Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back
Originally Posted on April 13, 2012:
There are some days you wish you could take back after making a grand decision that turns out to look really dumb when your decision fails. It is important to think outside the box to break new ground as long as you bring common sense along for the ride.
It seemed that during the days when I was a summer help, and even when I was a laborer on Labor Crew that in order to be promoted you had to come up with one grand idea that set you apart from the others and that also failed miserably.
It was said that the electrical supervisor there before Leroy Godfrey (I can see his face, but his name escapes me. Jackie somebody), was promoted to that position after he caused the destruction of one of the Intake pump motors (a very large pump that can pump 189,000 gallons of water per minute).
To name a couple of minor “Faux Pas” (how do you pluralize that word? I don’t know — Faux Pauses?), let me start out with the least embarrassing and less dangerous and work my way to the most embarrassing and most dangerous of three different stories of someone thinking out of the box while leaving common sense somewhere behind and maybe wishing they could take back that day.
The first two stories both involve the Electrical Supervisors of two different Power Plants.
Tom Gibson, the Electrical Supervisor from our plant was trying to find a way to keep moisture out of the Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pumps. This was a recurring problem that required a lot of man hours to repair. The bell shaped pump would have to be pulled, the motor would have to be disassembled and dried, and new seals would have to be put in the pump to keep it from leaking.
So, Tom Gibson decided that he was going to fill the motor and pump cavity with turbine oil. All electricians knew that oil used in turbines is an insulator so electrically it wouldn’t short anything out. But something in the back of your mind automatically says that this isn’t going to work.
I remember helping to fill the motor up with oil in the Maintenance shop and hooking up some motor leads from the nearby Maintenance shop 480 volt switchgear. Needless to say, as soon as the pump was turned on, it tripped the breaker and oil began leaking from the cable grommet.
That’s when common sense tells you that the all the oil causes too much drag on the rotor which will cause a 480 motor to trip very quickly. After removing some of the oil and trying it again with a larger breaker and still having the same result Tom was satisfied that this just wasn’t going to work.
The pump and motor was sent away to a nearby electric shop to be rewound and other ways were developed by the help of our top notch machinist genius Randy Dailey who came up with a positive air pressure way to keep water out of the Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pump and motor (also known as the BAOSP). Not much harm done and Tom Gibson didn’t feel too bad for trying something that the rest of us sort of thought was mildly insane.
The next story was told to me by my dear friend Bob Kennedy when I was working at a Gas Powered Plant in Midwest City and he was my acting foreman and backed up by the rest of the electricians as they sat there nodding their heads as Bob told this story.
So I didn’t witness this myself. This one was a little more dangerous, but still thankfully, no one was hurt. Ellis Rooks, the Electrical Supervisor needed to bump test a 4200 Volt motor and wanted to do it in place (bump testing is when you switch something on and off quickly. Usually to see which way it turns). For some reason he was not able to use the existing cables, maybe because that was the reason the motor was offline. Because one of the cables had gone to ground.
So, he decided that since the motor only pulled 5 to 10 amps he could use #10 wire (the size wire in your home) and string three of them (for the three phases of the motor) from the main High Voltage switchgear across the turbine room floor over to the motor. Now, most electricians know how many amps different size wires can generally handle. It goes like this: #14 – 15 amps, #12 – 20 amps, #10 – 30 amps, #8 – 50 amps and on down (smaller numbers mean bigger wires).
So, Ellis thought that since the motor only pulls around 5 amps, and he only wanted to bump the motor (that is, turn it on and off quickly) to watch it rotate, he thought that even though there was normally three 3 – 0 cables (pronounced three aught for 3 zeroes, very large wire designed for 200 amps) wired to the motor, this would be all right because he was only going to bump it.
Needless to say, but I will anyway, when the motor was bumped, all that was left of the #10 wires were three black streaks of carbon across the turbine room floor where the wire used to exist before it immediately vaporized.
You see, common sense tells you that 4200 volts times 5 amps = 21,000 watts of power. However, the starting amps on a motor like this may be around 50 to 100 amps, which would equal 210 to 420 Kilowatts of power (that is, 420,000 watts or more than 2/5 of a Megawatt). Thus vaporizing the small size 10 wire that is used to wire your house.
I think until the day that Ellis Rooks retired he was still trying to figure out where he went wrong. There must have been something defective with those wires.
All right. I have given you two relatively harmless stories and now the one about cracking the boiled egg in the boiler. This happened when I was still a janitor but was loaned to the Labor Crew during outages. When the boiler would come offline for an outage, the labor crew would go in the boiler and knock down clinkers and shake tubes to clean out clinkers that had built up around the boiler tubes in the intermediate pressure area of the boiler.
Clinkers are a hard buildup of ash that can become like large rocks, and when they fall and hit you on the head, depending on the size, can knock you to the floor, which makes wearing your hardhat a must. Your hardhat doesn’t help much when the clinkers falling from some 30 feet above hits you on your shoulder, so I always tried to suck my shoulders up under my hardhat (like a turtle pulling in his arms and legs) so that only my arms were left unprotected.
It wasn’t easy looking like a pole with no shoulders, but I tried my best. I think Fred Crocker the tallest and thinnest person on Labor Crew was the best at this. This is the Reheater area of the boiler in the diagram below:
Before we could get into the boiler to start shaking tubes, the dynamiters would go in there first and blow up the bigger clinkers. So, for a couple of days some times, at the beginning of an overhaul, you would hear someone come over the PA system about every 20 minutes saying, “Stand Clear of Number One Boiler, We’re Gonna Blast!!!” This became so common to hear over the years that unless you were up on the boiler helping out, you didn’t pay any attention to it.
This is something that is only done at a Coal-fired Power Plant because Gas Plants don’t create Ash that turns into Clinkers. Maybe some Soot, I don’t know, but not Ash. Which brings to mind a minor joke we played on Reginald Deloney one day when he came from a gas plant to work on overhaul. Reggie automatically reminded you of Richard Pryor. He had even developed a “Richard Pryor” way of talking.
We were going to work on a Bowl Mill motor first thing, which is down next to the boiler structure in an enclosed area. We brought our roll-around large toolbox and other equipment over to the motor. Andy Tubbs and Diana Brien were there with Reggie and me. I think Gary Wehunt was there with us also.
When someone came over the PA system saying, “Stand Clear of Number Two Boiler, We’re Gonna Blast”, all of us dropped everything and ran for the door as if it was an emergency. Reggie, not knowing what was going on ran like the dickens to get out in time only to find us outside laughing at the surprised look on his face.
Anyway. That wasn’t the day that someone wished they could take back, but I thought I would throw that one in anyway so that now Reggie will wish that he could take back that day.
When I was loaned to Labor Crew, and we were waiting on the boiler for the dynamiters to blast all the large clinkers, the engineer in charge, Ed Hutchins decided that things would go a lot quicker if all the laborers would go into the boiler and shake tubes while the dynamiters were setting their charges (which wasn’t the normal procedure. Normally we waited until the dynamiters were all done). Then we would climb out when they were ready to blast, and then go back in. So, we did that.
All 10 or so of us climbed into the boiler, and went to work rattling boiler tubes until we heard someone yell, “Fire In The Hole!!!” Then we would all head for the one entrance and climb out and wait for the blast.
The extra time it took to get all of us in the boiler and back out again actually slowed everything down. We weren’t able to get much work done each time, and everyone spent most of their time climbing in and out instead of working, including the dynamiters.
So Ed had another brilliant idea. What if we stayed in the boiler while the dynamite exploded? Then we wouldn’t be wasting valuable time climbing in and out and really wouldn’t have to stop working at all.
Of course, common sense was telling us that we didn’t want to be in an enclosed boiler while several sticks worth of dynamite all exploded nearby, so the engineer decided to prove to us how safe it was by standing just inside the entrance of the boiler with his ear plugs in his ears while the dynamite exploded.
The dynamiters at first refused to set off the charges, but after Ed and the labor crew convinced them (some members on the labor crew were anxious for Ed to try out his “brilliant idea”) that there really wouldn’t be much lost if the worst happened, they went ahead and set off the dynamite.
Needless to say…. Ed came wobbling his way out of the boiler like a cracked boiled egg and said in a shaky voice, “I don’t think that would be such a good idea.” All of us on the Labor Crew said to each other, “..As if we needed him to tell us that.” I think that may be a day that Ed Hutchins would like to take back. The day he learned the real meaning of “Concussion”. I think he was promoted shortly after that and went to work in Oklahoma City at Corporate Headquarters.
Comments from Original Post:
eideard April 21, 2012
When you have pallets double-stacked, you should only move them about with a pallet jack. The bottom pallet – and whatever is stacked on it – is thoroughly supported. And even if the pallet jack is powered, you aren’t likely to get in trouble with rapid acceleration.
As you would with a fork lift truck.
And the double stacked pallets are truck mirrors boxed for shipment to retailers. A couple hundred mirrors. And I dumped both pallets when I went to back up and turn into the warehouse aisle.
jackcurtis May 5, 2012
Modern parables like these are much too good to waste! They should be included in every freshman Congressman’s Washington Welcome Kit when he first takes office and new ‘reminder’ versions again every time he wins an election. These are wonderful essays on unintended consequences, at which our Congress is among the best!
Comments from Previous repost:
Power Plant Safety As Interpreted by Curtis Love
Original posted on January 28, 2012:
I vividly remember four events while working at the power plant where I was at the brink of death. I’m sure there were many other times, but these four have been etched in my memory almost 30 years later. Of those four memorable events, Curtis Love was by my side (so to speak) to share the wonder of two of those moments. This is a story about one of those times when you are too busy at the time to realize how close you came to catching that ride to the great power plant in the sky, until the middle of the night when you wake up in a cold sweat trying to catch your breath.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, safety is the number one priority at the power plant. But what is safe and what isn’t is relative. If you are the person that has to walk out onto a plank hanging out over the top ledge on the boiler like a diving board in order to replace a section of boiler tube before the boiler has cooled down below 160 degrees, you might not think it is safe to do that with only an extra-long lanyard tied to your waist and a sheer drop of 200 feet to the bottom ash hopper below (which I incidentally didn’t have to do as an electrician, but had to hear about after some other brave he-man had the privilege).
You might not think that this is safe. But the Equipment Support Supervisor who has spent too many years as an engineer behind his desk doesn’t see anything wrong with this as long as you don’t fall. So, he tells you to do it, just don’t fall. His safety tip of the week was “Don’t Fall”.
Safety is also relative to the date when something occurs. In 1994 OSHA implemented new rules for confined spaces. A confined space is any place that’s hard to enter and exit, or a place where you might be trapped in an enclosure because of converging walls. So, before 1994, there were no safety rules specific to confined spaces.
No rules meant that when I was on labor crew in 1983 it was perfectly safe to crawl into a confined space and wind and twist your way around obstacles until the small oval door that you entered (18 inches by 12 inches) was only a distant memory as you are lying down in the bottom section of the sand filter tank with about 22 inches from the bottom of the section to the top requiring you to lie flat as you drag yourself around the support rods just less than 2 feet apart. Oh. While wearing a sandblast helmet while breathing air from the regular plant high pressure air supply…
and holding a sandblaster hose…
with a straight through Sandblast Nozzle….
Which means, the person sandblasting has no way of turning off the sand or the air on their own. If you wanted to turn off the sand, you had to bang the nozzle against the side of the tank and hope that the person outside monitoring the sandblaster was able to hear you above the roar of the Sandblaster and the Industrial Vacuum.
You also had a drop light that left you all tangled in wires and hoses that blew air on your face so that you could breathe and a 4 inch diameter vacuum hose that sucked the blasted sand and rust away, while the sandblaster blasts away the rust from all things metal less than a foot away from your face. You had to keep the sandblast nozzle close to your face because the air is so full of dust, that you can only see about a foot in front of you while holding the drop light with the other hand next to the sandblast hose.
The air that blows through the sandblaster is hot, that you sweat profusely inside the heavy rain suit that you wear to protect the rest of you from sand that is ricocheting everywhere, but you don’t feel the heat as long as cool air is blowing on your face through your sandblast hood.
The week I spent lying flat trying to prop up my head while sandblasting the bottom section of both sand filter tanks gave me time to think about a lot of things…. which leads us to Curtis Love…. Not that it was Curtis Love that I was thinking about, but that he enters the story some time in the middle of this week. When I least expected it.
Curtis Love was a janitor at the plant when I first joined the Sanitation Engineering Team after my four summers of training as a “summer help”. Curtis was like my mother in some ways (and in other ways not – obviously). He was always looking for something to worry about.
For instance, one Monday morning while we were sitting in our Monday Morning Janitor safety meeting and Pat Braden had just finished reading the most recent safety pamphlet to us and we were silently pondering the proper way to set the outriggers on a P&H Crane, Jim Kanelakos said, “Hey Curtis. Don’t you have your mortgage at the Federal Bank in Ponca City?” Curtis said, “Yeah, why?” Jim continued, “Well I heard this morning on the news that the bank was foreclosing on all of their home mortgages.”
Curtis said that he hadn’t heard that, but that as soon as it was 9:00 am he would call the bank to find out what he needed to do so that he wouldn’t lose his house. About that time I gave a report on the number of fiddleback spiders I had killed in the main switchgear the previous week (See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“). It seemed like no one was listening to my statistics as Doris Voss was still pondering the P&H Crane hand signals (or she was remembering the days 20 years earlier when she used to be a cheerleader — based on the way she was moving her arm around), and Curtis was shuffling his feet in worry and Ronnie Banks was staring off into space, as if he was stunned that Monday was already here again, and Jim Kanelakos was snickering under his breath.
When the meeting was over and we were standing up, Jim told Curtis, “Hey Curtis. I was just kidding. The bank really isn’t foreclosing on their mortgages.” Curtis replied, “I don’t know. I better call them to check anyway.” Jim replied, “Curtis, I just made that up! I was playing a joke on you.” Curtis said, “I better check anyway, because it still is possible that they could be foreclosing on their mortgages”. So Jim just gave up trying to explain.
I had similar experiences with my mom when trying to explain to her why I still had the paper form that she asked me to fax over to the insurance commissioner’s office. She kept insisting that I hadn’t really faxed the form if I still had it in my hand. It didn’t help when I tried to explain that faxing and beaming Scotty up were two different things.
I know you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me now, but there were only two of us at the plant that were small enough to crawl through the portal into the Sand Filter tanks (Ed Shiever and myself), because not only was it very tight, but the entry was so close to the edge of the building that you had to enter the portal by curving your body around the corner and into the tank.
I have tried to paint a of picture of the predicament a person is in when they are laying in this small space about 20 feet from the small portal that you have to crawl through. with their airline for the sandblast helmet, the sandblast hose, the drop light cord and the 4 inch vacuum hose all wound around the support rods that were not quite 2 feet apart in all directions. Because this is where I was when without my giving the signal (by banging the sandblast nozzle on the tank three times — like that song from Tony Orlando), the sand stopped flowing from the nozzle and only air was hissing loudly.
This meant one of two things. The sandblast machine had just run out of sand, or someone was shutting the sandblaster off because it was time for lunch. I figured it was time for lunch, because I didn’t think it had been more than 10 minutes since the sand had been refilled and amid the roaring blasts and the howling sucking vacuum hose (and the song “Knock Three Times” by Tony Orlando and Dawn playing in my head), I thought I had caught the sound of a rumbling stomach from time to time.
The next thing that should happen after the sand has blown out of the sandblast hose, is that the air to the sandblaster should stop blowing. And it did…. but what wasn’t supposed to happen, that did, was that the air blowing through my sandblast hood allowing me to breathe in this sea of rusty dust shut off at the same time!
While still pondering what was happening, I suddenly realized that without the air supply to my hood, not only could I not breathe at all, but my sweat-filled rain suit that I was wearing suddenly became unbearably hot and dust began pouring into my hood now that the positive pressure was gone.
I understood from these various signs of discomfort that I needed to head back to the exit as quickly as possible, as I was forced by the thick dust to hold my breath. I pulled my hood off of my head and everything went black. I had moved more than a foot away from the drop light.
I knew that the exit was in the direction of my feet on the far side of the tank, so I swung around a row of support rods and dragged myself along by the rods as quickly as I could go, unable to see or take a breath. Working my way around the drop light cable, the air hose, the sandblast hose and the vacuum hose as I pulled myself along trying to make out where the exit could be while following the tangle of hoses and electric cord. Luckily before I passed out from the lack of air, I had figured correctly and I found myself at the exit where in one motion I pulled myself out to fresh air and the blinding light of the day gasping for air.
Furious that someone had turned off my air, I ran out of the sand filter building to the sandblast machine where I found Curtis Love, of all people. Up to this point, Curtis had never had the privilege of operating the sandblaster and was not aware of the proper sequence to shutting down the machine…. without shutting off the air to my hood.
Incidentally, both the sandblaster and the air hose to the sandblast hood were being fed from the same regular plant air supply (which OSHA might have frowned upon back as far as 1983, and which caused you to blow black oily stuff out of your nose for a few days).
Needless to say, about the time that I came bolting out of the sand filter building Curtis had figured out that he had shut off the wrong valve. He was apologizing profusely in one long drawn out sentence….. “Kevin, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry….” I stopped myself short as my hands were flying toward the area where his neck would have been, if Curtis had a neck.
I looked over toward the crew cab parked nearby. It was full of hungry labor crew “he-men in training” all smiling and chuckling. At that moment I knew that both Curtis and I had been on the receiving end of what could be construed as a “power plant joke” (refer to the post about Gene Day to learn more about those: “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“).
So, I spent the next 30 seconds as Curtis and I piled into the crew cab telling Curtis that is was all right, he didn’t have to feel bad about it. Evidently, someone had told Curtis how to shutdown the sandblaster, but failed to tell him exactly which valve to turn off when turning off the air to the sandblaster.
Needless to say. Lunch tasted extra good that day. Possibly the rusty dust added just the right amount of iron to my sandwich.
Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost
This is a repost of a story that was Posted on January 21, 2012. I rewrote it slightly and added a story to the bottom of it.
When I worked on the labor crew, we used to have a lot of fun cleaning out the boiler. Especially the economizer section where we had that three-foot crawl space in the middle where you had to lie flat with the hydraulic spreaders and the four-inch vacuum hose trying to suck out the chunks of ash clinkers before the crawl space filled up with ash. After lying around in this wonderful environment for a day or so, one begins to look around for something to break the drone of the sucking sound of the vacuum and the swishing sound of the crosscut saws welded end on end as they rose and fell in a rhythmic beat propelled by Labor Crew He-men ten feet above this large bundle of Economizer tubes.
Bob Lillibridge was never in a bad mood when it came to cleaning the boiler. His thin physique allowed him easy access to the crawl space. The wild glare in his eye and cigarette smile kept everyone guessing what he would do next. The texture of Bob’s face was like those bikers that have spent too many hours riding their Harleys through the desert without wearing a helmet. Especially after working in the economizer for a week.
He was especially cheerful when we were able to work in the Economizer crawl space with Ronnie Banks. Ronnie Banks, unlike Bob, was not wiry. His stature was more like a thin black bear standing on his hind legs. He sort of walked that way too. I developed a song when Ronnie Banks and I worked together that went to the tune of the Lone Ranger theme (the William Tell Overture), that consisted of saying his name rapidly over and over again (like: Ronnie Banks Ronnie Banks Ronnie Banks Banks Banks). It felt good to sing this song, and it seemed to amuse Ronnie Banks.
Bob on the other hand knew that Ronnie was highly claustrophobic. So, he would let Ronnie crawl through the too small hole into the economizer, then would crawl in after him. After they were in the entrance far enough, Bob would grab both of Ronnie’s legs and hug them as hard as he could.
This would send Ronnie into a Claustrophobic seizure where he would flail himself around wildly yelling unrecognizable words such as “Blahgruuuee” and “uuunnnhh-ope” and other similar pronunciations. I think Bob Lillibridge just liked to hear Ronnie Banks speaking in tongues.
I have to admit it did give you a strange sort of spiritual high when you saw the smile of pure satisfaction on Bob’s face as his body flew by while he was hugging Ronnie’s legs that were spinning and twirling all round a crawl space that was only three feet high.
I think it was these kind of spiritual moments that gave me the dream to write a story about the day that Bob Lillibridge met the Boiler Ghost. It went like this:
The Boiler Ghost
From the darkness of the boiler it came.
The Boiler Ghost, black, enormous, full of hate.
I watched with disbelief as it edged its way along.
Its eyes, red and piercing, with a stare of terror.
It glanced first this way and then that.
As its eyes passed through me I was filled with
Such a terrible fright that I felt near the point of death.
The massive head hung down between two pointed
Shoulder blades vulture-like.
The most terrifying thing of all was the gaping mouth
That hung open.
It was full of such a terrible darkness,
So dark and evil as if it were the gates of Hell.
Just then I noticed its eyes had fixed on Bob.
He was pressed against the wall by the piercing stare,
His mouth open wide as if to scream.
Eyes bulging out in utter terror.
Mindless with pure fright.
I tried to scream, but felt such a choking force
I could make no noise.
With steady movement the monster advanced toward Bob.
Bob was white as ash staring into that dark empty mouth.
Smoke poured out of a flat nose on that horrid face.
It reached out a vile and tremendous hand
And grabbed Bob,
Who burst into flames at his touch.
In one movement he was gone.
Vanished into the mouth of pure darkness.
The Evil Ghost glanced first this way, then that,
And into the darkness of the boiler it went.
All was quiet,
The roar of the boiler told me I was safe once again.
Until the boiler ghost should decide to return.
I showed this poem to Bob after I had written it down. He chuckled a little, but didn’t seem too amused by it. Actually he looked a little worried.
Some time after I had written this poem and was actually on the labor crew (I had been on loan while I was a janitor when we were cleaning the economizer), we were in the bottom ash hopper at the bottom of the #2 boiler while it was offline. There are two hoppers side-by-side, and we were breaking up some hard clinkers that had built up in there. I had climbed over the one hopper where we were entering the hoppers to check something out, when all of the sudden someone started sandblasting the other hopper.
Now, these hoppers are quite large and you would have thought that someone sandblasting over on the other hopper wouldn’t really bother you if you were over in the other hopper, but I can assure you, that isn’t the case. As I was only wearing a t-shirt and jeans, when the sandblast hose started blowing out sand, before I could climb over the hopper to try to escape, I was being pelted by sand.
It felt as if someone was just aiming the sandblast hose over the top of the hopper toward me (which could very well have been the case). I searched around the hopper to find a place where I was being pelted the least, and then I just crouched there with my face against the side of the hopper to protect it. Finally after 10 to 15 minutes (though it seemed more like an hour), the sandblast hose was turned off, and I was able to climb over the hopper and out the portal to fresh air.
I don’t think anyone even realized I was over in the other hopper when they decided to turn the sandblast hose on. I just climbed out of there and went about my business just slightly bruised all over from being blasted by sand. — It didn’t occur to me until just now that this is the hopper where I had seen the Boiler Ghost climb out, and Bob was there that day, and may have even been the person holding the sandblast hose…
Later Bob was able to move off of the labor crew. I think he went to the welding shop. Then later during the 1987-88 reshuffle, I think he was told that he was going to have to go back to the labor crew, and that was too much for him after being on the labor crew so long before being able to move off. So, he left the plant. I never knew for certain what happened to Bob. I think he still lives somewhere around Pawnee, Oklahoma.
Comments from previous posts
I never saw the boiler ghost – but I knew a “boiler jerk” once. He was an evil Plant Manager that would send Mechanics into a dangerously hot superheater/reheat section (off-line just a few hours) to start repairs. He’d also send in laborers to clean out bottom ash while clinkers were still falling.
Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew
Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.
When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were especially blessed by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry. Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew. I had worked with Larry during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.
I think he knew that I felt that way, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry. I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.
I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:
The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day. Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there. Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.
When I was young, I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins during the summer in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”. Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self-service” museum. Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers. We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood. It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.
When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale. You could spend half of a lifetime wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was. Each day brought something new. My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal. When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.
One day in the spring of 1983 while I was a janitor when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day. I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal. This day was different.
Chuck brought me to the Tool room personally and asked Biff Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.
I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time… The Boiler had been shut down over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.
Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.
“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was probably just some kind of filter or something…. I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.
As I mentioned before… there are places like: The Tripper Gallery. Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub. The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship. Travelling Water Screens. There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp). Anyway, I could go on and on. Today it feels me with excitement just to say, “1A Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump “.
Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening. We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.
So, in I went. The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand. There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness. So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in. Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen. It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart. Something like this:
Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT and very windy. I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it. I was just wearing a tee shirt. I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 160 degrees. I was wearing my hard hat with a chin strap to keep it from blowing off because there was a strong hot wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down. This meant there was a steady stream of fly ash blowing on me.
The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us. At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap. I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.
there is a SpongeBob Square Pants episode where he goes to visit his friend Sandy who is a squirrel who lives in a domed area under the ocean. When he goes in there he suddenly becomes very dry. — That was me that day.
Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet. I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot. Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.
This was a new adventure for me. There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time. I suppose you grow used to it after a while. Kind of like when you eat something with Habanero Sauce. The first time it just very painful. Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.
After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see through the cloud of ash) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning. I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant. I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face. I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.
The other one was missing. I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter. No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust. Then I thought…. No. I know I had both filters when I went in the duct. I must have lost one while I was in there. Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.
Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator. I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).
Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight. I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight. The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight. It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time. It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.
After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break. When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out every 10 minutes.
Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen. It is what it sounds like. It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger. I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.
I did beat that screen all day. When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:
I had worn the rubber off of the mallet. When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Biff said, “What is this?” I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning. He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy. I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.
A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew. Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him. The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross. He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.
During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen. He said he had never seen anything like that before. He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.
I felt the same way about Chuck. I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it. My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.
Of course I want to keep it. It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment. The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.
It also reminds me of other things. Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.
Questions from that day have always remained with me.
How much ash did I breathe in? I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me. What did it do to my lungs?
What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard? I know now what was below me then. I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets. It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.
What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?
I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men. I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant. All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close. The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”. That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important. It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.
I worked with Ed on the Precipitator control replacement project (84 controls X 2) in 2006 I think. He was getting ready to retire at the time. He was a good engineer and a tough customer. I was working for the control supplier and those 168 controls were the first installation of a brand new control design. I had lead the design team for the controls and this was the culmination of our work. I spend more days and nights than I can remember going up and down the aisles of controls loading software fixes into the processors! Anyway, great people at the plant and great memories… including a rapper control cabinet that took the express route to the ground elevation from the precip roof! (ouch, it really is the sudden stop that gets you!)
Thanks for the comment John! It’s good to hear about improvements to the Precipitator and the control rooms I used to call home. I spend many weekends walking back and forth through those control rooms.
OMG – The very thought of a group staying in the boiler when the dynamite went off! Thank goodness THAT didn’t happen. I felt the tension just reading that bit. I’m glad Ed came out of it all right.