Category Archives: Adventure

Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back

The 2nd of the “Rest Of” Power Plant Posts

Originally Posted on April 13, 2012:

There are some days you wish you could take back after making a grand decision that turns out to look really dumb when your decision fails. It is important to think outside the box to break new ground as long as you bring common sense along for the ride.

It seemed that during the days when I was a summer help, and even when I was a laborer on Labor Crew that in order to be promoted you had to come up with one grand idea that set you apart from the others and that also failed miserably.

It was said that the electrical supervisor there before Leroy Godfrey (I can see his face, but his name escapes me.  Jackie somebody), was promoted to that position after he caused the destruction of one of the Intake pump motors (a very large pump that can pump 189,000 gallons of water per minute).

To name a couple of minor “Faux Pas” (how do you pluralize that word? I don’t know — Faux Pauses?), let me start out with the least embarrassing and less dangerous and work my way to the most embarrassing and most dangerous of three different stories of someone thinking out of the box while leaving common sense somewhere behind and maybe wishing they could take back that day.

The first two stories both involve the Electrical Supervisors of two different Power Plants.

Tom Gibson, the Electrical Supervisor from our plant was trying to find a way to keep moisture out of the Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pumps. This was a recurring problem that required a lot of man hours to repair. The bell shaped pump would have to be pulled, the motor would have to be disassembled and dried, and new seals would have to be put in the pump to keep it from leaking.

A Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pump or BAOSP for Short

So, Tom Gibson decided that he was going to fill the motor and pump cavity with turbine oil. All electricians knew that oil used in turbines is an insulator so electrically it wouldn’t short anything out. But something in the back of your mind automatically says that this isn’t going to work.

I remember helping to fill the motor up with oil in the Maintenance shop and hooking up some motor leads from the nearby Maintenance shop 480 volt switchgear. Needless to say, as soon as the pump was turned on, it tripped the breaker and oil began leaking from the cable grommet.

That’s when common sense tells you that the all the oil causes too much drag on the rotor which will cause a 480 motor to trip very quickly. After removing some of the oil and trying it again with a larger breaker and still having the same result Tom was satisfied that this just wasn’t going to work.

The pump and motor was sent away to a nearby electric shop to be rewound and other ways were developed by the help of our top notch machinist genius Randy Dailey who came up with a positive air pressure way to keep water out of the Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pump and motor (also known as the BAOSP). Not much harm done and Tom Gibson didn’t feel too bad for trying something that the rest of us sort of thought was mildly insane.

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

The next story was told to me by my dear friend Bob Kennedy when I was working at a Gas Powered Plant in Midwest City and he was my acting foreman and backed up by the rest of the electricians as they sat there nodding their heads as Bob told this story.

So I didn’t witness this myself. This one was a little more dangerous, but still thankfully, no one was hurt. Ellis Rooks, the Electrical Supervisor needed to bump test a 4200 Volt motor and wanted to do it in place (bump testing is when you switch something on and off quickly.  Usually to see which way it turns). For some reason he was not able to use the existing cables, maybe because that was the reason the motor was offline. Because one of the cables had gone to ground.

So, he decided that since the motor only pulled 5 to 10 amps he could use #10 wire (the size wire in your home) and string three of them (for the three phases of the motor) from the main High Voltage switchgear across the turbine room floor over to the motor. Now, most electricians know how many amps different size wires can generally handle. It goes like this: #14 – 15 amps, #12 – 20 amps, #10 – 30 amps, #8 – 50 amps and on down (smaller numbers mean bigger wires).

So, Ellis thought that since the motor only pulls around 5 amps, and he only wanted to bump the motor (that is, turn it on and off quickly) to watch it rotate, he thought that even though there was normally three 3 – 0 cables (pronounced three aught for 3 zeroes, very large wire designed for 200 amps) wired to the motor, this would be all right because he was only going to bump it.

This works when you are using is 120 or 220 volts

Needless to say, but I will anyway, when the motor was bumped, all that was left of the #10 wires were three black streaks of carbon across the turbine room floor where the wire used to exist before it immediately vaporized.

You see, common sense tells you that 4200 volts times 5 amps = 21,000 watts of power. However, the starting amps on a motor like this may be around 50 to 100 amps, which would equal 210 to 420 Kilowatts of power (that is, 420,000 watts or more than 2/5 of a Megawatt). Thus vaporizing the small size 10 wire that is used to wire your house.

I think until the day that Ellis Rooks retired he was still trying to figure out where he went wrong.  There must have been something defective with those wires.

All right. I have given you two relatively harmless stories and now the one about cracking the boiled egg in the boiler. This happened when I was still a janitor but was loaned to the Labor Crew during outages. When the boiler would come offline for an outage, the labor crew would go in the boiler and knock down clinkers and shake tubes to clean out clinkers that had built up around the boiler tubes in the intermediate pressure area of the boiler.

Clinkers are a hard buildup of ash that can become like large rocks, and when they fall and hit you on the head, depending on the size, can knock you to the floor, which makes wearing your hardhat a must. Your hardhat doesn’t help much when the clinkers falling from some 30 feet above hits you on your shoulder, so I always tried to suck my shoulders up under my hardhat (like a turtle pulling in his arms and legs) so that only my arms were left unprotected.

It wasn’t easy looking like a pole with no shoulders, but I tried my best. I think Fred Crocker the tallest and thinnest person on Labor Crew was the best at this.  This is the Reheater area of the boiler in the diagram below:

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

Before we could get into the boiler to start shaking tubes, the dynamiters would go in there first and blow up the bigger clinkers. So, for a couple of days some times, at the beginning of an overhaul, you would hear someone come over the PA system about every 20 minutes saying, “Stand Clear of Number One Boiler, We’re Gonna Blast!!!” This became so common to hear over the years that unless you were up on the boiler helping out, you didn’t pay any attention to it.

This is something that is only done at a Coal-fired Power Plant because Gas Plants don’t create Ash that turns into Clinkers. Maybe some Soot, I don’t know, but not Ash. Which brings to mind a minor joke we played on Reginald Deloney one day when he came from a gas plant to work on overhaul.  Reggie automatically reminded you of Richard Pryor.  He had even developed a “Richard Pryor” way of talking.

Richard Pryor trying to look like Reggie Deloney

Richard Pryor trying to look like Reggie Deloney

We were going to work on a Bowl Mill motor first thing, which is down next to the boiler structure in an enclosed area. We brought our roll around large toolbox and other equipment over to the motor. Andy Tubbs and Diana Brien were there with Reggie and me. I think Gary Wehunt was there with us also.

When someone came over the PA system saying, “Stand Clear of Number Two Boiler, We’re Gonna Blast”, all of us dropped everything and ran for the door as if it was an emergency. Reggie, not knowing what was going on ran like the dickens to get out in time only to find us outside laughing at the surprised look on his face.

Like this

Like this

Anyway. That wasn’t the day that someone wished they could take back, but I thought I would throw that one in anyway so that now Reggie will wish that he could take back that day.

When I was loaned to Labor Crew, and we were waiting on the boiler for the dynamiters to blast all the large clinkers, the engineer in charge, Ed Hutchins decided that things would go a lot quicker if all the laborers would go into the boiler and shake tubes while the dynamiters were setting their charges (which wasn’t the normal procedure.  Normally we waited until the dynamiters were all done). Then we would climb out when they were ready to blast, and then go back in. So, we did that.

All 10 or so of us climbed into the boiler, and went to work rattling boiler tubes until we heard someone yell, “Fire In The Hole!!!” Then we would all head for the one entrance and climb out and wait for the blast.

The extra time it took to get all of us in the boiler and back out again actually slowed everything down. We weren’t able to get much work done each time, and everyone spent most of their time climbing in and out instead of working, including the dynamiters.

So Ed had another brilliant idea. What if we stayed in the boiler while the dynamite exploded? Then we wouldn’t be wasting valuable time climbing in and out and really wouldn’t have to stop working at all.

Of course, common sense was telling us that we didn’t want to be in an enclosed boiler while several sticks worth of dynamite all exploded nearby, so the engineer decided to prove to us how safe it was by standing just inside the entrance of the boiler with his ear plugs in his ears while the dynamite exploded.

The dynamiters at first refused to set off the charges, but after Ed and the labor crew convinced them (some members on the labor crew were anxious for Ed to try out his “brilliant idea”) that there really wouldn’t be much lost if the worst happened, they went ahead and set off the dynamite.

Needless to say…. Ed came wobbling his way out of the boiler like a cracked boiled egg and said in a shaky voice, “I don’t think that would be such a good idea.” All of us on the Labor Crew said to each other, “..As if we needed him to tell us that.” I think that may be a day that Ed Hutchins would like to take back. The day he learned the real meaning of “Concussion”. I think he was promoted shortly after that and went to work in Oklahoma City at Corporate Headquarters.

Comments from Original Post:

  • eideard April 21, 2012

    When you have pallets double-stacked, you should only move them about with a pallet jack. The bottom pallet – and whatever is stacked on it – is thoroughly supported. And even if the pallet jack is powered, you aren’t likely to get in trouble with rapid acceleration.

    As you would with a fork lift truck.

    And the double stacked pallets are truck mirrors boxed for shipment to retailers. A couple hundred mirrors. And I dumped both pallets when I went to back up and turn into the warehouse aisle.
    :)

  • jackcurtis May 5, 2012

    Modern parables like these are much too good to waste! They should be included in every freshman Congressman’s Washington Welcome Kit when he first takes office and new ‘reminder’ versions again every time he wins an election. These are wonderful essays on unintended consequences, at which our Congress is among the best!

    Comments from Previous repost:

    1. John Comer April 28, 2014

      I worked with Ed on the Precipitator control replacement project (84 controls X 2) in 2006 I think. He was getting ready to retire at the time. He was a good engineer and a tough customer. I was working for the control supplier and those 168 controls were the first installation of a brand new control design. I had lead the design team for the controls and this was the culmination of our work. I spend more days and nights than I can remember going up and down the aisles of controls loading software fixes into the processors! Anyway, great people at the plant and great memories… including a rapper control cabinet that took the express route to the ground elevation from the precip roof! (ouch, it really is the sudden stop that gets you!)

      1. Plant Electrician April 28, 2014

        Thanks for the comment John! It’s good to hear about improvements to the Precipitator and the control rooms I used to call home.  I spend many weekends walking back and forth through those control rooms.

    2. A.D. Everard August 3, 2014

      OMG – The very thought of a group staying in the boiler when the dynamite went off! Thank goodness THAT didn’t happen. I felt the tension just reading that bit. I’m glad Ed came out of it all right.

Indian Curse or Brown and Root Blunder

The 1st of the “Rest Of” Power Plant Posts

Originally posted on February 18, 2012.

I worked at Sooner Coal-fired power plant about a month during the summer of 1979 before I heard about the Indian curse that had been placed on the plant before they started construction.  It came up by chance in a conversation with Sonny Karcher and Jerry Mitchell when we were on our way to the coalyard to do something.

I was curious why Unit 1 was almost complete but Unit 2 still had over a year left before it was finished even though they both looked pretty much identical.  When I asked them that question I didn’t expect the answer that I received, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear about an Indian Curse.  It did explain, however, that when we drove around by Unit 2. Sonny would tense up a little looking up at the boiler structure as if he expected to see something.

Sonny Karcher

The edge of the plant property is adjacent to the Otoe-Missouria Indian Tribe.  It was said that for some reason the tribe didn’t take too kindly to having a huge power plant larger than the nearby town of Red Rock taking up their view of the sunrise (at least until the tax revenue started rolling in from the plant building the best school in the state at the time).  So it was believed that someone in the Indian tribe decided to place a curse on the plant that would cause major destruction.

I heard others say that the plant was built on Holy Indian Burial ground.  At the time it seemed to me that this was a rumor that could easily be started and very hard to prove false.  Sort of like a “Poltergeist” situation.  Though, if it was true, then it would seem like the burial site would most likely be located around the bottom of Unit 2 boiler (right at the spot where I imagined the boiler ghost creeping out to grab Bob Lillibridge 4 years later.  See the post Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost).

I am including an aerial picture of the immediate plant grounds below to help visualize what Jerry and Sonny showed me next.

This is a Google Earth Image taken from their website of the power plant.  In this picture you can see the two tall structures; Unit 1 on the right with Unit 2 sitting right next to it just like the two boilers that you see in the picture of the plant to the right of this post.  They are each 250 feet tall.  About the same height as a 25 story building.

Notice that next to Unit 2 there is a wide space of fields with nothing there.  The coalyard at the top is extended the same distance but the coal is only on the side where the two units are.  This is because in the future 4 more units were planned to be built in this space.  Sooner Lake was sized to handle all 6 units when it was built.  But that is another story.

At the time of this story the area next to Unit 2 between those two roads you see going across the field was not a field full of flowers and rabbits and birds as it is today.  It was packed full of huge metal I-Beams and all sorts of metal structures that had been twisted and bent as if some giant had visited the plant during the night and was trying to tie them all into pretzels.

Sonny explained while Jerry drove the truck around the piles of iron debris that one day in 1976 (I think it was) when it was very windy as it naturally is in this part of Oklahoma, in the middle of the day the construction company Brown and Root called off work because it was too windy.  Everyone had made their way to the construction parking lot when all of the sudden Unit 2 boiler collapsed just like one of the twin towers.

It came smashing down to the ground.  Leaving huge thick metal beams twisted and bent like they were nothing more than licorice sticks.  Amazingly no one was killed because everyone had just left the boilers and were a safe distance from the disaster.

Needless to say this shook people up and those that had heard of an Indian Curse started to think twice about it.  Brown and Root of course had to pay for the disaster, which cost them dearly.  They hauled the pile of mess off to one side and began to rebuild Unit 2 from the ground up.  This time with their inspectors double checking the torque (or tightness) of every major bolt.

This brings to mind the question…  If a 250 foot tall boiler falls in the prairie and no one is injured… Does it make a sound?

In the years that followed, Sooner Plant took steps to maintain a good relationship with the Otoe Missouria tribe.  Raymond Lee Butler a Native American from the Otoe Missouria tribe and a machinist at the plant was elected chief of their tribe (or chairman as they call it now).  But that (as I have said before) is another story which you may read here:  Chief Among Power Plant Machinists.

Comment from Earlier Post:

eddie hickman March 20, 2013

I was there the day unit 2 fell, I was walking to the brass shack, just came down from unit 2 when we noticed the operator of the Maniwoc 5100 crane did not secure the crane ball to the boiler or the crane to keep it from swaying in the wind. I kept watching the crane ball slamming into the steel causing the boiler to sway and within a minute I watched it fall from 50 yards away and took off running,the whole unit was going up quick because B&R were behind schedule,and the most of the steel hadn’t been torqued yet by the bolt up crew.

The Heart of a Power Plant

Favorites Post #100

Originally posted December 26, 2015

I was considered the one that “got away”.  Power Plant Men don’t normally leave the Power Plant to go work somewhere else unless they are retiring, being laid off, or for some other compelling reason.  I freely walked away of my own accord August 16, 2001.  I left a job where I could have worked until the day I retired and instead decided to step out into the unknown.  But… that was the way I had arrived on May 7, 1979, 22 years earlier.

Just as I had driven onto the plant grounds those many years ago, unsure what I was going to encounter, I was now leaving the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to change my career and become an IT programmer for Dell Computers in Round Rock Texas.  When I arrived my first day at the plant, I had no idea what I was stepping into…  The day I left I was in the exact same boat.

The Intake is just to the right of this picture across the canal

The Power Plant

So far, I have gone through my life accepting whatever happens as something that happens for a reason.  With that in mind, I have the belief that whatever the future holds, I just need to hang in there and everything will work out for the best, even though it may not seem like it at the time.  Let me tell you about this experience….

I had accepted the job offer from Dell early in January.  My start date had been set for June 4, 2001.  They were giving me $3,000 for moving expenses to move down to Round Rock when I finished college in May.  I was being hired as an undergraduate college hire.  I would be starting at a slightly smaller salary than my base salary as an electrician.

Dell-Logo

I was taking a considerable cut in salary when you consider the overtime that a Power Plant electrician racked up in a year.  I figured I was starting at the bottom of the ladder in my new job, where I was pretty well topped out at the plant with no opportunity to advance in sight.  Maybe in a few years my salary would catch up and surpass what I made as an electrician.

For about 10 weeks, we drove down to the Austin area to look for a house on the weekends.  It became apparent soon after our house hunting began that the cost of houses was somewhat higher than they were in Stillwater Oklahoma.  We finally had a contract on a house in Round Rock, just 10 minutes away from the main Dell campus.

While we were looking for a house in the Round Rock area, we kept hearing on the radio that Dell was laying off thousands of employees.  The Internet bubble had burst and the drop in sales of computers was taking a toll on the company.  Every time I called the recruiter, I would find that they had been laid off and I had been assigned a different recruiter.  This was disheartening to say the least.

Here I was in a perfectly secure job as an electrician at the Power Plant and I was leaving it to go work for a company that was in the middle of laying off employees.  My wife Kelly and I had been saying one Novena after the other that we make the correct decision about what we should do, and we had chosen Dell Computer.  It just seemed like the right place to go.  So, we decided to just go along with it.

We prayed the Infant Of Prague Novena every day that we made the right choice.

The Infant of Prague is a statue of Jesus as a Boy in a Church in Prague in the Czech Republic

The Infant of Prague is a wax statue of Jesus as a Boy in a Church in Prague, Czech Republic

I gave the plant a 3 month notice that I would be leaving in June.  We had timed the purchase of the house in Round Rock for Friday, June 1.  I would start work the following Monday.  Dell was going to send me my moving expenses on May 4th, one month before my job would begin.

On the morning of Thursday, May 3rd, our realtor in Stillwater called and said she had a contract to sell our home in Stillwater and was going to head out to our house for us to sign.  I had stayed home from work that morning for that reason.  We were expecting her to arrive at 9:00 am.

At 8:30 I received a call from Dell computers that went something like this….. “Kevin, I am calling to inform you that your offer for employment has changed (sinking panicking feeling in stomach).  Your first day will no longer be June 4, but will be August 20 (2-1/2 months later).  The good news is that you still have a job with Dell, it just doesn’t start until August.”

Since I was expecting the moving expenses the following day on May 4, I asked the recruiter about that.  He said that since my start date was moved to August, I wouldn’t receive the moving expenses until July.  I told him that I was in the middle of buying a house in Round Rock and that I was counting on that money.  He said he would see what he could do about that.

I hung up the phone and looked at Kelly who was standing there watching my face go from a normal tan to a red glow, then an ashen color all in the matter of 20 seconds.  I explained to her that Dell said I still had a job, but it wouldn’t start until August.

The Realtor was going to be arriving in about 20 minutes for us to sign to sell our house.  Everything was in motion.  It took Kelly and I about 5 minutes to discuss our options before we decided that since we had been praying to make the right choice, we were going to go with this new development.

I called Louise Kalicki, our HR supervisor at the plant and told her that Dell had moved my start date from June 4 to August 20, and I wondered if I could stay on the extra two and a half months.  I was surprised that she had an answer for me so quickly, but here is what she said, “We can keep you on until August 17, but after that date, we will no longer have a job for you.”  I thanked her, and hung up the phone.

Our realtor arrived with the contract for us to sign to sell our house with five acres.  When she walked in the kitchen, I told her what had just happened 1/2 hour earlier.  I could see the sick look on her face after she had worked so hard for so many months to find a buyer for our house.  Here I was telling her that Dell was postponing my hire date.

When I came to the part about where we decided to go ahead with our plans and sell the house and move to Round Rock, I could see all the tension that had been building up behind her ever increasing bulging eyes suddenly ease off.  We signed the papers and our house was set to be sold on June 29.  I had to swing a loan for the month where I bought the house in Round Rock and I sold my house in Stillwater (and hoped that the house was actually sold on time).

A few hours later I received a call from the Dell recruiter saying that he had pulled a few strings and I was going to receive my moving expenses the following day.  The following week after that, the recruiter that had helped me had been laid off as well.

When my final day had arrived on August 16 (I was working 4 -10s, and my last work day that week was Thursday), I was given a going away party (see the post “Power Plant Final Presentation“).  The party was over around 1:30 and I was free to leave.

I said my goodbye’s to my friends in the office area and went down to the electric shop to gather up the rest of my things and leave.  Scott Hubbard asked me if he could trade his Multimeter with me since I had a fancy True RMS Multimeter and he was still using an older version.  So, I traded him, and picked up my tool bucket and headed for the parking lot.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

As I approached my car, I could see that Diana Brien was out there waiting for me to leave.  She gave me a Chocolate Chip Cookie the size of a pizza and said she wanted to say goodbye to me and tell me that she had enjoyed being my bucket buddy all those years.  I told her I was going to miss her and everyone else in the shop.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

With that I climbed in my car and drove away.

When I was selling my house outside Stillwater, I thought that the thing I was going to miss the most was the wide open spaces where we lived.  Our house was on a hill in the country overlooking the city of Stillwater.  We had an Atrium in the living room where you could sit and look at the city lights at night and watch thunderstorms as they blasted transformers around the town (that was my favorite part.  Watching transformers explode when hit by lightning).

I was moving into a neighborhood where the house next to ours was no more than 15 feet away.  I thought I’m really going to miss this house….  I thought that until the moment I drove out of the parking lot at the Power Plant.

Then it suddenly hit me….  What about my family?  What about all those people I have just left behind?  When am I ever going to see them?  The thought of missing my house never entered my mind from that moment on.  It was replaced by the great pain one feels when they pack up and walk away from their family not knowing if you will ever see them again.

My heart was still back there with the Power Plant Men and Women I left behind.

The seven hour drive from the plant to Round Rock Texas was a blur.  I knew that I had just closed one door and stepped into an entirely new world.  I didn’t even know if I would like being a programmer when it came down to it.  I had always just been a hacker and I knew that I had a lot of holes in my knowledge.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to be any good at my job.

To make that long story short, I have never regretted my move to Round Rock Texas.  I have just gone with the flow knowing that whatever happens, it happens for a reason.  After 12 1/2 years working at Dell, I changed jobs again to work for General Motors in their IT department where I am currently working with the Onstar team (and now working on Kronos the timekeeping application).

My friends at Dell asked me the past few years… “Are you going to write about us like you do with the Power Plant Men?”  My reply to that question was “I don’t know… Maybe I will.  I haven’t thought about it.”

That was the same thing I told Sonny Karcher the first day I arrived at the Power Plant and he asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated college.  I told him. “I don’t know.  I was thinking about becoming a writer.”  His next question was, “Are you going to write about us?”  I replied, “Maybe I will.  I haven’t thought about it.”

And here I am.

Power Plant Invisible Diesel Oil Spill Drill

Favorites Post #97

Originally posted April 4, 2015

Many times in my life I have been in both the right place at the right time and avoided the wrong place at the wrong time.  I have attributed this to either a very persistent Guardian Angel, or the sheer luck of someone who usually walks around in a mist more as an observer than a commander. Either way, it has made for an interesting life.

One spring day in 1996 I had a job to perform at the Intake pumps (Condenser Water Pumps).  These are the pumps that pump lake water through the condensers just below the Turbine Generators at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Each pump can pump 189,000 gallons per minute.  This particular day I had to work on the overhead crane at the intake because it wasn’t working correctly.

It was a perfectly cool sunny morning, so I decided instead of finding a truck or a four wheeler I was going to just walk the quarter of a mile to the intake.

Honda Four Wheeler

Power Plant Honda Four Wheeler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and headed for the intake.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

Just as I left the maintenance shop, I could glance to the right and see the sand filter building next to the water treatment plant directly across the road.  This was where I had worked with Ed Shiever 13 years earlier when I had rambled on for days testing his sanity.  See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“.  This was also where I had my first brush with death at the hands of Curtis Love.  See the post “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“.

Just beyond the water treatment plant are the large fields of grass where 16 years earlier I had learned my lesson about listening from Ken Conrad.  See the post “When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays to Listen“.  When I first came to work at the plant years earlier, this large field was nothing but dirt.  On this day, the fields were green from the spring rain.

The intake was just across the field.  It was a perfect day for a walk, and I did need the exercise.

The Intake is just to the right of this picture across the canal

The Intake pumps are just to the right of this picture across the canal

The picture of the plant above shows how the intake is across a field from the main plant.  On the very far left in the picture you can see the edge of a large tank.

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

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

In this picture you can see the four pumps at the bottom of the picture.  You can also see why people who live around the plant love their beautiful countryside.  In the distance you can see glimpses of the Arkansas River.  The lake was formed by pumping water from the river up hill.  The Intake overhead crane is just above the white truck parked at the intake.  That was my destination this particular morning.

As I walked down the road toward the intake a company truck drove by rather slow.  It was being driven by someone from Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I recognized Julia Bevers sitting in the passenger seat.  She was in the Safety Department.  Toby O’Brien may have been in the truck as well.  They slowed down enough to have a good look at me.

I waved at them and they waved back.  They had curious grins on their faces.  With years of Power Plant Jokes under my belt, I recognized that grin as one indicating that something was up.  So, as I continued walking, I watched them closely.  They turned left at the road across from the large Number 2 Diesel Oil Tanks.  Each tank could hold up to one million gallons of oil, though, we never kept that much oil in them.

This is an overhead view of the plant

This is a Google Maps overhead view of the plant

In the picture above you can see two white round circles just right of the center of the picture.  These are the oil tanks.  The long line running from the coalyard to the plant is called 10 and 11 conveyors.  They carry the coal from the crusher to the plant.  The truck from Oklahoma City turned left on the road from the right side of the plant by the tanks.  I was about halfway up this road when they drove by.

After they turned the corner, they parked their truck under the conveyor.  You can see this area clearly in the first picture of the plant above taken from across the intake.  All three occupants climbed out of the truck and walked into the field.  They were all looking around as if they knew something was out there and were trying to find it.

My curiosity was definitely stirred by now, so as I walked by their truck, without saying anything, I gave Julia a funny look.  She looked at the other two as if she should say something.  Finally one of them said, “There has been an oil spill right here in this field.  A Diesel oil truck spilled a bunch of oil here and it’s going to be flowing into that drain over there and if it does, it’s going to end up in the lake.”

I could see that obviously there was no oil in the field.  Now that I think about it, the third person may have been Chris McAlister.  He had worked on the labor crew at our plant before the downsizing.  He was given a job in the safety department and had been assigned to track hazardous materials for the company.

Julia said that this is a drill for the Hazwoper team at the plant.  In a few minutes they are going to sound the alarm that an oil spill has taken place, and they are going to see how long it takes for the Hazwoper team to arrive and alleviate the problem.  Julia grinned again, because she knew that I was a member of the hazwoper team.

The word Hazwoper is an acronym that stands for “Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Rescue”.  Our team was the “ER” in HAZWOPER.  We were the Emergency Rescue team.  Julia told me to just go about doing what I’m doing.  In a few minutes they would sound the alarm.

I walked over to the Intake Switchgear.  This is the little building next to the road at the very bottom of the picture above taken from the smoke stack.  This was my first stop when checking out the overhead crane.  Since the crane wasn’t working, I wanted to make sure that the power to the crane was turned on before assuming that there was a more complicated problem.  You would be surprised sometimes.  Those are best problems to solve.  Just close the breaker and the problem is solved.

Instead of checking the breaker to the crane, I was more interested in the Gray Phone on the wall by the door.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

This was our PA system.  You could page someone on it and wherever you were in the plant, you could usually find the nearest gray phone and immediately be in touch with the person you were trying to find.  At this point, we all carried radios, so we rarely needed to use the gray phones.

We kept the Gray Phones around for safety reasons.  There were some places where the radios didn’t work well.  At this moment, I didn’t want to talk on the radio where anyone could listen. — well, they could on the gray phone, but only if they went to one and picked it up and turned to the same channel.

I paged George Pepple, our head Chemist and the Doctor that did the Jig in the puddle of acid 17 years earlier in the Water Treatment plant.  See the Post “A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“.  Doctor George was also the leader of the Hazwoper team.

When George answered the phone, I told him about the oil spill drill that was about to happen.  Julia had told me to go about doing what I was doing, but she hadn’t told me not to tell anyone, so…  I did.  I explained to him that the Hazwoper team was about to be called to respond to an oil spill by the intake.  We will need some oil absorbing floats to put around the pipe where the drain in the field empties into the intake.  We also needed something to block the drain so that the oil won’t go down the drain in the first place.

George understood and I left him to it.  A few minutes later, a call came over the radio that the Hazwoper team was required at the intake to respond to a Diesel Oil Spill.  It’s interesting, but even though I was anticipating the call, when it came over the radio, a lump of excitement went up in my throat.  I become emotional over the silliest things some times (even typing that sentence just caused my eyes to tear up).

I left my tool bucket in the switchgear, and took only my radio as I jogged back to the three people standing in the field.  About the same time that I arrived, Dr. George pulled up with a truckload of Hazwoper Heroes.  They piled out of the back of the truck and began spreading out oil booms to catch the oil before it went down the drain.  A couple headed for the intake, but the Safety team said that wouldn’t be necessary.  I can remember Ray Eberle, Randy Dailey and Brent Kautzman being there.  There were others.  They can leave a comment below to remind me.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

The final result of the Hazwoper Oil Spill Drill was that our Plant Hazwoper team was able to respond to the oil spill in four minutes.  Much faster than any other plant.  Of course, this was partly because I happened to be in the right place at the right time.  The Safety Team said that was perfectly all right.  The drill was setup so it took place during the normal operation of the plant, and I just happened to be working nearby that day.

I know this isn’t what you were waiting to hear.  I know that you are sitting at the edge of your seat wondering if I’m ever going to tell you what was wrong with the overhead crane.  Well.  It wasn’t as simple as turning the power back on.  Actually, when it came down to it.  We didn’t even have a wiring diagram or a schematic of how the overhead crane worked.

an overhead crane. The gray panels on the far side is where the controls were found

an overhead crane. The gray panels on the far side is where the controls were found

So, I took a bunch of notes in my 3 x 5 handy dandy pocket-sized Sparco Notepad:

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

After I made my way back to the plant, I went pulled out a ruler, and a blueprint stencil

Electric Symbol Stencil

Electric Symbol Stencil

and I drew the following wiring diagram for the Crane Hoist Controls:

Intake Crane control Circuit

Intake Crane control Circuit

After troubleshooting the controls with Charles Foster, it turned out that the problem was in the push button controls.  A button was malfunctioning and needed to be fixed.

Push button controls for the Overhead crane

Push button controls for the Overhead crane

Anyway, not long after the Hazwoper Spill Test, our Confined Space Rescue team was also tested.  We received a call that someone was down in the Truck scales and had passed out.  The Confined Space Rescue team was called to rescue them.

This consisted of taking our equipment bags with us and arriving at the truck scales to rescue a person that had climbed down inside and had passed out.  When we arrived, we found that this was only a drill.  The Safety department from Oklahoma City was testing our Confined Space Rescue team to see how long it took us to respond.

I could point out in the overhead picture of the plant exactly where the truck scales are, but it would take a long time.  Let me just say that they are in the upper left part of the picture where that road looks like it widens at the corner where that smaller road branches off to the upper left.

Our response time?  Four minutes and 30 seconds.  And this time, we didn’t know this one was coming.

About being in the right place at the right time…. I was in the right place when I first became a summer help at the plant.  I was in the right place when Charles Foster asked me if I would think about becoming an electrician.  I was in the right place when I was on Labor Crew and the electricians had a opening in their shop.  But most of all, I was in the right place in history to be able to spend 20 years of my life with such a great bunch of Power Plant Men and Women at the best power plant in the country.

Power Plant Blackbirds and Smokestack Jumpers

Favorites Post #96

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 coal yard 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 29,568 high voltage wires in the precipitator, and 672 rappers that bang on the 7,560 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 two. 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 Trouble With Angels

Favorites Post #93

Originally posted March 21, 2015

Okay, so, no one ever called me an Angel unless it was one of the fallen type.  I suppose the closest was when Bill Bennett, our A Foreman at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma would call me a scamp.  I don’t know why, but I always seemed to be in trouble over one thing or another.  Well… maybe I do know why.

Not long after Bill Bennett left during the downsizing in 1994, when our Supervisor over Maintenance was Jasper Christensen, we had received newer computers all around the plant.  That is, except for the Electric Shop, because we had acquired one a year or so before so that we could program Eeprom Chips.

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpitator controls

I helped install the computers all around the plant.  I had run the Ethernet cables and installed the jacks so they could be connected to the plant computer network.  I had become the computer person for the plant by default, since I had learned how everything worked on my own.

When we received all the new computers, we were told that we had to keep an inventory of all the computer programs that we were using on each computer to make sure that we weren’t using pirated software (like that every happened).  So, when we installed any program on a computer we were supposed to notify our Supervisor, who in this case was Jasper Christensen.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

I sort of felt sorry for Jasper at times, because, it’s sort of like when you don’t get to choose your parents…. Jasper didn’t get to choose who was working for him exactly.  So, he was stuck with me.

I’m not saying that I was a bad person, or that I wasn’t good at being an electrician.  I was just annoying.  I was always up to some sort of something that no one really told me to do.

One example of this was that I had a CompuServe account, and I would use it to access stock quotes at the end of the day.  I would save them to a file, and then each week, I would pin up charts of our 401k stocks on the bulletin board in the electric shop.  Power Plant Men would come into the shop to see how their stocks were doing.  At this time, the “Internet” hadn’t been introduced to the plant and people didn’t really know much about it.  I would connect to CompuServe through a dial up modem.

 

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

I had a 14,400 baud modem with compression that made it more like 104,000 baud which was really fast for that time.   However, when the World Wide Web became available to CompuServe users, I found that even at that speed, it took a long time just to load one web page if it had a picture on it.  The Internet was just around the corner.  I’ll write a post about how it was introduced at the plant next week. (See the post “Power Plant Quest for the Internet“).

I diligently kept a log of all the software we had on our company computer.  Whenever I would upgrade CompuServe to the latest version, I would send a form to Jasper letting him know that I now had that version of software on the electric shop computer.  We also had installed other software, such as Reflex, which was sort of a hybrid between Excel and Access.  This was still a DOS based computer.  Windows 3.1 was on it, but a lot of our programs were still run in the DOS mode.

About 6 months after all the new computers arrived, we requested that the computer in the electric shop be replaced, because it was older, and we were using it for more and more things.  The computer arrived about a month after it was approved.

This time, an IT guy from Oklahoma City brought the computer to the plant.  This computer was better than all the other computers in the plant, mainly because it was newer.  At that time, computers were quickly improving.  If you waited six months more it would have even been a better computer.  While the IT guy was in the neighborhood, he installed some software on all the computers.

I was working on the roof of the Unit 2 Precipitator with Charles Foster the day that the Electric Shop received the new computer.  Alan Kramer, our Foreman, called me on the radio (walkie talkie)…  He did this because we were using radios a lot more, and were talking about shutting down the Gray Phone PA system all together.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

Alan said that Jasper wanted to use the new Electric Shop computer at the Conoco Cogen (which stands for Cogeneration) plant in Ponca City.  We needed to take it to Ponca City and use the computer that was there for the electric shop. — Before I tell you my response…. let me tell you about the computer at the Cogen plant.

First, let me explain what a Cogeneration plant is…. This is a small power plant that uses waste gases from the Conoco (Continental Oil) Oil Refinery to create steam to turn the generator to produce electricity.  In exchange for using the waste gases from the refinery, the Power Plant gave any left over steam back to the refinery so they could use it in their refinery.  Plus, we would give the refinery the electricity that we produced.  Any electricity left over, we sold to our customers. (See the post “What Coal-fired Power Plant Electricians are doing at an Oil Refinery“).

So, there was a desktop computer sitting on a desk in a small control room that allowed the control room at our power plant to dial into it and monitor the plant to see how it was working.  The connection was rather slow even though it had a dedicated phone line to connect to the plant.

The computer itself, even though it was somewhat older than the new computer we received for the electric shop, was sitting idle most of the time.  Even when it was working, it was never processing much.  The problem with the computer being slow wasn’t the computer itself, it was the network connection back to the plant.

So, when Jasper had said that he was going to replace that computer with our much faster one that we had ordered, I was a little perturbed.  This meant that the nice new fast computer that we had specially ordered so that we could do our job was going to be sitting idle in Ponca City collecting dust doing next to nothing and it wasn’t going to make anything faster as far as the control room was concerned and we would be stuck with a computer that was somewhat older than the one that the computer person had just replaced. (Wait! Did I just write a 73 word sentence! – my English Professor from College would shutter at the sight).

So, in the most smarmy voice I could muster I replied over the radio, “Oh Great!  Another one of Jasper’s ‘Scathingly Brilliant Ideas’!”  I knew the phrase “Scathingly Brilliant Idea” from the movie “Trouble With Angels”.  It seemed like an appropriate remark at the time.

Trouble With Angels

Trouble With Angels

I knew that Jasper would be listening, because he had his walkie talkie set on scan so that he could hear everything we were saying.  Alan Kramer came right back after my remark and said, “Watch it Kevin.  You know who might be listening.”  I said, “Oh.  I know who’s listening.”

Approximately five minutes later, Jasper Christensen called me on the radio and asked me to meet him in his office.  “Okay.  Here it comes,” I thought.  On my way down from the roof of the precipitator I was formulating my argument as to why it was a terrible idea to take the best computer at the plant and send it to Ponca City to sit idle in a room by itself when I could easily put it to a lot of use.  I never really was able to present my arguments.

When I arrived at Jasper’s office, he told me that he wanted me to take CompuServe off of the computer in the electric shop.  I knew why.  I thought I knew why.  I figured it was because I had just insulted him on the radio.  I’m sure that was part of it, but it wasn’t the only reason.

I pressed Jasper on the issue and told him that I used CompuServe to download the stock prices for our 401k so that everyone can see how their stocks are doing and I post them on the bulletin board.  Jasper came back with “That has nothing to do with your job.”  I replied with, “I’m providing a service for our teams, just like the candy and coke machines.  I’m paying for the service myself.  I’m not charging anything.”  Jasper disagreed that I was providing a useful service.

Then Jasper said that the IT guy found a virus on one of the computers and since I was the only person at the plant that had connected to anything like CompuServe, the virus must have come from me.  When I asked him which computer had the virus, he didn’t know.  I told Jasper I better go find out, because if there was a virus on one of the computers, we need to clean it up right away.

This was at a time when McAfee’s Viruscan software was freeware.  I always had an updated copy of it that I would run on the computers.  I had checked all the computers at the plant recently, so I was surprised to hear that one of them had a virus.  Jasper told me that the IT guy was up in Bill Green’s office.  Bill Green was the plant manager.

Bill Green

Bill Green

As I was leaving Jasper’s office, I paused and turned around and asked Jasper one last question….. “Do you want me to only remove the CompuServe application, or do you want me to stop accessing CompuServe? Because I can access CompuServe without the application on the computer.  The application just makes it easier to navigate around.”  This question puzzled Jasper.  He said he would have to get back at me on that.  — So, at that point (I thought to myself), I’ll wait until Jasper gets back to me on that before I remove the software.

I knew that he knew nothing about computers, and I knew that this would confuse him.  That’s why I asked it.  I wanted him to know that if he made me remove CompuServe because he was mad at me for making my smart-aleck remark about moving the computer to Ponca City it wasn’t going to make much difference to me anyway.

So, I walked back up to him as he was sitting at his desk, and I said using a serious tone, “Jasper.  I know that I’m the only person in this plant that has given you a list of all the programs on the computer I use.  I let you know every time I even upgrade to a new version.  I am the only person in the plant that follows the rules when it comes to what is on the computers.  I know that there has been personal software added to just about every computer at this plant.  I am the only person that has told you what software I am using.  So, just keep it in mind that you are trying to punish the only person that is following the rules.”  Then I turned and left.

I went upstairs to Bill Green’s office where I found the IT guy running a scan on Bill’s computer.  I asked him about the virus he found.  He said that he was running a Microsoft virus scanner on the computers and on the one in the chemists lab, there was one file that was questionable.  The scan said it was a possible virus, but couldn’t tell what virus it was.

I asked the IT guy what the name of the file was.  He handed me a post it note with the file name on it.  I recognized it right away.  It was a GLink file.  GLink is the application that we used to access the mainframe computer in order to work on our Maintenance Orders, or to look up parts, and any other computer related activities.

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

I had been given a beta test version of GLink that I installed on the Chemists computer for Toby O’Brien about a year earlier when he asked me to help him find a way to connect to the Prime computer downtown so that he could work on CAD drawings from the plant.  IT had sent this Beta version of GLink to me because it could connect to the switch twice as fast as the current GLink and they were glad to let us try it out.  (See the post “Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible“).

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

About that time, Bill Green came into the office and I told him that the “supposed” (pronounced “suppose Ed”) virus on the Chemist computer was given to us by IT and that it probably wasn’t a virus anyway, it just acted like one because it connected to a switch a certain way which was unusual.  The IT guy was still standing there and he agreed that it just indicated that it might be a virus and probably wasn’t really one.

Then I told Bill Green that Jasper had told me to remove CompuServe from the computer in our shop.  He said that he and Jasper had talked about it and were concerned that I might download a virus from CompuServe.  I assured him that I only downloaded stock prices and MSDS sheets (Material Safety Data Sheets) from OSHA.  Everything I downloaded was in text format and would not contain a virus.

The IT guy agreed that at that time, CompuServe was very careful about viruses as they had been hit with one about 6 months earlier.  Now they scanned everything they let you download.  Bill said, “Well, that’s between you and Jasper.”  —  That’s all I needed to hear.  I knew that Jasper would forget about it and never “get back with me” on it.

As you can tell, if you’ve been reading the posts this year, I am constantly becoming more involved in computers at this point in my career.  For good or bad, it was a concern for people like Jasper and Bill.  I knew a lot more than they did to the point that they would call me to help them learn how to use their computers.  They didn’t know if they could trust me.  Luckily for them, even though I was mischievous, I wouldn’t do anything to invade someone’s privacy, or hurt plant operations.

It did seem like I was always in trouble over one thing or another.  It was often brought on by someone’s misunderstanding about what the problem really was, and their feeble incorrect attempt to fix it…. and… well….(let’s face it) my big mouth.

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

Favorites Post #92

Originally posted March 28, 2015

If you have been following my posts for very long, you may have the idea that I just like to write posts about spiders.  After writing two posts about Spider Wars (see posts:  “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement” and “Power Plant Spider Wars II – The Phantom Menace“), another post about spiders just seems like a bit much.  Even though there is a spider in this story, another appropriate title could be something like “Another night in the Life of a Power Plant Electrician”.  Without further ado, here is the story.

Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma calling.  I don’t remember a time when the Shift Supervisor on the other end of the phone wasn’t very polite.  They knew they were waking someone from their sleep to ask them to drive 30 miles out to the plant in the wee hours of the morning.

The Shift Supervisor, whether it was Joe Gallahar, Jim Padgett, Jack Maloy, or Gary Wright, they would all start out with something like, “Hey, sorry to wake you buddy…”.  After such an apologetic introduction, how could you be upset that your sleep had just been interrupted?  Then they would proceed to tell you why they needed your assistance.  For me, it was usually because the coal dumper had stopped working while a train was dumping their coal.  This meant that 110 cars tied to three or four engines was sitting idle unable to move.

Each car on the train would be dumped one at a time as it was pulled through the rotary dumper.  The process was automated so that the operator in the control room watching out of the window only had to push one switch to dump each car.

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

The train would move forward to the next car automatically as a large arm on a machine called a Positioner would come down on the coupling between the cars and pull the entire train forward to the next car.

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

There were so many moving parts involved in positioning the car in place and rolling it over to dump the coal, that it was common for something to go wrong.  When that happened the entire process would come to a halt and the train would just have to sit there until someone came to fix it.  That was usually an electrician since the dumper and the positioner was all controlled by relays much like the elevator controls, only more complicated.

This particular night, Joe Gallahar had called me.  It seemed that there was an intermittent problem with the dumper that didn’t seem to make much sense and they couldn’t figure out why it was acting so strange.  One of the train cars had actually been damaged as the positioner arm would start coming up from the coupling to the point where the holding arm on the other end of the dumper had come up, then the positioner arm began going back down, causing the train to move on it’s own only to have the arm on the positioner scrape the side of the train car as it rolled backward uncontrolled.

Though it was less frequent, it was not so strange to have a train damaged by erratic dumper controls.  I have seen the side of a train car smashed in by the positioner arm when it decided to inappropriately come down.  This night, the problem was acting like that.  So, instead of damaging the train further, they decided to call me out to have a look at it.

I always had the philosophy when being called out in the middle of the night to be just as polite back to the Shift Supervisor when I answered the phone.  I had a Marketing professor at Oklahoma State University named Dr. Lee Manzer, who explained this one day.

Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —

Dr. Manzer told a story in class one day about how he was travelling home one day from a long and difficult trip where everything had gone wrong.  It was very late at night when he arrived at his house (which, incidentally was just down the street from my parent’s house), he was really beat.  He went into his bedroom and began preparing for bed.

About the time he was taking off his tie, his wife rolled over in bed and welcomed him home.  Then she said, “Oh, by the way.  I forgot to buy milk (or maybe it was ice cream).  Do you think you could run down to the store and buy some?”

Dr. Manzer explained his decision making process at that point like this:  “I could either go on a rant and tell my wife what a long and tiring day I had just had and now you are asking me to go buy milk? , and then I would go get the milk.  Or I could say, ‘Of course Dear.  I would be glad to go buy some milk.’  Either way, I was going to go buy the milk.  So, I could do it one of two ways.  I could complain about it or I could be positive.  I could either score points or lose them…. hmm…. Let’s see…. what did I do?  I said, ‘Of course Dear.'”

— End of the side story about Dr. Lee Manzer who by the way was a terrific Marketing Professor.  I understand he still teaches to this day. (update:  Dr. Manzer retired in September 2018).

So, when Joe Gallahar called me that night, and explained that the dumper was acting all erratic, Instead of saying “Yes Dear.”  as that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I told him, “No problem.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.”  My wife Kelly knew who was on the other end of the phone when she heard my answer.  She had heard it many times before.  I usually only had to say one word after hanging up the phone, “Dumper”, and she knew what that meant.

A Power Plant Electrician’s spouse knows that this is part of the job.  As I pulled on the jeans that I had laid out before I went to bed, Kelly would usually say something in her sleep like, “Be careful”.  I would give her a hug and tell her I’ll be back in a while, even though, sometimes I would be gone for two days working on the precipitator during a start up or some major catastrophe.  Usually, it was just a couple of hours before I came crawling back in bed.

This particular night I drove to work in silence with the window open so that the cool air would keep me awake.  Normally I had the radio on some rock station so that I would be singing along (in my terribly off-key singing voice) in order to stay awake.  Sometimes I would just take the 25 minutes of silence to just think.

My thought that night was that it was nice to be wanted.  There is some comfort in knowing that the Shift Supervisor could call me with enough confidence to know that I would be able to come out on my own and fix a problem that was costing the company a large amount of money each hour the dumper was offline.  Some might think that I would be annoyed to be wakened in the middle of the night to go fix something at the plant.  That night, as most nights I was feeling honored.

That wasn’t always the case, and I’ll soon write a post about another call out in the middle of the night where Scott Hubbard and I wondered exactly why they called us… but that’s another story.  (See the post “Hot Night on the Power Plant Precipitator“).

When I arrived at the plant, I rolled my car up to the speaker at the front gate and said, “Hello” with an arrogant English accent.  I don’t know why, but I always liked doing that.  I think it was Billy Epperson who answered back.  I told him I was here to work on the dumper.  He thanked me and opened the gate and I drove the 1/2 mile down the hill to the plant parking lot.  As I went over the hill, in the moonlight I could see the train up at the coal yard looking like a long silver snake reflecting in the night.

I walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a truck key off of the hook and drove around to the electric shop to pick up my hard hat and tool bucket.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

I took the long way around to the coal yard since the train blocked the shortest route.  We had a tunnel on the west end of the coal yard that went under the tracks for just this occasion.

When I arrived at the dumper, Stanley Robbins explained that he had tried troubleshooting this problem himself, but he couldn’t find anything that would explain the strange behavior.  Since the last downsizing, we were all able to sort of mix our skills so that an operator could do simple electric tasks if they felt comfortable with it.  Stanley knew enough to fix your normal minor dumper issues.  This one was a little different.

Since I had been an electrician for the past 15 years at this point, I felt pretty confident that I would quickly find the problem and be heading back home soon.  So, I walked into the dumper switchgear where the dumper controls are found.  I asked Stanley to go turn on the power to the dumper so that I could watch the relays.  When the power was on, I began tracing the circuits looking for the point of failure.

The problem was intermittent, and when Stanley started the dumper back up, everything seemed to be working just fine.  Stanley explained that this was why they couldn’t use the dumper because they couldn’t be sure when it was going to malfunction.  They had even uncoupled the train and pulled it apart right where the positioner arm was so that I could see what was happening.

Using radios (walkie talkies), I asked Stanley to move the positioner arm up and down while I checked it.  He lowered it and raised it back up without any problem.  When he began lowering it the second time, it suddenly stopped halfway down.  Watching the controls, I could see that it indicated that it had come all the way down.  It would be this case that would tell the holding arm on the far side of the dumper to go back up, which is what happened when the train rolled back earlier that night.

Then the relays rattled like they were picking up and dropping out rapidly.  Then the problem cleared up again.  Somehow the positioner arm had thought it had come down on the car clamps when it was still up in the air.  That was not likely to happen because when something fails it usually doesn’t see what it’s supposed to see, not the other way around.  It doesn’t usually see something that isn’t there.

So, I had Stanley lower the positioner arm down so that it was level with the ground, so that I could check the connections to the electric eye that was on the positioner clamp that detected the train car clamp when it came down.  I couldn’t find any lose connections or anything that would explain it.  I was about ready to disassemble the electric eye which looked like it might become a time consuming endeavor, so I thought before I go that route, let me look for something more simple first.

So I told Stanley that I was going to look up from under the car clamp to look at the electric eye.  I asked him to kill the power to the positioner so that it wouldn’t move while I was doing that and crush me like a bug.  Kneeling on the train track, I took my flashlight and looked up at the electric eye from under the car clamp, and this is what I saw:

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

This spider had built a spider web in front of the electric eye on the positioner and was sitting right in the middle causing the positioner to think it was down on the car clamp when it wasn’t.  Stanley was watching me from the window of the dumper control room when he saw me stand up quickly and look up at him with a big grin on my face.  I gave him a thumbs up.

You know the phrase, “Everyone has 10 minutes of fame….”  It indicates that some time in most people’s lives they are famous for a brief moment.  It may or may not define the rest of their life.  Well.  This was that spiders claim to fame.  This one spider had successfully stranded a coal train with 110 cars of coal.  A train crew, a coal yard operator, and one lone electrician that had traveled 30 miles to watch it act out it’s drama of catching gnats on it’s web being constantly watched by one large electric eye.

I did not drive home in silence that early morning.  I laughed out loud all the way home.  I still laugh to myself to this day when I think about this night.  Phrases like, “Isn’t life wonderful” comes to my mind.  Or “Even Spiders desire attention every now and then.”  Could there have been a better malfunction than to have a spider dancing in front of an electric eye out in the plains of Oklahoma saying, “Look at me!  Look at me!”  and by golly.  Someone did!  I’m just glad it was me.  — Well, that was right before I squashed the spider.

Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules

Favorites Post #79

Originally posted May 2, 2014:

Last week I mentioned in the post “Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes” that Jim Padgett called me at 2:15 am one morning to tell me that the coal dumper was broken and he needed for me to come out to the plant to work on it.  You may have wondered why a plant electrician living in North Central Oklahoma would answer the phone in the middle of the night when it most certainly meant that they would have to crawl out of bed and go to work to fix something that was broken.  Why not just roll over and pretend that the phone never rang?

You see… I knew when the phone rang that it was the power plant, because in the 20 years that I worked at the plant, just about every time the phone rang after midnight it meant that I would have to get dressed, and drive 30 miles to the plant to work on something that was most likely going to be in a dusty dirty place.  You could always count on the coal train dumper switchgear being covered with coal dust.  That was the usual point of failure past the “witching hour”.

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

I suppose I could say there were two reasons why a Power Plant Man would answer the phone.  One was that they were just all around nice guys and they wanted to help out any chance they could.  The other reason was because of the pay.

Even though working at the power plant was perhaps one of the best jobs in the neighborhood (being the only job in the neighborhood, since the plant ground consisted of its own neighborhood out in the middle of nowhere), that didn’t mean that the pay was especially lucrative.  That is, if a Power Plant Man had to rely on their base pay alone it would be difficult.  So, in order to help the Brave Men and Women of Power Plant Fame pay their bills, many opportunities were provided for working overtime.

Think about this.  What if, when I answered the call to save the day (uh… I mean the night) and spent 35 minutes driving out to the plant only to fix the problem in fifteen minutes?  Then I would spend another 35 minutes driving back home with my clothes all full of coal dust, only to be paid a measly 15 minutes of over time?  Even at double time, that would only be 30 minutes of pay.  That would hardly cover the gas and the laundry soap.

Early in the life of this particular plant, it became apparent that something had to be done to motivate the heroic masters of Power Plant Maintenance to make the long lonely drive down Highway 177 at the wee hours of the morning.  So, certain methods were devised to coax the restful souls to the phones when they rang.  Once they answered the phone, then sheer guilt was enough to drag them out of the sack.  It was that moment when the phone first began to ring, before the reasoning part of the brain kicked in and the more base reflexes such as those that were out to make an extra buck reacted instinctively that needed to be targeted.

So “Black Time” was introduced to the plant.  Black time had probably been around long before the plant came into existence, but it came in handy when someone had to be called out in the middle of the night.  Black time was the time that a person would be paid even though they didn’t actually work during that time.  So, when a Power Plant Man was called out in the middle of the night, they would be guaranteed at least two hours of overtime even though they may only work for 15 minutes.

This would help defray the cost of gas and time for driving both ways to and from the plant.  Anything from 7:30 pm to 7:00 am  was paid as double-time.  That is two times the normal base salary.  So, two hours at double time came out to four hours of pay, or as much pay as someone would make for half of a day at work.  That was some incentive for disturbing a Power Plant Man from their pleasant dreams of adventuring through the Power Plant Kingdom where the rule was always “Might For Right”. — Well, at least that’s what I was dreaming some of the time when the phone rang.

If Black Time wasn’t enough, it was taken a step further when the six hour rule was introduced.  The Six Hour Rule was added fairly early on in the life of the Power Plant and went through a few variations when I was working at the plant.  When it was first introduced, it came across as if someone downtown had made the decision that when someone is disturbed from their sleep during certain hours of their sleep cycle, it directly impacted their safety.  Hence the Six Hour Rule was born.

Originally it worked like this….  The hours of midnight to 6:00 am were considered the prime sleeping hours for Heroic Power Plant Men.  During this time, it was deemed that all Power Plant Men should be tucked in their beds dreaming of ways to work safely during the following day.  Whenever this time period was disturbed, then the Electric Company should provide the loyal Power Plant Man for answering the call of duty during a time of early morning emergency by giving him back the same number of hours in black time so that he could go home and continue his all-important dreams and regeneration.

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

So, if I had been called out at one o’clock in the morning to work on something, and it took me two hours to fix it, then I could come into work two hours later in the morning.  The first two hours of my regular work day would be payed as “Black Time”.  — Makes sense… right?  Two hours of work…. Come in two hours late in the morning…. black time…  Easy to calculate.

This provided a pretty good incentive for going out to work in the middle of the night.  First, you would get at least 2 hours of double time.  Second, you would be able to make up for lost sleep by coming in late in the morning without having to lose any pay.  You could also come in at the regular time and leave early in the afternoon if you wanted.

Well… That lasted for a few years, then the rules for the 6 hour rule began to change.  Originally, even if the job was only 15 minutes, the least amount of black time that you would get was 2 hours.  After all, it was an hour of driving back and forth for the large majority of the Power Plant Men that lived in a civilized village of more than 50 people.  Later, the Six Hour Rule was changed so that only the actual time worked would count for the six hour rule.

This meant that if I drove all the way out to the plant to work on something that only took 15 minutes, then I could only come in 15 minutes late then next morning, even though I had spent at least an hour and 45 minutes away from my dreams of serving nobly in the Power Plant Palace.  In that case the six hour rule didn’t apply anymore.  I figured that someone who was short-sighted had come up with that idea.  I’ll explain why in a few minutes.

The next phase of the Six Hour Rule came a few years after that…  It was decided that after a person had been called out at night to fight the good fight, as soon as they left the plant, the six hour rule would start counting down.  Let me explain this in a little more detail….

Say, I were called out to work in the middle of the night, and I worked from 1:00 am to 3:00 am (two hours).  Then I left to go home at three.  The hours start counting down so that by 5:00 am, the time I had spent at the plant were no longer valid, and I was expected to show up at work at the regular time. 8:00 am.  Okay.   So, in more and more cases (it would seem), the six hour rule would be made meaningless.

So, with this rule in place, if I was called out at midnight, and worked until 4:00 am, for a total of 4 hours, then by 8:00 am when I was supposed to be back at work all of the four hours would have ticked off and I would have no black time.  I would have to show up at 8:00 am.  See how that was supposed to basically take the six hour rule and make a joke out of  it?  (Or so, someone thought – which was probably me).

As most attempts at being underhanded without actually just coming out and telling us that it was decided that the Honorable Power Plant Men no longer needed their six hours of prime sleeping time to work safely the next day, the opposite effect was the result.  Kind of like raising the minimum wage to help the workers, when you put more people out of work.

When the six hour rule was changed to count down from the time you left the plant, was when I made the most money from the six hour rule.  I racked up loads of black time from this change as well as most Power Plant Men that were called out before Morning Prayers (Lauds).  Here is how and why:

Suppose the phone rings and it is 1 o’clock in the morning.  You decide to answer it and get called out to work on something that takes 15 minutes.  You finish the job some time around 2:15 am (because, after all, you had to drive all the way out to the plant).  What should you do now?  If you go back home and go to bed, then because of the way the 6 hour rule worked, you would certainly have to come back to work at 8 o’clock.  — hmm…  You will still have collected 2 hours of double time.  That’s something.

24 hour clock

24 hour clock

Look at the alternatives.  What if you went to the shop and worked on some other tasks while you were already there?  For Power Plant Maintenance Men, there is always something that needs to be fixed.  You may even ask the Shift Supervisor, “While I’m here, is there anything else you want me to work on?”  Shift Supervisors just love having their own personal maintenance man in the middle of the night eager to help.  There is always something they could find that needs fixing.

So, instead of turning around and going home, invariably, after the 15 minute job was over, I would end up doing other jobs for the Shift Supervisor until morning.  Well, once 6:00 am rolled around, it was really too late to drive home and then wait an hour and drive back.  So, I would just stay until 8.

Now look what happened!  Instead of 2 hours of double time, I worked from 2:00 to 8:00 with all but the last hour at double time, the last hour at time and a half.  That comes to 11 1/2 hours of my base salary.  Compare that to the 4 hours I would have received for 2 hours of double time.

But here is the best part.  8:00 rolls around.  We have our morning meeting.  Since I worked for 4 hours of the special 6 hours from midnight to 6, I get to leave at noon and get paid black time for the rest of the day.

What fun!  Every time the six hour rule was reigned in to reduce black time it produced more black time.  And how was that safer?  The final tweaks to the 6 hour rule before it was basically abolished a few years later came during the fall of 1991.  I’m not saying that this alone was the reason, but in 1992, the Power Plant had the highest Accident Rate since 1983.  Somewhere around 23 accidents.  Given that in 1983, we had 50% more employees, 1991 had a much higher accident rate.

The number of call-outs in the early hours of the morning were not as common as I may have made them out to be.  So, I don’t mean to claim that the change in the six hour rule was ever the cause of even one additional accident.  I studied all the accidents that happened that year, and even though some of them were the result of fatigue, it was usually because they had worked an extra long shift – over 12 hours, and were injured because they were tired.  Not because they were affected by the six hour rule.  The question was never asked if the person had been called out the night before.

Even though (as far as we know, because we never asked the question) the six hour rule changes didn’t directly cause any particular accident that year, it was a symptom of an overarching problem.  A certain apathy toward safety had crept into the plant.  The previous years, we had an excellent safety record.  One of our best years was in 1987.  We had only 3 accidents that entire year.  None of them serious.

I will discuss Safety in various other posts, so I won’t belabor the point now.  The point I wanted to make from this post was that by focusing on the bottom line, or some other performance metric without putting your most important asset first (The Power Plant Man), almost always guarantees the opposite results.

Comments from the original post:

Ron May 3, 2014

Another great story. I hadn’t thought of the “6 hour rule” for years. I really appreciated the true power plant workers who would answer the call. If I could do it all over again I think I would have gone to a Vo-Tech school and learned a skill (like machinist). The “6 hour rule” never applied to management. I never received any overtime, ever (start-ups, overhauls, routine emergencies, etc.). And we were responsible for getting those people to come to the plant who didn’t want to. I can show you a hole in the wall at the Seminole Plant today made by a mad operator that I “forced” to work (1982) when he didn’t want to. When he left my office he threw the door open so hard it hit the stop in the floor and flexed until the door knob mashed a hole in the wall. Then he told me “I’m not through with you yet.” He later transferred to Sooner – as a promotion. Oh the joys of management.

I’m grateful today for the people who still answer the call and keep our power on!

Jonathan Caswell May 3, 2014

THAT’S HOW THEY WORK IT HERE FOR MAINTENANCE CALL-INS. TOO BAD THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN FOR SECURITY—ALTHO’ I WILL GET OVERTIME HOURS FOR COVERING THIS SHIFT.

Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal

Favorites Post #60

Originally posted on:  June 1, 2012

The first couple of years while I worked as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant Coal Cleanup was performed on weekends by volunteer He-Men that wanted to make a few extra dollars.  As a summer help, I needed all the extra money I could get.  My wages during the first year (1979) were $3.89 an hour.

This jumped to $5.84 an hour when I worked on the weekend, so you can imagine the thrill I had at receiving a paycheck that included the extra money made by doing “Coal Cleanup”.  Another great advantage to doing coal cleanup on the weekends was that I was able to carpool with different people.  So, during the first summer instead of just riding to work with Steve Higginbotham (See the post “Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy late for the Boiler Blowdown“), I caught a lot of rides with real Power Plant Men like Dale Hull, David Hankins, Jerry Mitchell, Preston Jenkins and Marlin McDaniel (Yeah.  Marlin McDaniel as an A Foreman would volunteer for coal cleanup some times.  Maybe it was when we were short a few people).

Coal Cleanup really became important during the second half of the first summer because Unit 1 was getting ready to go online.  There was a major flaw in the Coal Conveyor logic when the conveyors first started conveying coal from the coal pile to the coal silos just above the bowl mills.  What would happen was the same thing that happens if someone were to fall down at the top of a crowded escalator going up.  Everyone behind that person would be shoved right on top of them if there wasn’t an emergency stop button to stop the escalator.

Non Power Plant Escalator

All the conveyors had a safety cord alongside the entire length that could be pulled to stop the conveyor in an emergency, but this was something different.

To give you an idea… once the coal on the coal pile has been fed onto either Belts 4, 5, 6 or 7, from there the coal is dropped onto either belt 8 or 9.  That carries the coal up to the coal Crusher which has a bin above the crusher that can be filled with coal.  If the bin gets too full, then conveyor 8 and/or 9 would stop.  When that happens, belts 4, 5, 6 or 7 should stop also…. only they didn’t.  Belts 8 and 9 continued dumping coal into the crusher bin until it filled up and then coal fell out all over the top of the crusher tower around belts 8 and 9 until the coal tripped the belt by hitting the safety cord on the side of the belt.  Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 continued dumping coal onto belts 8 and 9, which caused the coal to backup and spill out all over the floor until the coal piled up high enough to trip the safety cord on the side of the belt.

In the picture of the power plant on the side of this post, there is one long conveyor that goes from the coalyard to the plant.  It is about 1/2 mile long.  This is where belts 10 and 11 carry the coal from the crusher, which crushes the coal down from big pieces the size of baseballs down to the size of walnuts.

The long belts 10 and 11 were like these only they are in a metal enclosure so the coal didn’t spill out on the ground.

At the top of the Transfer tower the coal from belts 10 and 11 are dumped onto belts 12 and 13 which carry the coal up to the Surge Bin Tower where the coal is dumped into the Surge bin.  When the Surge Bin fills up, it stops belts 12 and/or 13 and it should also stop belts 10 and 11 and the feeders that feed the coal into the crusher at the bottom of the crusher bin… only they didn’t.

They continued dumping coal into the Surge bin, which filled up and spilled coal all over the surge bin until belts 12 and 13 tripped, at which point, coal began spilling out all over the transfer tower filling up both floors of the transfer tower with tons of coal.  The same thing would happen at the bottom of Belt 10 and 11, where the crusher feeders kept feeding coal down to belts 10 and 11, which spilled out all over the bottom floor of the crusher tower.

I have worked in the transfer tower where the coal was higher than the windows and you had to bend over because your head would hit the ceiling on the floor at the foot of belt 12 and 13.  It was almost dangerous enough to picture yourself sliding down the pile of coal and slipping right out one of the windows (which had been broken out by the pile of coal).  To give you an idea of what this felt like, it was then a straight drop of 150 feet to the concrete below.

If that doesn’t seem like enough coal spills, then picture this…  The coal from the Surge Bin tower fed onto belts 14, 15, 18 and 19 which in turn fed onto belts 16 and 17, 20 and 21.  These last 4 belts were in what was called the “Tripper Gallery”.  These 4 belts would dump coal into 12 coal silos (6 on each unit) that would feed the bowl mills. These are big silos about 5 stories tall.

The same thing would happen to these belts leaving piles of coal at the bottom of the surge bin in the surge bin tower and all along the tripper gallery because when the coal silos were full, the tripper was supposed to move to the next silo and dump coal until it was full, and keep moving until all the silos were full.  Only, the tripper wasn’t working correctly, so it wouldn’t detect that the silo was full so the belt would keep dumping coal and would end up spilling coal all over the entire tripper gallery which runs about 100 feet or so.

So, our first experience with doing coal cleanup was like being on a chain gang where we shoveled coal from morning until night trying to clean up these 15 or so major coal spills from the Trippers on back to the the first belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 by shoveling the coal back onto the conveyor while it was running.  In some cases, we had to shovel the coal away from the belt before the belt could even run (as was the case with belts 12 and 13).  So, you can imagine how shoveling coal one scoop at a time made it seem like you were not getting anywhere fast.  3 or 4 men could all be shoveling on one pile of coal for 30 minutes and not even make a noticeable dent in the pile.  That is why when I went to the tool room to choose a shovel, instead of picking a regular shovel, I picked a large scoop shovel used to scoop grain.

Scoop Shovel

Regular Shovel

Even though each scoop of coal was heavier, it seemed more satisfying to see the bigger dent in the pile of coal with each shovelful.  I remember one day after we had shoveled coal all day from morning until late at night only to come back into work the next morning to the new piles of coal just as big as the ones we had shoveled the day before.  Once we had cleaned everything up they started up the conveyors again only to have it do the same thing as before.

After 2 years of volunteer coal cleanup which was becoming less volunteer and more rotational since the list of volunteers was growing smaller, Ray Butler pointed out that it didn’t make much sense to pay a first class machinist overtime to shovel coal when you could create a labor crew and pay them bottom dollar to do coal cleanup all the time, as well as other dirty jobs that no one really wanted to do (such as suck out sewage pits and other sump pits around the plant).

That was when the Labor crew was formed.  While I was in my 3rd year as a summer help (1981).  Bill Cook was a summer help then that stayed on as a labor crew hand at the end of the summer.  By the 4th summer as summer help, the only time we did coal cleanup was when there was a major spill, which was only a couple of times all summer.

I will write later about coal cleanup with Dale Hull.  I also remember doing coal-cleanup with Preston Jenkins one weekend.  I hadn’t carpooled with him to work, but I caught a ride back to Stillwater with him because my ride left at the end of a full day, and I decided to stay behind to add a few extra dollars to my bank account.  We left a couple of hours later around seven o’clock.

I climbed into the back of Preston’s Camaro.  I apologized for being so dirty, as I was covered from head-to-toe in coal-dust and my clothes were soaked with coal-dust permeated sweat.  Preston said that he didn’t mind.  I soon found out why.

When I climbed into the backseat of his car, I noticed that the upholstery that covered the seat back of the back seat was stained with some blackish-brownish um…. something.  Anyway.  I decided to sit on the passenger side of the back seat instead of behind the driver side because that side wasn’t nearly as stained.  As we drove down the highway toward home, I quickly learned why the seat back was so stained.

Being the “good-ol’ boy” that Preston was, when he climbed into the car, he took out his can of Skoal and put a pinch between his cheek and gums:

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums.... Never tried it myself.

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums…. Never tried it myself.

As we flew down the highway like a Texan heading for Stillwater, Preston would lean his head out the window and squirt out a wad of spit.  It would dance in the air like a little fairy just before it would be sucked into the back window of his car and splat against the seat back of the back seat.  Yep that explained it all right.  I always wondered if he knew, never having to sit in the back seat of his own car.

During the first summer when I was able to catch a ride with David Hankins a couple of times.  He was the crane operator at the time and drove a black Trans Am.  He was a black man with a very broad chest that never seemed to tire while doing coal cleanup.  From the first day he always treated me with great respect which in turn gave me a great respect for him.  I had him classified as a true Power Plant Man.

The second summer when I had been back at the plant for a couple of weeks, one day when Jim Heflin and I were going somewhere in a yellow Cushman cart, I asked Jim why I hadn’t seen David Hankins around.

A Cushman Cart Like this only Yellow

Jim (who hadn’t been at the plant the first summer) stopped the cart in the middle of the road and looked at me very solemnly and told me that David Hankins had died in a car accident in the spring.  He had been going home from a Men’s Club event when he was killed.  Because of this, alcoholic beverages were no longer allowed at Men’s Club events.  As with all the people I have worked with at the power plant, I keep David Hankins in my memory and I often think about him to this day.  David Hankins was a True Power Plant Man.

Comments from the original Post:

  1. neenergyobserver June 1, 2012 as 6:28 pm

    We’ve lost so many friends over the years, in the plants and on the line, especially when they were relaxing on their way home. You, and David’s family have my very belated condolences.

    Somebody, somewhere, needs to teach engineers a course on Conveyor Logic 101, I’ve seen the same thing happen in nearly every plant (from automotive, rarely, to meat packing, often) I’ve been in. Or they could, just for once in their life, shut their pie-hole and listen to people like you and me.

    1. Plant Electrician June 1, 2012 at 11:39 pm

      Thanks Nebraska.

      We were often exhausted while driving home from work when we had been working a lot of overtime. It was a wonder sometimes that we were able to keep the car on the road.

      My uncle Bill Breazile worked for the Utility company in Nebraska City where someone closed a breaker while he was working on a line. He was in the hospital for about 6 months healing from his burns. This was about 30 years ago. He has since passed away. It takes a special person to be a lineman. Putting their life on the line every time they reach out to do their job.

      1. neenergyobserver June 2, 2012 at 10:42 am

        Not that different from you. It’s all about planning your work, and doing it right, and safely. You and I know that 480 will kill you just as quick as 7200 if you get careless. That’s why almost all (old) linemen and electricians are in some sense stolid and unexcitable.

  2. jackcurtis July 14, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Industrial America returns in stories and comments in places like this, from the only place it still exists: the minds of those who were part of it. Industrial America was a giant; those who manned it were giant tamers and it seems to me, very much the special breed illuminated in these posts…

    Comment from last repost:

    1. Dan Antion June 3, 2014

      I remember a time when I would have chose the bigger shovel, perhaps in the early 70’s. I was moving steel in a manufacturing plant. Carrying three bars on each shoulder seemed better than the two they suggested. We finished earlier, had to do other work, but somehow it felt better. Thanks for another interesting story and a wake-up call to younger days. Thanks also for the explanations. I love mechanical things and I get the impression that these plants are one big mechanical adventure.

A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid

Favorites Post #44

Originally Posted May 18, 2012

George Pepple was the chemist at the plant when I first arrived in 1979.  His last name is pronounced  “Pep-Lee”.  A chemist plays an important role in a power plant.  The plant treats their own water and has it’s own sewage system.  The chemist spends their time with these activities.

They do other things like check ground water for contaminates, and lake water for bacteria, and a host of other things.  Hydrochloric Acid is used to balance the PH of the water.  As far as I know, George Pepple was the only one at the plant with a PhD, which gave him the title of Doctor.  No one called him Dr. Pepple (which sounds like a soda pop).  We either called him George or Pepple (Pep Lee) or both.  He had a sort of Einsteinian simplicity about him.  To me he was the perfect combination of Einstein and Mr. Rogers from “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”:

Albert Einstein

Mister Rogers

One other thing I would like to add about George was that he developed a special process for Cupric chloride leaching of copper sulfides.  This was a patented process (1982) which is now owned by the Phelps Dodge Corporation which is a copper and gold mining company.  As humble as George Pepple was, he never mentioned this to anyone at the plant as far as I know.

When he would page someone on the PA system (gray phones), he would always do it in a straight monotone voice. putting no accents on any of the words and he would always repeat his page twice.  Like this:  “PaulMullonLineOne.  PaulMullonLineOne.”

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Before I get to the point where George is dancing in the acid, I first need to tell you about Gary Michelson, since he had a role to play in this jig.  In an earlier post: In Memory of Sonny Karcher, A True Power Plant Man, I remarked that Sonny Karcher had told people when he introduced me to them that I was going to college to learn to be a writer (which wasn’t exactly true.  The writing part I mean…. I was going to college… and.. well… I am writing now), and that I was going to write about them.  In doing so, some people took me in their confidence and laid before me their philosophy of life.

Jerry Mitchell being one of them (as you can read in an earlier post about “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“).  Jerry had filled me with his own sense of humility, where it was important to build true friendships and be a good and moral person.  His philosophy was one of kindness to your fellow man no matter what his station in life.  If there was someone you couldn’t trust, then stay clear of them.

Gary Michelson was another person that wished to bestow upon me his own personal wisdom.  We worked for about 3 days filtering the hydraulic oil in the dumper car clamps and in the coal yard garage.  While there, he explained to me why it was important to be the best in what you do.  If you are not number one, then you are nobody.  No one remembers who came in second.

He viewed his job performance and his station in life as a competition.  It was him against everyone else.  He didn’t care if he didn’t get along with the rest of the people in the shop (which he didn’t) because it is expected that other people would be jealous or resentful because he was superior to them.

According to Gary his family owned part of a uranium mine somewhere in Wyoming or Montana.  He thought he might go work for his father there, because truly, he was not a True Power Plant Man.  He reminded me slightly of Dinty Moore.  Like a lumber Jack.

Dinty Moore

As I mentioned in the post about the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“, Gary Michelson had the title “Millwright”.  Which no one else in the shop seemed to have.  He had been certified or something as a Millwright.  Gary explained to me that a Millwright can do all the different types of jobs.  Machinist, Mechanic, Pipe fitter, etc.

I remember him spending an entire week at a band saw cutting out wedges at different angles from a block of metal to put in his toolbox.  Most mechanics at this time hadn’t been issued a toolbox unless they had brought one with them from the plant where they had transferred.  Gary explained to me that his “superiority was his greatest advantage.”  Those aren’t his words but it was basically what he was saying.  That phrase came from my son who said that one day when he was imitating the voice of a video game villain named Xemnas.

Filtering the hydraulic oil through the blotter press was very slow until we removed most of the filters.

An Oil Blotter Press Similar to the one we had, but our press did not have “NAKIN” written on it.

It was a job that didn’t require a lot of attention and after a while became boring.  That gave me more time to learn about Gary.  He filled the time with stories about his past and his family.  Since I hadn’t met Ramblin’ Ann at this point (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was not able to contribute my share.  In the middle of this job we were called away to work on a job in water treatment where a small pump needed to be re-installed.

During this time at the plant every pump, fan, mill and turbine were brought to the maintenance shop and disassembled, measured, cleaned, honed and reassembled before the plant was brought online for the first time.  This is called doing a “check out” of the unit.  The electricians would check every motor, every cable and every relay and alarm.  The Results team (Instrument and Controls as they were later called) would check out the instrument air, the pneumatic valves and the control logic throughout the plant.

Gary had me go to the tool room and get some rubber boots and a rain suit.  When we arrived at the water treatment building George Pepple was there waiting for us.  The pump was in place and only the couplings needed to be connected to the acid line.  Gary explained to me as he carefully tightened the bolts around the flange that you had to do it just right in order for the flange to seat properly and create a good seal.  He would tighten one bolt, then the bolt opposite it until he worked his way around the flange.  He also explained that you didn’t want to over-tighten it.

Pipe Flange

Anyway.  When he was through tightening the couplings I was given a water hose to hold in case some acid were to spray out of the connections when the pump was turned on.  After the clearance was returned and the operator had closed the breaker, George turned the pump on.  When he did the coupling that Gary had so carefully tightened to just the right torque using just the right technique sprayed a clear liquid all over George Pepple’s shoes.

Gary quickly reached for the controls to turn off the pump.  I immediately directed the water from the hose on George’s shoes while he began to jump up and down.  In last week’s post I explained that when I was working in the River Pump forebay pit shoveling sand, there was a point when I realized that I was covered from head to foot with tiny crawling bugs, and I felt like running around in circles screaming like a little girl (See “Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River“).

If I had done that, I probably would have been singing the same song and dance that George Pepple was doing at that moment.  Because he indeed was screaming like a little girl (I thought).  His reaction surprised me because I didn’t see the tell tale signs of sizzling bubbles and smoke that you would see in a movie when someone throws acid on someone.  I continued hosing him down and after a minute or so, he calmed down to the point where he was coherent again.  He had me run water on his shoes for a long time before he took them off and put on rubber boots.

After hosing off the pipes, Gary took the coupling apart and put the o-ring in place that he had left out.

Rubber O-Ring

I made a mental note to myself.  — Always remember the o-ring.

Besides those two jobs, I never worked with Gary Michelson again.  When I returned the next summer Gary was no where to be found.  When I asked Larry Riley about it, he just said that they had run him off.  Which is a way of saying…  “He ain’t no Power Plant Man.”

George Pepple on the other hand was there throughout my career at the power plant.  He was a True Power Plant Man, PhD!  When George was around you knew it was always “A wonderful Day in the Neighborhood”.  When I would hear George Pepple paging someone on the Gray Phone (the PA system) in his own peculiar way, I would think to myself… “I like the way you say that.” (As Mr. Rogers used to say).  I will leave you with that thought.

Since I originally wrote this post in 2012, George Pepple has died.  He died on October 28, 2019.  I was able to find his picture from his Obituary site.  Here it is.  See what I mean about a cross between Einstein and Mr. Rogers?

George Pepple

Comments from the original post:

  1.  

    neenergyobserver May 18, 2012

    Funny isn’t it, how the ones that are the best (in their own minds) do stupid stuff like forgetting the O-ring. Apparently they can’t see for all the jaw-flapping involved in patting themselves on the back. Not that I haven’t had a few days I’d rather not talk about too.

    1.  

      Plant Electrician May 25, 2012

      Nebraska, if you think that was dumb, wait until you read the next post.

      1. neenergyobserver May 25, 2012

        Well, that was dumb, but not the dumbest either of us has seen. I’ll look forward to it.

  2.  

    onelifethislife May 27, 2012

    You are master storyteller! I know nothing about power plants and I was right there with you. This was fantastic read! Thank you for sharing your work.

    1.  

      Plant Electrician May 27, 2012

      Thank you for your kind words.

      1. onelifethislife May 27, 2012

        You are most welcome!!

  3. bryanneelaine May 28, 2012

    LOL @ “Dinty Moore”

     

    Ron Kilman May 23, 2013

    Great story! Thanks,
    I remember George as – competent, consistent, happy, supportive, and a great “team player”.