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!


5 responses

  1. Ha! Good times.

    And one of my stories for you. About 25 years ago we were retiring a 3 span extension than passed (you guessed it) at ninety degrees under a 66KV subtransmission line.

    Anyway we had one of the new school kids in the bucket, that Friday, he pulled the stinger and let it hang, which is sort of OK, I prefer to tie it down to the neutral, but anyway. We got tied up with some other stuff, and it sat that way till Monday.

    So Monday he jumps in his bucket to untie the first span pole, which is normal, although I did notice he was wearing his leather gloves, instead of hot gloves. Anyway he gets up there and starts untieing the tie wire, and since the line was dead, he got sloppy with it.

    To make the story a bit shorter, yeah, he got about six inches of arc out of that phase wire to the pin. He had never heard of induced voltage, and with almost three days sitting there (the transformer had already been removed, it had built up a pretty good charge).

    The other foreman and I just about fell over laughing at him. Particularly since he was one of those that knew more than we did, after all he went to school.

    Anyway, he finished untieing that pole and came down, as Art (the other foreman) and I sauntered over. Art looked at him and simply asked, “Do you need a ride to town?” He had a stupid look on his face for about 30 seconds until I asked if he didn’t want to change his pants. To his credit, he didn’t need to.

    So when he got on the ground we told him that was one of the reasons we never let a stinger hang loose. And to his credit again, I never saw him do that again, although he did do plenty of stupid things before he learned to ask the old guys about it.

  2. We now wear a 40 calorie flash suit to rack in breakers 480V & above

    1. Wow! 480V and above! When I left I think it was only 4160V and above

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