The 37th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally posted June 28, 2013.
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. See the post Runaway Fire Hydrant Leaves Power Plant in the Dark.
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.
The 36th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
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, “Whatchou 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. When 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 thing. 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). See the Post Power Plant Trouble With Angels.
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The 35th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
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 Sonny’s 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 Power Plant Man Talk, 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 (See the post “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with Boring“).
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 HEPA 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” (or “Rotten”), 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….
The 34th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally posted April 19, 2013:
Resistance is Futile! You may have heard that before. Especially if you are a Star Trek Fan. If not, then you know that there is always some form of resistance wherever you are.
I learned a lot about resistance when I first joined the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1984. I was assigned to work with Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers on the Precipitator during overhauls and when I wasn’t working on the manhole pumps and there wasn’t any other emergencies going on. Actually, from 1984 on, for the next 17 years I continued to work on the precipitator… (if I had only known my fate….).
Not only did I learn a lot about resistance, I also learned about capacitance, reactance, transformers, rectifiers, power supplies, diodes, transistors, op amps, and pots (also known as potentiometers). Bill Rivers was the brains of the outfit. Sonny was the Electric Specialist banished to the Precipitator by Leroy Godfrey (See Singing Along with Sonny Kendrick). Bill thought up the ideas and Sonny went to work to implement them. I just jumped in where I was needed.
The Precipitator is the large box between the boiler and the smokestack (maybe you can see this in the Power plant picture). The purpose of the electrostatic precipitator is to take the smoke (or fly ash) out of the exhaust before it went out of the smokestack.
The controls for the Precipitator were all electronic at that time. That meant that there were circuit boards full of resistors, capacitors, transistors, operational amplifiers, diodes and potentiometers. These circuit boards controlled the way the power was distributed throughout the precipitator wires and plates through high powered transformers, and how the rappers and vibrators operated that dropped the collected ash into the hoppers.
Bill had me take an electronics course at the Indian Meridian Vo-tech so I would know the basics. Then he taught me all the shortcuts. I had to be able to look at a resistor and tell right away what the value of resistance it was. Resistors are color-coded and you had to learn what each of the colors represented…
I was expected to know this by sight. Bill would test me. There was a mnemonic device that I was taught to remember what each color represented, but it is not appropriate to repeat it, so I won’t. It is enough to say that the colors go like this: Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, Gray, White (I will never forget this my entire life). These represent the numbers zero through 9. Here is a full explanation of how to read a resistor….. just in case you are curious, or you are such a boring person that you really need some material to bring up when you are at a party and don’t know what to say:
I found that having just the correct amount of resistance was very important. Too much or too less, and everything stops working.
Isn’t it that way with management also? If the management is too resistant to change, then things come to a halt. If they have too little resistance, they lose control of the situation. Depending on the circuit (or managerial decision) and what you are trying to do, it helps to have a manager that has a variable resistance to meet the needs of each situation. Resistance to change is always a balancing act.
During the first two years I was an electrician, the main control panels that controlled the operation of the precipitators were electronic. We spent a lot of time in the lab troubleshooting electric circuits looking for blown (or bad) parts that needed to be replaced. Then we would solder new components on the circuit boards and then put them back in operation. I learned how to be an electronics junky. I became addicted to fixing electronic circuit boards. It was like a game to me.
Later, the precipitator controls were changed to digital controls. That is, they were more like little computers controlling the precipitator. Instead of a bunch of circuit boards dumbly, but cleverly, doing their job, (how many commas can I use in one sentence?), little brains were added that made decisions and reacted to conditions in a much more dynamic way.
What was interesting was that one day Bill Rivers was describing how technology was going to be in the future. He said that some day, we will be able to sit in the lab and look on a computer and see what all the controls in the precipitator were doing (this was 1984). If something isn’t working right, we could just reach over, type a few keys on the computer and adjust the controls. Drink our sweet tea (a necessary staple in Oklahoma at the time), and then wait for the next crisis…. Then he would giggle at the look of disbelief on my face and the faces of the other electricians that happen to be within earshot.
When he was telling me this, I was thinking in my head…. Well, that would be nice, but this sounds more like a pipe dream to me than reality. What does an older guy with six kids from a tool and die company in Columbia Missouri (where I grew up, by chance) know about the future of anything….. well…. anything…uh… new age…. If that is what you might call it… I found out you just don’t really know when you are sitting in front of a true “visionary” with tremendous insight.
Bill Rivers had this incredible knack for telling the future. In 1984 he was predicting computer controls in the control room where you ran the entire plant from a computer on a desk instead of using the “Big Board”.
He said you would be able to call someone on a phone you kept in your pocket or your watch like Dick Tracey.
I don’t know what journals Bill was reading or if he just dreamed all this stuff up in his head, or maybe he was a Star Trek Fan that believed that if you can dream it up you can do it. I do know that he picked up on subtle queues and made great inferences from them that seemed astronomically unlikely. However, I have to admit that he caught me off guard a number of times with predictions that definitely came true.
I will talk about this more in a future post, but for now I will say that we did upgrade the precipitator to where you could sit in the control room and monitor and adjust the precipitator controls (all 84 on each unit), and even each of the rappers (672 rappers) and vibrators (168 vibrators) on the roof of each precipitator. With one key on the computer I could send a plume of ash out of the smokestack that looked like the unit had just tripped, and a moment later, clean it up again. This meant that I could send smoke signals to the Osage Indian tribe 20 miles north up the Arkansas (pronounced “Are Kansas”) river, telling them that the Pow Wow would begin at sunset.
Today, I understand that the “Big Board” at the plant is just a large junction box and the plant is controlled almost (if not) completely by computers sitting on the desk. Before I left the plant in 2001, this was being transitioned slowly to computer controls. I have another story to tell some day about this, and how an operator named Jim Cave, a Power Plant Genius and true Power Plant Man of the highest integrity, was snubbed by upper management for speeding this technology along. — Another example of Power Plant Resistance….
But for now…. back to my electronic days… before I began re-programming the Eeprom chips in the precipitator controls….
Bill Rivers confided with me one day that when the new Instrument and Controls department had been formed from the “Results” department that his dream had been to become a part of this team. It meant the world to him. It was where he believed he belonged. It was one of his major goals in life.
There used to be two electrical specialists in the Power Plant. Sonny Kendrick was not always the only one. The other specialist was chosen to go to the Instrument and Controls shop. Bill Rivers wanted to move there also. He definitely had the experience and the knowledge to be a superb instrument and controls person. But Bill had this one problem.
He loved to joke around. He loved to pull strings and push buttons. I have mentioned in a previous posts that Bill would play a new joke on Sonny Kendrick every single day. As I have unfortunately found out in my own life… this tends to make them…. well….. it tends to make enemies out of those who have a chip on their shoulder. Those people who naturally feel inadequate in their abilities or their position in life. To go one step further…. anyone who feels “unloved”….. these people definitely do not like being joked with. They seem to never forgive you. My greatest regret in life is joking around with these individuals.
So, when it came time to choose who would be a part of the new Instrument and Controls shop, Bill Rivers was turned down. It was explained to him that the reason he was not given the job was because he cut off the leads of a transistor when he replaced them. — I’m not kidding. Bill Rivers had the habit of cutting off the leads of each resistor, transistor, diode or capacitor that he replaced…. this is why Monty Adams turned down his request for joining the “elite” Instrument and Controls shop (as he told Bill to his face).
Someone had told the Instrument and Controls Supervisor Monty Adams that Bill Rivers cut the leads off of transistors and resistors when he replaced them so that you couldn’t test them to see if they were all right. Implying that he didn’t want you to know whether he had replaced the transistor or resistor by mistake.
Bill Rivers took several transistors, cut the leads off of each of them and handed them to me and asked me to test them to see if they were still good or if they were bad. I took out my voltmeter, set it to ohms, and proceeded to test them as Bill Rivers had taught me. I told him…. this transistor is good….. this one is bad….
You see…. there is no way to cut the leads off of a transistor in such a way to make it impossible to tell if a transistor is good or bad…. In reality…. you cut the leads off of a bad transistor so that the person working on the circuit board knows that this is a bad transistor and doesn’t use it again by accident. This was electronics 101.
When Bill told me this story, he literally had tears in his eyes. This was because being part of the Instrument and Controls team was part of his dream. The future of his family and the entire rest of his life was decided the day he was told that he was not going to be a part of a team that he believed was his true lot in life.
I remember his exact words as he sat there in the lab alone and told me this story. He said, “… and Monty didn’t know… He didn’t know that you cut the leads…. that is standard procedure….” In Bill’s giggly way, he was crying out loud as he told me this.
From that point on….I knew that the decisions Bill made in his life were driven by that one decision to exclude him from this team. Unlike many of us that could say to ourselves…. “That is their loss”…. Bill kept this pain in his heart each day…. Every decision from that day further was effected by this event.
I calculated it out one day that I spent 414 hours driving back and forth from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the plant and back each day with Bill Rivers (along with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer and occasionally others that needed a ride), and over that time, I became very close to Bill, even to the point of tutoring his son in Algebra (see post: How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?).
I say this because I know about the pain that inflicted Bill River by a rash decision based on the hearsay of someone that held a grudge. I know how his entire life was changed and how it ended for Bill Rivers as a power plant employee. I know that every decision by Bill after this date was made in response to this one decision. Anyone who experienced Bill after 1983 knows what I am talking about.
I realized that today my own decisions in life help spell out my future. How some little remark may be misinterpreted, or even properly so. I realize as I write this post that how I accept or reject these events in my life, determines the future of my family. After seeing how every event in Bill’s life after that day at the power company was determined by his experience was to his detriment, I am determined not to let the same thing happened to me…..
That is why I have taken on the philosophy in my life that no matter how my actions are misinterpreted, I am determined to remain true to myself. I know what I mean, and I mean what I say, and I say what I mean, and an Elephant is Faithful 100 %.
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The 33rd “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally posted: April 15, 2013:
“Something is in the water in Muskogee.” That is what I used to say. Something that makes people feel invulnerable. That was what I attributed to David Stewart’s belief that he could jump up in a falling elevator just before it crashed into the ground and he would be saved (see After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests).
There was another story at the Muskogee Coal-fired Power Plant where this one mechanic believed that he could stick his finger in the path of the blade of a running lawnmower and pull it out so fast that it wouldn’t cut his finger off. Of course, True Power Plant Men tried to reason with him to convince him that it was impossible…. Then there were others who said… “Ok. Prove it.”
Think about it. A lawnmower spins at the same rate that a Turbine Generator spins when it makes electricity. 3,600 time a minute. Or 60 times each second. Since the blade in a lawnmower extends in both directions, a blade would fly by your finger 120 times each second. Twice as fast as the electric current in your house cycles positive and negative.
This means that the person will have to stick their finger in the path of the lawnmower blade and pull it out within 8/1000th of a second…. IF they were able to time it so that they put their finger in the path at the precise moment that the blade passed by. Meaning that on average, the person only has 4/1000th of a second (or 0.004 seconds) to perform this feat (on average… could be a little more, could be less).
Unfortunately for this person, he was not convinced by the logicians that it was impossible, and therefore proceeded to prove his case. If you walked over and met this person in the maintenance shop at Muskogee, you would find that he was missing not only one finger, but two. Why? Because after failing the first time and having his finger chopped off, he was still so stubborn to think that he could have been wrong, so later he tried it again. Hence the reason why two of his fingers were missing.
Upon hearing this story, I came to the conclusion that there must be something in the water at Muskogee. I drank soft drinks as much as possible while I was there on overhaul during the fall of 1984.
As I mentioned in the post Power Plant Rags to Riches, in 1984 I was on overhaul at Muskogee with Ben Davis. An overhaul is when a unit is taken offline for a number of weeks so that maintenance can be performed on equipment that is only possible when the unit is offline. During this particular overhaul, Unit 6 at Muskogee was offline.
Ben and I were working out of the Unit 6 Electric shop. Ben was staying with his friend Don Burnett, a machinist that used to work at our plant when I was a summer help. Before Don worked for the electric company, he worked in a Zinc Smelting plant by Tonkawa, Oklahoma. Not only was Don an expert machinist, he was also one of the kindest people you would run across. Especially at Muskogee.
I was staying in a “trailer down by the river” by the old plant. Units one, two and three. They were older gas-fired units. I think at the time, only Unit 3 was still operational. The first 2 weeks of the overhaul, I stayed in a rectory with the Catholic priests in town. Then David Stewart offered to let me stay in his trailer down by the river for only $50 a week.
After the first couple of weeks it was decided that the 4 week overhaul had turned into a 9 week overhaul because of some complications that they found when inspecting something on the turbine. So, I ended up staying another month.
When they found out that they were going to be down for an extra 5 weeks, they called in for reinforcements, and that is when I met my new “roomie”, Steven Trammell from the plant in Midwest City. He shared the trailer for the last 4 weeks of the overhaul. From that time on, Steven and I were good friends. To this day (and I know Steven reads this blog) we refer to each other as “roomie”, even though it has been 29 years (now 36 years) since we bunked together in a trailer…..down by the river.
I have one main story that I would like to tell with this post that I am saving until the end. It was what happened to me the day I think I accidentally drank some of the water…. (sounds like Mexico doesn’t it?). Before I tell that story, I want to introduce you to a couple of other True Power Plant Men that lived next door to “roomie” and me in another trailer down by the river (this was the Arkansas River by the way…. Yeah… The Arkansas river that flowed from Kansas into Oklahoma… — go figure. The same river that we used at our plant to fill our lake. See the post Power Plant Men taking the Temperature Down By The River).
Joe Flannery was from Seminole Plant and I believe that Chet Turner was from Horseshoe Plant, though I could be mistaken about Chet. I know he was living in south Oklahoma City at the time, so he could have been working at Seminole as well. These were two electricians that were very great guys. Joe Flannery had a nickname. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I think it was “Bam Bam”.
Joe was very strong, like Bam Bam. He also reminded me of Goober on the Andy Griffith Show, though Gary Lyons at our plant even resembled Goober more:
Chet was older than Joe by quite a lot, but I could tell that my Roomie and Joe held him in high esteem… So much so, that I might just wait on the story I was going to tell you about the time that I drank the water in Muskogee to focus more on Chet Turner… otherwise known as Chester A Turner (The story about when I drank the water can be found here: Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant).
I first met Chet when my roomie asked me if I wanted to go out and eat with him and our two trailer neighbors. On the way to dinner, we had to stop by a used car lot to look at what was available because Chet loved looking at cars. He had gray hair and was 60 years old at the time.
During the next 5 weeks, we went out to eat almost every night during the week with Chet and Joe. We explored Muskogee as best we could. That means that we visited about every car lot in the town. We also ate at a really good BBQ place where you sat at a picnic table and ate the BBQ on a piece of wax paper.
One night we were invited by another electrician (I think his name was Kevin Davis) to meet him at a Wal-Mart (or some other similar store) parking lot where his son was trying to win a car by being the last person to keep his hand on the car. He had already been doing it for about 4 days, and was exhausted. It would have reminded me of the times I had spent adjusting the precipitator controls after a fouled start-up, only, only I hadn’t done that yet.
I was usually hungry when we were on our way to dinner, and I was slightly annoyed by the many visits to car lots when my stomach was set on “growl” mode. I never said anything about it, because I could tell that Chet was having a lot of fun looking at cars.
If only I had known Chet’s story when I met him, I would have treated him with the respect that he deserved. If I had known his history, I would have paid for his meals. It was only much later that I learned the true nature of Chet, a humble small gray-haired man that seemed happy all the time, and just went with the flow.
You know… It is sometimes amazing to me that I can work next to someone for a long time only to find out that they are one of our nation’s greatest heroes. I never actually worked with Chet, but I did sit next to him while we ate our supper only to return to the trailers down by the river exhausted from the long work days.
Let me start by saying that Chet’s father was a carpenter. Like another friend of mine, and Jesus Christ himself, Chester had a father that made furniture by hand. During World War II, Chester’s mother helped assemble aircraft for the United States Air Force.
While Chet’s mother was working building planes for the Air Force, Chet had joined the Navy and learned to be an electrician. He went to work on a ship in the Pacific called the USS Salt Lake City. It was in need of repairs, so he was assigned to work on the repairs.
While working on the ship, it was called to service, and Chet, since he happened to be on the ship, went to war. After a couple of battles where the ship was damaged from Japanese shelling it went to Hawaii to be repaired. After that, it was sent to the battle at Iwo Jima. That’s right. The Iwo Jima that we all know about. Chet was actually there to see the flag being raised by the Marines on Mount Suribachi:
Chet fought valiantly in the battle at Iwo Jima and was able to recall stories of specific attacks against targets that would make your hair stand on end to listen to. After it was all said and done, Chet was awarded the Victory Medal,
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal,
and the Philippine Liberation Campaign Ribbon.
As well as others….
At the time that I knew Chet, I didn’t know any of this about him. Isn’t that the case so many times in our lives. Think twice about that Wal-Mart Greeter when you go to the store (well, I heard that Wal-Mart is no longer going to have greeters, so my long term retirement plan has taken a turn). When you see an elderly old man or woman struggling with her cart to put her groceries in her car…. You may be looking at a hero.
I was looking at Chet thinking, “boy. This guy sure enjoys looking at cars…. I’m hungry.” This past week I was thinking about writing tonight about an event that took place while Ben and I were on overhaul at Muskogee. I thought it would be a funny story that you would enjoy. So, I asked my roomie, “What was the name of the guy that was staying with Joe Flannery in the trailer? The one with the gray hair?”
He reminded me that his name was Chet Turner. Steven told me that Chet had died a while back (on January 12, 2012, less than two weeks after I started writing about Power Plant Men) and that he was a good friend. So much so, that Steven found it hard to think about him being gone without bringing tears to his eyes. This got me thinking…. I knew Chet for a brief time. I wondered what was his story. I knew from my own experience that most True Power Plant Men are Heroes of some kind, so I looked him up.
Now you know what I found. What I have told you is only a small portion of the wonderful life of a great man. I encourage everyone to go and read about Chet Turner. The Story of Chester A. Turner
Notice the humble beginning of this man who’s father was a carpenter. Who’s mother worked in the same effort that her son did during the war to fight against tyranny. How he became an electrician at a young age, not to rule the world, but to serve mankind.
Looking at cars has taken on an entirely new meaning to me. I am honored today to have Chet forever in my memory.
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The 32nd “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally posted March 30, 2013:
When you think about it, you probably spend more time with your best friend than you ever did talking to your own father. That is, unless your father is your best friend. Charles Foster was my “Foster Father”. Though I was grateful for his effort to bring me into the Electric Shop at the Coal-Fired Plant, when I had little to no electrical experience, that wasn’t the reason why we became such good friends.
When I moved into the electric shop from the labor crew, Charles Foster was my B Foreman. He was my foreman for only the first year of the 18 years I spent as an electrician. He was my friend from the first day I met him until… well… until the end of eternity.
I found that most of the electricians were more intelligent than others it seemed. The shop had people that were Heroes in their own right. Andy Tubbs, Craig Jones, Terry Blevins, Diana Lucas and Ben Davis were what I thought of as “Delta Force” Electricians. They were sent to tackle the toughest of jobs because everyone knew that they would pour all they had into their work until the job was done.
Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers were the electronics buffs. They would work on calibrating, programming and monitoring different plant systems. These are the people that you went to when a piece of electronic equipment was on the fritz, and they would analyze, test and repair it with their endless drawers of all types of electronic parts.
There were some other electricians, such as Art Hammond, Bill Ennis, Jim Stevenson and Mike Rose that had their own special knowledge that made each of them unique (to be sure). The other two foremen were Howard Chumbley and O.D. McGaha (prounounced: Oh Dee Muh Gay Hay).
Charles Foster didn’t fall in the same category as the others. He wasn’t the type of person to wire up a Boiler Water Circulating Pump, or run conduit up the side of the boiler. Though he would do these tasks when the A-Team wasn’t around to do it. He liked to work alone, or at least alongside one other person. I felt lucky that Charles enjoyed working with me.
When I first joined the electric shop Charles made two things clear to me; don’t call him Charlie and don’t make fun of his spelling. He was sensitive about those two things. I agreed, and I never did…. call him Charlie or make fun of his spelling.
Charles knew he had a problem with spelling, and there didn’t seem to be anything he could do about it. So, I often checked over his work before he sent something. — This was before Personal Computers were available in the office with spell checkers.
During my first electrical year (1984), Charles and I would sit in the Electric Shop Office during lunch and talk about movies we had seen. We took turns relaying entire movies to each other. We would start out by saying, “Have you seen “Karate Kid”? Well you see, there was this boy who was moving to California with his mom from someplace in the east and….”
We quickly learned that we liked the same kind of movies and shows, and even more, we liked telling each other about them. It seems that we spent years during lunch talking about one movie (or TV show) after the other. I looked forward to just sitting with Charles and talking during lunch.
I noticed in the years that I worked at the Power Plant that, in general, Power Plant Men have the knack of thinking outside of the box. Charles Foster was very good at doing this, and we would have discussions about all sorts of subjects. From God and the Universe to time travel and gardening. The more we talked, the more I came to realize that this man was brilliant.
Not “Newton” brilliant, but “Einstein” brilliant…. If you know what I mean…. Newton had a great mathematical mind and used that ability to become the father of Physics. Einstein on the other hand used his ability to take an observation and mix it with his idea of reality to come up with something that seemed totally unrelated, but made sense nonetheless. This was Charles.
So, what great plans did Charles come up with? What plot to take over the world (as my current manager at Dell, Clay Worley accuses me of weekly)? He became a good father to his son and daughter and a good husband to his wife Margaret. All the things that are really important for the survival of mankind.
One day while Andy Tubbs and I were driving to the River Pump station to check the transformers during substation checks, we stopped along the roadside and I picked a stalk from a Cattail that was about ready to bloom.
The plan was to put it in Charles’ top right hand desk drawer. The reason is that when handled just right, this brown furry “flower” (if you want to call it that) will literally explode into tens of thousands of tiny floating bits of fur. Sort of like a dandelion does when it turns white, only more furry and much more numerous. A thousand times more numerous.
When we arrived back in the shop, I walked into the office and told Charles that I had a present for him. Holding the stalk in my hand I opened his drawer. As Charles leaped out of his chair to stop me, I dropped the cattail into his drawer full of tools and odds and end parts, and it exploded into a huge ball of fur. Cattail fur went flying around the room.
Charles was genuinely upset. You see… It wasn’t bad enough that our clothes and hair and nose were being speckled with fur… Charles had allergies and this fur wasn’t helping. So Charles hurried into the shop and wheeled the Shop Vac over to the door and unraveled the hose and plugged it in to vacuum out his drawer.
Charles was trying to vacuum up the mess in his drawer before the office became flooded with the fur. He turned the vacuum on and turned around to put the end of the hose in the drawer. As he turned, Andy quickly disconnected the hose from the intake and attached it to the outtake. Notice the two holes on the front of the Shop-Vac. The bottom one is to vacuum while the top hose connect actually blows out the air.
By the time Charles plunged the end of the hose into the drawer, it was blasting air from the hose which caused just the opposite effect that Charles was hoping for. The entire room became so full of flying fur that any attempt to clean it up became impossible. I couldn’t help it, I was over in the corner laughing at the situation that Charles found himself in….. Of course… I was standing in the middle of what looked like a heavy snowstorm.
After about 5 minutes some of the flying fur had settled on the floor and the entire floor in the office was covered with what seemed like about 2 inches of fur. — Ok. So, I felt guilty about this. I hadn’t thought about Charles’ allergies. For the next 2 months (at least), each morning Charles would remind me that I was still supposed to feel bad about it by opening his drawer when he first came in, and blowing down into the drawer causing fur to stir up and fly around the room. Yeah, it was remarkable that it lasted so long.
During a Major Overhaul, the electricians do alarm checks. During this time, you go down the list of every alarm in the plant and test it to make sure it is still working as designed. There are hundreds of alarms. You take blueprints with you to go to every conceivable alarm on the unit that is down for overhaul. Then while someone is sitting in the control room watching the alarm printout and the alarm monitors, the electrician will place a jumper across the apparatus that brings in the alarm and wait until the person in the control room acknowledges the alarm.
To do this job, you need to read the wire numbers on the print and match them with the wires on the terminal blocks. Then you call the Control room on the radio and ask them if alarm so and so came in. We found out quickly that we didn’t want Charles doing either of these two jobs. Charles had the habit of reading the numbers out of order. Instead of wire number 25496, he might read 24956.
I know that some of you recognize the signs that I have described about Charles. I know that Charles felt a great frustration with his problem spelling and transposing numbers. One night in 1992, I watched a movie on TV called “The Secret” with Kirk Douglas.
I wouldn’t normally have sat and watched a movie like this because it dragged on for a while and didn’t seem to have much of a plot. What kept me glued to the TV was that the man in the movie played by Kirk Douglas was just like Charles except that he couldn’t read at all. He was very smart and was trying to hide the fact that he just couldn’t read.
When his grandson began having the same problem, he realized he had to do something about it. That was when he found out that he had Dyslexia. There are different forms or degrees of Dyslexia, but I recognized right away that this was a story about Charles Foster. I knew that his son Tim who was in High School at the time was having the same difficulty with spelling.
The next morning when I arrived in the Electric Shop Office I had to tell Charles right away (I couldn’t wait until our normal lunch time movie review) that I knew why he had so much trouble spelling and why he always jumbled his numbers around. It was because he had Dyslexia. I explained the movie to him. As I was telling this to Charles I could see that he was beginning to understand…. everything fit.
I watched as Charles soaked in what I had just told him. A lifetime of feeling like he had failed at the most simple of tasks were drying up before his eyes. He had a condition that was not only common, but was also treatable in the sense that you could learn to improve using the correct techniques. Just knowing why was good enough for Charles. He had spent years coping and working around. Now he knew why. I will never forget that moment when I was sitting in the office smiling at Charles smiling back at me.
I mentioned above that Charles reminded me of Albert Einstein. It is an interesting coincidence (or is it?) that the movie “The Secret” earned the Einstein Award from the National Dyslexia Research Foundation in 1992. It seems that Einstein, Charles Foster and Dyslexia go together.
God Bless you Charles and your wonderful family!
Comment from Previous Post:
The 31st “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally posted on March 9, 2013:
There is one item that all Oklahoma power plant men carry with them almost every day. Whether they are electricians working on a motor, a mechanic pulling a pump, or an operator making his rounds. All of them carry and use this one item. It is so important that, without it, it would be difficult for the maintenance shop to function properly.
This item of course is a rag from the Chief Wiping Cloth Rag Box:
As an electrician, I used rags all the time. Whether I was working on a breaker, doing battery inspection, elevator maintenance or just looking for a clean place to sit my back side, I had to have a rag from the box of Chief Wiping Cloths. Chief Wiping Cloths come from the Oklahoma Waste & Wiping Rag Company in Oklahoma City.
When I was on the labor crew, I was dirty all the time. I was doing coal clean-up, digging ditches, pouring concrete, shoveling bottom ash and wading through fly ash. I had little reason to stay clean or to clean things. My life was full of dirt and grime. I was always dirty, so much so that when I went into the electric shop in 1983 and Bill Bennett was talking to Charles Foster about who should repair the Manhole pump motors, Bill told Charles, “Let Kevin do it. He enjoys getting dirty.”
I didn’t argue with Bill, because, well…. what was the point. But as an electrician, I not only had desired to have a cleaner job, but I also wished to fulfill Jerry Mitchell’s prophesy that “When I become as good as him, I will be able to remain clean even in the face of “Coal Dust and Fly Ash” (See the post A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint). The boxes of rags were my opportunity.
So, when I left to go on a job, I would always grab at least a couple of rags from the box and put them in my tool bucket and at least one hanging out of my back pocket. That way, if I needed to plop down on the ground to unwire a motor too low to sit on my bucket, I could sit on a rag on the coal dust covered ground instead. This helped my goal of remaining as clean as possible.
It’s funny that years later I should miss the boxes of rags that I used to use to do my job. There was more to it than just the rags I used to wipe my hands, battery posts, greasy bearings, breaker parts and my nose. You see, these rags were made from recycled clothes. Yes. They were sterilized for our use, but these were from recycled clothes.
Actually, the Oklahoma Waste and Wiping Rag Company, founded in 1940, was one of the largest purchasers of donated clothing in the country. That meant that many of the rags we used in the rag box were actually worn by someone. Sure, a lot of the rags came from defective clothing from factories, but some of the rags had been clothes actually worn by a person.
As odd as it may sound, while I was grabbing rags from the rag box, I was thinking (at times… it wasn’t like it was an obsession with me), that these rags may have been worn by someone for years before ending up covered with bearing grease by my hand and tossed into a proper Fire protection trash can.
So, anyway….. Thinking about how these rags were possibly once worn by people throughout the United States, I felt that some of the rags had a specific connection to some unknown person somewhere. So, I would actually go through the rag box looking for pieces of rags that I felt had been worn by someone before. You know (or maybe you don’t), rags that had an aura around them like someone had once had a “personal relationship” with them.
I would take these rags and I would “pseudo-dress up” in them. So, if it was a rag made out of a pair of pants, I would tuck it in my belt and I would carry it that way until I needed it. In a weird way (and I know… you are thinking a “really weird” way), I would feel connected to the person that had worn this piece of clothing in the past. I felt as if I was honoring their piece of cloth just one last time before I stained it with coal dust, fly ash, or snot, just one last time.
And in my even weirder way, I would sort of pray for that person, whoever they may be. I would even, kind of, thank them for the use of their old clothes (I know, I stretched the English Language in those last two sentences to meet my unusual need).
I have a picture in my mind of myself standing on the platform of the 6A Forced Draft Fan at Muskogee in the fall of 1984 (one year after becoming an electrician), dressing myself up in pieces of clothing from the rag box, all giddy because I had found enough pieces to make an entire outfit made of half male and half female clothing.
Ben Davis, who was on overhaul at Muskogee with me from our plant is shaking his head in disbelief that he had to work with such a goof. Not exactly sure who he has been assigned to work with… — I actually felt sorry for Ben. I knew I was a normal person. The trouble was… I was the only person that knew it (For an explanation about where that phrase originated, see the post “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“).
Levity is healthy. And at times when stress is at its greatest, levity is a way back to sanity. Just today I was invited to a conference call to discuss something that I was working on, and when I was done, I stayed on the line even though I was no longer needed. As I listened, one person on the other end was remarking about how he enjoyed his team so much because they were able to crack up and reduce the stress by being humorous.
A friend of mine, and fellow teammate Don McClure who had invited me to the call was coming up with one “one-liner” after the other. They were “spot-on” and very funny (as he usually is — ok. He’s going to correct me on the “usually” part). But he said one thing that hit home with me. He said that he had been in the Hot-seat so long that he had to put on a pair of Asbestos underwear.
This, of course, made me immediately think of the asbestos gloves we used to wear in the electric shop before Asbestos had been formerly outlawed. We had an old pair of asbestos gloves from Osage Plant ( to find out more about the Osage Plant read about it in the post Pioneers Of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace).
Along with the rags in the rag box, when I used to put on the asbestos gloves I used to think of Howard Chumbley (who died on August 4, 1998 at the age of 70), at the age of 24 working at the Osage Plant, before his hair turned to gray and then to white, wearing these same gloves while he pulled a bearing off of a heater and slapped it onto a motor shaft.
It gave a special meaning to motor repair. Even though Howard retired from plant life in 1985, for years I could put on his old pair of asbestos gloves and feel like I was stepping into his young shoes. I would think… If only I could be a true “Power Plant Man” like Howard…. I love Howard with all my heart, and today, I have never met a better human being than him.
Note that in the picture of Howard’s gravestone it says that he was an EM3 in the Navy. This is an “Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class”. There is no way I was ever going to measure up to Howard. He was a hero to his country and a man of great integrity and humility. If I had saved up all the nice things I had done in my life and done them all on one day, I may have slightly resembled Howard on a regular day. Just like Jim Waller that I had discussed in my last post… Only Men of the greatest integrity measure up to be “True Power Plant Men”.
This made changing the bearings on a motor almost a sacred event to me. I don’t know if the other electricians felt what I felt, but there was something about placing those gloves on my hands that seemed to transform me for a moment into someone noble. I never mentioned it to them (which was odd, because I was usually in the habit of telling them every little crazy thought that entered my head).
I remember at break time one day Margie Belongia (who was a plant janitor at the time) telling me in 1981 when I was a summer help, that she wanted to go to hell because that was where all of her friends would be. I asked her at the time how she was so certain that being in hell guaranteed that she would be able to be with her friends, and she was taken aback by my question. “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I be with my friend?” — I responded, “Suppose in hell you are alone. With no one but yourself.” I think I unnerved her by my response. She said that she had never considered that. She had counted on being with her friends. They had all decided that was the way it was going to be.
At any rate. I kept her thought in my mind. I hope every day that someday I will be able to walk up behind Howard Chumbley (not in hell of course, the other place) and just stand there and listen to him tell stories about when he worked at the old Osage Plant, and how he used to be up to his elbows in oil that contained PCBs and never thought twice about it. Or how he played a harmless joke on someone dear to him, and he would laugh….
Howard was my foreman for only about 5 months before he retired. I remember sitting in the electric shop office for a year and a half during lunch listening to him tell his stories. He would grin like Andy Griffith and laugh in such a genuine way that you knew that his heart was as pure as his manners.
To this day I know that I have never been richer than I was when I was able to sit in the shop and listen to Howard Chumbley pass on his life experience to us. Even years later when I was able to slip on the pair of Asbestos Gloves worn by him years earlier I could feel that I was following in his footsteps. Just the thought of that would make me proud to be an Electrician in a Power Plant.
I used to imagine that the Chief on the Chief rag boxes knew the history of all the pieces of rags in the box. When I moved to Texas in 2001, I used some sturdy Chief rag boxes when I was packing to leave. They are sturdy boxes. Just this past year, we threw away the last Chief rag box that contained Christmas decorations in exchange for plastic tubs. Even though it seems like a little thing. I miss seeing the Chief on those boxes of rags.
The 30th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally Posted February 23, 2013:
I never gave it much thought that when I was on the labor crew at the Coal-fired Power Plant in Oklahoma and we had to go in the boiler to shake the boiler tubes, that next to the portals where you would climb into the boiler there were long metal benches where you could sit just outside while you rested between moments when the dynamiters were getting ready to set off their explosives. (All right… right off the bat…. a run-on sentence the size of a paragraph… I can tell it’s going to be a long night).
To learn more about the dynamiters and shaking boiler tubes you can read the post: Cracking a boiled Egg in the Boiler. At other times while I was on the labor crew, I had heard these same benches making a tremendous sound that you could hear from a few landings away. It sounded like a large steam leak would sound, and at the same time, you could hear some kind of mechanical gears or something running and maybe a chain clanging. I didn’t really understand what the purpose these long benches served then, only that it was a good place to put the water jug and the box of fly ash suits to keep them from being stepped on.
It was after I had become an electrician that these long metal benches took on another meaning. I found out that they were called “Retracts”. I was told that they called them retracts because what they do is they run a long metal pipe into the boiler and then Retract it back. Ok. I thought it was rather odd to name something for a seemingly insignificant part of the function. After I understood what they were used for, I thought I could come up with a lot better name than “Retract”.
After all, we had equipment like “Honey Wagon” , “Coffin Houses”, “Clinker Grinder”. All really descriptive names. So, when Charles Foster told me to go with Diane Lucas (later Diane Brien) to work on 7R retract, I was expecting to go find some little lever going back and forth making a sound like “brrrr…oops…..brrr…..oops” as it swung back and forth. I would name something like that a “Retract”.
Actually, I would like to have been able to have kept a couple of Retracts in my pocket so that when I would smart off to Leroy Godfrey our Electrical Supervisor, I could pull one out and press the button and… “swoop”! Retracted!
So, what is a Retract? Well. In the story that I linked to above about the cracked egg in the boiler, I explained how when I was on the labor crew we had to go in the boiler and tie ropes to these hanging boiler tubes and then shake them back and forth to clean out the hard ash that had built up on them. Well, The Retract would sort of do that when the boiler was online. They would clean out the tubes in the reheat area of the boiler for the most part.
What it would do is this. It seemed like 7R retract was about 40 feet long (someone at the plant can correct me if I’m wrong about the length). When it would turn on, it would start rotating a pipe about that long and start pushing it into the boiler. Once the nozzle at the end of the pipe was in the boiler a couple of feet steam would start blasting down the pipe to the nozzle on the end that would shoot the steam out at right angles to the pipe. As the pipe rotated, it would be shooting out steam in a circular motion as the pipe slowly traversed into the boiler.
You see… My dentist told me a long time ago that I should Floss my teeth more if I didn’t want to wear dentures when I was older. By keeping the bits of food out from between my teeth, not only did my breath smell better, but my gums could remain healthy as well. So, I listened to him and started flossing. Retracts are kind of like that.
The Retracts were designed to clean out the areas of the boiler where the ash would build up the most causing the efficiency of the boiler to be degraded. So at certain times of the day, the Control Room operator will push a button on the side panel (at least that was what they used to do… now they probably click an icon on their computer) and it would start the cycle of the retracts going in and out one at a time cleaning out the boiler.
Anyway. I finally learned what those long metal benches were for and it fascinated me. I wonder how long it took before someone said what now would seem obvious…. “Hey. Instead of having to bring the boiler offline every week or so, how about if we just create this boiler flossing equipment that cleans the boiler out while it is online?”
It made me wonder about the other equipment around the plant. I’ll bet there was a good use for just about everything. And you know what? I think I was right. Instead of just putting all that equipment all over the place for us to play on like a big jungle gym, everything seemed to have a real good purpose.
After 4 years working as a summer help, and one more year as a janitor and on the labor crew, I thought I had seen just about everything in the plant. When I became an electrician, all of the sudden a whole new world opened up to me. Even that bench I had been sitting on turned into a monster machine that blasted away ash clinkers while the rest of us lay at home in our beds dreaming of chocolate, and dragons, and um… other things people dream about.
So, what about the Wall Blower? Well. These are like the retracts, only they are much smaller. they were placed around the walls of the main boiler at strategic locations to blast clinkers that may be building up along the main wall of the boiler. The area in the boiler diagram up above called the Water Wall.
For some reason (and I’m sure it’s a good one), From what was called floor 6 1/2, though it was actually about the 13th floor, on down was an area called the “Boiler Enclosure”. This meant that when you walked up to the boiler, you first had to go through a door and enter an enclosed area around the boiler. 7th floor and above, the boiler was outside.
I’ve been to plants where the entire boiler was enclosed, and I’ve seen some that didn’t look like any of it was enclosed, so I figure this was a happy median between the two. It meant that if it was raining outside and you needed to work on the boiler, it made a big difference how high up you had to go as to whether you needed your rain suit or not.
I mention this because one day I had to go by myself to work on a wall blower that was on the 6 and 1/2 floor just at the top of the boiler enclosure. The wall blower was naturally situated right next to the boiler. and all the heat generated from the boiler and the piping that came from the bowl mills that blew the coal into the furnace had made the area very hot. The Wall blower had been tripping the breaker and I was supposed to go fix it.
I brought an infrared temperature gun with me and found that the area where the wall blower was mounted was 160 degrees. Maybe it was that high because it was the middle of a hot summer day, and with everything else going on, all the heat trapped right at the top of the boiler enclosure, it had just turned into a huge easy-bake oven.
When I touched the metal door to the control panel on the side of the wall blower, it burned my fingers. I had to use my tee-shirt as a rag to keep from burning myself. I could only stand next to the wall blower for about 30 seconds and then I had to walk back over the doorway and breathe some fresh air and cool off for a minute before going back.
After opening the control panel, I could see what the problem was right away. The insulation on the wires going to the terminal block had the insulation dripping off the wires. The insulation was melting.
I went back to the shop and found some wire that was designed for high temperatures, because obviously someone had used the wrong type of wire when assembling this particular wall blower, given it’s location on the boiler.
Because of the intense heat where I was standing when trying to rewire the wall blower, I was not able to take very big breaths. I had to breathe very shallow, or not at all. So, I would go up to the blower and work as fast as I could removing a screw or putting a new wire down and then I would go back to the doorway about 60 feet from the wall blower and cool off.
As I mentioned in the post about the Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew, when you are in this intense heat, your hardhat becomes soft like a baseball cap. In this case, I wasn’t in the heat long enough for this to happen, though I was sweating like a pig. And I suppose pigs really like to sweat.
I had been doing this for a while when an operator showed up wondering what I was doing. His name was Jim Waller and he had been watching me from a distance. He said he was trying to figure out what I was up to because he would see me show up at the doorway and stand there for a while not doing anything, then turning around like I had forgotten something only to show up again about 1/2 minute later.
When he couldn’t figure out what I was doing on his own, he decided to take a closer look. I found him standing at the doorway waiting for me to arrive with a puzzled look on his face. I was tempted to just say nothing and just stand there and take a few breathes and then go back to the wall blower and continue my work.
I couldn’t do that however, when Jim asked me what I was doing. Jim was one of the nicest and most normal operators you could run across. I just couldn’t joke with him (as if he was Gene Day). So, I told him I was working on that wall blower over there, but that it was so hot that I had to keep coming to the doorway to cool off.
Jim Waller had come to work for the electric company a month before I began my last summer as summer help in 1982. At the time that I was working on the wall blower in 1984 I was just about to become 24 years old, and a couple of months later, he was going to be 29. Like Gene Day, you instantly knew when you saw Jim that he you liked him. He sort of had that Jim Nabors kind of smile.
Unlike Gene Day, I never felt like playing a joke on Jim. For some reason, Jim just seemed like too nice of a guy. Where Gene had a slight sort of hidden orneriness about him, Jim was just purely a “good guy”.
This past Christmas eve, five days before Jim turned 57 years old, he passed away after a sudden illness. When the guys at the power plant told me about it, I was sad for their loss and for his family. For Jim, on the other hand…. I think he has always had one foot in heaven from the day I met him. I think he finally stepped the rest of the way through the gate.
For someone like me. If I am ever able to make it to heaven, I’m sure there will be a big to-do about it, because someone would have won the pot and I’m sure the odds would have been high against it. However, the day Jim arrived, it was probably more like “business as usual”. — “Oh, Jim’s arrived….. Like no one didn’t see that coming….” If I could say something to Jim now (and being Catholic, I’m allowed to do that), I would ask Jim, “Put in a good word for all the Power Plant Men!” Because I know that Jim’s word is as good as gold. Here is a real picture of Jim, a true Power Plant Man:
Comment from the original post:
Good post on Jim, Kevin. Now, what is a “normal operator”? 🙂
I remember doing several jobs in super hot areas where I had to wear a heavy coat and gloves to keep from getting burned. Had to take off rings and wrist watch too. Needed to take off my glasses, but then I couldn’t see.
The 29th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally Posted on February 15, 2013:
My first job, where I wasn’t working for myself, was when I was 14 years old and I became a dishwasher in a German Restaurant called Rhinelanders in Columbia Missouri. It felt good feeding dishes through the dishwasher, and scrubbing pots and pans because I knew that in the scheme of things I was helping to feed the customers the best German food in a 60 mile radius.
Later when I went to work for the Hilton Inn as a dishwasher, I was serving a lot more people as they would host banquets with 100’s of people at one time. After that I went to work for Sirloin Stockade as a dishwasher, busboy and finally a cook. The number of people that would go through that restaurant in one day dwarfed the number of people we would serve at the Hilton Inn.
Nothing prepared me for the massive amount of people whose lives are touched each day by a Power Plant Electrician! Or any Power Plant employee for that matter. Our plant alone could turn the lights on for over one million people in their homes, offices and factories. As a summer help mowing grass and cleaning up the park each week removing dirty diapers and rotting fish innards it never really had the impact that becoming an electrician did.
Part of the routine as an electrician was to do preventative maintenance on equipment to keep things in good working order. We performed substation inspections, emergency backup battery checks. We changed brushes on the generator exciter, performed elevator inspections and checked cathodic protection to make sure it was operational.
At certain times of the year we would check out the plant freeze protection to make sure the pipes weren’t going to freeze come winter. I also worked on maintaining the precipitator equipment. All of these things were needed to keep the plant running smoothly, but, though they were each fun in their own way, they didn’t have the impact on me that fixing something that was broken did.
I used to love getting a Maintenance Order that said that something was broken and we needed to go fix it. It may have been a motor that had a bad bearing, or a cooling system that had shutdown, or the Dumper that dumped the coal trains had quit working. One of my “speci-alities” (I know. I misspelled that on purpose), was working on elevators. — I will save my elevator stories for later.
When I was working on something that was broken, I could see more clearly how my job was related to keeping the lights on throughout the area of Oklahoma where our company served the public. Depending on what you were working on, one wrong slip of the screwdriver and “pow”, I could make the lights blink for 3 million people. I will talk more about certain events that happened throughout the years that I worked at the plant where things that happened at the plant were felt throughout our electric grid. Sometimes even as far away as Chicago and Tennessee.
There was a “club” for people that shut a unit down. It was called the “500 Club”. It meant that you tripped the unit when it was generating 500 or more Megawatts of power. I can say that “luckily”, I never was a member of that club.
Ok, so a broken elevator doesn’t directly impact the operation of the plant, but it was, during more than one occasion, a life threatening situation considering that a few times the elevator would pick the most opportune time to stall between 200 and 225 feet up the elevator shaft full of elderly visitors that were touring our flagship Power Plant on their way back down from experiencing the great view of the lake from the top of the boiler. (I know. My college English Professor would have a heyday with that run-on sentence). — actually, that sentence was so long, I think I’ll make it the only sentence in the entire paragraph, — well, except for my comments about it….
Charles Foster, my foreman and best friend, took me up to the top of the boiler soon after I became an electrician and showed me the “Elevator Penthouse”. I know. “Elevator Penthouse”… Sounds like a nice place…. Well. It wasn’t bad after you swept out the dead moths, beetles and crickets that had accumulated since the last Elevator Inspection. It was a noisy room on the top of the elevator shaft where the elevator motor buzzed as it pulled the elevator up and let it down. Stopping on floors where someone had pushed a button.
I told you earlier that my elevator stories will be in a later post, so for this story, I’ll just say that Charles set me down on my tool bucket (which doubled as my portable stool and tripled as my portable trash can), in front of a panel of about 100 relays all picking up and dropping out as the elevator made its way up and down. He told me to study the blueprints that hung on the side of the panel and watch the relays until I understood how it all worked.
So, one afternoon, I sat there for about 4 hours doing nothing but watching relays light up and drop out. On the other side of that panel were the main relays. There were relays there we called “Christmas Tree” relays because they looked like a fir tree. I made some notes on a piece of paper about the sequence that the relays would pick up and drop out that I kept in my wallet.
I used those notes years later (in 2000) when I was writing task lists in SAP (our Enterprise Resource Planning computer system) on how to troubleshoot the elevator controls. Anyway, that was how I learned all about how elevator logic works. You know what? It is just like writing a computer program using computer code. It is basically a set of instructions with rules built-in, only it was done with relays.
Well. Back to helping humanity…. So, usually when we were working on something that was broken there was an operator somewhere that was waiting for the equipment to be repaired so that they could go on with their job. Sometimes the Shift Supervisor would be calling us asking us periodically when we were going to be done because they were running low on coal in the silos and were going to have to lower the load on the units if we didn’t hurry up. It was times like that when you fixed the kill switch on the side of the 10 or 11 conveyor that supply the coal to the plant from the coalyard that you really understood just where you stood with your fellow man.
I am writing about this not because I want to pat myself on the back. Though I often did feel very proud as I returned to the truck with my tool bucket after coming down from a conveyor after fixing something. I would feel like taking a bow, though I was often by myself in situations like that when I wasn’t with my “bucket buddy”. At least the Shift Supervisor and the control room operators were very grateful when you would fix something critical to keeping the plant operating at full steam (and I mean that literally…. The electricity is made by the steam from the boiler that turned the turbine that spun the generator).
No. I am writing about this because it would hit home to me at times like these how much each of us depend on each other. We all know about how important it is to have a police force keeping order and having fire fighters and paramedics on standby to rush to protect families in time of distress. Heroes in jobs like those are as obvious as the soldiers that protect our nation.
I think the majority of us have a much bigger impact on the rest of society than we realize. I think the Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with never gave it much thought. Like the person washing dishes in a restaurant, they didn’t look at themselves as heroes. But they are (I know… Sentence fragment). Each day they moved through an environment where a boiler ghost could reach out and grab them. They distinctively know that they are standing next to a dragon that could wake up at any moment and blast them from the face of the earth, but they don’t let it deter them from the immediate job at hand.
When the boilers were being brought on line for the first time in 1979 and 1980, when you walked through the boiler area, you carried a household straw broom with you that you waved in front of you like someone knocking spider webs out of the way (I called it searching for the boiler ghost). It was explained to me at the time that this was done to detect if there was steam leaking from the pipes.
If steam was leaking from some of the pipes, you wouldn’t be able to see it, but if you stepped into the flow of the steam, it could cut you in half before you even realized there was something wrong. When the steam hit the broom, it would knock the broom to the side, and you would know the leak was there. Kind of like the canary in the mine.
I remember one day when everyone was told to leave Unit 1 boiler because during an emergency, the entire boiler was at risk of melting to the ground. If not for the quick action of brave Power Plant Men, this was avoided and the lights in the hospitals in Oklahoma City and the rest of Central Oklahoma didn’t blink once. The dragon had awakened, but was quickly subdued and put back in its place.
I entitled this post “Serving Mankind Power Plant Style”, but isn’t that what we all do? If we aren’t serving Mankind, then why are we here? Today I have a very different job. I work at Dell Inc., the computer company. Our company creates computers for people around the world. We create and sell a computer about once every 2 seconds.
At the electric company we had about 3,000 people that served 3 million. At Dell, we provide high quality computers for a price that allows even lower income families to enter the computer age. Computers allow families to connect with each other and expand their lives in ways that were not even conceived of a few years ago.
Even though I spend my days serving my internal customers at Dell, I know that in the big scheme of things along with over 100,000 other employees, I am helping to impact the lives of over a billion people worldwide! I wouldn’t be able to do much if down the road the brave men and women at a Power Plant weren’t keeping the lights on. It is kind of like the idea of “Pay it Forward.”
So, the bottom line of this post is… All life is precious. Whatever we do in this life, in one way or other, impacts the rest of us. We go through life thinking that we live in a much smaller bubble than we really do. The real bubble that we live in is this planet and just like every cell in our body is in some way supported by the other cells, it is that way with us. Don’t discount what you do in life. It may seem insignificant, but the smile you give to someone today will be “paid forward” and will impact every one of us.
Comments from the Original Post:
Far too few understand this, very well said, my friend.
Ron Kilman February 16, 2013
I remember one time at the Seminole Plant when we had a steam leak on a Unit 2 throttle valve. You could hear it (over the roar of the turbine room) but you couldn’t see it (superheated steam is invisible). Martin Louthan and Ralph McDermott found the leak with a “red rag” on the end of a broomstick.
Life is precious, or it’s just another commodity, right? And that’s right down the center of the Left/Right divide…
Abortion debates sit astride that divide; healthcare is now crossing it as government undertakes how much to spend on various age groups.
Another side of it provided the sense of responsibility that led Power Plant Men to sacrifice and risk when those were needed. At one time, those attitudes would have been taken for granted, normal and to be expected… something that comes clear in all the Power Plant stories.
Comments from the Previous Repost:
February 20, 2014
The 28th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally posted on February 9, 2013:
The phone rang Saturday morning on March 17, 1984. Since we didn’t have caller ID at that time, I had to pick up the phone to tell who was on the other end. It was my foreman Charles Foster. He said he needed to go out to the plant to do some switching in the substation and he needed someone to help him. I had been an electrician for all of 5 months and this was the first time I had been involved with switching in the substation.
When I arrived at the plant 30 minutes later, the operators in the control room were busy putting Unit 1 online. Charles Foster had brought along his son Tim Foster. Tim was about 10 years old at the time. The operators didn’t have any certified switchmen available, and so the Shift Supervisor, Jim Padgett gave the go ahead for me to go with Charles and act as the “secondary” switchman. That is, I was the one that read and re-read the instructions while Charles would actually crank the switches.
Here is a picture of a typical substation you might run across:
I found this picture on the Department of Labor website. The Main substation at the power plant was much bigger than this one. Half of the substation was the 189,000 volt substation the other half was the 345,000 volt substation. For the particular switching that we were doing that day, we were in the 189 KV end of the substation. This is where Unit 1 fed power to the world.
This was my first experience doing something in the substation other than sub inspections and Transfer Trip and Carrier tests. I was a little surprised when Charles closed one of the air break switches and there was a loud crackling sound as an arc of electricity jumped from one switch to the next. Charles told me that was nothing. Just wait until I close the main switch from the transformer on Unit 2 in the 345 KV sub up the hill.
He was right. Later when I first opened that switch, it drew an arc about 3 feet long before it broke the circuit with a loud pop. You could hear the echo of the booming arc as the sound bounced off the nearby hills…..um…. if there had been hills… It was pretty flat…. being Oklahoma and all. I suppose it was bouncing off of the Power Plant and maybe some trees off in the distance. Well. Anyway. It did echo for a while.
After my first experience in the substation, I decided that substations were one of the neatest places to be. I later became certified as a switchman (multiple times, as you had to renew your certification every 2 or 3 years). Eventually becoming a Switchman trainer (See the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with Boring“). Later when I was with my girlfriend, and even after she became my wife, and we would drive by a substation, I had to be careful not to run off the road since I was usually straining my neck to get a closer look at the substation.
This would result in Kelly become agitated (jokingly of course) that I was paying more attention to the substations than her. To this day, when we pass a substation, my wife Kelly will still let out a “hmmph” when I exaggeratedly ogle a passing substation. I mean…. Can you blame me?
Well. Throughout the years, Substation switching became more and more safe. When I first began switching, we would just wear High Voltage rubber gloves and maybe a face shield. Later we had to wear an Arc Flash Protective suit just in case something blew up:
One time one of the switches broke and exploded in the 345 KV substation and we found a large piece of insulator 200 yards away. This suit wasn’t going to protect you from that. It was only going to keep you from being burned if there was a flash explosion.
In the early 1990’s there was what was known as the “EMF Scare”. That was the belief that the high voltage electric lines caused Leukemia. It was true that children in cities that lived near high voltage electric lines had a higher risk of having Leukemia than the general population. It also happened that these High Voltage lines ran right down major roadways, so that these same children were breathing a lot more exhaust from the cars and trucks on the road than your average person also.
Anyway. When we worked in the substation we all knew that we were being bathed in electricity. If I took my volt meter and dropped one end to the ground and held the other end up by my head, it would peg my meter out at 1000 volts. One day in the evening when it was time to go home, Scott Hubbard and I were delayed because a fuse block had burned up in a breaker panel in the 345 KV substation.
It was drizzling at the time, so you could hear the electricity about 30 feet above our heads crackling and popping. Scott and I were standing behind the pickup truck looking for spare parts in my tool bucket and I had poured out some nuts, bolts and screws onto the bed of the truck. As we were sifting through them looking for the parts we needed, both of us were thinking that I must have had some metal shavings mixed in with the nuts and bolts. When we would move them around we kept feeling like we were being stabbed by metal shavings….. It turned out that it was just sparks jumping from the truck to our fingers.
10 years after my first encounter in a substation, while I was on the Confined Space Rescue team, we had to be out at the plant at night because some people were working in the condenser and the Confined Space Rescue team had to be on site. So, while we were there, we were doing things like cleaning up shop and stuff. Ray Eberle was working with me, and he asked me if I had ever heard about holding up a fluorescent light in a substation and having it glow.
I told him that I had, and it does glow. We went to the electric shop where I retrieved a couple of new 4 foot fluorescent lamps and we headed to the 345 KV substation around midnight.
When we arrived, we climbed out of the truck, and I demonstrated how just by holding the fluorescent tube upright, it would light up:
Ray was fascinated by this, and was noticing how the tube would light up from the point where you were holding the tube on up. As he was experimenting with this new found knowledge, there was an odd popping sound that would occur about every 5 seconds. I was standing there watching Ray in the dark. Ray finally asked me…. “Where is that popping sound coming from?” I pointed down to his shoes and said. “There are sparks jumping from your shoe down to the ground.”
Looking down at his shoe in the dark, Ray could see about an inch long spark jumping from his shoe down into the large gravel we were standing on. He was startled by this and decided that he had enough scientific lessons for one night. So, we climbed back in the truck and headed back to the plant.
Anyway. During the time that we were having this EMF scare (EMF by the way stands for Electromotive Force), there had been some movie or a 60 Minutes episode on TV about it and it was causing a stir. So, people from Corporate Headquarters were going around trying to educate us about it. One way they did this was to show us how low the levels of EMFs were in the plant.
Well. You can’t convince an electrician that we aren’t constantly being bathed in electricity when we are out in the substation, because we all knew better. This guy came around with a special EMF gun just to show us how the plant was safe… We had a meeting where the engineers agreed that we hardly had any EMFs in the plant. The highest EMFs were found in a drill that mounted horizontally using an electromagnet.
When I heard this, I became skeptical of these findings. And the horizontal drill made me even more suspicious. Not that I minded the EMFs. I found them rather refreshing. They seemed to line up all my thought bubbles in my brain so that I could think better. Kind of like “magnet therapy”.
Then a couple of weeks later my suspicions were verified. Doug Link came down to the electric shop with a guy from Oklahoma City that was going to go with me out to the Substation to measure the EMF levels. — OK. I thought…. Let’s see what happens now… Because I already knew the EMF levels in the Substation just by my licking my finger and sticking it in the air…
The guy from Corporate Headquarters took out a roller with a handle much like you would have to measure long distances. Only this had a couple of probes sticking out from either side horizontally. — Now…. Horizontally is the key, and that’s why when they said the Horizontal drill had the most EMFs in the plant, I became suspicious in the first place.
You see…. EMFs have direction. The two probes on the instrument that the man was wheeling around the substation were parallel with the high voltage lines. Therefore, you wouldn’t measure EMFs between the two probes. If the probes had been turned vertically (up and down), I am sure that the voltage (and the EMFs) would have blown the circuitry in the instrument. I say that because the guy that was wheeling this thing around the substation was being very careful not to tilt it one way or the other.
My suspicions were further confirmed when we were in the relay house looking at the results from when he circled the large transformer between the 189 and the 345 subs, and there was a large spike in EMFs at one spot. When we went to look at that spot, it was at the point where the high voltage bus turned down to go into the transformer…. Just like the Horizontal drill…. The direction was across the probes. You see…. EMFs are perpendicular to the flow of electricity. Or straight down from an overhead line. I mean… duh. You had to hold the fluorescent light upright to make it glow….
Well. I thought…. What do I do? Here is a guy trying to pull the wool over our eyes to make us believe that there aren’t any EMFs out there. I felt insulted. On the other hand, I didn’t care about the EMFs. I liked the EMFs. So, after looking at Doug Link straight in the eyes with an astonished look of disbelief that this guy thought we were so gullible to believe this magic act, I decided to let it go. Let him think he relieved our worry that didn’t exist in the first place. Why ruin his day. He had to drive 70 miles back to Corporate Headquarters. Why should he go all that way back thinking that he failed in his mission? So, all I could do was smile.
Anyway. Tim Foster, the 10 year old boy that was with his father, Charles Foster the first time I went to the substation to go switching, later grew up and became an electrician himself. Not only did he become an electrician, but he became an electrician in the same electric shop where his father had worked for 30 years. He works there to this day, and I’m sure that Tim now has an occasion to go switching in the same substation where I first met him. Bathing in the same EMFs. Feeling the same thrill when you open a 345 KV air switch with a loud Pop!