Originally posted February 8, 2014:
After the downsizing in 1987 some new engineers were assigned to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I wasn’t used to an engineer actually pausing to listen to what I was saying. I remember the first time I said something sort of out of the ordinary and Doug Link stopped and asked me why I thought that. The usual response was to roll their eyes as if I was some dumb electrician that almost knew how to lace my boots correctly… Ok… Lacing your boots isn’t as easy as it looks…. especially when you put them on in the dark in the morning before you leave the house.
Now, before you think “Front to Back and Back to Front” has to do with lacing up my boots, you are mistaken.
Back to Doug Link. I was surprised when he actually stopped and asked me to explain myself. I know I had said something that had sounded a little bombastic, but what I believed to be true anyway. So, I sat down and explained it to him. It was something that ran contrary to what a person might think was logical. Once I explained it to him, he said he understood what I meant. — Wow. What kind of new engineers are they breeding out there (I thought). Well he did go to Missouri University at the same time I did, we just didn’t know each other at the time.
Another engineer that showed up at the plant was Toby O’Brien. Even the maintenance department recognized right away that Toby would listen to you. Not only would he listen to the crazy rantings of an electrician like me, but he would also ask advice from mechanics! And… (now brace yourself for this) Welders! I believe that if he could corner a janitor, he probably would have listened to them as well…. because… well… I was just a janitor pretending to be an electrician, and he listened to me all the time.
So, what does this all have to do with “Front to Back and Back to Front”? Well. Almost nothing. Except that these new engineers knew about a secret that we were all keeping from George Bohn, another engineer that I talked about in the post “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer” In that post we had kept from George that the computer had an extra drive partitioned on the hard drive for a while. In this post, I will talk about a much more significant secret (at least in George’s eyes).
With the reorganization Terry Blevins worked on one precipitator and I worked on the other.
For those of you who don’t know, the precipitator is what takes the “smoke” out of the exhaust from the boiler so that it can be collected in hoppers and sent up to the coalyard to silos where trucks would come and haul it away to make highways.
The electric Supervisor Tom Gibson thought that a little competition would be good between the two teams to see who could make their precipitator work the best. Only it didn’t work out that way. Terry had one way of doing things and I had a completely opposite way of approaching a problem. Terry would study a problem. Analyze it, and do everything he could to understand what was going on. Then he would go out and make a major change. I on the other hand would make incremental small changes and observe the effects. Then work toward what seemed to work best.
Between the two of us approaching a problem from completely different points of view, we were able to come up with solutions that apart I don’t think either of us would have ever thought about. So, we became a team instead.
Now for the boring part of the story. I am going to explain Back to Front….. With the new digital controls, we could set up the controls so that each of the 84 precipitator transformers could be backed down one KV (kilovolt) at a time in order from the front cabinets to the back ones. Then it would start from the front again backing the power on the cabinets down slightly each time. — I know this is boring. The front of the precipitator is where the exhaust enters the precipitator. The back is where the exhaust leaves the precipitator.
The cabinets would do this until the amount of ash going out of the smoke stack hit a certain limit that was 1/4 of the legal limit (the legal limit was 20% opacity. So, we controlled the cabinets to keep the opacity at 5%). Opacity is the amount of light that is blocked by the ash coming out of the smokestack.
Well, if the opacity went too high (say 6.5%) the back cabinets would start powering all the way back up, and it would work its way toward the front of the precipitator from the back until the opacity went down below the set limit. — sound good? Well… after running this way for a while we realized that this wasn’t so good.
What ended up happening was that the front cabinets which normally collected 90% of the ash were always powered down and the back cabinets were powered up, because they would power up each time the opacity would spike. So the ash collection was shifted from the front to the back. This meant that if there was a puff of ash going out of the stack, it probably came from the back of the precipitator and there wasn’t anything that could be done to stop it.
We asked George if we could reverse the Front to Back powering down of the cabinets so that it went from Back to Front. That way the back of the precipitator would be powered down most of the time and the front would be powered up. This would keep the back half of the precipitator clean and if there was a need to power them up because of some disturbance in the boiler, the back of the precipitator would be in good shape to handle the extra ash.
George, however, insisted that since the EPA had tested the precipitator with the new controls when they were setup to go from front to back, we couldn’t risk changing it, or the EPA could come back and make us put scrubbers on the plant. We were grandfathered into not needing scrubbers and we didn’t want to go through that mess and cost that would have raised electric rates for everyone.
This was frustrating because we could easily see that every hour or so we would be sending big puffs out of the smokestack on the account of the inherent flaw of backing the cabinets down using a Front to back method. Even though we knew the engineers would blow their top if they found out, we called the EPA one day and asked them about it. The EPA said they didn’t care as long as the precipitator wasn’t physically being altered and we were adjusting the controls to maximize operations.
So, one day when I was in the Precipitator Control Room, I walked over the main processor unit in the middle of the room where the seven sections of 12 cabinets each plugged in. I took the A row cable and swapped it with G. I took B and swapped it with F, C and swapped it with E. D I just left it where it was since it was in the middle.
Then I walked to each Cabinet in a section and swapped the eeprom chip from cabinet 1 and put it in 12. And from cabinet 2 and put it in 11, and so on. Without leaving the precipitator control room, I had just changed the order of the cabinets backing down from “Front to Back” to “Back to Front”. As far as the control room was concerned, nothing changed (unless you looked closely at the voltages on the cabinets on the computer. The front cabinets usually were around 30kv while the back were closer to 45kv).
So, now that the cabinets were backing down from back to front, everything worked a lot smoother. No more hourly puffs and wild power swings as cabinets were released. As long as George didn’t know, he was happy. The precipitator suddenly was working very well. So well in fact that one winter while the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator was using only 70 Kilowatts of power and the opacity was well below the 5% threshold.
The space heaters in the precipitator control room were using over 120 kilowatts of power. More than the entire precipitator. This is important because normally the precipitator used more power than any other piece of equipment in the plant. It was not unusual before we had the back down working for one precipitator to use 3 Megawatts of power. That is 3,000 Kilowatts.
Then one day in 1992 an electrical engineer Intern (who later became a full time engineer) came in the precipitator control room with George Bohn while we were calibrating the cabinets one at a time. George began explaining to Steve Wilson how the precipitator controls worked. We were in the front section (G row). George introduced Steve to us and started explaining to him about the back down and how it worked.
Just then, the cabinet that he was showing him powered up. — oops. This was a front row cabinet and in George’s mind, they should be the last to power up. He looked around and could see that the cabinets in F row were still powered down. I thought, “The jig is up.” George said, “That’s not right! That shouldn’t happen!” (Ok George. We’ve only been doing this for 3 years and you are just now noticing?).
So, I asked him what the problem was (knowing full well). He explained that the cabinet in G row had just powered up. — You could tell when a cabinet was powered down because a certain light in the lower left corner of the display would be on. I looked at the cabinet and the Primary current limit light was lit. Obviously not in the back down mode.
So, I said this, “George, this cabinet still is in the back down mode. You just can’t tell because it is also hitting the primary current limit and both lights won’t light up at the same time.” — Geez… I thought…. would he believe this hair brain explanation? George nodded. Then he went on to explain to Steve what I just said to him as if it was something he knew all the time (even though I sort of just made it up).
A short time after Steve and George left, I found Steve and explained to him that we really do power down the precipitator from back to front instead of front to back, because front to back doesn’t work, and I explained to him why it works better and why we don’t tell George Bohn. Steve was another sensible engineer that knew how to listen and learn. I enjoyed the little time I spent working with him.
Well…. The efficiency of the precipitators caught the attention of EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute), and they wanted to come and study our precipitator controls. Not only the back down feature we were using but also a pulse capability that Environmental Controls had that allowed you to power off for so many electric pulses and then power on again.
So, when the EPRI scientists showed up to test our precipitators for a couple of weeks trying the different modes of operation, I knew that it was important for them to really understand how we were operating the precipitators. So, after George had taken them to the computers in the control room and explained the back to front back down mode. I took them aside one at a time and explained to them that even though the computer looked like it was backing down from front to back, it was really backing down from back to front.
I explained to them why we had to do it that way, and I also explained to them why we didn’t let George know about it. They all seemed to understand, and for the next two weeks no one from EPRI let the cat out of the bag.
To this day I don’t think George knew that we had swapped the direction of the back down from “front to back” to “Back to front”. At least not until he reads this post.
Comments from the original post:
Originally Posted February 14, 2014:
There has been reports on the news this week about someone who has been shooting transformers in PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) substations in California. It is interesting that the national news is picking up this story now even though the FBI has been investigating similar attacks since December, and even earlier attacks against PG&E as early as last April, 2013.
These reports always catch my attention because back in the early 1990’s, the electric company where I worked in Oklahoma had their own episode when a shooter was going around shooting at substation transformers, and high voltage electric lines. At that time it was OG&E, not PG&E that was being plagued by someone that seemed to be randomly attacking the electric grid.
Back in early 1993, the first transformer that was shot by a high powered rifle using armor piercing bullets was in the middle of Stillwater Oklahoma near the Pizza Hut on Perkins Road. It is easy to remember the location, because it later became very significant when it came down to finding out who might be responsible.
Much like the reaction in California this week, everyone was alerted to keep a watch for anyone acting suspicious near substations and high voltage electric lines.
I enjoy watching a TV show called Forensic Files. It shows how important facts are collected that finally lead to a conviction of someone who has murdered someone. It is amazing how so many clues are left behind that can be used to prove who is the guilty person.
I suppose the main point that I walk away with after watching a show like this is that criminals are generally pretty stupid. Especially the really smart ones. I guess it’s because if they were really smart, then they wouldn’t have turned to a life of crime in the first place. Maybe it’s like the lazy people that work harder avoiding work than they would if they just did their job.
Of course, working at the Power Plant during this time meant that we were all put on a kind of “high alert”. We were extra suspicious of cars parked down side roads near our plant. Our security guards doubled up a little on their rounds on the lookout for someone suspicious. In a weird way it brought me back to when I was a dishwasher one summer at the Sirloin Stockade in Stillwater.
When I first moved to Stillwater in the Spring of 1978, right out of High School, I went to work as a dishwasher/busboy/cook at the local Sirloin Stockade franchise restaurant. This is not the newer company Sirloin Stockade that is on Perkins road today. No. This one was on the Strip next to the Oklahoma State University campus. It was privately owned.
One night during that summer there was a mass murder committed at a Sirloin Stockade in Oklahoma City after the restaurant had closed. All of the employees had been forced into the freezer and they were all shot in the head. At the time, no one knew the motive. It could have been that the murderer (or murderers) could have been upset with Sirloin Stockades in general.
For the rest of the summer, the manager Ken Low, who also managed a hamburger joint up the street for the same owner, would leave the Sirloin Stockade when the restaurant was just closing at 9:00 to go close the other restaurant. He would leave a young 17 year old boy in charge of closing up the restaurant and getting it ready for when it opened the next morning. Yeah…. That was me.
I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Ken had suddenly gained a lot of confidence in my ability to handle closing the entire restaurant all by myself the same week that the Sirloin Stockade Massacre happened in Oklahoma City. Ken was a friend of mine and I understood him well enough.
Me. I was fearless anyway. I always seemed to be missing that gene. So, I just felt that if some murderer came busting in the back door, I would, of course, defend myself by using the handle of the broom I was using to sweep the floor. Well. I was 17. So, of course I was invincible.
end of side story.
The same question was being asked about the person that was shooting the transformers and high voltage lines. It seemed as if he had a grievance with the electric company. So, when a witness had seen a man going down a remote country road in the same area where a high voltage electric line was shot, and a sketch of a possible suspect was created, they turned to the employees for help.
I wasn’t much help because I lack the imagination to take a composite drawing and extrapolate it into a person that I know. If someone were to draw a picture of me and ask me who I thought it was, I probably wouldn’t have a clue. I guess I lack that gene also.
Other Power Plant Men thought they knew who the drawing depicted. It reminded them of a former employee at the Power Plant. His name was Clyde Bateman. When others told me that, I thought, “Yeah. I suppose it could be him.”
Clyde had been a chemist at the plant. He had been fired a year or two before. It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing his job well. His problem was that some days he just wouldn’t show up for work without leaving any word. It would have been all right if he would have called the plant to let his manager, George Pepple know that he wasn’t going to be able to make it that day. He just wouldn’t say anything until he returned.
Clyde had been given the appropriate number of warnings and was told that if he didn’t show up to work again without leaving word that he wouldn’t be in, he was going to be fired. So, the next time that happened, he was “let go”. No one likes that to happen, because you know that there is some underlying reason for such odd behavior, but we had to keep the plant running, and when you rely on a certain number of employees to keep it going, what can you do?
This by itself wouldn’t make one suspicious that he might turn into someone that would flip his lid and start shooting at electric company assets. The psychological profile looked more like a Timothy McVeigh type character. For those of you who are from other countries that read this blog, Timothy McVeigh was a “homegrown” terrorist that decided to blow up a Federal Building in the middle of Oklahoma City one day (along with a number of other accomplices, most of which have never been identified), and he needlessly killed a lot of innocent people.
I didn’t know Clyde that well, so when others suggested that it might be Clyde, I was skeptical. Then, as the investigation went forward, I learned that Clyde was more like Timothy McVeigh than I had realized. — Well. At the time, no one had heard of Timothy McVeigh, since that hadn’t happened yet.
Power Plant Men that knew him said that he owned some land behind our power plant and he would go out there at times and blow things up. He like high powered rifles and all that. I thought that might be an indication, but it still didn’t convince me. I also liked to blow things up and I would enjoy shooting high powered rifles if I had the opportunity. I’m sure many Power Plant Men would enjoy doing the same.
Remember. This was back when it was still all right to play cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers. This was before eating your Pop-Tart until it was in the shape of gun was never given a second thought. You could even take a Cowboy doll onto a plane with a tiny 1/2 inch plastic gun in the holster without being afraid that the TSA would take it away.
Anyway. It was later discovered that Clyde Bateman lived in a trailer park behind the Braum’s on Perkins Road in Stillwater.
This was important because his trailer was only about 250 yards from the first transformer that had been shot. Ok. With all the other things, this finally convinced me. They were on the right track. I think the OSBI (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation) was on his trail and were keeping close tabs on him. It seems like they even asked us at the plant to not try to contact him or let him know that he was a suspect.
Scott Hubbard, a True Power Plant Electrician was out inspecting the equipment in the substation one day when he noticed a hole in one of the 345KV breaker operating arm enclosures. Scott thought it looked a lot like a bullet hole, so he alerted the control room. The control room contacted the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department to come out and look at it.
Sure enough. It was a bullet hole. The OSBI recovered the bullet from inside the pipe. Luckily where the bullet had entered, it had missed hitting anything that would have damaged the equipment. If the shooter had been a lineman, or an electrician, or from the T&D department, he would have not shot the part that he did. It looked like a critical part if you didn’t know better. So, the shooter was not familiar with the equipment he was shooting. That was clear.
Not only that, but there were much worse targets in the area that would have caused real damage. So, luckily this was not someone who did a lot of homework. It was interesting that the first transformer was only a block away from where Clyde lived, and the last shot was at the plant where he used to work.
The breaker was at a spot where he would have had to know to park on a dirt road a mile away and walk across a field to get the shot that he did. All the plant employees knew that road well. It was where the public had to go if they wanted to fish in the discharge channel where the warm water exits the condensers. The fish like it there.
With all that said, Clyde Bateman was due in court in Ponca City on August 11, 1993. Not for being the shooter that everyone was looking for, but for another offense. I don’t remember exactly what it was. He never showed up. Clyde took his own life that morning. After that day, there were no more shootings associated with this particular shooter. it was understood by the employees at the plant that the matter was behind us now. Business was back to usual.
I mentioned earlier that Clyde turned out to be more of a Timothy McVeigh type than we had originally thought. I didn’t mean that he was that way because he liked guns, because any self respecting Power Plant Man knows that if you care about your family and want to keep them safe, that a handy firearm is the best way to stop an intruder.
Clyde was an activist. I found this out only today when I decided to write about him. I found a very interesting case that the U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit ruled on only two and a half months after Clyde’s death. You see, Clyde had filed a complaint against the Federal Government alleging that the entire body of federal environmental laws were unconstitutional, because its enactment allegedly exceeded the authority granted in the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, and lacked any other source of constitutional support. The District Court had ruled that Clyde had no standing. So he appealed it to the US Appeals Court.
The Appeals court ruled unanimously that Clyde didn’t have any standing to bring this complaint against the Federal Government because (no… not that he was already dead) he hadn’t demonstrated that he was injured by the law. They didn’t rule that he was wrong about his complaint, only that he didn’t have any standing to file the complaint.
So, as Paul Harvey would have said, “Now you know the rest of the story.” If you want to read more about the Appeal Courts decision, you can find it here: “Clyde Bateman v United States of America“
Originally posted February 28, 2014:
One day, seemingly out of the blue, a van drove into the parking lot of the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. It was carrying some people that had come to our plant to perform drug tests on everyone in the plant. The test consisted of each one of us going into the Men’s rest room (or Women’s rest room, depending on the usual one you occupied) and peeing into a small bottle while someone stood behind you keeping their eye on you. This was the first time drug testing like this had taken place at the plant. A few years earlier, in order to find “druggies”, the “snitch” was hired to go around and try to coax people to go hide somewhere and do drugs with the snitch. I wrote about this in the post “Power Plant Snitch“.
This was different. The first time, it would obviously have been a case of entrapment to have someone come around and ask you to go to a janitor closet somewhere and smoke an illegal substance. Drug testing was more objective. If the drug test came up positive, you knew you were either guilty of taking illegal drugs or you were pregnant (or… maybe that was the other test). We had heard before that we may at any time be subjected to drug testing, so when the people showed up to actually do it, I don’t think many people were surprised.
For the most part, there were few people that had an issue with going into the bathroom and peeing in a small bottle. There were, however, a couple of exceptions. The person that I remember had the most problem with it was Diana Brien. She said that when she went in to try to pee in a bottle with someone watching her, she just couldn’t do it. I figured this must be a problem more with women then men. For one reason. Men are always standing there peeing into something with other people standing right next to them watching them.
Just today when I was at work peeing into the urinal at work, I turned to the right and said, “Hey Tom! How’s it going?” Tom said, “Fine buddy! How are things with you?” I replied, “Oh, you know. I’m still here. That’s something.” We both nodded and went about our business. Something tells me the same thing doesn’t happen in the Women’s restroom.
With Power Plant Men, it is even more cordial than that. We tend to take showers in groups in one big community shower, where in the women’s locker room, they each had their own stall with a curtain. I only know because as an electrician, I had to go in there to change light bulbs.
The cordial nature of Power Plant Men in the shower came to my attention one day when I was a janitor cleaning out the bathroom in the Coalyard Maintenance building where the Labor Crew was housed. I remember hearing a conversation between Dale Mitchell and Chuck Morland as they were coming out of the shower. Dale told Chuck, “Gee Chuck, after seeing you, I have to question my manhood….” He went on to describe why. I won’t go into detail, but it had to do with Chuck Morland having a lot more “Manhood” than Dale had. You can probably guess that while I was around the corner mopping out the stalls where the toilets were, I was doing my best not to laugh out loud.
It literally took Dee all day to drum up enough nerve to go take the drug test. She kept drinking coffee, and water, but every time she had to go pee in front of the person from Corporate Headquarters, she froze up. By the end of the day, she had peed in the bottle, and it was over. Of the 250 employees, I don’t know if any were found to have been on drugs. After the warning, I wouldn’t have thought so. We were under the impression that if it was determined that you were on drugs, then they would take you to someplace where a more trustworthy test could be performed. If you were found to be on drugs, then we thought at that point that you would lose your job.
A few weeks before the drug tests began, when they were warning us that they were coming they said that if any of us had a drinking or a drug problem, they should come forward soon and ask for help. If you asked for help, then the company would provide services for you that would help you with your problem. If you later failed the drug test and you hadn’t asked for help, then you were going to be fired.
There was one person in our shop that we figured wasn’t going to be able to pass the drug test. That was Michael Rose. He drank so much that his blood alcohol level was normally high enough that if you were in an underground coal conveyor tunnel and the lights all went out, all you had to do was prick his finger and light it with your lighter, and you had a mini-torch until you were able to find your way out. When he passed the drug test it was pretty plain that either the test wasn’t worth a flip, or they weren’t testing for the type of alcohol Mike consumed.
In the following years, drug tests were supposedly administered by random. I will tell you why I say, “supposedly”. Some time after the initial drug test, one morning, our team was told to all get in a truck with our foreman and drive to Ponca City to a clinic and have a drug test taken. I think this was a blood test. It was done in such a rushed way, it was like they were on to someone, but didn’t want to just have that one person go take the test. That way, no one would be upset by being singled out to go take a drug test. At least that is what it seemed.
I remember our team all sitting there in the waiting room waiting to be tested. We each went in one at a time. When we were done, we drove back to the plant, and nothing was ever found (as far as we knew). I thought maybe this was the second level test because some anomaly had showed up on one of our initial tests. Anyway, it seems like all of us passed the second round of drug tests.
After that, about once ever year or two, a set of people would be randomly chosen from the plant to be drug tested. I know when most of those drug tests occurred because I was randomly chosen more times than not to be tested. In the next 10 years, I was tested at least 5 more times. So much so that I began to wonder why. It seemed as if every time there was a “random” drug test, I was chosen. I was usually with a different bunch of Power Plant Men, but each time I was there. Was I just so lucky? I am you know. I wrote a post about that. See “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck“.
I may have just been paranoid, but it came as less of a surprise each time. The tests even became more sophisticated. Eventually, there was a chart on the side of the bottle you peed in. So, not only did it take your temperature, but it also measured your urine to see if you were trying to cheat the test.
I didn’t mind taking the tests. I figured it might as well be me than any of the other Power Plant Men. Why bother them? We were all clean.
It was when I was watching a movie once where someone sniffed some cocaine up their nose that an idea came to me as to why I might be singled out to take the drug test each couple of years. You see, I had the habit of wiping my nose with the back of my hand. Not because I had the sniffles, but because it was irritated all the time.
When I was in college I had my nose broken one night when a friend, Jeff Firkins and I were going for a walk in Columbia, Missouri. It was around two in the morning, and somehow we just ended up in Douglas Park spinning around on a merry-go-round.
My friends from Columbia who read this blog know that when you were Caucasian in the spring of 1980, it is not a clever idea to go play on the merry-go-round in Douglas Park at night. I seem to remember looking very Caucasian in 1980.
We were having so much fun that we didn’t mind when a couple of local park dwellers came and gave us a subtle hint that they wanted us to leave their turf. So, eventually, it ended with a scuffle between myself and 4 other guys in which I ended up with a broken nose. I knew that I had a cut across my nose from one guy’s ring, but I didn’t realize it was actually broken until many years later when an ear, nose and throat doctor x-rayed it and showed it to me.
I thought that because I was always rubbing my nose, then Louise Kalicki was suggesting to the drug testers that I would be likely candidate for sniffing something up my nose. I didn’t mind disappointing them each time. The nearest I came to sniffing something up my nose was when I worked in the bakery and I ate a lot of powdered donuts.
When I left the electric company in 2001, in order to go work for Dell, I had to take a drug test. I had to go to a local doctor in Stillwater, Oklahoma and have my blood drawn. Then that was the end of it. After working for Dell for 12 years, I have not been subjected to repeated drug testing. Working in a corporate environment is much different, however than working in a power plant.
I think it is much more of a factor when the Power Plant Men and Women that work in a Power Plant are on drugs. I certainly wouldn’t want to work around someone on drugs in a power plant. There are too many ways in which someone could be hurt or killed. Driving heavy equipment, or operating machinery that could crush you in a heartbeat, you want to make sure that the person in the driver’s seat is fully functional and aware.
There was only one time when I was at the plant where I can remember that someone was fired because they were on the job while they were intoxicated. It was an unfortunate case, because the poor guy had things going on in his life at the time that were only exacerbated by him losing his job. I think at one point, he became so low after being fired that someone described him as a bum roaming the streets of Tulsa.
I had only wished that it had been possible for him to have kept his dignity and been offered help. I know those things aren’t always possible and there were other factors involved I’m sure. Just a side note. I believe that this man, whom I have always held in the highest regard, finally picked himself up by his bootstraps and regained his self respect.
As I mentioned earlier, Mike Rose passed his drug test that day, to everyone’s surprise. Even he was surprised. One weekend he had been called out to work to fix the air conditioner for the logic room. When Bill Bennett called Mike, Mike told him that he had been drinking and he wasn’t really fit to go to work at the moment. Bill assured him that it would be all right, if he could only go out and get the logic room air conditioner fixed quickly.
The logic room is the room that houses the plant computer that runs all the equipment in the plant (or it did at the time). It didn’t like being warm. If you can imagine the heat in the middle of the summer in Oklahoma. The plant operation was going to be jeopardized if something wasn’t done quickly. Jim Stevenson had already been fired because of the Snitch that I mentioned at the top of the post. So at the time, Mike was the only option available.
Mike went to work and found that the main relay to the air conditioning unit wasn’t picking up. So, in his inebriated state, he took a block of wood and pressed it against the lever that manually pushed the relay in, and closed the door on it so that the block of wood was pinned between the door and the lever. Keeping the air conditioner running. Needless to say, there was a legitimate reason why the relay wasn’t picking up, and by Monday morning the unit had burned up.
I think it was Leroy (or it may have been Tom Gibson) wanted to fire him right away for going to work drunk and destroying the air conditioner. Bill Bennett came to his rescue and pointed out that Mike had warned him before he came to work that he was drunk and Bill had assured him that it would be all right just this once. What could you say? I suppose shoulders were shrugged and life at the Power Plant went on as usual. I don’t think the drug testing ever amounted to anything. When someone was let go, it wasn’t because they had peed in a bottle.
Originally posted March 8, 2014. Added comments from the original post:
I have many stories that I am going to write about the extraordinary Power Plant Men in North Central Oklahoma from 1988 to 1994 this year, but it happened that I was watching a recorded episode of Forensic Files (otherwise known as Mystery Detectives) on TV tonight and it made me remember…. The story I was watching was about a women that was kidnapped in Pennsylvania June 1988 and murdered in order to draw the husband to a location where the kidnapper could collect the ransom and murder the husband. The man guilty of the crime was found to be a person that shared a pew in the Presbyterian Church with the couple but held a grudge against the husband for turning him down for a loan at the bank a few months earlier.
While I watched this show, I flashed back to June 9, 1988 and suddenly remembered the moment I was standing in the parts cage in the back of the electric shop in the main switchgear at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Okahoma when I heard about the murder of Mark Stepp.
Mark Stepp was an Instrument and Controls employee at our plant. Both he and his wife had been brutally murdered while they slept in their home in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Mark Stepp had been shot once and stabbed many times. His wife Delores had been stabbed to death an excessive amount of times until she was passed dead. I cringe to think about it to this day.
The next thing that entered my mind while watching this video was one month earlier on May 6, 1988. We had a new Electrical Supervisor, Tom Gibson, and he had sent Terry Blevins and I with two of the Instrument and Controls men to Tulsa to a class at Nelson Electric to learn how to program an Allen Bradley PLC (programmable Logic controller).
When I think about this instance, I remember Ron Madron driving us to Tulsa to the training (Ron. I know you read this post, so you an correct me if I’m wrong). It could have been Glenn Morgan. One thing I definitely remember is that Mark Stepp was with us that day.
The reason I remember that Mark was with us that day, was because when the training was over around 1:30 or 2:00 pm. Mark didn’t want to go directly back to the plant. He wanted to go for a ride around Tulsa. This wouldn’t be so peculiar, except that a little more than a month later, Mark Stepp was brutally shot and stabbed to death while he slept in his bed along with his wife.
Somehow I always felt that Mark’s behavior the day when we went to learn how to program Allen Bradley Programmable Logic Controllers was somehow related to his death. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. I’ll let you decide.
So, let me describe what happened early morning on June 8, 1988 (or 6/8/88 for those of you who are fascinated with numbers like I am). In the middle of the night, someone walked into Mark Stepp and his wife’s Dolore’s bedroom, and shot Mark Stepp in the neck. Then proceeded to stab Mark Stepp and his wife an excessive amount of times until they were past dead. I lost count of the number of stab wounds. They were stabbed so many times.
I remember first hearing about this when I had walked into the electric shop parts cage when I had gone there to look for some receptacle boxes. Andy Tubbs came into the cage and told me about the murder. The entire Instrument and Control Shop was on “high alert”. Suppose this person was murdering Instrument and Controls Power Plant Men at our plant! That day, no one really knew the motive.
I think some people from our plant were interviewed about the murder. I don’t know. I do know that Francine Stepp, their daughter was often mentioned in the discussion. She was on the same Softball team with her mother and father and many people at the plant were on this same softball team. They were all concerned with her well-being since after spending the night at her friend’s house, she came home and found her parents murdered in their bed.
During the next month while the police were investigating the crime, many revelations came out about Mark Stepp and his wife Dolores. None of which surprised me, though, it may have surprised those that worked more closely with Mark. You see, Mark has showed his true colors that day when we had all driven together to Tulsa to go to training.
When training had finished for the day, Terry Blevins and I (and Ron Madron, if he was the person driving) had counted on getting back to the plant in time to go home at a decent time. Mark Stepp, on the other hand had something else in mind. He wanted to go for a drive through Tulsa.
This didn’t make much sense to me at first, since I couldn’t figure out why someone wouldn’t want to return to the plant in plenty of time to fill out our time cards and get ready to go home to our wives and children (well… I didn’t have any children at the time, but I do remember wanting to go home at the regular time).
It didn’t make sense to me until we were driving down what seemed to be the frontage road of I-44 at the time and we came up to 6410 E. 11th Street. A similar thing happened to me just last week when a friend of mine was celebrating his 20th year at Dell and a person from Security who was playing a joke on my friend pulled into a location at 6528 North Lamar in Austin Texas. My gut sucked up like I was going to be sick as his friend pulled up to the entrance and proclaimed that this was the second part of his 20 year anniversary present. Well. my friend happened to be in like mind with me, which felt a sudden urge of betrayal and confusion. I’ll let you do your own homework at this point.
Mark Stepp asked us if we wanted to stop at a “Gentleman’s Club”. Really? With three die-hard Power Plant Men in the car? The rest of us unanimously voted to go back to the plant. Ok. That was an indicator that Mark had something going on with his life that was not quite wholesome.
I bring this up because later I was not surprised to learn during the investigation of Mark Stepp’s murder that he had been involved with a group that included “Wife Swapping”. I know there were a lot of rumors going around at the time that one of the persons involved in the murder must have been involved in the occult, and that it made sense given the manner of death. None of this surprised me.
At one point we learned that videotapes had been found in the house of hidden tapes of their daughter while she thought she had privacy in her bathroom or bedroom. I don’t know if this was true or not, but I wasn’t surprised if it had been true. Actually, after that day in Tulsa, nothing surprised me about Mark Stepp anymore.
I don’t mean to sound cruel. I grieved when I learned about Mark and his wife’s death as much as many other Power Plant Men. No matter the circumstances. It was a great tragedy. Whatever hatred had been the cause of this murder, it had been caused by tragic events proceeding this murder, I have no doubt.
I say this, because within a month of the murder, the murderer had been located. It turned out to be their own daughter Francine. I didn’t know the family at all, and I have never met Francine. Other Power Plant people knew them much better. As I said, they were on a softball team together. Francine played on a team with her mother and father. This came as a shock to them all.
Many people blamed her accomplice Cindy Sue Wynn. Francine’s parents had told Francine that they didn’t like Cindy and wanted her to stay away from her. The story is that Francine was spending the night at Cindy’s house when they devised a plot to kill Mark and Delores. Francine was 18 years old at the time, and was a Freshman at Oklahoma State University. If you would like to learn more about the murder you can find articles from the Daily Oklahoman here: “Two Stillwater Teens Facing Death Charges” and “Man Says he Heard Death Plot“.
They both pleaded guilty and Cindy was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 1990, two years later, Cindy pleaded to be placed on a “pre-parole” program which was denied. Francine was sentenced to life in prison. Since that tragic day, Francine Stepp was eligible for parole in 2003. She was denied parole then, and has since been up for parole in 2006, 2009 and 2012. Francine’s next parole hearing is June 2015.
Just like the day that Jim Stevenson walked out of the shop telling Bill Ennis about the Snitch stealing the portable generator (See the post, “Power Plant Snitch“), I sat back and didn’t say anything when I heard about Francine’s conviction. What I had to say really wasn’t relevant. Just because it didn’t shock me that this particular daughter was so easily talked into murdering her parents by her friend, what I knew was no proof that she had been abused as a child.
Francine has now served 26 years in prison for murdering her parents. Her accomplice has been out of jail for at least 16 years. Francine is now over 44 years old. After 25 years, I think someone needs to take a fresh look at the motive as to why she would have wanted to take the life of her parents. Was it really because her parents didn’t want her to “play” with Cindy? Does that make much sense? Especially with all the other possible motives floating around.
I have recently been watching reruns of “Forensic Files” (also known as Mystery Detectives) on Headline News (CNN). I keep waiting for the episode about Francine Stepp running to her neighbor’s house on the morning of June 8, 1988 screaming that her parents have been murdered. Knowing full well that she had murdered them… But what really was the motive?
Was it really that her parents didn’t let this 18 year old girl spend time with her friend? Then how was she spending the night with her on June 7? Which parent hasn’t forbidden their child to play with someone because they were a bad influence? When did that ever do any good or amount to a hill of beans?
The little time I had spent with Mark Stepp a couple of months before his murder gave me a small glimpse into his life, and maybe the life of his daughter. I didn’t really know the guy. I do know, however, that a true Power Plant Man wouldn’t try to drag three other married Power Power Plant Men (though I was only a pseudo-Power Plant Man myself), to an indecent “Gentleman’s Club” (especially while on the clock).
So, I have to wonder. Will anyone go to Francine’s defense June 2015? Does she even care anymore? I don’t think she even showed up to her own parole hearing in 2012. She has spent many more years in prison than out of it in her life so far. If she was released, what would she do? Can you start your life over again when it came to a halt when you were only 18?
This is a hard post for me to write. I have a daughter who is 24 years old this month. She was born almost 2 years after this tragic event took place, and one year after Francine was convicted of murdering her parents. During my own daughter’s entire life, Francine has been in jail for murdering her parents. Her father worked at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
If Mark Stepp could speak from the grave today at Francine’s next parole hearing, I wonder what he would say? I only know what those at the plant who knew her would say. They all thought she got along with her parents. They thought her parents were proud of her. Billy Joel sang a song called “The Stranger“. It is about looking in the mirror and seeing that other side of you that you don’t let anyone else see. I suppose some people really have one of those lives where they aren’t really honest with the rest of the world. Billy Joel did, evidently. Maybe Mark Stepp did as well.
I have known for a while that I had to write about this story. I have dreaded this post. I am glad to have finally written it. Now I can put it behind me.
Comments from the original Post:
Originally posted April 12, 2014:
In an earlier post titled “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” I explained how in 1990 we broke up into teams at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to find ways to save the Electric Company money. Before we were actually able to turn in our first set of ideas, we had a month or more to prepare those ideas and to turn them into proposals. During this time, and throughout the entire “We’ve Got the Power” program, teams who wanted to succeed and outdo the other teams became very secretive. Our team was definitely that way. We had secret experiments going on throughout the plant, and we didn’t want other teams to even know what areas we were investigating.
As the program progressed, a certain level of stress developed between teams. In a later post I will tell a story about how this level of stress led to a situation of suspicion and eventually even animosity. This post will not go into that situation. Instead I want to explain what our team did to try to alleviate some of the stress by devising a special “Power Plant Joke” that we played on the rest of the Power Plant Men (and Women).
There were some teams that had setup some experiments that they were running to see if their ideas may save the company money. Our team had several experiments running throughout the beginning months. All of which we carefully hid from prying eyes. We were proud of our stealthiness. Sneaking around, making sure we weren’t being followed when we went to take readings from our carefully hidden recorders and other devices.
Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and I were sitting in the electric shop office discussing the stress level that had permeated the plant, and we thought we could take advantage of the stress by setting up a “We’ve Got The Power” Experiment out in the open that would be obvious to anyone that walked by. Only it would be a fake experiment designed to play a joke on the unsuspecting Power Plant Man.
Here is what we did….
Right outside the electric shop in the Turbine Generator basement there is a water fountain. We placed a hazard waste barrel a few feet away from the water fountain. Like this:
Then we mounted a junction box on the wall a few feet above the chemical waste barrel and a little to the right.
We turned the junction box so that the hinge was on the top, allowing the door to fall closed naturally. This was an important part of the setup to allow for the joke to automatically reset each time it was operated.
We ran some copper tubing from the water fountain water line over to the box. Then another copper line came out the bottom of the box and into the barrel. Next to that copper tube, another smaller copper tube came out of the bottom of the box and just bent toward the front of the box. It was not noticeable. We had a plastic hose coming out of the barrel and over to the drain next to the water fountain. Then we put Yellow Barrier Tape around the entire setup.
We tied Caution tags to the Barrier tape that said “We’ve Got the Power Experiment” Do not enter! I signed the tags.
There was an electric conduit running up from the junction box, that went up and into the wall about 6 feet above the junction box. So, this looked like a legitimate experiment going on, but for the life of anyone, no one would be able to tell what it was doing. — Mainly because it wasn’t doing anything….. At least not until someone went to investigate it.
So. Here is what would happen….
Employees would walk by and see the barrier tape with the hazardous waste barrel and the hoses and water lines coming from the back of the water fountain, with a junction box above it that was not completely closed. The door to the junction box was down, but not screwed closed. Conduit was going into the box, which meant that something electrical was probably inside Maybe a solenoid or something that was controlling the experiment.
They would read the Caution Tag that explained that this was a “We’ve Got the Power” experiment, and it would pique (pronounced “peak”) their curiosity enough that they couldn’t help but investigate it to see what was really going on.
So, what would invariably happen, was that someone would enter the area that was barrier taped off, and open the junction box to see what was inside. When they lifted the lid, they would find that they were instantly being soaked with water that would spray out of a small copper line pointing right at them directly under the junction box. At the same time, an alarm would go off above them behind the wall right above the electric shop office. It was very loud. A counter inside the junction box would register an “intruder’ had just opened the box.
So, as we would be sitting there during lunch, we would suddenly hear the alarm go off, and we could dart out the door to the Turbine Generator basement to find a drenched Power Plant Man. They were usually amused that they had fallen into the trap. I say usually, because I have the feeling that one particular person who found himself violating the barrier tape and getting soaked didn’t act too cordial about it. I’ll get to him later.
As I said, inside the box was a counter. It counted how many times the box had been opened and sprayed someone with water. So, we could go inspect it in the morning and we would know if anyone had looked at it while we were gone.
After the experiment had been there about a week, an overhaul began where Power Plant Men from different plants came to our plant to perform the overhaul. The plant would shut off one of the units and we would take it apart, and put it back together again fixing problems along the way (well. maybe not quite that drastic. It was a time to fix things that couldn’t be maintained or repaired while the unit was running).
So, the Power Plant Men at our plant, who by that time all knew about the bogus experiment just outside the electric shop, would bring unsuspecting Power Plant Men from other plants over to the see the “We’ve Got the Power” experiment going on in the hopes of seeing them get sprayed with water. So, a new round of alarms were going off during that time.
Eventually, when people had heard about the experiment, and knew that it was spraying people, they would approach the experiment with caution. When they opened the lid of the junction box, they would stand next to it against the wall in order to not get wet. The spray pattern from the crimped copper line was fairly wide, so you would have to stand practically against the wall next to the box in order to stay dry.
So, this was when we implemented Phase 2 of the experiment. — Yeah. It’s the second phase of many Power Plant Jokes that usually make the joke a much bigger success than the first phase. For instance, I have written a post about the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” in which I had played a joke on Gene Day, where after a week of preparing him for the final joke, I had coaxed him to look over my shoulder, only to have him read that according to his psychological profile, he was the type of person that would look over your shoulder and read your private material.
That would be a good joke in itself, but when Gene Day read that and began choking the life out of me, I pointed out to him the final statement in Gene Day’s profile which stated that he tends to choke people who try to help him by creating Psychological profiles of him. This second part of the joke is what really completes the joke and makes it a real success. The first part just makes it funny.
So, here is how we modified the experiment for Phase 2…. The nozzle that sprayed the employee actually came out the bottom of the box and elbowed to point toward the front of the box. So, what we did was we took a file and filed a tiny notch in the side of the copper tubing just below the junction box just above the elbow. The notch was on the side of the copper tube, and it was deep enough of a notch to make a little hole in the side of the copper line.
So, then, if someone was standing to the only side they could stand next to the box and the barrel and they opened up the lid of the Junction Box to show someone how the experiment worked, they wouldn’t notice right away, but a small stream of water would be spraying on their pants in just the appropriate location to make it look like the person had just pee’ed their pants.
Right when we had finished modifying the experiment for Phase 2, Howard Chumbley walked into the electric shop. He was a retired Electric Foreman, that I have written about in the post “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace“. He had come to visit the plant that day because there was going to be a Men’s Club lunch and he wanted to come and see some other old codgers that he used to work with that liked to attend the Men’s Club dinners. He always wanted to see us of course as well.
So, we told him about the “We’ve Got The Power” Joke Experiment just outside the electric shop that sprayed water on people. Of course, he wanted to see it, so we took him out and let him observe it. We explained that when you open the lid, an alarm goes off, the counter toggles and water sprays out of that little nozzle sticking out at the bottom. We told him he could try it if he wanted to see how it worked.
So, he climbed under the barrier tape and walked around the side of the junction box that didn’t have the barrel, and reached over and lifted the lid. The alarm when off, water sprayed out, and Howard laughed with glee to see how we had devised such a nice trick. After watching the water spray for about 3 or 4 seconds, he suddenly realized that something was wrong. He dropped the lid and looked down, only to find that it looked like he had just pee’ed his pants.
That was it! That was icing on the cake. Howard laughed even more when he realized what had happened.
The next morning when we came in the shop, we went to look at the experiment, it had been disassembled, or shutdown in some manner. I think some caution tag had been placed there by Gary Wright, the Shift Supervisor stating something like this was a safety hazard, or some such thing.
Anyway, when I went up to the Control Room to ask him why he shutdown our experiment he was adamant that it constituted Horseplay and someone could get hurt. Maybe when the water sprayed on them, they might jerk back and fall down and get hurt. Ok….
I suppose. Though, by the time he took it down, everyone at the plant already knew about it, and we were just in the Phase 2 part of the experiment. In this phase anyone who was looking at the experiment was doing it by opening up the door from the side, and peeing their pants and they wouldn’t jerk back……—- Oh….. I see…. Shift Supervisors don’t usually like to walk into the control room looking like they have just pee’ed their pants.
I will say that I hadn’t expected that type of reaction from Gary Wright, because up to that time, he seemed more mild-mannered than the rest of the Shift Supervisors. We just took it that the more upset Gary was with us about it, the more successful the joke had been implemented. The joke had played out by that time, and we were good with it either way.
After it was all said and done. We thought it did help to reduce the overall tension that was permeating the plant due to the “We’ve Got the Power Program”.
Originally posted April 25, 2014:
Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood. I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend. Sometimes I was downright selfish. Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate. Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way. I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.
I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.
Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“. At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I explained this program in the post: “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“. With all that said, here is the story:
I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program. At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator. The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.
My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance. I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.
I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.
When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment. Who knows. Maybe something unexpected would happen. — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.
On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator. When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room. She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.
At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going. One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up. Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack. Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.
I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets. After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1A10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer. It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts. The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates. Cabinet 1A10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.
When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off. I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet. The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it. So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.
I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator. When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer. The fuse had obviously failed. Interesting timing. Coincidence? I thought it was. The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).
I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves). Then I powered the cabinet back on.
I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1A10. The opacity had returned to normal. I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.
When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened. Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment. So, he asked me what I thought about it.
First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas. So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.
I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack. I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse. I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time. After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.
I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it. On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post. To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.
The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett. He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment. Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:
It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy. The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me. Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”
When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why. If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way. It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important. So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend. This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.
I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him. It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing. Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away. It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt. I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.
Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club. I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop. Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases. For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.
Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business. I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim. That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.
I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well. Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years. I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.
Here is what happened:
The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000. I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night. It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem. Who else would be up on in the middle of the night? The night shift of course.
When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.” I replied, “No. That’s okay. What’s up?” Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water. I said, “Ok. I’ll be right out.”
I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper. She already knew of course. I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up. Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.
It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived. I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room. Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown. I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.
Power Plants at night take on magical properties. It’s hard to explain. Lights shining from the 25 story boilers, noises from steam pipes. Hums from motors and transformers. Night Hawks screeching.
When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted. Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep. — Actually, I may have done just that. It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.
When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office. I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure. Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually. I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression. He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it. I replied, “Well. That happens.” (No. Not the other thing that happens). I told him I was going to go home. It was about 3:40 by that time.
Jim wished me a good night, and smiling with gratitude, thanked me again for coming out. As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace. That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends. This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).
When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house. I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning. I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.
That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City. When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack. That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.
I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim. Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace. In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had that morning into my mind so that I would never forget it.
To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally (which still happens occasionally), I am determined that they will become one of my best friends. I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”). I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett. Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.
I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it. It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:
Note: If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link: Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel
Comments from the original post:
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”.
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.
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 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).
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.
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. I believe 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:
Originally posted May 9, 2014:
There were times when I was working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I wondered if there was anything that we couldn’t do. Surrounded by True Power Plant Men I found that when we were facing a seemingly impossible task, a Power Plant Man would come up with an extremely creative solution to the problem. One such example was during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I talked about this program in an early post called “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” so I won’t go into detail here about the program itself. I will just say that we broke out into teams to find creative ways to operate more efficiently, and to cut costs.
I was a team leader of our team, and looking back I must have had two criteria in mind when I picked the team members that would be on my team. The first would have been that they were True Power Plant Men (and woman) with a higher than average intelligence. The second criteria would have been that they were friends of mine. I say this, because everyone on my team fit the bill.
During out team meetings, Terry Blevins would often say some bombastic statement that the average person may be inclined to dismiss immediately as being absurd. I say that because I remember more than once thinking that what Terry had just said wouldn’t amount to much. As it turned out, our biggest money saving ideas were those truly bombastic statements that Terry was making. One such idea had to do with the heaters on the precipitators that kept the hoppers and the insulators on the roof too hot to collect moisture.
The Precipitator is a very large box that takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack (how many times have I made that statement in the last two years?). Anyway, the exhaust from the boiler after the coal has been turned to ash in the fireball in the boiler contains a large amount of moisture. The last thing you want to happen is for the temperature of the flue gas to fall below the dew point. When that happens, moisture collects on the structure in a form of… well… of Acid Rain. Basically eating away the precipitator and the duct work from the inside.
Somewhere along the line, it had been determined that the dewpoint of the flue gas was not higher than 250 degrees. So, as long as the structure was at least 250 degrees, no moisture would be collected. Four heaters were mounted on each of the 84 hoppers (on each of the two precipitators) and heaters were mounted on the roof around each of the insulators that held up the wire racks on both ends.
When Terry walked into the office to attend one of our first “We’ve Got The Power” team meetings, he said, I think we could save a lot of money if we did something about the heaters on the precipitator. — He may remember being greeted with blank stares (at least from me). Um. Ok. Heaters on the precipitator. I knew they were everywhere, but I never gave them much thought.
I think Terry could tell right away that I hadn’t taken his idea seriously. I don’t know. Maybe he was bothered by the sound of my eyeballs rolling around in circles as if someone has conked me on the head. So, he explained his idea further. He pointed out that the roof heaters on just one of the precipitators used about 211 kilowatt-hours and the hopper heaters used about 345 kilowatt-hours. Together it is more than half a Megawatt of power. — This definitely caught our attention. That meant that between both of the Precipitators (since we had two boilers at our plant), we could possibly save over a Megawatt of electricity every hour we could shut down the heaters.
After discussing all the aspects of the idea, we decided that in order for the idea to have any merit, we had to know if the dew point really was around 250 degrees, or was it possibly a lot lower. 250 degrees seemed high to begin with since the boiling point of water is 212 degrees. If lower, then we could have a workable idea. Originally, I wanted to tackle the task of finding the dew point. So, I went about it in a Science Experiment sort of way.
I figured that if we were able to lower the temperature of the flue gas to a known temperature below the dewpoint, and by knowing the volume of the gas, and the amount of liquid we could condense out of it, we could determine (possibly) the dew point. So, I brought my Graham Condenser to work, and Scott Hubbard and I went up to the 250 foot landing on the smoke stack with the intent of sucking a known amount of exhaust from the smoke stack while the unit was at full load.
We would run it through the condenser while running cool water through it to lower the temperature.
I could measure the output of the vacuum pump by filling up an inverted Erlemeyer flask with water and then letting the flue gas displace the water. — I always loved doing experiments like this in the 9th grade science glass with Mr. Godfrey our Physical Science Teacher (Donna Westhoff, who may sometimes read this blog was in my class and sat right behind me).
Ok. Side Story, since I mentioned Donna Westhoff from the 9th grade 1974-75 school year.
I knew that Donna’s father was a fire fighter, because one day during a special outing when we were with a group of bicycling Junior High School students and a teacher, we stopped at Donna Westhoff’s house to get a drink of water. On the walls in her house were different types of fire fighting treasures. Donna explained that her father was a fire fighter… That was the Spring of 1975 in Columbia, Missouri
Fast forward 16 years later (1991) at the Power Plant in the middle of nowhere in North Central Oklahoma. Just about a year after the story I’m telling now…. I left the logic room and went to catch the elevator to the Control room. When the doors opened, Tony Mena was in there with a bunch of college age students giving them a tour of the plant. I entered the elevator and turned around to face the door as it closed.
As I was standing there, I suddenly became aware that the person standing next to me was staring right at me. So, I turned to see who it was. Standing next to me was someone that looked very familiar wearing a big grin as if she knew who I was. I recognized her, and while my mind was going through filing cabinets of memories trying to index this particular person, I asked her, “Don’t I know you?” She shook her head and said, “I’m Donna Westhoff!”
As the elevator door opened and we stepped out, Donna and I began talking about what we were both doing there. She was surprised to find that I had become an electrician at a power plant instead of some kind of scientist in a lab somewhere. Donna was going to school in Stillwater where one of the best Fire Fighting Schools in the country is found. Following in her father’s footsteps, I thought. After a while I could tell that Tony was getting a little perturbed that the wisdom he was imparting about the fire protection system on the Turbine Generator wasn’t being absorbed by Donna, so I cut our conversation short. It turned out that a very good friend of hers lived just two houses from where we lived, and her friend’s mother was my landlord. Peggy Pickens.
Ok. End of the side story, and another example of how I occasionally run into friends from my childhood in the most unexpected places (see the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“).
So. Scott Hubbard and I tried using the Graham Condenser and the Erlenmeyer Flask, but we quickly found out that this wasn’t big enough, to capture a large enough quantity. So, we increased the size of the condenser by winding a garden hose around inside of a water bucket and filling it with ice. Then we captured all the water that condensed in the hose.
When it finally came down to it. Even though it was fun trying to do this experiment halfway up the 500 foot smoke stack, I never was able to figure out how to calculate the dew point given the data I had collected.
That’s when we decided to look at dew point sensors in the parts catalogs. If we could stick a probe down into the precipitator and measure the dew point directly in the flue gas, that would be best. After looking at a few in the catalog, Terry Blevins said he thought he could make one. So, he went to work.
The next day he came in with an inch and a half conduit with hoses hanging out the back and a homemade sensor on the other end. I won’t go into detail how the sensor was built because some day Terry may want to patent this thing because, as it turned out, it was so sensitive that it could detect my breathe from about a foot away. If I breathed out of my mouth toward the sensor, it would detect the moisture in my breath. This was perfect!
We went to work on the roof of the precipitator sticking the probe down into different sections of the precipitator. It not only measured the moisture, it also had thermocouples on it that we used to accurately measure the temperature of the sensor as we varied the temperature by blowing cold air through the conduit using the same ice bucket and hose from before.
I could go into a lot of detail about how we performed our experiments, but it would only excite me and bore you. So, let me just say that we came up with two very important results. First of all, at full load when the humidity outside was at 100% the dew point was around 150 degrees! A full 100 degrees below what the plant had originally assumed. This was very important, because a lot of energy was spent trying to keep the flue gas above 250 degrees, and just by lowering it down to 210 degrees, still a safe amount above the dew point, that extra energy could be used to create electricity.
The second thing that we discovered was that the middle sections of the precipitator was a lot cooler inside than the outer fields. We realized that this was caused by the air preheater coils that rotated between the flue gas and the Primary Air intake duct. This took the last amount of heat possible from the exhaust and transferred it to the air going into the boiler so that it was already hot when it was used to burn the coal. Because of the way the air preheater coils rotated, the part of the duct toward the middle of the precipitator was a lot cooler than the air on the outside.
Lower temperatures in the precipitator increased the performance, so we decided that if we could mix the air around as it was going into the precipitator so that the outer edges were cooler, then it would increase the overall performance. One suggestion was to put a mobile home in the duct work because in Oklahoma it was a known fact that mobile homes attracted tornadoes and it would probably cause a tornadic reaction that would mix up the flue gases. — We just couldn’t figure out how to convince management to put a mobile home in the duct between the economizer and the precipitator.
Thanks to Terry’s handy dandy Dew Point Sensor, we were able to prove that the hopper and roof heaters could be lowered to where we set the thermostat at 180 degrees. At that setting the heaters that used to always run at 250 degrees would remain off anytime the ambient temperature was above 45 degrees. In Oklahoma, that is most of the year. This turned out to save over $350,000 per year in energy savings at a cost of about 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Not to mention the unknown savings from being able to lower the flue gas temperature by 40 degrees.
Originally posted May 17, 2014:
Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.
One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.
The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.
Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.
Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.
I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.
When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.
I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.
Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.
When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.
When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.
Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.
I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait) See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.
With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.
While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.
Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.
By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.
The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.
The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.
So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.
As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”
So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.
Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….
George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.
Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.
The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.
This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.
You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).
Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.
Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.
This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….
Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.
I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….
In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.
In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.
Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.
Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.
I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.
It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.
He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?
The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.
When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.
That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…
I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.
Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.
Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.
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