Sky Climbing in the Dark with Power Plant Boiler Rats
Originally Posted July 26, 2013:
I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes…. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was… well…. surreal.
This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.
As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.
At this time, I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.
Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.
David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.
During those times I knew that something was taking place in the “superheat” section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).
So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.
This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.
Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20-story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20-story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:
Or even a normal rat like this:
No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:
Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I don’t want to get too personal….
Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high-pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.
If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.
You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One sky climber had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that the boiler rats could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool. The nearest thing I had to a badge was the pocket protector in the vest pocket on my t-shirt.
So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats have Guardian Angels too.
Anyway, up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spotlights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.
There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.
There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.
We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.
By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six- or eight-foot world.
I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.
I took out my multi-meter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connector where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.
I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”
That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.
I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of hanging boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.
There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.
I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix their problem and be quickly on my way.
Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator, I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.
Comment from previous post:
Placed on Light Duty at the Power Plant
Originally posted July 19, 2013:
In another profession being put on light duty may mean that you don’t have to work as hard as everyone else. When an electrician is put on light duty it means something else entirely. I think I calculated the number of lights, and it was well over 10,000 light bulbs in the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma. Ideally you would think that every one of the lights should be in good working order.
Electricians don’t call a light bulb a light. The light is the fixture. The bulb is called a “lamp”. So, for the rest of this post I’ll call the light bulbs “lamps”.
You may think that it’s pretty straight forward to go change out lights (oh. I mean… lamps), but it’s not. You see, it isn’t like in your house where you have the regular light bulbs everywhere with just different shapes and wattage. Sure, there were different Watts for the different lamps, but for a good number of the lights, they varied by voltage as well.
Not only that, but these lamps were different types of lights. Most of which are not incandescent (well… now that the government has seen fit to force the lighting industry to stop making incandescent lamps altogether, I guess it wouldn’t seem odd to the younger folks).
In the office areas and places like the main switchgear 4-foot fluorescent lamps were used. Each 4-foot fluorescent lamp is 40 watts. Just because it is 40 watts, it doesn’t mean that the voltage is low. It can take up to 650 volts to start up a fluorescent lamp. A Fluorescent lamp actually has a gas in it that causes a coating on the glass to glow when a current flows across the gas.
Besides the typical fluorescent lamps, the majority of the rest of the lamps in the plant were various sizes of Mercury Vapor lamps. (Now replaced with Sodium Vapor).
Before you become all twisted about using Mercury Vapor to light up a power plant because of the environmental impact, I think I should point out that even though a fluorescent lamp is filled with an inert gas like argon, it is mixed with Mercury vapor as well, and the phosphorous coating on the glass has mercury in it also.
So, if you have fluorescent lamps in your house…. Well, there you go. And you know those lamps that are used to replace your old incandescent light bulbs….. Yep… and they have other kinds of hazardous metals as well. I suppose it is good for the environment to take those hazardous materials out of the earth and put them in lamps in your houses. Isn’t that improving the environment?
The thing about using fluorescent lamps and Mercury Vapors and Sodium Vapor lamps is that they all use different voltages. So, in order for them to start up and stay running, the voltages have to change from the start up voltage to the operating voltage. Each lamp has its own transformer designed just for that one type of lamp. It is placed in the light fixture for the lamp.
If the light glows blue, then it is mercury vapor. If it is orange, then it is a sodium light. Your streetlights are the same way. Well. Now there is also Halogen lamps which shine white.
Besides these different type lamps, we also had some super special lights. We have the flashing lights on the smokestack and the red blinking light on the top of the radio tower. The lights that flash on the smokestacks are really flashbulbs.
Our smokestacks are 500 feet tall with beacons at the 250-foot level and the 500-foot level. Not only did you have to change out the bulb, but you often had to change out the large capacitors and the circuit boards that had been fried by a passing lightning storm.
You may have heard that with the older style Television sets that had a picture tube (before the flat screen TVs came around), that you could electrocute yourself by taking the cover off the back of the TV and working on it, even though you unplugged the set from the wall before you started. A few movies used this in the plot. Robert T. Ironside even used it once in an episode during the first season.
Well. The Stack lights are like that. When we opened up the light fixture to work on the flash tube or the circuits inside the first thing you did was take a metal rod with a wooden handle and a wire attached with a clip on the end and clipped the wire to the handrail. Then turning your head away from the light, you placed the metal rod across each of the large capacitors in the box. Invariably, one of the capacitors would let out a loud pop (or should I spell that “pow!”) that would echo across the lake…. oh, and leave your ears ringing.
Once the voltage was discharged from all the capacitors, you knew it was safe to go to work fixing the light. The lights had a day and a night mode, and the difference was how many times the flash tube flashed when it discharged. What I mean to say is that it wasn’t just one flash. It is really a series of flashes closely timed to look like one flash. The number of flashes and the timing between the flashes determine how bright the flash is.
At night the flash was much dimmer because it didn’t need to be so bright. When it was stuck in the day mode at night the farmers for a 30-mile radius would be calling saying they can’t sleep because every 6 seconds their bedroom would light up as the smokestack lights would blink.
I thought I would just put that picture in there so you could see how pretty the plant looked from across the lake at sunset. To me it looked like a big ship on the horizon.
I mentioned above that there was a radio tower that had a light on it that needed to be changed when it burned out. The actual lamp looked a lot like a regular incandescent bulb in your house, but it was different. It was designed just for this job. It didn’t burn out very often. Ok. I can see your look of disbelief, so here is a picture of one:
Yeah, looks just like something in your house. Doesn’t it?
Anyway. I changed out the light at the top of our radio tower which is only about 200 feet tall. It looked like the following picture:
I had to climb to the top of this tower to replace the red flashing light. I was by myself when I did it. Bill Bennett handed me the bulb that had been specially ordered and asked me if I would do it. If not, they could call Oklahoma City and have the line crew come down and change it. I told him I could do it. The tower wasn’t that tall, and I had shimmied around the top of the smokestack before at 500 feet with only a slight urge to panic.
I changed the lamp out without incident. I know that some people have a much more interesting job changing these lights out than I had. Our radio tower was only 200 feet tall. Here is a video of someone that had to climb a tower 1768 feet high. You can see the beacon when they reach the top of this radio tower:
if your browser doesn’t play the video from the picture try this link: “Climbing a 1768 foot tower“.
Ok. That is crazy! Wouldn’t dropping someone from a helicopter onto the tower using a safety line be safer?
My last story about being on light duty at a power plant is about when Ted Riddle and I were working at the gas-fired power plant near Mustang, Oklahoma. I talked about the time that Ted and I worked at this plant in the post “Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark”
While we were there after they found out that we were electric conduit running fools, they gave us all sorts of jobs running conduit all over the plant. One job they showed us was in an area that was dark. All the lights were out in this area. The foreman explained where the light bulbs were kept. They were just the regular incandescent lights like the normal lights you would have in your house.
Well… Ted and I had both been put on Light Duty at our plant, and we knew that when we went to change out one light, we were supposed to change out all the lights that were out. So, Ted and I each grabbed a box and a ladder and headed up to the boiler enclosure to change lights.
After lunch, the foreman came running up to us yelling, “What did you do? You used up all of the light bulbs!” Well. Yes. We had used up the lights, but now when you go up on the boiler you can see where you are going. The foreman then explained to us that this little plant didn’t have the same kind of budget that the new big plants had. They couldn’t afford to just go around replacing all the lights whenever they burned out. They only put in a light when someone has to work in that area. We had lit the entire place up like a Christmas tree.
Ok. Take a note Jan… Don’t replace all the lights if they are incandescent.
Ok (again), that wasn’t quite the last story. Let me tell you some more about replacing fluorescent lamps in our Coal-fired power plant. When we were placed on Light Duty, we would grab a couple of boxes of 30 lamps from the pallet in the main switchgear and go to work.
In the main switchgear the lights were up high, so we used a 10-foot ladder with a stand on the top of it (No. I don’t mean like a Deer stand…. geez… Power Plant men…. always thinkin’ ’bout huntin’). Actually, it is called a Platform ladder:
I didn’t like using this wobbly ladder when I was by myself. besides being wobbly, the thing weighed a ton. So, I would take a smaller ladder and put it on top of the breaker cabinets and climb on top of them. The only problem here was that I couldn’t get directly under the lights, so I would end up reaching out to one side to change a light while I was standing on a ladder on top of a seven-foot cabinet. Not a pretty sight if someone safety minded walked in.
I felt safer doing this than standing way up in the air on a 10-foot wobbly platform ladder. I always had the feeling that if I sneezed, the ladder would topple over. The rule of thumb was to keep your belt buckle within the rungs on the ladder.
When we were done changing out fluorescent lamps, we usually had a stack of boxes of burned-out lamps. We couldn’t just throw them in the dumpster because they were a safety hazard as they were. We had to break each bulb. We found that we could take a box of 4-foot fluorescent lamps and back the truck over it and it would let out a low but loud boom that sounded like a cannon going off.
The ingenious electricians invented a bulb busting barrel where you slid one 4-foot bulb into a tube and then lifted a handle quickly, and it would explode the lamp in the safe confines of the metal barrel. The end of the lamp may at times come shooting out the end of the tube, so you never wanted to be standing to that side of the barrel. I would show you a picture of one, but I’ve never found another one like it.
So, if you were into breaking glass, this was the best part of being placed on Light Duty. After a hard day of changing out lamps all over the plant, you could stand around in front of the electric shop and slide the lamps down a tube like a mortar shell and pull the rod and…. Boom! A puff of Mercury Vapor released into the atmosphere a small cloud of dust…. repeat.
Comment from original post:
I remember being on “Light Duty” at the Mustang Power Plant as a summer student in 1967. We changed the 1000-watt bulbs in the top of the turbine room. It was so hot, we had to wear gloves.
Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out
Originally Posted July 12, 2013:
All safe electricians worth their salt know about OSHA regulation 1910.147(c)(3). Only Power Plant electricians have learned more about OSHA regulation 1910.147(a)(1)(ii)(C). Section 147 has to do with locking out and tagging a power source in order to protect the employees working on the circuit. 147(a)(1)(ii) says that Power plants are exempt from section 147. In other words, if you are working in a power plant it is all right to have a less stringent lock-out/tag-out procedure in place than if you didn’t work in a power plant. Which means, you can be less safe when working in a power plant and that’s ok.
One of the first things I learned from Charles Foster, my foreman when I became an electrician was how to remove the “heaters” from a breaker relay in order to protect myself from an “unauthorized” operation of the breaker. That means…. in case someone accidentally turned on the breaker and started up the motor or whatever else I was working on. “Heaters” are what we called the overloads that trip a 480-volt breaker when the circuit uses more power than it is supposed to be using. They are called heaters, because they literally “heat up” in order to trip the breaker.
Charles Foster told me the following story about my bucket buddy Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien):
Dee was wiring up a sump pump at the bottom of the coal dumper. The motor had been taken out while the pump had been repaired. Once back in place Dee was sent to wire it back up. The proper clearance had been taken to work on the motor. That is, she had gone to the Shift Supervisor’s office in the Control Room to request a clearance on the motor. Then later she had witnessed the operator opening the 480-volt breaker and place the clearance tag on the breaker.
The tag is signed by the Shift Supervisor and is only to be removed by an operator sent by the Shift Supervisor. It is placed through a slot in the handle on the breaker that keeps the breaker from closing unless the tag is removed first…. well… that’s the theory anyway.
Dee had just finished hooking the three leads in the junction box together with the cable coming into the box using two wrenches. She reached down into her tool bucket that she was using as her stool to get some rubber tape to begin wrapping the connections. The three bare connections were sticking out in front of her face.
The Junction box is the box on the right side of this motor. At this point the cover would be off, and the wires would be sticking straight out. As she reached into the bucket, the motor turned on and began running.
Startled, Dee stopped what she was doing. I suppose she also pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose she checked her diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose she may have said a few choice words whether anyone was around to hear them or not. Maybe not all in that order.
For those of you who don’t realize what this meant. It meant that if the motor had started running about 5 to 10 seconds Later, Dee would have been holding the bare end of the cables. Someone, sometime later may have made their way down to the west end of the dumper sump only to find one charred Diana Lucas (who never would have later become Diana Brien). They might not have recognized her at first. I can assure you. It wouldn’t have been pretty.
You see… someone had removed the Hold Tag and purposely started up the motor totally disregarding the clearance. I won’t mention any names, but his initials were Jerry Osborn.
So, after Charles told me this story, he showed me what to do to prevent this from ever happening to me.
Charles and I went to the Shift Supervisor’s office to take a clearance on a motor. Then we followed the operator to the breaker and watched him open the breaker and put the tag on the handle. Then we signed something, and the operator left.
After the operator left, Charles told me to open the breaker and slip the hold tag through the slot in the door so that the door could open without removing the tag. I followed his directions.
Once the door was open, he told me to remove the three heaters on the bottom of the relay and hide them at the bottom of the breaker box.
You see… with the heaters removed, even if someone were to close the breaker and try to start the motor, the electricity would never leave the breaker box because I had just created an open circuit between the relay and the wires going to the motor.
Well… If you don’t learn from history, you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and start talking about making it illegal to own guns.
Anyway, there is always a chance for something to go wrong. The Peter Principle demands it. So, at one point, someone forgot to replace the heaters in the relay before returning their clearance. When the motor was tested for rotation, it didn’t work. At that point the electrician knew that they had forgotten to re-insert the heaters. So, they had to return to the breaker to install the heaters before the motor would run.
This didn’t set well with the Shift Supervisor, who has supreme power at the power plant…. well… besides the janitor who had total control over the toilet paper supply. I’ll leave that to you to decide who has more power.
Technically we were not going around the hold tag by removing the heaters because they were downstream from the breaker handle which cut off the power to the relay. The Shift Supervisor on the other hand believed that the hold tag included everything in the breaker box, including the relay and heaters (which really was stretching it).
An argument ensued that pitted the shift supervisors and the supervisor of operations, Ted Holdges (sp?) with the electricians. Ted argued that we should not be removing the heaters to keep ourselves from becoming electrocuted accidentally when someone inadvertently removes a hold tag and turns the breaker on and starts up a motor. Electricians on the other hand argued that if we were going to be exposed to the possibility of being electrocuted, we would rather not work on any circuit. Without being completely assured that we would not occasionally be blown to pieces when someone or something accidentally caused the circuit to become hot, we concluded it wasn’t worth it.
So, a compromise was reached. We could remove the heaters, but they had to be put in a plastic bag and attached to the hold tag on the outside of the breaker. That way, when the clearance was returned, not only were the heaters readily available, but the operator would know to contact the electrician to re-install the heaters. The electricians didn’t really like this alternative, but we agreed. We were assured that there wasn’t any way that a breaker was going to be turned on and operated with the heaters in them when someone was actually working on a circuit.
Fast forward three years. 1992.
Bill Ennis and Ted Riddle were working on replacing a large electric junction box on the stack out tower. The Stack Out Tower is the tower that pours the coal out on the coal pile. Halfway up this tower there is a large junction box where most of the electric cables passed through going to the top of the tower. Bill Ennis had taken a clearance on a number of motor and control breakers.
Bill returned from lunch one day to work on the junction box, removing the old cables. Putting new lugs on them and placing them in the new junction box. As he began working, he decided to take out his multimeter and check the wires he was about to work on….
Bill was surprised to find that one set of cables were hot. They had 480 volts on them. Everything in this box should have been dead. I suppose he pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose he checked his diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose he said a few choice words that Ted may have heard if he was standing close by. Maybe not all in that order.
What had happened was that there had been two clearances on this one particular motor. One of the electricians had returned his clearance, and had installed the heaters that were in the plastic bag on the front of the breaker and the motor had been tested for rotation and put back in service. The operator had taken both clearances off of the breaker by mistake. So, when the electrician arrived at the motor to test it, there were no hold tags on the breaker.
Ok. It was time for another meeting. Something had gone wrong. If it had not been for the guardian angels of both Diana Brien and Bill Ennis, at this point we would have had at least two dead electricians, and believe me…. I know that when an operator had later climbed the stack out tower to check the equipment, if he had run across the body of Bill Ennis… it definitely wouldn’t have been pretty (even on a good day).
I attended this meeting with Ted Holdges as did most of the electricians. I began by telling Ted that when we had met three years earlier I was newly married and wouldn’t have minded so much if I was killed by being electrocuted because I was young and only had a wife who knew how to take care of herself. But now it was different. I had a little girl at home and I need to be around to help her grow up.
Ted looked surprised by my remark. I had just told him the way I felt about this whole situation. The argument that we were making was that we should be able to place locks on the breakers just like OSHA demanded from the other industries. We had demonstrated that we didn’t have a system that would protect us from human error. We needed something that definitely kept us safe.
We told Ted that even if we had locks, and for some reason the breaker just had to be closed and the electrician had forgotten to remove his lock, the shift supervisor could keep a master key in his office to remove the lock. He finally agreed. His problem was a loss of control. The thought was that the Shift Supervisor had ultimate power.
If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and talk about socialized healthcare and how it destroys all concepts of quality and privacy.
So, as electricians, we weren’t really happy with this situation. We had a secret weapon against human error. Sure we would place a lock on the breaker. But after the operator would leave, before we placed our lock on the breaker, we might just open up the breaker box and remove the entire face off of the relay. It was similar to removing the heaters only it was bigger. It completely opened the circuit no matter what.
I hadn’t really planned on talking about this next story for a couple more years, but I’ll tell it now because it fits with this story.
In the month of May, 2001. I had already given my notice to leave the plant to work for Dell as a software developer. I was asked to work on a job with my old bucket buddy Diana Brien (I don’t mean old as in Diana Brien was old. I mean old in that she had been my bucket buddy years before).
The Shift Supervisor explained to us that the problem was that there was a grounded three phase circuit up on the Surge Bin tower. It had been tracked down to the dust collectors located below the surge bin conveyor floor.
Dee and I walked up to the Gravimetric feeder deck to look at the breaker to make sure it was turned off. It had a Danger tag on it that had been placed by the Shift Supervisor.
The breaker was open and the message on the tag said “Do not close this breaker. The circuit is grounded”.
Ok. We walked up to the surge bin tower through the counter weight room for belts 18 and 19. We opened up the big junction box that fed the power to the two large dust collector motors on the landing behind us. By big, I mean about 3-foot by 3-foot box. After taking the cover off of the box, I took out my multimeter and checked the circuit.
The big copper bus was dead (that means, there was no electricity present).
So, Dee and I worked on locating the grounded circuit. I had just removed the cover to the junction box on one of the motors while Dee was removing some wires from the control panel when Larry Tapp arrived on the landing through the same route we had taken from the gravimetric feeder deck.
Larry asked us what we were doing. We told him we were tracking down the ground on the Dust Collectors. Larry looked surprised.
You see… Larry explained that he had just come from the Gravimetric feeder deck where he had just closed the breaker for the dust collectors. This particular breaker didn’t have a relay, as it was controlled by the control panel where Dee had been working.
So, I rechecked the copper bus with my multimeter and now it was hot. 480-volts hot.
I had just been looking through my tool bucket for two wrenches to remove a piece of the bus work just to make sure the ground wasn’t in the box itself when Larry had arrived. In other words, if Larry had arrived 5 to 10 seconds later, he would have probably arrived to find Dee looking down at my body, stunned that I had just been electrocuted by a circuit that we had just tested and found dead (and I can assure you. It would not have been pretty, though Diana would have inherited my nice new multimeter).
If you don’t learn by history, you are bound to repeat it.
You see… there is a difference between a Hold Tag and a Danger Tag. A hold tag is placed on a breaker after someone has requested a clearance by signing a form in the Shift Supervisor’s office in the control room. A Danger tag can be placed and removed at anytime by the person that placed the tag on the breaker.
So, I personally wrote this up as a “near” accident. We could have wiped our brow, pinched ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming. We could have checked our diaper to make sure it was still dry and then Dee could have said a few choice words that Larry Tapp would have agreed with (I have always had a mental block against expressing myself in that manner…. I found other ways). And we could have left this incident as a secret between Larry, Dee and I.
I thought it was a good time to remind the electricians throughout power production to follow the clearance procedures when working on high voltage circuits. Sure. Dee, Bill Ennis and I have powerful guardian Angels looking out for us…. but gee… I think we should be expected to look out for ourselves. So, I wrote up this incident to warn the rest of the team….. If we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.
I met with my roomie Steven Trammell, a month and a half later in Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma to discuss his performance plan. I was a 360-Degree Assessment Counselor and my favorite roommate from 17 years earlier had chosen me to review his performance appraisal. During this meeting I asked Steven, who had driven from Harrah, Oklahoma from another power plant to meet with me, if he had read the near accident report about the dust collector at our plant.
My roomie told me that he had, and that he thought it seemed to unduly blame the electrician. I told him I was the electrician and that I wrote the report. After 18 years of being an electrician, I had become so relaxed in my job that I had become dangerous to myself and others. So, after I did a cause-effect analysis of the near accident, most of the cause had come from my own belief that I could circumvent clearance procedures and save time and still believe that I was being safe.
On my drive back to the plant after the meeting with my favorite roomie of all time, I had time to think about this…. I was going to be leaving the power plant in a little over a month to work for Dell as a programmer. I knew this when I had been negligent with the Danger tag. I could have caused the death of both Dee and I. I will sure be glad to be in Texas. — Only.. I will miss my friends most of all.
I leave the Power Plant with this one thought…. If you don’t learn from history, you are bound to repeat it. I mean it… This time I really do.
Adding an additional note: (5/13/2023).
My latest search on Bill Ennis shows that he is still alive in Perry Oklahoma. I was sad to learn that his wife Lequita Roselle Ennis died this past February 23, 2023. My prayers are for Bill and his family.
Comments from the previous posts:
This is a great story. I thank God for His guardian angels and I thank you for taking responsibility. It was always difficult investigating accidents because people are a little reluctant to share their mistakes with the world. But a wise man knows it’s better to have a bruised ego than a fried friend.
- As an old time operator and having followed in my fathers footsteps as a Shift Supervisor, The answer to all of these problems to add steps to the clearance procedure to make sure the heaters were removed and then replaced. The second was definitely an operator error, and I agree with you about it, The Shift supervisors did argue for it however the hubris of certain power hungry people managed to intimidate and control the situation. You do not ever work on equipment without your own clearance or a plan that includes the SS, as you mentioned He is the operating authority, or was until a person by the initials of Jim Arnold rewrote the procedures and made himself the Authority.
Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark
Originally posted on July 6, 2013:
Ted Riddle and I were working for an “Acting” foreman named Willard Stark during an overhaul at the plant outside Mustang, Oklahoma the spring of ’86. Willard seemed much older than he was. I would have guessed he was in his late 60’s or early 70’s, but it turned out he was only in his mid to lower 50’s. I found out why he had aged as the overhaul unfolded.
I heard some slight grumblings from a few in the shop when Bill Bennett told me that I was going to the plant near Mustang, Oklahoma that spring. I suppose it was because since I had become an electrician in the Fall of 1983, this was already going to be my third overhaul away from our plant, and all of them ended up being major overhauls.
The reason others were grumbling about this was because when you were able to go on an extended overhaul at another plant, it meant that you were going to earn not only a lot of extra overtime, but you also received travel time, mileage and a per diem (a daily amount of money for expenses). I believe at the time the Per Diem rate was $32.00 each day. This was supposed to pay for your hotel room and your meals while you were away from your family. We lived in trailers to cut down on costs.
Others believed that I had received more than my share of the piece of this pie. I had been sent on every available overhaul since just before I had reached my first year as an electrician. So, by this time, most people would have saved up quite a sum of money. I, however, was making around $7.50 my first year, and by the time 1986 had rolled around, I was still making just under $10.00 an hour. So, overtime amounted to $14.50 an hour.
When you compared this to the first class electricians that were making around $19.00 an hour at the time, they would have been making $28.50 an hour overtime. This was about twice what I was making. So, I was a cheap date.
On December 21, 1985 I had been married (the day following my last day at Horseshoe Lake overhaul — see the post: A Slap in the Face at a Gas-Fired Power Plant), and I had used every cent I had in the world to pay for our honeymoon. I was even relying on paychecks I was receiving while I was away to finish paying for it.
So, it helped to come back and find that we were on a major overhaul at our plant on Unit 1 doing the 5 year checkout. Then finding that I was going to a major overhaul at the plant in Mustang, Oklahoma where I could live with my wife in her apartment in Oklahoma City while she finished her last semester to obtain her nursing degree from Oklahoma University. I went on the overhaul with Ted Riddle.
Ted was hired into the electric shop the previous summer. He wasn’t on my crew so I hadn’t worked much with him. He was a farmer that had an electric background. He was a bigger man than I was and had a good sense of humor. He had a steady temper and didn’t let much bother him. He would laugh at things that might bother others.
This morning I as I was revising this story, I wondered, “Whatever happened to Ted.” Usually I find the answer by looking in obituaries, but to my surprise, this is what I found:
It turned out that Ted and his wife had written a book called “No Lookin’ Back” A “True-To-Life Western Story”. Check this out, here is a story in the Tonkawa News: https://www.tonkawanews.com/news/ted-and-linda-riddle-write-western-story
I appreciated working with Ted, because his steady mood helped to teach me that blowing my top about little things did little to help the situation. So, for this overhaul, I decided that I would try to emulate Ted Riddle by keeping up with his easy-going-ness (I know…. the dictionary couldn’t find that one).
Bob Kennedy was on this overhaul as well. He had been my acting foreman during the overhaul at Horseshoe Lake. I had described our relationship in the post: “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“. I was glad to be working with Bob again. As I mentioned, Willard Stark was our acting foreman during this overhaul.
For those that don’t know…. an acting foreman is someone that normally isn’t a foreman but is appointed to lead a crew for a particular job. These men usually are the best foremen to work for, because they haven’t attended any official “manager training”. This usually made them better foremen, as the manager training had a tendency to destroy one’s character and moral integrity. — I never could figure that one out. Some people came back unscathed, but others came back with PTMD (Post-Training Manager Disorder).
The plant at Mustang was the smallest gas-fired power plant that had people permanently working there. It had some smaller units that they wouldn’t run when the newer larger units weren’t running because the water treatment plant (that creates the boiler water) used more power than the small units could generate. — That amazed me. So, while we were there, I don’t think any of the units were running so they didn’t have to run the water treatment plant.
Willard Stark had spent a good portion of his life working at the plant and had a lot of stories about the plant manager and assistant manager at our plant. He had been an electrician when Bill Moler had first come to the plant as a new green electrician like me. I enjoyed sitting during lunch in Mark Thomas’s electric lab as Willard told us stories. Bill Moler, by the way was the current Assistant Plant Manager at our plant.
Willard had an incredible memory. He could remember what he was doing on any specific day decades before. We would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio during lunch, and whenever Paul would say, “….noon news and comment.” Willard would always finish the sentence by saying “…mostly comment.” I had spent a good part of my childhood listening to Paul Harvey on the radio because when I was young, we always had a radio playing in the house and the car. So, Paul Harvey’s voice was always a comfort to me. I was saddened a few years ago when he passed away.
Working with Ted Riddle cracked me up. He would notice things that I was totally oblivious to (yeah. I see it. A preposition at the end of a sentence). For instance, one day while we were working, Ted asked me if I ever noticed how Bob Kennedy drinks water out of his jar. I told him I hadn’t noticed.
You see, Bob had this jar that looked like a pickle jar that he brought to work each day filled with water. During lunch, he would drink out of this jar. Ted said, “Watch Bob during lunch today. Tell me what you think.” So as I was sitting next to Bob during lunch listening to Paul Harvey, and Willard Stark telling us what he did on any particular date in the past that Paul Harvey might mention, I kept one eye on Bob, which made me look a little like Marty Feldman.
As Bob lifted his jar to his mouth I watched as he began to drink. I immediately knew what Ted had wanted me to see. As Bob took a drink, he slowly tilted the jar up until the water reached his mouth. As the jar was being tilted, Bob’s upper lip would reach way into the jar as far as it could, quivering in anticipation of a cool drink of fresh water. The upper lip of a camel came to my mind.
With all my might, I struggled to keep a straight face as I turned my head slowly to look over at Ted who had a grin from ear-to-ear….. ok. I’ll show you the picture of Andy Griffith again that I included in my post from last week, just so you can see what I saw when I looked over at Ted:
I think I almost choked on my ham sandwich as I swallowed while trying to keep my composure.
Another day while Ted and I were cleaning ignitors on the shop work bench Ted asked me if I had noticed what Randy Oxley and Jimmy Armafio were working on. I told him I hadn’t noticed. Ted said that if he’s not mistaken Randy Oxley has been coming into the shop all morning with the same piece of conduit. He bends it, then cuts a little off the end and re-threads it.
I don’t have a picture of Randy, but here is one of Jimmy:
So, the next time Randy came into the shop I noticed he had a piece of one-and-a-half-inch conduit in his hand. It was about 3 1/2 feet long and had a couple of bends in it. Randy hooked the conduit up in the large conduit bender and using his measuring tape carefully lined it up as Armafio stood back and watched. He bent the conduit a little, then put it in the bandsaw and cut off a few inches. Then he put it in the vice on the work bench and proceeded to thread the end of the conduit.
Then Jimmy and Randy left. Ted said that if he wasn’t mistaken, that’s the same piece of conduit Randy has been working on all morning. So, as we continued the boring job of cleaning the 30 or so ignitors piled on our workbench, I told Ted about the time I was at the plant at Horseshoe Lake and Randy had told a Mechanical A foreman Joe Balkenbush (I think his first name was Joe), who was Randy’s uncle on his mom’s side, that Randy was the best electrician at the plant at Mustang, only he was the only one that knew it.
I mentioned this meeting and the reason for it in the post: “Bobbin Along with Bob Kennedy” (See the link above). Sure enough, a little while later, Randy came back to the shop with the same piece of conduit and performed the same procedure of bending, cutting and threading and scadoodling.
A little while later the electrical B foremen came out into the shop (I can’t remember his name for the life of me… I can see his face – maybe something Campbell), and asked us if we knew how to run conduit. We assured him that we did. I had been thoroughly trained by Gene Roget and Ted, well, as it turned out, Ted was a crackerjack conduit hand.
The foremen took us up onto the boiler and asked us if we could run some conduit from one place to another. He sounded apologetic when he asked if that would be all right. We assured him it was no problem. We would get right on it.
On the way back to the shop, as we were coming down from the boiler, Ted tapped my shoulder and pointed down to the bottom of a light fixture. He said, “Hey! Isn’t that the piece of conduit that Randy has been working on all morning?” Sure enough. There it was. He finally bent it and cut it to fit! Well… The rest of this part of the story is that instead of running back and forth to the shop to bend and cut and thread conduit, Ted and I grabbed a conduit stand, and the appropriate tools and hauled them up on the boiler.
We carried about 40 foot of conduit up there and began bending, cutting and threading and mounting the conduit. We finished just before lunch. As I mentioned above, Ted was a heck of a conduit person. He knew exactly what he was doing. We carried all the equipment back to the shop.
After lunch Ted and I went back to cleaning ignitors. The foreman saw us out of the window of the office and came out and asked us why we weren’t working on the conduit. When we told him we were done, he had a look of disbelief. He left the shop (to go check out our work). Ted and I smiled at each other.
A little while later the foreman returned with the electric supervisor. The electric supervisor asked us if we wouldn’t mind working on some more jobs to run conduit. Ted told him that we were there to do whatever they needed. I nodded in agreement. I guess they were asking so politely because this wasn’t a normal “overhaul” type job to just work on odd jobs. But to us, it didn’t matter, as long as we were “helpin’ the team”.
During the rest of the overhaul, we worked to repair broken conduit, pull wire and install new conduit where needed. Mark Thomas, the electric specialist, that was about my age, asked if he could use us to pull and mount some new controls. He said he wouldn’t let the others in the shop touch it because he would just have to follow through behind them and redo it when they were done. So, we did that also.
We did get in trouble one day when we went to install some conduit over a control room just off of the T-G floor. We noticed that all of the lights were out except a couple, so we found a couple of large boxes of light bulbs and replaced the burned out bulbs. The Electric Foreman came running up to us a little while later and said, “What are you trying to do? Run us out of business?”
With looks on our faces that conveyed that we didn’t understand what he meant, he explained that in small plants like this one, they don’t have a budget like the bigger plants. They can’t afford to keep the lights burning all over the plant all the time. So, we were only supposed to replace lights in the immediate area where we had to work. Now the foreman had to figure out where he was going to find the money to buy another box of light bulbs. — These were incandescent bulbs that don’t have a long life span.
I had mentioned in an earlier post called Resistance in a Coal-fire Power Plant that Bill Rivers had been given a bum deal when another person had accused him of cutting off the leads of electronic components so that no one could check them to see if they were really bad (which doesn’t make any sense given that you could still check them no matter how short the leads are). Well, I found that the same situation had existed in this plant.
There was this one guy that sat in the electric shop Lab (not the same electric shop lab where Willard and Mark Thomas hung out), working on Gray Phones all day. Ted had asked me if I had noticed how many gray phone boxes were missing gray phones (gray phones are the PA system in a plant. You could go to any one of them and page someone).
Ted would point to empty gray phone boxes as we walked through the plant. He told me that they have one electrician that doesn’t do anything else but sit in the electric lab working on gray phones. That is all he does. When we asked Willard about it, he told us this story.
Mark Thomas used to work on all the gray phones, and kept them all running in good working order. When Mark worked on a gray phone, sometimes to make sure it is working, he would page himself. Just to make sure that part worked. I understood this. When I was working on gray phones with Bill Rivers, he would page me, or I would page him, just to test it.
If you were working by yourself, it would make sense that you would page yourself instead of bugging someone else several times a day while you went from one gray phone to the next. Anyway, people accused Mark Thomas of trying to make himself more important by making others think that he was being paged all the time by paging himself.
Now, anyone with any sense would know how lame of an idea that is. I mean, anyone would recognize Mark Thomas’s voice. The plant wasn’t that big. There weren’t that many people working there. Everyone knew everyone else. Mark was obviously just working on gray phones.
So, after the foreman accused him of trying to promote his self importance by paging himself several times a day, Mark said, “Fine! Let someone else work on the gray phones!” Mark was by far the most intelligent person at the plant. He obviously didn’t need to artificially promote his reputation by making a fool of himself.
So, they gave the job of gray phone maintenance to someone that didn’t understand electronics. They even bought an expensive gray phone test set to help him out. So each day he would sit in the lab smoking his pipe staring at an ever-growing pile of gray phones. At one point, Ted and I offered to fix them all for him. He said, “That’s ok. It keeps me in the air conditioning. “Oh! An ulterior motive!”
I know in later times; Mark Thomas went on to greater successes within the company. I believe that Willard stayed around until there was a downsizing and he was able to early retire. I mentioned at the beginning that Willard looked a lot older than he really was. Willard brought this to my attention. He showed me a picture of himself a few years earlier. It was of him standing by a car wearing a suit.
He reminded me of an actor from an old movie, though, I can’t remember the actor’s name at the moment. Willard said that in the past few years he aged rapidly. It happened when the previous foreman had retired. Willard had seniority in the shop and had been at the plant most of his life. He knew what he was doing, and had filled in as foreman many times. He really expected to become the foreman.
Nevertheless, they gave the job to someone from somewhere else who didn’t know the plant, or even much about being a foreman. This upset Willard so much that he said he just gave up. He said the stress from that experience aged him. Mark Thomas nodded his head in agreement.
Mark had his own encounter with this attitude when he decided to retreat to his lab off and away from the electric shop. Willard and Mark, the two electricians that really knew what they were doing at the plant had sequestered themselves in their own hideaway where they would sit each day listening to Paul Harvey at lunch and biding their time until the next phase of their life came around.
Comments from Previous post
I was a summer student at Mustang in 1967, 1968, and 1969. I remember Willard Stark as a happy guy in the Electric Shop (big smile) and fun to be around.
The two older units at Mustang were around 50 MW each. They generated plenty of power to run the water plant. The reason they were not run much was because they were non-reheat units (900 psi, 900 F) with a very high “heat-rate” (very inefficient). If I remember right, they ran about 15,500 BTU/KW. Units 3 and 4 were around 10,500 – 11,000 BTU/KW. And it seems like the “modern” units (2400 psi, 1000F/1000F) at Seminole, Sooner and Muskogee ran a little over 9,000 BTU/KW.
Promotions were always problematic with “help” coming from OKC Corporate Headquarters Human Resources experts. I am told that those who choose Plant Managers following the 1994 down-sizing were not even in Power Production or Generation Services, had never done a performance appraisal of a Plant Manager and made personnel decisions based on hearsay. I was tempted to “hideout” and retreat, but I decided to not go there. Instead I let OG&E pay for my next adventure (added “Instrument Rating” to my pilot’s license) and had a great time!
they revamped the two old units back in 2000 with the philosophy that they are only going to run two years. Well, here we are in 2013 and those two old units (60+years old) are still running today. They were put on two weeks ago and will run as long as it is hot. I must say I miss the old guys, maybe because since they are gone, I am the old guy!!
A.D. Everard August 3, 2014
You tell a wonderful story and keep the reader spellbound. I love this sort of inside information!
Coming to your blog has given me the same rush of excitement I get when I’m researching something and find a gem! Now I want to write about boiler rats! 🙂