Originally posted February 1, 2013:
It is vitally important that a manhole cover be round. By just being square or even oval, it could mean death to some unsuspecting electrician. You see, only a perfectly round manhole cover will never be able to fall down into a manhole. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t fit a bigger circle through a smaller circle. An oval or square cover could fall through the hole when turned just right but not a round one. A typical cast iron manhole can weigh up to 500 pounds.
Not long after becoming an electrician, and shortly after the Rivers and the Rose story that I mentioned last week (see the Post “Rivers and Rose in the Power Plant Palace“), we had a cable actually go to ground between the main plant and the coal yard. The cable that went to ground was called a 500 MCM cable. What this means is that 500,000 circles of 1 mil (or one milli-inch) in diameter can be put in a circle that is 500 MCM in diameter. A typical 500 MCM cable is good for a 400-amp load at 6900 volts.
For large industrial circuits, 3 phases of electricity are used instead of just one like you have in your house. With three phases of electricity, you have a constant amount of power being applied to the entire circuit at all times. With a one phase circuit, you have zero power 120 times every second. So, with any “decent” power circuit, you have 3 phases of electricity.
The cable that went to ground was the coal yard station power cable. Not only were there three phases of power, but for each phase there were two 500 MCM cables. That means that this circuit was good for 800 amps of power at 6,900 volts. Giving you a capacity of 5.5 Megawatts (or 5 million, 500 thousand watts) of power. These cables were so big that a typical industrial Wire cable chart doesn’t even go this high:
In a Coal-fired power plant, you have a redundant system for everything. So, the coal yard wasn’t completely in the dark. It had just swapped over to the redundant circuit. — This always amused me. In my English and Poetry classes in College I would have points taken off for being “redundant”, but in the power plant this was necessary to keep the plant running at all times.
As I said many times (redundantly) 15 years later, when I was training operators and electricians to be certified substation switchmen, “I know this is boring, but you have to learn it…” (but that is another story. See the post “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with Boring“).
So, to make a rather boring lecture shorter, I will skip the part about how we had a hypot from the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department brought in so big that it had to come in a van. They attached it to the cables to find where the short to ground was located.
I’ll skip the part about how it was decided to replace the faulty cables going to the coal yard 1/2 mile away. I’ll also skip the part about how Charles Foster was able to finagle the use of Stanley Elmore’s precious blue Mitsubishi mini tractor to try to pull the cables from one manhole to the next (the first time anyone outside the garage was able to operate his most beloved tractor….).
Oh, and I’ll skip the part about how 1000 feet of this cable cost about $10,000 and we had six cables to replace for a cost of about $320,000 just for the cable… I’ll also skip the part about how this little tractor was too small to pull the cables through the manholes from manhole to manhole up to the coal yard, so we sent in for the big guns from the T&D department to use their equipment that pulled the cables through the manholes as easy as pulling the wool over Gene Day’s eyes while playing a joke on him. Don’t get me wrong…. I know in his heart; Gene Day really appreciated a good joke.
Gene Day is one of the best men I have ever been able to call “Friend” — which I would do shortly after playing a joke on him, after I returned to consciousness. See the post Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day.
Anyway, after this episode was all over it was decided that something needed to be done about how all the manholes from the plant to the coal yard were always full of water. You see, the manholes were easily deeper than the lake level, so water naturally leaked into them. Each of them had a pump in them that was supposed to keep them dry, but somewhere along the line, in the 5 years the plant had been in operation, each manhole pump had failed at one time or other.
When pumping out the first manhole, it took days, because as you pumped out that first manhole, water would run from one manhole to the other as you actually ended up pumping out all the manholes down to the point where the cables went from one manhole to the other.
So, none other than the “newbie” was appointed as the keeper of the Manhole pumps. Yep. That would be me. So, for the next few months I spent almost all my time pumping out manholes and repairing all the pumps that had been submerged in water for years. This was my first real job.
This was my real introduction to becoming a real plant electrician (You can see how I really like using the word “real”). The most common job of an electrician was to take a motor that had failed or was scheduled to be overhauled and repair it and put it back in place to continue on it’s “tour of duty”.
It’s amazing how you can take a motor that has failed, and you can “rebuild” it and put it back in operation. — This has come in handy at home as the cooling fan motor on the air conditioner unit on your house goes out every few years. I have yet to call an air conditioner man to my current house where I have lived for 11 1/2 years (now 19 years).
I remember that Charles Foster had told me that “paperwork” was very important when it came to motors. A history had to be kept. Certain steps had to be performed before, during and after repairing a motor. It had to be meggared properly (see the post from last week to learn more about meggars: Rivers and a Rose of the Power Plant Palace).
So, I asked Ben Davis if he could show me what I needed to do to fix a motor. His immediate indignant response was, “What? You don’t know how to fix a motor?” My response was, “No, I don’t know. Would you show me?” Ben, who up to that point had presented himself with displeasure at my presence in the shop, suddenly smiled and said, “Sure! Let me show you what you need to do!”
Ben showed me all the steps you go through to repair and “document” a motor repair in great detail. I was glad that I had found that Ben was just putting on a front of disgust at my presence in the Electric shop only to show me at the “proper” time that I had been “misjudging” him as being a grumpy person when he wasn’t really. There is a certain art to this which I describe in detail in this post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“.
I had figured, before this time, that Ben really had a kind heart because I figured that if Diane Lucas and Andy Tubbs, who I both admired greatly considered Ben as a good friend, then he must really be a good guy underneath, even though he was keeping this hidden from me.
I knew the moment he smiled at my response when I told him I really didn’t know anything, that Ben had a kind heart. He couldn’t hide it any longer. If I had asked the same thing to OD McGaha, one of the other B Foremen in the shop, for instance, he would have told me to go to hell. But not Ben.
I have more to tell you about Ben, but I’ll save that for a later post. For now, I’ll just say that though Ben may not have known it during the time I spent as an electrician, he has always been close to my heart. I have always had Ben and his family in my daily prayers from the day that he smiled at me and explained to me how to repair a motor.
So, how does a lone newbie electrician pull a 500-pound lid off of a manhole by himself? Well. He uses a Manhole cover puller of course.
Ok. Our manhole cover puller wasn’t blue like this, but it had a similar shape. With a simple tool like this a 500-pound manhole cover could be popped out of the hole and dragged away. So, I used this tool as my one-man crew (myself) went from manhole to manhole, where I pumped each out and lowered a ladder into each hole and disconnecting the drenched motor and brought it back to the shop where I dried it out (using the hot box in the shop that doubled as a heater for lunches) and repaired it and re-installed it.
We had all the manholes in the plant identified. I painted the numbers on each lid with orange paint. It was while I was working in the manholes 15 feet below ground that I appreciated the round manhole. I knew that as long as that manhole cover was round, it couldn’t accidentally be knocked into the hole only to crush me to death below.
Other things were of concern in the manholes where I worked… For instance, many of these holes had been underwater for at least a couple of years, and the entire manhole was covered with a kind of slime. there were also high voltage cables that had splices in some of the manholes, and I remember Gene Roget telling me that he had seen sparks flying off of some of them when they were hypoting the cables looking for the ground. The dank smell of the manholes made you think that there were probably some kinds of “swamp gases” in there.
Nevertheless, when I grew weary of dragging the heavy shellacked wooden ladder from hole to hole, I devised a way to climb down into the manholes using the drainpipe from the motor. This was before OSHA had implemented all the confined space rules in 1994 that would have prevented me from entering a manhole alone. I was improvising and taking a risk of falling and hurting myself each time I entered a manhole.
I ran into one of the reasons for not leaving a person in a manhole alone one time when I was working in a manhole near the intake house and another crew drove up and parked their truck near the manhole I was in. I remember that while I was working there, I suddenly became nauseous. Not sure why, I climbed out of the hole.
The truck that had been left idling nearby had been emitting toxic fumes that had looked for the lowest place they could settle, and that happened to be in the manhole where I was working. After that, I always kept an ear out for any motor vehicles nearby when I was in a manhole.
Ten years later, in 1994, OHSA added some new laws to the books that made it mandatory to have a “hole watch” stand outside a hole watching you while you worked in a manhole. You even had to have a safety harness tied to a safety hoist so that if you passed out while in a manhole the hole watch could pull you out without having to enter the hole.
Needless to say. I got my feet wet as an electrician popping in and out of manholes like the gopher in the arcade that you try to bop on the head.
One interesting story that happened during this time happened when Blake Tucker, who had been a summer help with me in the garage, and then later became a summer help in the electric shop, was sitting with me while we were going to fix a pump in manhole 215 (I believe this is the number of the manhole next to the intake where the fly ash pipes go over the intake).
The hole was full of water, and the pump had naturally tripped the breaker…. For some reason I decided to go into the intake switchgear and reset the 120-volt breaker to the pump in the Distribution Panel. When I did. I returned to the hole where Blake was waiting for me. I reached down into the hole with my foot, and I kicked the drainpipe that rose from the pump and made a 90 degree turn up close to the entrance.
When I kicked the pipe, the motor actually began running. We could see it 15 feet below us in the clear water running. It was an open face motor, meaning that it wasn’t sealed and made to be a submersible pump, yet it was running under water. A year later we decided that it made more sense to replace all the open motors with submersible pumps.
Blake Tucker and I watched for 1/2 hour as the pump sucked out the water from the manhole. When the level of the water reached the top of the motor, the outboard fan that had been slowly rotating all of the sudden kicked into high gear and we could see that the pump had been running at full speed all along.
This fascinated me. I figured the water must have been pure enough not to be too conductive (pure water is a natural insulator…. oddly enough). We could easily see this pump through 15 feet of water, so it must have been pretty clean. That was the only time I have ever seen an open motor happily running submersed in water… It is not something you see every day…. for instance…. It is not every day that you see a janitor with a Psychology degree acting like an electrician sitting beside a manhole staring down into the darkness in a power plant either. But there you are…
Originally posted January 25, 2013:
When is the appropriate time to call 911? Calling 911 in the Power Plant is when you call the Shift Supervisor to report something important. As Randy Dailey, our Safety Trainer extraordinaire, always taught us, first tap the person on the shoulder and say, “Are you all right?” Then you point your finger at someone and say, “Call 911!” That’s called “Activating the EMS” (Emergency Medical System). Besides medical emergencies, there are other reasons to call the Shift Supervisor.
I learned early on to ‘fess up’ when you have done something wrong. People appreciate it when you tell them up front that you goofed. That way the problem can be dealt with directly. Dee Ball was that way. Any time he wrecked a truck, he didn’t hesitate to tell his boss. So, even as a summer help I had developed this philosophy. Never be afraid to expose your blunders. It works out better in the long run.
One example of someone not following this philosophy was Curtis Love. As I mentioned in the post Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement, Curtis didn’t want to tell anyone that he had been bitten by a brown recluse for the third time because he was afraid of losing his job.
His philosophy came back to bite him a year and a half later when he was on the labor crew when he was the designated truck driver. I had moved on to the electric shop by this time.
He was backing up the crew cab around a corner under the Fly Ash hoppers up at the coal yard when the side of the crew cab came into contact with one of those yellow poles designed to protect the structure from rogue vehicles driven by people like Curtis Love. Unfortunately. This created a dent in the side of the truck.
Curtis, already on probation. worried that he would be fired if he told anyone about this mishap, failed to tell Larry Riley about this incident. Larry, on the other hand, was standing in front of the Coal yard Maintenance shop (the labor crew home) and saw the entire incident.
At that moment, he turned to one of the labor crew hands and said, “I hope Curtis comes over here and tells me about that.” Unfortunately, Curtis decided to act as if nothing had happened. This resulted in his termination. As much as I cared about Curtis, I must admit that the Power Plant scene was probably not the best location for his vocation.
I had seen Dee Ball do the same thing over and over again, and he always reported his accidents immediately. He was never punished for an accident, though, for a number of years, he was banned from driving a truck. You can read more about this in the post: Experiencing Maggots, Mud and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball.
One day during the summer of 1984 just after lunch, 1A PA fan tripped (PA stands for Primary Air). When this happened, number one unit had to lower its output from over 500 Megawatts down to around 200. The trip indicator on the 6900-volt breaker said that it had been grounded. Being grounded means that one of the three phases of the motor or cable had made a circuit with the ground (or something that was grounded). The trip circuits shut the fan down so fast that it prevents an explosion and saves the fan from being destroyed.
Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), Andy Tubbs and I were given the task of finding the ground and seeing what we could do to fix it. We unwired the motor, which was no easy task, because the motor is about the size of a large van, and about 10 times heavier.
So, we spent the rest of the day sitting under plastic because it was raining, unwiring the motor and unwiring the cable to the motor from the breaker in the main switchgear and testing both the motor and the cable with various instruments looking for the grounded wire or coil that caused the motor to trip. We used a large “Megger” on the motor. It’s called a Megger because it measures Mega-Ohms. So, it’s technically called a Mega-Ohm meter. Ohms is a measurement of resistance in an electrical circuit. We usually use a small hand cranked megger, that is similar to an old hand crank telephone that generates a high voltage (good for shocking fish in a lake to make them rise to the surface). In the case of the hand cranked Megger, it would generate 1,000 volts.
The Megger this size would have been useless with this large motor. Instead, we used one that was electric, and you ran the voltage up over 10,000 volts and watched the mega-ohms over a period of 1/2 hour or so.
For the cables, we hooked up a Hypot (or Hipot). This stands for High Potential. Potential in this case is another word for “Voltage”. It would charge up and then you pressed a button, and it would send a high voltage pulse down the cable, and if there is a weak spot in the insulation, The Hypot will find it. So, we hooked a Hypot up to the cable and tried to find the grounded wire. No luck.
After spending 4 hours looking for the grounded cable or motor, we found nothing. We spent another hour and a half putting the motor and the breaker back in service. The Fan was put back into operation and we went home. As I was walking out to the car with Bill Rivers, he told me, “I knew they weren’t going to find anything wrong with that fan.” He had a big grin on his face.
At first, I thought he was just making an educated guess as Rivers was apt to do on many occasions (daily). It was raining and I could see where water may have been sucked into the motor or something and had momentarily grounded the motor. Just because we didn’t find anything didn’t mean that the breaker didn’t trip for no reason.
When we were in the car and on our way to Stillwater, Oklahoma with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer, Bill explained that he knew why the motor tripped. He had been walking through the main switchgear with Mike Rose, and Mike, for no apparent reason other than curiosity, had opened up the bottom door to the breaker for 1A PA fan. He looked at it for a moment and then slammed the door shut. When he did this, the breaker tripped.
So, the ground relay happened to be the one that tripped. It might as well have been an over-current or a low voltage trip. It just happened to trip the ground trip. Bill said that he told Mike that he should call the Shift Supervisor and let him know so they could restart the motor. Mike on the other hand told Bill that he was already on probation and was afraid of losing his job if he reported that he had slammed the door on the breaker and tripped the fan.
If there was ever a reason to call 911, it was then. All he had to do was tell them, “I accidentally tripped the PA fan when I bumped the breaker cabinet.” They would have told him to reset the flag, and they would have started the fan right back up. No questions asked… I’m sure of it. And they wouldn’t have lost their generating capacity for the remainder of the afternoon, and we wouldn’t have spent 4 hours unwiring, testing and rewiring the motor in the rain with a plastic umbrella over our head.
Bill wasn’t about to tell on Mike. If Mike didn’t want to report it, Bill wasn’t going to say anything, and I understand that. I probably would have kept it to myself at the time if I was in Bill’s shoes (I’m just glad I wasn’t because I probably wouldn’t have been able to sleep soundly for the next year). But 30 years later, I might write about it in a Blog. Even though I wouldn’t have looked to Mike to teach me much about being an electrician (he was more of an Air Condition man anyway), I still loved the guy.
Mike died almost two years ago on May 29, 2011. He was from England and had lived in Canada for a time. He used to work on trains. Trains, even though they are diesel, are really electric. The Diesel engine really runs a generator that generates electricity that runs the train. I know that Mike was a good man at heart. He loved his family with all his heart. Here is a picture of the Limey:
Ok. So, I know what you are thinking…. There must be a story about myself in here somewhere. Well, you would be right. First of all. I always ‘fessed up’ to my mistakes, as my current manager at Dell knows well (yes. I still mess up after all these years). I told my current manager the other day that CLM was my middle name. (CLM means “Career Limiting Move”). So here is my power plant “mess up” story (well one of them):
In January 1986, I returned from my Honeymoon with my new wife Kelly when I found that we had hired a new electrician. Gary Wehunt was replacing Jim Stephenson who had left the plant on February 15, 1985, which is a story all its own (you can read about that here: Power Plant Snitch). We had just started an overhaul on Unit 1.
I remember the first Monday I spent with Gary. It was January 13, 1986, and we were working on cleaning out the exciter house on the end of the main power generator with Diana Brien (formerly Diana Lucas). We were discussing salaries and Gary was surprised to find out that I was making more money than he was. Well… I had been an electrician for over 2 years and had been promoted regularly…. so, I didn’t think there was anything strange about it, except that I still looked like I was only about 18 years old (even though I was 25) and Gary was about 34 (and acted like he was 18 or 15). I had already been promoted 4 times and my salary had gone from $7.15 to over $12 an hour.
Anyway, when that first Wednesday rolled around, Since Gary and I were assigned to Substation Inspection that week, (Some later time I may go into the details of what “Substation Inspection” entails), but for now, let’s just stick with my “911 call.”
It is enough to say that we were in the main plant substation relay house on Wednesday January 8, 1986, at 9:00 am. One of our jobs was to call other substations and perform a test called a “Transfer Trip and Carrier Test”. We had called Woodring Substation. Woodring is a town in Oklahoma, and we had a 345 KV (that’s 345,000 volts) line going there. I was talking to the man in the substation on the other end of the phone line.
I was showing Gary just how experienced I was at being an electrician. People had told me that you had to be a plant electrician for 5 years before you really became a “first class” electrician. Well. Here I was at 2 years, and I thought I was so good that I could do anything by now…. — Yeah… right.
I told the guy on the other end of the line as I turned a switch…. Amber light… Back to Blue…. and I wrote down the value on the meter (paperwork… oh yes…. it’s that important. Like A-1 sauce).
Then I reached for the second switch. I said, “Carrier test”, then turned the switch. The lights in the relay house went out and we were in the dark. I told the guy on the other end of the line…. “Well. That’s not supposed to happen.” Then as I let go of the switch and it returned to its normal position, the lights turned back on. Okay……
I wrote the numbers down from the meter and said goodbye to the other faceless substation man on the other end of the line that I talked to over 100 times, but never met in person. He sounded like a nice guy. Then I headed for the gray phone. I heard the Shift Supervisor paging Leroy Godfrey (The Electrical Supervisor) on line 2 (we had 5 Gray phone lines. The Gray Phone was our PA system).
When I picked up the line, I heard Leroy pick up the phone and the Shift Supervisor tell Leroy that we just lost station power in the main substation, and it had switched over to Auxiliary power.
I immediately jumped in and said, “Jim (for Jim Padgett, the Shift Supervisor), I did that. I was performing a Carrier test with Woodring and the moment I performed the carrier test the lights went out.” Leroy chimed in by saying, “That wouldn’t cause you to lose station power.”
Well, in my ‘inexperienced’ plant electrician way, I responded, “Well. All I know is that when I turned the switch to perform the carrier test, the lights went out, and when I let go of the switch, the lights came back on.” Leroy reiterated, “That wouldn’t cause you to lose station power.”
I replied with, “I’m just saying….” and left it at that. I had done my job. They knew I was out here. They knew I had called 911 right away. I explained what I was doing…. they could take it from there.
I had hoped that I had showed Gary upfront that it doesn’t hurt to report your mistakes (even though I hadn’t made one as far as I could tell), but I was 100% sure I had done something to cause the relay house to lose power. Though, I couldn’t figure out why.
After lunch, Bill Bennett, our A foreman came down to the shop to tell me that they figured out how the substation lost station power. He said that a road grader had been grating the road down by the Otoe-Missouri reservation (which is actually called “Windmill Road” I guess because there is a windmill down that road somewhere) and had hit an electric pole and knocked it over and had killed the power to the substation.
It turned out that the substation relay house was fed by a substation down that road where we have a radio tower. So, think about this. The exact time that I turned that switch in the substation, a road grater 2 1/2 miles away hits a telephone pole accidentally and knocks it to the ground and kills the power to the substation at the exact same time that I am performing a transfer-trip and Carrier test with Woodring Substation, and the time it takes to switch to auxiliary power is the exact time it took me to let go of the switch.
Don’t tell me that was by accident. I will never believe it. I think it was for the soul purpose of teaching me a useful lesson or two. First…. don’t be afraid to tell someone when you do something wrong. Second…. If you think you have control over the things that happen to you in your life… well, think again…… Third…. God watches you every moment, and if you let him, he will guide you to do the right thing when the time comes. Oh, and Fourth: “Doesn’t God have a great sense of humor?”
God bless you all.
COMMENTS FROM THE ORIGINAL POST:
Monty Hansen January 26, 2013
I had a similar thing happen to me; I was upgrading to shift foreman & system called to remove a tag in the switchyard & put the switch back to auto. The tag on the pistol grip was attached with a plastic zip tie & the previous operator had put it on real tight, as I was wrestling it off with my Leatherman, the pliers slipped & I banged my elbow into the control panel, at that very instant there was a loud BANG as several 345 KV breakers opened simultaneously in the switchyard, I had the phone pinched between my shoulder & ear as I was wrestling with this switch & talking to the system control operator, he said a few bad words – gotta go – & hung up. The power plant lost all power & went in the black, I, of course was just sick in the pit of my stomach, after we got power restored, the plant back on etc. I called system back to see if they found the cause & fess up to causing the trip (I figured I must have caused a trip relay to close when I hit the panel) – anyway a crane at a plant down the road had got its boom tangled in the power line & went to ground – AT PRECISELY THE INSTANT MY ELBOW SLIPPED & HIT THE PANEL!!
Plant Electrician January 26, 2013
That’s a Great Story Monty!
Ron Kilman January 26, 2013
Some great illustrations of the truth in Proverbs 28:13 “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion”.
justturnright January 28, 2013
CLM: I can relate.
My first boss 30 years ago once told me he was going to officially nickname me “I’m sorry” (and make me wear it for a name badge) if I said it one more time.
Hey, there’s worse things.
Roomy January 29, 2013
I had not thought about Mike Rose in years. He was a good guy to work with, now Rivers was a different story!!!
Sub checks, I used to love to do sub checks. I performed pilot wire & transfer trip checks for years. I hated it when they went to being done by automation.
Thanks for bringing back old memories.
Originally posted January 18, 2013:
The day I became an electrician at the coal-fired power plant, I suddenly became an expert in electricity. I think it was on Tuesday, just one day after joining the electric shop that I was walking through the welding shop when someone stopped me and asked me how they would wire their living room with different light switches at different corners and make it work correctly. As if I had been an electrician for years.
Luckily, I was just finishing a house wiring course at the Indian Meridian Vo-Tech in Stillwater, Oklahoma and they had us figure out problems just like those.
Within the first week, George Alley brought a ceiling fan to the shop that he had picked up somewhere and was wondering if we could get it to work. My foreman Charles Foster thought it would be a good small project for me to work on to help me learn about electrical circuits.
After all, this ceiling fan could go slow, medium and fast, and it could go forward or reverse. Only at the moment, all it would do was sit there and hum when you hooked up the power. — So that was my first “unofficial” project, since the main goal was to make George happy so that he would help us out when we needed something special from the mechanics.
When I was a janitor, I had observed the electricians preparing to go to work in the morning, and often, one of them would go to the print cabinets at one end of the shop and pull out a blueprint and lay it across the worktable and study it for a while. Then they would either put it back or fold it and put it in their tool bucket and head out the door to go do a job. Now, it was my turn.
Andy Tubbs was one of the two people that played the best jokes on me when I was a janitor. Larry Burns was the other person, and he was the person I was replacing as he had moved to another plant.
Andy was the one that had taken the handle off of my push broom the moment I had my back turned so that when I turned around to grab my broom, only the broom head was on the floor, while the broom handle was across the counter by the lab, and Andy was across the other side of the room trying to act like he wasn’t paying attention, but with an expression like he had just played a darn good joke. — I actually had to go back into the bathroom I was cleaning so that I could laugh out loud. I was really impressed by Andy’s ability to play a good joke.
While I’m on the subject, shortly after I became an electrician, I was sitting in the electric shop office talking to Charles when he stopped and said, “Wait…. Listen….” We paused, waiting for something…. A few seconds later, the sound of a hoot owl came over the PA system (what we called the “Gray Phone”). Charles said, it’s an interesting coincidence that the only time the perfect sound of a hoot owl comes over the Gray Phone is when Andy Tubbs is riding in an elevator by himself or with a close friend.
I had been sent with Andy Tubbs and Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), to go to the coal yard and figure out why some circuit for the train gate was not working. Andy had pulled out the blueprints and was studying them. I came up alongside him and looked at all the blue lines running here and there with circles with letters and numbers, and what I recognized as open and closed switches….
Andy stopped and gave me a momentary lecture on the nature of electricity. It was so perfectly summed up, that for years whenever I thought about the nature of electricity, I always began with remembering what Andy told me. He said this:
“Think of electricity like water in a hose. Voltage is the water pressure. Amperage is the amount of water going through the hose. You can have the nozzle on the end of the hose shut off so that no water is coming out and then you have no amperage, but you will still have the pressure as long as it is turned on at the source so you will still have voltage.”
“In these diagrams, you just have to figure out how the water is going to get from one side to the other. These circles are things like relays or lights or motors. When the electricity makes it through them, they turn on as long as the electricity can make it all the way to the other side.”
That was it! That was my lesson in ‘lectricity. All I needed to know. The blueprints were big puzzles. I loved working puzzles. You just had to figure out how you were going to get something to run, and that meant that certain relays had to pick up to close switches that might pick up other relays to close other switches. I found that most of the electricians in the shop were good at working all sorts of puzzles.
Andy went to the cabinet and grabbed one of the Simpson multimeters and a handset for a telephone that had red and black wires wrapped around it.
I was puzzled by this at first. I thought I would just wait to see what we did with it instead of asking what it was for. We grabbed our tool buckets (which also doubled as a stool and tripled as a trash can as needed) and put them in the substation truck. The other truck was being manned by the designated electrician truck driver for that week. We needed a truck that we could drive around in without having to hold up the truck driver.
We drove to the coal yard and went into the dumper switchgear. Andy and Diane opened up a large junction box that was full of terminal blocks with wires going every which way in an orderly fashion. They located a couple of wires, and Andy unwrapped the wires from the handset while Diane removed the screws holding the wires to the terminal block. Then Andy clipped one wire from the telephone handset to each of the two wires and handed me the phone.
Diane told me that they were going to drive down toward the train gate where the railroad tracks come into the plant and try to find these wires on the other end. So, what they needed me to do was to talk on the phone so when they find my voice, they will know that they have the right wires. Diane said, “Just say anything.” Then they left the switchgear, and I could hear them drive away in the truck.
Well. This was my opportunity to just talk to no one for a while without interruption. How many times do you get to do that in one day? Probably only when you are on the way to work and back again if you aren’t carpooling with anyone. Or you’re sittin’ on your “thinkin’ chair” in a single occupant restroom. So, I just kicked into Ramblin’ Ann mode and let myself go. I believe my monologue went something like this: (for more explanation about Ramblin Ann, see the post “Ed Shiever trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“).
“The other day I was walking through a field, and who should I run across, but my old friend Fred. I said, ‘Well, Hi Fred, how is it going?’ and Fred told me that he was doing just fine, but that he had lost his cow and was wondering if I could help him look for it. I told him I couldn’t right now because I was helping some people find a wire at the moment, and if I became distracted, we might not only lose the cow, but we might lose the wires as well, so I better just keep on talking so that my friends on the other end can find the wires they are looking for. After that I went to the store, and I picked up three cans of peas. I thought about getting four cans of peas but settled on three and brought them to the checkout counter, and while I was waiting in line I noticed that the little boy in front of me with his mom was looking at me as if he wanted to have one of my cans of peas, so I quickly made it clear to him that I was buying these cans of peas for myself by sliding them further away from him and glaring at him. Luckily the boy wasn’t persistent otherwise I would have broken down and given him a can of peas because he was looking sort of hungry and I was feeling sorry for him, though, I didn’t want him to know how I was feeling, so I put on a grim expression….”
Needless to say, my monologue went on for another 15 minutes. Yes… .15 minutes. I had expected Andy and Diane to have returned earlier, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to find the other end of the wires, so I just kept on ramblin’ to the best of my ability. It’s like what it says in the Bible. If we wrote down everything I said, it would have filled many volumes. Being a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann came in handy that day.
When Andy and Diane returned, they said that they had found the wires right away, but that they had sat there for a while just listening to me ramble. They said I was cracking them up. They also mentioned that they thought I was completely crazy. Well. I was glad that they found the wires and that my rambling abilities had come in handy.
Five months after I had joined the electric shop, Andy and I were sent to Oklahoma City to learn about a new kind of electric troubleshooting. It was called “Digital Electronics”. I had just finished my electronics class at the Vo-Tech, and so I was eager to put it into practice. Andy and I went to a two-day seminar where we learned to troubleshoot what was basically a PC motherboard of 1984. We used a special tool called a digital probe and learned how the processor worked with the memory chips and the bios. It wasn’t like a motherboard is today. It was simple.
It was just designed for the class so that we could use the digital probe to follow the different leads from the chips as the electric pulses turned on and off.
At the time I was thinking that this was a waste of time. I had been learning all about troubleshooting electronic circuits from Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick. I couldn’t see how this was going to be useful. I didn’t know that within a couple of years, most of our electronic circuits in the precipitator controls were all going to be replaced with digital controls, and this was exactly what I was going to need to know.
So, Andy and I spent two days learning all the basics of how new computers were going to be working. This was the same year that Michael Dell was beginning his new computer company further down I-35 in Austin Texas. Who would have thought that 18 years later I would be working for Dell. But that’s another lifetime away…
Comments from the original post:
Early in my career at the Seminole Plant I learned when someone paged you on the gray phone, you should always check the earpiece of the phone before you put it on your ear – it might be full of clear silicone caulk (or worse). Also, at the end of the day when you reach to pick up your lunch box, you should pick it up gently. Someone could have slipped a full bottle of mercury (like 20 pounds) in it. This prevents you from pulling the handle off your lunch box or hearing it crash to the floor, smashing everything in its path. It’s amazing what Power Plant Men are capable of doing.
Plant Electrician January 19, 2013:
We used hand lotion in the electric shop for the gray phone trick. I remember Andy catching an unsuspecting operator in the main switchgear more than once.
Hand lotion is much nicer than silicone caulk!
Originally posted January 11, 2013:
Today I sit quietly in a cubicle with a group of other people on my team. We each type away throughout the day, or we are on calls in our own meetings listening to conversations where we offer input where it is necessary. I may listen to music on my computer to help me get into the rhythm of my work as I type away creating documents or sending IMs to other employees as they ask me questions throughout the day.
That was not how it was before the PC made inroads into our lives. We used to sit around and talk to each other. We did things to pass the time while we worked on tedious jobs. We talked about our families. We talked about movies and shows we had seen. We asked each other how their family was doing. Sometimes, we even sang.
I was sitting on the Precipitator Roof installing a new Rapper circuit board in the Rapper Vibrator cabinet while one of my Precipitator Mentors sat behind me making sure that I was learning the fine art of Precipitator Maintenance on one of the first actual jobs I worked on when I became an Electrician.
The day was growing long, and Sonny had taken over for me and was installing the second circuit board while I was sitting on a Tension house box where Sonny had previously been sitting. Suddenly I felt this sudden urge to burst out in song. It was not known before this moment that I was sort of a professional singer. Actually. I had grown up with a family of singers. Like the “Von Breazile Family Singers”.
My mother and my sister used to break out into song at random times throughout my childhood when a song would come over the radio on the easy listening station that was constantly on. So naturally, it would be natural for me to want to break out into song when the moment was right.
So, I just let loose singing one of my favorite songs. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t an accompaniment. I didn’t need the orchestra behind me on the radio to help me keep time. I had the orchestra playing in my mind….
I didn’t need the tuning fork that Sister Maureen used to use at Catholic School when I was a kid as she would bang it on the desk and then hum with a wavering hum until she came in tune with her tuning fork. No. The tuning fork came from years of listening to my favorite songs.
Yes. Even before the iPod was invented and the VCR had come around, there were two places where a person could hear a song over and over and over again. One place was the radio. Back in the 70’s when your favorite song was in the top 20’s you could hear it play over and over again every two hours on the radio.
So, I burst out with one of my favorite songs and started to serenade my newfound friend, Sonny Kendrick. I began quietly and worked my way up to a crescendo. The song I sang began thus: “Here’s the story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls….”
I continued with great confidence in my singing ability, knowing that I was impressing my fellow electrician with my fantastic singing ability: “all of them had hair of gold, like their mother…. the youngest one in curls!” Even louder I bellowed out: “Here’s the story of a man named Brady who was living with three boys of his own. They were four men living all together, yet they were all alone!”
Now I was in full form with my hand on my chest, standing at attention with all the full emotion I could draw out as I sang the final verse: “Till the one day when the lady met this fellow. And they knew that it was much more than a hunch, that this group must somehow form a family, That’s the way we all became the Brady bunch!”
Then as if I was playing an air guitar on stage, I was able to dramatically complete my short opera with the shaking of my head as I sang the final words: “The Brady bunch, the Brady bunch. That’s the way we became the Brady bunch bunch bunch…..” (now you know the second place where you could hear a song over and over).
Acting rather proud of my accomplishment I relieved Sonny as I was going to install the third of the four Rapper cards in the cabinet…. I began connecting the wires to the circuit board one at a time when all of the sudden I was struck with some strange form of electricity!
Had we forgotten to turn off the electrical disconnect to the 480 Volts to the cabinet? My fingers were shaking from the sudden impulse of electricity. My knees were buckling so that I stumbled back and sat against rappers behind me. I was completely stunned. I couldn’t tell if my ears were actually picking up sound or I had suddenly died and was on my way to heaven because I had just electrocuted myself in the cabinet.
My head was spinning. Thoughts entered my head like, “Great. I have just been electrocuted! I have only been an electrician for less than a month and already I have killed myself. I hope my parents and my girlfriend don’t think I suffered when I died.”
Gradually, I realized that the sounds of harps and the humming of angels were all just an accompaniment that were being added by heaven itself to the song that was emanating from Sonny Kendrick! Sonny Kendrick, while he was taking his repose while I had proceeded to install my circuit board had suddenly had a similar urge to break out into song.
Only, unlike my feeble attempt at doing justice to the Brady Bunch Song, Sonny Kendrick was singing as if God himself had come down and suddenly transformed him into an Opera Singer. I couldn’t tell if he was singing something from Wagner’s immortal Opera “The Ring” or if he was singing La Boheme by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
It didn’t matter to me. All I could do was sit there on a tension house in stunned amazement. Tears were rolling down my face. Here was a guy that people referred to as Baby Huey because of his build (I guess):
Suddenly his lower build had moved up to the chest area and Sonny Kendrick had transformed into Franklin Floyd Kendrick! The magnificent opera singer!
When my friend and sudden Opera singing hero had finished, he stepped over the conduits and went to work to add the last rapper circuit board on the rack with the other three.
Still sitting on the tension house coming to my senses. Realizing that my transformation to heaven was only a temporary visit. I asked Sonny…. “What was that?” — That was all I could think of saying. What else could I say? “Can I have your Autograph?” I suppose I could have said that. No. All I could say was, “What was that?”
Here is a picture of Sonny. He didn’t have a beard then, but he has the exact same smile today that he had that day! He gave me this exact same smile when I asked him “What was that?” Exactly!
I said, “Sonny. What are you doing here? Why are you an electrician when you have a voice like that?” He replied by telling me that he had a family and he had to provide for them, and he couldn’t do it by being a singer. So, I asked him how he became an electrician.
You see. At the time, Sonny had the distinction of being the Electrical Specialist. He was the only one. He had gone to Oklahoma State Tech in Okmulgee and received a technical degree there in electronics. This gave him the ability to become the electrical specialist at the plant.
His real dream was to become an Opera Singer. Being an electrician was something to pay the bills. His heart was in his song. Sonny has a tremendous heart. I know. I have seen and heard it beating.
There is a part of Sonny’s story that is a tragedy. Isn’t that usually true with great artists? I suppose that is where their passion for their creativity comes from. This was true with Sonny, and in the next few months, I learned more and more about the burden that had been put on Sonny’s shoulders.
Where Vincent Van Gogh had his ear. Sonny had Leroy Godfrey.
You see. One day. Sonny had said something to Leroy Godfrey to the effect that Sonny was an electrical specialist. He should be doing something more than spending all his time working on the precipitator. What his exact words were doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Leroy Godfrey had decided that day that Sonny Kendrick was to be banished to the precipitator. Never to work on anything but the precipitator.
In order to understand what this means… you have to understand the conditions someone has to work in when they work on the precipitator… First of all. No one wants to work with you, because it means working in the midst of pigeon dung, insulation, fly ash, and dust. Along with that, when the unit is online, the roof of the precipitator is one of the loudest places at the plant. Rappers and Vibrators going off constantly. Buzzing and Banging! Very hot in the summer and freezing in the winter.
As time went by, and Bill Rivers and Sonny filled in the blanks I came to understand just how burned-out Sonny Kendrick was with working on the precipitator. I could see how he literally had to drag himself to the precipitator roof to work on the cabinets or fix a transformer knife switch. He would rather be doing anything else. The precipitator had become like Van Gogh’s ear. He just wanted to cut it off.
It had occurred to me at the time that the two units had only been online for about 3 and 4 years and Sonny was already completely burned out on this job. It made perfect sense to me when I understood that this was a punishment for trying to explain something to an Old School Power Plant Supervisor. In order to understand Leroy Godfrey read the post:
A little less than two years later, Sonny Kendrick sang at my wedding. He was up in the balcony singing a list of songs that had been given to him by my mom. Bill Moler, the Evil Assistant Plant Manager who was serving as a Deacon at my wedding came in the front door dressed in his robes and ready to go into the church. I was standing there greeting people as they came in.
Bill suddenly stopped and stood still for a moment. He acted as he had just been electrocuted. Then he said, “Who is that singing? Where did you find someone with such a wonderful voice?” I proudly told him, “That’s Sonny.” Bill leaned forward and said, “Our Sonny?” I replied, “Yep. Sonny Kendrick. Our Sonny Kendrick.”
I had decided early on that I was going to do whatever I could to pull Sonny off of that Precipitator so that he could use his talents as they were meant to be used. So, every time I was asked to help out on the precipitator, I was glad to help Sonny.
Years later, when Sonny was finally able to be free of the precipitator, he went kicking and screaming, because I had turned precipitator maintenance on its head, and it was hard for Sonny to see his work all turned Topsy-turvy. I knew that like myself, Sonny had a personal relationship with his work and that when someone else was tinkering with it, it was a kind of “insult”.
I knew for Sonny it was best. It didn’t take him long to step out into the open air and take a deep breath. Once he realized it was no longer his worry, he was a much happier man. I am pleased to see that Sonny Kendrick today wears the same smile that he did that day when he had broken out in song and serenaded me on top of the Precipitator.
It means that he still has the peace that he is due. I can’t help it. I have to end this post by posting his picture again. Just look into his eyes and see his joy. I’ll bet this picture was taken just after he had finished an aria of La Traviata by Guiseppe Verdi:
In a way. Sonny’s life has been an Aria. I have been blessed to have been able to call him “Friend”.
COMMENTS FROM THE ORIGINAL POST:
The best job I ever had with OG&E was as a Results Engineer at Seminole. I helped start up all 3 units, design, purchase and install a water induction prevention system for unit 2, balance turbines, fans, etc., became “Plant Photographer”, designed all the racks and supports for turbine/generator rotors and diaphragms, ran performance tests on the boiler/turbine units, and lots of other fun stuff. But in 1975 I was promoted to “Senior Results Engineer”.
OG&E saw people with an Engineering degree as automatically anointed for management. I didn’t agree with that, but I was stuck in that culture. That promotion made me “Supervisor” of Montie Adams. I first began working with Montie (Old Power Plant Man) in 1967 at Mustang as a summer student in the Results department. (That’s where I got to know Leroy Godfrey too).
Montie had taught me a lot, had tons of knowledge and experience, and was much more qualified than I was. But he didn’t have the degree so he couldn’t even apply for the job. I never did become comfortable supervising people with more knowledge and experience than me just because I had the magic degree. From 1975 on, my job focus was no longer on the equipment used in generating electrical power, but on the people who used and maintained that equipment. I never understood how an engineering degree equipped me for that.
Plant Electrician January 12, 2013
It’s funny how cultures change over time. You described the old power plant culture perfectly.
Today in my profession, it is perfectly sensible to manage employees that have more knowledge about their work than you have. The trick is knowing that. I currently have a terrific manager that would hardly know how to do what I do. That really isn’t his job though. He relies on his people to know what they are doing. It is being a good leader that makes one a good supervisor. Not trying to find or pretend to know all the answers yourself. Somehow that was lost on the Old Power Plant Man culture.
I think that was why we were so stunned when you arrived at the plant, and you had a personality beyond “slave driver”. I know I’ll write more about this in the future, but there were a number of times where I was pleasantly surprised to find that you listened to me and even asked for my advice.