Monthly Archives: February, 2015

Power Plant Quittin’ Time

At a Power Plant, three things are certain:  Death, Taxes and Quittin’ Time.  Nothing can stand in the way of any of these three activities.  The only time Quittin’ time might change is on a Friday afternoon just before it is time to go home and you hear the Shift Supervisor paging one of the foremen or the Maintenance Supervisor.  Then you know that Quittin’ time is likely to change at the spur of the moment.  Not eliminated, but only delayed.  I suppose we try doing that with Death as well.  I have never tried delaying Taxes before.

After the downsizing at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1994, a lot of things had changed.  As an electrician, I was now working on a cross-functional team with Charles Foster as my electrical bucket buddy.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

The rest of my team had different skills.  Some were Instrument and Controls, others were Welders, Machinists, Mechanics and then there was Alan Kramer, our foreman.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

The new way we received work orders (we called them Maintenance Orders or MOs) was from our new Planners.  There were two people responsible for figuring out our work for the week.  That was Ben Davis and Tony Mena.  The two people that I lack photos.

I have talked about Ben Davis in a number of past posts, as he was my mentor when I first became an electrician.  I always looked up to him as a big brother.  And, well, he treated me as a younger brother… but always with more respect than I deserved.  Tony on the other hand was originally hired to be on the Testing Team when I was on the Labor Crew.

I still remember Monday, July 18, 1983 watching Tony Mena and the rest of the new Testers walking around the plant following Keith Hodges around like baby quail following their mother (at least that was the way Ron Luckey described them as we watched them from the back seat of the crew cab as we drove past them).

The men and woman on Labor Crew had felt passed over when the new testing team had been formed because no one on the labor crew had been considered for the new jobs even when we met the minimum requirements (which was to have any kind of college degree).  So, even though it wasn’t fair to the new testing team, we had an immediate animosity toward them.

After the first downsizing in 1988, Scott Hubbard had moved to the electric shop and I quickly learned that not all testers were rotten, job stealing chumps.  Actually, none of them were.  They never had anything to do with who was chosen for the Testing team.  That came from above.  If you are interested, you can read the post: “‘Take a Note Jan’ Said the Supervisor of Power Production“.  Scott and I became like brothers when he joined our team.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

After the first downsizing, the testing team was reduced down to three people, Tony Mena, Richard Allen and Doug Black.  I don’t have a picture of the first two, but I do have one of Doug:


Doug Black

Doug Black

After the second downsizing, the Testing team was eliminated.  Scott became an electrician, Doug Black moved into the Engineering Department.  Richard Allen became an Instrument and Controls person and Tony Mena became a Planner along with Ben Davis.  We had two other planners Glenn Rowland and Mark Fielder (who later traded with Mike Vogle to become a foreman).  Glenn and Mark spent their time planning major outages, where Tony and Ben did more of the day-to-day stuff.

Tony Mena no longer had anyone to carpool with, so he asked me if he could carpool with Scott and I.  So, we agreed.  We told Tony that it was important to be on time, because we didn’t want to be late arriving at the plant, and we definitely didn’t want to be late going home (which was much more important).  Tony agreed that he would be on time.

Quittin’ Time at the plant is a very important and orchestrated event.  It begins a half hour earlier when everyone returns to the shop and cleans up and puts their tools away.  Then they go into the foremen’s office and fills out their timecards for the day.  This includes adding each of the maintenance orders we have worked on during the day and how many hours on each.

The next step is to grab your lunch box and go stand by the door to wait until the exact second that it is time to leave.  When that happens, a steady stream of Power Plant Men pour into the parking lot, into their pickup trucks (and other vehicles) and head either north or south down Highway 177 toward their homes.  Some stopping along the way for a beverage at the corner convenience store.

The Power Plant Men have Quittin’ Time down to a honed art form.  Each stroke of the brush is carefully orchestrated.  Scott and I went to perform our part in the part of the ballet where the vehicles all backed out of their parking spaces in chaotic unison and quickly perform the three lines out the end of the single lane on the south side of the parking lot.

However, when we arrived in our car, Tony was no where to be found.  As we received concerned looks from Randy Dailey and Jerry Day, as they pirouetted around us, wondering why we weren’t taking our turn in the Parking Lot Tango, all we could do was shrug our shoulders and watch as the dance went on without us.

Finally about 10 minutes past Quittin’ Time, Tony came walking out of the shop apologizing for being late.  We told him that was all right as long as he didn’t make a habit out of it.  We were pretty peeved that day because this meant that we had 10 less minutes that day to spend with our families.

We were even more peeved when the same thing happened the next day.  We didn’t wait 10 minutes.  After 5 minutes we went into the maintenance foremen’s office and found Tony still working away on his computer trying to finish up his work.  We told him he had to leave right now!  He said he hadn’t realized it was time to go.

Nothing is worse than a delayed Quittin’ Time when it isn’t for a legitimate reason.  Tony didn’t have a wife and children at home so he didn’t feel the urgency that Scott and I felt.  So, I figured I was going to have to do something about this.  We weren’t going to tell Tony that he could no longer ride with us, because we knew he needed the company as much as we did, so I came up with a different plan.

The next day at lunch I wrote a program on the computer called “Quittin’ Time!”  Here is how it worked:

It would load up on Tony’s computer when he booted it up, so he didn’t have a choice whether it ran or not.  It showed up in the Task Bar at the bottom.  It said: “Quittin’ Time in: 7:45:35”  for example and it would count down each second.  Then it would count down all day until Quittin’ Time.  There was no visible way to turn it off (Power Plant Men had yet to learn about the Task Manager as this was Windows 3.1).

You could click on Quittin Time in the Task Bar and it would open up a small box in the middle of your computer with the time ticking down, but there was no red X in the corner to shut it down.  There was only a minimize underscore that would put it back in the task bar.

I had added a small feature in the dialog window.  In the lower right corner, there was a little slash sort of hidden in the corner.  If you clicked on that, it opened another dialog box that let you set the actual time of day for “Quittin’ Time”.  So, if you had to leave early, or later, you could adjust your Quittin’ Time.

Here was the clincher with the Quittin’ Time program.  It was not enough to just show Tony that it was Quittin’ Time.  This program had to force Tony to shut down and go home.  So, when it was 15 minutes before Quittin’ Time, a Big Yellow Window would open up on top of any other work and would flash on and off that it was “15 minutes before Quittin’ Time!  Time to Finish your Work!”  Tony could close this window.

Then when it was 5 minutes to Quittin’ Time, another big yellow window would open up flashing 5 minutes before Quittin’ Time!  Finish your work now!” and it would beep at you 5 times. Tony could close this window.

At one minute until Quittin’ Time, all heck broke loose on the computer.  A big red window would open up and the computer would start beeping continually.  The flashing Window could not be closed.  It would say:  “Less than One Minute To Quittin’ Time!  Save all your Work!”  The words would continually flash as well at the red background and it could not be stopped.

At “Quittin’ Time” The Red Box would say “QUITTIN’ TIME!”  and the computer would lock up beeping continuously as loud as that little beeper(the internal speaker) could beep (this was a 386 PC).  At that point, the only thing you could do was hit the power button and shut your computer off.  I wish I had some screen shots to show you.  Maybe I’ll find my old code and recreate it and take some and add them to this post later.

Needless to say, the first day I added this program to Tony’s computer, he didn’t heed the warnings.  When the computer went crazy, he tried saving his work, but ended up losing a little of it before the computer completely locked up on him.  He came out to the parking lot on time, however, he wasn’t in the greatest mood.  We were.  Scott and I were smiling.  We were going to be home on time, and best yet, that day, we were included in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” being performed by the pickup trucks that day in the Parking Lot.

The best part of the Quittin’ Time program came later.  After about a week, Tony (who now left work on time every day) asked me if I could add something to the Quittin’ Time program.  He wanted to know if I could make it so that he would remember to eat lunch.  He would get so involved in work that he would miss his lunch entirely.  So, I added a “Lunch Time” Feature to the program as well.  He could adjust his lunch time using the same option window that opened when you clicked on the little slash in the lower corner of the Quittin’ Time window.

When I added the Lunch Time feature, I also added an Internet Feature that would go out to Yahoo Stock Quotes and get the Daily Stock Quotes for all of our 401k Mutual Funds and our company stock and at 3:40pm CST would pop up a window with the day’s stocks, so you could see how the Mutual funds in your 401k did that day. — Nothing better than watching your retirement plan grow each day.  Yahoo posted the Mutual Fund updates for the day around 3:30pm, so Tony would be the first person each day to get the latest Stock news for our Mutual Funds.

Tony Mena was known as Planner 4 later when we moved to SAP because that was the username he used.  Ray Eberle used to say to me, “We always want to keep Planner 4 happy!”  Later this year, I will go into various ways we kept Tony happy, or confused… or well… on his toes anyway.

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.

Comments from the original Post:

    1. jerrychicken February 22, 2014:

      When I was in my early 20’s my company shipped me up north to a different branch office and so began eight years of living in contractors guest house accommodation in a run down once-holiday-resort town. For about a year we had eight guys who were working on a local power station stay at the guest house, they were “lagging strippers” which wasn’t some night club job for brazen hussy’s but a job where the power station authorities had recognised that the asbestos that clad every single inch of their pipework was dangerous enough to get rid of, but not so dangerous that it had yet been legislated against when treating or handling the stuff (this was 1978/1980-ish).

      The team of eight spent several years travelling the UK chipping off asbestos cement by hand wearing nothing more complicated that a thin paper face mask over their nose and mouth, their work clothing was jeans and tee shirt because as you’ll know, the inside of a power station can be warm work.

      Their rate of pay was at least four times what our “normal” contracting electricians were being paid and our electricians were craftsmen and so on what was considered a “good wage”, the asbestos guys accepted with a shrug of the shoulders that theirs was a dangerous job, it was known that asbestos was dangerous but ther was no H&S law to protect them and so they took the money and hoped they wouldn’t die young – I have no doubt at all that most of them will be dead now as they used to come back to the guest house covered in white dust on the nights when they’d been in a hurry to leave site and not bothered getting changed, hell they probably exposed me to lots of asbestos dust too.

      On one public holiday weekend we’d all gone back to our home towns and returned after the break, except this time there were only seven of them, the other had been to his doctor for a chest infection and an x-ray had revealed a shadow on his lung, the atmosphere was pretty down that week as they all knew what it could be, he never returned to the job.

      As a sign off let me add that theses guys were not stupid or fearless or uncaring about their own mortality, they all had wives and some had young children, but they were mainly unskilled and how much persuasion do you need when you are unskilled and unemployed other than to offer you four times the skilled man rates – I saw lots of our electricians take up the golden wage packets on the oil rigs during the 1970s UK rush for North Sea oil – now there was a dangerous occupation…

  1. Ron February 22, 2014:

    If that Trichloroethylene caused you to have some memory loss today, I can’t even begin to imagine what your memory was like before the exposure. I don’t know of anyone with a memory like yours! I mean – who else can remember the shoe size of his cub scout leader’s nephew’s neighbor?

    I have a bottle of White-out in my desk today and use it regularly. I play an Eb Contra Bass Clarinet. Most of the music we play is not scored for my instrument so I’ll use Tuba, String Bass, Cello, Bassoon, etc. music (all in “C”) and transpose it to Eb. It takes a little White-out sometimes.

    I love Saturday mornings!

Blowing it with Power Plant Retracts and Wall Blowers

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

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

Pain in the Neck Muskogee Power Plant Relay Testing

RapDon’t let the title fool you.  I love testing Power Plant Protective Relays.  There is a sense of satisfaction when you have successfully cleaned, calibrated and tested a relay that is going to protect the equipment you have to work on every day.  With that said, I was hit with such an unbelievable situation when testing Muskogee Relays in 1995 that I was left with a serious pain in the neck.

On August 14, 2003 the electric power in the Northeast United States and Canada went out.  The Blackout lasted long enough to be a major annoyance for those in the that region of the United States.


Map of the power blackout in 2003

Map of the power blackout in 2003

When I heard about how the blackout had moved across the region, I immediately knew what had happened.  I was quickly reminded of the following story.  I told my wife Kelly, “I know exactly why such a large area lost power!  They hadn’t done proper preventative maintenance on the Protective Relays in the substations!  Just like….”  Well…. I’ll tell you that part now:

I have mentioned in a couple of earlier posts that something always seemed a little “off” at the Muskogee Power Plant.  I had decided early on that while working there I would stick to drinking sodas instead of water.  See the post:  “Something’s In the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“.  Even with that knowledge, I was still shocked at what I found while testing relays at the plant.

This story really begins when one Sunday at Muskogee when one of the Auxiliary Operators was making his rounds inspecting equipment.  He was driving his truck around the south edge of the Unit 6 parking lot on the service road.  He glanced over at a pump next to the road, and at first, he thought he was just seeing things.  After stopping the truck and backing up for a second glance, he was sure he wasn’t dreaming.  It’s just that what he was seeing seemed so strange, he wasn’t sure what was happening.

The operator could see what appeared to be silver paint chips popping off of the large pump motor in all directions.  After closer examination, he figured out that the motor was burning up.  It was still running, but it had become so hot that the paint was literally burning off of the motor.

Horizontal pump

Like this Horizontal pump only much bigger and painted silver

A motor like this would get hot if the bearings shell out.  Before the motor is destroyed, the protective relays on the breaker in the 4,000 Volt switchgear shuts the motor off.  In this case, the relay hadn’t tripped the motor, so, it had become extremely hot and could have eventually exploded if left running.  The operator shut the motor down and wrote a work order for the electricians.

Doyle Fullen was the foreman in the electric shop that received the work order.  When he looked into what had happened, he realized that the protective relay had no been inspected for a couple of years for this motor.

I couldn’t find a picture of Doyle.  In his youth he reminds me of a very smart Daryl in Walking Dead:

Norman Reedus from Walking Dead

Norman Reedus from Walking Dead

In fact, since before the downsizing in 1994, none of the Protective Relays at the plant had been inspected.  The person that had been inspecting the relays for many years had moved to another job or retired in 1994.  This was just a warning shot across the bow that could have had major consequences.

No one at Muskogee had been trained to test Protective Relays since the downsizing, so they reached out to our plant in North Central Oklahoma for help.  That was when I was told that I was going to be going to Muskogee during the next overhaul (outage).  I had been formally trained to inspect, clean, calibrate and test Protective Relays with two of my Power Plant Heroes, Ben Davis and Sonny Kendrick years earlier.  See the post:  “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“.

My Protective Relay Maintenance course book

My Protective Relay Maintenance course book

Without going into too much detail about the actual tests we performed as I don’t want to make this a long rambling post (like… well…. like most of my posts…..I can already tell this is going to be a long one), I will just say that I took our antiquated relay tester down to Muskogee to inspect their relays and teach another electrician Charles Lay, how to perform those tests in the future.  Muskogee had a similar Relay Test Set.  These were really outdated, but they did everything we needed, and it helped you understand exactly what was going on when you don’t have a newfangled Relay Test Set.

AVO Multi-Amp SR-76 Relay Test Set

AVO Multi-Amp SR-76 Relay Test Set

You need to periodically test both mechanical and electronic protective relays.  In the electronic relays the components change their properties slightly over time, changing the time it takes to trip a breaker under a given circumstance (we’re talking about milliseconds).  In the mechanical relays (which I have always found to be more reliable), they sit inside a black box all the time, heating up and cooling as the equipment is used.  Over time, the varnish on the copper coils evaporates and settles on all the components.  This becomes sticky so that the relay won’t operate at the point where it should.

A panel of Protective Relays

A panel of Protective Relays

In the picture above, the black boxes on the top, middle and right are mechanical relays.  This means that something actually has to turn or pick up in order to trip the equipment.  The electronic relays may have a couple of small relays, but for the most part, they are made up of transistors, resistors, capacitors and diodes.

So, with all that said, let me start the real story…. gee…. It’s about time…

So, here I am sitting in the electric shop lab just off of the Unit 6 T-G floor.  We set up all the equipment and had taken a couple of OverCurrent relays out of some high voltage breakers in the switchgear.  I told Charles that before you actually start testing the relays, you need to have the test documents from the previous test and we also needed the instruction manuals for each of the relays because the manuals will have the diagrams that you use to determine the exact time that the relays should trip for each of the tests.  So, we went up to the print room to find the old tests and manuals.  Since they weren’t well organized, we just grabbed the entire folder where all the relays tests were kept since Unit 6 had been in operation.

When we began testing the relays at first I thought that the relay test set wasn’t working correctly.  Here I was trying to impress my new friend, Charles Lay, a 63 year old highly religious fundamental Christian that I knew what I was doing, and I couldn’t even make a relay trip.  I was trying to find the “As Found” tripping level.  That is, before you clean up the relay.  Just like you found it.  Only, it wouldn’t trip.

It turned out that the relay was stuck from the varnish as I explained above.  It appeared as if the relay hadn’t been tested or even operated for years.  The paperwork showed that it had been tested three years earlier.  Protective Relays should be tested at least every two years, but I wouldn’t have thought that the relay would be in such a bad condition in just three years.  It had been sitting in a sealed container to keep out dust.  But it was what it was.

I told Charles that in order to find the “As Found” point where the relay would trip, we would need to crank up the test set as high as needed to find when it actually did trip.  It turned out that the relay which should have instantaneously tripped somewhere around 150 amps wouldn’t have tripped until the motor was pulling over 4,000 amps.  I could tell right away why the Auxiliary Operator found that motor burning up without tripping.  The protective relays were stuck.

As it turned out… almost all of the 125 or so relays were in the same condition.  We cleaned them all up and made them operational.

There is an overcurrent relay for the main bus on each section of a main switchgear.

A picture of a clean switchgear. Picture 6 rows of switchgear like this

A picture of a clean switchgear. Picture 6 rows of switchgear like this

When I tested the “As Found” instantaneous trip for the main bus relay, I found that it was so high that the Unit 6 Main Turbine Generator would have melted down before the protective relay would have tripped the power to that one section of switchgear.  The entire electric bus would have been nothing but molten metal by that time.

As I tested each of these relays, I kept shaking my head in disbelief.  But that wasn’t the worst of it.  The mystery as to why these relays were all glued shut by varnish was finally solved, and that reason was even more unbelievable.

Here is what I found…..  The first thing you do when you are going to test a relay is that you fill out a form that includes all the relay information, such as, what it is for, what are the settings on the relay, and what are the levels of tests that you are going to perform on it.  You also include a range of milliseconds that are acceptable for the relay for each of the tests.  Normally, you just copy what was used in the previous test, because you need to include the time it took for the Previous “As Left” test on your form.  That is why we needed the forms from the previous test.

So, I had copied the information from the previous test form and began testing the relay (one of the first overcurrent relays we tested)…  Again… I was a 34 year old teacher trying to impress my 63 year old student.  So, I was showing him how you mechanically adjust the relay in order for it to trip within the acceptable range.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t adjust the relay so that it would even be close to the desired range for the longer time trip times…. like the 2 second to 25 second range.  It wasn’t even close to the range that was on the form from the last test.

The form from the last test showed that the relay was in the right range for all the levels of test.  When I tested it, like I said, it wasn’t even close.  So, I went to the diagram in the instruction manual for this type of relay.  The diagram looks similar to this one used for thermal overloads:

Thermal Overload Tripping curves

Thermal Overload Tripping curves

See all those red lines?  Well, when you setup a relay, you have a dial where you set the range depending on the needs for the type of motor you are trying to trip. Each red line represents each setting on the dial.  Most of the relays were set on the same number, so we would be using the same red line on the diagram to figure out at different currents how long it should take for a relay to trip….

Here is the clincher….The time range that was written on the previous form wasn’t for the correct relay setting.  The person that tested the relay had accidentally looked at the wrong red line.  — That in itself is understandable, since it could be easy to get on the wrong line… The only thing is that as soon as you test the relay, you would know that something is wrong, because the relay wouldn’t trip in that range, just like I had found.

I double and triple checked everything to make sure we were looking at the same thing.  The previous form indicated the same settings on the relay as now, yet, the time ranges were for a different line! — Ok.  I know.  I have bored you to tears with all this stuff about time curves and overcurrent trips… so I will just tell you what this means…

This meant that when the person completed the forms the last time, they didn’t test the relays at all.  They just filled out the paperwork.  They put in random values that were in the acceptable range and sat around in the air conditioned lab during the entire overhaul smoking his pipe. — Actually, I don’t remember if he smoked a pipe or not.  He was the Electrical Specialist for the plant.  I remembered seeing him sitting in the lab with a relay hooked up to the test set throughout the entire overhaul, but I realized finally that he never tested the relays.  He didn’t even go so far as try to operate them.

I went back through the records to when the plant was first “checked out”.  Doyle Fullen had done the check out on the relays and the test after that.  Doyle had written the correct values from the manual on his forms.  I could see where he had actually performed the tests on the relays and was getting the same values I was finding when I tested the relays, so I was certain that I wasn’t overlooking anything.

As I tested each of the relays, I kept shaking my head in disbelief.  It was so unbelievable.  How could someone do such a thing?  Someone could have been killed because a protective relay wasn’t working correctly.  This was serious stuff.

One day while Charles and I were working away on the relays, Jack Coffman, the Superintendent of all the Power Plants came walking through the lab.  He asked us how we were doing.  I swiveled around in my chair to face him and I said, “Pretty good, except for this pain in my neck” as I rubbed the back of my neck.

Jack stopped and asked me what happened.  I told him that I had been shaking my head in disbelief for the last two weeks, and it gave me a pain in the neck.  Of course, I knew this would get his attention, so he asked, “Why?”  I went through all the details of what I had found.

I showed him how since the time that Doyle Fullen last tested the relays more than 10 years earlier, these relays hadn’t been tested at all.  I showed him how the main bus relays were so bad that it would take over 100,000 amps to have tripped the 7100 KV switchgear bus.

Jack stood there looking off into space for a few seconds, and then walked out the door…. I thought I saw him shaking his head as he left.  Maybe he was just looking both ways for safety reasons, but to me, it looked like a shake of disbelief.  I wonder if I had given him the same pain in the neck.

That is really the end of the relay story, but I do want to say a few words about Charles Lay.  He was a hard working electrician that was nearing retirement.  People would come around to hear us discussing religion.  I am Catholic, and he went to a Fundamental Christian Church.  We would debate the differences between our beliefs and just Christian beliefs in general.  We respected each other during our time together, even though he was sure I am going to hell when I die.

People would come in just to hear our discussion for a while as we were cleaning and calibrating the relays.  One day Charles asked me if I could help him figure out how much he was going to receive from his retirement from the electric company.  He had only been working there for three years.  Retirement at that time was determined by your years of service.  So, three years didn’t give him too much.

When I calculated his amount, he was upset.  He said, “Am I going to have to work until I die?”  I said, “Well, there’s always your 401k and Social Security.”  He replied that he can’t live on Social Security.  I said, “Well, there’s your 401k.”  He asked, “What’s that?” (oh.  not a good sign).

I explained that it was a retirement plan where you are able to put money in taxed deferred until you take it out when you retire.  He said, “Oh.  I never put anything in something like that.”  My heart just sank as I looked in his eyes.  He had suddenly realized that he wasn’t going to receive a retirement like those around him who had spent 35 years working in the Power Plant.

When I left the plant after teaching Charles Lay how to test the relays, that was the last time I ever saw him.  I don’t know what became of Charles.  I figure he would be 83 years old today.  I wonder if he finally retired when he reached the 80 points for your age and years of service.  He would have never reached enough years of service to receive a decent amount of retirement from the Electric Company since he didn’t start working there until he was 60 years old.  That is, unless he’s still working there now.

As I said earlier in this post, Charles Lay was a very good worker.  He always struck me as the “Hardworking type”.  I often think about the time we spent together, especially when I hear about a power blackout somewhere.  — A word of caution to Power Companies…. keep your protective relays in proper working condition.  Don’t slack off on the Preventative Maintenance.  — I guess that’s true for all of us… isn’t it?  Don’t slack off on Preventative Maintenance in all aspects of your life.

Electric Company Substation Transformer Shooter

Originally Posted February 14, 2014:

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

Serving Mankind Power Plant Style

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.


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.


    Comments from the Previous Repost:

    Ron  February 20, 2014

    I love this story on serving others. Thanks 🙂
    You’ve probably heard of the Oklahoma City Thunder (NBA) star Kevin Durant? He’s just chosen a nick name for himself – “Servant”. Is that cool or what? I’m proud of him.

Indian Curse or Brown and Root Blunder

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 Lillibridge 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

I 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.

Power Plant Networks to Condor Passwords

It had been established early on at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was generally a troublemaker.  All three of the Plant Managers that managed the plant during my tenure can attest to that.  One Plant Manager, Ron Kilman, who reads this blog has been learning over the last couple of years, just what troublemaker I really was, as he reads these posts.

I was the “computer guy” at the plant.  Though I was an electrician, the IT Support Department in Oklahoma City, 75 miles away deferred daily computer issues to me.  The IT Networking Department had me run all their networking cables all over the plant, as I have mentioned before.  Anywhere someone wanted a computer installed, I was the only person at the plant that would be assigned the task.

Even though I usually tell you stories about great Power Plant Men and their outstanding achievements, today, I must confessed will be solely about myself.  It will illustrate why I never could categorize myself as a “True Power Plant Man” like all the Heroes of Power Plant Fame.  Even though there are countless ways I can demonstrate this, I will focus on the Plant Computer network and the role I played.

I was pretty much a self-study when it came to computer networks.  A few trips to Hastings Bookstore, and I had enough Networking books to be dangerous.  Though I never took a test to be certified, I read the Novell Netware 4 CNA (Certified Netware Administrator) manuals.

Novell's Netware 4 Administrator Guide

Novell’s Netware 4 Administrator Guide

I also read books about different ways people hack into networks, such as the book, “Hacking Exposed”.


A good book to read in the bathroom

A good book to read in the bathroom

After pulling the 100 pair telephone cable from the back of the main switchgear to the coal yard by myself for the most part, and crawling through the ceilings in the office area stringing network cable through the rafters and punched down all the wires connecting them to the switches in the telephone room, I sort of felt like I owned the computer network at our plant.

After the server rack was installed, and the Novell Netware was up and running, then suddenly, I realized that the networking people downtown didn’t want some electrician poking his nose into their network.  This was different than the mainframe.  When we just had the mainframe, I had free reign to reek as much havoc on the system as I wanted…. Of course…. I never wanted to do that, it just happened sometimes.  I chocked those times up as learning experiences.

The networking people downtown in Corporate Headquarters at that time had one major weakness….  They couldn’t administer the network remotely (this was 1995 and Windows servers were something new).  So, when something needed to be done on the server at our plant, they had two choices.

They could get in a car (or truck) and drive 75 miles to our plant, then spend 10 minutes working on the network at our plant, then drive 75 miles back to Oklahoma City during going home traffic.  Or, they could call me and have me connect them to the server using a modem and PC Anywhere (A software that allowed a person to remote into a computer and take control of it).  Then from a computer on our network, they could log into the computer and access the server.


PC Anywhere software

PC Anywhere software

Needless to say, about once each week, I would go up to the engineer’s office to a computer that they would dial into. The computer had PC Anywhere installed and I would start up it up and grant them access to take control.  While they were doing this, I would be talking to them on the phone.  I could watch everything they were doing.

I could see the username they were using to log in, but like today, I couldn’t see the password they were using as it just came across as asterisks.  I really wanted to be able to access the network myself.  I thought it would help advance my knowledge so that when I did take the Netware CNA tests, I would have some hands on experience.  I really wanted to become a Network Administrator.  I guess I was sort of a Network Administrator Groupie at the time.  I looked up to Network Administrators like they were guru’s with special knowledge.

I talked to the networking people in Oklahoma City to see if a lowly electrician like me could have some kind of limited network administrator account on the network so that I could learn about networking.  I told them I was studying to become a System Administrator.  They looked into it, but never came back with anything.

I had read about how hackers would capture passwords by capturing keystrokes from the keyboard.   I had done something like this, only the other way around when I was writing little DOS prank programs that changed the values on the keyboards so that when you pressed an “A” it would come out as a “B” instead.  I had one that would turn your caps lock on and leave the cap lock light off.  I would have it on a timer, so that it could randomly make you type everything in CAPS in the middle of your sentence.  You know… just fun little things like that.  I suppose today, these would be categorized as viruses, if I had made them so that they would propagate across the network.

I knew how to manipulate the keyboard using things called “Interrupts”.  So, I just reversed that process and using Debug, I was able to create a small assembly language program that would capture all the keystrokes from the keyboard and log them to a file.  I had learned Assembly Language from Peter Norton, the same guy who later created Norton’s Utilities and Norton’s Anti-virus.  Here is my book:


Peter Norton's Assembly Language Book (1986)

Peter Norton’s Assembly Language Book (1986)

So, one day when the network guy from Oklahoma City dialed into the modem I tested the program to see if it would capture keystrokes even though they weren’t coming directly from the keyboard, but from PC Anywhere.  To my surprise, when he had finished doing his task, and had logged off, I opened up the log file, and sure enough, all the keystrokes were logged.  I could plainly see where he logged onto the server by typing in his username and password.

The password reminded me of a friend of mine from High School, because his e-mail address was Condor… something…. The password was: condor.  So, I quickly logged into the server using the username and password and created a new Network Administrator account called something like:  “Admin_sa”  I gave it “God” access.  So, after that I could log into the network and look around to see how the system was configured.

I know this was underhanded, and today would be highly illegal, but back then, all this network stuff was new and I was learning this along with the rest of the IT department downtown.  The only difference was that I was an Electrician at a Power Plant many miles away.  I only used that new Administrator account a few times to look at configuration settings as I read through the Netware books.  I never changed any settings or did anything devious…. at least not when we were on the Novell Netware Network.  I think the thrill of capturing a password and setting up my own account was enough.

My philosophy changed later when we moved to a Windows NT Network.  That had so many holes in security that it deserved to be played with.  It wasn’t too long later that the Netware Network was replaced, which made all my studying for the Netware Administrator useless.  I couldn’t understand at the time why we would want to move away from such a secure network to one that had such a bad design that it left itself wide open to hackers.

I could quickly write a Word document that would reformat your hard drive just by opening it up.  In fact, Charles Foster one time asked me if I could come up with a way to install AOL on his aunt’s computer in California (or some such place), who knows nothing about computers.  So, I created a Word document (since she did have Word on her computer already. and added a macro to it, that installed AOL and other software, and all she had to do was double click on the Word document icon.  By the time it opened up to where she could read it, it had installed all the software she needed.

Once we were on the Windows network, the attitude of the IT network people changed.  They were more flexible.  They could maintain the network from downtown, so they only called me when they needed someone to log directly into the front of the server, which I did for them whenever they needed it.  They began to feel more comfortable with me over time, and the support people downtown sort of granted me all the access I needed at the plant.

I think the reason I finally gained the trust of the IT Support team was because I would listen to their personal problems.  This was something I had learned as a kid.  I used to go around the neighborhood and make friends with all the dogs.  That way, when we were playing hide and seek in the middle of the night, I could creep around behind houses, and the dogs wouldn’t bark at me.  They would come up to me wagging their tails.  It gave me a great advantage.  So, by letting the IT Support people tell me about their personal problems, they would trust me.  And then when I asked them for favors, they were happy to help out.

At that point (when we were on the Windows Network), I could sit in the Electric Shop and access every computer in the plant.  For a few things, I had to actually visit a computer, but for a lot of things, I could just access the computer remotely.  I have a few stories that I will tell this year that will give you some insight into how I used this power to better mankind…. well, I suppose it depends on how you look at it.

Later on, when I went to work for Dell in 2001, I put away all my “trouble causing” hacking stuff and decided that now that I am working in IT, I should join the Good Side of the Force.  That didn’t mean that I didn’t do some fun stuff.  Actually, some of the really good hacking stuff I had learned at the plant became very useful when I was in IT and could create applications on my own using the knowledge I had gained.

There was one time at Dell that I had to hack into database files that had crashed in order to extract the data.  I would never have had the confidence to even try that if I hadn’t first learned programming from the ground up at the Power Plant.

I think it was Leslie Hale, a consulting manager from Concur (an expense reporting application) ask me at a Concur conference in 2010 how I hacked all of our credit card account numbers from their database when they were encrypted.  He said his team had been trying to figure out how I could have done that so quickly.  They normally charged $30,000 to migrate the credit card account numbers from their on-premise system to their hosted application.  Of course, they have the encryption keys.  I told them, I could do it myself by tomorrow and save the $30,000.  They didn’t believe me, until the next day I uploaded a file to them with all the employee and account numbers.  Dell was happy they didn’t have to pay the $30,000 for something that should have been part of the migration costs already.

I know I often caused our plant supervisor’s a few mild stomach ulcers.  I think they just kept me around because either they felt sorry for me, or they thought that some day I might actually come to something.  I finally left the plant in 2001 to pursue a life in IT at Dell.  The journey to that end is another story, to be told later.  Without all the support I received at the Electric Company, I never would have been able to make that change in my life.  It all began one day when the Electric Supervisor told me in 1988 that he wanted me to learn all I could about computers.  I guess, that was the moment when I began “expanding my bubble.”

Power Plant Paradox of Front to Back and Back to Front

Originally posted February 8, 2014:

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.


Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron February 8, 2014:

    Now I know why George came into my office one day and begged me to have you committed!

    Great story!

    1. Plant Electrician February 8, 2014:

      Yeah. That’s one of the reasons. 🙂

  2. Monty Hansen April 2, 2014:

    I really appreciate how you describe the two methods of problem solving, and how together you could come up with solutions that neither one of you may have thought of.

    1. Plant Electrician April 2, 2014:

      Thanks for your comment Monty. It was annoying at first. I kept wanting Terry to see my point of view. Then I started seeing the benefit of taking both approaches.