The 44th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally Posted June 14, 2013:
When I first watched the movie “The Goonies”, I recognized right away that the script was inspired from another Pirate treasure movie I had watched when I was a child. I have never seen the movie again, and it was probably a made for TV movie or something that has been lost in the archives years ago. I’m sure that Steven Spielberg when he was growing up must have been inspired by this movie when he wrote the script to Goonies, because this was a movie that had inspired us when we were young.
You see… In the movie I had watched as a kid, some children that were trying to save their family or an old house or something similar to the Goonies story, found a clue to where a Pirate treasure was buried. The clue had something to do with a “crow’s nest”. It turned out that the model of a ship that had been sitting on the mantle piece in the old house had another clue in the pole holding the crow’s nest. This clue had holes in the paper, and when held up to a certain page in a certain book, it gave them another clue to where there was a hidden passageway. Which led them one step closer to the treasure.
Anyway. As a child, this inspired us (and I’m sure a million other kids) to play a game called “Treasure Hunt”. It was where you placed clues all around the house, or the yard, or the neighborhood (depending on how ambitious of a treasure hunt you were after), with each clue leading to the other clue, and eventually some prize at the end.
Why am I telling you this story about this movie that I watched when I was a child? Well, because I felt this same way all over again when I became an electrician at a coal-fired power plant out in the country in north central Oklahoma. Here is why.
I used to carpool to work from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the power plant 25 miles north of town with another electrician named Bill Rivers. He had kept urging me to become an electrician along with Charles Foster, who had suggested that I take some electric courses to prepare for the job. Once I became an electrician, Charles Foster, my foreman, would often send me with Bill Rivers to repair anything that had to do with electronics. Bill Rivers was good at troubleshooting electronic equipment, and well, he was generally a good troubleshooter when he wasn’t getting himself into trouble.
I remember the morning when Charles told me to go with Bill to go fix the incessant humming that was coming over the PA system…. “What?” I asked him. “I can’t hear you over the loud hum coming over the PA system.” — No not really… We called the Gai-tronics PA system the “Gray Phone” because the phones all over the plant where you could page people and talk on 5 different lines was gray.
I walked into the electric lab where Bill Rivers was usually hanging out causing Sonny Kendrick grief. I hadn’t been in the electric shop very long at this point. I think it was before the time when I went to work on the Manhole pumps (see the post Power Plant Manhole Mania). In the lab there was an electric cord going from a plug-in on the counter up into the cabinet above as if something inside the cabinet was plugged in…. which was true. I asked Bill what was plugged in the cabinet and he explained that it was the coffee maker.
You see, our industrious (evil) plant manager had decided that all coffee at the plant had to come from the authorized coffee machines where a dime had to be inserted before dispensing the cup of coffee. This way the “Canteen committee” could raise enough money to…. uh…. pay for the coffee. So, all rogue coffee machines had to go. There was to be no free coffee at the plant.
So, of course, the most logical result of this mandate was to hide the coffee maker in the cabinet in case a wandering plant manager or one of his undercover coffee monitor minions were to enter the lab unexpectedly. Maintaining the free flow of coffee to those electricians that just had to silently protest the strong arm tactics of the Power Plant Coffee Tax by having a sort of… “Tea Party” or was it a “Coffee Party”.
I told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him fix the hum on the gray phones. Bill Rivers said, “Great! Then let us play a game. let’s call it, ‘Treasure Hunt’.”
Bill reached up in one of the cabinets and pulled out a blue telephone test set. I’m sure you must have seen a telephone repairman with one of these hanging from his hip. ” Oh boy.” I thought. “A new toy!”
I grabbed my tool bucket from the shop and followed Bill Rivers out into the T-G basement. This is a loud area where the steam pipes carry the steam to the Turbine to spin the Generator. It is called T-G for Turbine Generator. Bill walked over to a junction box mounted near the north exit going to unit 1. He explained that except for the gray phones in the Control-room section of the plant, all the other gray phones go through this one junction box.
Bill said that the game was to find the Gray Phone ghost. Where is the hum coming from? He showed me how the different cables coming into this one box led to Unit 1, Unit 2, the office area and the coal yard. I just had to figure out which way the hum came from. So, I went to work lifting wires off of the terminal blocks. We could hear the hum over the gray phone speakers near us, so if I were to lift the right wires, we should know right away that I had isolated the problem.
We determined that the noise was coming from Unit 1. So we took the elevator halfway up the boiler to another junction box, and then another where we traced the problem to a gray phone under the surge bin tower. It took 4 screws to remove the phone from the box. When I did, I could clearly see the problem. The box was full of water. Water had run down the conduit and into the phone box.
Bill Rivers told me that now that we found the problem, we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so we drilled a small weep hole in the bottom of the box, and we took plumbers putty and stuffed it into the top of the conduit where it opened into a cable tray.
The box would fill with water when the labor crew would do coal cleanup. On labor crew we would spray the entire surge bin tower down with high powered water hoses to wash off all the coal dust. Each time, some water would end up going down the conduit into the gray phone until it grounded the circuit enough to cause a hum.
Bill and I continued searching throughout the plant for phones that were causing a hum. Most were caused by water in the box. Some were caused by circuits that had gone bad (most likely because they had water in them at some point). Those we took to the electric shop lab where we played a different kind of treasure hunt. — Let’s call it…. Finding the bad component. It reminded me of an old video game I had bought for my brother for Christmas in 1983 that winter when I gave him an Intellivision (so I could play with it). It was the latest greatest video game console at the time.
I had given my brother a game called “Bomb Squad”. Where you had a certain amount of time to diffuse a bomb by going through a circuit board cutting out components with some snippers. If you cut the wrong connection, you had to hurry up and solder it back on before the bomb blew up.
That’s what we were doing with the Gray Phones. We were testing the different components until we found one that wasn’t working correctly. Then we would replace that transistor, or capacitor, or resistor, or diode, and then test the phone by plugging it in the switchgear gray phone box and calling each other.
I have a story later about someone using this technique while fixing gray phones, only he would call himself on the gray phone where I would call Bill and Bill would call me. Someone misinterpreted this and thought the person was trying to make everyone think he was more important because he was always being paged, when he was only paging himself. He was removed from fixing gray phones for this reason, even though he was only person at the plant in Mustang Oklahoma that knew a transistor from a capacitor (See the post Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark).
So, why am I going on about a seemingly boring story about fixing a hum on a PA system? I think it’s because to me it was like a game. It was like playing a treasure hunt. From the day I started as an electrician, we would receive trouble tickets where we needed to go figure something out. We had to track down a problem and then find a solution on how to fix it. As I said in previous posts, it was like solving a puzzle.
Each time we would fix something, someone was grateful. Either the operator or a mechanic, or the Shift Supervisor, or the person at home vacuuming their carpet, because the electricity was still flowing through their house. How many people in the world can say that they work on something that impacts so many people?
Well… I used to feel like I was in a unique position. I was able to play in a labyrinth of mechanical and electrical equipment finding hidden treasures in the form of some malfunction. As I grew older, I came to realize that the uniqueness was limited only to the novelty of my situation. If you took all the power plant men in the country, they could probably all fit in one large football stadium. But the impact on others was another thing altogether.
The point I am trying to make is that it was obvious to me that I was impacting a large portion of people in the state of Oklahoma by helping to keep the plant running smoothly by chasing down the boiler ghosts and exorcising the Coalyard demons from the coal handling equipment. Even though it isn’t so obvious to others, like the janitor, or the laborer or the person that fills the vending machine. Everyone in some way helps to support everyone else.
A cook in a restaurant is able to cook the food because the electricity and the natural gas is pumped into the restaurant by others. Then the cook feeds the mailman, who delivers that mail, that brings the check to the person waiting to go to the grocery store so they can buy food that was grown by some farmer who plowed his field on a tractor made in a huge tractor factory by a machinist after driving there in a car made by a manufacturer in Detroit who learned how to use a lathe in a Vocational school taught by a teacher who had a degree from a university where each day this person would walk to class during the winter snow wearing boots that came from a clothes store where the student had bought them from a store clerk that greeted people by saying “Good Morning! How are you today?” Cheering up all the people that they met.
I could have walked into the lab and told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him find the hum in the PA system and he could have responded by saying, “Oh really? Good luck with that!” Instead he said, “Let’s go play a game. ‘Treasure Hunt!” This attitude had set the stage for me as a Power Plant Electrician: “Let’s go have some fun and fix something today!” Where would that cook have been today if the power had gone out in his restaurant that morning all because an attitude had gotten in the way….. I wonder…