Monthly Archives: February, 2014

Weary of Power Plant Drug Testing

One day, seemingly out of the blue, a van drove into the parking lot of the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  It was carrying some people that had come to our plant to perform drug tests on everyone in the plant.  The test consisted of each one of us going into the Men’s rest room (or Women’s rest room, depending on the usual one you occupied) and peeing into a small bottle while someone stood behind you keeping their eye on you.  This was the first time drug testing like this had taken place at the plant.  A few years earlier, in order to find “druggies”, the “snitch” was hired to go around and try to coax people to go hide somewhere and do drugs with the snitch.  I wrote about this in the post “Power Plant Snitch“.

This was different.  The first time, it would obviously have been a case of entrapment to have someone come around and ask you to go to a janitor closet somewhere and smoke an illegal substance.  Drug testing was more objective.  If the drug test came up positive, you knew you were either guilty of taking illegal drugs or you were pregnant (or… maybe that was the other test).  We had heard before that we may at any time be subjected to drug testing, so when the people showed up to actually do it, I don’t think many people were surprised.

For the most part, there were few people that had an issue with going into the bathroom and peeing in a small bottle.  There were, however, a couple of exceptions.  The person that I remember had the most problem with it was Diana Brien.  She said that when she went in to try to pee in a bottle with someone watching her, she just couldn’t do it.  I figured this must be a problem more with women then men.  For one reason.  Men are always standing there peeing into something with other people standing right next to them watching them.

A urine drug test bottle

A urine drug test bottle

Just today when I was at work peeing into the urinal at work, I turned to the right and said, “Hey Tom! How’s it going?”  Tom said,  “Fine buddy!  How are things with you?”  I replied, “Oh, you know.  I’m still here.  That’s something.”  We both nodded and went about our business.  Something tells me the same thing doesn’t happen in the Women’s restroom.

With Power Plant Men, it is even more cordial than that.  We tend to take showers in groups in one big community shower, where in the women’s locker room, they each had their own stall with a curtain.  I only know because as an electrician, I had to go in there to change light bulbs.

The cordial nature of Power Plant Men in the shower came to my attention one day when I was a janitor cleaning out the bathroom in the Coalyard Maintenance building where the Labor Crew was housed.  I remember hearing a conversation between Dale Mitchell and Chuck Morland as they were coming out of the shower.  Dale told Chuck, “Gee Chuck, after seeing you, I have to question my manhood….”  He went on to describe why.  I won’t go into detail, but it had to do with Chuck Morland having a lot more “Manhood” than Dale had.  You can probably guess that while I was around the corner mopping out the stalls where the toilets were, I was doing my best not to laugh out loud.

It literally took Dee all day to drum up enough nerve to go take the drug test.  She kept drinking coffee, and water, but every time she had to go pee in front of the person from Corporate Headquarters, she froze up.  By the end of the day, she had peed in the bottle, and it was over.  Of the 250 employees, I don’t know if any were found to have been on drugs.  After the warning, I wouldn’t have thought so.  We were under the impression that if it was determined that you were on drugs, then they would take you to someplace where a more trustworthy test could be performed.  If you were found to be on drugs, then we thought at that point that you would lose your job.

A few weeks before the drug tests began, when they were warning us that they were coming they said that if any of us had a drinking or a drug problem, they should come forward soon and ask for help.  If you asked for help, then the company would provide services for you that would help you with your problem.  If you later failed the drug test and you hadn’t asked for help, then you were going to be fired.

There was one person in our shop that we figured wasn’t going to be able to pass the drug test.  That was Michael Rose.  He drank so much that his blood alcohol level was normally high enough that if you were in an underground coal conveyor tunnel and the lights all went out, all you had to do was prick his finger and light it with your lighter, and you had a mini-torch until you were able to find your way out.  When he passed the drug test it was pretty plain that either the test wasn’t worth a flip, or they weren’t testing for the type of alcohol Mike consumed.

In the following years, drug tests were supposedly administered by random.  I will tell you why I say, “supposedly”.  Some time after the initial drug test, one morning, our team was told to all get in a truck with our foreman and drive to Ponca City to a clinic and have a drug test taken.  I think this was a blood test.  It was done in such a rushed way, it was like they were on to someone, but didn’t want to just have that one person go take the test.  That way, no one would be upset by being singled out to go take a drug test.  At least that is what it seemed.

I remember our team all sitting there in the waiting room waiting to be tested.  We each went in one at a time.  When we were done, we drove back to the plant, and nothing was ever found (as far as we knew).  I thought maybe this was the second level test because some anomaly had showed up on one of our initial tests.  Anyway, it seems like all of us passed the second round of drug tests.

After that, about once ever year or two, a set of people would be randomly chosen from the plant to be drug tested.  I know when most of those drug tests occurred because I was randomly chosen more times than not to be tested.  In the next 10 years, I was tested at least 5 more times.  So much so that I began to wonder why.   It seemed as if every time there was a “random” drug test, I was chosen.  I was usually with a different bunch of Power Plant Men, but each time I was there.  Was I just so lucky?  I am you know.  I wrote a post about that.  See “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck“.

I may have just been paranoid, but it came as less of a surprise each time.  The tests even became more sophisticated.  Eventually, there was a chart on the side of the bottle you peed in.  So, not only did it take your temperature, but it also measured your urine to see if you were trying to cheat the test.

A color chart for a drug test that includes a test to see if you have been cheating on the test.

A color chart for a drug test that includes a test to see if you have been cheating on the test.

I didn’t mind taking the tests.  I figured it might as well be me than any of the other Power Plant Men.  Why bother them?  We were all clean.

It was when I was watching a movie once where someone sniffed some cocaine up their nose that an idea came to me as to why I might be singled out to take the drug test each couple of years.  You see, I had the habit of wiping my nose with the back of my hand.  Not because I had the sniffles, but because it was irritated all the time.

When I was in college I had my nose broken one night when a friend, Jeff Firkins and I were going for a walk in Columbia, Missouri.  It was around two in the morning, and somehow we just ended up in Douglas Park spinning around on a merry-go-round.

A merry-go-round like this, only less colorful

A merry-go-round like this, only less colorful

My friends from Columbia who read this blog know that when you were Caucasian in the spring of 1980, it is not a clever idea to go play on the merry-go-round in Douglas Park at night.  I seem to remember looking very Caucasian in 1980.

We were having so much fun that we didn’t mind when a couple of local park dwellers came and gave us a subtle hint that they wanted us to leave their turf.  So, eventually, it ended with a scuffle in which I ended up with a broken nose.  I knew that I had a cut across my nose from one guy’s ring, but I didn’t realize it was actually broken until many years later when an ear, nose and throat doctor x-rayed it and showed it to me.

I thought that because I was always rubbing my nose, then Louise Kalicki was suggesting to the drug testers that I would be likely candidate for sniffing something up my nose.  I didn’t mind disappointing them each time.  The nearest I came to sniffing something up my nose was when I worked in the bakery and I ate a lot of powdered donuts.

When I left the electric company in 2001, in order to go work for Dell, I had to take a drug test.  I had to go to a local doctor in Stillwater, Oklahoma and have my blood drawn.  Then that was the end of it.  After working for Dell for 12 years, I have not been subjected to repeated drug testing.  Working in a corporate environment is much different, however than working in a power plant.

I think it is much more of a factor when the Power Plant Men and Women that work in a Power Plant are on drugs.  I certainly wouldn’t want to work around someone on drugs in a power plant.  There are too many ways in which someone could be hurt or killed.  Driving heavy equipment, or operating machinery that could crush you in a heartbeat, you want to make sure that the person in the driver’s seat is fully functional and aware.

There was only one time when I was at the plant where I can remember that someone was fired because they were on the job while they were intoxicated.  It was an unfortunate case, because the poor guy had things going on in his life at the time that were only exacerbated by him losing his job.  I think at one point, he became so low after being fired that someone described him as a bum roaming the streets of Tulsa.

I had only wished that it had been possible for him to kept his dignity and been offered help.  I know those things aren’t always possible and there were other factors involved I’m sure.  Just a side note.  I believe that this man, whom I have always held in the highest regard, finally picked himself up by his bootstraps and regained his self respect.

As I mentioned earlier, Mike Rose passed his drug test that day, to everyone’s surprise.  Even he was surprised.  One weekend he had been called out to work to fix the air conditioner for the logic room.  When Bill Bennett called Mike, Mike told him that he had been drinking and he wasn’t really fit to go to work at the moment.  Bill assured him that it would be all right, if he could only go out and get the logic room air conditioner fixed quickly.

The logic room is the room that houses the plant computer that runs all the equipment in the plant (or it did at the time).  It didn’t like being warm.  If you can imagine the heat in the middle of the summer in Oklahoma.  The plant operation was going to be jeopardized if something wasn’t done quickly.  Jim Stevenson had already been fired because of the Snitch that I mentioned at the top of the post.  So at the time, Mike was the only option available.

Mike went to work and found that the main relay to the air conditioning unit wasn’t picking up.  So, in his inebriated state, he took a block of wood and pressed it against the lever that manually pushed the relay in, and closed the door on it so that the block of wood was pinned between the door and the lever.  Keeping the air conditioner running.  Needless to say, there was a legitimate reason why the relay wasn’t picking up, and by Monday morning the unit had burned up.

A large air conditioner about the size of the one that Mike Rose worked on

A large air conditioner a third smaller than the one that Mike Rose worked on

I think it was Leroy (or it may have been Tom Gibson) wanted to fire him right away for going to work drunk and destroying the air conditioner.  Bill Bennett came to his rescue and pointed out that Mike had warned him before he came to work that he was drunk and Bill had assured him that it would be all right just this once.  What could you say?  I suppose shoulders were shrugged and life at the Power Plant went on as usual.  I don’t think the drug testing ever amounted to anything.  When someone  was let go, it wasn’t because they had peed in a bottle.

Advertisements

Blowing it with Power Plant Retracts and Wall Blowers — Repost

Originally Posted February 23, 2013:

I never gave it much thought that when I was on the labor crew at the Coal-fired Power Plant in Oklahoma and we had to go in the boiler to shake the boiler tubes, that next to the portals where you would climb into the boiler there were long metal benches where you could sit just outside while you rested between moments when the dynamiters were getting ready to set off their explosives. (All right… right off the bat…. a run-on sentence the size of a paragraph… I can tell it’s going to be a long night).

To learn more about the dynamiters and shaking boiler tubes you can read the post: Cracking a boiled Egg in the Boiler. At other times while I was on the labor crew, I had heard these same benches making a tremendous sound that you could hear from a few landings away. It sounded like a large steam leak would sound, and at the same time, you could hear some kind of mechanical gears or something running and maybe a chain clanging. I didn’t really understand what the purpose of these long benches served then, only that it was a good place to put the water jug and the box of fly ash suits to keep them from being stepped on.

It was after I had become an electrician that these long metal benches took on another meaning. I found out that they were called “Retracts”. I was told that they called them retracts because what they do is they run a long metal pipe into the boiler and then Retract it back. Ok. I thought it was rather odd to name something for a seemingly insignificant part of the function. After I understood what they were used for, I thought I could come up with a lot better name than “Retract”.

After all, we had equipment like “Honey Wagon” , “Coffin Houses”, “Clinker Grinder”. All really descriptive names. So, when Charles Foster told me to go with Diane Lucas (later Diane Brien) to work on 7R retract, I was expecting to go find some little lever going back and forth making a sound like “brrrr…oops…..brrr…..oops” as it swung back and forth. I would name something like that a “Retract”.

Actually, I would like to have been able to have kept a couple of Retracts in my pocket so that when I would smart off to Leroy Godfrey our Electrical Supervisor, I could pull one out and press the button and… “swoop”! Retracted!

So, what is a Retract? Well. In the story that I linked to above about the cracked egg in the boiler, I explained how when I was on the labor crew we had to go in the boiler and tie ropes to these hanging boiler tubes and then shake them back and forth to clean out the hard ash that had built up on them. Well, The Retract would sort of do that when the boiler was online. They would clean out the tubes in the reheat area of the boiler for the most part.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

What it would do is this. It seemed like 7R retract was about 40 feet long (someone at the plant can correct me if I’m wrong about the length). When it would turn on, it would start rotating a pipe about that long and start pushing it into the boiler. Once the nozzle at the end of the pipe was in the boiler a couple of feet steam would start blasting down the pipe to the nozzle on the end that would shoot the steam out at right angles to the pipe. As the pipe rotated, it would be shooting out steam in a circular motion as the pipe slowly traversed into the boiler.

You see… My dentist told me a long time ago that I should Floss my teeth more if I didn’t want to wear dentures when I was older. By keeping the bits of food out from between my teeth, not only did my breath smell better, but my gums could remain healthy as well. So, I listened to him and started flossing. Retracts are kind of like that.

The Retracts were designed to clean out the areas of the boiler where the ash would build up the most causing the efficiency of the boiler to be degraded. So at certain times of the day, the Control Room operator will push a button on the side panel (at least that was what they used to do… now they probably click an icon on their computer) and it would start the cycle of the retracts going in and out one at a time cleaning out the boiler.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler.  I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers... no, not really.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler. I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers… no, not really. Sorry the picture is a little small

Anyway. I finally learned what those long metal benches were for and it fascinated me. I wonder how long it took before someone said what now would seem obvious…. “Hey. Instead of having to bring the boiler offline every week or so, how about if we just create this boiler flossing equipment that cleans the boiler out while it is online?”

It made me wonder about the other equipment around the plant. I’ll bet there was a good use for just about everything. And you know what? I think I was right. Instead of just putting all that equipment all over the place for us to play on like a big jungle gym, everything seemed to have a real good purpose.

After 4 years working as a summer help, and one more year as a janitor and on the labor crew, I thought I had seen just about everything in the plant. When I became an electrician, all of the sudden a whole new world opened up to me. Even that bench I had been sitting on turned into a monster machine that blasted away ash clinkers while the rest of us lay at home in our beds dreaming of chocolate, and dragons, and um… other things people dream about.

So, what about the Wall Blower? Well. These are like the retracts, only they are much smaller. they were placed around the walls of the main boiler at strategic locations to blast clinkers that may be building up along the main wall of the boiler. The area in the boiler diagram up above called the Water Wall.

For some reason (and I’m sure it’s a good one), From what was called floor 6 1/2, though it was actually about the 13th floor, on down was an area called the “Boiler Enclosure”. This meant that when you walked up to the boiler, you first had to go through a door and enter an enclosed area around the boiler. 7th floor and above, the boiler was outside.

I’ve been to plants where the entire boiler was enclosed, and I’ve seen some that didn’t look like any of it was enclosed, so I figure this was a happy median between the two. It meant that if it was raining outside and you needed to work on the boiler, it made a big difference how high up you had to go as to whether you needed your rain suit or not.

I mention this because one day I had to go by myself to work on a wall blower that was on the 6 and 1/2 floor just at the top of the boiler enclosure. The wall blower was naturally situated right next to the boiler. and all the heat generated from the boiler and the piping that came from the bowl mills that blew the coal into the furnace had made the area very hot. The Wall blower had been tripping the breaker and I was supposed to go fix it.

I brought an infrared temperature gun with me and found that the area where the wall blower was mounted was 160 degrees. Maybe it was that high because it was the middle of a hot summer day, and with everything else going on, all the heat trapped right at the top of the boiler enclosure, it had just turned into a huge easy-bake oven.

When I touched the metal door to the control panel on the side of the wall blower, it burned my fingers. I had to use my tee-shirt as a rag to keep from burning my self. I could only stand next to the wall blower for about 30 seconds and then I had to walk back over the doorway and breathe some fresh air and cool off for a minute before going back.

After opening the control panel, I could see what the problem was right away. The insulation on the wires going to the terminal block had the insulation dripping off the wires. The insulation was melting.

I went back to the shop and found some wire that was designed for high temperatures, because obviously someone had used the wrong type of wire when assembling this particular wall blower, given it’s location on the boiler.

High Temperature Wire

High Temperature Wire

Because of the intense heat where I was standing when trying to rewire the wall blower, I was not able to take very big breaths. I had to breathe very shallow, or not at all. So, I would go up to the blower and work as fast as I could removing a screw or putting a new wire down and then I would go back to the doorway about 60 feet from the wall blower and cool off.

As I mentioned in the post about the Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew, when you are in this intense heat, your hardhat becomes soft like a baseball cap. In this case, I wasn’t in the heat long enough for this to happen, though I was sweating like a pig.

I had been doing this for a while when an operator showed up wondering what I was doing. His name was Jim Waller and he had been watching me from a distance. He said he was trying to figure out what I was up to because he would see me show up at the doorway and stand there for a while not doing anything, then turning around like I had forgotten something only to show up again about 1/2 minute later.

When he couldn’t figure out what I was doing on his own, he decided to take a closer look. I found him standing at the doorway waiting for me to arrive with a puzzled look on his face. I was tempted to just say nothing and just stand there and take a few breathes and then go back to the wall blower and continue my work.

I couldn’t do that however, when Jim asked me what I was doing. Jim was one of the nicest and most normal operators you could run across. I just couldn’t joke with him. So, I told him I was working on that wall blower over there, but that it was so hot that I had to keep coming to the doorway to cool off.

Jim Waller had come to work for the electric company a month before I began my last summer as summer help in 1982. At the time that I was working on the wall blower in 1984 I was just about to become 24 years old, and a couple of months later, he was going to be 29. Like Gene Day, you instantly knew when you saw Jim that he you liked him. He sort of had that Jim Nabors kind of smile.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger.  He had the same likable demeanor.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger. He had the same likable demeanor.

Unlike Gene Day, I never felt like playing a joke on Jim. For some reason, Jim just seemed like too nice of a guy. Where Gene had a slight sort of hidden orneriness about him, Jim was just purely a “good guy”.

This past Christmas eve, five days before Jim turned 57 years old, he passed away after a sudden illness. When the guys at the power plant told me about it, I was sad for their loss and for his family. For Jim, on the other hand…. I think he has always had one foot in heaven from the day I met him. I think he finally stepped the rest of the way through the gate.

For someone like me. If I am ever able to make it to heaven, I’m sure there will be a big to-do about it, because someone would have won the pot and I’m sure the odds would have been high against it. However, the day Jim arrived, it was probably more like “business as usual”. — “Oh, Jim’s arrived….. Like no one didn’t see that coming….” If I could say something to Jim now (and being Catholic, I’m allowed to do that), I would ask Jim, “Put in a good word for all the Power Plant Men!” Because I know that Jim’s word is as good as gold. Here is a real picture of Jim, a true Power Plant Man:

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

 

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman February 23, 2013:

Good post on Jim, Kevin. Now, what is a “normal operator”?  🙂
I remember doing several jobs in super hot areas where I had to wear a heavy coat and gloves to keep from getting burned. Had to take off rings and wrist watch too. Needed to take off my glasses, but then I couldn’t see.

 

Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley — Repost

Originally posted February 25, 2012.  I added Larry’s Picture at the end:

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.

Yep.  That's the Marlboro Man

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

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?

A Backhoe
Here is a picture of a backhoe

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.”

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

This is the best picture I could find of Jim Heflin

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.

Since I first created this post two years ago, I have found a picture of Larry Riley taken many years after this story:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him.  He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Solving the Selection of a Power Plant Solvent

A year after I joined the electricians in the electric shop, Howard Chumbley became my foreman.  One day when we were talking about going to the old Osage Plant up the road to clean up a PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) spill, he explained that “In His Day” they used to clean their tools in a vat of transformer oil that was full of PCBs.  I remember him telling us that it was normal for him to be up to his elbows in the stuff.  They never thought it might be harmful.  Now we were getting ready to go up to the old plant to clean up a small spill and I was going to have to suit up in a special hazardous waste suit.  I wrote about our experience in the post: “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Rest“.

Now we know about the hazard of developing cancer by having PCBs in your system.  Today we know a lot of things we didn’t know back then.  We know that Asbestos causes Mesothelioma.  We know that Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) destroy the ozone layer.  We know that Twinkies are one of the few foods that will be around after a nuclear holocaust.

Years before I became an electrician, the Electric Company had stopped using oil with PCBs.  There was still an effort to clean it up from the older plants.  At the new coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma, we didn’t have a problem with PCBs.  We had other problems.  Some of which we didn’t know about (well, we knew something, just not so much) at the time.

A very prominent responsibility of mechanics and electricians was to clean oily equipment.  Pumps and motors, breakers, fans, mills.  All kinds of equipment.  Almost everything was lubricated one way or another with oil.  Solvent was used to remove the oil when the equipment needed to be cleaned.

We had a standard kind of solvent at our plant. I believe it was called “Standard Solvent 350”.  See…. It was a Standard solvent.  Even had the word Standard in the name.  One of the key ingredients of this standard solvent is a solvent known as “Stoddard Solvent”.  This solvent worked real good when cleaning up equipment like motors and pumps and other oily equipment.  Many times we were “Up to our elbows” in this solvent.

We had a barrel in the corner of the electric shop close to the door to the main switchgear where we could put a motor and scrub it clean while solvent poured out of a flexible nozzle on the motor, your shirt, your pants, your work boots, and the floor.  Some days during overhauls when we would work cleaning motors for 10 hours each day, I would come home from work drenched in solvent.  My wife would make me take my clothes off in the utility room where I could put them directly into the washing machine where Oxydol could go to work on it right away.

When Ted Riddle and I were working for Willard Stark on an overhaul at the gas plant outside Mustang Oklahoma during the spring of 1986, Willard said one day that he wanted to show us something.  I explained Willard’s situation at the plant in a post called “Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark“.

He was a good example of what I would call a “Contrarian.”  That is, he seemed to buck the system often.  He thought outside the box a lot.  I realized this right way when we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio during lunch.  Every time Paul Harvey would say, “…Noon News and Comment”  Willard would always finish the sentence by saying, “Mostly Comment.”  I figured then that he had to be a contrarian, because who would ever think that Paul Harvey wasn’t the best person in the world to bring the News to our private little power plant world.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality.  No one will ever fill his shoes.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality. No one will ever fill his shoes.

So, when Willard said he was wanted us to see something “with our own eyes”, I figured this was going to be something good.  Probably some kind of secret place where you could hide and take a nap if the day wore on too long, or something like that.  Well… It didn’t turn out to be that kind of “something”, but it was something.

Willard took a small metal pan and put some Stoddard Solvent in it.  The old gas plant used straight Stoddard Solvent, unlike the more sophisticated Coal-fired plant where Ted Riddle and I normally worked.  We walked out into the turbine-generator (T-G) floor.  He placed the pan of solvent on the floor, took a WypAll (which is a strong paper rag) and dropped it into the pan:

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple:  WypAlls!

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple: WypAlls!

Then he bent down and with his lighter, he lit the WypAll on fire.  We watched as the flames grew higher and higher.  Willard watched our expressions.  We had been under the understanding that Solvent was not flammable.  He explained that technically, Stoddard Solvent is not considered “Flammable”, but it is considered “Combustible”.  Combustible means that it burns.

A bucket of Stoddard Solvent

A bucket of Stoddard Solvent.  Notice this bucket clearly says “Combustible”

Stoddard Solvent doesn’t ignite fast enough to be considered “Flammable”.  At least that’s the way Willard explained it to us.  Willard said he wanted us to be aware of this fact when we have our bodies all soaked in solvent, that if we were to catch on fire for some reason, we were going to go up in flames just like that WypAll.  We both appreciated the advice.

I didn’t begin this post expecting to say that much about Stoddard Solvent, but just in case you were really wondering what it is, maybe this picture will explain it to you:

A Chemist-eye view of Stoddard Solvent

A Chemist-eye view of Stoddard Solvent

I hope that cleared it up for you.

The solvent I really wanted to talk about was one that was used more exclusively in the electric shop.  It is called Trichloroethylene 1.1.1.  You see, a lot of equipment that we cleaned in the electric shop needed to be cleaned spotless.  Solvent 350 would leave a film when it dried.  So, in the electric shop when we needed to clean something with electric contacts we would use something called “Electro Contact Cleaner”:

Spray Can of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner - Only the cans we used didn't say CFC Free

Spray Can of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner – Only the cans we used didn’t say CFC Free

This was very expensive compared to the regular solvent.  So, I was surprised when Ben Davis and I first went on an overhaul in Muskogee, and they had this exact same contact cleaner in 55 gallon barrels:

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

I remember John Manning showing us a few of these barrels that they had ordered for the overhaul.  I think my jaw dropped.   By my calculation, one barrel like this would cost over $3,000.00.  I figured if it was in cans, it would have cost three times that amount.  The advantage of using Contact cleaner was that it dried clean.  It didn’t leave a residue.

Trichloroethylene 1.1.1 was like that.  It didn’t leave a residue when it dried.  I think this will become obvious to you when you see what it really is:

Chemical Composition of Trichoroethylene

Chemical Composition of Trichoroethylene

You can see right off the bat that this is going to dry clean…  I mean…. it’s obvious… right?

Anyway.  This stuff evaporated quickly so when you were up to your elbows in this solvent, it felt cool because it would evaporate causing a cooling effect.  It had a very peculiar smell.  It also made you feel a little dizzy when  you were using it.  Especially when you had to breathe in a lot of in a confined area.  Having fans blowing on you seemed to make it worse, because it would increase the evaporation rate filling the air with more solvent.

It was known at the time that Trichloroethylene would destroy your liver when it gets into your blood stream.  There was no quicker way of injecting the solvent into your blood stream than by inhaling it.  Finally OSHA decided that this solvent was no longer safe to be used in a plant setting.  It could only be used in small quantities like “White Out”.

Gee… Who remembers White Out?

A bottle of White Out.  Oh look.  A New Formula!

A bottle of White Out. Oh look. A New Formula!

The last time I heard about white out was in a blonde joke about someone using white out on the computer monitor.  Who types anymore on a typewriter?  I think anyone today that would choose to type on a typewriter would be the type of person that would prefer a typewriter eraser over white out.

I take that back.  The last time I heard about White Out was on a show like 60 Minutes where they were showing young kids in Panama or another Central American country being hooked on tubs of White Out.  They would sit around all day taking quick whiffs from a tub of White Out. — Why?  Because it contained Trichloroethylene and it would give you a buzz.

My dad, a Veterinary professor at Oklahoma State University  had told me about the dangers of Trichloroethylene around the time I told him about Bill McAlister using WD-40 on his elbows to ease the pain of his arthritis.  Sonny Karcher had asked me to talk to my dad about it to see if he knew why WD-40 would help Arthritis.

My father (I’ll call him Father in this paragraph, because in this paragraph, he’s being more “sophisticated”) told me that WD-40 had the same chemical in it that Veterinarians used on horses to help their joints when they hurt.  Then he warned me that the solvent in WD-40 soaks right into your skin and when it does it carries other toxic chemicals into your body than just the arthritis lineament.  So, he told me to tell Sonny not to use it often.

A can of WD40

A can of Power Plant WD40

So, anyway, we had to find a replacement for Trichloroethylene.  Tom Gibson and Bill Bennett went to work ordering samples of other kinds of solvents that salesmen were saying would be a good replacement.  One of the first that we tried was called Orange Solvent.  It had a real nice Orange smell.  Sort of like drinking Tang.

Bottle of Orange Solvent

Bottle of Orange Solvent

It had a couple of problems.  First, I would be more inclined to drink it since it smelled so good, and I was a fan of Tang at the time.

Tang -  Used by the Astronauts on the Apollo missions

Tang – Used by the Astronauts on the Apollo missions

The second problem with the Orange Solvent was that it didn’t seem to clean very well.  We were used to something cutting the oil and contact grease quickly.  the Orange Solvent didn’t cut the mustard (so to speak).

One day during overhaul at our plant, Bill Bennett gave us a barrel of some new kind of solvent.  It was supposed to be comparable in it’s cleaning ability to Trichloroethylene (could you imagine Red Skelton trying to say that word?)

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

Red Skelton saying “Trichloroethylene”

Bill wanted Andy Tubbs and I to use the new solvent on the main power transformer main bus connectors.  They are normally covered with No-Ox Grease so this would be a good test.

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

So, Andy and I carried the large extension ladder out to the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer and leaned it up against the back side.  We climbed up to the open hatchways and climbed in.  We hung a small yellow blower in the doorway to blow fresh air on us.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Andy and I had everything setup and we were ready to work.  We both just fit in the small area with the large bus work between us.  We began using our rags soaked in the new solvent on the silver plated bus.  I don’t remember how well the solvent cleaned the bus.  I just remember thinking that this solvent sure did evaporate quickly.  Especially with the blower fan right next to us.

I also remember looking over at Andy crouched across from me.  He was looking down at the bus.  Then his entire body seemed to swivel around as if he was on some kind of swing which caused him to tilt up the side of the enclosure.  I watched his face, and he seemed to be saying something to me, only I couldn’t make it out.

I think I said something like “Huh?”  Then about that time all kinds of brightly lit flowers were circling around my head and my arms seemed to be floating in front of me.  I heard Andy say with a slur, “We better get out of here…”  His voice sounded like it was in a pipe…. Well, we sort of were sitting in a pipe…  He started to move toward the hatchway.

I remember briefly thinking that I was just fine enjoying the interesting scenery.  By now there were bright lights streaming toward me from all sides.  Then I thought.  “No.  I better leave.”  So, I struggled to pull myself into the hatchway.  It was big enough that we could both pull ourselves out together.

I began climbing down the ladder head first.  It was about 15 feet to the ground.  I was completely out of the hatch with my body completely upside down on the ladder before I decided that it would be better if I turned over and went down feet first.  Somehow I managed to swing my feet down and around without falling off the ladder.  I think Andy was pretty much in the same predicament as I was.

Once we were on the ground, we hobbled into the electric shop and sat down.  We told Bill Bennett that this was not a good solvent to use.  I don’t even want to remember what the name of the solvent was.  If I mentioned it, someone may put it in some tubs of white out and sell it to kids in Panama, because Trichloroethylene had nothing on this.

I suppose we finally found a replacement solvent.  Though, I don’t remember what it was.  All I do know is that it was quite an adventure trying to find one.  Maybe we just used a lot of Electro contact cleaner after that.

Like Howard Chumbley, who told stories about being up to his elbows in transformer oil made with PCBs, I can now tell my fellow teammates at work, “Yeah.  I remember the days when we were up to our elbows in Trichloroethylene.  Never gave it a second thought.”  Only, their reaction would be a little different than ours were in the electric shop office.  They might raise their eyes up from their computer monitors and look across the cubicle at me for a moment.  Then give me a look like “there goes that crazy guy that used to work in a power plant again.  Hasn’t he told us that story about 50 times already?”  Well…. That solvent and stuff.  It makes you forget things…. I can’t remember what I have already said.

Serving Mankind Power Plant Style — Repost

Originally Posted on February 15, 2013:

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.

The Hilton Inn had a large automated dishwasher to handle the banquet crowd

The Hilton Inn had a large automated dishwasher to handle the banquet crowd

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.

A Montgomery Elevator Penthouse similar to the boiler elevator penthouses

A Montgomery Elevator Penthouse similar to the boiler elevator penthouses.  The Christmas tree relays are halfway down on the right side of the left panel

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.

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

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.

dragon

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.

Boiler Ghost Detector

Boiler Ghost Detector

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.

Comments from the Original Post:

  1. Far too few understand this, very well said, my friend.

  2. Amen!

    I remember one time at the Seminole Plant when we had a steam leak on a Unit 2 throttle valve. You could hear it (over the roar of the turbine room) but you couldn’t see it (superheated steam is invisible). Martin Louthan and Ralph McDermott found the leak with a “red rag” on the end of a broomstick.

  3. Life is precious, or it’s just another commodity, right? And that’s right down the center of the Left/Right divide…
    Abortion debates sit astride that divide; healthcare is now crossing it as government undertakes how much to spend on various age groups.
    Another side of it provided the sense of responsibility that led Power Plant Men to sacrifice and risk when those were needed. At one time, those attitudes would have been taken for granted, normal and to be expected… something that comes clear in all the Power Plant stories.

Indian Curse or Brown and Root Blunder — Repost

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.

Comment from Earlier Post:

eddie hickman March 20, 2013

iI was there the day unit 2 fell, I was walking to the brass shack, just came down from unit 2 when we noticed the operator of the Maniwoc 5100 crane did not secure the crane ball to the boiler or the crane to keep it from swaying in the wind. I kept watching the crane ball slamming into the steel causing the boiler to sway and within a minute I watched it fall from 50 yards away and took off running,the whole unit was going up quick because B&R were behind schedule,and the most of the steel hadn’t been torqued yet by the bolt up crew.

Electric Company Substation Transformer Shooter

There has been reports on the news this week about someone who has been shooting transformers in PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) substations in California.  It is interesting that the national news is picking up this story now even though the FBI has been investigating similar attacks since December, and even earlier attacks against PG&E as early as last April, 2013.

These reports always catch my attention because back in the early 1990’s, the electric company where I worked in Oklahoma had their own episode when a shooter was going around shooting at substation transformers, and high voltage electric lines.  At that time it was OG&E, not PG&E that was being plagued by someone that seemed to be randomly attacking the electric grid.

Back in early 1993, the first transformer that was shot by a high powered rifle using armor piercing bullets was in the middle of Stillwater Oklahoma near the Pizza Hut on Perkins Road.  It is easy to remember the location, because it later became very significant when it came down to finding out who might be responsible.

Much like the reaction in California this week, everyone was alerted to keep a watch for anyone acting suspicious near substations and high voltage electric lines.

An Electric Substation.  Who would ever want to damage at something so beautiful?

A High Voltage Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage such a wonderful work of art?

I enjoy watching a TV show called Forensic Files.  It shows how important facts are collected that finally lead to a conviction of someone who has murdered someone.  It is amazing how so many clues are left behind that can be used to prove who is the guilty person.

I suppose the main point that I walk away with after watching a show like this is that criminals are generally pretty stupid.  Especially the really smart ones.  I guess it’s because if they were really smart, then they wouldn’t have turned to a life of crime in the first place.  Maybe it’s like the lazy people that work harder avoiding work than they would if they just did their job.

Of course, working at the Power Plant during  this time meant that we were all put on a kind of “high alert”.  We were extra suspicious of cars parked down side roads near our plant.  Our security guards doubled up a little on their rounds on the lookout for someone suspicious.  In a weird way it brought me back to when I was a dishwasher one summer at the Sirloin Stockade in Stillwater.

When I first moved to Stillwater in the Spring of 1978, right out of High School, I went to work as a dishwasher/busboy/cook at the local Sirloin Stockade franchise restaurant.  This is not the newer company Sirloin Stockade that is on Perkins road today.  No.  This one was on the Strip next to the Oklahoma State University campus.  It was privately owned.

One night during that summer there was a mass murder committed at a Sirloin Stockade in Oklahoma City after the restaurant had closed.  All of the employees had been forced into the freezer and they were all shot in the head.  At the time, no one knew the motive.  It could have been that the murderer (or murderers) could have been upset with Sirloin Stockades in general.

For the rest of the summer, the manager Ken Low, who also managed a hamburger joint up the street for the same owner, would leave the Sirloin Stockade when the restaurant was just closing at 9:00 to go close the other restaurant.  He would leave a young 17 year old boy in charge of closing up the restaurant and getting it ready for when it opened the next morning.  Yeah…. That was me.

I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Ken had suddenly gained a lot of confidence in my ability to handle closing the entire restaurant all by myself the same week that the Sirloin Stockade Massacre happened in Oklahoma City.  Ken was a friend of mine and I understood him well enough.

Me.  I was fearless anyway.  I always seemed to be missing that gene.  So, I just felt that if some murderer came busting in the back door, I would, of course, defend myself by using the handle of the broom I was using to sweep the floor.  Well.  I was 17.  So, of course I was invincible.

The same question was being asked about the person that was shooting the transformers and high voltage lines.  It seemed as if he had a grievance with the electric company.  So, when a witness had seen a man going down a remote country road in the same area where a high voltage electric line was shot, and a sketch of a possible suspect was created, they turned to the employees for help.

I wasn’t much help because I lack the imagination to take a composite drawing and extrapolate it into a person that I know.  If someone were to draw a picture of me and ask me who I thought it was, I probably wouldn’t have a clue.  I guess I lack that gene also.

Other Power Plant Men thought they knew who the drawing depicted.  It reminded them of a former employee at the Power Plant.  His name was Clyde Bateman.  When others told me that, I thought, “Yeah.  I suppose it could be him.”

Clyde had been a chemist at the plant.  He had been fired a year or two before.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing his job well.  His problem was that some days he just wouldn’t show up for work without leaving any word.  It would have been all right if he would have called the plant to let his manager, George Pepple know that he wasn’t going to be able to make it that day.   He just wouldn’t say anything until he returned.

Clyde had been given the appropriate number of warnings and was told that if he didn’t show up to work again without leaving word that he wouldn’t be in, he was going to be fired.  So, the next time that happened, he was “let go”.  No one likes that to happen, because you know that there is some underlying reason for such odd behavior, but we had to keep the plant running, and when you rely on a certain number of employees to keep it going, what can you do?

This by itself wouldn’t make one suspicious that he might turn into someone that would flip his lid and start shooting at electric company assets.  The psychological profile looked more like a Timothy McVeigh type character.  For those of you who are from other countries that read this blog, Timothy McVeigh was a “homegrown” terrorist that decided to blow up a Federal Building in the middle of Oklahoma City one day (along with a number of other accomplices, some of which have never been identified), and he needlessly killed a lot of innocent people.

I didn’t know Clyde that well, so when others suggested that it might be Clyde, I was skeptical.  Then, as the investigation went forward, I learned that Clyde was more like Timothy McVeigh than I had realized. — Well.  At the time, no one had heard of Timothy McVeigh, since that hadn’t happened yet.

Power Plant Men that knew him said that he owned some land behind our power plant and he would go out there at times and blow things up.  He like high powered rifles and all that.  I thought that might be an indication, but it still didn’t convince me.  I also liked to blow things up and I would enjoy shooting high powered rifles if I had the opportunity.  I’m sure many Power Plant Men would enjoy doing the same.

Just a typical High Powered Rifle

Just a typical High Powered Rifle

Remember.  This was back when it was still all right to play cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers.  This was before eating your Pop-Tart until it was in the shape of gun was never given a second thought.  You could even take a Cowboy doll onto a plane with a tiny 1/2 inch plastic gun in the holster without being afraid that the TSA would take it away.

Anyway.  It was later discovered that Clyde Bateman lived in a trailer park behind the Braum’s on Perkins Road in Stillwater.  

Braum's is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger.  It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

Braum’s is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger. It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

This was important because his trailer was only about 250 yards from the first transformer that had been shot.  Ok.  With all the other things, this finally convinced me.  They were on the right track.  I think the OSBI (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation) was on his trail and were keeping close tabs on him.  It seems like they even asked us at the plant to not try to contact him or let him know that he was a suspect.

Scott Hubbard, a True Power Plant Electrician was out inspecting the equipment in the substation one day when he noticed a hole in one of the 345KV breaker operating arm enclosures.  Scott thought it looked a lot like a bullet hole, so he alerted the control room.  The control room contacted the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department to come out and look at it.

Sure enough.  It was a bullet hole.  The OSBI recovered the bullet from inside the pipe.  Luckily where the bullet had entered, it had missed hitting anything that would have damaged the equipment.  If the shooter had been a lineman, or an electrician, or from the T&D department, he would have not shot the part that he did.  It looked like a critical part if you didn’t know better.   So, the shooter was not familiar with the equipment he was shooting.  That was clear.

Not only that, but there were much worse targets in the area that would have caused real damage.  So, luckily this was not someone who did a lot of homework.  It was interesting that the first transformer was only a block away from where Clyde lived, and the last shot was at the plant where he used to work.

The breaker was at a spot where he would have had to know to park on a dirt road a mile away and walk across a field to get the shot that he did.  All the plant employees knew that road well.  It was where the public had to go if they wanted to fish in the discharge channel where the warm water exits the condensers.  The fish like it there.

With all that said, Clyde Bateman was due in court in Ponca City on August 11, 1993.  Not for being the shooter that everyone was looking for, but for another offense.  I don’t remember exactly what it was.  He never showed up.  Clyde took his own life that morning.  After that day, there were no more shootings associated with this particular shooter.  it was understood by the employees at the plant that the matter was behind us now.  Business was back to usual.

I mentioned earlier that Clyde turned out to be more of a Timothy McVeigh type than we had originally thought.  I didn’t mean that he was that way because he liked guns, because any self respecting Power Plant Man knows that if you care about your family and want to keep them safe, that a handy firearm is the best way to stop an intruder.

Clyde was an activist.  I found this out only today when I decided to write about him.  I found a very interesting case that the U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit ruled on only two and a half months after Clyde’s death.  You see, Clyde had filed a complaint against the Federal Government alleging that the entire body of federal environmental laws were unconstitutional, because its enactment allegedly exceeded the authority granted in the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, and lacked any other source of constitutional support.  The District Court had ruled that Clyde had no standing.  So he appealed it to the US Appeals Court.

The Appeals court ruled unanimously that Clyde didn’t have any standing to bring this complaint against the Federal Government because (no… not that he was already dead) he hadn’t demonstrated that he was injured by the law.  They didn’t rule that he was wrong about his complaint, only that he didn’t have any standing to file the complaint.

So, as Paul Harvey would have said, “Now you know the rest of the story.”  If you want to read more about the Appeal Courts decision, you can find it here:  “Clyde Bateman v United States of America

Switching in the Power Plant Substation Switchyard — Repost

Originally posted on February 9, 2013:

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!

Heroes and Kings of the Power Plant Palace — Repost

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!

Power Plant Paradox of Front to Back and Back to Front

After the downsizing in 1987 some new engineers were assigned to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  I wasn’t used to an engineer actually pausing to listen to what I was saying.  I remember the first time I said something sort of out of the ordinary and Doug Link stopped and asked me why I thought that.  The usual response was to roll their eyes as if I was some dumb electrician that almost knew how to lace my boots correctly… Ok… Lacing your boots isn’t as easy as it looks…. especially when you put them on in the dark in the morning before you leave the house.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

Now, before you think “Front to Back and Back to Front” has to do with lacing up my boots, you are mistaken.

Back to Doug Link.  I was surprised when  he actually stopped and asked me to explain myself.  I know I had said something that had sounded a little bombastic, but what I believed to be true anyway.  So, I sat down and explained it to him.  It was something that ran contrary to what a person might think was logical.  Once I explained it to him, he said he understood what I meant. — Wow.  What kind of new engineers are they breeding out there (I thought).  Well he did go to Missouri University at the same time I did, we just didn’t know each other at the time.

Doug Link

Doug Link

Another engineer that showed up at the plant was Toby O’Brien.  Even the maintenance department recognized right away that Toby would listen to you.  Not only would he listen to the crazy rantings of an electrician like me, but he would also ask advice from mechanics!  And…  (now brace yourself for this) Welders!  I believe that if he could corner a janitor, he probably would have listened to them as well…. because… well… I was just a janitor pretending to be an electrician, and he listened to me all the time.

So, what does this all have to do with “Front to Back and Back to Front”?  Well.  Almost nothing.  Except that these new engineers knew about a secret that we were all keeping from George Bohn, another engineer that I talked about in the post “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer”  In that post we had kept from George that the computer had an extra drive partitioned on the hard drive for a while.  In this post, I will talk about a much more significant secret (at least in George’s eyes).

With the reorganization Terry Blevins worked on one precipitator and I worked on the other.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

For those of you who don’t know, the precipitator is what takes the “smoke” out of the exhaust from the boiler so that it can be collected in hoppers and sent up to the coalyard to silos where trucks would come and haul it away to make highways.

Fly Ash Hoppers

Fly Ash Hoppers underneath the precipitator

The electric Supervisor Tom Gibson thought that a little competition would be good between the two teams to see who could make their precipitator work the best.   Only it didn’t work out that way.  Terry had one way of doing things and I had a completely opposite way of approaching a problem.  Terry would study a problem.  Analyze it, and do everything he could to understand what was going on.  Then he would go out and make a major change.  I on the other hand would make incremental small changes and observe the effects.  Then work toward what seemed to work best.

Between the two of us approaching a problem from completely different points of view, we were able to come up with solutions that apart I don’t think either of us would have ever thought about.  So, we became a team instead.

Now for the boring part of the story.  I am going to explain Back to Front…..   With the new digital controls, we could set up the controls so that each of the 84 precipitator transformers could be backed down one KV (kilovolt) at a time in order from the front cabinets to the back ones.  Then it would start from the front again backing the power on the cabinets down slightly each time.  — I know this is boring.   The front of the precipitator is where the exhaust enters the precipitator.  The back is where the exhaust leaves the precipitator.

The cabinets would do this until the amount of ash going out of the smoke stack hit a certain limit that was 1/4 of the legal limit (the legal limit was 20% opacity.  So, we controlled the cabinets to keep the opacity at 5%).  Opacity is the amount of light that is blocked by the ash coming out of the smokestack.

Well, if the opacity went too high the back cabinets would power all the way back up, and it would work its way toward the front of the precipitator until the opacity went down below the set limit. — sound good?  Well… after running this way for a while we realized that this wasn’t so good.

What ended up happening was that the front cabinets which normally collected 90% of the ash were always powered down and the back cabinets were powered up, because they would power up each time the opacity would spike.  So the ash collection was shifted from the front to the back.  This meant that if there was a puff of ash going out of the stack, it probably came from the back of the precipitator and there wasn’t anything that could be done to stop it.

We asked George if we could reverse the Front to Back powering down of the cabinets so that it went from Back to Front.  That way the back of the precipitator would be powered down most of the time and the front would be powered up.  This would keep the back half of the precipitator clean and if there was a need to power them up because of some disturbance in the boiler, the back of the precipitator would be in good shape to handle the extra ash.

George, however, insisted that since the EPA had tested the precipitator with the new controls when they were setup to go from front to back, we couldn’t risk changing it, or the EPA could come back and make us put scrubbers on the plant.  We were grandfathered into not needing scrubbers and we didn’t want to go through that mess and cost that would have raised electric rates for everyone.

This was frustrating because we could easily see that every hour or so we would be sending big puffs out of the smokestack on the account of the inherent flaw of backing the cabinets down using a Front to back method.  Even though we knew the engineers would blow their top if they found out, we called the EPA one day and asked them about it.  They said they didn’t care as long as the precipitator wasn’t physically being altered and we were adjusting the controls to maximize operations.

So, one day when I was in the Precipitator Control Room, I walked over the main processor unit in the middle of the room where the seven sections of 12 cabinets each plugged in.  I took the A row cable and swapped it with G.  I took B and swapped it with F, C and swapped it with E.  D I just left it where it was since it was in the middle.

Then I walked to each Cabinet in a section and swapped the eeprom chip from cabinet 1 and put in in 12.  And from cabinet 2 and put it in 11, and so on.  Without leaving the precipitator control room, I had just changed the order of the cabinets backing down from “Front to Back” to “Back to Front”.  As far as the control room was concerned, nothing changed (unless you looked closely at the voltages on the cabinets on the computer.  The front cabinets usually were around 30kv while the back were closer to 45kv).

So, now that the cabinets were backing down from back to front, everything worked a lot smoother.  No more hourly puffs and wild power swings as cabinets were released.  As long as George didn’t know, he was happy.  The precipitator suddenly was working very well.  So well in fact that one winter while the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator was using only 70 Kilowatts of power and the opacity was well below the 5% threshold.

The space heaters in the precipitator control room were using over 120 kilowatts of power.  More than the precipitator.  This is important because normally the precipitator used more power than any other piece of equipment in the plant.  It was not unusual before we had the back down working for one precipitator to use 3 Megawatts of power.  That is 3,000 Kilowatts.

Then one day in 1992 an electric Intern (who later became a full time engineer) came in the precipitator control room with George Bohn while we were calibrating the cabinets one at a time.  George began explaining to Steve Wilson how the precipitator controls worked.  We were in the front section (G row).  George introduced Steve to us and started explaining to him about the back down and how it worked.

Steve Wilson

Steve Wilson

Just then, the cabinet that he was showing him powered up. — oops.  This was a front row cabinet and in George’s mind, they should be the last to power up.  He looked around and could see that the cabinets in F row were still powered down.  I thought, “The jig is up.”  George said, “That’s not right!  That shouldn’t happen!”  (Ok George.  We’ve only been doing this for 3 years and you are just now noticing?).

So, I asked him what the problem was (knowing full well).  He explained that the cabinet in G row had just powered up.  — You could tell when a cabinet was powered down because a certain light in the lower left corner of the display would be on.  I looked at the cabinet and the Primary current limit light was lit.  Obviously not in the back down mode.

So, I said this, “George, this cabinet still is in the back down mode.  You just can’t tell because it is also hitting the primary current limit and both lights won’t light up at the same time.”  — Geez… I thought…. would he believe this hair brain explanation?  George nodded.  Then he went on to explain to Steve what I just said to him as if it was something he knew all the time (even though I sort of just made it up).

After short time after Steve and George left, I found Steve and explained to him that we really do power down the precipitator from back to front instead of front to back, because front to back doesn’t work, and I explained to him why it works better and why we don’t tell George Bohn.  Steve was another sensible engineer that knew how to listen and learn.  I enjoyed the little time I spent working with him.

Well…. The efficiency of the precipitators caught the attention of EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute), and they wanted to come and study our precipitator controls.  Not only the back down feature we were using but also a pulse capability that Environmental Controls had that allowed you to power off for so many electric pulses and then power on again.

So, when the EPRI scientists showed up to test our precipitators for a couple of weeks trying the different modes of operation, I knew that it was important for them to really understand how we were operating the precipitators.  So, after George had taken them to the computers in the control room and explained the back to front back down mode.

I took them aside one at a time and explained to them that even though the computer looked like it was backing down from front to back, it was really backing down from back to front.  I explained to them why we had to do it that way, and I also explained to them why we didn’t let George know about it.  They all seemed to understand, and for the next two weeks no one from EPRI let the cat out of the bag.

To this day I don’t think George knew that we had swapped the direction of the back down from “front to back” to “Back to front”.  At least not until he reads this post.