Originally Posted May 25, 2013;
Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline. The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators. This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust. The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”. The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust. When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air (or 99.999%).
Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop. These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator. I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post: Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant. It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years. You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant. I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.
When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it. He likes to get dirty.” At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop. Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning… Now those words took on their full meaning.
I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning. Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post: Singing’ Along with Sonny Kendrick). I was his chance to be lifted from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey. I had accepted that. I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.
So, here I was… One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post: Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door). Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers. I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit. Just a rain suit.
Not a lot of protection….
I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul. I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string. I had a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.
So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world. It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon. We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point. We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.
Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart. He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above. At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me. Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip. There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.
Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip. Then even lower. About 10 feet above us. A third clip. — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“), then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….” A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.
Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate. Every clip must be in their place. Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so. Ok. I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 clips per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and 7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…
Bill explained….. Clean each insulator. there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers. there were 84 hoppers, Great. Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks…. Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof. two on each section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension house on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.
Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a clip or broken. Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.
Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force. That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below. Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each. There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers. In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.
Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates. In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly. There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers. This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul. Oh. And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.
So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units). Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators. Some of my closest friends were precipitator components. Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.
We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me. I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment. I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.
Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in the boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas…. I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”. I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash. I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby… Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it. He apologized. He explained that he meant it with affection.
At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it. The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter. That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs. Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.
I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu. This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so. I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth. I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.
I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator. So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters. They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles. I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.
To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell. The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors. Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals…. Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.
You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate. Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.
I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post: A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff. He said it had some kind of a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….
He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell. You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.
There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name). She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical. Unfortunately, we never found out what it was. In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces. This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.
I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of an electron microscope. I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one. I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.
So, I just continued wearing the organic filters. This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms. Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator. When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands. They knew everything I did.
One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job. One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma. They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had. They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.
Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be. I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously. No. I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it. I loved it. I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.
I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator. I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them. Coaxing them. Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job. If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”. Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7. But they were each my friends in their own way.
You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?” I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me. I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.
I have my own understanding of who I should be. My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is. I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again…. What was I going to do? Give up? How could I do that to a friend? I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma. That isn’t going to change who I am.”
Today I am called an IT Business Analyst. I work for Dell Computers (now I work for General Motors). It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world. I see the same pattern. When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job. You become invaluable. Almost irreplaceable. People look to you for answers. They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business. I am glad to be able to serve them.
Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?” Arnold replied, “Oh. nothing anyone wants.” (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators. No. I wouldn’t do that. Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.
Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good. His son, Tim Foster has taken his place. One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator. I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim…. I know Scott understands….
Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them…. Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness. Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly… Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good… next row….
Originally posted June 1, 2013:
There seem to be some days of the year where every few years, I am not surprised to learn something out of the ordinary has happened. Almost as if it was a personal holiday or anniversary for some unknown reason. One of those days of the year for me is June 25. It is 2 days before my sister’s birthday and another grade school friend of mine…. It is a few days after the beginning of summer…. It is exactly 6 months or 1/2 year from Christmas. We sometimes jokingly refer to June 25 as the “anti-Christmas”.
June 25 was the date my son was born. Exactly 14 years later to the day, Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett both died on the same day, as well as a relative of mine.
A day my son remembers well. He told me that we went out to eat at Logan’s Roadhouse for dinner, and reminds me of the people that died on that day. He has a detailed memory of his 14th birthday and what we did during the day on June 25, 2009.
June 25 exactly 10 years to the day before my son was born, I have a very vivid memory of the events that took place that day. Because the events of this day are often in my mind, I will share them with you. It was a day where I spent some time with a True Power Plant Man, met a true hero and dealt with the emotions of two great tragedies. The day was June 25, 1985.
I had been an electrician at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma for a little over a year and a half, which still made me an electrical apprentice at the time. Surprisingly, that morning Bill Bennett told me that he wanted me to go with Ben Davis to Enid to find a grounded circuit. He said that it would be a good opportunity to learn more about the auxiliary generators that were in Enid Oklahoma. They were peaking units that we would use only during high demand days during the summer.
The reason I was surprised was because I didn’t normally get to work with Ben. I had worked with him the previous fall at the Muskogee Power Plant when we were on “Overhaul”. You can read about that “adventure” in the post: “Lap O’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant“. Ben wasn’t on my crew in the electric shop, so we rarely ever worked with each other.
Ben and I loaded some equipment into the back of the Ford Pickup and climbed into the truck. Ben was driving. The normal route to take to Enid would be to go south on Highway 177 and then go west on the turnpike straight to Enid. Ben had worked at Enid a lot in the past, and over the years, had taken different routes for a change of scenery, so he asked me if I would mind if we took a different route through the countryside. It was a nice sunny morning and it was early enough that the heat hadn’t kicked in, so we took the scenic route to Enid that morning.
I remember going by an old farmhouse that over 12 years later, Ray Eberle shared a horror story about. I remember the drive. We were pretty quiet on the way. We didn’t talk much. Ben was usually a quiet person, and I didn’t think he would appreciate my tendency to ramble, so I just smiled and looked out the window. I was glad that I was with Ben and that I was given the opportunity to work with him. I looked up to him. To me he was one of the True Power Plant Men that gave you the confidence that no matter how bad things may become… everything would be all right, because men like Ben were there to pull you out of the fire when you needed a helping hand.
When we arrived in Enid, it was nearing the time that we would normally take a break. Ben asked if I minded if we stopped by Braum’s to get something for breakfast. Of course, I didn’t mind. I have always had a special affinity for food of any kind. Braum’s has an especially good assortment of delicious meals…. and deserts.
We pulled into the Braum’s Parking lot and Ben parked the pickup toward the far end away from any other cars. Somewhere where we could watch it as we ate. I climbed out of the truck and walked toward the entrance. As I passed the handicap parking space next to the front door, I noticed a white Lincoln parked there with a license plate embossed with a Purple Heart.
When I saw this license plate, I wondered who it belonged to in the in restaurant. When I walked in, I immediately knew. There was the hero sitting in the corner booth. There were two elderly men sitting there drinking their coffee. I had wanted to buy them breakfast, but it looked like they had already eaten. I went up to the counter and ordered a sausage biscuit and a drink. Then I walked back around by their table. I paused and looked at them. I smiled….
I wanted to say, “Is that your white car parked right out there?” After one of them said yes, I wanted to say, “Thank you for serving our country.” For some reason I didn’t say anything. I just smiled at the two of them and sat down two booths down the row from them. I’m not usually one for keeping my mouth shut when something comes to mind, but that morning, I kept quiet. This is one of the reasons I think about this day often. Whenever I see a purple heart on a license plate, I think of the two elderly heroes sitting in Braum’s that morning on June 25, 1985.
After eating our breakfast we left Braum’s at 9:30 and Ben drove us to the Auxiliary Generators so that we could find the grounded circuit and repair it. There were some other chores we were going to work on, but that was the most interesting one. Ben had worked on enough grounded circuits in this mini-power plant to know that the first place to look was in a mult-connector, where cables came into the control room and connected to the cables that led to the control panels.
Ben was right. We quickly found the grounded wire in the connector and did what we could to clear it. As we were finishing this up, the phone rang. The phone was in the garage, and we were in a control room that was like a long trailer parked out back. A bell had been placed outside of the garage so that people working on the generators or in the control room could hear the phone ringing. Ben went to answer it while I finished insulating the connector and connecting the circuit back up.
After a few minutes, Ben came back into the control room and told me that we needed to go back to the plant. He explained that on June 25, 1985 at 9:30 his father had a heart attack in Shidler, Oklahoma. They weren’t sure of his condition, but it didn’t look good. They were going to life-flight him to Tulsa. I immediately knew how he felt.
I remember the morning in my dorm room in college in Columbia Missouri when my mother called me to tell me that my own father had a heart attack and that he was in the hospital in Stillwater, Oklahoma and was being life-flighted to Tulsa. I called up one of my professors at the College of Psychology and told him that I wouldn’t be attending class that morning. He told me he would pass it on to the other professors. Later, when I was in Tulsa, many professors from the University of Missouri in Columbia sent flowers to him in the hospital in Tulsa. My dad used to teach at the University of Missouri.
I remember grabbing a small suitcase, throwing some clothes in it and going straight to my car and driving the 345 miles to Tulsa. It is a long drive. It becomes an even longer drive under these circumstances. That is why as we were driving back to the plant, and Ben was going faster and faster down the highway, I understood him completely. I was praying for the safety of his father and the safety of the two of us.
Ben had expected that by the time we made it back to the plant that his father would be on his way to Tulsa. I suppose he figured that he would go to Shidler and pick up his mother and any other family members and would head to Tulsa. Unfortunately, when we walked into the electric shop, he found out that his father was still in Shidler. No Life Flight would be coming for him. Not for a while at least.
You see, another event had taken place at 9:30 on June 25, 1985. Let me explain it to you like this….. When Ben and I walked out of the Braum’s in Enid, Oklahoma that morning, directly down the road from this Braum’s 100 miles east, just outside of a town named Hallett, an electrical supplies salesman was driving from Tulsa to our power plant in North Central Oklahoma. He was on the Cimarron Turnpike going west.
The salesman looked to the south and he saw something that was so bizarre that it didn’t register. It made no sense. There was a herd of cattle grazing out in a pasture, and while he was watching them, they began tumbling over and flying toward him. He said it was so unreal his mind couldn’t make any sense out of it. Suddenly his car went skidding sideways off the road as a deafening roar blasted his car. He came safely to a stop and just sat there stunned by what had just happened.
Looking to the south, the salesman could see a large mushroom cloud rising in the distance. Something that looked like a nuclear explosion. After composing himself for a few minutes, he drove back onto the road and continued on his way to the plant, not sure what had happened. Upon arriving at the plant, he learned (as did the rest of the employees at the plant) that a fireworks plant had exploded in Hallett, Oklahoma. Here is an article about the explosion: “Fireworks Plant Explosion Kills 21 in Oklahoma“. This was a tragedy much like the West Texas Fertilizer explosion on April 17, 2013 at 8 pm.
What this tragedy meant for Ben was that there wasn’t going to be a Life Flight from Tulsa for his father. They had all been called to Hallett for the tragedy that had occurred there. I believe that Ben’s father survived the heart attack from that day. It seemed like he was taken by ambulance instead.
The timing of these events made me think about Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
When Darth Vader was trying to persuade Princess Leia to tell him where the rebel base was hidden he blew up her home planet. When this happened Obi Wan Kenobi was on the Millennium Falcon with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Obi Wan felt the sudden loss of life in the universe when the planet exploded.
This made me wonder….. what about Ben’s father? Had Ben’s father experienced some hidden distress from the sudden tragedy of what happened 60 miles almost directly south of Shidler? The timing and location is interesting. Ben and I were almost due west, and Ben’s Father was almost due North of Hallett that morning when the explosion took place.
Even if it was all coincidental, I have made it into something that is important to me. Don’t most of us do that? Where were you when the Murrah Building was bombed on April 19, 1995 at 9:02 am? What were you doing that morning? I will write about that morning much later. Where were you on the morning of September 11, 2001 at 8:46 am? I remember where I was sitting and what I was doing at that moment. On June 25, 1985 at 9:30 am. I know what I was doing at that moment. Our break was over. Ben and I walked out of Braum’s, climbed into the Pickup truck and made our way to the Auxiliary Generators.
That one day, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a True Power Plant Man, Ben Davis. I spent some time sharing his grief for his father and his mother. I met an elderly hero that had been wounded while serving his country. We all grieved for the loss of young lives from the explosion at the fireworks plant in Hallett. June 25, 1985.
Original post June 8, 2013:
Great people in history are known for their great quotes. Take Albert Einstein for instance. We automatically think of the one most famous thing that Einstein said whenever we hear his name. We think of “E equals M C squared.” (which explains the direct relationship between energy and matter).
In more recent history, we have Gomer Pyle saying: “Golly”, only it was drawn out so that it was more like “Go-o-o-o-llyyyyyy” (which expresses the improbable relationship between Gomer and the real Marines).
Then there was the famous line by officer Harry Callahan when he said…. “Go Ahead. Make My Day!” (which demonstrates the exact relationship showing how guns don’t kill people. People kill people).
Even more recently, we heard the famous words of Arnold Jackson while talking to his brother when he said, “What you talkin’ ’bout Willis?” (which supports the commonly held understanding that ‘Inquiring minds want to know”).
Great people are known for their great quotes.
This is true in the power plant kingdom as well. I have passed on the incomparable wisdom of Sonny Karcher in the post: Power Plant Invocations and Imitations of Sonny Karcher. When you told him something that he found totally amazing, he would look you right in the eye with an expression of total amazement and would say, “Well….. S__t the bed!” (only, he would include the word “hi” in the middle of that second word).
I had to run home and try it on my parents during dinner one night when I first heard this as a summer help…. at first they were too proud of me to speak. When they couldn’t contain their amazement any longer, they both burst out into laughter as I continued eating my mashed potatoes.
When I became an electrician, I belonged to a group of wise souls with a multitude of quotes. I would stare in amazement as I tried to soak them all into my thick skull. Every once in a while one would squeeze in there and I would remember it.
When talking about the weather, Diana Lucas (later Brien, formerly Laughery) would say, “Chili today, Hot Tamale”. I know there were a lot more like that one.
I invite any power plant men that remember these phrases to leave a comment at the bottom of this post with a list of phrases used, because I liked to forget them so that the next time I would hear them, it would be like hearing them for the first time all over again.
Andy Tubbs would say something like “Snot me. Statue” (I am not sure if I am even saying that right…). I know that Andy had a dozen other phrases like this one.
There was an old man named John Pitts that used to work at the old Osage Plant. I wrote about this plant in an earlier Post called Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace. He would come out to our plant to work out of the electric shop on overhaul to make a few extra dollars.
One day at the end of the day, when we were all leaving for the parking lot, Andy Tubbs stepped out of the door shaking his head as if in disbelief. He had a big grin on his face, so I asked him why.
Andy said that he had asked John Pitts “What d’ya know.” John had said something that didn’t make sense, so Andy had asked him what he had said. I asked Andy what John had said. Andy told me that John Pitts had said, “It takes a big dog to weigh a ton.” When this confused Andy, he asked him for clarification, and John had replied, “Well. You asked me what I know, and I know that it takes a big dog to weigh a ton.” — You can mark that one down as a famous quote from John Pitts.
Our A foreman was a tall thin black man named Bill Bennett. He would walk into the electric shop office during lunch and sit down next to me. He would look at me with a look of total disgust. Shaking his head with disappointment, he would say to me…. “You Scamp!” He might throw in another line like, “You disgust me.” (with the emphasis on the word “disgust) or he might say “You slut.” It was times like these that I knew that Bill really cared about me. I mean… he wouldn’t say those things to just anybody.
Bill accidentally said that last phrase to Diana when she had walked into the room just after he had graced me with those words. She stood there for about one second stunned that Bill had said that to her, then she turned around and walked right back out.
I asked him what he had said, because his back was to me at the time, and he had said it under his breath like he had to me and I couldn’t hear what he said…. but I did catch the look on Diana’s face, and it wasn’t a happy expression.
He told me, and he said he probably just made a terrible mistake. I’m sure once Diana thought about it twice she would have realized that this was Bill’s way of passing on his endearment toward you.
Charles Foster was my foreman for my first year as an electrician trainee. He was my friend for all 18 years I spent as an electrician. I had the habit when I was trying to think about something of starting my sentence with the word “Well….” and then pausing. Charles would invariably finish my thought with “…that’s a deep subject.”
The first time, my reaction was like Andy’s when John Pitt told him that it took a big dog to weigh a ton. I said, “What?” He replied. “Well…. That’s a deep subject.” Ok. I know…. I’m slow.
Each morning when Charles would walk into the electric shop office, or when I would walk in and Charles would already be there, I would say, “good morning.” Charles would say, “Mornin’ Glory.” In the time I was in the electric shop, I must have heard that phrase over 1,000 times.
One time we were on a major overhaul on Unit 1, and we were doing check out on all the alarms in the plant that weren’t specific to Unit 2. When you do that, you go to the various devices and mimic sending the alarm by either activating a device or putting a jumper across the contacts that would send in the alarm.
In order to perform this task, we found early on that there were two people in the shop that you couldn’t assign to this job. One person was Bill Ennis.
Bill Ennis was a middle aged (ok. well… older) fellow that owned a Coast-To-Coast store in Perry, Oklahoma.
The reason you couldn’t assign Bill to do alarm checks was best put by Bill Ennis himself. He said it like this. “I’m blind in one eye, and I can’t see out of the other.” This was Bill’s famous power plant quote. What he meant was that he was color blind in one eye and he was literally blind in the other. So, he really was “blind” in one eye, and couldn’t see out of the other.
In order to do alarm checks, you needed to be able to locate wires some times by color. Well… Green and red both look the same to Bill Ennis.
So, you see, that wouldn’t be good.
The other person you didn’t want to have doing alarm checks was Charles Foster. As we found out later, this was because he has Dyslexia. So, even if he could read the 62 in the picture above, he might see it as a 26.
During alarm checks one person has to stay in the control room and watch the alarm monitor and the alarm printouts. So, as we would send in alarms to the control room the person in the control room would reply to us telling us which alarms came in. He would read the number on the screen or the printout.
In the spring of 1986, the person that was elected to sit in the control room all day and watch the alarm panel was Gary Wehunt. He was new at the plant, and didn’t know his way around much, so it was easier for him to perform this job.
The only problem was that Gary had a habit of not paying attention. He would either be daydreaming or he would be talking to someone in the control room about something other than the benefits of having a reliable alarm monitoring system.
So, while Dee (Diana), Andy and I were running around the plant sending alarms into the control room, we would be sitting there waiting for a response from Gary telling us what alarms he received. When he wouldn’t reply, we might call on the radio…. Gary, did you get an alarm?
Gary would always reply the same way. “Just now came in.” Well… we knew it didn’t take that long for an alarm to come into the control room, as the control room needed to know immediately when there was an alarm. So, some times we would send the same alarm about 20 times in a row one right after the other waiting for Gary to tell us that he received the alarm.
Finally we would just have to key the radio to call Gary, and he would jump in there and say, “Just now came in.” We had about 2,000 alarms to check, and you want to be able to move from alarm to alarm rapidly once you finally make it to a position where there are a number of alarms in the same area. But this was slowing us down.
We tried different ways to “remind” Gary that we needed to know immediately when the alarms came in, and we needed to have him give us the number of the alarm as well. But all during the overhaul, we would receive the same response from Gary…. “Just now came in.”
The last phrase that I will mention was said by Mike Rose. He was an Englishman that had moved to the U.S. from Canada where he had worked with the railroad. He pointed out that a Diesel Locomotive is really an electrical generator. A diesel engine on a train is really pulling the train using electricity generated by a turbine generator turned by a diesel engine.
I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I remember the phrase well, as it became a well used phrase in our shop after we heard it for the first time from Mike Rose. The phrase was, “Ain’t my mota.” (in this case “mota” is a slang word for motor).
So, Mike was replying to a comment that some motor was not working properly, or had burned up all together by saying “Ain’t my mota.” Which meant, “it isn’t my worry.” Actually, this was pretty much Mike’s philosophy of life altogether.
Art Hammond and I would jokingly use the phrase, “Ain’t my mota.” When faced with an obvious task that was our worry. We might stop in the middle of our work and look at one another and say, “Well…. It ain’t my mota.” then continue working away while we giggled like little kids.
When I was working in Global Employee Services Support at Dell, where I work today (now I work for General Motors), during a particular project our project team had come up with the phrase, “Nobody’s gonna die.” Which meant that when we go live with our project, if something goes wrong, everything will be all right, because… “Nobody’s gonna die.” Meaning that it isn’t going to be so bad that we can’t fix it.
When the project was over we were given tee-shirts that said on the back, “Nobody Died”. This phrase reminds me of Mike Rose’s phrase “Ain’t my Mota.”
I tried to remember any phrases I came up with myself, but I’m either just not that creative, or I have just “forgotten more than I ever knew” (which is an actual phrase used by my mother once). I was more into singing songs like Richard Moravek, when he would sing “Nestle’s makes the very best Chocolate” with Jay Harris at the Muskogee Power plant each morning before going to work.
I would break out into song by belting out the Brady Bunch song, or the Beverly Hillbillies, or some such thng. I would also make some songs up like the one about Ronnie Banks on the Labor Crew to the tune of the William Tell Overture (The Lone Ranger galloping song for the more western educated readers)…. by singing, “Ronnie Banks, Ronnie Banks, Ronnie Banks, Banks, Banks.”
Or I would sing the Wizard of Oz like this. “We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz, because because because because…. because because because because…” No… no great quotes from me.
Ok. I do remember borrowing a phrase from the movie, “Trouble with Angels.” with Haley Mills, when she would say, “Another Brilliant Idea.”
Only when I said it, it was usually for a very sarcastic reason…. For instance, (and I will write about this much later), I remember announcing on the radio on an open channel one day that this was “Another one of Jasper’s ‘Brilliant’ Ideas” I was called to his office later that day, but as you will see when I write that much later post, that it turned out it wasn’t because of the remark I had made on the channel I knew he was monitoring (much to my surprise).
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Originally Posted June 14, 2013:
When I first watched the movie “The Goonies”, I recognized right away that the script was inspired from another Pirate treasure movie I had watched when I was a child. I have never seen the movie again, and it was probably a made for TV movie or something that has been lost in the archives years ago. I’m sure that Steven Spielberg when he was growing up must have been inspired by this movie when he wrote the script to Goonies, because this was a movie that had inspired us when we were young.
You see… In the movie I had watched as a kid, some children that were trying to save their family or an old house or something similar to the Goonies story, found a clue to where a Pirate treasure was buried. The clue had something to do with a “crow’s nest”. It turned out that the model of a ship that had been sitting on the mantle piece in the old house had another clue in the pole holding the crow’s nest. This clue had holes in the paper, and when held up to a certain page in a certain book, it gave them another clue to where there was a hidden passageway. Which led them one step closer to the treasure.
Anyway. As a child, this inspired us (and I’m sure a million other kids) to play a game called “Treasure Hunt”. It was where you placed clues all around the house, or the yard, or the neighborhood (depending on how ambitious of a treasure hunt you were after), with each clue leading to the other clue, and eventually some prize at the end.
Why am I telling you this story about this movie that I watched when I was a child? Well, because I felt this same way all over again when I became an electrician at a coal-fired power plant out in the country in north central Oklahoma. Here is why.
I used to carpool to work from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the power plant 25 miles north of town with another electrician named Bill Rivers. He had kept urging me to become an electrician along with Charles Foster, who had suggested that I take some electric courses to prepare for the job. Once I became an electrician, Charles Foster, my foreman, would often send me with Bill Rivers to repair anything that had to do with electronics. Bill Rivers was good at troubleshooting electronic equipment, and well, he was generally a good troubleshooter when he wasn’t getting himself into trouble.
I remember the morning when Charles told me to go with Bill to go fix the incessant humming that was coming over the PA system…. “What?” I asked him. “I can’t hear you over the loud hum coming over the PA system.” — No not really… We called the Gai-tronics PA system the “Gray Phone” because the phones all over the plant where you could page people and talk on 5 different lines was gray.
I walked into the electric lab where Bill Rivers was usually hanging out causing Sonny Kendrick grief. I hadn’t been in the electric shop very long at this point. I think it was before the time when I went to work on the Manhole pumps (see the post Power Plant Manhole Mania). In the lab there was an electric cord going from a plug-in on the counter up into the cabinet above as if something inside the cabinet was plugged in…. which was true. I asked Bill what was plugged in the cabinet and he explained that it was the coffee maker.
You see, our industrious plant manager had decided that all coffee at the plant had to come from the authorized coffee machines where a dime had to be inserted before dispensing the cup of coffee. This way the “Canteen committee” could raise enough money to…. uh…. pay for the coffee. So, all rogue coffee machines had to go. There was to be no free coffee at the plant.
So, of course, the most logical result of this mandate was to hide the coffee maker in the cabinet in case a wandering plant manager or one of his undercover coffee monitor minions were to enter the lab unexpectedly. Maintaining the free flow of coffee to those electricians that just had to silently protest the strong arm tactics of the Power Plant Coffee Tax by having a sort of… “Tea Party” or was it a “Coffee Party”.
I told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him fix the hum on the gray phones. Bill Rivers said, “Great! Then let us play a game. let’s call it, ‘Treasure Hunt’.”
Bill reached up in one of the cabinets and pulled out a blue telephone test set. I’m sure you must have seen a telephone repairman with one of these hanging from his hip. ” Oh boy.” I thought. “A new toy!”
I grabbed my tool bucket from the shop and followed Bill Rivers out into the T-G basement. This is a loud area where the steam pipes carry the steam to the Turbine to spin the Generator. It is called T-G for Turbine Generator. Bill walked over to a junction box mounted near the north exit going to unit 1. He explained that except for the gray phones in the Control-room section of the plant, all the other gray phones go through this one junction box.
Bill said that the game was to find the Gray Phone ghost. Where is the hum coming from? He showed me how the different cables coming into this one box led to Unit 1, Unit 2, the office area and the coal yard. I just had to figure out which way the hum came from. So, I went to work lifting wires off of the terminal blocks. We could hear the hum over the gray phone speakers near us, so if I were to lift the right wires, we should know right away that I had isolated the problem.
We determined that the noise was coming from Unit 1. So we took the elevator halfway up the boiler to another junction box, and then another where we traced the problem to a gray phone under the surge bin tower. It took 4 screws to remove the phone from the box. When I did, I could clearly see the problem. The box was full of water. Water had run down the conduit and into the phone box.
Bill Rivers told me that now that we found the problem, we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so we drilled a small weep hole in the bottom of the box, and we took plumbers putty and stuffed it into the top of the conduit where it opened into a cable tray.
The box would fill with water when the labor crew would do coal cleanup. On labor crew we would spray the entire surge bin tower down with high powered water hoses to wash off all the coal dust. Each time, some water would end up going down the conduit into the gray phone until it grounded the circuit enough to cause a hum.
Bill and I continued searching throughout the plant for phones that were causing a hum. Most were caused by water in the box. Some were caused by circuits that had gone bad (most likely because they had water in them at some point). Those we took to the electric shop lab where we played a different kind of treasure hunt. — Let’s call it…. Finding the bad component. It reminded me of an old video game I had bought for my brother for Christmas in 1983 that winter when I gave him an Intellivision (so I could play with it). It was the latest greatest video game console at the time.
I had given my brother a game called “Bomb Squad”. Where you had a certain amount of time to diffuse a bomb by going through a circuit board cutting out components with some snippers. If you cut the wrong connection, you had to hurry up and solder it back on before the bomb blew up.
That’s what we were doing with the Gray Phones. We were testing the different components until we found one that wasn’t working correctly. Then we would replace that transistor, or capacitor, or resistor, or diode, and then test the phone by plugging it in the switchgear gray phone box and calling each other.
I have a story later about someone using this technique while fixing gray phones, only he would call himself on the gray phone where I would call Bill and Bill would call me. Someone misinterpreted this and thought the person was trying to make everyone think he was more important because he was always being paged, when he was only paging himself. He was removed from fixing gray phones for this reason, even though he was only person at the plant in Mustang Oklahoma that knew a transistor from a capacitor.
So, why am I going on about a seemingly boring story about fixing a hum on a PA system? I think it’s because to me it was like a game. It was like playing a treasure hunt. From the day I started as an electrician, we would receive trouble tickets where we needed to go figure something out. We had to track down a problem and then find a solution on how to fix it. As I said in previous posts, it was like solving a puzzle.
Each time we would fix something, someone was grateful. Either the operator or a mechanic, or the Shift Supervisor, or the person at home vacuuming their carpet, because the electricity was still flowing through their house. How many people in the world can say that they work on something that impacts so many people?
Well… I used to feel like I was in a unique position. I was able to play in a labyrinth of mechanical and electrical equipment finding hidden treasures in the form of some malfunction. As I grew older, I came to realize that the uniqueness was limited only to the novelty of my situation. If you took all the power plant men in the country, they could probably all fit in one large football stadium. But the impact on others was another thing altogether.
The point I am trying to make is that it was obvious to me that I was impacting a large portion of people in the state of Oklahoma by helping to keep the plant running smoothly by chasing down the boiler ghosts and exorcising the Coalyard demons from the coal handling equipment. Even though it isn’t so obvious to others, like the janitor, or the laborer or the person that fills the vending machine. Everyone in some way helps to support everyone else.
A cook in a restaurant is able to cook the food because the electricity and the natural gas is pumped into the restaurant by others. Then the cook feeds the mailman, who delivers that mail, that brings the check to the person waiting to go to the grocery store so they can buy food that was grown by some farmer who plowed his field on a tractor made in a huge tractor factory by a machinist after driving there in a car made by a manufacturer in Detroit who learned how to use a lathe in a Vocational school taught by a teacher who had a degree from a university where each day this person would walk to class during the winter snow wearing boots that came from a clothes store where the student had bought them from a store clerk that greeted people by saying “Good Morning! How are you today?” Cheering up all the people that they met.
I could have walked into the lab and told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him find the hum in the PA system and he could have responded by saying, “Oh really? Good luck with that!” Instead he said, “Let’s go play a game. ‘Treasure Hunt!” This attitude had set the stage for me as a Power Plant Electrician: “Let’s go have some fun and fix something today!” Where would that cook have been today if the power had gone out in his restaurant that morning all because an attitude had gotten in the way….. I wonder…
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Originally posted June 21, 2013:
Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Thanks to my high school math teacher Robert Burns, I have always admired Archimedes. I remember the day he was talking about him in class, and he was explaining how Archimedes had sat down in the bathtub and when the water overflowed, and he suddenly realized how to calculate the volume of the king’s crown, he jumped out of the tub and ran down the street in his birthday suit yelling “Eureka! Eureka!” Meaning… I have found it! I have found it! I especially remember Mr. Burn’s eyes tearing up as he told this story. To Mr. Burns, mathematics was an adventure. He instilled this love into me.
So, how does a discussion about Archimedes tie into a story about a Gas-fired Power Plant in central Oklahoma? Well it does, or it did, on December 19, 1985.
The day began with my drive from Oklahoma City, where I was staying, to Harrah, Oklahoma where I was on overhaul at a power plant called Horseshoe Lake Plant. The lake must have been named Horseshoe Lake for the obvious reason that it was shaped like a Horseshoe as it wrapped around the north part of the plant.
I suppose this lake was originally used to cool the condenser water once the steam had been used to turn the turbine, but it was much too small to be used by the units that were in operation when I was at the plant. Instead it was a Fish farm where Tilapia were raised.
I wrote about working at this plant on this overhaul in an earlier post called “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“. This morning when I arrived, I figured I would be working in the shop repairing more of the older open-faced motors with their sleeve bearing and cambric insulation. It started out that way.
One time during the morning, Ellis Rook, the electrical Supervisor came up to me and started talking to me about the ROLM phone computer. He knew I had experience working on the Phone system. I had been trained by the best even before I had gone to Muskogee to take a class. Bill Rivers at our plant had taught me how to make “moves and changes” and how to troubleshoot the entire plant’s phone system without ever leaving the lab.
Anyway. Ellis Rook told me about the problem they were having with the phone system that day. He told me what had been done to try to fix the problem. I was thinking of a few things I would try (even though I was still more of a Rookie than Ellis Rook — ok. I couldn’t resist that one). I had been an electrician in training for just over 2 years, which still made me a rookie.
I originally thought Ellis had approached me for ideas on how to fix the problem, so I was formulating some answers in my mind while he was going on… then he said, “What I do every time to fix any problem is just reboot the computer.” — ok. He wasn’t seeking advice. He was seeking approval. So, I looked at him with as blank of a stare I could and just nodded and replied, “Well, that usually does it.” — Nevermind that it took about 25 minutes for one of these old ROLM computers to reboot and during that time all communication with the outside world was cut-off.
This was when I remembered a story that Bob Kennedy had told me about Ellis Rook.
One day, he took another electrician with him to inspect the exciter collector rings on one of the units. The exciter is connected to one end of the generator usually (though if I’m not mistaken, the exciter house was off to one side), and it spins at 3600 rpm. It is not coincidental that this is 60 cycles per second, which is how fast the electricity alternates between positive and negative in your house. This is exactly why the electricity alternates that fast. Because that is how fast the turbine-generator is spinning.
Anyway, Ellis had taken a strobe light with him to go inspect the collector rings on the exciter because there was some indication that a fuse had blown on one of the collectors. Using the strobe light, you could set it to blink at 3600 times per minute and the collector rings spinning at 3600 rpm would appear to stand still.
By slowly adjusting the rate that the strobe light was flashing, you could rotate the shaft slowly and inspect it just as if it was standing still, even though in reality it was still spinning at 3600 rpms (the same speed as the lawn mower in the post: “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“).
After examining the shaft for a bit, they located the blown fuse. When the fuse blew, a little indicator would stick out so it could easily be seen. Ellis Rook slowly rotated the shaft around until the fuse was in a good position and then stopped the shaft from rotating by setting the strobe light to the exact same rate that the shaft was rotating.
Then Ellis said something that would go down in the Annals of History at Horseshoe Lake. He told the electrician to change out the fuse. — Ok. Stop and think about this for a minute. The room where the collector rings are is normally dark, so all they can see is this turbine shaft in front of them and it looked like it was standing still. Forget the roar of the spinning turbine and just chalk it up to a loud fan running.
Luckily the electrician wasn’t lulled into a false sense of security and didn’t put his hand forward to remove the fuse. That would have easily have been the last thing he would have ever done (as a live human being). — There has to be a good murder mystery plot involving a strobe light. I’m sure one of the great writers at WordPress can come up with one. I can think of a couple myself.
Anyway, when Ellis Rook told me how he fixed the telephone computer problems by rebooting the computer, this story flashed through my mind for about 3 seconds. I think I put my hands in my back pocket just for safe keeping.
Anyway. I ate lunch in the electric shop office with my ol’ “Roomie” Steven Trammell, (We have called each other roomie from the time we were in Muskogee on overhaul in 1984. See the post about Muskogee in the link above. To this day, we call each other roomie, as we have kept in touch throughout the years). While I was sitting there arguing with Art Hammond about something (See the post: “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“) I was reading an instruction manual about some electronic sensor that could tell you the percentage open a series of valves all in one little box.
Reggie Deloney had been working with the engineer on this valve detecting device for the past 4 weeks, and couldn’t get it to work. The engineer asked me if I would look at it to see if I could figure out what was wrong with it, because it wasn’t working at all…. It would work every now and then, but then it would stop.
When I read the manual I noticed that there was a “common” in the circuitry and that Reggie and the engineer had assumed that the common was the same as the “ground”. This usually isn’t true in electronic circuits as it is in regular electrical wiring. So, I stood up from where I was lounging back reading the pamphlet and lifted the common wire up so that it wasn’t touching the metal cart, and suddenly the valve indicator worked.
When Reggie returned from lunch, I excitedly told him what I had found. He looked a little astonished, so I showed him. He had only spent the last 4 weeks working on this. So, I went into the shop and worked on another motor.
Later I walked into the office figuring that Reggie had told the good news to the engineer. He was sitting there with the engineer scratching their heads still trying to figure out why the instrument still wasn’t working. So, I picked up the wire so it wasn’t touching the cart, and said. “See? Works.” Reggie with a very irritated voice said, “Yes! You figured it out!” He looked at me with a look that said, “Get out of here!” So, I left.
Art, who was listening said, “I don’t think Reggie is ready to figure it out yet.” Then I got it. Oh. I see… It is nice and cool and clean in the office. The engineer wasn’t going to figure it out on his own…. Just a week or so left of overhaul….
About that time, Bob Kennedy, my acting Foreman told me to go with Bill Thomas and help him out. Bill was from our plant and was a welder. He was working out of our shop to help us out with any mechanical needs we had from welding to uncoupling pumps and fans and realigning motors and any other stuff. Now… I know that Bill Thomas had a nickname. But I usually called people by their real names, so I only remember him as Bill Thomas. Maybe a Power Plant Man reading this post will remind me of Bill’s nickname.
This is where Archimedes comes into the story.
So, Bill Thomas had been working on a cooling water fan structure all morning single-handed lifting it up. It weighed somewhere between 50 to 75 tons. um… yes…. I think that is about it… about 100,000 pounds. yet, Bill using nothing but the muscles in his arms and back had been lifting this monstrosity off of the ground. Like Archimedes who lifted an entire ship out of the water once using a lever.
You see. With True Power Plant Men, you really don’t ever hear that something “can’t” be done. Bill had to work under this large round hunk of metal, so he had to pick it up. After spending two hours lifting it with only his two arms spinning a huge chain-fall, he had managed to lift the structure 2 inches from the ground. — well. No one said anything about tossing it in the air… just lifting it off the ground. He still had about 22 inches more to go.
This was where I came in. Did I tell you this plant was old? Well it was. They didn’t have a lot of electricity in this building we were in, and there wasn’t an electric hoist, so Bill had to pull a chain that went around a pulley that turned a shaft to a gearbox that would slowly (real slowly) lift something huge. So, the Power Plant Men from this plant had created a “tool” to make this job faster.
Bill had pulled an air compressor over to the building and had hooked the air hose up to the special tool.
This was going to make his job much faster. There was only once catch. He needed an extra weight. I was the extra weight that he needed.
You see. The special tool was an air powered grinder.
And it was mounted to a piece of plywood. the grinding wheel had been replaced with a pulley. The idea was to stand on the plywood and step on the lever that operated the grinder so that it would spin the pulley. The chain for the chain-fall would fit through the pulley assembly.
Bill had asked the person that gave him this special tool what happens when the chain snags. They said, that’s when you need the extra weight. They explained to Bill that when two people are standing on the plywood, they will be able to overpower the grinder so that it can’t pull itself out from under them. If there isn’t enough weight on the plywood, then if the chain snags, the special tool will slide across the floor and attempt to climb up to the top of the chain-fall until someone lets off of the lever that operates the grinder.
So. I was the extra weight. Not that I was all that big at the time.
Anyway. The next thing I knew, I was standing on the plywood, and Bill was operating the large grinder with his foot and we were lifting the large cylinder off of the ground. Before long we had it at least a foot up. Bill had put some stops under the cylinder in case we had to set it down for some reason, it wouldn’t have to go all the way to the ground.
That’s when it hit me…. No. I didn’t suddenly remember that I hadn’t had any chocolate for lunch (though, that would have been a tragedy). No. That is when as I was watching the chain spin through the pulley at breakneck speed, the chain suddenly went taut. As the chain became snagged in the chain-fall, the chain whipped up, and before I could perceive what had happened I found myself lifted off of the ground and being thrown backward.
The chain had flown back and slapped me across the face, sending my hardhat flying and shattering my safety glasses. I ended up on my back about 5 feet from where I had been standing. Bill rushed to my side to check if I was all right. I checked myself out and decided that I was going to be all right.
I told him I needed to go get another pair of safety glasses from the tool room. he looked at my eyes and said. “Boy. That is really going to be a shiner tomorrow.” Evidently, I was developing a black eye. I was thinking… “Great! And I’m getting married in two days. I can just see my wedding pictures.” (I can see myself trying to explain to my children in the future that – “No. Your mother didn’t sock me in the eye during the wedding”).
I went to the tool room and checked out a new pair of safety glasses:
When I returned to the electric shop, Bill Thomas and Arthur were there. Everyone was saying the same thing. “Boy! That is sure going to be a shiner tomorrow.”
A little while later, Ellis Rook came in the shop and said that Larry Hatley (the plant manager) wanted to talk to me. So, I followed Ellis to the Plant Manager’s office. Larry asked me if I was ok. He wanted to know if I needed medical attention. I assured him that I was all right. My safety glasses had protected me. They had been destroyed in the process, but I was just fine. I think as I left I heard Larry say under his breath, “boy… that is going to be a shiner tomorrow.”
Well. The next day (December 20, 1985) when I showed up at work (my last day there for overhaul before leaving to be married the following day), everyone came around to look at my eye. There wasn’t anything to see really. Any swelling had gone down over the night, and my face was back to it’s regular… um…. tolerable self.
The people I worked with the fall of 1985 at Horseshoe Power Plant treated me like family while I was there. That was the way it was when you worked with True Power Plant Men. I cherish their memory.
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The very last thing I ever learned in High School was the importance of Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance. In fact, the entire senior class of 1978 at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri learned this lesson at the same time. It was during the graduation ceremony in May while the students were walking across the stage to receive their diplomas.
I had already received mine and I was back in my seat sitting between Tracy Brandecker and Patrick Brier (we were sitting alphabetically. My last name is Breazile). Pat was sitting on my left and Tracy was on my right. We were grinning from ear-to-ear to be graduating. My friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper, Russell Somers and Brent Stewart had just walked across the stage in the gymnasium while a storm raged outside. As my friend from the fifth grade forward, Matt Tapley was walking across the stage there was a loud crack of thunder and the sound of an explosion as the lights went out.
Matt Tapley has albinism, giving him white hair and skin. In his black robe, the entire class witnessed Matt’s head bobbing up and down in the faint light given off from the emergency lights to either side of the stage as he was bowing to his classmates. We all clapped. The clapping soon turned to laughter as the emergency lights quickly dimmed and went entirely out within a minute.
As we sat in total darkness waiting for some resourceful faculty member to make their way to the hidden fallout shelter in the basement of the school to retrieve the portable generator and a spotlight, I was amazed by how quickly the emergency lighting had failed. The transformer to the school had been destroyed by the lightning strike so we finished the ceremony by the light of the large spotlight from the back of gym. My thought was that the school is only 4 years old and already the emergency lighting is too old to stay lit long enough to even begin evacuating the building, if that was what we had intended to do.
Fast forward to the spring of 1984. I had become an electrician a few months earlier. As I was learning the electrical ropes, I learned the importance of Preventative Maintenance in a power plant setting. The majority of an electrician’s job when I first joined the electric shop was doing “Preventative Maintenance”. I have some horror stories of bad preventative maintenance that I will share much later. I will point out now that most Americans know of some stories themselves, they just don’t realize that the root cause of these major failures were from a lack of preventative maintenance.
A power plant, like the emergency lights in the High School, has a battery backup system, only it is on a grand scale. There are backup batteries for every system that needs to remain online when there is a total blackout of power. These batteries needed to be inspected regularly. We inspected them monthly.
At first, I had done battery inspections with various electricians. Some people didn’t seem to take this task very seriously. I remember that when I did the inspections with Mike Rose, he usually finished by taking a gallon of soda water (a gallon of water with a box of baking soda dissolved into it) and pouring it all over the batteries.
My bucket buddy, Diana Lucas (Dee), on the other hand, took a different approach. We carefully filled each cell with just the right amount of distilled water. Then she showed me how to meticulously clean any corrosion from the battery posts using a rag soaked in the soda water, and then she would paint the area on the post where the corrosion was with No-Ox grease.
When I say batteries, you may think that I’m talking about batteries like you have in your car, or even in a large piece of equipment like a big dirt mover. Some of the batteries were the size of a battery used in a large dozer or dirt mover:
Some of the batteries that we inspected were of this type. They were usually hooked up to generators that could be started up in case all the power was out and we needed to start up a diesel generator. However, this was just the puppies when it came to the Station Power Batteries. These were some serious batteries:
As big as these batteries are, it takes 58 of them for each system to come up with a 130 volt circuit. That’s right. 58 of these batteries all in a series. The station batteries are all in rooms by themselves known as…. “Unit 1 and Unit 2 Battery rooms”. Smaller station battery sets are found at different locations. Today, those places include the relay house in the main substation, the Microwave room on the roof of #1 boiler. The River pumps, the radio tower building, the coalyard switchgear, Enid Turbine Generators and the Co-Generation plant in Ponca City. I’m sure I’m leaving some out. Maybe a current electrician at the plant can remind me of the others in a comment below. Each of these locations have approximately 58 station batteries.
While I was still a novice electrician, one morning in May I was told that I was going with Dee and Ben Davis to Enid to a Battery training class at an electric company office where the manufacturer (C&D) was going to go over the proper maintenance of the station batteries. Ben drove the pickup. I remember sitting in the middle between Dee and Ben both going and coming back from our lesson on Battery Preventative Maintenance….
Interesting that Ben was sitting to my left and Dee to my right that day… just like Pat and Tracy during the graduation ceremony 6 years earlier to the month when we first learned the impact of bad preventative maintenance on backup batteries. This time we were learning how to prevent the problem I had witnessed years before. I don’t know why I draw parallels like that. It just seem to make life a little neater when that happens. I don’t remember Ben and Dee grinning ear-to-ear like Pat and Tracy were the night we graduated from High School, but I can assure you, I was grinning the entire 45 minutes going to Enid and the 45 minutes going back to the plant.
Since I had been trained for battery maintenance, I suppose it was like Andy Griffith becoming the Permanent Latrine Orderly (PLO) in the movie “No Time For Sergeants”. I was able to go to town inspecting all kinds of backup batteries.
Gene Roget (pronounced with a french accent as “Row Jay” with a soft J) was a contract electrician when I first became an electrician in the shop. I wrote about him in the post New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop. He was a great mentor that taught me a lot about how to be an electrician. He taught me how to use all the different tools in my tool bucket. He taught me how to bend conduit and make it come out the right length on both ends…
He especially taught me the importance of doing a “pretty” job when running wire or conduit or just rewiring a motor. I remember Gene stopping one day when we were walking to the precipitator and he paused to look up at the transfer tower. I asked him where he was looking. He said, “I’m just admiring the wonderful job someone did bending that set of conduit. that’s a perfect job! Just perfect!”
Anyway, Gene and I were given the task of checking all the batteries in the emergency lights throughout the plant. It happened that the emergency lights at the plant were all about 5 years old. Probably about the same age as the lights were in the high school the night of our graduation. The lights in the plant had wet cells. Which meant that you had to add distilled water to them like you do in your car, or in the station batteries. This amounted to a pretty large task as there were emergency lights stationed throughout the plant.
We found many of the lights that would never have been able to light up enough to cause a cockroach to run for cover. We took the bad ones back to the shop to work on them. A lot of the batteries had gone bad because they had never been checked. They have a built-in battery charger, and some of the chargers were not working. I drew a wiring diagram of the charger so that we could troubleshoot them and replace components that had gone bad.
All of this was like a dream to me. At the time I couldn’t think of any other place I would rather be. I loved taking things that were broken and fixing them and putting them back into operation. Eventually we decided to change the emergency light batteries to dry batteries. Those didn’t need water. We could pull out the six wet cells from each emergency light box and just plug the new batteries in place. This made a lot more sense. Who has time to go around regularly and check 50 or 60 emergency lights every 3 months? Not us. Not when we were trying to save the world.
Back to the Station Batteries:
Just to give you an idea of how important these batteries are, let me tell you what they are used for…. Suppose the power plant is just humming along at full power, and all of the sudden, the power goes out. It doesn’t matter the reason. When there is a blackout in a city, or a state, be assured, the power plant itself is in a blackout state as well. After all, the power plant is where the electricity is being created.
In the plant there is large equipment running. The largest and most valuable piece of equipment by far in a power plant is the Turbine Generator. The entire plant exists to spin this machine. As big as it is, it spins at 3600 revolutions per minute, or 60 times each second. In order to do that, oil has to be flowing through the bearings otherwise they would burn up almost instantly. This would cause the generator to come to a screeching halt — and I mean “screeching!”
So, in order to stop a turbine generator properly, when a unit is taken offline, once it has coasted to a smooth stop, the turbine has to be engaged to something called a “Turning Gear” which slowly rotates the turbine generator. This is turned off only when the shaft has cooled down. Without this, you might as well call General Electric and order a new one.
So, one of the most important things the station batteries do is run emergency oil pumps that engage immediately when the power is cutoff from the plant. This allows the turbine generator and other important equipment throughout the plant to slowdown and come to a stop gracefully in case the power is instantly gone.
I will write a story later about a day when this happened at our plant. The moments of confusion, and the quick decisions that had to be made to keep the unit 1 boiler from melting to the ground. Rest assured that throughout this time, the emergency oil pumps had kicked in. The station batteries did their job when they were called upon. While the control room operators were performing their emergency tasks to the letter and the electricians were scrambling to come up with a workable solution to an unforeseen problem, the turbine-generator, the PA (Primary Air) fans, the FD (Forced Draft) Fans, the ID (Induction) fans were all coasting down as the groundwork was being laid to quickly restore power.
Someone in an office in the middle of Oklahoma City may have noticed their lights flicker for a moment. Maybe they dimmed slightly…
If not for the proper maintenance of the power plant station batteries, the lights would have possibly gone dark. Someone would have had to go looking for the portable generator and the spotlight. Ceremonies in progress may have to continued under candlelight.
Originally posted on July 6, 2013:
Ted Riddle and I were working for an “Acting” foreman named Willard Stark during an overhaul at the plant outside Mustang, Oklahoma the spring of ’86. Willard seemed much older than he was. I would have guessed he was in his late 60’s or early 70’s, but it turned out he was only in his mid to lower 50’s. I found out why he had aged as the overhaul unfolded.
I heard some slight grumblings from a few in the shop when Bill Bennett told me that I was going to the plant near Mustang, Oklahoma that spring. I suppose it was because since I had become an electrician in the Fall of 1983, this was already going to be my third overhaul away from our plant, and all of them ended up being major overhauls.
The reason others were grumbling about this was because when you were able to go on an extended overhaul at another plant, it meant that you were going to earn not only a lot of extra overtime, but you also received travel time, mileage and a per diem (a daily amount of money for expenses). I believe at the time the Per Diem rate was $32.00 each day. This was supposed to pay for your hotel room and your meals while you were away from your family. We lived in trailers to cut down on costs.
Others believed that I had received more than my share of the piece of this pie. I had been sent on every available overhaul since just before I had reached my first year as an electrician. So, by this time, most people would have saved up quite a sum of money. I, however, was making around $7.50 my first year, and by the time 1986 had rolled around, I was still making just under $10.00 an hour. So, overtime amounted to $14.50 an hour.
When you compared this to the first class electricians that were making around $19.00 an hour at the time, they would have been making $28.50 an hour overtime. This was about twice what I was making. So, I was a cheap date.
On December 21, 1985 I had been married (the day following my last day at Horseshoe Lake overhaul — see the post: A Slap in the Face at a Gas-Fired Power Plant), and I had used every cent I had in the world to pay for our honeymoon. I was even relying on paychecks I was receiving while I was away to finish paying for it.
So, it helped to come back and find that we were on a major overhaul at our plant on Unit 1 doing the 5 year checkout. Then finding that I was going to a major overhaul at the plant in Mustang, Oklahoma where I could live with my wife in her apartment in Oklahoma City while she finished her last semester to obtain her nursing degree from Oklahoma University. I went on the overhaul with Ted Riddle.
Ted was hired into the electric shop the previous summer. He wasn’t on my crew so I hadn’t worked much with him. He was a farmer that had an electric background. He was a bigger man than I was and had a good sense of humor. He had a steady temper and didn’t let much bother him. He would laugh at things that might bother others.
I appreciated working with Ted, because his steady mood helped to teach me that blowing my top about little things did little to help the situation. So, for this overhaul, I decided that I would try to emulate Ted Riddle by keeping up with his easy-going-ness (I know…. the dictionary couldn’t find that one).
Bob Kennedy was on this overhaul as well. He had been my acting foreman during the overhaul at Horseshoe Lake. I had described our relationship in the post: “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“. I was glad to be working with Bob again. As I mentioned, Willard Stark was our acting foreman.
For those that don’t know…. an acting foreman is someone that normally isn’t a foreman, but is appointed to lead a crew for a particular job. These men usually are the best foremen to work for, because they haven’t attended any official “manager training”. This usually made them better foremen, as the manager training had a tendency to destroy one’s character and moral integrity. — I never could figure that one out. Some people came back unscathed, but others came back with PTMD (Post-Traumatic Manager Disorder).
The plant at Mustang was the smallest gas-fired power plant that had people permanently working there. It had some smaller units that they wouldn’t run when the newer larger units weren’t running because the water treatment plant (that creates the boiler water) used more power than the small units could generate. — That amazed me. So, while we were there, I don’t think any of the units were running so they didn’t have to run the water treatment plant.
Willard Stark had spent a good portion of his life working at the plant and had a lot of stories about the plant manager and assistant manager at our plant. He had been an electrician when Bill Moler had first come to the plant as a new green electrician like me. I enjoyed sitting during lunch in Mark Thomas’s electric lab as Willard told us stories.
Willard had an incredible memory. He could remember what he was doing on any specific day decades before. We would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio during lunch, and whenever Paul would say, “….noon news and comment.” Willard would always finish the sentence by saying “…mostly comment.” I had spent a good part of my childhood listening to Paul Harvey on the radio because when I was young, we always had a radio playing in the house and the car. So, Paul Harvey’s voice was always a comfort to me. I was saddened a few years ago when he passed away.
Working with Ted Riddle cracked me up. He would notice things that I was totally oblivious to (yeah. I see it. A preposition at the end of a sentence). For instance, one day while we were working, Ted asked me if I ever noticed how Bob Kennedy drinks water out of his jar. I told him I hadn’t noticed.
You see, Bob had this jar that looked like a pickle jar that he brought to work each day filled with water. During lunch, he would drink out of this jar. Ted said, “Watch Bob during lunch today. Tell me what you think.” So as I was sitting next to Bob during lunch listening to Paul Harvey, and Willard Stark telling us what he did on any particular date in the past that Paul Harvey might mention, I kept one eye on Bob.
As Bob lifted his jar to his mouth I watched as he began to drink. I immediately knew what Ted had wanted me to see. As Bob took a drink, he slowly tilted the jar up until the water reached his mouth. As the jar was being tilted, Bob’s upper lip would reach way into the jar as far as it could, quivering in anticipation of a cool drink of fresh water. The upper lip of a camel came to my mind.
With all my might, I struggled to keep a straight face as I turned my head slowly to look over at Ted who had a grin from ear-to-ear….. ok. I’ll show you the picture of Andy Griffith again that I included in my post from last week, just so you can see what I saw when I looked over at Ted:
I think I almost choked on my ham sandwich as I swallowed while trying to keep my composure.
Another day while Ted and I were cleaning ignitors on the shop work bench Ted asked me if I had noticed what Randy Oxley and Jimmy Armafio were working on. I told him I hadn’t noticed. Ted said that if he’s not mistaken Randy Oxley has been coming into the shop all morning with the same piece of conduit. He bends it, then cuts a little off the end and re-threads it.
So, the next time Randy came into the shop I noticed he had a piece of one and a half inch conduit in his hand. It was about 3 1/2 feet long and had a couple of bends in it. Randy hooked the conduit up in the large conduit bender and using his measuring tape carefully lined it up as Armafio stood back and watched. He bent the conduit a little, then put it in the bandsaw and cut off a few inches. Then he put it in the vice on the work bench and proceeded to thread the end of the conduit.
Then Jimmy and Randy left. Ted said that if he wasn’t mistaken, that’s the same piece of conduit Randy has been working on all morning. So, as we continued the boring job of cleaning the 30 or so ignitors piled on our workbench, I told Ted about the time I was at the plant at Horseshoe Lake and Randy had told a Mechanical A foreman Joe Balkenbush (I think his first name was Joe), who was Randy’s uncle on his mom’s side, that Randy was the best electrician at the plant at Mustang, only he was the only one that knew it.
I mentioned this meeting and the reason for it in the post: “Bobbin Along with Bob Kennedy” (See the link above). Sure enough, a little while later, Randy came back to the shop with the same piece of conduit and performed the same procedure of bending, cutting and threading and scadoodling.
A little while later the electrical B foremen came out into the shop (I can’t remember his name for the life of me… I can see his face – maybe something Campbell), and asked us if we knew how to run conduit. We assured him that we did. I had been thoroughly trained by Gene Roget and Ted, well, as it turned out, Ted was a crackerjack conduit hand.
The foremen took us up onto the boiler and asked us if we could run some conduit from one place to another. He sounded apologetic when he asked if that would be all right. We assured him it was no problem. We would get right on it.
On the way back to the shop, as we were coming down from the boiler, Ted tapped my shoulder and pointed down to the bottom of a light fixture. He said, “Hey! Isn’t that the piece of conduit that Randy has been working on all morning?” Sure enough. There is was. He finally bent it and cut it to fit! Well… The rest of this part of the story is that instead of running back and forth to the shop to bend and cut and thread conduit, Ted and I grabbed a conduit stand, and the appropriate tools and hauled them up on the boiler.
We carried about 40 foot of conduit up there and began bending, cutting and threading and mounting the conduit. We finished just before lunch. As I mentioned above, Ted was a heck of a conduit person. He knew exactly what he was doing. We carried all the equipment back to the shop.
After lunch Ted and I went back to cleaning ignitors. The foreman saw us out of the window of the office and came out and asked us why we weren’t working on the conduit. When we told him we were done, he had a look of disbelief. He left the shop (to go check out our work). Ted and I smiled at each other.
A little while later the foreman returned with the electric supervisor. The electric supervisor asked us if we wouldn’t mind working on some more jobs to run conduit. Ted told him that we were there to do whatever they needed. I nodded in agreement.
During the rest of the overhaul we worked to repair broken conduit, pull wire and install new conduit where needed. Mark Thomas, the electric specialist, that was about my age, asked if he could use us to pull and mount some new controls. He said he wouldn’t let the others in the shop touch it because he would just have to follow through and redo it when they were done. So, we did that also.
We did get in trouble one day when we went to install some conduit over a control room just off of the T-G floor. We noticed that all of the lights were out except a couple, so we found a couple of large boxes of light bulbs and replaced the burned out bulbs. The Electric Foreman came running up to us a little while later and said, “What are you trying to do? Run us out of business?”
With looks on our faces that conveyed that we didn’t understand what he meant, he explained that in small plants like this one, they don’t have a budget like the bigger plants. They can’t afford to keep the lights burning all over the plant all the time. So, we were only supposed to replace lights in the immediate area where we had to work. Now the foreman had to figure out where he was going to find the money to buy another box of light bulbs. — These were incandescent bulbs that don’t have a long life span.
I had mentioned in an earlier post called Resistance in a Coal-fire Power Plant that Bill Rivers had been given a bum deal when another person had accused him of cutting off the leads of electronic components so that no one could check them to see if they were really bad (which doesn’t make any sense given that you could still check them no matter how short the leads are). Well, I found that the same situation had existed in this plant.
There was this one guy that sat in the electric shop Lab (not the same electric shop lab where Willard and Mark Thomas hung out), working on Gray Phones all day. Ted had asked me if I had noticed how many gray phone boxes were missing gray phones (gray phones are the PA system in a plant. You could go to any one of them and page someone).
Ted would point to empty gray phone boxes as we walked through the plant. He told me that they have one electrician that doesn’t do anything else but sit in the electric lab working on gray phones. That is all he does. When we asked Willard about it, he told us this story.
Mark Thomas used to work on all the gray phones, and kept them all running in good order. When Mark worked on a gray phone, sometimes to make sure it is working, he would page himself. Just to make sure that part worked. I understood this. When I was working on gray phones with Bill Rivers, he would page me, or I would page him, just to test it.
If you were working by yourself, it would make sense that you would page yourself instead of bugging someone else several times a day while you went from one gray phone to the next. Anyway, people accused Mark Thomas of trying to make himself more important by making others think that he was being paged all the time by paging himself.
Now, anyone with any sense would know how lame of an idea that is. I mean, anyone would recognize Mark Thomas’s voice. The plant wasn’t that big. There weren’t that many people working there. Everyone knew everyone else. Mark was obviously just working on gray phones.
So, after the foreman accused him of trying to promote his self importance by paging himself several times a day, Mark said, “Fine! Let someone else work on the gray phones!” Mark was by far the most intelligent person at the plant. He obviously didn’t need to artificially promote his reputation by making a fool of himself.
So, they gave the job of gray phone maintenance to someone that didn’t understand electronics. They even bought an expensive gray phone test set to help him out. So each day he would sit in the lab smoking his pipe staring at an ever-growing pile of gray phones. At one point, Ted and I offered to fix them all for him. He said, “That’s ok. It keeps me in the air conditioning.
I know in later times, Mark Thomas went on to greater successes within the company. I believe that Willard stayed around until there was a downsizing and he was able to early retire. I mentioned at the beginning that Willard looked a lot older than he really was. Willard brought this to my attention. He showed me a picture of himself a few years earlier. It was of him standing by a car wearing a suit.
He reminded me of an actor from an old movie, though, I can’t remember the actor’s name at the moment. Willard said that in the past few years he aged rapidly. It happened when the previous foreman had retired. Willard had seniority in the shop and had been at the plant most of his life. He knew what he was doing, and had filled in as foreman many times. He really expected to become the foreman.
Nevertheless, they gave the job to someone from somewhere else who didn’t know the plant, or even much about being a foreman. This upset Willard so much that he said he just gave up. He said the stress from that experience aged him. Mark Thomas agreed.
Mark had his own encounter with this attitude when he decided to retreat to his lab off and away from the electric shop. Willard and Mark, the two electricians that really knew what they were doing at the plant had sequestered themselves in their own hideaway where they would sit each day listening to Paul Harvey at lunch and biding their time until the next phase of their life came around.
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.
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.
The tag is signed by the Shift Supervisor and is only to be removed by an operator sent by the Shift Supervisor. It is placed 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.
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.
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….
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. Maybe not all in that order.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (or should I spell that “pow!”) 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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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).
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:
Or even a normal rat like this:
No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:
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.
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.