Monthly Archives: July, 2015

Power Plant Imps and Accident Apes

Orignally posted: July 26, 2014:

In order to promote Safety at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1988, we watched a video that introduced us to the four “Imps”. These were little creatures that lurked around the power power plant waiting to cause accidents. The video demonstrated how these four imps had lead a racing car to have an accident which put the driver in hospital. The Imps were called: Impatience, Improvisation, Impulsiveness and Impunity.

The video also went on to say that “Knowing is not enough”. You have to “Act”. The four imps try to keep you from acting when you know that there is a safe way to do something. A Yellow Flag was used in the video when the crash occurred during the race, and the video went on to emphasize that if we could only see the Yellow Flag “Before the accident happens”, then we could take steps to prevent it. In order to do that, you first have to eradicate the four imps. We were given Hard Hat stickers to remind us to look for accidents before they happened:

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

Before I tell you about the Apes, let me just briefly go over these four imps and how they interfere with a safe work environment….

Impatience may be obvious. Getting in a hurry causes us to take short cuts and not think things through. This Imp works with all the other imps to lead us to engage in unsafe behavior.

Improvisation is happens when you don’t have the right tools handy or the proper safety equipment isn’t easily accessible. It may also happen when the right parts aren’t right there when you need them. So, instead of taking the time to go get the right tools for the job, or the right part to fix an issue (with the help of Impatience), we Improvise. Leading to taking unnecessary risk.

Impulsiveness comes around when when we act without thinking. We react immediately to a situation without thinking about it. Maybe because we think that we are so experienced that our instincts serve us better than our brains. Again, Impatience is right there urging us on to act Impulsively.

I think one of the Monthly Safety Slogans we turned in when we were trying to win the yearly Safety Slogan pizza (see “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“) was “Acting Impulsive can leave you pulse-less”.

Impunity is a stealthy imp (unless you are young… then it is a way of life). This is the believe that you are impervious to being hurt. You think you are either very lucky (which I know “I am”), or you are so experienced at your job that you will not be hurt even when doing things you know are unsafe.

We had a safety campaign at the plant to “Look for the Yellow Flag” and “Beware of the Imps”. I thought it was a good reminder to be safe, especially since most of us had been working at the plant for a number of years and needed to be reminded that we were not impervious to the four imps. This was an honest attempt to keep us from becoming complacent with our own safety.

Four years later, however, the accident rate at our plant had reached a nine year high and having the big mouth that I was born with, I had to say something about it. So, I wrote a letter to our plant manager voicing my concerns.

In the letter I suggested that we should brainwash our employees to work safely. I will discuss how to do this in a later post. I suggested that brainwashing our employees to work safely would be best because when someone is brainwashed they are not allowed “by the fact that they are brainwashed” to think “outside the box”. In other words, someone that is brainwashed to work safely is not able to function “unsafely”.

I had studied brainwashing techniques when I was in college after I had attended a meeting with my roommate one day and within an hour I had been brainwashed by the Southwest Book Publishing Company to think that the only thing I could possibly do next summer was sell books door-to-door. I really believed that not only was selling books door-to-door my only option, but that there was no way I could do anything else.

After my mom had slapped me around (not literally) until I snapped out of it, I became fascinated by how easily it was to become brainwashed. So I decided to study it in order to prevent that from happening again. I even changed my major to Psychology, because of that experience.

I learned that there are five main techniques used to brainwash someone. Most of these are the same techniques used by good salesmen to sell you products you wouldn’t normally want to buy. Those that would be best used to brainwash an employee to be safe are: Repetition, Role-playing, Cognitive Dissonance and Commitment.

The Fifth brainwashing tool is “Fatigue”. But in order to do that, you would have to put the person in a closet and beat them with a rubber hose any time they think about doing something unsafe. Even though this sounds exciting, the only place in the plant that would suffice was the janitor closet in the main switchgear, and then you could only use it on one Power Plant Man at a time.

Like I said, I’ll explain how to brainwash employees to work safely in a later post. I will expand a little on “Cognitive Dissonance” since I mentioned it and it isn’t as common known as the rest of the tools. Cognitive Dissonance occurs when you mind detects that there is something not exactly right with the logic of something so, a person changes their belief to remove this “Dissonance” (or Discord in your brain).

A person with very good argument skills is sometimes known as an “Apologist”. That is someone that can make a good clear argument for something by building on one argument after the other until the other person can clearly see and believe what the Apologist is trying to convince them. You see this a lot with religious groups.

In fact, when I went away to college, and just before I had been brainwashed by the Southwest Book Publishing Company, my mother had told me “Don’t let yourself be brainwashed by some religious cult.” I said “Sure Mom.” — Being on the lookout for this, I never suspected that when my roommate asked me if I wanted to go along with him to listen to someone talk about summer jobs for next summer, I was going to be so easily brainwashed by a book publisher.

Anyway, back to Cognitive Dissonance…. When you are trying to Brainwash someone to believe something they do not already believe, you do this through a series of carefully crafted statements in order, that the other person needs to agree to before you go to the next one.

Each statement introduces a small cognitive dissonance, or a “challenge” to the person’s reasoning that they have to reconcile in their mind. They are not given much time to do this, and through the use of repetition and role-playing, a person is more likely to accept that small change in their belief in order to avoid the dissonance they are experiencing.

By the time the person reaches the end, if they have agreed to each of the statements then it comes time for the “Commitment”. They sign something, or they go through some initiation, or something that seals their “fate”. Then they believe that they have no other choice but to go down that path.

Here’s an example:

After I had learned about these techniques in college, I thought it would be neat to see them in action, so I made an appointment with an Insurance Salesman. Who better? I went to his office and told him that I was thinking of buying some life insurance. So, he began his “sales pitch”.

Throughout the conversation, I was watching how he was using leading statements that I was agreeing to one at a time. “Yeah… makes sense to me” I would say… When he was finished I was surprised by the way he pulled out a sheet of paper and said, “Sign here.”

Not having actually been brainwashed by the person, since I was too busy thinking about his techniques, I was amazed by how sure he was that I was all ready to sign up for life insurance right there on the spot. — I told him I would think about it and left. I even remember his name… Chuck Farquar. That was too good of a name to forget.

Anyway, time for the Power Plant Apes:

In 1993, I wrote another letter to our plant manager (I liked writing letters… or Memos… I guess you could call them). In this letter I mentioned that I thought the program that introduced us to the four Imps was pretty good, and that we needed something like that again because not only were the four Imps still lurking about, but so were five Apes! I had found that there were five Apes running around the plant wreaking havoc.

I explained that the Five Apes were: Apathy, Apprehension, Apishness, Aplomb and Apostasy. I had noticed these five Apes popping up around the plant helping the four imps cause accidents.

Apathy is “Not Caring”. Not only Not Caring for our own safety, but not caring for the safety of others. This could be seen when people didn’t clean up their work area when they were done. A lack of pride in their Safety attitude.

Apprehension occurred when someone was to afraid to speak up when they saw safety issues. Either because they thought others might not agree with them, or because they had spoken up in the past and had their hand slapped for making a fuss. Either way, I could see unsafe conditions that were left unchecked because people didn’t want to mention them.

Apishness is when someone “Apes” another person’s behavior. They imitate them. One person sees another person working unsafely and instead of pointing it out to them, they see that they are getting away with it, so, they decide to do their work in the same unsafe manner. — This is sort of like Cognitive Dissonance working toward brainwashing someone to work unsafe.

Aplomb is having self-confidence. Though this sounds like a good trait to have, when you are working around dangerous equipment all the time, self-confidence is a killer. When I was teaching my son to drive a car, I told him that as soon as he feels comfortable driving a car, then he should know, that’s when he has become the most unsafe. He doesn’t have the experience to automatically react in a safe way, yet, he believes that he knows what he is doing so he lets his guard down.

Apostasy is the belief in a “heresy”. When dealing with Safety, it is the belief that being Safe is not important. The thought that fate is not even in my hands. — I hear this when someone says, “You only live once.” Doris Day used to say this when she sang the song: “Que Sera Sera” — What will be will be…

In case you can’t play a You Tube video from that link on your old outdated computer… here is the link: “Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera“.

I could see that some people at the plant had reached the point of discouragement to where they believed that all the talk about safety had gotten us no where. People still had accidents at the same rate as before… When we tried to improve safety it never seemed to work. So they just gave up on the process.

With all these Imps and Apes running around the plant is was a wonder we were ever able to get any work done! There is more to come on this topic…

Comments from the original post

    1. Ron Kilman July 26, 2014

      I hadn’t thought of the “4 Imps” in years! I’m impressed (again) that you still remember them. Good story!

    2. Dave Tarver July 26, 2014

      Then there was BBS – Then there is IIF and hiring of Safety Professionals to prosecute and punish anyone that gets ticketed its a double edged sword those that have personality conflicts with others and who being marginal at their job play the safety card over and over , hence costing a lot of time and money on needless wild goose chases. Cell Phones are a distraction in the plant I agree, however, there productivity improvement outweighs the negative side of them. A person with a cell phone can report someone in danger or alert everyone to problems when we lost the plant our only means of communication was cell phones to the outside world and they acted both as first line and backup during the crisis inside the plant as well. A friend told me once when we start fearing and focusing on that fear is when it will happen I remember making us all write letters to our wives and sad to say about a year later OGE Power Supply lost a fine man, with all the programs and focus we lost that man- with all the engineers in the ivory tower we could not learn that if a gasket continuously leaks at different times that either we have a warped surface due to improper warmup methods or we have a faulty gasket and that we never tighten those on a high pressure vessel under operating conditions we blamed the gasket but the gasket was known many times over but yet we failed to find a solution until the unthinkable happened and accountability all the people in charge and so forth still have their jobs they knew they had problems with it thats why knowing is not enough!
      Thats why you cannot take people without experience in the trenches and put them in jobs that they have not learned up through the ranks you cannot capture and replace an individual with anyone from any old bar! I still think the Managing Director all the way down through the Operating /Maintenance Superintendents should of been held accountable feeling bad and sorry does not bring that fine man back! In operations we are drilled over and over and over about it how our mistakes cost lives and arms and legs etc and we will have error free switching Man is not perfect and never will be his nature will never let him be! and with all the education in the world we still have not learned this! They knew the drum head for the access door and or the gasket was bad and especially if you have had an acid clean on a boiler you have to watch everything closely
      anyway all accidents are preventable so the old partridges says but yet man in his nature is imperfect so it is a contradiction just by the nature of it. Engineers have to be held to account for failed designs and or products and or procedures that they implement
      Engineering is a science of redundancy and preventing failure but yet we have colossal failures I think all Engineers need to be an operator for 3 years in residency before they can begin their craft might help some


  1. Jonathan Caswell July 27, 2014

    What happened to “Stop, Look and Listen”? Oh yeah…that’s for railroad crossings.

  2. Brenda Davis Harsham July 27, 2014

    I’m glad you chucked Chuck. I love Doris Day. I like that word Aplomb, it’s what I aim for. Those are some powerful imps. 😉

Sky Climbing in the Dark with Power Plant Boiler Rats

Originally Posted July 26, 2013:

I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.

This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.

As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.

At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.

David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when i was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.

During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.

This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.

Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Or even a normal rat like this:

Normal looking rat

Normal looking rat

No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:

rat from kootation

rat picture taken from

Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….

Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.

If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.

A sky climber

A sky climber

You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.

So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.

Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.

There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where john Brien was staring back at him.

There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.

We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as i fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.

By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.

I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.

I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.

I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”

That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.

I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.

There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.

I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.

Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.

Comment from previous post:

  1. A.D. Everard August 3, 2014

    You tell a wonderful story and keep the reader spellbound. I love this sort of inside information!
    Coming to your blog has given me the same rush of excitement I get when I’m researching something and find a gem! Now I want to write about boiler rats! 🙂

Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement

Originally posted July 27, 2012:

There were two distinct times in my life at the Power Plant Kingdom where I went Head-to-Head (or tête-à-tête as they say in France) with a horde of spiders.  The second time I fought side-by-side with my trusty friend Scott Hubbard, that I knew wouldn’t desert me when things went from bad-to-worse (for some reason I find myself using a lot of hyphens-to-day).  The first battle, however, I had to face alone, armed only with a push broom and a shovel.

It all started a few months after I became a janitor at the power plant (in 1982).  I had received my Psychology degree at the University of Missouri and I was well on my way to becoming a certified “sanitation engineer” (as my Grandmother corrected me after I told her I was a janitor).

It actually came in handy having a Psychology degree.  Power Plant men would sometimes approach me when I was working by myself to stop and have a conversation that usually started like this:  “So, someone told me you are a Psychiatrist.”  I would correct them and tell them that I am a janitor and I only have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology which makes me a properly trained janitor able to sweep the floor in confidence that “I’m OK, and You’re OK.” (which was a joke lost on everyone at the plant except for Jim Kanelakos, who was also a janitor with a Masters in Psychology).

Then they would usually want to talk about problems they were having.  I would lean on my broom and listen.  Nodding my head slightly to show I was listening.  After a while the person would finish and thank me for listening and go on back to work.

The most important thing I learned while obtaining a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology was that Psychology is an art, not a science.  Though certain scientific methods are used in many areas, especially in Behavioral Psychology.  Being an art, means that the person must possess the talent for being a Psychologist.  This is as important as being properly trained.  So I never assumed the role of a real Psychologist, I rather tried my best to just be a friend.  I found that worked well.

As I mentioned, James Kanelakos was also a janitor at the Power Plant.  Which meant that between the 5 janitors and our leader Pat Braden, two of us not only had degrees, but both of them were in Psychology (with James having the Masters degree, and I as his pupil with the Bachelors).

Before I proceed with my battle with the spiders, I should mention a little about the dynamics of our Janitorial crew.

James Kanelakos was obviously Greek.  With a name like Kanelakos, it was rather obvious.  He looked the part also, with a graying moustache that made him look like a Greek sailor.  He never was a “True Power Plant Man” and he would be glad to hear me say that.  Instead he was a person that at the time acted as if he was biding his time at the plant waiting for something else to happen.

This picture reminds me of Jim Kanelakos.  I found it at

Though he never mentioned it, I know that he was also part Irish, and every now and then I would see the Irish come out.  He was a family man, and in that sense he reminded me of my own father (who was also part Irish).  He was only 35 years old at the time, but he acted as if he had lived longer.  He smoked a pipe like my father did.  As far as I know, he always remained married to his wife Sandy, and together they raised two children, a daughter and a son.  That was where his heart really was.

He made no secret that his family came before anything else.  Not that he would say it straight out to your face, but you could tell it in the way he interacted with others.  Like I said, Jim was there “biding his time”, changing his career at a time when he needed something… else.  Maybe to strengthen his priorities.  He said once that he left the office to go work outside.

Then there was Doris Voss.  She was an unlikely site to see in the Power Plant Palace (especially later when she became an operator).  She was a “Church-going Fundamentalist” who made it clear to me that Catholics, such as myself, were doomed to hell for various reasons.  I always enjoyed our… um… discussions.

I thought it was quite appropriate during Christmas when the janitors drew names from Jim’s Greek Sailor’s hat and I drew Doris’s name to give her a very nice leather-bound Catholic Version of the Family Bible.  I later heard her talking to Curtis Love about it in the kitchen.  He was telling her that she shouldn’t read it and she told him that it looked pretty much the same as hers and she didn’t see anything wrong with it.  Needless-to-say, I was rarely condemned to a regular Catholic’s fate after that.

A Bible like this with a Tassel hanging out of the bottom

Curtis Love, as I explained in the post called “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“, was very gullible.  It was easy to play a joke on Curtis.  Too easy.  He didn’t take them well, because he would rather believe what you were joking about before believing that you were joking at all.  Because of this, it never occurred to me to play a joke on Curtis.  Some how, though, it is hard to explain, Curtis reminded me of Tweedledee.  Or was it Tweedledum?

I think he reminded me more of the guy on the right… or maybe the left.

Then there was Ronnie Banks.  I talked about Ronnie Banks before in the post where Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost.  He was like a likable young bear standing up on his hind legs.  You could joke around with him and he was fun to be around.  He acted like he enjoyed your company.  Interestingly though, none of the people on our team would ever be classified as “True Power Plant Men”.  We were more like an odd assortment of Misfits.

Pat Braden was our lead Janitor.  He was by far the nicest person one could ever work for.  He constantly had a smile on his face.  He smiled when he talked, he smiled when he walked, and he especially smiled when he stood up from a chair and became dizzy from his blood pressure medicine.  He had a daughter at home that he really loved.  He reminded me of the goodhearted Red Skelton.

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

Now back to the Spider Wars and the bugs in the basement.

When I first became a janitor, I was assigned to clean the Control room and to sweep half of the turbine room floor and the Control room elevator landings and stairs.  I always enjoyed being a janitor.  I first became a janitor when I was 15 years old Sophomore in High School working the night shift (from 11pm to 6am) at a Hilton Inn in Columbia, Missouri.

To me it was a dream job.  Sure, I couldn’t keep my own room cleaned, but put a push broom in my hand and pay me $2.50 an hour and I could clean all night.  When I began as a janitor at the power plant, I was making $5.15 an hour.  Double what I was making at the hotel cleaning the kitchen, the restaurant and the bar in the wee hours of the morning.

Anyway.  I went to work cleaning the control room like there was no tomorrow.  I would shampoo the carpet once each week.  I would clean on the top and the back of the Alarm Panel.  I know I made Ted Holdge (Supervisor of Operations) real nervous once when I laid a vacuum cleaner on the top of the Main Electric Panel (That’s what I call it.  it was the Control panel where you synced up the unit when it was coming online) and I started vacuuming the top of it.  He actually jumped out of his chair in the Shift Supervisor’s office and stood there and watched me closely.  It obviously had never been cleaned before.  I was trying to get rid of a strange odor in the control room that eventually, I found out was years of burned coffee in the coffee maker in the break room.  I even had to scrub the walls in the kitchen to remove the odor from the entire control room.

Anyway.  I was getting to know the Control Room operators, and I was thinking that maybe someday when I had progressed past janitor and labor crew that one day I may become an operator also.

One day Pat Braden came to me and told me that I was going to have to move down to be the janitor of the Electric Shop.  There were many reasons.  The first was that Curtis wanted to be an operator and he thought that if he worked around them that they would get to know him and would want him to join their ranks.  The second reason was that for some reason, since Curtis had been the janitor of the Electric Shop he had been bitten twice by a brown recluse spider, which had invaded the janitor closet downstairs.  If he were to be bitten again, he might lose his job for being unsafe.

I didn’t mind.  Cleaning the Electric shop meant that I also was able to clean the Engineers Shack and the Brown and Root Building next to it.  I also decided that the main switchgear which was where the Janitor closet was located needed to be kept clean to cut down on the onslaught of the poisonous brown recluse spiders (which in Oklahoma is a regular house spider).

The Oklahoma house spider — The Brown Recluse.  Otherwise known at the “Fiddleback”

My first day as a Janitor in the Electric Shop as soon as I opened the door to the janitor closet, I could see why Curtis had been bitten by a Brown Recluse (not twice, but three times — the last time he didn’t tell Pat.  He showed me, but just went straight to the doctor for the required shots to counteract the poison.  Not wanting to lose his job).  The janitor closet was full of them.  They were all over the little 4 foot by 5 foot closet.

Thus began the first war on spiders at the coal fired power plant.  The closet was also being used to store Freon and other air conditioning equipment used by Jim Stevenson the Air Conditioning expert in the Electric Shop.  I decided then and there to move all the equipment out of the closet.  The spiders were practicing “Duck and Cover” drills all over this equipment so it had to go.

My main weapon against the spiders were my boots.  When I spied a spider, I stomped on it quickly.  I asked Pat Braden to order a case of insecticide to help me combat the spiders.  The next day he pulled a two-wheeler up to the closet with two cases and said, “Here is your order sir!” (picture Red Skelton saying that).

I had cleaned the shelves, the cabinet and the floor of the janitor closet, and there was no place for spiders to hide in there anymore.  Each morning when I arrived, there was always more spiders there.  3 or 4 at least waiting for me in the closet.  All Brown Recluse.

I surveyed the combat zone and realized that spiders were all over the main switchgear.  So I decided I was going to sweep the switchgear regularly and kill every spider I saw to wipe them out for good.

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

So I laid down floor sweep (cedar chips with red oil) to keep the dust down, and began at one corner and worked my way across the switchgear sweeping and killing spiders.  I kept a body count.  I taped a paper in the janitor closet to keep track of my daily kill.

I thought surely in a short time, I will have wiped out the spider population.  After sweeping the switchgear I laid down a blanket of Insecticide (equivalent to Agent Orange in Vietnam).  If I could kill any bugs that are around, the spiders would leave.  The insecticide didn’t kill the spiders.  they would just duck under the switchgear and then come out an hour later to be standing where I left them before.  So I kept stomping them out.

Every day, my body count was around 25 to 30 spiders and this number wasn’t going down.  That was when I discovered the Cable Spreader room…  I had been involved in mere child’s play before I walked down some steps at the tail end of the switchgear and opened one of the two doors at the bottom.

I cannot describe to you exactly what I saw, because nothing I say can put into words what was there.  I guess the best thing I can say is:  Armageddon.

There were two rooms.  One on each side at the bottom of some concrete steps.  They are called Cable Spreader rooms and are directly beneath the switchgear.  One side was unit one, the other was unit 2.  They are large rooms with cable trays lining the walls and across the room at regular intervals.  The floor was damp, and it was black, and it was alive.  There was a small path through the room where the operator would pass through “the gauntlet” once each shift as they muttered prayers that they not be eaten alive by the black oozing mass of bugs spiders and an occasional snake.

The can of bug spray in my hand seemed completely useless.  I knew what I had to do.  These two rooms and the cable tunnels that ran from there underneath the T-G building were the source of my daily trouncing of the meager few spiders that decided to explore the world above to see what was happening in the switchgear.  The real battle was down here in the trenches.  Each room was full of thousands of spiders.

I started with a large box of Plastic Contractor bags, a box of floor sweep, a shovel and a push broom.  I attacked the room the same way I used to clean my own bedroom at home when I was growing up.  I started in one corner and fanned out.  Not letting anything past me.  always keeping a clear supply line back to the steps that led up to freedom and fresh air up above.

At first I just took a large scoop shovel and scooped up the black mass of crawling and dead bugs and dumped them in a bag, until I had enough space to sweep the dust into a pile.  Then I attacked it again.  Occasionally a small snake would appear upset that I had invaded his space, and into the bag it would go.  Everything went in the bags.  The snakes, the bugs, the spiders and the grime.  There was actually a constant battle taking place down there that I was interrupting.  it was bug eat bug, spider eat bug and snake eat bugs and spiders wars.  Everything went in the bags.

I carefully hauled the bags out to the dumpster and out they went.  It took an entire day to clean one room.  Then the next day when I went back I completely cleaned it again.  This time paying more attention to making it livable.  I wanted these two rooms to be so clean that people could go down into these cool damp rooms in the hot summer and have a picnic down there and feel safe.  —  No one ever did though, but such is the life of a cable spreader room.

After that, each day I made my rounds of the switchgear, the cable spreader rooms and the cable tunnels killing any spider that showed it’s legs.  After the main battle in the two rooms and tunnels was over of countless spiders and bugs, I recorded about 230 spiders the next day by making my rounds.  The next day that dropped to around 150.  then 80, then 50 and on down.  Finally, when I was down to 3 or 4 spiders each day, I felt like the war was over and a weekly sweeping and daily walk-through would suffice to keep the switchgear safe.  This left the small janitor closet virtually free of spiders from that point.

The interesting twist of the entire battle against the spiders was that the electricians had seen my skills at “Battle Sweeping” and some of them had become impressed.  They told me that I didn’t have to sweep their shop and the main switchgear because they took turns doing it.  I still felt that as the janitor, with my battle hardened push broom, by paying a little more attention to detail would do a slightly better job.

The electricians didn’t really volunteer to clean the shop.  Whoever was the truck driver for that week was supposed to clean the shop at least one time during the week.  At $5.15 an hour, I was more of a volunteer than someone that was hired to do this chore, and I enjoyed it.  So, eventually, Charles Foster (An Electrical Foreman) popped the question to me one day…. He didn’t get down on one knee when he asked me, but either way, he asked me if I would think about becoming an Electrician.

That was something I hadn’t even considered until that moment.  The Electricians to me were the elite squad of Power Plant Maintenance.  Like the Results guys, but with a wider range of skills it seemed.  But that is a story for another time.

Since I originally posted this, I have written the post about the second war with spiders with Scott Hubbard by my side.  So, if this post wasn’t enough for you… read this one:  “Power Plant Spider Wars II The Phantom Menace“.  For a more tame story about spiders try this one:  “Power Plant Spider in the Eye“.

Comments from the previous post:

  1. standninthefire July 28, 2014

    I (a science major in college) always had a running debate with my psychology friends that psychology wasn’t really science. Granted, I only said that to get into an debate about the subject but I think you’re spot on when you say that psychology has an “art” component to it. It’s a combination of both but I think that the better psychologists are the ones who master the art.

  2. mpsharmaauthor July 29, 2014

    I didn’t think I would ever voluntarily read about spiders, but I have been proven wrong. Thank you for reminding me to never say never 🙂

  3. Jonathan Caswell July 29, 2014


  4. Jim  July 29, 2014

    This has been some of the most enjoyable reading I’ve done for a looooong time 🙂

  5. sacredhandscoven October 21, 2014

    OMGosh, my skin is STILL crawling and I don’t think it will stop for a few decades! Your story reminds me of that scene in the Indiana Jones second movie where the girl had to reach into the bugs and pull the lever to save Indy’s life. If it had been me, he’d a been a goner! If anything has more than 4 legs it needs to stay away from me! I cannot imagine going through that cleaning job.

  6. Willow River January 28, 2015

    Good Lord, this is like reading a horror novel! I swear, if I had been anywhere near that sort of situation, you’d find me huddled up in some corner far away trying not to scream while I cry. This story only strengthens my belief that spiders are, to put it lightly, PURE EVIL!!! You, sir, are a very, very brave soul, and I salute you. From way over here, away from the spiders.

  7. iltorero February 7, 2015

    Curtis was bitten by Brown Recluse twice? They inflict some of the grossest wounds I’ve ever seen. We’ve got them in Maine, but they’re rare.


Power Plant Men Learn how Money Matters

Many years ago in my earlier days as a Power Plant Electrician while working on Relays at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, Ben Davis, a plant electrician and True Power Man introduced me to one of his favorite Rock and Roll Bands, the “Dire Straits”.  One of their hit songs is “Money For Nothing.”  About 14 years later, the Power Plant Men learned exactly how to make “Money For Nothing” and other “Money Matters”!

Albert Einstein was once asked what the greatest miracle known to man is, and he replied “Compound Interest”.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

One day at the Power Plant our timekeeper Linda Shiever invited a Financial Planner to come to the plant and talk to the Power Plant Men about the importance of planning ahead for your retirement.  This may have been the first time many of the Power Plant Men had ever heard of such a thing as “Compound Interest”.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

To a Power Plant Man, “Compound Interest” sounds more like “paying close attention when you pound something with a sledge hammer”.

The Financial Planner explained to the Power Plant Men that it is important to begin planning for the future early in your life.  He gave us a sheet of paper titled “Put the Magic of compounding to work for you.”  It showed how someone 25 years old investing in the stock market (S&P 500 which averages 10% annually over time) by putting $2,000 in something that gives you a 10% return for 8 years, and then stops, while another person waits 8 years until they are 33 and spends the rest of their life putting $2,000 into the same stock market they will never have as much as the person who only put in $2000 for 8 years beginning when they were 25 years old.

Let me explain this a little more:  Using compound interest at 10% rate for his example (since that is what you receive in the S&P 500 over time), he showed that the person that invested $16,000 beginning at 25 years old and adding $2000 each year for only 8 years will have a net earnings of over $1,000,000 by the time they are 71 years old.  Yet the person that waited 8 years and invested $78,000 by adding $2,000 each year until they are 71 will only have a net earnings of $800,000.  The importance was that compound interest works best when you start early.

This is a great lesson to learn.  The problem was that the majority of the audience was already well over 40 years old.  There may have been one person in the room that was 25 years old, and that was only because they weren’t telling the truth about their age.

On Friday, September 6, 1996 a group of us from the plant were told to show up at a hotel conference room not far from corporate headquarters to attend a meeting that was called “Money Matters”.  The other phrase they used to describe the meeting was that it was a “Root Learning” class.  The reason it was called Root Learning was because the company that put the class together for the Electric Company was called Root Learning.

When we arrived, we were told which table we were going to sit.  Bruce Scambler was the leader of the table where I was appointed to sit.  When we were assigned seats, it was in a way that the Power Plant Men were spread out across the tables, so that we were each sitting with people from other departments in the company.  I supposed right away that this was so that we could maximize the spread the Power Plant culture to others.

This turned out to be a class about how the company has problems that need to be resolved.  When the class began the leader placed a poster in the middle of the table.  It showed a picture of a canyon.  The workers were on one side and the leaders were on the other with the managers stuck in the middle.  It was very similar to this picture:

The Canyon Root Learning Map

The Canyon Root Learning Map

This was an ingenious representation of the problems the company had with the management structure.  The poster we had was customized for our particular company.

We talked for a couple of hours about how we could bridge the gap between management and the workers.  What were some of the barriers in the tornado that kept destroying those bridges…. etc.

The following year on September 24, 1997, we attended another meeting in Enid Oklahoma where we learned about Shareholder value.  The leader of my table this year was a young man from HR at Corporate Headquarters (I’ll mention this guy in a later post).  This topic made more sense as it really did talk about Money this time.  This time the maps they showed us had race cars on it which showed the different competing electric companies.  Something like this:

The Shareholder learning map

The Shareholder learning map

Being the main electric company in the state, our truck was on the Regulated track. Some of the electric providers had figured out a why to go the unregulated route.  Our company kept looking for ways to get on the unregulated road by offering other services that were not regulated.  After looking at the poster that looked similar to the one above for a while and talking about it, we moved on to the next poster:

The second Shareholder Map

The second Shareholder Map

Even though the chart is the main part of this picture, most of the discussion took place around the “Expense Street” section in the picture.  There was an added pie chart that was on a card that was placed on this street which showed how the expenses of the company were broken down.

The main expense for the company was Fuel.  I want to say that it was close to 40% of expenses.  Taxes was the next largest expense for the company.  It made up somewhere around 30% of our total expenses.  The rest of the expenses were the other costs to run the company.  Employee wages made up around 8% of the total expenses for the company.

Employee wages was the smallest piece of the pie

Employee wages was the smallest piece of the pie

It was the job of the leader at the table to explain that the cost for fuel was pretty well fixed, so we can’t do anything about that.  We also can’t do anything about how much taxes the company pays.  We didn’t have control over the supplies and other costs the company buys.  So, the bottom line was that the little sliver of expenses for the company that represented “Employee Wages” was really the only thing we can adjust to increase shareholder value…..

What?  Run that one by me again?  We were a 3 billion dollar revenue company.  We had around 3,000 employees which we had reduced to around 2000 employees when the Corporation Commission cut how much we could charge for electricity, and now you’re saying that the only way to keep the company afloat is to “adjust” employee wages because 92% of everything else it “out-of-bounds”?  I think you can see why we spent a lot of time discussing this…  This turned into a pretty lively discussion.

Learning about the “Time Value of Money” can be very helpful.  I had a financial calculator that I kept at the plant.  One day one of the Power Plant Men came to me and asked me to figure out how they could buy a Harley Davidson Motorcycle.  Earl Frazier said that he could only afford something like $230 per month and the wanted to buy this motorcycle.  How would he do that?  The motorcycle cost something like $38,000 or more.   I don’t remember the exact details.

A Harley Davidson Similar to the one Don Pierce had

A Harley Davidson Motorcycle

Sounds complicated doesn’t it?  How does a Power Plant Man buy a Harley Davidson for only $230.00 per month with only a four year loan?  Earl had heard that I knew all about the “Time Value of Money” and that if there was a way, I would be able to tell him how to do it.  His parameters were that the cost of the motorcycle was $38,000 (I’m just guessing as I don’t remember the exact amounts), and he could only pay $230 each month.

Well.  Even with a no interest loan, it would take over 13 years to pay for the motorcycle.  So, my only option for solving this problem was to pull out my financial calculator:

My Texas Instrument BAII Financial Calculator

My Texas Instrument BAII Plus Financial Calculator

This calculator allowed me to find the monthly payment quickly for a loan at a specific interest rate over a specific number of months.  So, I worked backward from that point.  I told Earl to come back in a couple of hours and I would let him know his options.

Earl Frazier

Earl Frazier

When Earl returned, I had his answer…. I told him this….  Each month he needed to begin putting his $230.00 into an annual CD at the bank for 5% (yeah… they had those at that time).  In two and a half years, he would stop doing that.  And just put his money in his regular checking account.  Then 9 months later, he takes the money in his checking account and buys the Harley Davidson.  This way he would put 10% down up front (because CDs would have been rolling into his account also).

Then, each month, as his CDs became available, he would roll part of them back into another year, leaving out a certain amount each time to supplement the $230.00 he would still be paying each month for his motorcycle, since his payments would be significantly higher than that.  Then exactly after 4 years, he would have used up all of the money in his account just as he would be paying off his motorcycle.  This would only work if he could get a loan for the motorcycle that charged 3.7% interest rate or less which was a reasonable rate at the time.

Earl responded by saying, “You mean I will have to wait 3 years before I can buy the motorcycle?!?!”  Yeah.  That was the bottom line… and by the end of it all, he would have to pay for the motorcycle over a 7 year period when it came down to it.    He wasn’t too happy about having to wait, but that was the only way he could do it for $230 monthly payments.

Here is a side story…  A few years later when I went to work for Dell, we also had Root Learning classes there as well.  Here is one of the posters we used during the class:


In this picture, Dell is the big boat at the top.  When I walked into the class I recognized the style of the poster right off the bat.  Oh!  Root Learning!  This will be fun.  These types of classes were a fun way to express the realities of the business and the obstacles they have to overcome to achieve their goals.

I still remember the leader at our table 13 years later.  His name is Jonah Vaught.  I worked with him about 5 years after that class.  I acted like I knew him, and I could tell that he was wondering where we had met.  So, I finally told him…. “You were the group leader when we were doing that Money Matters class back in 2002.”

End of Side story….

Now when I listen to the Dire Straits’ song “Money For Nothing” (like Paul Harvey’s “Rest of the Story”) you know what goes through my mind…   First sitting in the switchgear working on relays with Ben Davis listening to Rock and Roll on the radio (see the post:  “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“).

Secondly, I remember the Power Plant Men learning the “Time Value of Money” in a fun way that kept them interested.

Thirdly, I remember Charles Lay finally realizing when he was 63 years old that he was going to have to work the rest of his life because he hadn’t been saving for retirement…. See the post “Pain in the Neck Muskogee Power Plant Relay Testing“). Some times when you learn about the Time Value of Money…. it’s too late to do anything about it because time has already run out.


What’s That Strange Power Plant Smell?

Originally posted July 18, 2014

Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle?” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”

Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.

One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.


This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.

As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.

I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew the dust off of myself with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.

Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.

As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.

After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.

I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”

He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.

One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.

I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moonwalk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.

It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.

I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.

Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:


Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard.  It had a cotton looking filter on the top

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.

Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.

I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.

So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Door Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.

When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.

I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.

George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.

Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.

Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her through across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.

When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I let the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.

Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….

There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.

I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.

I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.

But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.

Placed on Light Duty at the Power Plant

Originally posted July 19, 2013:

In another profession being put on light duty may mean that you don’t have to work as hard as everyone else.  When an electrician is put on light duty it means something else entirely.  I think I calculated the number of lights and it was well over 10,000 light bulbs in the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Ideally you would think that every one of the lights should be in good working order.

Electricians don’t call a light bulb a light.  The light is the fixture.  The bulb is called a “lamp”.  So, for the rest of this post I’ll call the light bulbs “lamps”.

You may think that it’s pretty straight forward to go change out lights (oh.  I mean… lamps), but it’s not.  You see, it isn’t like in your house where you have the regular light bulbs everywhere with just different shapes and wattage.  Sure, there were different Watts for the different lamps, but for a good number of the lights, they varied by voltage as well.

Not only that, but these lamps were different types of lights.  Most of which are not incandescent (well… now that the government has seen fit to force the lighting industry to stop making incandescent lamps altogether, I guess it wouldn’t seem odd to the younger folks).

A descriptive picture of an Incandescent lamp found at

A descriptive picture of an Incandescent lamp found at

In the office areas and places like the main switchgear 4 foot fluorescent lamps were used.  Each 4 foot fluorescent lamp is 40 watts.  Just because it is 40 watts, it doesn’t mean that the voltage is low.  It can take up to 650 volts to start up a fluorescent lamp.  A Fluorescent lamp actually has a gas in it that causes a coating on the glass to glow when a current flows across the gas.

A fluorescent Lamp

A fluorescent Lamp

Besides the typical fluorescent lamps, the majority of the rest of the lamps in the plant were various sizes of Mercury Vapor lamps.  (now replaced with Sodium Vapor).

Before you become all twisted about using Mercury Vapor to light up a power plant because of the environmental impact, I think I should point out that even though a fluorescent lamp is filled with an inert gas like argon, it is mixed with Mercury vapor as well, and the phosphorous coating on the glass has mercury in it also.

So, if you have fluorescent lamps in your house…. Well, there you go.  And you know those lamps that are used to replace your old incandescent light bulbs….. Yep… and they have other kinds of hazardous metals as well.  I suppose it is good for the environment to take those hazardous materials out of the earth and put them in lamps in your houses.  Isn’t that improving the environment?

The thing about using Fluorescent lamps and Mercury Vapors and Sodium Vapor lamps is that they all use different voltages.  So, in order for them to start up and stay running, the voltages have to change from the start up voltage to the operating voltage.  Each lamp has it’s own transformer designed just for that one type of lamp.  It is placed in the light fixture for the lamp.

You can tell this is a 100 Watt Mercury Vapor lamp because of the 10.  If it had a 25, then it would be a 250 watt lamp.   Following the same logic if it has a 75 on it, then it is a 75 watt lamp..... oh...well.. the logic is there somewhere

You can tell this is a 100 Watt Mercury Vapor lamp because of the 10. If it had a 25, then it would be a 250 watt lamp. Following the same logic if it has a 75 on it, then it is a 75 watt lamp….. oh…well.. the logic is there somewhere

If the light glows blue, then it is mercury vapor.  If it is orange then it is a sodium light.  Your street lights are the same way.  Well.  Now there is also Halogen lamps which shine white.

Besides these different type lamps, we also had some super special lights.  We have the flashing lights on the smoke stack and the red blinking light on the top of the radio tower.  The lights that flash on the smoke stacks are really flashbulbs.

A flash tube used in a smoke stack beacon that can easily be seen 50 miles away at night.  Especially when the day time setting is still on

A flash tube used in a smoke stack beacon that can easily be seen 50 miles away at night. Especially when the day time setting is still on

Our smoke stacks are 500 feet tall with beacons at the 250 foot level and the 500 foot level.  Not only did you have to change out the bulb, but you often had to change out the large capacitors and the circuit boards that had been fried by a passing lightning storm.

You may have heard that with the older style Television sets that had a picture tube (before the flat screen TVs came around), that you could electrocute yourself by taking the cover off the back of the TV and working on it, even though you unplugged the set from the wall before you started.  A few movies used this in the plot.  Robert T. Ironside even used it once in an episode during the first season.

Robert T. Ironside played by Raymond Burr

Robert T. Ironside played by Raymond Burr

Well.  The Stack lights are like that.  When we opened up the light fixture to work on the flash tube or the circuits inside the first thing you did was take a metal rod with a wooden handle and a wire attached with a clip on the end and clipped the wire to the handrail.  Then turning your head the other way, you placed the metal rod across each of the large capacitors in the box.   Invariably, one of the capacitors would let out a loud pop that would echo across the lake…. oh, and leave your ears ringing.

Once the voltage was discharged from all the capacitors, you knew it was safe to go to work fixing the light.  The lights had a day and a night mode, and the difference was how many times the flash tube flashed when it discharged.  What I mean to say is that it wasn’t just one flash.  It is really a series of flashes closely timed to look like one flash.  The number of flashes and the timing between the flashes determine how bright the flash is.

At night the flash was much dimmer because it didn’t need to be so bright.  When it was stuck in the day mode at night the farmers for a 30 mile radius would be calling saying they can’t sleep because every 6 seconds their bedroom would light up as the smoke stack lights would blink.

The Lake on a hill with the power plant in the distance at sunset

The Lake on a hill with the power plant in the distance at sunset

I thought I would just put that picture in there so you could see how pretty the plant looked from across the lake at sunset.  To me it looked like a big ship on the horizon.

I mentioned above that there was a radio tower that had a light on it that needed to be changed when it burned out.  The actual lamp looked a lot like a regular incandescent bulb in your house, but it was different.  It was designed just for this job.  It didn’t burn out very often.  Ok.  I can see your look of disbelief, so here is a picture of one:

A radio tower light bulb

A radio tower light bulb

Yeah, looks just like something in your house.  Doesn’t it?

Anyway.  I changed out the light at the top of our radio tower which is only about 200 feet tall.  It looked like the following picture:

Our tower was like this only it didn't have a safety pole up the side for a lanyard.

Our tower was like this only it didn’t have a safety pole up the side for a lanyard.

I had to climb to the top of this tower to replace the red flashing light.  I was by myself when I did it.  Bill Bennett handed me the bulb that had been specially ordered and asked me if I would do it.  If not, they could call Oklahoma City and have the line crew come down and change it.  I told him I could do it.  The tower wasn’t that tall, and I had shimmied around the top of the smoke stack before at 500 feet with only a slight urge to panic.

I changed the lamp out without incident.  I know that some people have a much more interesting job changing these lights out than I had.  Our radio tower was only 200 feet tall.  Here is a video of someone that had to climb a tower 1768 feet high.  You can see the beacon when they reach the top of this radio tower:

if your browser doesn’t play the video from the picture try this link:  “Climbing a 1768 foot tower“.

Ok.  That is crazy!  Wouldn’t dropping someone from a helicopter onto the tower using a safety line be safer?

My last story about being on light duty at a power plant is about when Ted Riddle and I were working at the gas-fired power plant near Mustang, Oklahoma.  I talked about the time that Ted and I worked at this plant in the post “Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark

While we were there after they found out that we were electric conduit running fools, they gave us all sorts of jobs running conduit all over the plant.  One job they showed us was in an area that was dark.  All the lights were out in this area.  The foreman explained where the light bulbs were kept.  They were just the regular incandescent lights like the normal lights you would have in your house.

Well… Ted and I had both been put on Light Duty at our plant, and we knew that when we went to change out one light, we were supposed to change out all the lights that were out.  So, Ted and I each grabbed a box and a ladder and headed up to the boiler enclosure to change lights.

After lunch, the foreman came running up to us yelling, “What did you do?  You used up all of the light bulbs!”  Well.  Yes.  We had used up the lights, but now when you go up on the boiler you can see where you are going.  The foreman then explained to us  that this little plant didn’t have the same kind of budget that the new big plants had.  They couldn’t afford to just go around replacing all the lights whenever they burned out.  They only put in a light when someone has to work in that area.  We had lit the entire place up like a Christmas tree.

Ok.  Take a note Jan… Don’t replace all the lights if they are incandescent.

Ok (again), that wasn’t quite the last story.  Let me tell you some more about replacing Fluorescent lamps in our Coal-fired power plant.  When we were placed on Light Duty, we would grab a couple of boxes of 30 lamps from the pallet in the main switchgear and go to work.

In the main switchgear the lights were up high, so we used a 10 foot ladder with a stand on the top of it (No.  I don’t mean like a Deer stand…. geez… Power Plant men…. always thinkin’ ’bout huntin’).  Actually it is called a Platform ladder:

This is a 6 foot platform ladder.  Ours was 10 foot and very wobbly

This is a solid 6 foot platform ladder. Ours was 10 foot and very wobbly

I didn’t like using this wobbly ladder when I was by myself.  besides being wobbly, the thing weighed a ton.  So, I would take a smaller ladder and put it on top of the breaker cabinets and climb on top of them.  The only problem here was that I couldn’t get directly under the lights, so I would end up reaching out to one side to change a light while I was standing on a ladder on top of a seven foot cabinet.  Not a pretty sight if someone safety minded walked in.

I felt safer doing this than standing way up in the air on a 10 foot wobbly platform ladder.  I always had the feeling that if I sneezed, the ladder would topple over.  The rule of thumb was to keep your belt buckle within the rungs on the ladder.

When we were done changing out fluorescent lamps, we usually had a stack of boxes of burned out lamps.  We couldn’t just throw them in the dumpster because they were a safety hazard as they were.  We had to break each bulb.  We found that we could take a box of 4 foot fluorescent lamps and back the truck over it and it would let out a low but loud boom that sounded like a cannon going off.

The ingenious electricians invented a bulb busting barrel where you slid one 4 foot bulb into a tube and then lifted a handle quickly, and it would explode the lamp in the safe confines of the metal barrel.  The end of the lamp may at times come shooting out the end of the tube, so you never wanted to be standing to that side of the barrel.  I would show you a picture of one, but I’ve never found another one like it.

So, if you were into breaking glass, this was the best part of being placed on Light Duty.  After a hard day of changing out lamps all over the plant, you could stand around in front of the electric shop and slide the lamps down a tube like mortar shell and pull the rod and…. Boom! A puff of Mercury Vapor released into the atmosphere a small cloud of dust…. repeat.

Comment from original post:

  1. Ron Kilman July 24, 2014

    I remember being on “Light Duty” at the Mustang Power Plant as a summer student in 1967. We changed the 1000 watt bulbs in the top of the turbine room. It was so hot, we had to wear gloves.

A Day in the Life of Power Plant Man and the Sign Hangin’ Chain Gang

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

No one knows more about having to put up with the antics of Summer Help than the Power Plant Man Jim Heflin.  Though Jim wasn’t completely a True Power Plant Man, he was nevertheless certified as a Bonafide Caretaker of Summer Help Helpers.

I understood after a couple of years of being a Summer Help myself that the reason that Summer Help were called by that name was because they really did indeed need help.  Though some may think that this help could best be found in the company of a licensed Therapist, most of the time what they really needed was a good dose of Summer Help chores to keep them out of trouble and to teach them the fine art of labor in its most tedious and repetitious form.

Though I’m not sure, it could have been Jim Heflin that talked Stanley Elmore into allowing the summer help to attach the signs to the barbed wire fence that surrounded the Electric Company property that enclosed the Power Plant itself as well as the lake that was built to be used as cooling water in the condenser.  I say that because it didn’t seem like it was a long time after I had answered the phone one day in the garage and I found Jim Heflin’s wife on the other end of the line calling to talk to Jim, that we were assigned to the task of installing the signs.

Jim wasn’t in the shop at the time so she told me to tell Jim that his wife Brenda had called.

It just so happened that my girlfriend at the time (who I later married and lived happily ever after) and I had a joke character that we would talk about named “Brenda Bulldog”.  It is a long story to tell about Brenda Bulldog, so I’ll just say that it has to do with “Otto” in the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip, and his girlfriend “Polly Bulldog” who is always suspicious of another bulldog named “Brenda Bulldog”.  I’m sure that you all have the same sort of characters that you talk about in your family… um… don’t you?

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

So, obviously, when she told me that her name was Brenda, I just had to respond as Otto would respond.  So I said in a gruff but excited voice (rolling the “R” in the word Brenda in my throat), “Brenda Bulldog?!?”  Jim’s Wife responded by asking what I had said, so I responded back exactly as I had the first time, “Brenda Bulldog?!?”

I guess she misunderstood my intentions because she sounded obviously disgruntled as she explained to me in no uncertain terms that she was not a bulldog.  I answered back by insisting that this was, “Brenda Bulldog!” She repeated again that she was not a bulldog and told me to just tell Jim to call her at home when he returned to the garage.

When Jim came back from the Maintenance Shop I told him that his wife had called, and I added, “By the way.  I called her “Brenda Bulldog”.  I explained to him that I just couldn’t help it when I heard her name was Brenda, I just had to say “Brenda Bulldog”.  I couldn’t help it.  It just came out.  He looked a little mystified by my explanation and quickly went into the office to call home.

I guess in hindsight, after having met Brenda in person it probably wasn’t a good idea to have called her “Brenda Bulldog”.  First of all, not only did Jim Heflin have the face that reminded you of a likable Basset hound, but Brenda really did kind of remind you of a bulldog (a slight underbite).  If I had known that earlier, I am sure I would have insisted that she was Brenda Poodle.  That would be the most logical response given the circumstance.

Kind of like this

A couple of days later a pickup truck was backed up to the garage and in the back were bundles of thin metal signs.  Each sign was about the size of a piece of paper.  the sign was white and had red lettering.  There were two different signs.  One that indicated that this was the Property of the Electric company and that a person should only enter at designated areas.  The other had a set of warnings or rules, which I can’t remember anymore.

There were 4,500 of each type of sign.  It was our job to take the signs and to bolt them together with small nuts and bolts that were supplied in buckets.  As we bolted them together we placed them in boxes and put them in the back of the truck, where we went around the fence line surrounding the lake and the plant and every third section of fence (about 30 feet) we would mount the sign onto the barbed wire fence.  It would take about 4,500 of each of the signs to completely cover the perimeter of the property.

In the back of my mind I could hear Jim Heflin say to Stanley Elmore after he hung up the call with his wife, “Stanley.  Wouldn’t it be a good chore for the summer help to hang all those signs around the 25 mile perimeter of the electric company property?”  And Stanley replying, “Jim!  That’s a brilliant idea!”

So began the long trek of hanging signs.  We had a small blue Mitsubishi Tractor that we used to travel around the fence line in areas where the truck couldn’t easily go.

A tractor just like this

It had a small trailer on the back of it that we would pile a bunch of sign assemblies (the two signs bolted together).  Then we would walk or ride behind the tractor as we went from fence post to fence post mounting the signs evenly between the posts every third section.

This was a brilliant way to teach the young and inexperienced summer help the art of patience as well as the art of subservience.  This way, later in life when the summer help became a Power Plant Man-in-Training, or even a mechanic or electrician and was asked to do something that may seem boring to the average citizen, all the summer help had to do was remember the time they had to hang 4,500 signs on barbed wire fences and even the most boring tasks seemed like an exciting ride on a roller coaster in comparison.

For those power plant men who knew me as a janitor, now maybe they can understand how I could find so much enjoyment sweeping the turbine room floor (about the size of a football field) over and over with a red dust mop.

Like this only with a mop handle

Anyway, during our time while traversing the wilds along the fence line, it gave the summer help time to think.  I was working with a good friend of mine by the name of Tim Flowers.  We had become friends while I had attended Oklahoma University in Norman my first year in college (before going to Missouri University in Columbia for my last 3 years).  So, my fourth year as a summer help, Tim came to work alongside me.

Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad (as well as Opal Ward — or was it Opal Brien at the time) used to take turns shuffling us around the fence line.  When we were with Jim Heflin we would spend our time in the intellectual pursuit of inventing new “Burning Cat” jokes.

This was a skill I had picked up from my father who was a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.  He had come home one day from work with the latest copy of a Veterinary journal.  In the journal was a set of “Burning Cat” jokes that he read to me.  I’m sure you must already know them.

There were jokes like, “Why did the Burning Cat cross the road?” “So that it could burn on the other side.”  Or “Knock, Knock”  “Who’s there?”  “Burning”, “Burning who?”  “Burning Cat.”  Or “What did one burning cat say to the other burning cat when he met him in a bar?”  “That’s silly.  Everyone knows that a burning cat can’t talk when they’re on fire.”

We made it a goal to come up with at least one new burning cat joke every day.  This came in handy later on when I was in my last year in college and I became known as the “Burning Cat Man” in Columbia, Missouri as I would tell burning cat jokes to the workers at the Subway every time my friend Ben Cox and I would go there to eat a sub sandwich.  I would be introduced as “The Burning Cat Man” when customers would come in while we were there.

When we were with Ken Conrad we would think about more esoteric subjects like, “What does a cow think about while it is chewing it’s cud?”

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

We would go on and on speculating “Maybe the cow is meditating about the full meaning of life and whether or not the self is the center of his being or is it somewhere else, or is it just that he’s thinking that his ear itches and he can’t reach it with his tail.  He can only twitch it”

We would think about these things as we would be passing some cows standing opposite across the fence.   We would wonder if they stood around trying to think up jokes that would entertain themselves since they had to stand out in the hot sun all day.  Maybe they thought about burning cats, or even chickens crossing the road.

At first we couldn’t tell if Ken was even listening to us until one time, the tractor started to swerve a bit and he pulled it to a stop so that he could turn around and tell us that we were the strangest bunch of kids he had ever run across.  But I could tell that we had started him thinking about it.  I’m pretty sure that it was on his mind for quite a while.  “What is that cow thinking about?”

Every once in a while I knew that Ken Conrad had gained some enlightenment because he would suddenly turn to me and say, “Hey Sweet Pea!”  And then he would grin real big.  Yep.  He knew.  The meaning of life was within his grasp.

Anyway, long story short, before all the signs were hung by the barbed wire with care, I went up to the main office and asked Eldon Waugh if I could talk to him.  He was the plant manager.  The one I often have referred to as the “Evil Plant Manager”.  Mostly because I think he would have liked that title.  He worked so hard to obtain it.

I asked him if he had an opening at the plant because I would like to go to work there permanently.  He said there was a janitor position opening up and if it was all right with Ken Scott he would hire me.  So he paged Ken and asked him to come up to his office.

When he arrived, Eldon asked Ken if he thought they ought to hire me because I wanted to work at the plant full time.  Ken said that he would be happy to hire me on as a janitor.

I don’t know if Ken realized at the time how much trouble I would cause in the years that followed, because I always had come across as a fairly decent person up to that point.  I don’t know if he ever regretted his decision.  I’m pretty sure that Eldon did and I know that Bill Moler regretted it when he returned from his summer vacation to find me standing in the janitor closet across from his office.

He was none too happy about it.  Especially since he considered it his job to do the hiring for people in the maintenance shop.  Bill knew that I had already expressed my willingness to open my mouth and reveal my innermost thoughts right to someone’s face at the most inappropriate moments.  I used to explain that I took after my Italian Mother who always spoke twice before thinking.

That was how I was able to escape the sign hangin’ chain gang and became the Janitor that I was always meant to be!  Years later the words had worn off of the signs, but the white signs were still hanging from those barbed wire fences for as long as I can remember.  Now that I think about it, I wonder what Jim Heflin was thinking when I became a janitor and he still had to tote babbling summer helps around the wilderness in the hot sun with an endless supply of Burning Cat Jokes.

Was he wishing that he had thought twice before he spoke about having us hang the signs?  Or maybe he didn’t and I just imagined that he was slightly upset all because I had said those two impulsive words….. “Brenda Bulldog!”

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin


Comment from previous Repost

  1. Ron   July 24, 2013:

    Good Story!
    I still remember my first job as a “Summer Student” at the Mustang Plant (1967). Ben Snow and I worked from the top of the turbine room crane and changed out all the burned-out light bulbs (1,000 watt incandescent). Boy – that was one HOT job!

Making Power Plant Friends with Motor Alignment

I know I’m getting old when I pick up a small piece of paper and I am suddenly taken back 17 years to the day I pulled the small page from the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. Notepad sitting on the desk in the Electric Shop office.  It was the day that I was finally able to come to the aid of a noble Power Plant Man that the plant generally referred to as “Stick”.

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary McCain, or Stick, is a tall thin Power Plant Man (sort of like a stick) known for his intellect and knowledge of “Machine Language”.  In this case, “Machine Language” refers to the ability to understand how machines work, not how to talk directly to computers using zeroes and ones.

Gary had just walked into the Electric Shop office at the power plant in North Central Oklahoma as lunch was ending.  He was carrying a textbook, which seemed odd right off the bat.  He explained that some of the machinists and mechanics had been sent to motor alignment school and they had been given this textbook in case they wanted to refer back to the material that was covered in the class.

Gary sat down next to me and set the book on the desk opening it to the page he had bookmarked (Yeah.  We used to use books made out of paper, and we put pieces of paper between pages to bookmark the pages we wanted to remember…  Bookmarking wasn’t something new with Internet browsers).

Gary (am I going to start all my paragraphs with the word “Gary”?  Maybe the next paragraph, I’ll just say “That tall guy”) pointed to a formula on the page and asked me if it was possible to use the computer to make calculations that will help him align motors using this formula.

I told that tall guy (Gary) that we could use a program called “Excel” (from Microsoft) that could be used to solve problems just like that.  So, I grabbed the small sheet of paper off of the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. notepad and wrote down the variables for the formula on one side, and the four formulas on the back side.  Here is what I wrote:

Variables for the Motor Alignment formulas

Variables for the Motor Alignment formulas

Oh yeah.  I think I ripped off the corner of the paper to use as a bookmark because I didn’t like the one Gary was using.  It was too small.

Motor Alignment Formulas (or is it Formulae?)

Motor Alignment Formulas (or is it Formulae?)

I guess at this point I should stop and tell you what is meant by “motor alignment” and why machinists and mechanics are interested in this in the first place.

The alignment that is done with a motor is performed when you are putting a pump back in place or some other equipment like a gear box or fan shaft or… well… a lot of things.  You have to make sure that the shaft on the motor is perfectly aligned with the pump otherwise it will quickly tear something up when you turn it on.

motor coupled to a compressor

motor coupled to a compressor

This picture shows how the motor is aligned up with the compressor so that the red coupling lines up perfectly.  Once it is aligned the coupling can be bolted together to connect the motor to the pump.

Notice that the motor has bolts to mount it to the skid in the front and the back on both sides, as well as the pump.  These are called “Feet”.  Usually when you put the pump and the motor back in place, they don’t line up perfectly, so thin pieces of brass called “shims” are used to raise the various feet just the right amount so that the shaft on the motor and shaft on the pump are looking right at each other.

A special piece of equipment is used to check the alignment.  It is called a “Dial Caliper” and it is mounted to the coupling on the motor and the pump with a magnet and it tests the alignment as it is rotated around.

A mounted dial caliper used to measure the alignment of the motor

A mounted dial caliper used to measure the alignment of the motor

I’m sorry if I’m boring those of you who don’t immediately see the beauty of Motor Alignment.  Try pretending that the dial caliper is something invented by ancient aliens if you need to make this part of the post more interesting (actually, who needs ancient aliens when you have machinists?).

Gary told me that the company was looking into buying laser guided motor alignment machines for only $30,000 a piece.  They would probably buy three of them that could be used between the four main plants.  He said that he didn’t think we needed them if we could use these formulas to calculate exactly how to align the motors.  This would save the company around $90,000 and at the same time show the mechanics the “joy of math”!

So, I made some notes on another page which simplified, (or maybe complicated) the formulas further.  Then I sat down at the computer and began putting them into Excel.  The idea was to have the person doing the motor alignment take some notes, then go to the computer and enter them into the Excel sheet and it would tell them right away how many shims to put under any of the 8 feet (four on the motor and four on the pump).

Here are the notes I made:

Notes made to calculate the motor alignment

Notes made to calculate the motor alignment

If you are Jesse Cheng (or some other old time calculator geek), you can see what I was doing with my notes.  I was thinking of the next steps… which I’ll explain below…. (oh… ok… I’ll tell you… this is the code that you would use if you were creating a program for a Casio calculator).

After creating the spreadsheet, Gary headed out the door to go start aligning a motor using our newfangled motor alignment method.  A little while later he came back into the shop and pulling out his handy dandy notepad he read off the notes he had taken while he put the values into Excel…  When he was finished, he wrote down the results and headed back out the door to add the proper shims to the motor and the pump.

A notepad like this

Handy Dandy Power Plant Notepad

We had to tweak the program a little to work out the bugs, but after a couple of tries it worked very well and Gary was pleased.  Only, there was one problem with this method…  Over the next couple of weeks, Gary would come bursting into the electric shop office interrupting me and Charles Foster while we were having a deep discussion about the virtues of banana peppers on ham sandwiches.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

So, I suggested to Gary that we could use a calculator to do the same thing that we were doing with the spreadsheet.  That way he wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to the computer.  Instead, he could just stand there at the motor and enter the information and have it display the answers that he was seeking.

Right off the bat (hmm… the second time I have used that “cliche”…. I need to read more often), Gary didn’t understand how a calculator could do this.  So, I explained to him that some calculators are programmable and I can write a program on the calculator that would do just that.  I said, “Let me show you”….. After all, I had grown up in Missouri (the Show Me State)…  So, I took my calculator off of the top of the filing cabinet and placed it on the table.

My Sharp Calculator with the Thermal printer connecting to a tape recorder

My Sharp Calculator with the Thermal printer connecting to a tape recorder

I used the thermal printer to connect the calculator to the tape recorder to store my programs, so I didn’t have to enter them manually after I entered them once.

I took my notes and wrote the following program and entered it into the calculator.

The short quick version of the calculator program

The short quick version of the calculator program

I gave the calculator to Gary and showed him how to run the program and sent him to try it out for himself.  He was very excited about this and offered some suggestions to make the program easier to use.

A few days later Gary caught me walking across the maintenance shop and showed me a catalog with various calculators for sale.  He said he wanted to buy some calculators for the shop so that every person that had been trained to align motors had a calculator with a program on it.  I showed him a Casio calculator that would work for about $70.  So, he ordered a better one.

A Casio CFX-9850G

Gary ordered the Casio CFX-9850G

Even though the language for programming it was different than the Sharp calculator, it didn’t take long for me to write a program for it that did the same thing since I had sort of already written it by that time.  After Gary proved to his foreman that the calculator worked, he ordered several more and when they arrived he asked me if I could program them as well.

It took almost a half hour just to type the program into each calculator, so I bought a small pigtail that connected two calculators together.  This allowed me to copy the program from one calculator to another one.  So, when Gary arrived one day with a box of over 20 calculators for the rest of the plants, it took me longer to open the packages than it did to copy the program from one calculator to the next.

The pigtail I used to connect the calculators

The pigtail I used to connect the calculators

Since the calculator was a graphic calculator, I thought about improving the program by drawing a little picture of a motor shaft and a pump shaft and showing how they were out of alignment after the information was entered, but I never took the time to do that as I was on to another computer project by that time (which I will write about later).

So, think about this.  The company was willing to buy $90,000 worth of laser-guided motor alignment equipment to do something that machinists and mechanics already knew how to do.  The specialized equipment would work, and it might have been faster I suppose.  With the aid of a programmable calculator, however, a mechanic can stand at the motor, takes a few measurements and come up with the same results probably just as fast as the laser-guided motor alignment gizmo could do it.

Either way, the mechanic still had to install the same number of shims under the same feet whether they used the calculator and the dial caliper or the laser beam.  The 26 or so calculators that were purchased for the four plants came up to less than $2,000, which is a savings of $88,000.  I don’t think the laser would have saved that much time.  It still had to be carried over to the motor and plugged in and mounted on the motor.  My guess is that as soon as the laser was dropped on the floor accidentally, it would have been broken anyway.

The best part of this little project was that I was able to help out a True Power Plant Man Gary McCain, that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to help much before.  Gary didn’t need much help as he is one of those Power Plant Men that people seek out when they need advice. So, when he came to me and asked for help with the computer, I was more than glad to do what I could to help him.

Sometimes it is a little difficult for my wife to understand why I keep scraps of paper laying around that have meaningless scribbles on them.  One might be a doodle that some friend of mine created one day while talking on the phone.  Another might be a fortune from a cookie that I opened when I was eating lunch with a coworker.  Today the piece of paper I picked up happened to have a mathematical formula written on the back.

I think my son understands now that when I seem to be picking up trash off of the table and a tear comes to my eye, it isn’t because I have just picked up something rotten, but because I have just been transported back in time to place where I am with some people that I love.  It doesn’t stop him from saying, “Dad?  It’s just a piece of paper.  Geez!”  Well… I know I’m getting old… but that scrap of paper is poetry to me.

Printing Impossible Power Plant Fast News Post

Originally posted: July 12, 2014:

Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma didn’t have a clue the large can of worms he opened the day in 1988 when he told me to find out all I could about the company computer in Corporate Headquarters…. The one that ran all the important financial systems for the company. I remember going straight down to the Electric Shop office and sending a request for a username on the Honeywell Mainframe to the IT department, with Tom’s approval.

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

This story is a continuation of two previous stories…. Last week I wrote a post called: “Power Plant Customer Service Team Gone Wild“. This is the next shoe that dropped in that story…. Earlier this year I wrote a post called: “Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible“. Well, this is the second story in the list of “Impossible Things” Power Plant Electricians were able to accomplish when others said it couldn’t be done.

As a reminder… and in case you didn’t read last week’s post…. as a summary….. let me just say that I had printed out a form on every printer in the company as part of a “Quality Idea” our team was investigating. In doing so, I sent commands to the printers to change their quality settings, as well as the Font Size and a few other settings. When I ran the little known command that sent the document to every printer listed on the mainframe, I didn’t realize that this included all the billing, paycheck and work order printers that all had their special kinds of paper and setting for those particular jobs to run.

This was probably the biggest “Faux Pas” (pronounced “Foe Paw” — yeah…. French… which literally means: “False Step”) of my 18 years as an Electrician. Before I tell you about how the second shoe dropped… Let me explain that a few weeks before I had hit enter on the keyboard sending the disastrous command to the Mainframe, In June, 1993, I had found an interesting program on the Honeywell mainframe called “Magna 8”.

It had to do with creating reports from the main database. This was the entire database that ran the Electric Company Business! I thought this would be a great program to learn in order to create all kinds of reports for our plant that would help us understand where our efforts were being spent. I thought I might actually be able to tie our Maintenance Orders to the time the employees spent on them to their wages, and to the cost of the parts used…. Nothing like that existed at the time, and the little I was able to read from the Magna 8 User Manual on the mainframe, this seemed like just the ticket..

We had never heard of SAP, or other ERP systems at the time. — Oh… sorry… ERP stands for “Enterprise Resource Planning”. It does just that. It combines all the company’s business together in one application so that you can account for all the costs down to each machine, person, and part. If I could learn more about Magna 8, maybe I could start piecing these pieces together from the database. I was having one problem…. When I would page down in the user manual, it kept skipping the bottom half of every page….

I couldn’t figure out how to stop it from scrolling past the second half of each page. So, I called in a favor from the IT guys downtown and asked them if they could send me a printed copy of the Magna 8 User’s Manual. They said they could be glad to send me a copy. About a week later, I received the User Manual through company mail. It was about 4 inches thick.

There were different sections. One was called: “The Update Module”. Yeah…. That’s right…. It was used to enter data into the database…. I thought about that module for about 2 seconds and decided I best stay away from that one. Then there was the “Reporting Module”.

That was the one I was looking for. — on a side note…. I know “for” is a preposition, and I know you aren’t supposed to end a sentence in a preposition, however, who doesn’t say, “That’s what I was looking for”? In these circumstances, I figure that I better approach it from a whole different angle…. like…. “That’s the section I really wanted.” — End side note.

A couple of weeks after I received the copy of the Magna 8 User Guide, I sent the infamous form to all the printers in the company, and that’s when I was sort of had all my “atta boys” taken away with that one “Uh Oh”. I was all prepared to watch my step while on the mainframe. About a week after the episode in Tom’s office when he told me not to send anything outside the plant without Ron Kilman’s permission, my foreman, Andy Tubbs came in the office and told me that in two days, I was supposed to go to some training in Oklahoma City.

“Oh. Training!” One of my favorite things! I always liked to learn new things. I asked Andy what the training was for (Oh geez… did I really say that? “For” at the end of the sentence again! — how about “I asked Andy what kind of training would I be taking” — yeah…. that’s what I said…). Andy replied, “Something called ‘Magna 8′”.

Oh No! I hadn’t asked for training! I had just asked for the user guide! Now I was scheduled to go to training in Oklahoma City and I knew that no one at the plant had “okay-ed” it. Now what was I supposed to do? I did the only thing I could think of at the time…. I asked Andy where I was supposed to go at Corporate Headquarters for the class.

Since I knew that this class hadn’t been approved by Tom Gibson or even our A Foreman Bill Bennett, I decided that I was going to go on my own dime…. that is, I wasn’t going to expense anything. I would pay for my own mileage and lunch, etc. Hopefully, no one would notice that I was gone that day. — Anyway, I could always fall back on the fact that my own Foreman Andy had told me to go….

So, when the day came, I drove to Oklahoma City and entered Corporate Headquarters dressed in my cleanest steel-toed work boots and my cleanest tee-shirt!

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

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

Yeah.  Just like this

Yeah. Just like this — not not really

When I introduced myself to the instructor, Scott Overmeyer, I told him I was surprised that I had been scheduled for this class. He told me that since I had requested the User Guide that he figured that I should attend this course so that I would know how to use Magna 8 to create reports. — Well, that explained it.

The classroom was short on computers so we had to share one computer between two people. I sat in the back row on the right side if you are facing the instructor. A young lady sat next to me. Her name was something like Laura Burgert. We didn’t introduce ourselves right off the bat. We spent the morning learning about how our database was structured.

Our database was not what is referred to as a “relational database”. I’m not even sure if that term was being used at the time…. anyway, we had what is called a “Hierarchical Database”. The relationships are more like a family tree. If you needed to connect the data, you had to go up the tree to where you could go back down another branch… sort of like if you were into Genealogy and you were looking for your 3rd cousin twice removed. This was all new to me.

I found this diagram of a simple Hierarchical Database model on Wikipedia

I found this diagram of a simple Hierarchical Database model on Wikipedia

Anyway, this isn’t an important part of this story, so don’t strain your brain trying to figure it out.

When noon came around and we were just breaking for lunch, Laura Burgert said to me, “You’re Kevin Breazile! You’re the guy that printed out that form on everyone’s printers!” I replied, “Yeah, that’s me. I sure was in trouble for that one.”

She replied that they had been trying to do something like that for a long time. Then she explained… “I work in the Communication Department and we create the Fast News Bulletins that are sent out to the printers….”

You see… this was what you had to do before e-mail was available…. When there was some news about the company that they wanted to disseminate to all the employees quickly, they would send out a Fast News bulletin to the printers and we would post it on the bulletin board in our area.

She continued to explain….. We have asked IT to give us a list of printers that we should send the Fast New Bulletins, because we know that our list is old and we are sending some to printers that messes up billing jobs and other things…. I said, “Yeah. I know all about those.”

She continued to explain some more…. IT told us there isn’t any way to tell which printers are good printers and which ones we shouldn’t be sending Fast News Bulletins. I replied, “Well…. I know which ones are good and which ones are not. I have all the forms that were sent to me. You can tell right away by the paper they are printed on, and if that’s not enough to give you a hint, just read the ‘colorful’ notes they wrote to me trying to convince me not to print on their printers anymore…”

Laura said it would be a great help if I could send those forms to her. I said I would do it as soon as I was back at the plant.

When I arrived at the plant the next morning, and Andy Tubbs told me that Tom Gibson was upset when he found that I had gone to Oklahoma City for training when Bill Bennett had mentioned it to him the day before. He had been all hot because he hadn’t approved any training and here I was going off on my own to Oklahoma City. I told Andy…. Well…. You did tell me to go….

Anyway, after that I gathered up the stack of around 500 forms and carried them up to the mail room where Denise Anson helped me put them in a small box to mail them to Laura Burghart.

A few weeks went by and Laura called me on the phone. She asked me how I had created the header on the forms. You see, I had created a header with the name of the company and part of the name was normally smaller and had one word over the top of another so….. well…… let me just show you…..

An example of the Company Memo Header on our Dot Matrix Printer

An example of the Company Memo Header on our Dot Matrix Printer – without the “Quality” turned on

Notice the “GAS/AND” in the middle of the name of the company…. — This doesn’t look like anything to you today, because we now have laser printers and Publishers and all sorts of Word Art at our fingertips. But back then, printing this from a mainframe document took some work…. let me explain, just to give you an idea.

First, I had to space all the way out to where the word GAS starts, then I had to turn on the underline and decrease the font size to the size of the small letters and print out the word GAS then I had to turn off the underline and backspace the three characters, change the font back to the large size, then backspace all the way back to the beginning of the line, then print out the word Oklahoma and a space, then change the font back to small and print out the word AND then change the font back to the large size, and continue with the rest of the line. Yeah… I had to send backspace commands to the printer…. I was pretty proud of my header.

You can see by the Memo above that I had been using it for almost a year. The picture above isn’t even using the “Quality” setting on the printer which even made it look a lot sharper.

Anyway, on with the story…… The Fast News Bulletin’s header had a simple design. The “F” in Fast was created using a bunch of F’s. The A using a bunch of A’s. Like this:


Yeah… pretty embarass… um… I mean exciting huh? Laura was looking for a way to add some Quality to the Fast News Bulletin. I told her that I could create large block letters using the graphic commands on the printer I asked her what her printer ID was and I quickly created a Fast News Bulletin for her with a real header: Fast-News-Header Laura was excited and said that she may be getting back to me soon…. which she did a few weeks later. She asked if I could attend the first meeting of a new Task Force they had created to enhance the Fast News. I said I would be glad to attend, but I would first have to have permission from my Electric Supervisor before I could go.

She said she would take care of it…. and she did.

Ben Brandt, our Assistant Plant Manager wanted to know why I was being asked to show up to a Corporate Communication Task Force! — “Uh… I don’t know.” I replied. Knowing that everything I did outside the plant grounds was being questioned after my previous “misstep”.

Memo Ben Brandt Received

Memo Ben Brandt Received

So, one day I showed up at Corporate Headquarters again. Laura Burgert was there to greet me. She told me where to sit along a big long table in a meeting room. I was to sit about halfway down the table, while she sat on one end of the table.

When others came in, the IT person that was on the committee… I believe his name was Mike Russell sat on the far end from Laura. Laura opened the meeting by explaining the reason for the task force and when she finished she said, “For starters we were thinking that instead of using the ugly Fast News header we have been using, we would like to have a header like this…. And she passed a copy of the Fast News Bulletin I had printed out on her printer that day when she called me.

When Mike Russell saw it, he replied, “Our Printers can’t print a header like this.” Laura looked over at me, as if she wanted me to reply to Mike’s remark. So, I said, “This was printed out on the standard IBM network printer.”

Mike replied by saying, “No. Our printers can’t print like this. It’s impossible.” I repeated that this Fast News was printed out on Laura’s IBM printer from the mainframe just like the regular Fast News is printed out. I even told him that I could send him a copy of the header so that he could print it out and see for himself.

He said, “There’s no need to do that. Our printers can’t print this out.” — Though he held a bulletin in his hands that was printed out on our Standard IBM printer.

At then end of the meeting Laura thanked me for coming. She said, “See? This is what we have been dealing with. They probably weren’t going to be able to go anywhere with this.” I just nodded…. I thanked her for inviting me and I returned to the plant 75 miles north.

I guess it didn’t matter too much. A few months later and we were all being introduced to E-Mail, as I had been running telephone cable all over the plant so that we could set up a new NT Server network using Netware 4.0. Which used Novell’s GroupWise for e-mail. Fast News then just showed up in our Inbox.

It’s funny how things work out. What are the odds? I wreak havoc by sending a “rogue” form to printers that should be left alone, only to have those forms become useful to another department after I was “accidentally” enrolled in a training course where I happened to sit next to the one person in the company that could benefit from that printing blunder. Which then led her to look at ways to improve the Fast News Bulletin that she was responsible for creating….

Then the IT department refused to listen, but it didn’t matter anyway because new Technology quickly came along which began the process of weaning us off of the mainframe and onto a new state of the art network that later allowed us to use SAP a real ERP system that made the Magna 8 application that I went to learn in the first place obsolete.

I guess the Fast News Bulletin for the day is that Technology Moves Fast…. If you aren’t on for the ride, then you will be making statements like “That’s Impossible” and having a student in the 8th grade proving you wrong. It reminded me of what my dad always said when I was growing up… “Don’t ever say you can’t. — There’s always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron Kilman July 12, 2014

    Great story! I still applaud your initiative, enthusiasm, and risk-taking tenacity.

    1. Plant Electrician July 12, 2014

      Thanks Ron.
      I am still amazed by how many times I am told that something is impossible when I’m already doing it.

  2. Dave Tarvee July 12, 2014

    How they ever let you get out of there is incredible, I guess you were just real popular all over the company LOL and proved things were not impossible to many times, what a group of talent at Sooner in one place unreal

    1. Plant Electrician July 12, 2014

      That’s true Dave. It may sound like I was some lone wolf out there doing the impossible, but the truth is that we were surrounded by great Power Plant Men doing the impossible every day.

  3. Citizen Tom July 14, 2014

    Great story! I have been working with IT equipment since the early 80’s. The changes have been amazing, but I will never forget listening to a print job that made a printer sing (literally). The new printers are amazing, but the experts could make those first ones do the strangest things.

    The problem with the early computers, as you found out the hard way, is that almost any change involved programming. And since that early equipment was so costly, much of the testing had to be done on production equipment…….

    Anyway, it seems your management made the sensible decision to chalk up your mistake as part of the costs of training and testing.

  4. miller davidge iii August 9, 2014

    Couple of things…My wife is an IT person and I sent the link to this to her. She loved it.

Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out

Originally Posted July 12, 2013:

All safe electricians worth their salt know about OSHA regulation 1910.147(c)(3). Only Power Plant electricians have learned more about OSHA regulation 1910.147(a)(1)(ii)(C). Section 147 has to do with locking out and tagging a power source in order to protect the employees working on the circuit. 147(a)(1)(ii) says that Power plants are exempt from section 147. In other words, if you are working in a power plant it is all right to have a less stringent lock-out/tag-out procedure in place than if you didn’t work in a power plant.

One of the first things I learned from Charles Foster, my foreman when I became an electrician was how to remove the “heaters” from a breaker relay in order to protect myself from an “unauthorized” operation of the breaker. That means…. in case someone accidentally turned on the breaker and started up the motor or whatever else I was working on. “Heaters” are what we called the overloads that trip a 480 volt breaker when the circuit uses more power than it is supposed to be using. They are called heaters, because they literally “heat up” in order to trip the breaker.

typical 480 volt overload heaters

typical 480 volt overload heaters

Charles Foster told me the following story about my bucket buddy Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien):

Dee was wiring up a sump pump at the bottom of the coal dumper. The motor had been taken out while the pump had been repaired. Once back in place Dee was sent to wire it back up. The proper clearance had been taken to work on the motor. That is, she had gone to the Shift Supervisor’s office in the Control Room to request a clearance on the motor. Then later she had witnessed the operator opening the 480 volt breaker and place the clearance tag on the breaker.

A typical Clearance Tag.  Our tags had the word "Clearance" at the top

A typical Clearance Tag. Our tags had the word “Clearance” at the top. We called them a “Hold Tag”

the tag is signed by the Shift Supervisor and is only to be removed by an operator sent by the Shift Supervisor. It is place through a slot in the handle on the breaker that keeps the breaker from closing unless the tag is removed first…. well… that’s the theory anyway.

Dee had just finished hooking the three leads in the junction box together with the cable coming into the box using two wrenches. She reached down into her tool bucket that she was using as her stool to get some rubber tape to begin wrapping the connections. The three bare connections were sticking out in front of her face.

A large vertical pump motor

A large vertical pump motor

The Junction box is the box on the right side of this motor. At this point the cover would be off and the wires would be sticking straight out. As she reached into the bucket, the motor turned on and began running.

Startled, Dee stopped what she was doing. I suppose she also pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose she checked her diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose she may have said a few choice words whether anyone was around to hear them or not. Maybe not all in that order.

For those of you who don’t realize what this meant. It meant that if the motor had started running about 5 to 10 seconds later, someone, some time later may have made their way down to the west end of the dumper sump only to find one charred Diana Lucas (who never would have later become Diana Brien). They might not have recognized her at first. I can assure you. It wouldn’t have been pretty.

You see… someone had removed the Hold Tag and purposely started up the motor totally disregarding the clearance. I won’t mention any names, but his initials were Jerry Osborn.

So, after Charles told me this story, he showed me what to do to prevent this from ever happening to me.

Charles and I went to the Shift Supervisor’s office to take a clearance on a motor. Then we followed the operator to the breaker and watched him open the breaker and put the tag on the handle. Then we signed something and the operator left.

After the operator left, Charles told me to open the breaker and slip the hold tag through the slot in the door so that the door could open without removing the tag. I followed his directions.

Once the door was open, he told me to remove the three heaters on the bottom of the relay and hide them at the bottom of the breaker box.

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom.  That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom. That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

You see… with the heaters removed, even if someone were to close the breaker and try to start the motor, the electricity would never leave the breaker box because I had just created an open circuit between the relay and the wires going to the motor.

Well… If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and start talking about making it illegal to own guns.

Anyway, there is always a chance for something to go wrong. The Peter Principle demands it. So, at one point, someone forgot to replace the heaters in the relay before returning their clearance. When the motor was tested for rotation, it didn’t work. At that point the electrician knew that they had forgotten to re-insert the heaters. So, they had to return to the breaker to install the heaters before the motor would run.

This didn’t set well with the Shift Supervisor, who has supreme power at the power plant…. well… besides the janitor who had total control over the toilet paper supply. Technically we were not going around the hold tag by removing the heaters because they were downstream from the breaker handle which cut off the power to the relay. The Shift Supervisor on the other hand believed that the hold tag included everything in the breaker box, including the relay and heaters (which really was stretching it).

An argument ensued that pitted the shift supervisors and the supervisor of operations, Ted Holdges with the electricians. Ted argued that we should not be removing the heaters to keep ourselves from becoming electrocuted accidentally when someone inadvertently removes a hold tag and turns the breaker on and starts up a motor. Electricians on the other hand argued that if we were going to be exposed to the possibility of being electrocuted, we would rather not work on any circuit. Without being completely assured that we would not occasionally be blown to pieces when someone or something accidentally caused the circuit to become hot, we concluded it wasn’t worth it.

So, a compromise was reached. We could remove the heaters, but they had to be put in a plastic bag and attached to the hold tag on the outside of the breaker. That way, when the clearance was returned, not only were the heaters readily available the operator would know to contact the electrician to re-install the heaters. The electricians didn’t really like this alternative, but we agreed. We were assured that there wasn’t any way that a breaker was going to be turned on and operated with the heaters in them when someone was actually working on a circuit.

Fast forward three years. 1992.

Bill Ennis and Ted Riddle were working on replacing a large electric junction box on the stack out tower. The Stack Out Tower is the tower that pours the coal out on the coal pile. Halfway up this tower there is a large junction box where most of the electric cables passed through going to the top of the tower. Bill Ennis had taken a clearance on a number of motor and control breakers.

Bill returned from lunch one day to work on the junction box, removing the old cables. Putting new lugs on them and placing them in the new junction box. As he began working, he decided to take out his multimeter and check the wires he was about to work on….

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

Bill was surprised to find that one set of cables were hot. They had 480 volts on them. Everything in this box should have been dead. I suppose he pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose he checked his diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose he said a few choice words that Ted may have heard if he was standing close by.

What had happened was that there had been two clearances on this one particular motor. One of the electricians had returned his clearance, and had installed the heaters that were in the plastic bag on the front of the breaker and the motor had been tested for rotation and put back in service. The operator had taken both clearances off of the breaker by mistake.

Ok. It was time for another meeting. Something had gone wrong. If it had not been for the guardian angels of both Diana Brien and Bill Ennis, at this point we would have had at least two dead electricians, and believe me…. I know that when an operator had later climbed the stack out tower to check the equipment, if he had run across the body of Bill Ennis… it definitely wouldn’t have been pretty (even on a good day).

I attended this meeting with Ted Holdges as did most of the electricians. I began by telling Ted that when we had met three years earlier I was newly married and wouldn’t have minded so much if I was killed by being electrocuted because I was young and only had a wife who knew how to take care of herself. But now it was different. I had a little girl at home and I need to be around to help her grow up.

Ted looked surprised by my remark. I had just told him the way I felt about this whole situation. The argument that we were making was that we should be able to place locks on the breakers just like OSHA demanded from the other industries. We had demonstrated that we didn’t have a system that would protect us from human error. We needed something that definitely kept us safe.

We told Ted that even if we had locks, and for some reason the breaker just had to be closed and the electrician had forgotten to remove his lock, the shift supervisor could keep a master key in his office to remove the lock. He finally agreed. His problem was a loss of control. The thought was that the Shift Supervisor had ultimate power.

If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and talk about socialized healthcare and how it destroys all concepts of quality and privacy.

So, as electricians, we weren’t really happy with this situation. We had a secret weapon against human error. Sure we would place a lock on the breaker. But after the operator would leave, before we placed our lock on the breaker, we might just open up the breaker box and remove the entire face off of the relay. It was similar to removing the heaters only it was bigger. It completely opened the circuit no matter what.

I hadn’t really planned on talking about this next story for a couple more years, but I’ll tell it now because it fits with this story.

In the month of May, 2001. I had already given my notice to leave the plant to work for Dell as a software developer. I was asked to work on a job with my old bucket buddy Diana Brien.

The problem was that there was a grounded three phase circuit up on the Surge Bin tower. It had been tracked down to the dust collectors located below the surge bin conveyor floor.

Dee and I walked up to the Gravimetric feeder deck to look at the breaker to make sure it was turned off. It had a Danger tag on it that had been placed by the Shift Supervisor.

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

The breaker was open and the message on the tag said “Do not close this breaker. The circuit is grounded”.

Ok. We walked up to the surge bin tower through the counter weight room for belts 18 and 19. We opened up the big junction box that fed the power to the two large dust collector motors on the landing behind us. After taking the cover off of the box, I took out my multimeter and checked the circuit.

Like this.  Ok.  So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

The big copper bus was dead (that means, there was no electricity present).

So, Dee and I worked on locating the grounded circuit. I had just removed the cover to the junction box on one of the motors while Dee was removing some wires from the control panel when Larry Tapp arrived on the landing through the same route we had taken from the gravimetric feeder deck.

Larry asked us what we were doing. We told him we were tracking down the ground on the Dust Collectors. Larry looked surprised.

You see… Larry explained that he had just come from the Gravimetric feeder deck where he had just closed the breaker for the dust collectors. This particular breaker didn’t have a relay, as it was controlled by the control panel where Dee had been working.

So, I rechecked the copper bus with my multimeter and it was hot. 480 volts hot.

I had just been looking through my tool bucket for two wrenches to remove a piece of the bus work just to make sure the ground wasn’t in the box itself when Larry had arrived. In other words, if Larry had arrived 5 to 10 seconds later, he would have probably arrived to find Dee looking down at my body, stunned that I had just been electrocuted by a circuit that we had just tested and found dead.

If you don’t learn by history you are bound to repeat it.

You see… there is a difference between a Hold Tag and a Danger Tag. A hold tag is placed on a breaker after someone has requested a clearance by signing a form in the Shift Supervisor’s office in the control room. A Danger tag can be placed and removed at anytime by the person that placed the tag on the breaker.

So, I personally wrote this up as a “near” accident. We could have wiped our brow, pinched ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming. We could have checked our diaper to make sure it was still dry and then Dee could have said a few choice words that Larry Tapp would have agreed with (I have always had a mental block against expressing myself in that manner…. I found other ways). And we could have left this incident as a secret between Larry, Dee and I.

I thought it was a good time to remind the electricians throughout power production to follow the clearance procedures when working on high voltage circuits. Sure. Dee, Bill Ennis and I have powerful guardian Angels looking out for us…. but gee… I think we should be expected to look out for ourselves. So, I wrote up this incident to warn the rest of the team….. If we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.

I met with my roomie Steven Trammell, a month and a half later in Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma to discuss his performance plan. I was a 360 Degree Assessment Counselor and my favorite roommate from 17 years earlier had chosen me to review his performance appraisal. During this meeting I asked Steven, who had driven from Harrah, Oklahoma from another power plant to meet with me, if he had read the near accident report about the dust collector at our plant.

My roomie told me that he had, and that he thought it seemed to unduly blame the electrician. I told him I was the electrician and that I wrote the report. After 18 years of being an electrician, I had become so relaxed in my job that I had become dangerous to myself and others. So, after I did a cause-effect analysis of the near accident, most of the cause had come from my own belief that I could circumvent clearance procedures and save time and still believe that I was being safe.

On my drive back to the plant after the meeting with my favorite roomie of all time, I had time to think about this…. I was going to be leaving the power plant in a little over a month to work for Dell as a programmer. I knew this when I had been negligent with the Danger tag. I could have caused the death of both Dee and I. I will sure be glad to be in Texas. — Only.. I will miss my friends most of all.

I leave the Power Plant with this one thought…. If you don’t learn from history, you are bound to repeat it. I mean it… This time I really do.

Comments from the previous posts:

  1. Ron Kilman July 13, 2013:

    This is a great story. I thank God for His guardian angels and I thank you for taking responsibility. It was always difficult investigating accidents because people are a little reluctant to share their mistakes with the world. But a wise man knows it’s better to have a bruised ego than a fried friend.

Larry McCurry July 13, 2013:


  1. As an old time operator and having follows in my fathers footsteps as a Shift Supervisor, The answer to all of these problems to add steps to the clearance procedure to make sure the heaters were removed and then replaced. The second was definitely an operator error, and I agree with you about it, The Shift supervisors did argue for it however the hubris of certain power hungry people managed to intimidate and control the situation. You do not ever work on equipment with out your own clearance or a plan that includes the SS, as you mentioned He is the operating authority, or was until a person by the initials of Jim Arnold rewrote the procedures and made himself the Authority.

Jack Curtis August 12, 2013:
Good Story Indeed.
There is, I’m sure, a gene in human DNA labeled: “Murphy” that assures that anything that can happen, does. And in total ignorance, I’ll bet that some constant percentage of plant electricians were fried. I suppose the onset of computer controls has reduced that but that it still happens at a lower rate. The way you and your friends sort of automatically reached for your multimeters is a clue! These are shocking, highly-charged stories…
NEO July 16, 2014
Yep, and even c.3 rules fail on occasion. Most places I’ve worked the other key was at superintendent level, and required a veritable mountain of paperwork to acquire. G-d help anybody who lost his key! 🙂
Traditionally on distribution lines, we left our shotgun hanging on the (grounded) stinger to notify everyone since there is no (effective) way to LOTO a power line. Imagine my vocabulary one fine day up in Montana when I drove up to reenergize a a tap to find it energized and a crew I had never seen putting my shotgun in their truck. That day, I got a profuse apology (and assurances) from the line superintendent in person, 50 miles from the office. I never worked dead again without three point grounding, and I require my people to use it as well, I don’t like funerals. Hot line is actually safer for most operations.
Dan Antion July 17, 2014
I have great respect for electricity, power tools and the threat of human error. That was a close call. Glad you had the presence of mind and experience to think to check again.