Originally posted on: June 1, 2012
The first couple of years while I worked as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant Coal Cleanup was performed on weekends by volunteer He-Men that wanted to make a few extra dollars. As a summer help, I needed all the extra money I could get. My wages during the first year (1979) were $3.89 an hour. This jumped to $5.84 an hour when I worked on the weekend, so you can imagine the thrill I had at receiving a paycheck that included the extra money made by doing “Coal Cleanup”. Another great advantage to doing coal cleanup on the weekends was that I was able to carpool with different people. So, during the first summer instead of just riding to work with Steve Higginbotham (See the post “Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy late for the Boiler Blowdown“), I caught a lot of rides with real Power Plant Men like Dale Hull, David Hankins, Jerry Mitchell, Preston Jenkins and Marlin McDaniel (Yeah. Marlin McDaniel as an A Foreman would volunteer for coal cleanup some times. Maybe it was when we were short a few people).
Coal Cleanup really became important during the second half of the first summer because Unit 1 was getting ready to go online. There was a major flaw in the Coal Conveyor logic when the conveyors first started conveying coal from the coal pile to the coal silos just above the bowl mills. What would happen was the same thing that happens if someone were to fall down at the top of a crowded escalator going up. Everyone behind that person would be shoved right on top of them if there wasn’t an emergency stop button to stop the escalator.
All the conveyors had a safety cord alongside the entire length that could be pulled to stop the conveyor in an emergency, but this was something different.
To give you an idea… once the coal on the coal pile has been fed onto either Belts 4, 5, 6 or 7, from there the coal is dropped onto either belt 8 or 9. That carries the coal up to the coal Crusher which has a bin above the crusher that can be filled with coal. If the bin gets too full, then conveyor 8 and/or 9 would stop. When that happens, belts 4, 5, 6 or 7 should stop also…. only they didn’t. Belts 8 and 9 continued dumping coal into the crusher bin until it filled up and then coal fell out all over the top of the crusher tower around belts 8 and 9 until the coal tripped the belt by hitting the safety cord on the side of the belt. Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 continued dumping coal onto belts 8 and 9, which caused the coal to backup and spill out all over the floor until the coal piled up high enough to trip the safety cord on the side of the belt.
In the picture of the power plant on the side of this post, there is one long conveyor that goes from the coalyard to the plant. It is about 1/2 mile long. This is where belts 10 and 11 carry the coal from the crusher, which crushes the coal down from big pieces the size of baseballs down to the size of walnuts.
At the top of the Transfer tower the coal from belts 10 and 11 are dumped onto belts 12 and 13 which carry the coal up to the Surge Bin Tower where the coal is dumped into the Surge bin. Now when the Surge Bin fills up, it stops belts 12 and/or 13 and it should also stop belts 10 and 11 and the feeders that feed the coal into the crusher at the bottom of the crusher bin… only they didn’t.
They continued dumping coal into the Surge bin, which filled up and spilled coal all over the surge bin until belts 12 and 13 tripped, at which point, coal began spilling out all over the transfer tower filling up both floors of the transfer tower with tons of coal. The same thing would happen at the bottom of Belt 10 and 11, where the crusher feeders kept feeding coal down to belts 10 and 11, which spilled out all over the bottom floor of the crusher tower.
I have worked in the transfer tower where the coal was higher than the windows and you had to bend over because your head would hit the ceiling on the floor at the foot of belt 12 and 13. It was almost dangerous enough to picture yourself sliding down the pile of coal and slipping right out one of the windows (which had been broken out by the pile of coal). To give you an idea of what this felt like, it was then a straight drop of 150 feet to the concrete below.
If that doesn’t seem like enough coal spills, then picture this… The coal from the Surge Bin tower fed onto belts 14, 15, 18 and 19 which in turn fed onto belts 16 and 17, 20 and 21. These last 4 belts were in what was called the “Tripper Gallery”. These 4 belts would dump coal into 12 coal silos (6 on each unit) that would feed the bowl mills. These are big silos about 5 stories tall.
The same thing would happen to these belts leaving piles of coal at the bottom of the surge bin in the surge bin tower and all along the tripper gallery because when the coal silos were full, the tripper was supposed to move to the next silo and dump coal until it was full, and keep moving until all the silos were full. Only, the tripper wasn’t working correctly, so it wouldn’t detect that the silo was full so the belt would keep dumping coal and would end up spilling coal all over the entire tripper gallery which runs about 100 feet or so.
So, our first experience with doing coal cleanup was like being on a chain gang where we shoveled coal from morning until night trying to clean up these 15 or so major coal spills by shoveling the coal back onto the conveyor while it was running. In some cases, we had to shovel the coal away from the belt before the belt could even run (as was the case with belts 12 and 13). So, you can imagine how shoveling coal one scoop at a time made it seem like you were not getting anywhere fast. 3 or 4 men could all be shoveling on one pile of coal for 30 minutes and not even make a noticeable dent in the pile. That is why when I went to the tool room to choose a shovel, instead of picking a regular shovel, I picked a large scoop shovel used to scoop grain.
Even though each scoop of coal was heavier, it seemed more satisfying to see the bigger dent in the pile of coal with each shovelful. I remember one day after we had shoveled coal all day from morning until late at night only to come back into work the next morning to the new piles of coal just as big as the ones we had shoveled the day before.
After 2 years of volunteer coal cleanup which was becoming less volunteer and more rotational since the list of volunteers was growing smaller, Ray Butler pointed out that it didn’t make much sense to pay a first class machinist overtime to shovel coal when you could create a labor crew and pay them bottom dollar to do coal cleanup all the time, as well as other dirty jobs that no one really wanted to do (such as suck out sewage pits and other sump pits around the plant).
That was when the Labor crew was formed. While I was in my 3rd year as a summer help (1981). Bill Cook was a summer help then that stayed on as a labor crew hand at the end of the summer. By the 4th summer as summer help, the only time we did coal cleanup was when there was a major spill, which was only a couple of times all summer.
I will write later about coal cleanup with Dale Hull. I also remember doing coal-cleanup with Preston Jenkins one weekend. I hadn’t carpooled with him to work, but I caught a ride back to Stillwater with him because my ride left at the end of a full day, and I decided to stay behind to add a few extra dollars to my bank account. We left a couple of hours later around seven o’clock.
I climbed into the back of Preston’s Camaro. I apologized for being so dirty, as I was covered from head-to-toe in coal-dust and my clothes were soaked with coal-dust permeated sweat. Preston said that he didn’t mind. I soon found out why.
When I climbed into the backseat of his car, I noticed that the upholstery that covered the seat back of the back seat was stained with some blackish-brownish um…. something. Anyway. I decided to sit on the passenger side of the back seat instead of behind the driver side because that side wasn’t nearly as stained. As we drove down the highway toward home, I quickly learned why the seat back was so stained.
Being the “good-ol’ boy” that Preston was, when he climbed into the car, he took out his can of Skoal and put a pinch between his cheek and gums:
As we flew down the highway like a Texan heading for Stillwater, Preston would lean his head out the window and squirt out a wad of spit. It would dance in the air like a little fairy just before it would be sucked into the back window of his car and splat against the seat back of the back seat. Yep that explained it all right. I always wondered if he knew, never having to sit in the back seat of his own car.
During the first summer when I was able to catch a ride with David Hankins a couple of times. He was the crane operator at the time and drove a black Trans Am. He was a black man with a very broad chest that never seemed to tire while doing coal cleanup. From the first day he always treated me with great respect which in turn gave me a great respect for him. I had him classified as a true Power Plant Man.
The second summer when I had been back at the plant for a couple of weeks, one day when Jim Heflin and I were going somewhere in a yellow Cushman cart, I asked Jim why I hadn’t seen David Hankins around.
Jim (who hadn’t been at the plant the first summer) stopped the cart in the middle of the road and looked at me very solemnly and told me that David Hankins had died in a car accident in the spring. He had been going home from a Men’s Club event when he was killed. Because of this, alcoholic beverages were no longer allowed at Men’s Club events. As with all the people I have worked with at the power plant, I keep David Hankins in my memory and I often think about him to this day. David Hankins was a True Power Plant Man.
Comments from the original Post:
neenergyobserver June 1, 2012 as 6:28 pm
We’ve lost so many friends over the years, in the plants and on the line, especially when they were relaxing on their way home. You, and David’s family have my 9very belated) condolences.
Somebody, somewhere, needs to teach engineers a course on Conveyor Logic 101, I’ve seen the same thing happen in nearly every plant (from automotive, rarely, to meat packing, often) I’ve been in. Or they could, just for once in their life, shut their pie-hole and listen to people like you and me.
Plant Electrician June 1, 2012 at 11:39 pm
We were often exhausted while driving home from work when we had been working a lot of overtime. It was a wonder sometimes that we were able to keep the car on the road.
My uncle Bill Breazile worked for the Utility company in Nebraska City where someone closed a breaker while he was working on a line. He was in the hospital for about 6 months healing from his burns. This was about 30 years ago. He has since passed away. It takes a special person to be a lineman. Putting their life on the line every time they reach out to do their job.
neenergyobserver June 2, 2012 at 10:42 am
Not that different from you. It’s all about planning your work, and doing it right, and safely. You and I know that 480 will kill you just as quick as 7200 if you get careless. That’s why almost all (old) linemen and electricians are in some sense stolid and unexcitable.
jackcurtis July 14, 2012 at 12:59 pm
Industrial America returns in stories and comments in places like this, from the only place it still exists: the minds of those who were part of it. Industrial America was a giant; those who manned it were giant tamers and it seems to me, very much the special breed illuminated in these posts…
Comment from last repost:
I wonder if Kent Norris felt proud when his boss Wayne Beasley told him that he was being assigned to manage the eight Power Plant Men that were coming to Corporate Headquarters for the next 10 weeks to help prepare for the transition to SAP. I’m sure he had no idea what he was signing up to do. For the next 12 weeks, Kent bravely endured one torture after the other.
Kent Norris was a young Corporate Executive working for the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma when the Power Plant Men showed up at his doorstep August 6, 1996. I wish I had a picture of Kent (Kent… I know you read this blog… if you send me your picture, I’ll add it to this post), because then you could see right away that he would be the perfect person for playing jokes. Just like Gene Day back at the Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked.
See, you can tell by Gene Day’s expression that this guy was just right for Power Plant Jokes. Kent Norris was much like Gene in this respect, and the best part was that he was young and wasn’t from a plant, so he had never experienced the Power Plant Lifestyle of perpetual joke playing (see the post “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“).
At the plant, Power Plant jokes are such a way of life that they include a section on the timecard to enter the number of Power Plant Jokes performed during the day, along with how many were successfully implemented. This was used to create a PPJ (for Power Plant Joke) Quotient that would go on your performance appraisal each year. That way you could set your stretch goals for the following year.
I explained last week why the eight of us were at Corporate Headquarters in the post: “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?” so I won’t go into that much here other than to say that we were working for 10 weeks preparing the Inventory module in SAP so that our company would be prepared to go live with SAP on January 1, 1997. SAP is an ERP or Enterprise Resource Planning System.
Once all 9 of us were sitting in one cube, (eight Power Plant Men, and one young Corporate Executive, Kent Norris), that was when the opportunity for Power Plant Jokes began to take shape. Kent sat at the table in the middle of the cube next to the telephone.
Most of the Power Plant Men had their backs to each other as they all faced the edge of the cube. This way, a person walking into the cube could easily see the computer monitors. I sat on the end of a table at the end of the elongated cube where I could watch everyone and no one could see my monitor (and incidentally, I had a great view of the outside world).
At first we began our harassm….uh… I mean… jokes…. on Kent by easing him into it with very simple things… When he would step out of his cube, we would do little things like put water in his pen cap so that when he went to write something down and removed the cap, water would spill on him.
Other minor pranks were things like, unplugging the keyboard and mouse from the computer so that Kent would think that his computer had locked up. He tried rebooting his computer and for five minutes couldn’t figure out how to fix his computer until he found that the mouse and keyboard were unplugged, at which point, several muffled chuckles could be heard emanating from the far corners of the cube… Not from me, because I had learned the fine art of keeping a straight face in the midst of a hilarious power plant joke — after years of training.
Kent was so good at having jokes played on him that I think he enjoyed them as much as we did. He would respond with phrases like “You guys!!! Geez!” The Power Plant Men were so fast at implementing jokes on the fly that all Kent had to do was turn around to talk to someone that had come to ask a question and all the wheels on his chair would be removed and hidden in various locations throughout the cube.
Ken Scott was the Supervisor of Maintenance at the Seminole Plant, who I had worked with at our plant since I first showed up as a new summer help. He knew I was a trouble causer from day one. I wondered how he was going to take our constant jokes with Kent, but he helped out with the rest of us, and when Kent would run off to tell his friend Rita Wing (I think that was her name) about a new joke we had just played on him, Ken Scott would break out of his straight “uninterested” expression into a big smile and laugh out loud.
Mike Gibbs and I would evaluate the day’s jokes on the way home each day. We were carpooling from Stillwater.
The jokes became more elaborate over time, and I was reaching out to others beyond our cube to help out. At the time, we were using Windows 3.2 which had small program called “Windows Popup” (I believe the file name was popup.exe). It was sort of an old version of IMing someone before chatting was really common. I taught our team how to use it, so that we could pop up messages on each other’s computers to coordinate our jokes while we were doing our work without having to even look at each other.
Popup means so many things now that we all use Internet Browsers. “Windows Popup” allowed you to locate someone logged into the network, and pop a message right up in the middle of their screen. It would include the logon name of the person popping it up. My logon name on the computer system was BREAZIKJ. The popup message would say Message from BREAZIKJ in the title bar, and it would display the message. Here is an example I found on Google Images:
I had noticed that Kent often talked to the admin for Dennis Dunkelgod, a manager over the Telecommunications team.
I had worked with Dennis a couple of times running telephone cable at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we needed to install the computer network. I sent a Popup message to his admin asking her if she would help us play a joke on Kent. The message was something like this…. “We are going to play a joke on Kent Norris and were wondering if you would like to help us out.”
The young lady admin didn’t know what to think when this message popped up in the middle of her computer screen, though she knew where it came from because our cube was just across the aisle from her. She took a print screen of the message and gave it to Dennis.
Dennis, not knowing the ways of Power Plant Men didn’t know what I meant by “joke” and thought we might be planning something inappropriate. So he came to our cube and asked who was this person BREAZIKJ. I told him I was Kevin. He asked me if I had sent that message. I told him that I had sent it. (In trouble again… as usual). As Dennis was replying Kent Norris walked into the cube and saw Dennis dressing me down. He was saying that things like this did not belong in the workplace and he didn’t want to hear about this again! I replied, “all right.”
Dennis left the cube, and Kent asked what was going on, so I said, “We were planning on playing a joke on you, and so I asked the admin sitting over there if she would like to help up out and it upset Dennis.” Kent knew that Dennis was just looking out for him, so he explained that to us that Dennis misunderstood our intention.
One joke I played on Kent was this… Since he always answered the phone in our cube, I found a way to connect to a modem on the mainframe and dial out of the company (thanks Craig Henry for the tip), and then dial back in again and ring a phone…. So, I would wait until Kent hung up from the phone, which was just one second after he would say “Toodles” (which was Kent’s way of saying goodbye), then I would ring the phone and hang it back up.
Kent would answer the phone with his regular telephone answering phrase that I don’t quite remember, but it was something like, “Kent Norris, how may I help you?” only more interesting than that. When he answered the phone the first time, he was surprised to find that no one was on the phone. He hung it up and said, “That’s odd.” Then throughout the week, at various times, just as Kent hung up the phone from a conversation, I would ring his phone again.
Kent began troubleshooting it… he noticed that the ring indicated that it was an outside number calling, but it seemed like the phone was malfunctioning, so he created a trouble ticket to have someone look into it. Of course, the phone was working fine.
One day, Toby O’Brien came to my cube to ask me if I could tell him how I would do a root cause analysis on a particular accident. Toby was working for the safety department at the time.
I was showing him on the computer how I would make a hierarchy of causes and how each cause could be caused by something else, making something that looks like an organizational chart of causes. While I was talking to him, Toby was looking over my shoulder at the computer screen. Kent was talking on the phone… As I was talking to Toby, I was also listening to Kent’s conversation and I could tell he was wrapping it up, and I wanted to ring the phone.
So, as I continued talking along with Toby, I opened up the program I had configured to ring the phone and had it all ready to click the button when Kent said “Toodles”. I could tell that Toby was a little confused by my talking to him while I was opening another program and acting oblivious to it. Still explaining to Toby as if nothing was happening I hit the call button just as Kent hung up the phone, and it immediately rang. As Kent picked it up, I hung up and closed the program. Kent said, “Hello this is Kent Norris….. Damn! Kevin!” as he slammed the receiver back down on the phone. For some reason Kent thought I was doing something, though, he couldn’t figure out what. I just gave him a confused look.
At this point I heard a chuckle from Toby, he had a grin much like his picture above. I couldn’t hold it in much longer as my stomach was beginning to quiver and my body was shaking. So I slunk down in my chair so Kent couldn’t see the smile on my face and put my hand over my eyes to try and concentrate on making a straight face again. I squeaked out “…and that’s how I would do the root cause analysis on that accident.”
The climax of the Telephone joke was when one day, I set the program up for redial and left to go to the bathroom. The phone kept calling Kent once every minute. When I returned to the cube, Kent said, “Kevin! Stop ringing my phone!” I said, “I just went to the bathroom! How could I be ringing your phone?” At that point the phone rang and Kent said, “Pick it up!” I picked it up and listened, and said, “There’s nobody there. But you can’t blame me for that.” Then I returned to my computer and turned off the program and didn’t call him anymore after that.
The most elaborate joke played on Kent began when one day Kent made the statement that he had never been to a Power Plant and no desire in the world to ever visit a Power Plant! I think someone had asked him if he had seen the control room at one of the plants and that was his response. So, when an opening for an operator came up at our plant, we told Kent that we had sent in his application for the Operator job at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Kent didn’t believe us of course, he thought this was just another little joke we were playing. We told him that we put all the right things in the application so that he was sure to get the job. Even though he would tell us that he didn’t believe us, we could see the small hint of doubt on his face, which made it a successful small joke… but this was only the beginning.
A couple of weeks later, Kent received word that since all the engineers were up at our plant in North Central Oklahoma they were going to hold their monthly safety meeting there and Kent and Rita were going to have to drive up to the plant to attend. Which meant, Kent didn’t have a choice, he was going to have to visit the plant after all. What Kent didn’t know was that his boss Wayne Beasley had been updated by Ken Scott about what we had told Kent about applying him for the operations job at the plant.
We told Kent that the real reason Wayne was having the meeting at the plant was so that Kent would be able to have his interview for the operations job, because they had accepted his application. Of course… again… he thought we were just kidding him since he said he had no desire to even visit a plant in his life.
Using Windows Popup (since IM wasn’t around yet), I sent messages to Denise Anson, the receptionist at the plant telling her about our plan with Kent. When Kent and Rita drove up to the main gate at the plant and said that it was Kent Norris and Rita Wing from Corporate Headquarters, Denise replied with, “Oh yes. Kent Norris. You have an interview for the operator position.” Kent said something like, “No, I’m just going to a safety meeting.” At this point, he couldn’t believe that the joke at actually reached the plant.
Denise messaged me using Windows Popup that he had just entered the gate…. I sent a popup to Ron Madron, who was going to ride up in the elevator with him letting him know that Kent was on his way to the parking lot…. When Kent and Rita entered the building and stood at the elevator, Ron Madron entered from the Maintenance Shop and entered the elevator with Kent and Rita. Ron asked who they were and when Kent told Ron who he was, Ron replied with “Oh! You’re the new operator! Good to meet you!” Kent could not believe that we had involved yet another person in our joke…
Ken Scott told me that he had talked to Wayne Beasley, Kent’s manager who was holding the safety meeting. Here is his LinkedIn picture:
Wayne had told Ken that he was going to make an announcement during the Safety Meeting that Kent Norris was going to soon begin working at the plant as their new operator. I messaged to Denise to ask her where Bill Green, the Plant Manager was because I wanted to fill him in on the plan. Denise told me he was in Wayne Beasley’s Safety Meeting.
I asked her if she could go get him out of the meeting because I needed to talk to him right away. So, she went and interrupted the safety meeting to tell Bill that I was on the phone and needed to talk to him. When Bill answered, I told him about the elaborate joke we had been playing on Kent Norris and how Wayne Beasley was going to announce in the meeting that Kent Norris was going to become an operator at the plant. Bill said thanks for letting him know because if he didn’t know it was a joke, he might have been upset if Wayne said that without him knowing it was coming…..
So, here is what happened in the safety meeting….. As the meeting was coming to a close, Bill Green, the Plant Manager, stood up and said, “We would all like welcome Kent Norris at our plant and hope that he will enjoy coming to work for us as an operator.” — The perfect execution of a power plant joke after weeks of preparation, it was executed flawlessly.
Later that afternoon when Kent came back to our cube at Corporate Headquarters, he said that was the greatest joke ever! He couldn’t believe how we had everyone involved up to the plant manager. We were all glad that it went off without a hitch. We were also glad that Kent had enjoyed it so much. He said that it wasn’t until he walked in the control room and they didn’t know who he was that he felt sure that he really wasn’t going to be an operator at the plant.
The joke where I laughed the hardest was during the last week working at Corporate Headquarters. Wayne Beasley had come back from our plant to work where he normally worked, and he wanted to take our team out to lunch with Kent to congratulate us for doing such a good job. So, they picked a Mexican restaurant in Bricktown just east of downtown Oklahoma City.
When we walked into the restaurant, Doyle Fullen, the Plant foreman and electrician from Muskogee told the waiter that it was Kent Norris’s birthday. He told them that he was very shy and would deny that it was his birthday, but we were all bringing him out because we were celebrating it. So, toward the end of the meal, out came the group of waiters singing Felice Navidad carrying a huge Sombrero. Which they placed on Kent’s head!
We all sang Felice Navidad at the top of our lungs and clapped and laughed. I laughed so hard at Kent’s culmination of Power Plant Jokes! Rarely in my life have I laughed so hard as Kent stood there under this huge sombrero looking humiliated and at the same time proud to be so well loved by the Power Plant Men!
The week ended on Friday afternoon around 3pm, as each of us started leaving one at a time to drive back home for the last time. Doyle and Bob Christy left first because they had the farthest to drive. the rest of us left some time later. Each saying goodbye to Kent a couple at a time…. until Kent was left sitting in the bullpen cube all by himself. Thinking…. “I’m finally rid of these bozos!”
Unknown to Kent, the majority of us didn’t exactly leave the building… instead we each went into the bathroom where I was the last to enter….. I carried a bag that was full of 12 cans of various colors of Silly String:
Once everyone was ready, we snuck up to the side of the cube where we could hear Kent typing on a computer and with all 12 cans the six of us left sprayed silly string over the cube totally covering Kent in Silly String. That was our last goodbye. We couldn’t leave without one more Power Plant Man Joke!
A week or two after I returned to the plant, I received the following letter through Intra-Company mail:
For years after, and up to today, I consider Kent Norris a dear friend. One day when I was at the Stillwater Public Library during their yearly book sale, I found a book that I just had to buy for Kent. It was perfect! I sent it by intra-company mail. Kent thanked me for it…. I figured it would remind him of the time he spent trying to Corral a passel of Power Plant Men! Oh… here is a picture of the book:
Originally Posted May 25, 2013;
Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline. The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators. This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust. The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”. The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust. When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air.
Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop. These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator. I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post: Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant. It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years. You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant. I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.
When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it. He likes to get dirty.” At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop. Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning… Now those words took on their full meaning.
I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning. Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post: Singin’ Along with Sonny Kendrick). I was his chance to be from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey. I had accepted that. I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.
So, here I was… One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post: Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door). Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers. I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit. Just a rain suit.
Not a lot of protection….
I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul. I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string. I had a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.
So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world. It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon. We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point. We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.
Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart. He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above. At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me. Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip. There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.
Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip. Then even lower. About 10 feet above us. A third clip. — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“), then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….” A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.
Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate. Every clip must be in their place. Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so. Ok. I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 plates per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and 7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…
Bill explained….. Clean each insulator. there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers. there were 84 hoppers, Great. Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks…. Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof. two on section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension hosue on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.
Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a ciip or broken. Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.
Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force. That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below. Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each. There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers. In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.
Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates. In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly. There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers. This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul. Oh. And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.
So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units). Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators. Some of my closest friends were precipitator components. Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.
We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me. I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment. I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.
Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas…. I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”. I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash. I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby… Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it. He apologized. He explained that he meant it with affection.
At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it. The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter. That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs. Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.
I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu. This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so. I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth. I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.
I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator. So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters. They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles. I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.
To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell. The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors. Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals…. Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.
You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate. Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.
I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post: A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff. He said it had some kind of a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….
He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell. You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.
There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name). She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical. Unfortunately, we never found out what it was. In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces. This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.
I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of an electron microscope. I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one. I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.
So, I just continued wearing the organic filters. This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms. Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator. When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands. They knew everything I did.
One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job. One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma. They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had. They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.
Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be. I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously. No. I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it. I loved it. I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.
I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator. I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them. Coaxing them. Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job. If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”. Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7. But they were each my friends in their own way.
You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?” I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me. I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.
I have my own understanding of who I should be. My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is. I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again…. What was I going to do? Give up? How could I do that to a friend? I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma. That isn’t going to change who I am.”
Today I am called an IT Business Analyst. I work for Dell Computers. It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world. I see the same pattern. When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job. You become invaluable. Almost unreplaceable. People look to you for answers. They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business. I am glad to be able to serve them.
Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?” Arnold replied, “Oh. nothing anyone wants.” (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators. No. I wouldn’t do that. Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.
Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good. His son, Tim Foster has taken his place. One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator. I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim…. I know Scott understands….
Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them…. Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness. Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly… Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good… next row….
Originally published on May 25, 2012:
Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime in September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced. While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.
Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.
Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.
The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to keep the wires straight, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.
The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.
I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.
I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper. I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time.
I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.
I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.
Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.
After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.
So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.
All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper. I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.
Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”
Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.
It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.
While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened. I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my fingers). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.
Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.
I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!
Comments from previous repost:
August 6, 1996 in Corporate Headquarters America, jaws began dropping a few minutes before 8 a.m. At first the security guard just thought some Power Plant Giant had taken a wrong turn and showed up at Corporate Headquarters to ask for directions. When another one showed up, this time carrying his Playmate lunch box, hard hat on his head, and lip quivering looking for a handy spittoon, the men in their suits and women in their fine dresses began running for cover. That was the day eight Power Plant Men took over the floor in the building where the Corporate Engineers usually lived.
If you want to understand the shock that emanated throughout the building, just picture the following bunch showing up on your doorstep:
We had come from the four corners of the Oklahoma Electric Company Power Plant Kingdom and we were there in Oklahoma City because Corporate America needed our help! Two Power Plant Men from each of the main Power Plants were picked to help the company transition from the old Mainframe computer system to a new computer application called SAP. SAP was going to combine all of our computer needs into one big application that runs on the new computer network.
Ernst and Young was the consulting company that was helping us install and implement SAP at our company. The company began the implementation some time in March, and the big bang go live date was going to be January 1, 1997. According to Ernst and Young, this was a physical impossibility. There was no way we could convert all of our requirements into SAP realities in such a short time.
The Maintenance Module for SAP hadn’t even been fully developed. We were actually working with SAP to design the module. Our company had demonstrated how a Best In Class Maintenance process worked, and SAP was designing their module around our needs. Everyone insisted that our aggressive timeline was too unreasonable and would never be met.
The Electric Company in Central Oklahoma had one Ace up their sleeve (well, maybe more than one)… That was “Power Plant Men!” As I mentioned in last week’s post (See the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God“), I was told on Monday, August 5, to show up for work the following day in Oklahoma City to work for 10 weeks on an SAP project.
Mike Gibbs, a mechanic from our plant was going with me. Our task was to convert all the Power Plant parts in the Inventory system in searchable strings that had a limited number of characters. Mike Gibbs used to work in the warehouse, so he was a good candidate for knowing what odd parts actually were.
We were a cross-section of mechanics and electricians, and warehouse people. To give you an idea of how big our job was, we had over 100,000 different parts in the system. 75,000 of those parts were in the warehouse at the power plant where I worked. There were over 5,000 different types of Nuts and Bolts… just to give you an idea of the task ahead of us.
Ernst and Young said the task would take the eight regular employees four months to complete the task. The Electric Company said, “Power Plant Men can do it in 10 weeks.
We were able to use the office space used by all of the engineers because they all happened to be at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma where I normally worked because of the big explosion that destroyed part of the Turbine Generator room early Monday morning. While they packed up to begin the work of reconstruction, Mike and I packed up and headed to Oklahoma City.
Most of the “out-of-town” Power Plant Men stayed in hotels for the next 2 1/2 months, but Mike Gibbs and I decided that we couldn’t be away from our families that long, so we decided that we would drive back and forth to work each day from Stillwater, Oklahoma. This was about an hour drive with going to work traffic. We would meet in the parking lot of a Mexican Restaurant at the edge of town and take turns each day driving to Oklahoma City.
Normally, in an instance like this, we would get paid a mileage that was farther than if we drove to the plant and maybe even driving time to and from work each day, but when our Plant Manager Bill Green found out we were driving back and forth, he refused to pay us anything. He told us that it was far enough away that he would only pay for us to stay in a Hotel (which would have cost more than the mileage), he wouldn’t pay us mileage or even a per diem (which is a daily amount for expenses).
Bill Green knew that we were family men that wouldn’t want to be away from our families during the week if it was only an hour drive, so he played his card and said that we had to stay in a hotel, and he would pay the expense for that or he would pay nothing and we could drive back and forth all we wanted at our own expense, already knowing that we would rather wear our cars out and pay the extra gas each day to be with our families. I just thought this was pay back for me being so rotten all the time.
The first week I was there, I worked on converting the 5,000 different nuts, bolts and screws into cryptic search strings that all began with the three letter search word for bolt: BLT. If you wanted to search for a Bolt in the SAP inventory, you would know it begins with the letters BLT. This only made me hungry all week, because to me, a BLT was a sandwich. A mighty good one too, I may add.
After the first week, it was decided that having Power Plant Men roaming around between offices asking each other questions about parts was a hazard waiting to happen, so the engineer that was running our project Mark Romano had a special holding pen… um… I mean, cubicle built just for us. It was decided that we should all be together in what is called a “Bullpen Cube”. All nine of us.
There were nine, because a young Corporate executive had been assigned to help us with all things “Corporate”. His name is Kent Norris. He was lucky enough to stay behind to work with us, instead of having to go spend the next 2 1/2 months at our plant up north helping to repair the fire damage.
Well. I say lucky. Lucky for us, maybe not for him. After all, he was someone from “corporate” stuck in a cubicle with 8 rascally Power Plant Men that kept themselves motivated by playing practical jokes on whoever was willing to fall for them. Not ever having experienced the likes of us before, Kent was in for 2 1/2 months of relentless practical jokes being played at his expense.
I must say that we had a terrific time teasing poor Kent, but he was such fun and took our jokes so well, that we could only admire his resilience to bounce back and smile after we ran him ragged with one joke after the next. I will go into more detail about the jokes we played on Kent in a later post. For now, I am just mentioning our situation, so that you can get a picture of our situation.
Kent helped us with our expense reports each week, and showed us all the good places to eat lunch. He helped us adapt to corporate life. He even showed us how to use our temporary badges to badge in and out of the doors when we entered and left the building.
Mike Gibbs discovered a better way. He just put his badge in his wallet, and since he was tall enough, when he walked up to the badge reader, he just pressed the back pocket of his blue jeans against the badge reader, and voila! The door would open like magic! Onlookers were always staring at this strange assortment of men in blue jeans and tee shirts walking through the office building during lunch.
I tried to remember all the people that were there in the cube with us… I remember that I was there, and so was Mike Gibb from the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Ken Scott, who was the Maintenance Superintendent at the Gas-fired Power Plant by Konawa, and David Roe who worked in the warehouse at that plant.
Doyle Fullen, an Electric Foreman from the coal fired plant in Muskogee, and Robert Christy, a mechanic also from that plant.
I believe Dan Hayer, the warehouse man, was there from the gas-fired plant in Harrah, Oklahoma on a small lake called Horseshoe Lake. I don’t remember who else was there from that plant. I remember seeing someone there, but I think he was a more of a quiet type and for some reason, his name has escaped me.
I was a sort of a computer programmer at this time, so I created small programs that would make our jobs easier. I created icons on the computers so that people didn’t have to log into the apps, and I created a couple of other small programs that just automated the monotonous manual steps that we would have to do over and over again as we plowed through the 100,000 different part descriptions.
After the first week, we had converted over 15,000 parts, and were on our way to meeting our goal.
So, how did we do? The Power Plant Men were able to convert all 100,000 parts in the inventory system to SAP in eight weeks! Two weeks ahead of schedule. This was typical for Power Plant Men, especially when you tell them it is impossible. This was another example of doing things that others said couldn’t be done.
We were all scheduled to go back to our home plants two weeks early when Mark Romano, our project manager came to our cube to give us the news… We had performed our job so well, they wanted to expand our scope. It seems that another department… I won’t mention which one, but their initials are T&D had been working on their measly 60,000 parts for the past 4 months and had only completed about 10,000 of them. They wanted to know if the Power Plant Men would be willing to give them a hand to convert the 50,000 parts in their inventory system the same way we did for Power Supply. Otherwise the go-live of January 1, would not be met since we were coming up to the end of September already.
Our Plant Managers had agreed that we could spend the next four weeks converting T&D’s parts as well, so of course, we agreed to stay on. I’m not sure if Corporate Headquarters was ever the same after that. Because we were able to stay on for the next four weeks, we were invited to an SAP banquet that we would have otherwise missed. We stood out like a sore thumb. I will write more about that banquet in a separate post as well as go into detail with some of the jokes that we played on Kent Norris.
Spending the 12 weeks in Corporate Headquarters was an important turning point in my career as a Power Plant Electrician. When we were in the bullpen cube, I was sitting in a chair where I could turn my head to the right and look out a window over the parking lot for the building. During the day I would watch people walking to-and-fro going about their business.
I had worked most of my adult life up to that point at a plant out in the country where when you climbed to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack and looked around, you could see fields and trees for 20 miles in any direction. Looking out that window at people made a big impression on me. Here I was sitting in an air conditioned office. No Coal Dust. No Fly Ash. No ear plugs to deafen the sound of steam shooting through the pipes turning the turbines. No 100 degrees in the summer. No freezing my fingers off in the winter. Just Power Plant Men quietly tapping on their computer keyboards, while they played jokes on Corporate Executive Kent. — This was the life.
I thought… things don’t get better than this. I was in computer heaven. Even though it was unconscious at the time, something stirred in me that thought… maybe… just maybe, I’m ready for a change…. I’ll wait and see what God wants me to do…
Originally posted May 17, 2014:
Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.
One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.
The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.
Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.
Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.
I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.
When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.
I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.
Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.
When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.
When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.
Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.
I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait) See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.
With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.
While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.
Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.
By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.
The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.
The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.
So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.
As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”
So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.
Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….
George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.
Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.
The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.
This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.
You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).
Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.
Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.
This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….
Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.
I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….
In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.
In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically was all “mechanical”.
Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.
Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.
I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.
It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.
He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?
The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.
When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.
That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…
I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.
Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.
Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.
Comments from the Original post
Originally Posted May 17, 2013:
I remember the day when I walked into the Electric Shop office to begin the lunch break, and four guys from the T&D department (Transmission and Distribution) came in from the door leading to the Main Switchgear. They were obviously worn out, and were complaining. The first one said that he couldn’t believe that the guy from GE had made them work through morning break. The second guy called him a slave driver. The third guy replied that he couldn’t believe how that GE guy just kept on working from the crack of dawn without stopping all morning without even coming up for air. The fourth guy just collapsed on one of the chairs.
I remember the name of the last guy. His name was Foote. I remember him because he was real proud of his heritage. The first time I had met him, I asked him his name twice, because when he told me it was “Foote”, I wasn’t sure I heard correctly, so I asked him again. I guess that he must has guessed what was going through my mind because he must have had the same reaction from a thousand other people in the past. I figure that because my last name is Breazile (pronounced “Brazil”) and I have had many conversations with people explaining the origin of my name.
Anyway. I don’t remember Foote’s first name because I think he only had initials for his first name on his hard hat, and I’m more of a visual person when it comes to memories. I clearly remember his last. If I remember correctly, one of his ancestors was a naval officer in the Civil War, though, I don’t remember for which side. I guess it doesn’t really matter much now, since both sides were Americans, and both sides loved their country and the lives they knew — that they were fighting to hold onto or to change.
This reminds me of a side story that I must tell…. Years and years later in 1997, when I was on the Confined Space Rescue Team, one guy that was from North Dakota named Brent Kautzman was constantly being “harassed” for being a Yankee, because he came from a Northern State. This was kind of a mute point to me, because I knew that North Dakota didn’t become a state until well after the Civil War.
Anyway, one day when Brent was trying to defend himself from the hardcore confederates of the group, he pointed out that the North won the Civil war. A couple of other members disagreed, claiming that the South was going to “rise again”. One of those that believed in the Confederate resurrection turned to me and asked me, as if I was the resident historian (well… I did have a college degree… and I did have a minor in History…. and I was known for telling the truth when it really came down to it), “Kevin…. Did the north win the Civil War?”
Not really wanting to hurt the feelings of my southern friends, and also wanting to stand by Brent who was really correct about the outcome of the Civil War, I replied with the following explanation: “Yes. The North must have won the war. Otherwise the South never would have let all the carpetbaggers from the North come down there and steal their property and their dignity.” Brent was satisfied, and the southerners had to agree with my logic. They still insisted that the South would rise again. I couldn’t argue with them about that…. It has never ceased to amaze me how bigotry can be passed down so easily.
With that said, I would say that the Power Plant Men that I worked with that believed that the “South would rise again!” didn’t really understand what that meant. I say that because they never would have given a thought that the men that they worked with that were African American such as Floyd Coburn, or Bill Bennett, were nothing less than members of their own families. I know that they each personally loved these men with all their hearts. I thought it was more of a nostalgic feeling than a desire to see the return of slavery or even the bigotry that crippled the southern states for decades after the Civil War.
End of the Side Story…. Back to the worn out T&D workers.
By the sound of it, I figured that this guy from GE (General Electric) that had come to work on one of the Main Auxiliary Transformers on Unit 2 that had a problem with the Tap Changing Mechanism, was some kind of slave driver. Some hard line guy that wanted to work our employees to the brink of exhaustion because he wanted to be done with the repairs as quickly as possible so that he could move on to some more important work. You see. For this job, GE had called on one of the top Main Power Transformer Geniuses in all the country to work on this transformer.
The T&D guys sat there for a while and then walked out into the shop to eat their lunch. Shortly after that, the slave driver from GE came in the back door…. In stepped a man that immediately reminded me of Arthur Fielder from the Boston Pops.
He sat down…. opened his brown paper bag. Pulled out his sandwich. Carefully unwrapped it and began to eat. Charles Foster and I were sitting there watching him. After hearing the horror stories from the T&D crew, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to engage this seemingly mad man in conversation, so I waited a while. I ate some cherry tomatoes and Banana peppers that Charles brought for me each day…. and with each bite, I took a bite out of my ham sandwich. Then I looked over at “Arthur Fielder….” (I don’t remember his real name).
Finally, I decided that this slave driver in sheep’s clothing (well, an old frail man costume really), might come up with some interesting conversation so I asked him…. “Say, old man…. how old are you anyway?” He looked up from the total enjoyment of his sandwich, and with food still un-swallowed said, “I’m 83.”
“83?” — Either I said that or Charles did… because we were both stunned by his answer….. “Yep… They called me out of retirement to work on this transformer. Seems I’m the only one that knows how to fix ’em. But I’m teachin’ your fellows how to do it so they don’t have to call me again.”
Charles and I were so flabbergasted by his reply that we couldn’t leave it alone. One of us (Charles and I were always on the same wavelength, so usually when one of us spoke, it was what we were both thinking)… So, one of us asked…. “You’re retired and they called you up to work on this transformer!?!? Are you such a Transformer guru that you were the only one they could send?” (hmm… must have been me…. I don’t think Charles would have used the word “Guru”. He would have used something like “expert” or “talented” or maybe “genius”). He said, “Yep. They paid me enough that I agreed to take a week away from my wife to come here to take care of business. It would have to take a lot to take me away from my Jenny.”
Then this feeble old man with the white moustache explained that he didn’t like to be away from home. Every night since when he was young he has played the piano for two hours. — Wait… I wasn’t sure if I heard that right, so I asked him…. “What? You play the piano for two hours… every night!?!?” (notice… already I have used “!?!?” twice in one post… just goes to show you how surprised I was to run across this man). He reaffirmed what he said, “Yeah. I had to find a place that had a piano, so I could sit in the lobby and play it before I go to bed. I can’t sleep well unless I have played the piano first.
After that, he began to tell us about his career in the Music Industry. He had played for many Big Band orchestras in the past. He talked about playing with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. Names that I had learned from my Aunt Pam Sorisso in Kansas City that gave me an Eight Track Tape of Big Band music when I was in College that I used to listen to often. I had become a fan of Big Band and had a great respect for these Big Band Leaders.
Here sitting in front of me was one of the geniuses of the Big Band era in the electric shop at a Coal-fired Power Plant in the middle of North Central Oklahoma. All I could think of was, “Who woulda thought it?” Though I was impressed as all get out… I tried to act calm….. I wanted to jump up with a piece of paper and ask him for his autograph….
This old guy suddenly had all my respect. It cracked me up to think that this 83 year old man was out performing the younger T&D workers. He was running them ragged. He explained that he didn’t like to stop for break. It made the day go a lot faster if he just kept working until he had to stop. He wouldn’t stop for lunch if all the workers hadn’t just dropped all their tools and left.
It amazed me even more that this man who was a big band musician of the highest caliber had ended up working for GE Not only had he worked for GE, but he had become the ultimate authority in large transformer repair. I mean…. How cool is that?
I can’t tell you how much I instantly fell in love with this guy. He had talked and talked about his days as a big band piano player. What really came out of his conversation what just how much he loved his wife. The two things he loved in the entire world was his wife and to play the piano. He said there was nothing more soothing than playing the piano. As he walked off to go back to work at the end of lunch… the only thing I could think of was one of my Big Band favorites…. Louis Armstrong….
For those people who stopped to really think about it…. This truly is….. A Wonderful World!
Comment from the Original Post
Originally Posted May 18, 2013
George Pepple was the chemist at the plant when I first arrived in 1979. His last name is pronounced “Pep-Lee”. A chemist plays an important role in a power plant. The plant treats their own water and has it’s own sewage system. The chemist spends their time with these activities. They do other things like check ground water for contaminates, and lake water for bacteria, and a host of other things. Hydrochloric Acid is used to balance the PH of the water. As far as I know, George Pepple was the only one at the plant with a PhD, which gave him the title of Doctor. No one called him Dr. Pepple (which sounds like a soda pop). We either called him George or Pepple (Pep Lee) or both. He had a sort of Einsteinian simplicity about him. To me he was the perfect combination of Einstein and Mr. Rogers from “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”:
One other thing I would like to add about George was that he developed a special process for Cupric chloride leaching of copper sulfides. This was a patented process (1982) which is now owned by the Phelps Dodge Corporation which is a copper and gold mining company. As humble as George Pepple was, he never mentioned this to anyone at the plant as far as I know.
When he would page someone on the PA system (gray phones), he would always do it in a straight monotone voice. putting no accents on any of the words and he would always repeat his page twice. Like this: “PaulMullonLineOne. PaulMullonLineOne.”
Before I get to the point where George is dancing in the acid, I first need to tell you about Gary Michelson, since he had a role to play in this jig. In an earlier post: In Memory of Sonny Karcher, A True Power Plant Man, I remarked that Sonny Karcher had told people when he introduced me to them that I was going to college to learn to be a writer (which wasn’t exactly true. The writing part I mean…. I was going to college… and I am writing now), and that I was going to write about them. In doing so, some people took me in their confidence and laid before me their philosophy of life. Jerry Mitchell being one of them (as you can read in an earlier post about “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“). Jerry had filled me with his own sense of humility, where it was important to build true friendships and be a good and moral person. His philosophy was one of kindness to your fellow man no matter what his station in life. If there was someone you couldn’t trust, then stay clear of them.
Gary Michelson was another person that wished to bestow upon me his own personal wisdom. We worked for about 3 days filtering the hydraulic oil in the dumper car clamps and in the coal yard garage. While there, he explained to me why it was important to be the best in what you do. If you are not number one, then you are nobody. No one remembers who came in second. He viewed his job performance and his station in life as a competition. It was him against everyone else. He didn’t care if he didn’t get along with the rest of the people in the shop because it is expected that other people would be jealous or resentful because he was superior to them. According to Gary his family owned part of a uranium mine somewhere in Wyoming or Montana. He thought he might go work for his father there, because truly, he was not a True Power Plant Man. He reminded me slightly of Dinty Moore. Like a lumber Jack.
As I mentioned in the post about the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“, Gary Michelson had the title “Millwright”. Which no one else in the shop seemed to have. He had been certified or something as a Millwright. Gary explained to me that a Millwright can do all the different types of jobs. Machinist, Mechanic, Pipe fitter, etc. I remember him spending an entire week at a band saw cutting out wedges at different angles from a block of metal to put in his toolbox. Most mechanics at this time hadn’t been issued a toolbox unless they had brought one with them from the plant where they had transferred. Gary explained to me that his “superiority was his greatest advantage.” Those aren’t his words but it was basically what he was saying. That phrase came from my son who said that one day when he was imitating the voice of a video game villain named Xemnas.
Filtering the hydraulic oil through the blotter press was very slow until we removed most of the filters.
It was a job that didn’t require a lot of attention and after a while became boring. That gave me more time to learn about Gary. He filled the time with stories about his past and his family. Since I hadn’t met Ramblin’ Ann at this point (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was not able to contribute my share. In the middle of this job we were called away to work on a job in water treatment where a small pump needed to be re-installed.
During this time at the plant every pump, fan, mill and turbine were brought to the maintenance shop and disassembled, measured, cleaned, honed and reassembled before the plant was brought online for the first time. This is called doing a “check out” of the unit. The electricians would check every motor, every cable and every relay. The Results team (Instrument and Controls as they were later called) would check out the instrument air, the pneumatic valves and the control logic throughout the plant.
Gary had me go to the tool room and get some rubber boots and a rain suit. When we arrived at the water treatment building George Pepple was there waiting for us. The pump was in place and only the couplings needed to be connected to the acid line. Gary explained to me as he carefully tightened the bolts around the flange that you had to do it just right in order for the flange to seat properly and create a good seal. He would tighten one bolt, then the bolt opposite it until he worked his way around the flange. He also explained that you didn’t want to over-tighten it.
Anyway. When he was through tightening the couplings I was given a water hose to hold in case some acid were to spray out of the connections when the pump was turned on. After the clearance was returned and the operator had closed the breaker, George turned the pump on. When he did the coupling that Gary had so carefully tightened to just the right torque using just the right technique sprayed a clear liquid all over George Pepple’s shoes.
Gary quickly reached for the controls to turn off the pump. I immediately directed the water from the hose on George’s shoes while he began to jump up and down. In last week’s post I explained that when I was working in the River Pump forebay pit shoveling sand, there was a point when I realized that I was covered from head to foot with tiny crawling bugs, and I felt like running around in circles screaming like a little girl (See “Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River“). If I had done that, I probably would have been singing the same song and dance that George Pepple was doing at that moment. Because he indeed was screaming like a little girl (I thought). His reaction surprised me because I didn’t see the tell tale signs of sizzling bubbles and smoke that you would see in a movie when someone throws acid on someone. I continued hosing him down and after a minute or so, he calmed down to the point where he was coherent again. He had me run water on his shoes for a long time before he took them off and put on rubber boots.
After hosing off the pipes, Gary took the coupling apart and put the o-ring in place that he had left out.
I made a mental note to myself. — Always remember the o-ring.
Besides those two jobs, I never worked with Gary Michelson again. When I returned the next summer Gary was no where to be found. When I asked Larry Riley about it, he just said that they had run him off. Which is a way of saying… “He ain’t no Power Plant Man.” George Pepple on the other hand was there throughout my career at the power plant. He was a True Power Plant Man, PhD! When George was around you knew it was always “A wonderful Day in the Neighborhood”. When I would hear George Pepple paging someone on the Gray Phone (the PA system) in his own peculiar way, I would think to myself… “I like the way you say that.” (As Mr. Rogers used to say). I will leave you with that thought.
Comments from the original post:
neenergyobserver May 18, 2012
Funny isn’t it, how the ones that are the best (in their own minds) do stupid stuff like forgetting the O-ring. Apparently they can’t see for all the jaw-flapping involved in patting themselves on the back. Not that I haven’t had a few days I’d rather not talk about too.
onelifethislife May 27, 2012
You are master storyteller! I know nothing about power plants and I was right there with you. This was fantastic read! Thank you for sharing your work.
bryanneelaine May 28, 2012
LOL @ “Dinty Moore”
Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend. It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened. We have a natural tendency to worship something. It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water. I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed. August 5, 1996.
The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant. It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer. Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance. The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual. It must have been a cloudy morning.
We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant. It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant. We weren’t really sure what we had seen. It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.
There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual. there was a guard or an operator standing out there. He waved us through the gate. about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot. It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.
The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks. They seemed to be pulling away just about that time. Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor. The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky. I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.
We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away. We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT). The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.
Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year. That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive. Our job was going to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.
Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:
The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT. Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control. He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded. The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest. This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).
At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine. The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames. The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above. The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete. The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor melting the roof as if it was butter. The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.
The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator. This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on. The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should. As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone. It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.
Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight. The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools. Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator. The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.
Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights). Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.
By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down. Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.
As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion. I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before. There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode. I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.
The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River. One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong. I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.
When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once. The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris. I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine. It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.
The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it. I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff. I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.
We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation. The soot didn’t just wash off. Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room. The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.
We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner. This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again. All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.
The thought was too overwhelming. I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe. Are clothes were now black. We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators
literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.
We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!” I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot. Then he explained. “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project. You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”
Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world? Well. I am. I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.
Now for the hard part of the story to write about:
So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test? What happened to cause the explosion?
The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage. The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.
Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target. A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time. No one really understands some of the things he works on. Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion. I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion than the person responsible. The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:
You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion. Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners. I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions. You see, I haven’t completely decided.
There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover. The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof. I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy. You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.
The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered. That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump. When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.
It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged. It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling. In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage. The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.
I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me. The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth. This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place. You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.
The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation. Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.
Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage. It was ruled as “equipment failure”. Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.
I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong. I know that. That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant. A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity. Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.
That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone. To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then. My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.
On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen. It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred. It gave me a little of my faith back in the system. When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.
All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator. I just exaggerated that part a bit. But let me ask this question… Who in this story did? Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”? Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important? That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.
The question is never, “Is there a God?” The real question is “Which God do you worship?”