors go like this:  Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, Gray, White (I will never forget this my entire life).  These represent the numbers zero through 9.   Here is a full explanation of how to read a resistor….. just in case you are curious, or you are such a boring person that you really need some material to bring up when you are at a party and don’t know what to say:

This is how the color codes work

This is how the color codes work for resistors works

I found that having just the correct amount of resistance was very important.  Too much or too less, and everything stops working.

Isn’t it that way with management also?  If the management is too resistant to change, then things come to a halt.  If they have too little resistance, they lose control of the situation.  Depending on the circuit (or managerial decision) and what you are trying to do, it helps to have a manager that has a variable resistance to meet the needs of each situation.   Resistance to change is always a balancing act.

During the first two years I was an electrician, the main control panels that controlled the operation of the precipitators were electronic.  We spent a lot of time in the lab troubleshooting electric circuits looking for blown (or bad) parts that needed to be replaced.  Then we would solder new components on the circuit boards and then put them back in operation.  I learned how to be an electronics junky.  I became addicted to fixing electronic circuit boards.  It was like a game to me.

Later, the precipitator controls were changed to digital controls.  That is, they were more like little computers controlling the precipitator. Instead of a bunch of circuit boards dumbly, but cleverly, doing their job, (how many commas can I use in one sentence?), little brains were added that made decisions and reacted to conditions in a much more dynamic way.

What was interesting was that one day Bill Rivers was describing how technology was going to be in the future.  He said that some day, we will be able to sit in the lab and look on a computer and see what all the controls in the precipitator were doing (this was 1984).  If something isn’t working right, we could just reach over, type a few keys on the computer and adjust the controls.  Drink our sweetened tea (a necessary staple in Oklahoma at the time), and then wait for the next crisis…. Then he would giggle at the look of disbelief on my face.

When he was telling me this, I was thinking in my head…. Well, that would be nice, but this sounds more like a pipe dream to me than reality.  What does an older guy with six kids from a tool and die company in Columbia Missouri (where I grew up, by chance) know about the future of anything….. well…. anything…uh… new age….  If that is what you might call it…  I found out you just don’t really know when you are sitting in front of a true “visionary” with tremendous insight.

Bill Rivers had this incredible knack for telling the future.  In 1984 he was predicting computer controls in the control room where you ran the entire plant from a computer on a desk instead of using the “Big Board”.

I love this picture!

I love this picture! It makes me feel at home!  This was not our plant, but is a Power Plant control room

He said you would be able to call someone on a phone you kept in your pocket or your watch like Dick Tracey.

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

I don’t know what journals Bill was reading or if he just dreamed all this stuff up in his head, or maybe he was a Star Trek Fan that believed that if you can dream it up you can do it.  I do know that he picked up on subtle queues and made great inferences from them that seemed astronomically unlikely.  However, I have to admit that he caught me off guard a number of times with predictions that definitely came true.

I will talk about this more in a future post, but for now I will say that we did upgrade the precipitator to where you could sit in the control room and monitor and adjust the precipitator controls (all 84 on each unit), and even each of the rappers (672 rappers) and vibrators (168 vibrators) on the roof of each precipitator.  With one key on the computer I could send a plume of ash out of the smokestack that looked like the unit had just tripped, and a moment later, clean it up again.  This meant that I could send smoke signals to the Osage Indian tribe 20 miles north up the Arkansas (pronounced “Are Kansas”) river, telling them that the Pow Wow would begin at sunset.

Today, I understand that the “Big Board” at the plant is just a large junction box and the plant is controlled almost (if not) completely by computers sitting on the desk.  Before I left the plant in 2001, this was being transitioned slowly to computer controls.  I have another story to tell some day about this, and how an operator named Jim Cave, a Power Plant Genius and true Power Plant Man of the highest integrity, was snubbed by upper management for speeding this technology along.  — Another example of Power Plant Resistance….

But for now…. back to my electronic days… before I began re-programming the Eeprom chips in the precipitator controls….

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the precipitator controls which I had a very “personal” relationship with…

Bill Rivers confided with me one day that when the new Instrument and Controls department had been formed from the “Results” department that his dream had been to become a part of this team.  It meant the world to him.  It was where he believed he belonged.  It was one of his major goals in life.

There used to be two electrical specialists in the Power Plant.  Sonny Kendrick was not always the only one.  The other specialist was chosen to go to the Instrument and Controls shop. Bill Rivers wanted to move there also.  He definitely had the experience and the knowledge to be a superb instrument and controls person.  But Bill had this one problem.

He loved to joke around.  He loved to pull strings and push buttons.  I have mentioned in a previous posts that Bill would play a new joke on Sonny Kendrick every single day.  As I have unfortunately found out in my own life… this tends to make them…. well….. it tends to make enemies out of those who have a chip on their shoulder.  Those people who naturally feel inadequate in their abilities or their position in life.  To go one step further…. anyone who feels “unloved”….. these people definitely do not like being joked with.  They seem to never forgive you.  My greatest regret in life is joking around with these individuals.

So, when it came time to choose who would be a part of the new Instrument and Controls shop, Bill Rivers was turned down.  It was explained to him that the reason he was not given the job was because he cut off the leads of a resistor when he replaced them.  — I’m not kidding.  Bill Rivers had the habit of cutting off the leads of each resistor, transistor, diode or capacitor that he replaced…. this is why Monty Adams turned down his request for joining the “elite” Instrument and Controls shop (as he told Bill to his face).

Someone had told the Instrument and Controls Supervisor Monty Adams that Bill Rivers cut the leads off of transistors and resistors when he replaced them so that you couldn’t test them to see if they were all right.  Implying that he didn’t want you to know whether he had replaced the transistor or resistor by mistake.

Bill Rivers took several transistors, cut the leads off of each of them and handed them to me and asked me to test them to see if they was still good or if they were bad.  I took out my voltmeter, set it to ohms, and proceeded to test them as Bill Rivers had taught me.  I told him…. this transistor is good….. this one is bad….

You see…. there is no way to cut the leads off of a transistor in such a way to make it impossible to tell if a transistor is good or bad…. In reality…. you cut the leads off of a bad transistor so that the person working on the circuit board knows that this is a bad transistor and doesn’t use it again by accident.  This was electronics 101.

When Bill told me this story, he literally had tears in his eyes. This was because being part of the Instrument and Controls team was part of his dream.  His family and the entire rest of his life was decided the day he was told that he was not going to be a part of a team that he believed was his true lot in life.

I remember his exact words as he sat there in the lab alone and told me this story.  He said, “… and Monty didn’t know… He didn’t know that you cut the leads….  that is standard procedure….”  In Bill’s giggly way, he was crying out loud as he told me this.

From that point on….I knew that the decisions Bill made in his life were driven by that one decision to exclude him from this team.  Unlike many of us that could say to ourselves…. “That is their loss”…. Bill kept this pain in his heart each day…. Every decision from that day further was effected by this event.

I calculated it out one day that I spent 414 hours driving back and forth from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the plant and back each day with Bill Rivers (along with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer and occasionally others that needed a ride),  and over that time,  I became very close to Bill, even to the point of tutoring his son in Algebra (see post:   How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?).

I say this because I know about the pain that inflicted Bill River by a rash decision based on the hearsay of someone that held a grudge.   I know how his entire life was changed and how it ended for Bill Rivers as a power plant employee.  I know that every decision by Bill after this date was made in response to this one decision.  Anyone who experienced Bill after 1983 knows what I am talking about.

I realized that today my own decisions in life help spell out my future.  How some little remark may be misinterpreted, or even properly so.  I realize as I write this post that how I accept or reject these events in my life, determines the future of my family.  After seeing how every event in Bill’s life after that day at the power company was determined by his experience was to his detriment, I am determined not to let the same thing happened to me…..

That is why I have taken on the philosophy in my life that no matter how my actions are misinterpreted, I am determined to remain true to myself.  I know what I mean, and I mean what I say, and I say what I mean, and an Elephant is Faithful 100 %.

From Horton Hatches an Egg

From Horton Hatches an Egg by Dr. Seuss


6 responses

  1. It’s amazing how many decisions are made based on incorrect / incomplete information (at all levels).

  2. […] would react (come to think of it…  we were probably talking about Bill Rivers, See the post Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant from last […]

  3. For me, a bit long and could be more specific about Bill Rivers’s ‘power plant resistance; towards th end. But very, very good. I still see a book…

    1. Thanks for the input Jack! I appreciate it.

  4. […] 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 […]

  5. […] had mentioned in an earlier post called Resistance in a Coal-fire Power Plant that Bill Rivers had been given a bum deal when another person had accused him of cutting off the […]

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