Category Archives: Adventure

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.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

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).

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

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:

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Or even a normal rat like this:

Normal looking rat

Normal looking rat

No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:

rat from kootation

rat picture taken from kootation.com

Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’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.

A sky climber

A sky climber

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 had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they 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.

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 do 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 spot lights 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 multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect 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 raised 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 there 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:

  1. 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! 🙂

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Not a Fan of French Power Plant Fan Filters

Originally posted August 2, 2013:

I had only been an electrician a couple of months before I heard about Power Plant Louvers. My first thought was that this was a mispronunciation of the word “Louvre”. I remembered how Marland McDaniel would pronounce the word “Italian”. He pronounced it “It-lee-un”. The first time he said that I asked him what he had said, and he said, “So, You’re an It Lee Un Huh? An It-Lee-Un from It-Lee. Meaning “An Italian from Italy”.

So, when I heard the word Louver, I immediately said to myself “ok. They are probably trying to say the word “Louvre” (pronounced “Loove” which rhymes with “move”). Why shouldn’t they be trying to say the name of the most famous museum in the world. After all. When Sonny Karcher wanted to say there were a lot of things, he would say that there were “boo-coos” of them, When I asked him what “Boo-coos” meant he explained that it was French for “A lot”. Then I understood that he was mispronouncing the word “Beau-coup” (pronounced: “Bo Coo”). I suspected that everyone knew about the Louvre in Paris, France. I had first visited the Louvre in 1974 when I was 13 with my father on our way from Rome to Liverpool which I mentioned in the post “Power Plant Snitch“.

The Louvre in Paris France.  The home of the Mona Lisa and the Venus De-Milo.

The Louvre in Paris France. The home of the Mona Lisa and the Venus De-Milo.

It didn’t surprise me that they may have named a motor after the Louvre (as we were told to go replace a Louver Motor when we were doing filters). I half expected it. I figured it was somewhere up in the Tripper Gallery which is where the coal feeds into the coal silos above the bowl mills. I explained about the Tripper Gallery in the post “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“. I have expected to see painting lining the walls when I first entered the Tripper Gallery.

So. I mentioned that we were supposed to replace a Louver Motor while we were “Doing Filters”. As a new electrician (which in my head an electrician was a vision of “elitism” going about the plant fixing electric circuits and running conduit and pulling wire), I soon learned from my foreman Charles Foster that as an electrician we were responsible for anything that had a wire going to it. That meant… well. Just about anything, one way or another. From water fountains, to elevators, to air filters.

Air Filters? Really? Not that I minded changing out air filters. It was just the connection to being an electrician that was confusing me. Ok. I could understand the filters that were on motors. Since motors were something we worked on all the time. It was the air handling filters that I was having a trouble connecting. Needless to say. within a few months my expectations of what an “electrician” meant was much more down to earth.

Even though we were the “elite” group of magical maintenance men (and woman), we were also the team that was looked to for all sorts of other tasks that was too involved for the labor crew, and too vague to fit under Mechanical Maintenance, because somewhere, there was a wire attached. God forbid if a labor crew hand was electrocuted while changing out a bank of paper air filters. — Ok. It’s not like me to complain… — or maybe in my old age, it is becoming more common… I’m not sure.

So. In most houses there are two types of filters. There is what I would call a “Paper Filter”, and there is a “Metal Filter”. The paper filter is found in the air conditioner intake. You probably don’t change it out as often as you should, but you know what I’m talking about. The metal filter is probably over your stove in your oven vent. — Oh…. You didn’t think about that one? Better go clean it then….

The Power Plant is the same. There are both paper filters and metal filters, and things we would call “Bag Filters”. — Oh.. yes. and coffee filters… but I’m not going to talk about Coffee filters in this post other than to say that, “yes. We did have coffee filters also.”

Power Plant Coffee Maker Coffee Filter

Power Plant Coffee Maker Coffee Filter

Ok. A short side story… The person that was appointed to drive the truck was responsible for making sure the coffee maker was ready to go by break time. Only, when I was the designated truck driver I told everyone that I was not going to make the coffee. My reason was that I don’t drink coffee, and I wouldn’t know how to make a good cup of coffee and they could be sure that if I made it, it was going to be as thick as syrup. — The rest of the Electric shop agreed that it would not be a good idea for me to make their coffee, so either Andy or Dee made the coffee when I was on Truck Driver Duty. — End of side story.

So, when we were placed on Filter Duty… That meant that we went around the plant and changed out filters for air handlers, and we cleaned and coated the metal filters that were used on motors. This task took about a week. “A week?” you say? Yep. I don’t remember the exact numbers, though at one point in my career I had counted everyone of the them just to amuse my self… but just one air handler for the main switchgear had about 50 large paper filters and if I remember correctly had another 50 bag filters behind them.

Industrial Paper Air Handling Unit Filter

Industrial Paper Air Handling Unit Filter. They kind of look like Modern Art I suppose

Here is the bag filters that usually were attached to the back side of the paper filters:

Industrial Air Handler Bag Filter

Industrial Air Handler Bag Filter. Except ours weren’t pink and they weren’t on a beach.

First we had to remove the old filters that were often crawling with various kinds of flying insects that had been stuck to the filters since they flew too close and were sucked onto the filter. Then we installed the new filters in their place on a wall made of a large metal frame designed specifically for these filters. I think the reason they have a picture of the beach with this bag filter is because usually when you are trying to fit the bag filter into the basket you often thought that you would rather be at the beach than doing this task.

So. In the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were a set of very large motors that spun the large fans that blew air into the boiler and that blew the exhaust up the smoke stack. Each of these motors (and we have two of each kind), had a set of large metal filters on them. You had to remove a large panel bolted to the side of the motors to remove the filters. — The motors were almost always running when this was being done. After all. We can’t stop lighting Oklahoma City just because it’s time to clean the motor filters on the fans on the boilers….

The metal filters reminded me of the filters over the stove when i was a cook at Sirloin Stockade. We would have to take them out each night and run them through the dishwasher after all the dishes had been washed after closing. Then the dishwasher was put in a self-cleaning mode to clean out all the gunk from the filters.

Galvanized, Stainless Steel Framed Air Filter used in large motors.  This is a about 2 feet by 2 feet square.

Galvanized, Stainless Steel Framed Air Filter used in large motors. ours is a about 2-1/2 feet by 2 feet in the largest motors.

Then we had pump motors around the plant and down at the river that had smaller versions of these metal filters. Each of these metal filters were taken to the shop where we used a high pressure washer (one that would take the paint off of your car), and we would disintegrate the bugs that were stuck to these filters using the high pressure washer until the filters were cleaned. Then after letting them dry, we would coat them with a “filter coat” that would collect dust so that we wouldn’t have to wait too long before they were dirty again.

Well. There were some that didn’t like using the filter coat. Especially if they thought they might have to be cleaning the same filters themselves the next time. This happened when we decided to split the Filter Duty up between teams once. We decided that one team was going to be responsible for Unit 1 and the other team was going to be responsible for Unit 2, and we split up the air filters so that they were pretty evenly divided.

When we did this, an incredible thing happened. Each time we had to clean our filters, they were really dirty. Half the time the other team cleaned their filters they were not very dirty. It was obvious what was happening…. someone wasn’t using the filter coat. We all knew that it was “Ain’t My Mota” (translated “not my motor) Michael Rose. There was nothing anyone could really do about it. His foreman tried and tried to reform him, but there was really only one cure.

Talking about “Ain’t My Mota” Michael reminds me of one guy that was on our crew, Gary Wehunt. It wasn’t that he cut corners. It’s just that he always wanted to do the easiest jobs first and work his way up to the worse jobs. I was the other way around. I always wanted to get the tough jobs over with right away, and then cruise on down to the easier jobs.

So, when I was working with Dee (Diana Brien) cleaning motor filters, we would start with the bowl mill motors and then work our way over to the big fan motors. Then we would end up down at the river cleaning the river pump motor filters. When I was working with Gary, he always wanted to go straight to the river pumps. I always had the feeling that he thought that there might be a chance that by the time the Bowl Mill motors (which were always caked with Coal Dust) he would be called off to go work on an air conditioner instead. To each their own.

So. What is a Louver? I guess I forgot to mention that. A Louver is the metal flap that opens to let the air in. When the air handler is off, the louver closes. Before it starts up, the Louver opens so the air can pass through the filters. It is like a set of blinds on a window. The Louver Motor opens and closes the Louvers:

Large Metal Louvers for an Industrial Air Handler

Large Metal Louvers for an Industrial Air Handler

Today I am not able to change out the filter for my air conditioner in my house without having a flashback to the time I spent replacing filters at the plant covered with dirt, coal dust, fly ash and bugs. I had reminded myself often early on after I joined the electric shop as an electrician what Charles Foster had told me when i was still a janitor.

In my new job I sit in a clean office area with people sitting all around typing away on their computers or talking to one another. But out of the corner of my ear I can hear the noise every so often up in the ceiling above the false ceiling of the air handler louvers adjusting the air flow as the climate control detects that more air is needed in another area.

My coworkers may think I’m sort of strange (for a lot of reasons, but one of them may be) because as I’m working away on the computer apparently oblivious to what is going on around me, I may suddenly break out in a big smile. Why? They may wonder. Because I can hear that louver slowly changing position. They sound like they are pneumatically controlled, but there is no mistaking the distinct low grind of the flaps as they slowly change. So, without stopping what I’m doing, a grin may appear on my face.

Charles had come up to me when I was a janitor while I was working on the floor scrubber in the main switchgear and asked me if I would think about becoming an electrician. He said that a lot of being an electrician was cleaning things. He had noticed that I took a lot of pride in the way I cleaned and that he thought I would make a good electrician.

I did enjoy being a Janitor and having someone encourage me to become an electrician was all I needed to pursue the honorable trade of “Electrician”. It didn’t take me long once I joined the shop to learn that Charles wasn’t stretching the truth when he said that a lot of what an electrician does is clean things.

I spent 18 years as an electrician at the Power Plant before moving on. Throughout that time, my wife never knew what to expect when I came home from work. My clothes could be just as clean as when I left in the morning, or (most likely), they would be covered with Soot or Coal Dust from the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. One thing she could usually count on when I walked in the door was that I would have a smile on my face for having the privilege to spend a day at work with such a great group of Power Plant Heroes.

What do Power Plant Men in North Central Oklahoma Do For Recreation

Originally Posted on August 9, 2013:

I first ran across Power Plant Men totally by accident the summer of 1979 when I was 18 and I went to work as a summer help at a Power Plant in Oklahoma. I walked into the plant, and there they were. All standing there looking at me as if I was the new kid on the block. Which, of course, I was.

I had very little in common with this group of men. It was interesting enough to watch them at work, but it was equally as interesting to observe them after hours. I didn’t spend a lot of time with them myself. I often just listened to their stories of adventure on Monday Mornings. I think that was why the Monday Morning Safety Meeting was invented.

Like I said. I had little in common with these He-men. The only thing I could relate to was around Fishing. I had been fishing my entire childhood with my Father. Most everything else they did was foreign to me. Though, the first summer it seemed like the only things to do was to go fishing and to go over to the Peach Orchard by Marland, Oklahoma and pick peaches. Well, that, and go to Men’s Club dinners.

Like I’ve said twice now, I had little in common with this sunflower eatin’ bunch of men. I had just finished my first year as a college student and the only thing I knew to do during my free time was to play Dungeons and Dragons or Pinball. Actually, I was quite a pinball wizard and could usually spend all day on one quarter. This didn’t seem to impress the likes of this bunch, so I kept my Pinball Prowess to myself.

The Evil Knievel Pinball machine was one of the many I had mastered.  By the way, why isn't his last name pronounced: "Nee-vel"?  Just wondering.

The Evel Knievel Pinball machine was one of the many I had mastered. By the way, why isn’t his last name pronounced: “Nee-vel”? Just wondering.

As I learned more about the Power Plant Men, I found out that they were a diverse group of men that had many different recreational activities. I have mentioned before that the evil plant Manager Eldon Waugh was a beekeeper, and so was my good friend Sonny Karcher. Even though Sonny spent a good portion of his time away from the plant doing some sort of farming, he enjoyed raising bees.

I mentioned in a previous post “Imitations and Innovations of Sonny Karcher” that Sonny liked to choose one thing about someone else and then take on that characteristic or possess a particular item that they had. So, I figured Sonny had become a beekeeper because he had a friend that did the same thing. I never thought that it was Eldon Waugh, since Sonny usually only chose something from someone he admired and Eldon made it a full time effort to make sure no one really liked him.

Beehives like this only lined up on a trailer

Power Plant Beehives

While I was a summer help I learned a few of the activities that Power Plant Men liked to do. For instance, I knew that Stanley Elmore liked to spend the weekend either making his yard look like something you would find in a Home and Garden magazine, or he liked cleaning his car and waxing his engine so that you could cook an egg right on it and not have to worry about any grit or grime between your teeth.

It goes without saying that the Power Plant Men that had families spent most of their free time with them. Those that didn’t have a family spent a lot of their time trying to avoid going down that path. So, they chose activities that would take them into the wilderness somewhere or maybe a river or two.

I heard very little talk of disgruntled husbands from the true Power Plant Men. The only story I can remember off the top of my head about a husband that was upset with his wife was Marlin McDaniel. He told us one Monday morning that he had to take his wife over his knee on Saturday. He explained it like this. “I was so mad at her that I grabbed her and laid her across my knees. I pulled up her skirt to spank her. I looked down to make sure I was aiming in the right direction… Then I paused for a moment… and I suddenly couldn’t remember why I what I was mad about.”

You know… It is funny because I had always thought that Marlin McDaniel looked like Spanky, and in the story he told about his wife, he was going to spank her. What are the odds of that?

Marlin McDaniel always reminded me of Spanky from Little Rascals

Marlin McDaniel always reminded me of Spanky from Little Rascals

It wasn’t until I entered the Electric Shop as an electrician in 1983 that I learned more about the recreational activities of Power Plant Men. I mean. I knew that Gene Day liked to drive around campus on weekends in his black pickup truck with the flames on it to impress the college girls, even if he was 50 years older than them. But besides that, I mean…..

Gene Day's truck was similar to this only different, with a different pattern of flames and a newer type of truck

Gene Day’s truck was similar to this only different, with a different pattern of flames and it wasn’t a low rider

Outside the welding shop on the lawn was a piece of art made from metal rods that had been created by the welders to resemble a cow with horns. It was used to practice lassoing. There was a certain group of Power Plant Men that took part in rodeos. Some riding on broncos, some lassoing cows and tying them up in knots. If I remember correctly, Andy Tubbs, one of the most intelligent electricians, was a rodeo clown. If you haven’t been to a rodeo, then you might not realize what a Rodeo Clown does.

A couple of Rodeo Clowns

A couple of Rodeo Clowns

Sure they stand around in bright colored clothes. These two guys aren’t just there for laughs. Here is a rodeo clown at work.

Rodeo Clown at Work

Rodeo Clown at Work

You see. When a contestant is riding a bull and they fall off, in order to keep the bull from turning around and goring the poor guy to death, a rodeo clown jumps into action and distracts the bull while the contestant is quickly spirited away to safety.

A Rodeo Clown Hard at Work

A Rodeo Clown Hard at Work

Jerry Mitchell had told me when I was still a summer help that you could tell who liked to participate in rodeos. They were usually missing one or more fingers. One of the rodeo hands explained it to me like this. When you lasso the cow, you quickly wrap the rope around the saddle horn. Just as you are doing that, the cow hits the end of the rope and goes flying back. This means that if you don’t get your fingers out of the way when you are wrapping the rope around the saddle horn, the rope will snap it right off.

January 1997 a new Instrument and Controls person came to work at the plant. Brent Kautzman was a rodeo person. We were sitting in a Confined Space Rescue team meeting once and Randy Dailey was espousing the dangers of roping cows in a rodeo when Brent said that he had his thumb cut off in a rodeo once. At first we looked at him as if he was just pulling our leg. He had all of his fingers.

Someone asked if they sewed his thumb back on. He said they weren’t able to do that. Instead they took one of his big toes and sewed it on his hand where his thumb had been. We were surprised when he showed us his thumb and sure enough. There was a big toe in place of his thumb.

Brent said that if he knew at the time how important a big toe is, he never would have done it. He said that he was young at the time, and he wanted to continue participating in rodeos, so he had them cut off his big toe and sew it on his hand. Anyway. Later, Brent returned to where he had come from, Richardton, North Dakota. He was a great guy, and a hard worker, but like myself, he wasn’t a True Power Plant Man.

The biggest source of recreation for Power Plant Men was Hunting. I would hear stories about how the hunters would send in their name for a drawing to be able to take part in the annual Elk Hunt in Montana. It was a lottery and they only picked so many people. So, the hunters would wait patiently each year to see if they were going to be able to make a trip to Montana.

Corporate Headquarters and the Evil Plant Manager wanted to make sure that not too many took off for Christmas because they wanted to ensure that enough people stayed in town in case there was an emergency at the plant and they needed to call everyone out. Christmas wasn’t really the problem at the plant as was “Hunting Season”.

There were two parts to deer hunting. The first few weeks it was bow season. You could go hunting for dear with a bow and arrows. Later you could hunt with a rifle. This was serious business in North Central Oklahoma. The Deer Hunters would prepare for this season all summer long. They would build their tree stands, and they would put out deer feeders to fatten up the deer.

A Deer and a raccoon fighting over who gets first dibs on the deer feeder.  My money is on the raccoon.

A Deer and a raccoon fighting over who gets first dibs on the deer feeder. My money is on the raccoon.

People would become pretty sparse around when deer hunting season opened. At least or a few days. You could usually only kill one or two deer and that was your limit. Each year the number was decided by the population of deer.

If there were too many deer running around then the deer hunters could kill more. The whole idea of Deer Hunting from a Wildlife perspective was for population control. When there were too many deer, they would start passing around diseases and then all end up dying off anyway. So, this was a way of controlling the population.

A few times I was invited to join the Power Plant Men in their recreation. It was always a learning experience for both of us.

I was invited to Charles Foster’s house one summer to make pickles. We picked the cucumbers from Charles garden. Charles’ garden was the pride of Pawnee. I spent some time with his family that day, cleaning and boiling the cucumbers in vinegar in the pickle jars with the dill we had picked from his garden. I think often of the day I spent with Charles in his garden picking the cucumbers and in his house that evening.

I was also invited once to go to the Resort just outside of Pawnee known as “Pawnee Lake”. Diana Brien and Gary Wehunt and their spouses were camping out there and they invited me to join them the following morning. I showed up in the morning where we cooked breakfast, then they taught me the art of flying across the lake on a jet ski.

Pawnee Lake Oklahoma. Photo taken by John Brumfield

Pawnee Lake Oklahoma. Photo taken by John Brumfield

To me, this was sheer madness, but I bucked up and did it anyway. If I was going to die, doing it on a jet ski was as good of a place as any.

Then they invited me to play horseshoes. Well. I kindly declined saying that they didn’t really want me to play horseshoes. They said that they needed two teams of two, and they would really appreciate it if I joined them. So, I succumbed.

My first throw was very impressive as it bumped right up against the stake. I knew that this was just beginner’s luck, I really wasn’t a beginner. I had played a lot of horseshoes as a kid. Only, I had lost any sort of self-control when it came to letting lose of the horseshoe. I think it was my third throw that did it. The horseshoe literally ended up behind me. I think I almost hit Tek’s pickup. (Tek was Dee’s husband’s nickname or was it Tex?). When I let go of the horseshoe and it went flying through the air, everyone scattered.

There was an interesting character that came by when we were at the Pawnee Lake. His name was Trail Boss. He was a larger sociable person. Someone that you would think would come from a town called Pawnee, Oklahoma. There was another guy that was there that scattered when Trail Boss showed up. So, I made a comment to the Boss that he seemed to have quite an influence on people. I figured that was why they called him Trail Boss.

This isn't Trail Boss, but you get the idea.  This guy is wearing a Trail Boss Hat

This isn’t Trail Boss, but you get the idea. This guy is wearing a Trail Boss Hat

Anyway. There were a lot of other things that the Power Plant Men did for recreation. I could go on and on. Maybe some of the Power plant that read this blog will post some of them in the comments. I purposely didn’t mention anything about “Noodling” (except for just now). I think I’ll do that in another post some time later.

Though I was like a fish out of water when I was with the Power Plant Men enjoying their time off, I was always treated as if I belonged. No one made fun of me even when they were scattering to dodge a rogue horseshoe. When I went fishing with them as a new summer help when I was 18 years old, I was never shunned and no one ever looked down on me. I have to give them this: True Power Plant are patient people. They put up with me for 20 years. I can’t ask for more than that.

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Ron Kilman August 14, 2014

    My hobby was astronomy. I built an 8″ telescope when I lived in Ada (worked at the Seminole Plant in Konawa). I remember telling my Plant Manager (Jim Gist – lived in Konawa) about all the things I could see with my telescope. When I told him that I could see Uranus (I used the long “a” pronunciation), he got a real surprised look on his face – and finally said “All the way from Ada?” He was a real hoot!

  2. Citizen Tom August 14, 2014

    Good story! That’s the kind of experience most people can relate to, getting to know ones coworkers. And the interesting facts and pictures just make it more interesting.
    Never occurred to me a raccoon would take on a deer.

Lifecycle of a Power Plant Lump of Coal

Originally posted August 16, 2013:

Fifty Percent of our electricity is derived from coal. Did you ever wonder what has to take place for that to happen? I thought I would walk through the lifecycle of a piece of coal to give you an idea. I will not start back when the it was still a tree in a prehistoric world where dinosaurs grew long necks to reach the branches. I will begin when the large scoop shovel digs it out of the ground and loads it onto a coal truck.

The coal is loaded onto trucks like these before it is dumped onto the train cars. This photo was found at http://www.gillettechamber.com/events/eventdetail.aspx?EventID=2827

The coal is loaded onto trucks like these before it is dumped onto the train cars. This photo was found at http://www.gillettechamber.com/events/eventdetail.aspx?EventID=2827

The coal for the power plant in North Central Oklahoma came from Wyoming. There were trains from the Black Thunder Mine and the Powder River Basin.

Coal Trains on their way to power plants

Coal Trains on their way to power plants

It’s a long ride for the lump of coal sitting in the coal train on it’s way to Oklahoma. Through Nebraska and Kansas. It’s possible for the coal to be visited by a different kind of traveler. One that we may call “A tramp.” Someone that catches a ride on a train without paying for the ticket.

One time a tramp (or a hobo, I don’t remember which), caught a ride on one of our coal trains. They forgot to wake up in time, and found their self following the lumps of coal on their next phase of the journey. You see. Once the coal reached the plant, one car at a time enters a building called the “Rotary Dumper”.

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

As each train car enters the dumper four clamps come done on the car and it rolls upside down dumping the coal into a bin below. Imagine being a tramp waking up just in time to find yourself falling into a bin full of coal. with a car full of coal dumping coal on top of you. One coal car contained 102 tons of coal (today they carry 130 tons). Today one train contains 13,300 tons of coal. This is over 26 million pounds of coal per train.

Miraculously, this passenger survived the fall and was able to call for help or someone saw him fall. He was quickly rescued and brought to safety. Needless to say, the tramp went from being penniless to being, “comfortable” very quickly. I don’t know that it made the news at the time. I think the electric company didn’t want it to become “viral” that they had dumped a hobo into a coal bin by accident. Well. They didn’t know what “going viral” meant at the time, but I’m sure they had some other phrase for it then.

Ok. Time for a Side Story:

Since I’m on the subject of someone catching a clandestine ride on a train, this is as good of a place as any to sneak in the tragic story of Mark Meeks. Well. I say it was tragic. When Mark told the story, he seemed rather proud of his experience. You see. Mark was a construction electrician. He hired on as a plant electrician in order to settle down, but in his heart I felt like he was always a construction electrician. That is, he didn’t mind moving on from place to place. Doing a job and then moving on.

Mark explained that when he was working at a construction job in Chicago where he worked for 2 years earning a ton of overtime, he figured that by the time he finished he would have saved up enough to buy a house and settle down. He was married and living in an apartment in Chicago. He didn’t spend much time at home as he was working 12 hour days at least 6 days each week. He figured that was ok, because when he was done, he would be set for life.

Unknown to him at the time, each morning when he woke up before the crack of dawn to go to work, his wife would drive to O’Hara airport and catch a plane to Dallas, Texas where she was having an affair with some guy. By the time Mark returned from work 14 hours later, she was back home. Each day, Mark was earning a ton of overtime, and his wife was burning it on airline tickets.

When the two years were over, Mark came home to his apartment to collect his wife and his things and go live in peace in some small town some where. That was when he learned that his wife had been having the affair and using all his money to do it. She was leaving him. Penniless.

Completely broke, Mark drifted around for a while. Finally one day he saw a train that was loaded down with wooden electric poles. Mark figured that wherever those poles were going, there was going to be work. So, he hopped on the train and traveled all the way from Minneapolis Minnesota riding in the cold, wedged between some wooden poles on one of the cars on the train.

The train finally arrived at its destination somewhere at a port in the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t remember if it was Mississippi or Louisiana. He watched as they unloaded the poles, waiting to see what jobs were going to be needed for whatever the poles were for. He watched as they took the large wooden poles and piled them up in the ocean. They were using them to build up the shoreline. There were no jobs.

It is when you have been beaten down to the point of breaking when you reach a very important point in your life. Do you give up, or do you pick yourself up and make something of yourself? Mark chose the latter. He was a natural fighter. He eventually ended up at our plant as contract help, and then was hired as a plant electrician.

End of side story.

Let’s follow the lump of coal after it is poured out of the coal train in the dumper…

The coal is fed onto a conveyor belt. Let’s call this Conveyor 1, (because that is what we called it in the plant). This has a choice to feed it onto belt 2 which leads up to the stack out tower, or it can feed the other way to where some day it was planned to add another conveyor with another stackout tower. This was going to go to a pile of coal for two other units that were never built.

Anyway, when the coal drops down on Conveyor 2, way under ground, it travels up to the ground level, and continues on its way up to the top of the stackout tower where it feeds onto Belt 3. Belt 3 is a short belt that is on an arm that swings out over the coal pile. The coal is fed onto the coal pile close to the stack out tower. I suppose it is called stack out, because the coal is stacked up next to the tower.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack. The tower with the conveyor running up to the top is the stack out tower. Belt 3 is the arm pointing to the right in this picture

Anyway, there are large dozers (bulldozers) and dirt movers that pickup the coal and spread it out to make room for more coal from more coal trains. As mentioned above. One train now carries 26 million pounds of coal.

Dirt Mover full of coal

Dirt Mover full of coal

the coal that is spread out on the coal pile has to stay packed down otherwise it would spontaneously combust. That is, it would catch on fire all by itself. Once coal on a coal pile catches on fire it is impossible to “reasonably” put out. You can spray all the water on it you want and it won’t go out. When a fire breaks out, you just have to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn out.

In order to keep the coal from performing spontaneous combustion, the dirt movers kept it packed down. As long as the coal is packed tight, air can’t freely reach the buried coal, and it doesn’t catch fire. So, dirt movers were constantly driving back and forth on the coal pile to keep the coal well packed. Even on the picture of the coalyard above from the smoke stack, you can see two pieces of heavy equipment out on the coal pile traveling back and forth packing the coal.

Anyway, the next phase in the life of the lump of coal happens when it finds itself directly under the stack out tower, and it is fed down by a vibratory feeder onto a conveyor. In our plant, these belts were called, Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7. Belts 4 and 5 fed onto Belt 8 and belts 6 and 7 fed onto belt 9.

Belts 8 and 9 brought the coal up from under the coal pile to the top of the Crusher tower. In the picture above you can see that tower to the right of the stack out tower with the long belts coming from the bottom of the tower toward the plant. The crusher tower takes the large lumps of coal that can be the size of a baseball or a softball and crushes it down to the size of marbles and large gumballs.

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard. This is the size of the coal after it has been crushed by the crusher

From the crusher tower the lump of coal which is now no more than a nugget of coal travels from the coal yard up to the plant on belts 10 and 11.

conveyor 10 and 11 are almost 1/2 mile long

conveyor 10 and 11 are almost 1/2 mile long

Up at the top of this belt in the distance you can see another tower. This tower is called the Transfer tower. Why? Well, because it transfers the coal to another set of belts, Belt 12 and 13. You can see them going up to the right to that tower in the middle between the two boilers.

The tower between the two boilers is called the Surge Bin tower. That basically means that there is a big bin there that can hold a good amount of coal to feed to either unit. At the bottom of the white part of the tower you can see that there is a section on each side. This is where the tripper galleries are located. There are two belts in each tripper, and two belts that feed to each tripper belt from the surge bin. So, just to keep counting, Belts 14 and 15 feed to unit one and belts 16 and 17 feed to unit 2 from the surge bin. then Belts 18 and 19 are the two tripper belts that dump coal into the 6 silos on unit one, while belts 20 and 21 feed the silos on unit 2.

Once in the Coal silos, the coal is through traveling on belts. The silos are positioned over things called bowl mills. The coal is fed from the silo into the bowl mill through something called a Gravimetric feeder, which is able to feed a specific amount of coal into the bowl mill. This is the point that basically decides how hot the boiler is going to be.

Once the coal leaves the gravimetric feeder and drops down to the bowl mill, it is bound for the boiler. The gravimetric feeder is tied right to the control room. When they need to raise load more than just a minimal amount, a control room operator increases the amount of coal being fed from these feeders in order to increase the flow of coal into the boiler….. I don’t know… maybe it’s more automatic than that now…. The computer probably does it these days.

When the nugget of coal falls into the bowl mill the long journey from the coal mine in Wyoming is almost complete. Its short life as a nugget is over and it is pulverized into powder. The powder is finer than flour. Another name for a bowl mill is “Pulverizer”. The coal comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and just before it is consumed in Oklahoma it really does become powder.

Big rollers are used to crush the coal into fine particles. The pulverized coal is blown up pipes by the primary air fans and blown directly into the boiler where they burst into flames. A bright orange flame. The color reminds me of orange sherbet Ice cream.

The color of the fireball in the boiler

The color of the fireball in the boiler

At this point an incredible thing happens to the coal that so many years ago was a part of a tree or some other plant. The chemical process that trapped the carbon from the carbon dioxide millions of years earlier is reversed and the carbon is once again combined to the oxygen as it was many millennium ago. A burst of heat is released which had been trapped after a cooling effect below the tree as it sucked the carbon out of the environment way back then.

The heat is transferred to the boiler tubes that line the boiler. The tubes heat the water and turn it into steam. The steam shoots into the turbine that turns a generator that produces the electricity that enters every house in the country. The solar power from eons ago that allowed the tree to grow is being used today to power our world. What an amazing system.

To take this one step further, the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere today is replenishing the lost carbon dioxide from many years ago. Back when plants could breathe freely. Back before the carbon dioxide level was depleted almost to the point of the extinction of plant life on this planet. Remember, what we look on as a pollutant and a poison, to a plant is a chance to grow. The Sahara desert used to be a thriving forest. Maybe it will be again some day.

So, there is the question of global warming. We humans are so short sighted sometimes. We want to keep everything the same way we found it when we were born. We try desperately to keep animals from becoming extinct. We don’t think about the bazillions (ok, so I exaggerate) of animals that were extinct long before man arrived. It is natural for extinction to occur. That is how things evolve. We are trying to keep a system the same when it has always been changing.

Years from now we may develop ways to harness the energy from the sun or even from the universe in ways that are unimaginable today. When that time arrives, let’s just hope that we remain good stewards of the world so that we are around to see it. I believe that the use of fossil fuels, (as odd as that may seem) is a major step in reviving our planet’s natural resources.

Comments from the previous repost:

twotiretirade  August 20, 2014

Glad Mark fought the good fight, still a sad story.


Antion August 21, 2014
Great read. I love knowing how things work. As I read the sad story of the traveling electrician, I kept wondering if she could have pulled that off in today’s world of air travel.


hiwaychristian August 22, 2014
when I went to the Christian College in Eugene Oregon, they forced me to take a course in biology at the University of Oregon. I willingly sat and listened to the mix of science and evolution. I admit their perspective was intriguing.
at the end of the class, the last day, the instructor asked each one of her students to tell how the class had affected their thinking.
each one gave the politically correct answer in a variety of form. all the while I sat joyfully waiting my turn.
my response hushed the class for a moment. (it’s been some decades ago so I have to paraphrase but let it be sufficient) “I’m impressed with all the material you’ve covered. it’s astounding to think of all the things that were. but for me this class has only glorified my God. because I realize that in his wisdom he created gasoline for my car.”
you’ve covered a lot of material in your post. and I’m impressed at your diligence to complete it. I thank God for His faithfulness that he has put into you. may He prosper your testimony for the glory of His Holy Son.
By His Grace
(please overlook the syntax errors in this reply it was generated on a mobile device)

Monty Hansen November 4, 2014

We processed several hobo’s through our coal system, & injured a few, but none ever got anything from the power company. I remember we would always worried about finding a chunk of scalp or something in the grating where the tripper car drops coal down into the silo. One especially memorable event was when a coal yard operator found a down vest jacket on the coal pile and bragged about how lucky he was to find this jacket, the size even fit, but the jacket did smell a little funny. yes it was ripped off the body of a hobo by the plow above conveyor one & shot out onto the coal pile by the stackout conveyor.

It was always unnerving to have a pull cord go down in the middle of the night deep down in the coal trestle, while the belts were shut down. You’d have to go down there alone, in the dark & reset the pull cords, so the belts could be started later when needed. You knew it wasn’t a trick because the whole crew had been up in the control room together eating dinner or something. You always wondered if you might run into a real hobo – or the ghost of one.

Power Plant Blackbirds and Smokestack Jumpers

Originally posted November 16, 2013:

Most of us have watched the Alfred Hitchcock Thriller “The Birds” at least once in their life. When I was young it used to come on TV around Thanksgiving about the same time that Wizard of Oz would rerun. What a mix of movies to watch after eating turkey in one of our Italian relative’s house in Kansas City as I was growing up. During those years of sitting passively by watching the birds gang up on the humans, it never occurred to me that some day I might take part in my own private version of “Blackbird Wars” amid the playground equipment found in a typical Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

Blackbirds in Alfred Hitchcock's "Birds"

Blackbirds in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Birds”

A tale like this is best starts out with the line, “It was a cold and windy night…” That was close. My story begins with, “It was a dark and cold winter morning…” Unit 1 was on overhaul. That meant that it was offline while we climbed inside the inner workings of the boiler, precipitator, Turbine and Generator in order to perform routine yearly maintenance. Being on overhaul also meant that we came to work earlier in the morning and we left later in the evening. Since it was in the middle of the winter, it also meant that we came to work in the dark, and we left for home in the dark…. These were dark times at the Power Plant for those of us on long shifts.

At this time in my career I was working on Unit 1 precipitator by myself. I had my own agenda on what needed to be done. Sometimes I would have contractors working with me, but for some reason, we had decided that we didn’t need them for this overhaul. Maybe because it was an extra long one and I would have plenty of time to complete my work before it was over.

I can remember grabbing my tool bucket and heading for the precipitator roof to begin my day of calibrating vibrators and checking rappers to make sure they were operating correctly. I was wearing my winter coat over my coveralls because it was cold outside. In Oklahoma, 20 degrees was pretty cold. 20 degrees in Oklahoma with 30 mile an hour winds gives you a pretty low wind chill…. which chills you to the bone.

I had a red stocking liner on my hardhat that wrapped around my forehead that kept my head warm.

A red hardhat liner like the one I was wearing

A red hardhat liner like the one I was wearing

All bundled up, I left the shop through the Turbine Room basement and headed toward the breezeway between Unit 1 and 2. I climbed the stairs up the Surge Bin Tower until I had reached the landing where you can go to either Unit 1 or 2 precipitator roofs. Using rote memory after having performed this same task every morning for the past month and a half, I turned toward Unit 1.

The Precipitator is a big box that takes the ash out of the exhaust from boiler. It drops the ash into hoppers where it is transported to the coalyard into large silos, where trucks haul it away to make concrete for roads and buildings. The precipitator roof is full of large transformers (84 of them), 168 vibrators that shake the 29568 high voltage wires in the precipitator, and 672 rappers that bang on the 7560 metal plates. The transformers are used to collect the ash using “static cling”. The rappers and vibrators are used to knock the ash into the hoppers.

The Precipitator roof is a very noisy place when all the rappers and vibrators are running. It is covered with a sheet metal roof. It wasn’t originally designed that way, but someone with foresight thought that it would be a great idea to insulate the precipitator roof. In doing so, they needed to add a roof to keep the insulation from being exposed to the weather.

It wasn’t noisy that morning as I reached the ladder and quickly tied my tool bucket to a rope hanging down from above. It was dark, and lonely and quiet. Well. There were some lights, but this morning, the light from the precipitator didn’t seem to shine much as I pulled myself up the ladder. When I reached the top I turned around and sat at the top of the ladder and began pulling my tool bucket up.

It was at that moment when I realized that something was much different than usual. I had spent a couple of years working on the precipitator roof and inside and I had become friends with each of the transformers, and I even knew the unique sounds of each of the vibrators. I could tell when a rapper wasn’t rapping correctly. There would be a slight sucking sound as the rapper was drawn up into the cylinder…. There was a slight pause, then it would drop onto an anvil that was connected to the plate rack. But this morning everything was turned off. Yet, I could feel that there was something wrong.

There was a strange hum. I was trying to place it as I grabbed each foot of rope and pulled my bucket closer. There was more than a hum… There was a weird muffled sound all around. I had a chill down my back as if I was being watched. I quickly grabbed the handle of the bucket and stood up and turned around. I was ready to spot whoever it was that was spying on me!

What I saw immediately sucked the breath out of me. The precipitator is 200 feet wide and 120 feet long. Every inch as far as I could see was black. Not just the equipment, but the air itself.

During the night a cold wave had moved into Oklahoma from the north. With it, it had brought a horde of blackbirds. Thousands upon thousands of them. They had found refuge from the cold blasting wind in the precipitator roof enclosure. Safe and warm and undisturbed….. That is, until I arrived.

It was as if the blackbirds had discovered me at the same time I had found them. They suddenly burst into a frenzy.

The Birds Movie Poster

More like The Birds Movie Poster

I stood there in wonder for a few moments watching the swirling mass of blackness obscuring what little light was given off by the 100 watt Mercury Vapor lights. As I began to move toward the walkway the flying mass of feathers parted so that the birds kept a safe distance from me. As I grabbed the rungs of the ladder, I suddenly realized why keeping an aviary at a Power Plant is not a good idea. A warm moist gooey mass squished between my fingers as I pulled myself up the ladder and onto the walkway.

I took a few steps to where a package of WypAlls was laying on the walkway and pulled out a couple of heavy duty sheets of durable wiping material:

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple: WypAlls!

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple: WypAlls!

I decided that I was going to try to chase the birds out of the shelter so I began waving a couple of rags around as I walked down the walkway. All it did was cause the birds to bunch up in corners away from me. They would circle back around behind me. So, when I reached the other end of the roof, I climbed down to one of the rapper control cabinets and powered it up.

The rappers and vibrators began their music. A medley of humming and clanking. I went to each of the 14 cabinets on the roof turning on each of them until the entire roof had risen to a symphony of buzzing and banging. Music to my ears. After wiping down a few places where I needed to work, I spent some time testing and taking notes so that I could make adjustments in the control cabinet after I had made my way around each rapper and vibrator in that area. Then I left for break.

The sun was now up and daylight was shining through the openings in the precipitator roof. When I returned from break the hoard of blackbirds had decided to continue their journey south.

There was one time when I was working as an electrician at the Power Plant where I felt close to being a bird myself. It was when I had to travel to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack to repair some equipment. I was not only at the top of the smokestack, but I was literally sitting on the edge of it and shimming my way around it.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

Why me? Well. Our A Foreman, Bill Bennett summed it up like this…. “Have Kevin do it. He likes heights.” Sure. Just like he said I liked to get dirty, so put me in a coal bin to fix a proximity switch. Or, just like he said that I liked climbing in holes in the ground, so I was assigned the job of fixing all the manhole pumps at the plant. What could I say? At some point, he was right. I couldn’t argue with him. Especially since he would call me a “scamp” with such endearment (See the post “Tales of a Tall Power Plant A Foreman“).

Well. You learn something new every day when working at a power plant, and I sure learned something that day. Quite a few things. I already knew that inside the tall concrete smoke stack was another smoke stack made out of brick. The outer stack would sway in the strong Oklahoma wind, while the brick stack inside would remain steady. On a windy day, at the very top, the stack would sway as much as six inches.

On this particular day I rode on top of the stack elevator to the top so that I could climb up onto the rim where the lightning rods were placed about 6 feet apart around the top.

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks. The boilers are half the height at 250 feet.

When the wind is blowing there is a certain amount of a difference in the electric potential at the top of the stack as there is on the ground, so you could hear a slight crackling sound around the lightning rods even though it was a clear sunny day. I was wearing a safety belt and as I stopped to work, I would clip the lanyard to the closest lightning rod knowing full well that if I decided to jump off the stack, the lightning rod would just bend and the lanyard would just slide off the end.

I was not in any mood to do any jumping that day. I was there to fix jumpers instead. You see, there is a metal cap on the top rim of the smoke stack. Actually, there is a metal rim on the top of both smoke stacks. The concrete one and the brick stack inside the concrete stack. And there was supposed to be a set of jumpers around the top of the stacks connecting the two metal caps together electrically. This way, if perchance a bolt of lightning hit the inside stack, then the electricity would be routed to the outer rim and down the large grounding cables to the ground grid 500 feet below.

As I shimmied around the top of the stack, I became aware that as far as I could see… clear to the horizon, there wasn’t anything higher than me. At first this threw me a little off balance, because I usually focused on other objects to help me keep my bearings. In this case, only the other smoke stack was as high as me. So, I focused on the rim where I was sitting and tried as hard as I could to ignore the fact that I was a tenth of a mile up in the air.

I removed the broken jumpers and replaced them with the new ones. I didn’t think these new jumpers would last long considering that as the stack swayed back and forth, it would quickly wear the jumpers in to. But, there was some regulation or something that said they had to be replaced, and so that was why I was there.

I noticed while I was working on the top of the stack that birds were flying around below me. Actually, most of them were way below me. Few birds would fly as high as the stacks, and they were usually the predatory types that liked to swoop down on unsuspecting pigeons below. It felt a little odd to be working and looking down at birds flying when it is so normal to look up to see birds. From up there, a large flock of birds like those in “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock didn’t look so intimidating. They were nothing but small dots far below.

Alfred with his own smokestack and blackbird

Alfred with his own smokestack and blackbird

Comment from original post:

  1. Ron November 16, 2013

    Great story!
    As I read this, it reminded me of the time (55 + years ago) I climbed the ladder with my “Royal Ambassador” leader into my church’s steeple. Then we pulled the “tool” up we had tied to the rope. Pigeons had chosen this location to raise their families. The inside of the steeple would become covered in pigeon poop and my help was requested to dispatch the birds (and clean up the steeple). The dispatching “tool” we used was a “Benjamin Pump” BB gun! We had a great time getting rid of the steeple poopers.

    Power plants are great places to make life-long memories. Thanks for posting yours!

    1. Grandpa Guy November 21, 2014

      Here in Rochester we understand exactly what you put up with in the roof. Every winter tens of thousands of crows make downtown their home away from the cold and owls in the countryside. Many trees have more crows in the winter than leaves in the summer. Honest. It can be spooky, and sticky, walking under trees when occupied.

      Thanks for the story.

Power Plant Women and the EEOC Shuffle

Originally posted November 30, 2013:

While I worked as a janitor at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma the subject came up one Monday morning about the normal career path that janitors could take. We had already been told that the only place a janitor could advance to was the labor crew. We had also been told that there was a company policy that came down from Oklahoma City that only allowed janitors to move to the labor crew before they could move on to another job like an Operator or Mechanic.

I had been trying to decide if I wanted to go the route of being an Operator or a Mechanic during my time as a janitor. That is, until Charles Foster asked me if I would be interested in becoming an Electrician.  I hadn’t even considered being an electrician up to that point, as I had no experience and it seemed like a job that needed a particular skill set.

I had begun my studies to learn about being an electrician when there was an opening in the Electric Shop. Charles Foster and Bill Bennett petitioned to hire me for the position, but the verdict came down from above that according to Company Policy, a janitor could only advance from janitor to the labor crew.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

I didn’t have any expectation at the time of becoming an electrician given that I had no experience, so I wasn’t disappointed when Mike Rose was hired from outside the company. He was hired to help out Jim Stevenson with Air Conditioning and Freeze Protection.

Mike Rose. A fair plant electrician, but a great family man!

Mike Rose. A fair plant electrician

The next revelation about our position as janitor at the plant (and I’m sure that Ron Kilman, our next plant manager, who reads this blog can testify that it really was company policy…. after all…. that’s what our plant manager told us. — Just kidding…. I know that it really wasn’t), was that when it became our turn to move from being a janitor to moving to the labor crew, if we didn’t move to the labor crew during the next two openings on the labor crew, then we would be let go. I mean… we would lose our job.

This revelation came about when Curtis Love was next in line to go to the labor crew and he was turned down. Larry Riley, the foreman of the labor crew had observed Curtis while we were being loaned to the labor crew during outages and he didn’t want him on the crew for um…. various reasons. After Curtis had been turned down, he was later told that if he didn’t move onto the labor crew when there was another opening, then the company had to fire him. It was company policy (so we were told…. from Corporate Headquarters).

I had been around the plant long enough to know at that point that when we were told that it was company policy that came down to us from Corporate Headquarters, that, unless it was in our binders called General Policies and Practices, then it probably wasn’t really company policy. It was more likely our evil plant manager’s excuse for not taking the responsibility himself and just telling us that this was the way it was, because he just said so….

One of two General Policies and Procedures Binders

One of two General Policies and Procedures Binders

Anyway… This caused a dilemma from an unlikely source on our team of janitors. Doris Voss became worried that if she didn’t move onto the labor crew, that she would lose her job. She was quite content at the time to have just stayed a janitor, but from this policy that had just come down from Corporate Headquarters, (i.e. The front corner office of our plant), she either had to go to the labor crew, or lose her job.

So, what Doris decided to do was to apply for the job of receptionist that had just been vacated by Grant Harned (see the post “Power Plant Carpooling Adventures with Grant Harned“). Doris applied for the job and her application was accepted. She moved on to work at the receptionist desk. I, on the other hand, was next in line behind Curtis Love. So, when he was turned down for the labor crew, I took his place.

As a side note, I talked Larry Riley into letting Curtis Love advance to the labor crew when there was another opening. I told him that I would let him work with me, and that I would take care of him. With that caveat, Larry agreed. You can read a couple of adventures I had with Curtis after he arrived on the labor crew by reading these posts: “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love” and “Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door“. Later, however, when I had moved on to be an electrician, Curtis was let go after having a vehicle accident and not reporting it right away.

What does this have to do with the EEOC shuffle? Well… about the time I have moved on to the labor crew, a new company-wide policy had been put in place for the internal “Employee Job Announcement Program”. Our power plant had some “irregularities” surrounding where our new employees were coming from. It seems that an inordinate amount of new employees were coming from Pawnee, and more particularly from a certain church. It was obvious to some that a more “uniform” method needed to be in place to keep local HR staff from hiring just their buddies.

Along with this, came a mandate that all external job announcements had to be sent to various different unemployment offices in a certain radius in order to guarantee that everyone that was interested had the opportunity to be informed about any new positions at the plant well in time to apply for it. That was, if the Internal job announcement program didn’t find any viable candidates within the company that was willing to take the job.

EEOC, by the way, means, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Around the same time that our plant had hired a “snitch” to go around an entrap unsuspecting employees into illegal activities (see the post:  “Power Plant Snitch“), the EEOC had given us notice that we were not hiring enough women and American Indians as well as African Americans at the plant. Not only did we lack number, we also needed to have them spread out into a number of different jobs in the plant.

At the time the operators were 100% male. No women. The maintenance shop had a couple of women. The rest of the women at the plant were either clerks, working for the warehouse, or in the HR department…. Which all incidentally reported up to Jack Ballard our HR Supervisor. Well. Except for Yvonne Taylor in the Chemistry lab, and maybe someone that was on the testing team and of course Summer Goebel who was a Plant Engineer.

It wasn’t just women that were affected. We had to have an African American in Upper Management. Bill Bennett had become an A Foreman a few years earlier, and there was some discussion about whether they could promote him up one more level. He refused the offer. Later they decided that an A Foreman at our plant was high enough to be considered “upper management”.

American Indians were also a group of employees that needed to fill a certain quota. The Power Plant was located in North Central Oklahoma with many Indian Reservations surrounding it. I think we were supposed to have more than 10% American Indians employed at the plant. So the front office asked everyone to check to see if they were Indian enough to be considered. I think if you were 1/16th American Indian, you counted in the quota.

Some people were a little disturbed to be asked to report their racial status in order to fill a quota. Jerry Mitchell told me that he was Indian, but that he never had told anyone and he didn’t want to become a number, so he wasn’t going to tell them. I think we met our quota even without Jerry Mitchell and some others that felt insulted.

At the time, we had over 350 employees at the plant. That meant that we needed 35 women. I think we were closer to 25 when the push to hire more women went into effect.

The problem area that needed the most work was with the operators. Their entire organization had no women and they were told that they needed them. The problem was both structural and operational (yeah…. Operations had an operational problem…. how about that?).

There were two problems with hiring women to be operators. The first one was structural. The operators main base was the Control Room. That’s where their locker room was. That’s where their kitchen was. More importantly that’s where they could all stand around and watch Gene Day perform feats of magic by doing nothing more than standing there being…. well… being Gene Day!

Yipes. Notice how comfortable Jim Cave is standing between Gene Day and Joe Gallahar!  Gene Day is the one with the Banjo and the more hairier legs. — I couldn’t resist…

There was only a Power Plant men’s locker room. There were no facilities for women. The nearest women’s rest / locker room was across the main plant in the office area, or downstairs in the Maintenance shop. This presented a logistical problem, especially on days when Gene Day made his special Chili or tortilla soup (Ok, I’m just picking on Gene Day…. We all know Gene never could cook. We loved him anyway).

Either way, there were times when taking a trek across the plant to make it to the nearest restroom was not acceptable. This was solved by building an additional rest / locker room in the control room for women operators. That problem was solved.

The operational problem inherent in operations was that they worked shift work. That is, each week, they shifted the hours they worked. Operators had to be working around the clock. So, one week, they would work from 7:00 am to 3:30 pm. Next week they may work from 3pm to 11:30pm, or from 11pm to 7:30am. The plant didn’t have any female applicants for a job where you had to work around the clock.

The EEOC said that wasn’t good enough. We needed to find women to work in operations. This was where Doris Voss became a person of interest.

Doris was asked if she would like to become an operator. Of course, she said no. She really still wanted to be a janitor, but was content being a receptionist. I’m not sure what she was told or was given, but she eventually agreed and moved over to become an operator. Another clerk, Helen Robinson was later coaxed into becoming an operator. Mary Lou Teeman was also hired into the Operations department. I don’t remember if she was a clerk before that, or if she was a new hire. — I do remember that she was the sweetest lady in operations.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt and longer pants than above (see what I mean about him being “instant Entertainment?). Mary Lou Teeman is standing next to him in the red shirt.

 

Here is a picture that includes Doris Voss:

Can you pick Doris Voss out of the lineup?

Can you pick Doris Voss out of the lineup?

And here is Helen Robinson:

Helen Robinson is third from the left in the back row.

Helen Robinson is third from the left in the back row.

How is it that Charles Peavler showed up in two pictures? — Oh. Taken at different times. Note that Charles Peavler with the gray shirt in the front row is kneeling on one knee, but Larry Tapp with the blue shirt next to him is standing….. Hey. Larry Tapp may be short, but he’s one of the nicest guys in this picture. I have a story about those two guys on the right side of this picture. Merl Wright and Jack Maloy. I’ll probably include that as a side story in a later post (See the post:  “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“).

With the addition of the three new female operators, the EEOC shuffle was satisfied. We had added a few new female employees from the outside world and everyone was happy. Julienne Alley was added to the Welding shop during this time. The entire maintenance crew would agree that their new “Shop” mother was the best of them all (See the post:  “Power Plant Mother’s Day“).

Comment from the Original Post:

  1. Ron December 5, 2013:

    I don’t know what “policies” Martin Louthan agreed to with the two coal plant managers. I remember them talking about how hard it was keeping good workers in their Labor crews. We didn’t have Labor crews at the gas plants so we weren’t affected. When I moved to Sooner, I don’t remember that “policy” (terminated after 2 turn-downs to Labor crew) being in place. Was it?

    Plant Electrician December 5, 2013:

    No. It was just a policy created specifically to target one person. It was never enforced.

Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals

Originally posted January 3, 2014:

After the reorganization at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma during 1987, a bunch of new faces showed up at the plant.  I mentioned in last week’s post that we had a new plant manager, Ron Kilman (See Post:  “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“).  In that post I also mentioned that the PC age was rapidly growing and I had bought a computer of my own and was eager to learn more.  The Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey had retired, and was replaced by a guy named Tom Gibson.  Tom was a good supervisor who was willing to think out of the box.

Tom gave me one of my first assignments directly by calling me to his office.  Well, Leroy had never really called me to his office before.  When Leroy wanted to chew you out, he was happy to come down to the Electric Shop and do it, so I didn’t really know what to expect by being “called to his office”.  Believe me… it wasn’t the last time he had “called me to his office.”  But it was the most satisfying time.  Mainly because this time, when I arrived, Tom’s face wasn’t beet red with anger like it was on one later occasion.

This is what Tom told me to do…  He said that we needed to install computer terminals all over the plant.  They had a chart where they wanted the terminals to go.  There were about 15 locations all over the plant including the coalyard which was about 1/2 mile from the main plant.  Along with those, there were a bunch of IBM Network printers that needed to be installed with the terminals.

Then Tom told me the best part.  He wanted me to do it all myself.  Then he told me an even better part…. He said, (and I quote) “I want you to learn everything you can about this computer stuff.  I think it will come in handy.”  As my friend Stephen Todd at Dell would say, “That was the ‘Keys to the Kingdom”.  I told him I would be glad to do everything he asked.

That last part later came back to haunt Tom…. but he did tell me…. learn “everything” I could about the computer.  When he was referring to “The Computer”, he was talking about the company mainframe, a Honeywell system that resided in Oklahoma City at Corporate Headquarters.

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

The Terminals I was going to install were called “Dumb terminals”.  they weren’t computers, they were just monitors with a keyboard that connected directly to a switch back in the telephone room that was connected via a microwave link directly to Oklahoma City and the Honeywell system:

A DEC terminal like this.

A DEC terminal like this.

So, when I returned to the electric shop, I began my “hacker” apprenticeship.  One that would later allow me to harass Gene Day in the Control Room, confuse Dick Dale in the warehouse, cause headaches for the IT department downtown, and finally cause the President of the Electric Company to personally call our Plant Manager Ron asking who was this guy Kevin Breazile!  Hence the reason for Tom Gibson’s beet red face a few years later.  But that is another story for another time.

I had two things right away that I had to figure out.  How was I going to run cables from the telephone room in the office to each of the places around the plant that needed a computer terminal and what are these funny connectors and what do I need to do with them?

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

Ok, so I figured they plugged in the back of the terminal and then there was a Cat1 cable (no, not a Cat3, a Cat1) that plugged into that, and needed to plug into a jack in the wall that I was going to have to install.  They called these funny connectors “Hoods”.  The 25 pin Hoods that we used were blue.  We had 9 pin hoods also that we used for the actual PCs that the clerks and the chemist were using.  They had an emulator program to make them act like a dumb terminal:

 A Serial RS232-DB9 9-Pin Female to RJ45 Adapter

A Serial RS232-DB9 9-Pin Female to RJ45 Adapter

In an early post called “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck” I explained how I have always been cursed with being very lucky.  Well, that’s what some may call it, but I prefer to believe that one of my best friends St. Anthony helps me out at certain times.  Well, this was one time when I asked for his assistance.  St. Anthony of Padua is considered the Patron Saint of lost items.  So, I asked him to help me figure out how I was going to do all this work in a reasonable amount of time.

St. Anthony of Padua

St. Anthony of Padua

As is often the case, St. Anthony pointed me in the right direction.  This particular day, he told me to tell my problem to Charles Foster.  My close friend and one of the two Electric Shop foremen (not mine.  I was working for Andy Tubbs).  So, during lunch I told him what Tom Gibson told me to do, and showed him the blueprints where they wanted the terminals placed throughout the plant.

One of the places that needed a terminal was right there in the electric shop office.  Charles looked around the office and said, “You know what?  there used to be an old intercom system in this office that I think goes up to the telephone room.  In fact, I think all the intercoms that were originally installed in the plant went to the telephone room.”

An old intercom sort of like this only in a box that sat on the desk and it had more switches

An old intercom sort of like this only older and in a box that sat on the desk and it had more switches

I vaguely remembered the intercoms when I was working as a summer help as there used to be an old box sitting in the garage when I worked for Stanley Elmore.  They were later cut out and removed, because it wasn’t really practical and so it wasn’t used.  Charles told me to start there, because there were intercoms everywhere.  In the control room, the warehouse, and even in the coalyard!  And definitely in the office area.  This was just what I needed to hear.  My work was already half done.

I pulled the cables out from under the desk where they had been cut and checked them out.  There were definitely enough cable pairs to do the job.  In most places I had to install both a terminal and a printer, so I had a lot of dual wall jacks just for this job:

A dual RJ45 Wall Jack

A dual RJ45 Wall Jack

There were some places where the intercom system didn’t go where I needed to install either a dumb terminal or at least connect a computer.  So, I was looking for any kind of alternate way to install the jack without having to run cables all the way from the telephone room to these locations.  So, I went out and bought a book about networking so that I could learn more about what was really going on.  If I had bought it a few years later it might have been called “Dumb Terminals for Dummies”, but the Dummies books hadn’t come around yet.

I have since thrown that book away after using it for years to prop up the corner of our sofa bed for the times when my mom would come and visit and she would sleep on the bed, only it had a broken bracket, and the Networking book was just the right thickness to level the bed…. But there was one page in the book that I found that allowed me to hook up dumb terminals in places where there was only a phone line.

You see.  When the phone lines were run throughout the plant, they used a three pair cable.  Well.  A phone really only uses two wires (or one pair).  so, this left 4 more wires not doing anything.  The only problem was that the dumb terminal used 4 pair, or 8 wires…

An RJ45 Cable

An RJ45 Cable has 8 wires

So, when I was reading the networking book, I ran across a diagram that made me stop and stare.  I like to think that I was holding a half eaten apple in my hand and I had just taken a bite when I stopped mid-bite and stared.  It would have been a nice picture to remember sort of like when the apple fell on Newton’s head.  Only we didn’t have cellphones with cameras in those days, so no one was around to take my picture.  The diagram I saw was this:

The pin configuration for an RJ45 connector

The pin configuration for an RJ45 connector

What?  This showed 4 of the wires are nothing but grounds….  The network cable only really uses 4 of the 8 wires.  Which means I only needed two pair.  And guess what?  The phone lines run all over the plant were 3 pair with only one pair being used!  So, I was able to install the computer jacks right next to the telephone jacks and use the same cable that the telephone was using, and they all tied back to the telephone room where the main computer switch was located that connected to the Mainframe computer back in Oklahoma City through something called a Memotec X.25 Modem.

So, now that I have gone through all this detail to tell you how I was able to quickly install all these terminals and printers around the plant in a way as if it is exciting (because it is to me).  I know that many of you are so bored out of your gourd that you have already stopped reading before you have reached this sentence….  I suppose those of you that are still following along are wondering “Why?”

Why would we want to install all these dumb terminals throughout a power plant that connected to the Honeywell Mainframe down at Corporate Headquarters?  Well.  It was because all the plant operators, mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians, instrument and controls and heavy equipment operators were going to start using it to do stuff.  Yeah.  All of us were being introduced to the computer age.  From the janitor on up.

Each printer had 4 character ID that identified it, so if you were looking at a work order on the terminal, you could choose to print it.  You just had to know the 4 character number and you could print the work order out on any computer in the company.  Usually, this meant, you wanted to use the printer that was closest to you.  But if you wanted to print something out for the warehouse, as long as you knew their printer ID, you could send them a printout of some part that you wanted them to retrieve for you.  Then call them up and tell them you printed something out on their printer.

Ok.  So the average Joe didn’t see much benefit, but it did get them used to seeing computer monitors all over the place, which at least helped them in the future when the real computers showed up.  Right now, they were just “Dumb Terminals” and that’s what a lot of the operators and maintenance people thought… they are just dumb…

I, on the other hand was in hog heaven.  You see.  I had called downtown to the IT department and asked to get a user name so that I could log directly into the mainframe.   After all, my supervisor Tom had told me to learn “everything” I could about “this computer”.  So, I took him up on it.  I quickly was learning UNIX commands, though at the time, I didn’t know that’s what they were called.

I began learning the Computer language called “A” before I realized there was a “B” language and a “C” language, and that C was the one that was really used at the time.  As it turned out the mainframe had manuals for everything right on it.  That is how I was able to cause so much trouble the next few years.

Oh, and one more interesting thing I discovered on the mainframe.  It had this interesting feature called “Email”.  Yeah.  Only, after figuring out how to pull up a list of all the emails on the system I found that there was only a handful of people that actually had e-mail addresses.  So, the only person I would email on the mainframe was an engineer named Craig Henry.

Craig Henry.  Engineer and Gentleman

Craig Henry. Engineer and Gentleman

I had met him briefly once, but in the next few years, he was a valuable source of information.  Email seemed like a great idea, but what good was it if there was only a few people you could send an email?

As for Craig Henry… As Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains in Casablanca, “This is the beginning of a Beautiful Friendship.” Come to think of it… Craig Henry sort of reminds me of Claude Rains…  I must admit, I learned a lot more from him than he ever learned from me.

Power Plant Paradox of Front to Back and Back to Front

Originally posted February 8, 2014:

After the downsizing in 1987 some new engineers were assigned to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  I wasn’t used to an engineer actually pausing to listen to what I was saying.  I remember the first time I said something sort of out of the ordinary and Doug Link stopped and asked me why I thought that.  The usual response was to roll their eyes as if I was some dumb electrician that almost knew how to lace my boots correctly… Ok… Lacing your boots isn’t as easy as it looks…. especially when you put them on in the dark in the morning before you leave the house.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

Now, before you think “Front to Back and Back to Front” has to do with lacing up my boots, you are mistaken.

Back to Doug Link.  I was surprised when  he actually stopped and asked me to explain myself.  I know I had said something that had sounded a little bombastic, but what I believed to be true anyway.  So, I sat down and explained it to him.  It was something that ran contrary to what a person might think was logical.  Once I explained it to him, he said he understood what I meant. — Wow.  What kind of new engineers are they breeding out there (I thought).  Well he did go to Missouri University at the same time I did, we just didn’t know each other at the time.

Doug Link

Doug Link

Another engineer that showed up at the plant was Toby O’Brien.  Even the maintenance department recognized right away that Toby would listen to you.  Not only would he listen to the crazy rantings of an electrician like me, but he would also ask advice from mechanics!  And…  (now brace yourself for this) Welders!  I believe that if he could corner a janitor, he probably would have listened to them as well…. because… well… I was just a janitor pretending to be an electrician, and he listened to me all the time.

So, what does this all have to do with “Front to Back and Back to Front”?  Well.  Almost nothing.  Except that these new engineers knew about a secret that we were all keeping from George Bohn, another engineer that I talked about in the post “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer”  In that post we had kept from George that the computer had an extra drive partitioned on the hard drive for a while.  In this post, I will talk about a much more significant secret (at least in George’s eyes).

With the reorganization Terry Blevins worked on one precipitator and I worked on the other.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

For those of you who don’t know, the precipitator is what takes the “smoke” out of the exhaust from the boiler so that it can be collected in hoppers and sent up to the coalyard to silos where trucks would come and haul it away to make highways.

Fly Ash Hoppers

Fly Ash Hoppers underneath the precipitator

The electric Supervisor Tom Gibson thought that a little competition would be good between the two teams to see who could make their precipitator work the best.   Only it didn’t work out that way.  Terry had one way of doing things and I had a completely opposite way of approaching a problem.  Terry would study a problem.  Analyze it, and do everything he could to understand what was going on.  Then he would go out and make a major change.  I on the other hand would make incremental small changes and observe the effects.  Then work toward what seemed to work best.

Between the two of us approaching a problem from completely different points of view, we were able to come up with solutions that apart I don’t think either of us would have ever thought about.  So, we became a team instead.

Now for the boring part of the story.  I am going to explain Back to Front…..   With the new digital controls, we could set up the controls so that each of the 84 precipitator transformers could be backed down one KV (kilovolt) at a time in order from the front cabinets to the back ones.  Then it would start from the front again backing the power on the cabinets down slightly each time.  — I know this is boring.   The front of the precipitator is where the exhaust enters the precipitator.  The back is where the exhaust leaves the precipitator.

The cabinets would do this until the amount of ash going out of the smoke stack hit a certain limit that was 1/4 of the legal limit (the legal limit was 20% opacity.  So, we controlled the cabinets to keep the opacity at 5%).  Opacity is the amount of light that is blocked by the ash coming out of the smokestack.

Well, if the opacity went too high (say 6.5%) the back cabinets would start powering all the way back up, and it would work its way toward the front of the precipitator until the opacity went down below the set limit. — sound good?  Well… after running this way for a while we realized that this wasn’t so good.

What ended up happening was that the front cabinets which normally collected 90% of the ash were always powered down and the back cabinets were powered up, because they would power up each time the opacity would spike.  So the ash collection was shifted from the front to the back.  This meant that if there was a puff of ash going out of the stack, it probably came from the back of the precipitator and there wasn’t anything that could be done to stop it.

We asked George if we could reverse the Front to Back powering down of the cabinets so that it went from Back to Front.  That way the back of the precipitator would be powered down most of the time and the front would be powered up.  This would keep the back half of the precipitator clean and if there was a need to power them up because of some disturbance in the boiler, the back of the precipitator would be in good shape to handle the extra ash.

George, however, insisted that since the EPA had tested the precipitator with the new controls when they were setup to go from front to back, we couldn’t risk changing it, or the EPA could come back and make us put scrubbers on the plant.  We were grandfathered into not needing scrubbers and we didn’t want to go through that mess and cost that would have raised electric rates for everyone.

This was frustrating because we could easily see that every hour or so we would be sending big puffs out of the smokestack on the account of the inherent flaw of backing the cabinets down using a Front to back method.  Even though we knew the engineers would blow their top if they found out, we called the EPA one day and asked them about it.  The EPA said they didn’t care as long as the precipitator wasn’t physically being altered and we were adjusting the controls to maximize operations.

So, one day when I was in the Precipitator Control Room, I walked over the main processor unit in the middle of the room where the seven sections of 12 cabinets each plugged in.  I took the A row cable and swapped it with G.  I took B and swapped it with F, C and swapped it with E.  D I just left it where it was since it was in the middle.

Then I walked to each Cabinet in a section and swapped the eeprom chip from cabinet 1 and put it in 12.  And from cabinet 2 and put it in 11, and so on.  Without leaving the precipitator control room, I had just changed the order of the cabinets backing down from “Front to Back” to “Back to Front”.  As far as the control room was concerned, nothing changed (unless you looked closely at the voltages on the cabinets on the computer.  The front cabinets usually were around 30kv while the back were closer to 45kv).

So, now that the cabinets were backing down from back to front, everything worked a lot smoother.  No more hourly puffs and wild power swings as cabinets were released.  As long as George didn’t know, he was happy.  The precipitator suddenly was working very well.  So well in fact that one winter while the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator was using only 70 Kilowatts of power and the opacity was well below the 5% threshold.

The space heaters in the precipitator control room were using over 120 kilowatts of power.  More than the entire precipitator.  This is important because normally the precipitator used more power than any other piece of equipment in the plant.  It was not unusual before we had the back down working for one precipitator to use 3 Megawatts of power.  That is 3,000 Kilowatts.

Then one day in 1992 an electric Intern (who later became a full time engineer) came in the precipitator control room with George Bohn while we were calibrating the cabinets one at a time.  George began explaining to Steve Wilson how the precipitator controls worked.  We were in the front section (G row).  George introduced Steve to us and started explaining to him about the back down and how it worked.

Steve Wilson

Steve Wilson

Just then, the cabinet that he was showing him powered up. — oops.  This was a front row cabinet and in George’s mind, they should be the last to power up.  He looked around and could see that the cabinets in F row were still powered down.  I thought, “The jig is up.”  George said, “That’s not right!  That shouldn’t happen!”  (Ok George.  We’ve only been doing this for 3 years and you are just now noticing?).

So, I asked him what the problem was (knowing full well).  He explained that the cabinet in G row had just powered up.  — You could tell when a cabinet was powered down because a certain light in the lower left corner of the display would be on.  I looked at the cabinet and the Primary current limit light was lit.  Obviously not in the back down mode.

So, I said this, “George, this cabinet still is in the back down mode.  You just can’t tell because it is also hitting the primary current limit and both lights won’t light up at the same time.”  — Geez… I thought…. would he believe this hair brain explanation?  George nodded.  Then he went on to explain to Steve what I just said to him as if it was something he knew all the time (even though I sort of just made it up).

A short time after Steve and George left, I found Steve and explained to him that we really do power down the precipitator from back to front instead of front to back, because front to back doesn’t work, and I explained to him why it works better and why we don’t tell George Bohn.  Steve was another sensible engineer that knew how to listen and learn.  I enjoyed the little time I spent working with him.

Well…. The efficiency of the precipitators caught the attention of EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute), and they wanted to come and study our precipitator controls.  Not only the back down feature we were using but also a pulse capability that Environmental Controls had that allowed you to power off for so many electric pulses and then power on again.

So, when the EPRI scientists showed up to test our precipitators for a couple of weeks trying the different modes of operation, I knew that it was important for them to really understand how we were operating the precipitators.  So, after George had taken them to the computers in the control room and explained the back to front back down mode.

I took them aside one at a time and explained to them that even though the computer looked like it was backing down from front to back, it was really backing down from back to front.  I explained to them why we had to do it that way, and I also explained to them why we didn’t let George know about it.  They all seemed to understand, and for the next two weeks no one from EPRI let the cat out of the bag.

To this day I don’t think George knew that we had swapped the direction of the back down from “front to back” to “Back to front”.  At least not until he reads this post.

 

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron February 8, 2014:

    Now I know why George came into my office one day and begged me to have you committed!

    Great story!

    1. Plant Electrician February 8, 2014:

      Yeah. That’s one of the reasons. 🙂

  2. Monty Hansen April 2, 2014:

    I really appreciate how you describe the two methods of problem solving, and how together you could come up with solutions that neither one of you may have thought of.

    1. Plant Electrician April 2, 2014:

      Thanks for your comment Monty. It was annoying at first. I kept wanting Terry to see my point of view. Then I started seeing the benefit of taking both approaches.

Electric Company Substation Transformer Shooter

Originally Posted February 14, 2014:

There has been reports on the news this week about someone who has been shooting transformers in PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) substations in California.  It is interesting that the national news is picking up this story now even though the FBI has been investigating similar attacks since December, and even earlier attacks against PG&E as early as last April, 2013.

These reports always catch my attention because back in the early 1990’s, the electric company where I worked in Oklahoma had their own episode when a shooter was going around shooting at substation transformers, and high voltage electric lines.  At that time it was OG&E, not PG&E that was being plagued by someone that seemed to be randomly attacking the electric grid.

Back in early 1993, the first transformer that was shot by a high powered rifle using armor piercing bullets was in the middle of Stillwater Oklahoma near the Pizza Hut on Perkins Road.  It is easy to remember the location, because it later became very significant when it came down to finding out who might be responsible.

Much like the reaction in California this week, everyone was alerted to keep a watch for anyone acting suspicious near substations and high voltage electric lines.

An Electric Substation.  Who would ever want to damage at something so beautiful?

A High Voltage Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage such a wonderful work of art?

I enjoy watching a TV show called Forensic Files.  It shows how important facts are collected that finally lead to a conviction of someone who has murdered someone.  It is amazing how so many clues are left behind that can be used to prove who is the guilty person.

I suppose the main point that I walk away with after watching a show like this is that criminals are generally pretty stupid.  Especially the really smart ones.  I guess it’s because if they were really smart, then they wouldn’t have turned to a life of crime in the first place.  Maybe it’s like the lazy people that work harder avoiding work than they would if they just did their job.

Of course, working at the Power Plant during  this time meant that we were all put on a kind of “high alert”.  We were extra suspicious of cars parked down side roads near our plant.  Our security guards doubled up a little on their rounds on the lookout for someone suspicious.  In a weird way it brought me back to when I was a dishwasher one summer at the Sirloin Stockade in Stillwater.

When I first moved to Stillwater in the Spring of 1978, right out of High School, I went to work as a dishwasher/busboy/cook at the local Sirloin Stockade franchise restaurant.  This is not the newer company Sirloin Stockade that is on Perkins road today.  No.  This one was on the Strip next to the Oklahoma State University campus.  It was privately owned.

One night during that summer there was a mass murder committed at a Sirloin Stockade in Oklahoma City after the restaurant had closed.  All of the employees had been forced into the freezer and they were all shot in the head.  At the time, no one knew the motive.  It could have been that the murderer (or murderers) could have been upset with Sirloin Stockades in general.

For the rest of the summer, the manager Ken Low, who also managed a hamburger joint up the street for the same owner, would leave the Sirloin Stockade when the restaurant was just closing at 9:00 to go close the other restaurant.  He would leave a young 17 year old boy in charge of closing up the restaurant and getting it ready for when it opened the next morning.  Yeah…. That was me.

I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Ken had suddenly gained a lot of confidence in my ability to handle closing the entire restaurant all by myself the same week that the Sirloin Stockade Massacre happened in Oklahoma City.  Ken was a friend of mine and I understood him well enough.

Me.  I was fearless anyway.  I always seemed to be missing that gene.  So, I just felt that if some murderer came busting in the back door, I would, of course, defend myself by using the handle of the broom I was using to sweep the floor.  Well.  I was 17.  So, of course I was invincible.

The same question was being asked about the person that was shooting the transformers and high voltage lines.  It seemed as if he had a grievance with the electric company.  So, when a witness had seen a man going down a remote country road in the same area where a high voltage electric line was shot, and a sketch of a possible suspect was created, they turned to the employees for help.

I wasn’t much help because I lack the imagination to take a composite drawing and extrapolate it into a person that I know.  If someone were to draw a picture of me and ask me who I thought it was, I probably wouldn’t have a clue.  I guess I lack that gene also.

Other Power Plant Men thought they knew who the drawing depicted.  It reminded them of a former employee at the Power Plant.  His name was Clyde Bateman.  When others told me that, I thought, “Yeah.  I suppose it could be him.”

Clyde had been a chemist at the plant.  He had been fired a year or two before.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing his job well.  His problem was that some days he just wouldn’t show up for work without leaving any word.  It would have been all right if he would have called the plant to let his manager, George Pepple know that he wasn’t going to be able to make it that day.   He just wouldn’t say anything until he returned.

Clyde had been given the appropriate number of warnings and was told that if he didn’t show up to work again without leaving word that he wouldn’t be in, he was going to be fired.  So, the next time that happened, he was “let go”.  No one likes that to happen, because you know that there is some underlying reason for such odd behavior, but we had to keep the plant running, and when you rely on a certain number of employees to keep it going, what can you do?

This by itself wouldn’t make one suspicious that he might turn into someone that would flip his lid and start shooting at electric company assets.  The psychological profile looked more like a Timothy McVeigh type character.  For those of you who are from other countries that read this blog, Timothy McVeigh was a “homegrown” terrorist that decided to blow up a Federal Building in the middle of Oklahoma City one day (along with a number of other accomplices, some of which have never been identified), and he needlessly killed a lot of innocent people.

I didn’t know Clyde that well, so when others suggested that it might be Clyde, I was skeptical.  Then, as the investigation went forward, I learned that Clyde was more like Timothy McVeigh than I had realized. — Well.  At the time, no one had heard of Timothy McVeigh, since that hadn’t happened yet.

Power Plant Men that knew him said that he owned some land behind our power plant and he would go out there at times and blow things up.  He like high powered rifles and all that.  I thought that might be an indication, but it still didn’t convince me.  I also liked to blow things up and I would enjoy shooting high powered rifles if I had the opportunity.  I’m sure many Power Plant Men would enjoy doing the same.

Just a typical High Powered Rifle

Just a typical High Powered Rifle

Remember.  This was back when it was still all right to play cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers.  This was before eating your Pop-Tart until it was in the shape of gun was never given a second thought.  You could even take a Cowboy doll onto a plane with a tiny 1/2 inch plastic gun in the holster without being afraid that the TSA would take it away.

Anyway.  It was later discovered that Clyde Bateman lived in a trailer park behind the Braum’s on Perkins Road in Stillwater.

Braum's is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger.  It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

Braum’s is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger. It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

This was important because his trailer was only about 250 yards from the first transformer that had been shot.  Ok.  With all the other things, this finally convinced me.  They were on the right track.  I think the OSBI (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation) was on his trail and were keeping close tabs on him.  It seems like they even asked us at the plant to not try to contact him or let him know that he was a suspect.

Scott Hubbard, a True Power Plant Electrician was out inspecting the equipment in the substation one day when he noticed a hole in one of the 345KV breaker operating arm enclosures.  Scott thought it looked a lot like a bullet hole, so he alerted the control room.  The control room contacted the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department to come out and look at it.

Sure enough.  It was a bullet hole.  The OSBI recovered the bullet from inside the pipe.  Luckily where the bullet had entered, it had missed hitting anything that would have damaged the equipment.  If the shooter had been a lineman, or an electrician, or from the T&D department, he would have not shot the part that he did.  It looked like a critical part if you didn’t know better.   So, the shooter was not familiar with the equipment he was shooting.  That was clear.

Not only that, but there were much worse targets in the area that would have caused real damage.  So, luckily this was not someone who did a lot of homework.  It was interesting that the first transformer was only a block away from where Clyde lived, and the last shot was at the plant where he used to work.

The breaker was at a spot where he would have had to know to park on a dirt road a mile away and walk across a field to get the shot that he did.  All the plant employees knew that road well.  It was where the public had to go if they wanted to fish in the discharge channel where the warm water exits the condensers.  The fish like it there.

With all that said, Clyde Bateman was due in court in Ponca City on August 11, 1993.  Not for being the shooter that everyone was looking for, but for another offense.  I don’t remember exactly what it was.  He never showed up.  Clyde took his own life that morning.  After that day, there were no more shootings associated with this particular shooter.  it was understood by the employees at the plant that the matter was behind us now.  Business was back to usual.

I mentioned earlier that Clyde turned out to be more of a Timothy McVeigh type than we had originally thought.  I didn’t mean that he was that way because he liked guns, because any self respecting Power Plant Man knows that if you care about your family and want to keep them safe, that a handy firearm is the best way to stop an intruder.

Clyde was an activist.  I found this out only today when I decided to write about him.  I found a very interesting case that the U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit ruled on only two and a half months after Clyde’s death.  You see, Clyde had filed a complaint against the Federal Government alleging that the entire body of federal environmental laws were unconstitutional, because its enactment allegedly exceeded the authority granted in the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, and lacked any other source of constitutional support.  The District Court had ruled that Clyde had no standing.  So he appealed it to the US Appeals Court.

The Appeals court ruled unanimously that Clyde didn’t have any standing to bring this complaint against the Federal Government because (no… not that he was already dead) he hadn’t demonstrated that he was injured by the law.  They didn’t rule that he was wrong about his complaint, only that he didn’t have any standing to file the complaint.

So, as Paul Harvey would have said, “Now you know the rest of the story.”  If you want to read more about the Appeal Courts decision, you can find it here:  “Clyde Bateman v United States of America

Solving the Selection of a Power Plant Solvent

A year after I joined the electricians in the electric shop, Howard Chumbley became my foreman. One day when we were talking about going to the old Osage Plant up the road to clean up a PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) spill, he explained that “In His Day” they used to clean their tools in a vat of transformer oil that was full of PCBs. I remember him telling us that it was normal for him to be up to his elbows in the stuff. They never thought it might be harmful. Now we were getting ready to go up to the old plant to clean up a small spill and I was going to have to suit up in a special hazardous waste suit. I wrote about our experience in the post: “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Rest“.

Now we know about the hazard of developing cancer by having PCBs in your system. Today we know a lot of things we didn’t know back then. We know that Asbestos causes Mesothelioma. We know that Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) destroy the ozone layer. We know that Twinkies are one of the few foods that will be around after a nuclear holocaust.

Years before I became an electrician, the Electric Company had stopped using oil with PCBs. There was still an effort to clean it up from the older plants. At the new coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma, we didn’t have a problem with PCBs. We had other problems. Some of which we didn’t know about (well, we knew something, just not so much) at the time.

A very prominent responsibility of mechanics and electricians was to clean oily equipment. Pumps and motors, breakers, fans, mills. All kinds of equipment. Almost everything was lubricated one way or another with oil. Solvent was used to remove the oil when the equipment needed to be cleaned.

We had a standard kind of solvent at our plant. I believe it was called “Standard Solvent 350”. See…. It was a Standard solvent. Even had the word Standard in the name. One of the key ingredients of this standard solvent is a solvent known as “Stoddard Solvent”. This solvent worked real good when cleaning up equipment like motors and pumps and other oily equipment. Many times we were “Up to our elbows” in this solvent.

We had a barrel in the corner of the electric shop close to the door to the main switchgear where we could put a motor and scrub it clean while solvent poured out of a flexible nozzle on the motor, your shirt, your pants, your work boots, and the floor. Some days during overhauls when we would work cleaning motors for 10 hours each day, I would come home from work drenched in solvent. My wife would make me take my clothes off in the utility room where I could put them directly into the washing machine where Oxydol could go to work on it right away.

When Ted Riddle and I were working for Willard Stark on an overhaul at the gas plant outside Mustang Oklahoma during the spring of 1986, Willard said one day that he wanted to show us something. I explained Willard’s situation at the plant in a post called “Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark“.

He was a good example of what I would call a “Contrarian.” That is, he seemed to buck the system often. He thought outside the box a lot. I realized this right way when we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio during lunch. Every time Paul Harvey would say, “…Noon News and Comment” Willard would always finish the sentence by saying, “Mostly Comment.” I figured then that he had to be a contrarian, because who would ever think that Paul Harvey wasn’t the best person in the world to bring the News to our private little power plant world.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality.  No one will ever fill his shoes.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality. No one will ever fill his shoes.

So, when Willard said he was wanted us to see something “with our own eyes”, I figured this was going to be something good. Probably some kind of secret place where you could hide and take a nap if the day wore on too long, or something like that. Well… It didn’t turn out to be that kind of “something”, but it was something.

Willard took a small metal pan and put some Stoddard Solvent in it. The old gas plant used straight Stoddard Solvent, unlike the more sophisticated Coal-fired plant where Ted Riddle and I normally worked. We walked out into the turbine-generator (T-G) floor. He placed the pan of solvent on the floor, took a WypAll (which is a strong paper rag) and dropped it into the pan:

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple:  WypAlls!

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple: WypAlls!

Then he bent down and with his lighter, he lit the WypAll on fire. We watched as the flames grew higher and higher. Willard watched our expressions. We had been under the understanding that Solvent was not flammable. He explained that technically, Stoddard Solvent is not considered “Flammable”, but it is considered “Combustible”. Combustible means that it burns.

A bucket of Stoddard Solvent

A bucket of Stoddard Solvent. Notice this bucket clearly says “Combustible”

Stoddard Solvent doesn’t ignite fast enough to be considered “Flammable”. At least that’s the way Willard explained it to us. Willard said he wanted us to be aware of this fact when we have our bodies all soaked in solvent, that if we were to catch on fire for some reason, we were going to go up in flames just like that WypAll. We both appreciated the advice.

I didn’t begin this post expecting to say that much about Stoddard Solvent, but just in case you were really wondering what it is, maybe this picture will explain it to you:

A Chemist-eye view of Stoddard Solvent

A Chemist-eye view of Stoddard Solvent

I hope that cleared it up for you.  You have to wonder why they put that “Oh Oh” down there at the bottom.  Almost as if something is supposed to go wrong.

The solvent I really wanted to talk about was one that was used more exclusively in the electric shop. It is called Trichloroethylene 1.1.1. You see, a lot of equipment that we cleaned in the electric shop needed to be cleaned spotless. Solvent 350 would leave a film when it dried. So, in the electric shop when we needed to clean something with electric contacts we would use something called “Electro Contact Cleaner”:

Spray Can of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner - Only the cans we used didn't say CFC Free

Spray Can of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner – Only the cans we used didn’t say CFC Free

This was very expensive compared to the regular solvent. So, I was surprised when Ben Davis and I first went on an overhaul in Muskogee, and they had this exact same contact cleaner in 55 gallon barrels:

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

I remember John Manning showing us a few of these barrels that they had ordered for the overhaul. I think my jaw dropped. By my calculation, one barrel like this would cost over $3,000.00. I figured if it was in cans, it would have cost three times that amount. The advantage of using Contact cleaner was that it dried clean. It didn’t leave a residue.

Trichloroethylene 1.1.1 was like that. It didn’t leave a residue when it dried. I think this will become obvious to you when you see what it really is:

Chemical Composition of Trichoroethylene

Chemical Composition of Trichoroethylene

You can see right off the bat that this is going to dry clean… I mean…. it’s obvious… right?  I think the CLs on three of the corners indicate that it “Cleans” 3 times better than other solvents.

Anyway. This stuff evaporated quickly so when you were up to your elbows in this solvent, it felt cool because it would evaporate causing a cooling effect. It had a very peculiar smell. It also made you feel a little dizzy when you were using it. Especially when you had to breathe in a lot of it in a confined area. Having fans blowing on you seemed to make it worse, because it would increase the evaporation rate filling the air with more solvent.

It was known at the time that Trichloroethylene would destroy your liver when it gets into your blood stream. There was no quicker way of injecting the solvent into your blood stream than by inhaling it. Finally OSHA decided that this solvent was no longer safe to be used in a plant setting. It could only be used in small quantities like “White Out”.

Gee… Who remembers White Out?

A bottle of White Out.  Oh look.  A New Formula!

A bottle of White Out. Oh look. A New Formula!

The last time I heard about white out was in a blonde joke about someone using white out on the computer monitor. Who types anymore on a typewriter? I think anyone today that would choose to type on a typewriter would be the type of person that would prefer a typewriter eraser over white out.

I take that back. The last time I heard about White Out was on a show like 60 Minutes where they were showing young kids in Panama or another Central American country being hooked on tubs of White Out. They would sit around all day taking quick whiffs from a tub of White Out. — Why? Because it contained Trichloroethylene and it would give you a buzz.

My dad, a Veterinary professor at Oklahoma State University had told me about the dangers of Trichloroethylene around the time I told him about Bill McAlister using WD-40 on his elbows to ease the pain of his arthritis. Sonny Karcher had asked me to talk to my dad about it to see if he knew why WD-40 would help Arthritis.

My father (I’ll call him Father in this paragraph, because in this paragraph, he’s being more “sophisticated”) told me that WD-40 had the same chemical in it that Veterinarians used on horses to help their joints when they hurt. Then he warned me that the solvent in WD-40 soaks right into your skin and when it does it carries other toxic chemicals into your body than just the arthritis lineament. So, he told me to tell Sonny not to use it often.

A can of WD40

A can of Power Plant WD40

So, anyway, we had to find a replacement for Trichloroethylene. Tom Gibson and Bill Bennett went to work ordering samples of other kinds of solvents that salesmen were saying would be a good replacement. One of the first that we tried was called Orange Solvent. It had a real nice Orange smell. Sort of like drinking Tang.

Bottle of Orange Solvent

Bottle of Orange Solvent

It had a couple of problems. First, I would be more inclined to drink it since it smelled so good, and I was a fan of Tang at the time.

Tang -  Used by the Astronauts on the Apollo missions

Tang – Used by the Astronauts on the Apollo missions

The second problem with the Orange Solvent was that it didn’t seem to clean very well. We were used to something cutting the oil and contact grease quickly. the Orange Solvent didn’t cut the mustard (so to speak).

One day during overhaul at our plant, Bill Bennett gave us a barrel of some new kind of solvent. It was supposed to be comparable in it’s cleaning ability to Trichloroethylene (could you imagine Red Skelton trying to say that word?)

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

Red Skelton saying “Trichloroethylene”

Bill wanted Andy Tubbs and me (I know!  It seems as if it should be “Andy Tubbs and I”, but “me” is the correct way to say it) to use the new solvent on the main power transformer main bus connectors. They are normally covered with No-Ox Grease so this would be a good test.

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

So, Andy and I carried the large extension ladder out to the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer and leaned it up against the back side. We climbed up to the open hatchways and crawled in. We hung a small yellow blower in the doorway to blow fresh air on us.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Andy and I had everything setup and we were ready to work. We both just fit in the small area with the large bus work between us. We began using our rags soaked in the new solvent on the silver plated bus. I don’t remember how well the solvent cleaned the bus. I just remember thinking that this solvent sure did evaporate quickly. Especially with the blower fan right next to us.

I also remember looking over at Andy crouched across from me. He was looking down at the bus. Then his entire body seemed to swivel around as if he was on some kind of swing which caused him to tilt up the side of the enclosure. I watched his face, and he seemed to be saying something to me, only I couldn’t make it out.

I think I said something like “Huh?” Then about that time all kinds of brightly lit flowers were circling around my head and my arms seemed to be floating in front of me. I heard Andy say with a slur, “We butter git outta here…” His voice sounded like it was in a pipe…. Well, we sort of were sitting in a pipe… He started to move toward the hatchway.

I remember briefly thinking that I was just fine enjoying the interesting scenery. By now there were bright lights streaming toward me from all sides. Then I thought. “No. I better leave.” So, I struggled to pull myself into the hatchway. It was big enough that we could both pull ourselves out together.

I began climbing down the ladder head first. It was about 15 feet to the ground. I was completely out of the hatch with my body completely upside down on the ladder before I decided that it would be better if I turned over and went down feet first. Somehow I managed to swing my feet down and around without falling off the ladder. I think Andy was pretty much in the same predicament as I was.

Once we were on the ground, we hobbled into the electric shop and sat down. We told Bill Bennett that this was not a good solvent to use. I don’t even want to remember what the name of the solvent was. If I mentioned it, someone may put it in some tubs of white out and sell it to kids in Panama, because Trichloroethylene had nothing on this.

I suppose we finally found a replacement solvent. Though, I don’t remember what it was. All I do know is that it was quite an adventure trying to find one. Maybe we just used a lot of Electro contact cleaner after that.

Like Howard Chumbley, who told stories about being up to his elbows in transformer oil made with PCBs, I can now tell my fellow teammates at work, “Yeah. I remember the days when we were up to our elbows in Trichloroethylene. Never gave it a second thought.” Only, their reaction would be a little different than ours were in the electric shop office. They might raise their eyes up from their computer monitors and look across the cubicle at me for a moment. Then give me a look like “there goes that crazy old guy that used to work in a power plant again. Hasn’t he told us that story about 50 times already?” Well…. That solvent and stuff. It makes you forget things…. I can’t remember what I have already said.

Comments from the original Post:

    1. jerrychicken February 22, 2014:

      When I was in my early 20’s my company shipped me up north to a different branch office and so began eight years of living in contractors guest house accommodation in a run down once-holiday-resort town. For about a year we had eight guys who were working on a local power station stay at the guest house, they were “lagging strippers” which wasn’t some night club job for brazen hussy’s but a job where the power station authorities had recognised that the asbestos that clad every single inch of their pipework was dangerous enough to get rid of, but not so dangerous that it had yet been legislated against when treating or handling the stuff (this was 1978/1980-ish).

      The team of eight spent several years travelling the UK chipping off asbestos cement by hand wearing nothing more complicated that a thin paper face mask over their nose and mouth, their work clothing was jeans and tee shirt because as you’ll know, the inside of a power station can be warm work.

      Their rate of pay was at least four times what our “normal” contracting electricians were being paid and our electricians were craftsmen and so on what was considered a “good wage”, the asbestos guys accepted with a shrug of the shoulders that theirs was a dangerous job, it was known that asbestos was dangerous but ther was no H&S law to protect them and so they took the money and hoped they wouldn’t die young – I have no doubt at all that most of them will be dead now as they used to come back to the guest house covered in white dust on the nights when they’d been in a hurry to leave site and not bothered getting changed, hell they probably exposed me to lots of asbestos dust too.

      On one public holiday weekend we’d all gone back to our home towns and returned after the break, except this time there were only seven of them, the other had been to his doctor for a chest infection and an x-ray had revealed a shadow on his lung, the atmosphere was pretty down that week as they all knew what it could be, he never returned to the job.

      As a sign off let me add that theses guys were not stupid or fearless or uncaring about their own mortality, they all had wives and some had young children, but they were mainly unskilled and how much persuasion do you need when you are unskilled and unemployed other than to offer you four times the skilled man rates – I saw lots of our electricians take up the golden wage packets on the oil rigs during the 1970s UK rush for North Sea oil – now there was a dangerous occupation…

  1. Ron February 22, 2014:

    If that Trichloroethylene caused you to have some memory loss today, I can’t even begin to imagine what your memory was like before the exposure. I don’t know of anyone with a memory like yours! I mean – who else can remember the shoe size of his cub scout leader’s nephew’s neighbor?

    I have a bottle of White-out in my desk today and use it regularly. I play an Eb Contra Bass Clarinet. Most of the music we play is not scored for my instrument so I’ll use Tuba, String Bass, Cello, Bassoon, etc. music (all in “C”) and transpose it to Eb. It takes a little White-out sometimes.

    I love Saturday mornings!