Solving the Selection of a Power Plant Solvent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple:  WypAlls!

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple: WypAlls!

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

A bucket of Stoddard Solvent

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

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

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

A Chemist-eye view of Stoddard Solvent

A Chemist-eye view of Stoddard Solvent

I hope that cleared it up for you.  You have to wonder why they put that “Oh Oh” down there at the bottom.  Almost as if something is supposed to go wrong.

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

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

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

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

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

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

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

Chemical Composition of Trichoroethylene

Chemical Composition of Trichoroethylene

You can see right off the bat that this is going to dry clean… I mean…. it’s obvious… right?  I think the CLs on three of the corners indicate that it “Cleans” 3 times better than other solvents.

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

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

Gee… Who remembers White Out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A can of WD40

A can of Power Plant WD40

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

Bottle of Orange Solvent

Bottle of Orange Solvent

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

Tang -  Used by the Astronauts on the Apollo missions

Tang – Used by the Astronauts on the Apollo missions

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

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

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

Red Skelton saying “Trichloroethylene”

Bill wanted Andy Tubbs and me (I know!  It seems as if it should be “Andy Tubbs and I”, but “me” is the correct way to say it) to use the new solvent on the main power transformer main bus connectors. They are normally covered with No-Ox Grease so this would be a good test.

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

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

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

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments from the original Post:

    1. jerrychicken February 22, 2014:

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Ron February 22, 2014:

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

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

    I love Saturday mornings!

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