Tag Archives: Asbestos Gloves

Hot Night on the Power Plant Precipitator

Scott Hubbard and I weren’t too sure why we had been called out that night when we met at the Bowling Alley on Washington Street at two o’clock in the morning in Stillwater Oklahoma to drive out to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Something about a fire on the top of the precipitator.

I was glad that Scott was driving instead of me when I climbed into his pickup and he began the 20 mile journey up Highway 177.  I wasn’t quite awake yet from the phone call at 1:45 am telling me that there was a fire on the Unit 1 precipitator roof and they were calling Scott and I out to put it out.  I figured if there was a fire it should be put out long before the 45 minutes it takes me and Scott to arrive at the plant.

We had all been trained to fight fires this size, so it didn’t make sense why we had to go do this instead of the operators.

This is am actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

This is am actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

My head was still swimming from the lack of sleep when we arrived at the plant, and headed to the Control Room to find out more about the fire we were supposed to fight.  The Shift Supervisor explained that there was an oil fire under one of the high voltage transformers next to some high voltage cables, and the operators that were on duty didn’t feel comfortable climbing under the transformer stands to try and put it out because of high voltage cable tray that ran alongside the fire (ok, now it made sense.  Electricity was involved.  Electricians had to work on anything that had an electric cable attached even if it was a fire).

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home.  The ones we used were bigger

The operators had already brought a number of fire extinguishers appropriate to putting out an oil fire to the precipitator roof, and they had an SCBA (Self Contained Breating Apparatus) waiting there as well.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA from Google Images

Scott and I went to the Electric Shop to get a couple of pairs of asbestos gloves just in case we needed them.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

When we arrived on the precipitator roof we could smell the fire smoldering right away.  The operator explained that some oil soaked insulation was on fire under the transformer stand for Transformer 1G9 and that he had tried to put it out using the extinguisher, but since the transformer oil was soaked into the bricks of insulation, it didn’t seem to do any good.

The transformer stands are about 18 inches tall, so climbing under them reminded me of the time I was sandblasting the water treatment tanks and Curtis Love turned off my air (see the post:  “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“).  This time I had a self-contained breathing apparatus, so I was in control of my own air… only there would only be about 30 minutes of air in the tank.

After assessing the situation Scott and I decided that the only way to put the fire out was to remove the blocks of insulation that were burning.  This meant that I had to lay down under the precipitator transformers and come face to face with the burning insulation and pull them out while wearing the asbestos gloves and put them in a barrel.

The plan was that we would then lower the 55 gallon barrel down to the ground and extinguish the fire by filling the barrel with water.

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

A barrel this size, only it was empty and the top was removed

The precipitator is on the outlet end of the boiler.  The boiler exhaust blows through the precipitator and the ash in the exhaust is removed using static electricity generated by the large transformers on the precipitator roof using up to 45,000 volts of electicity.  When the precipitator is on, the roof is generally a warm place to be.

When a person is laying on the insulation under a transformer, the temperature is somewhat higher as the heat is trapped in the enclosed space between two enclosures called “Coffin Houses” (how appropriate).  When the insulation is soaked with burning oil, the temperature seemed to rise significantly.  Luckily the insulation was not fiberglass as you may have in your attic, because I was wearing nothing but a tee shirt and jeans.  So, I was not subject to the itching I would have if the insulation had been fiberglass.

I had turned the air on the SCBA without using the “Postive Pressure” setting.  That meant that when I inhaled, I pulled air from the air tank, but the air didn’t apply pressure on the mask to keep out the bad air.

I did that because, this looked like it was going to be a long job and I wanted to conserve the air in the tank, and I found that on this setting I was not breathing the smoke pouring up around my face.  Otherwise I would have reached down to the valve on my belt and changed the setting to positive pressure.

I kept wondering while I was lying there with my face a few inches from the smoldering blocks of insulation why I was so calm the entire time.  The hot temperature had caused my sweat reflex to pour out the sweat so I was quickly drenched.  I would just lay my head on the insulation as I reached into the hole I was creating and pulled a glowing brick of insulation out using the asbestos gloves.

I knew I was only half awake so I kept telling myself… “Pay attention.  Work slowly.  One step at a time.  I tried to work like Granny would when she was digging Taters on the Beverly Hillbillies (see the video below):

In case you are not able to view the video above, try this link:  “Granny Digging Taters“.

It’s funny when you’re half dreaming the various things that come to mind.  I’m not sure how picking up smoldering bricks of insulation translated in my mind to Granny teaching beatniks how to pick “taters”…. but it did.

There was also something about this that reminded me of eating chocolate…. oh wait… that was probably left over from the dream I was having when the phone first rang back at the house.

For the next hour or so, I filled the barrels with the burning insulation and then lowered them down to the alleyway between Unit 1 and 2.  During this time I was still groggy from the lack of sleep and the entire process seemed like a dream to me.

I remember lying on my stomach next to the burning insulation.  Pulling the blocks out one at a time, layer by layer until I reached the precipitator roof underneath.  I placed each block of smoldering insulation in the barrel that had been lowered down by an overhead chain-fall near me.

When the barrel was about 3/4 full, we would work the chain fall over to the motorized hoist that would lower it down to the pickup truck bed 100 feet below.  When the barrel left the confines of the precipitator roof and the night air blew over the top of it, the insulation would burst into flames.  By the time the barrel landed in the back of the pickup truck the flames would be lighting up the alley way.

Scott doused the flames with a hose and an extinguisher and hauled the barrel of insulation off to a hazardous waste bin while I repeated the process with the next barrel that Scott attached to the hoist.

By the time we were through I smelled like something that crawled out of a damp fireplace.  My shirt and jeans were soaked with sweat and caked with pink insulation.  The SCBA was out of air after using it for an hour and we were ready to go home.

The operators said they would bring the empty extinguishers back to the plant and send the SCBA off to have it recharged.  We checked back in with the Shift Supervisor in the control room and told him we were heading for home.

I don’t remember which Shift Supervisor it was, though Gary Wright comes to my mind when I think about it.

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

Gary Wright is the red haird man in the front row with the big round glasses

I don’t remember which operator was helping us on the precipitator roof either.  I would usually remember those things, but like I said, I was still dreaming during this entire process.

Normally at this time, since it was close to 3:30 in the morning, we would opt to stay over and just do some odd jobs until it was time to start work because the 6 hour rule would still require us to come back to work at the regular time (see the Post: “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rule“).  Scott and I decided that we both needed a good shower and if we could catch even one hour of sleep before we had to head back out to work, that would help.

So, we climbed back into Scott’s truck and headed back to Stillwater to the bowling alley where I had left my car.  I don’t remember the drive home.  I don’t even remember taking off my shirt and jeans in the utility room where I walked in the house and placing them in the washing machine straightaway… though that’s what I did.

I know I took a shower, but all that was just part of the same dream I had been having since the phone rang earlier that night.  Usually I didn’t have trouble waking up when the phone rang in the middle of the night, but for some reason, this particular night, I never fully woke up.

Or… maybe it’s something else….  Could I have dreamed the entire thing?  Maybe I never did receive that call, and we didn’t have to go out to the plant in the middle of the night to put out a fire.  I mean… how crazy is that anyway?  Does it make any sense?

I suppose I will have to rely on Scott Hubbard to confirm that we really did fight that fire.  How about it Scott?

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

As Bill Gibson asked one time…. “Is the Fact Truer than the Fiction?”

What Coal-Fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery

Power Plant Men working for a large Coal-Fired Power Plant have the kind of culture where Cleanliness is next to “Leroy Godfrey-ness”.  If you knew Leroy Godfrey, then you would know that he was a perfectionist in a lot of ways.  Or… Well, he expected the Plant Electricians to be anyway.  A few years after becoming an electrician, there was some work being done by Ben Davis, one of our best electricians, at the Conoco (Continental) Oil Refinery twenty miles north of the plant in Ponca City.

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery in Ponca City

Being a low level Electrician Apprentice, I was not included in whatever was happening at the Refinery.  I didn’t work at the refinery for many years.  When I finally did go to Conoco, I wished I hadn’t.

What was happening?  A Co-Generation plant was being built there.  It is called a “Co-Generation” plant because it serves two purposes.  Waste gas from the refinery is used to fire the boiler that produces the steam to turn the turbine.  Any steam left over is sent over to the refinery to supplement their own needs.  The electricity is used by the refinery and any left over electricity is sold by the Electric Company for a profit.  So, in a sense, it is a “Co-Existence”.

For the most part, Power Plant Men were looking for opportunities to get in a company truck and leave the plant grounds to work on something outside the confines of the plant where they work every day, week in and week out.  Trips to the river pumps or the parks on our lake were always nice, because you would see wildlife along the way.  You could look out over the Arkansas River in the morning as the sun was rising and feel the cool breeze and smell the pastures nearby.

Trips to Enid to our small peaking units were fun too, because we were able to work on some different equipment out in a quiet substation where mud daubers were the only sound until the units came online.  The drive to Enid was nice because the 45 mile trip across the countryside is pleasant and the traffic is very light.  You can go for miles without seeing another car.

After only a couple of visits to the Conoco Oil Refinery, I never looked forward to the 20 minute drive from the plant when we had to work on the Co-Generation Plant co-owned by our company and the Oil Refinery.  There were a few things about the refinery that bothered me about working there.  One annoying factor was the hideous smell.

I had lived in Ponca City for three years and the sour odor that poured out of the Oil Refinery to the south of our house generally blew right up our street.  One winter morning I remember stepping out of our rental house into the dark on my way to work, and the exhaust from the oil refinery must have been blowing directly down the street to our house where I lived because when I took a breath I gagged immediately and was at the point of vomiting on the front lawn.

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma in 1986-89 with about 600 sq. ft. of living space

A side note…

My wife and I lived in this tiny house shortly after we were married.  Kelly was an RN (nurse) at the local hospital working the night shift while I was an electrician at the Power Plant during the day.  I had the philosophy that if we started by living in a dump and saved our money, then as we gradually worked our way up to a bigger house, we would feel as if life was getting better, and we never had to worry about money, since we always lived well below our means.

I figured that if we lived far below our means, our means would keep growing.  Living just below your means meant always staying in the same economic spot (how many sentences can I put the words “means” and “meant” right next to each other?).  The quality of Life doesn’t get much better.  When living well below your means, life continues to get better even if your job stays the same your entire life.  I had figured that I was going to be a plant electrician until the day I retired, so, this was my way of planning ahead.

My wife endured living in this tiny house one block away from the railroad tracks traveled by the coal trains on their way to our plant (which shook our house as they passed) for three years before we moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma where we lived with more than twice the square feet and no smell from the oil refinery.

end of side note…

I started out by saying that the culture at our Power Plant was that Cleanliness was very important.  I suppose this was true at the Oil Refinery as well, only, it seemed that even though the clutter was all picked up, there was something “inherently” dirty about the oil refinery.  I’m not sure how to describe it, but you just felt like you didn’t want to touch anything because it was going to leave some sort of dirty film on you.  It was….. grimy (one could say… oily… well… it was an oil refinery).

Our Power Plant is in North Central Oklahoma, and during the summer going for an entire month with over 100 degree weather every day was not uncommon.  There are parts of the plant where you had to work some times where the temperature reached 160 degrees.  Of course, you can’t stay in that environment very long, and those areas are generally not the areas of choice when choosing which job to work on next.

One hot summer day in 1996, Charles Foster and I had to go to the oil refinery to our Co-Generation plant to fix an Air Conditioner Condenser Fan Motor.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

This isn’t like one of those fans on the side of your house in the box that you know as your “air conditioner” that blows hot air out when the air conditioner in your house is running, though it performs the same task, only on a much bigger scale.

A large air conditioner about the size of the one that Mike Rose worked on

No.  Even bigger than this air conditioner

When you entered the oil refinery you had to wear a long blue cloak or coat called “Nomex” (pronounced “No Mex”).

A Blue Nomex Coat

A Blue Nomex Coat  which can be worn by Mexicans.  That rumor is just not true.

The reason for wearing this heavy “woolen” coat was to help save your life in case you happened to be around the next time (next time?) something exploded, blasting flames in your direction.  — Yeah…. comforting huh?  Knowing that this flame retardant coat was going to keep you from being burned alive when something exploded in the refinery.  Oh joy.

Everyone in the refinery was wearing these blue coats.  It was a requirement before you could drive your pickup through the security gate.

Once inside the gate, Charles and I checked our clearances to make sure it was safe to work on unwiring the motor that was mounted under the air conditioner coils.  Another fan was running that was turning a large fan blade blowing hot air down next to us.  We had brought our own fans to blow cooler air on us while we worked on the motor.  This particular motor weighed about 400 lbs, to give you an idea of the size of motor we were repairing.

A motor much like this one

A motor much like this one only mounted vertically

Charles and I had brought a temperature gun to check how hot everything was when we were working.

An Infrared Thermometer

An Infrared Thermometer

When we checked the temperature, we found that the area where we had to stand was 160 degrees.  The motor itself was even hotter than that.  We had to wear leather gloves just to work on it without burning our hands.  Asbestos gloves would have rendered us useless because they make you feel like you are wearing “Hulk Hands” where your fingers are about 2 inches wide.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

See what I mean?

Hulk Hands

Hulk Hands

The air was too hot to breathe except for quick shallow breaths.  Even though we had a fan blowing directly on us, we took turns approaching the motor, turning some bolts a couple of times, and then quickly moving out of the area to where we could be in the cooler 105 degree temperature.

There is nothing like a mild irritation (such as working in extreme heat) to motivate you to hurry up a job.  Charles and I worked diligently to remove the motor and then lowered it down with a platform hand lift that we kept in the shop.

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used only ours had a hydraulic lift on it.  This one has a hand crank.

This fan motor was on the roof of a building, so once we had removed the motor from where it was mounted, we still had to lower it down to the back of the truck which was backed up to the side of the building.  Once in the truck, we brought it back to the plant where we could work on it.

When you first went to work in the oil refinery you had to take a specially designed safety course when you are issued your Nomex coat.  During that class, you are told that if you hear the sirens go off, that generally means that there are some toxic gases being released accidentally in the plant, you are supposed to take action quickly.

The funniest (or not so funniest) instructions was that when the sirens go off, you are supposed to run in the opposite direction away from the sirens.  Which sort of reminds me of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when they had to run away from the viscous fighting rabbit. Yelling “Run Away!  Run Away!”  Great safety evacuation plan.  — Plan of action:  “Run!!!”

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

The toxic gas that everyone was worried about is called Hydrogen Sulfide or H2S.  This is the gas that smells like rotten eggs.  The only problem is that when there is more than the minimal amount of H2S in the air, you can’t smell it anymore because it quickly deadens your sense of smell.

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Another fun reason to not want to go work in the Oil Refinery.

Anyway, Charles and I safely reversed the process to return the motor to its rightful place mounted on the bottom of the coils on the roof.

A few times I had to go to work at the Co-Generation plant because something was broken (like the fan motor), but most of the time that we went to the plant was to do our quarterly battery inspections.  For more information about battery inspections, you can read this post: “Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance“.

I have told you all the reasons why I didn’t enjoy working at the Oil Refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  There were reasons why I did enjoy it.  I suppose if you have been reading my posts, you will know the most obvious answer to that question (oh.  I guess I didn’t really ask a question… but if I had…).  The only redeeming factor with working at the Co-Generation plant at the oil refinery was being able to work with the best Power Plant Men and Women in the country.

I have given you an example above when I worked with Charles Foster.  I also worked with Scott Hubbard and Diana Brien.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Both of them top class electricians and First Class Friends.  Just to be able to work side-by-side with such terrific people made me forget about the poison gases.  I didn’t mind the heat.  I even forgot I was wearing the heavy suffocating Nomex Coat.  What’s a little grime when your friend tells you about their day?  About what they are planning for the weekend?  Or the rest of their life?

Actually, I think that’s what made everything about working both at the Oil Refinery and the Power Plant itself the most enjoyable job I can imagine.  Sure.  We had a culture of “cleanliness” at the plant but I think it was the culture of “friendliness” that really made all the difference.  It was also the most painful part the day I finally left the Power Plant to adventure out to find the rest of the world in 2001.

Why Do Power Plant Men always Lose the Things they Love the Most?

Originally posted November 9, 2013:

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards. My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service. There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs. Like I said. It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having. Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing. He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job. Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application. I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about. He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School. He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. We immediately became friends when we met. We both enjoyed the same things. The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games. So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me. We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn. Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice. When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal. Chili. So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home. On the way home my brother started to chuckle. I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” in his head. It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say. We would just yell out, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!” It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory. I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm. He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived. The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?” When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.” When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was. I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse! You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine. It’s poetry to my ears. Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most? Well… because all good things had to come to an end. Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it. They just aren’t used much anymore. Everything has gone digital. Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips. It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant. By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors. We were programming chips. Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using. We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor. We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing. When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit… Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well. Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun. We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature. No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit. Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor. The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant. They were made from genuine Asbestos. I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves. Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing. You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well… They were taken away. Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”. That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator. Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface. But…. I wouldn’t know about that. I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing. We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places. Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards. I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot. The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters. Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter. I dare say. It was a step up from the old Simpson meter. A lot safer also:

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

And the Safety belt? Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body. So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see… What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs. Real Power Plant Men I mean. So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss. They lose those things they hold dear. Yeah. They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had. I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So. That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most. Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing. Power plant Men just change right along with it. But sometimes it hurts a littl

Comments from original post:

  1. Ron November 9, 2013

    Great story, Kevin.
    When I transferred to the Seminole Plant, one of my jobs was to do the “daily sheets”. For each generating unit I calculated total MW, steam flow, gas burned, average temperatures and pressures, etc. We were privileged to have the first non-mechanical calculators in an OG&E Power Plant. The old calculators (I used at Mustang and Horseshoe Lake) were mechanical – motors, gears, shafts, levers, dials, and more gears. They made cool sounds when you hit the “Total” key. They even had a unique smell too. We paid $900 for each Monroe calculator in 1970. They didn’t make any noises. They didn’t give off any scent, either. But they were much faster, smaller, and lighter. I missed the old mechanicals. I still have the Post slide rule I used at OU too.

  2. Eve MEL Thomson November 9, 2013

    Sadly, change is progress. I used a blackboard, now it’s a white board!

  3. Wendell A. Brown November 11, 2013

    I loved your post, change comes in our lives but hopefully in our lives we blossom and become better for it, and always cherish the memories. I smiled a thousand times while reading it and will always remember “Jessie come eat your chili! Blessings!

  4. Jack Curtis November 13, 2013

    Change, yes…but it’s more than that. Old time craftsmen involved a lot of themselves in their work. I remember men who grabbed a wire to determine the voltage on it. A lot of work was done by feel, a sort of extra sense that craftsmen developed on the job. Projects came out right because they knew what was intended and how to make it happen that way. They were an important link in the chain of production.

    Now so much work is untouched by human hands; merely moved along by button-pushers who have replaced true craftsmen. An old time carpenter or electrician could do things today’s replacements never dream of. Cabinet makers and machinists are gone, replaced by machine operators. Much is no doubt gained, but so much is lost…

    An average man in those days, was pretty competent with his hands, expected to have a list of skills and competencies…and that’s gone, too.

 

What Coal-Fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery

Power Plant Men working for a large Coal-Fired Power Plant have the kind of culture where Cleanliness is next to “Leroy Godfrey-ness”.  If you knew Leroy Godfrey, then you would know that he was a perfectionist in a lot of ways.  Or… Well, he expected the Plant Electricians to be anyway.  A few years after becoming an electrician, there was some work being done by Ben Davis, one of our best electricians, at the Conoco (Continental) Oil Refinery twenty miles north of the plant in Ponca City.

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery in Ponca City

Being a low level Electrician Apprentice, I was not included in whatever was happening at the Refinery.  I didn’t work at the refinery for many years.  When I finally did go to Conoco, I wished I hadn’t.

What was happening?  A Co-Generation plant was being built there.  It is called a “Co-Generation” plant because it serves two purposes.  Waste gas from the refinery is used to fire the boiler that produces the steam to turn the turbine.  Any steam left over is sent over to the refinery to supplement their own needs.  The electricity is used by the refinery and any left over electricity is sold by the Electric Company for a profit.  So, in a sense, it is a “Co-Existence”.

For the most part, Power Plant Men were looking for opportunities to get in a company truck and leave the plant grounds to work on something outside the confines of the plant where they work every day, week in and week out.  Trips to the river pumps or the parks on our lake were always nice, because you would see wildlife along the way.  You could look out over the Arkansas River in the morning as the sun was rising and feel the cool breeze and smell the pastures nearby.

Trips to Enid to our small peaking units were fun too, because we were able to work on some different equipment out in a quiet substation where mud daubers were the only sound until the units came online.  The drive to Enid was nice because the 45 mile trip across the countryside is pleasant and the traffic is very light.  You can go for miles without seeing another car.

After only a couple of visits to the Conoco Oil Refinery, I never looked forward to the 20 minute drive from the plant when we had to work on the Co-Generation Plant co-owned by our company and the Oil Refinery.  There were a few things about the refinery that bothered me about working there.  One annoying factor was the hideous smell.

I had lived in Ponca City for three years and the sour odor that poured out of the Oil Refinery to the south of our house generally blew right up our street.  One winter morning I remember stepping out of our rental house into the dark on my way to work, and the exhaust from the oil refinery must have been blowing directly down the street to our house where I lived because when I took a breath I gagged immediately and was at the point of vomiting on the front lawn.

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma in 1986-89 with about 600 sq. ft. of living space

A side note…

My wife and I lived in this tiny house shortly after we were married.  Kelly was an RN (nurse) at the local hospital working the night shift while I was an electrician at the Power Plant during the day.  I had the philosophy that if we started by living in a dump and saved our money, then as we gradually worked our way up to a bigger house, we would feel as if life was getting better, and we never had to worry about money, since we always lived well below our means.

I figured that if we lived far below our means, our means would keep growing.  Living just below your means meant always staying in the same economic spot (how many sentences can put the words “means” and “meant” right next to each other?).  The quality of Life doesn’t get much better.  When living well below your means, life continues to get better even if your job stays the same your entire life.  I had figured that I was going to be a plant electrician until the day I retired, so, this was my way of planning ahead.

My wife endured living in this tiny house one block away from the railroad tracks traveled by the coal trains on their way to our plant (which shook our house as they passed) for three years before we moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma where we lived with more than twice the square feet and no smell from the oil refinery.

end of side note…

I started out by saying that the culture at our Power Plant was that Cleanliness was very important.  I suppose this was true at the Oil Refinery as well, only, it seemed that even though the clutter was all picked up, there was something “inherently” dirty about the oil refinery.  I’m not sure how to describe it, but you just felt like you didn’t want to touch anything because it was going to leave some sort of dirty film on you.  It was….. grimy.

Our Power Plant is in North Central Oklahoma, and during the summer going for an entire month with over 100 degree weather every day was not uncommon.  There are parts of the plant where you had to work some times where the temperature reached 160 degrees.  Of course, you can’t stay in that environment very long, and those areas are generally not the areas of choice when choosing which job to work on next.

One hot summer day in 1996, Charles Foster and I had to go to the oil refinery to our Co-Generation plant there to fix an Air Conditioner Condenser Fan Motor.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

This isn’t like one of those fans on the side of your house in the box that you know as your “air conditioner” that blows hot air out when the air conditioner in your house is running, though it performs the same task, only on a much bigger scale.

A large air conditioner about the size of the one that Mike Rose worked on

No.  Even bigger than this air conditioner

When you entered the oil refinery you had to wear a long blue cloak or coat called “Nomex”.

A Blue Nomex Coat

A Blue Nomex Coat  which can be worn by Mexicans.  That rumor is just not true.

The reason for wearing this heavy “woolen” coat was to help save your life in case you happened to be around the next time (next time?) something exploded, blasting flames in your direction.  — Yeah…. comforting huh?  Knowing that this flame retardant coat was going to keep you from being burned alive when something exploded in the refinery.  Oh joy.

Everyone in the refinery was wearing these blue coats.  It was a requirement before you could drive your pickup through the security gate.

Once inside the gate, Charles and I checked our clearances to make sure it was safe to work on unwiring the motor that was mounted under the air conditioner coils.  Another fan was running that was turning a large fan blade blowing hot air down next to us.  We had brought our own fans to blow cooler air on us while we worked on the motor.  This particular motor weighed about 400 lbs, to give you an idea of the size of motor we were repairing.

A motor much like this one

A motor much like this one only mounted vertically

Charles and I had brought a temperature gun to check how hot everything was when we were working.

An Infrared Thermometer

An Infrared Thermometer

When we checked the temperature, we found that the area where we had to stand was 160 degrees.  The motor itself was even hotter than that.  We had to wear leather gloves just to work on it without burning our hands.  Asbestos gloves would have rendered us useless because they make you feel like you are wearing “Hulk Hands” where your fingers are about 2 inches wide.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

See what I mean?

Hulk Hands

Hulk Hands

The air was too hot to breathe except for quick shallow breaths.  Even though we had a fan blowing directly on us, we took turns approaching the motor, turning some bolts a couple of times, and then quickly moving out of the area to where we could be in the cooler 105 degree temperature.

There is nothing like a mild irritation (such as working in extreme heat) to motivate you to hurry up a job.  Charles and I worked diligently to remove the motor and then lowering it down with a platform hand lift that we kept in the shop.

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used only ours had a hydraulic lift on it.

This fan motor was on the roof of a building, so once we had removed the motor from where it was mounted, we still had to lower it down to the back of the truck which was backed up to the side of the building.  Once in the truck, we brought it back to the plant where we could work on it.

When you first went to work in the oil refinery you have to take a specially designed safety course when you are issued your Nomex coat.  During that class, you are told that if you hear the sirens go off, that generally means that there are some toxic gases being released accidentally in the plant, you are supposed to take action quickly.

The funniest (or not so funniest) instructions was that when the sirens go off, you are supposed to run in the opposite direction away from the sirens.  Which sort of reminds me of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when they had to run away from the viscous fighting rabbit. Yelling “Run Away!  Run Away!”  Great safety evacuation plan.

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

The toxic gas that everyone was worried about is called Hydrogen Sulfide or H2S.  This is the gas that smells like rotten eggs.  The only problem is that when there is more than the minimal amount of H2S in the air, you can’t smell it anymore because it quickly deadens your sense of smell.

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Another fun reason to not want to go work in the Oil Refinery.

Anyway, Charles and I safely reversed the process to return the motor to its rightful place mounted on the bottom of the coils on the roof.

A few times I had to go to work at the Co-Generation plant because something was broken (like the fan motor), but most of the time that we went to the plant was to do our quarterly battery inspections.  For more information about battery inspections, you can read this post: “Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance“.

I have told you all the reasons why I didn’t enjoy working at the Oil Refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  There were reasons why I did enjoy it.  I suppose if you have been reading my posts, you will know the most obvious answer to that question (oh.  I guess I didn’t really ask a question… but if I had…).  The only redeeming factor with working at the Co-Generation plant at the oil refinery was being able to work with the best Power Plant Men and Women in the country.

I have given you an example above when I worked with Charles Foster.  I also worked with Scott Hubbard and Diana Brien.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Both of them top class electricians and First Class Friends.  Just to be able to work side-by-side with such terrific people made me forget about the poison gases.  I didn’t mind the heat.  I even forgot I was wearing the heavy suffocating Nomex Coat.  What’s a little grime when your friend tells you about their day?  About what they are planning for the weekend?  Or the rest of their life?

Actually, I think that’s what made everything about working both at the Oil Refinery and the Power Plant itself the most enjoyable job I can imagine.  Sure.  We had a culture of “cleanliness” at the plant.  I think it was the “friendliness” that really made all the difference.  It was also the most painful part the day I finally left the Power Plant to adventure out to find the rest of the world in 2001.

Hot Night on the Power Plant Precipitator

Scott Hubbard and I weren’t too sure why we had been called out that night when we met at the Bowling Alley on Washington Street at two o’clock in the morning in Stillwater Oklahoma to drive out to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Something about a fire on the top of the precipitator.

I was glad that Scott was driving instead of me when I climbed into his pickup and he began the 20 mile journey up Highway 177.  I wasn’t quite awake yet from the phone call at 1:45 am telling me that there was a fire on the Unit 1 precipitator roof and they were calling Scott and I out to put it out.  I figured if there was a fire it should be put out long before the 45 minutes it takes me and Scott to arrive at the plant.

We had all been trained to fight fires this size, so it didn’t make sense why we had to go do this instead of the operators.

This is am actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

This is am actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

My head was still swimming from the lack of sleep when we arrived at the plant, and headed to the Control Room to find out more about the fire we were supposed to fight.  The Shift Supervisor explained that there was an oil fire under one of the high voltage transformers next to some high voltage cables, and the operators that were on duty didn’t feel comfortable climbing under the transformer stands to try and put it out because of high voltage cable tray that ran alongside the fire (ok, now it made sense.  Electricity was involved.  Electricians had to work on anything that had an electric cable attached even if it was a fire).

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home.  The ones we used were bigger

The operators had already brought a number of fire extinguishers appropriate to putting out an oil fire to the precipitator roof, and they had an SCBA (Self Contained Breating Apparatus) waiting there as well.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA from Google Images

Scott and I went to the Electric Shop to get a couple of pairs of asbestos gloves just in case we needed them.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

When we arrived on the precipitator roof we could smell the fire smoldering right away.  The operator explained that some oil soaked insulation was on fire under the transformer stand for Transformer 1G9 and that he had tried to put it out using the extinguisher, but since the transformer oil was soaked into the bricks of insulation, it didn’t seem to do any good.

The transformer stands are about 18 inches tall, so climbing under them reminded me of the time I was sandblasting the water treatment tanks and Curtis Love turned off my air (see the post:  “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“).  This time I had a self-contained breathing apparatus, so I was in control of my own air… only there would only be about 30 minutes of air in the tank.

After assessing the situation Scott and I decided that the only way to put the fire out was to remove the blocks of insulation that were burning.  This meant that I had to lay down under the precipitator transformers and come face to face with the burning insulation and pull them out while wearing the asbestos gloves and put them in a barrel.

The plan was that we would then lower the 55 gallon barrel down to the ground and extinguish the fire by filling the barrel with water.

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

A barrel this size, only it was empty and the top was removed

The precipitator is on the outlet end of the boiler.  The boiler exhaust blows through the precipitator and the ash in the exhaust is removed using static electricity generated by the large transformers on the precipitator roof using up to 45,000 volts of electicity.  When the precipitator is on, the roof is generally a warm place to be.

When a person is laying on the insulation under a transformer, the temperature is somewhat higher as the heat is trapped in the enclosed space between two enclosures called “Coffin Houses” (how appropriate).  When the insulation is soaked with burning oil, the temperature seemed to rise significantly.  Luckily the insulation was not fiberglass as you may have in your attic, because I was wearing nothing but a tee shirt and jeans.  So, I was not subject to the itching I would have if the insulation had been fiberglass.

I had turned the air on the SCBA without using the “Postive Pressure” setting.  That meant that when I inhaled, I pulled air from the air tank, but the air didn’t apply pressure on the mask to keep out the bad air.

I did that because, this looked like it was going to be a long job and I wanted to conserve the air in the tank, and I found that on this setting I was not breathing the smoke pouring up around my face.  Otherwise I would have reached down to the valve on my belt and changed the setting to positive pressure.

I kept wondering while I was lying there with my face a few inches from the smoldering blocks of insulation why I was so calm the entire time.  The hot temperature had caused my sweat reflex to pour out the sweat so I was quickly drenched.  I would just lay my head on the insulation as I reached into the hole I was creating and pulled a glowing brick of insulation out using the asbestos gloves.

I knew I was only half awake so I kept telling myself… “Pay attention.  Work slowly.  One step at a time.  I tried to work like Granny would when she was digging Taters on the Beverly Hillbillies (see the video below at 9:30 to 11:00 into the show):

In case you are not able to view the video above, try this link:  “Granny Digging Taters“.

It’s funny when you’re half dreaming the various things that come to mind.  I’m not sure how picking up smoldering bricks of insulation translated in my mind to Granny teaching beatniks how to pick “taters”…. but it did.

There was also something about this that reminded me of eating chocolate…. oh wait… that was probably left over from the dream I was having when the phone first rang back at the house.

For the next hour or so, I filled the barrels with the burning insulation and then lowered them down to the alleyway between Unit 1 and 2.  During this time I was still groggy from the lack of sleep and the entire process seemed like a dream to me.

I remember lying on my stomach next to the burning insulation.  Pulling the blocks out one at a time, layer by layer until I reached the precipitator roof underneath.  I placed each block of smoldering insulation in the barrel that had been lowered down by an overhead chain-fall near me.

When the barrel was about 3/4 full, we would work the chain fall over to the motorized hoist that would lower it down to the pickup truck bed 100 feet below.  When the barrel left the confines of the precipitator roof and the night air blew over the top of it, the insulation would burst into flames.  By the time the barrel landed in the back of the pickup truck the flames would be lighting up the alley way.

Scott doused the flames with a hose and an extinguisher and hauled the barrel of insulation off to a hazardous waste bin while I repeated the process with the next barrel that Scott attached to the hoist.

By the time we were through I smelled like something that crawled out of a damp fireplace.  My shirt and jeans were soaked with sweat and caked with pink insulation.  The SCBA was out of air after using it for an hour and we were ready to go home.

The operators said they would bring the empty extinguishers back to the plant and send the SCBA off to have it recharged.  We checked back in with the Shift Supervisor in the control room and told him we were heading for home.

I don’t remember which Shift Supervisor it was, though Gary Wright comes to my mind when I think about it.

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

Gary Wright is the red haird man in the front row with the big round glasses

I don’t remember which operator was helping us on the precipitator roof either.  I would usually remember those things, but like I said, I was still dreaming during this entire process.

Normally at this time, since it was close to 3:30 in the morning, we would opt to stay over and just do some odd jobs until it was time to start work because the 6 hour rule would still require us to come back to work at the regular time (see the Post: “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rule“).  Scott and I decided that we both needed a good shower and if we could catch even one hour of sleep before we had to head back out to work, that would help.

So, we climbed back into Scott’s truck and headed back to Stillwater to the bowling alley where I had left my car.  I don’t remember the drive home.  I don’t even remember taking off my shirt and jeans in the utility room where I walked in the house and placing them in the washing machine straightaway… though that’s what I did.

I know I took a shower, but all that was just part of the same dream I had been having since the phone rang earlier that night.  Usually I didn’t have trouble waking up when the phone rang in the middle of the night, but for some reason, this particular night, I never fully woke up.

Or… maybe it’s something else….  Could I have dreamed the entire thing?  Maybe I never did receive that call, and we didn’t have to go out to the plant in the middle of the night to put out a fire.  I mean… how crazy is that anyway?  Does it make any sense?

I suppose I will have to rely on Scott Hubbard to confirm that we really did fight that fire.  How about it Scott?

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

As Bill Gibson asked one time…. “Is the Fact Truer than the Fiction?”

From Power Plant Rags To Riches

Originally posted on March 9, 2013:

There is one item that all Oklahoma power plant men carry with them almost every day. Whether they are electricians working on a motor, a mechanic pulling a pump, or an operator making his rounds. All of them carry and use this one item. It is so important that, without it, it would be difficult for the maintenance shop to function properly.

This item of course is a rag from the Chief Wiping Cloth Rag Box:

Every Power Plant Man uses Chief Wiping Cloths on a daily basis

Every Power Plant Man uses Chief Wiping Cloths on a daily basis

As an electrician, I used rags all the time. Whether I was working on a breaker, doing battery inspection, elevator maintenance or just looking for a clean place to sit my back side, I had to have a rag from the box of Chief Wiping Cloths. Chief Wiping Cloths come from the Oklahoma Waste & Wiping Rag Company in Oklahoma City.

When I was on the labor crew, I was dirty all the time. I was doing coal clean-up, digging ditches, pouring concrete, shoveling bottom ash and wading through fly ash. I had little reason to stay clean or to clean things. My life was full of dirt and grime. I was always dirty, so much so that when I went into the electric shop in 1983 and Bill Bennett was talking to Charles Foster about who should repair the Manhole pump motors, Bill told Charles, “Let Kevin do it. He enjoys getting dirty.”

I didn’t argue with Bill, because, well…. what was the point. But as an electrician, I not only had desired to have a cleaner job, but I also wished to fulfill Jerry Mitchell’s prophesy that “When I become as good as him, I will be able to remain clean even in the face of “Coal Dust and Fly Ash” (See the post A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint). The boxes of rags were my opportunity.

So, when I left to go on a job, I would always grab at least a couple of rags from the box and put them in my tool bucket and at least one hanging out of my back pocket. That way, if I needed to plop down on the ground to unwire a motor too low to sit on my bucket, I could sit on a rag on the coal dust covered ground instead. This helped my goal of remaining as clean as possible.

It’s funny that years later I should miss the boxes of rags that I used to use to do my job. There was more to it than just the rags I used to wipe my hands, battery posts, greasy bearings, breaker parts and my nose. You see, these rags were made from recycled clothes. Yes. They were sterilized for our use, but these were from recycled clothes.

Actually, the Oklahoma Waste and Wiping Rag Company, founded in 1940, was one of the largest purchasers of donated clothing in the country. That meant that many of the rags we used in the rag box were actually worn by someone. Sure, a lot of the rags came from defective clothing from factories, but some of the rags had been clothes actually worn by a person.

As odd as it may sound, while I was grabbing rags from the rag box, I was thinking (at times… it wasn’t like it was an obsession with me), that these rags may have been worn by someone for years before ending up covered with bearing grease by my hand and tossed into a proper Fire protection trash can.

Trash cans like this were used because they prevented oily rags from burning down the shop when they would spontaneously combust

Trash cans like this were used because they prevented oily rags from burning down the shop when they would spontaneously combust

So, anyway….. Thinking about how these rags were possibly once worn by people throughout the United States, I felt that some of the rags had a specific connection to some unknown person somewhere. So, I would actually go through the rag box looking for pieces of rags that I felt had been worn by someone before. You know (or maybe you don’t), rags that had an aura around them like someone had once had a “personal relationship” with them.

I would take these rags and I would “pseudo-dress up” in them. So, if it was a rag made out of a pair of pants, I would tuck it in my belt and I would carry it that way until I needed it. In a weird way (and I know… you are thinking a “really weird” way), I would feel connected to the person that had worn this piece of clothing in the past. I felt as if I was honoring their piece of cloth just one last time before I stained it with coal dust, fly ash, or snot, just one last time.

And in my even weirder way, I would sort of pray for that person, whoever they may be. I would even, kind of, thank them for the use of their old clothes (I know, I stretched the English Language in those last two sentences to meet my unusual need).

I have a picture in my mind of myself standing on the platform of the 6A Forced Draft Fan at Muskogee in the fall of 1984 (one year after becoming an electrician), dressing myself up in pieces of clothing from the rag box, all giddy because I had found enough pieces to make an entire outfit made of half male and half female clothing. Ben Davis, who was on overhaul at Muskogee with me from our plant is shaking his head in disbelief that he had to work with such a goof. Not exactly sure who he has been assigned to work with… — I actually felt sorry for Ben. I knew I was a normal person. The trouble was… I was the only person that knew it.

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

Levity is healthy. And at times when stress is at its greatest, levity is a way back to sanity. Just today I was invited to a conference call to discuss something that I was working on, and when I was done, I stayed on the line even though I was no longer needed. As I listened, one person on the other end was remarking about how he enjoyed his team so much because they were able to crack up and reduce the stress by being humorous.

A friend of mine, and fellow teammate Don McClure who had invited me to the call was coming up with one “one-liner” after the other. They were “spot-on” and very funny (as he usually is — ok. He’s going to correct me on the “usually” part). But he said one thing that hit home with me. He said that he had been in the Hot-seat so long that he had to put on a pair of Asbestos underwear.

This, of course, made me immediately think of the asbestos gloves we used to wear in the electric shop before Asbestos had been formerly outlawed. We had an old pair of asbestos gloves from Osage Plant ( to find out more about the Osage Plant read about it in the post Pioneers Of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace).

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Along with the rags in the rag box, when I used to put on the asbestos gloves I used to think of Howard Chumbley (who died on August 4, 1998 at the age of 70), at the age of 24 working at the Osage Plant, before his hair turned to gray and then to white, wearing these same gloves while he pulled a bearing off of a heater and slapped it onto a motor shaft.

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

It gave a special meaning to motor repair. Even though Howard retired from plant life in 1985, for years I could put on his old pair of asbestos gloves and feel like I was stepping into his young shoes. I would think… If only I could be a true “Power Plant Man” like Howard…. I love Howard with all my heart, and today, I have never met a better human being than him.

Note that in the picture of Howard’s gravestone it says that he was an EM3 in the Navy. This is an “Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class”. There is no way I was ever going to measure up to Howard. He was a hero to his country and a man of great integrity and humility. If I had saved up all the nice things I had done in my life and done them all on one day, I may have slightly resembled Howard on a regular day. Just like Jim Waller that I had discussed in my last post… Only Men of the greatest integrity measure up to be “True Power Plant Men”.

This made changing the bearings on a motor almost a sacred event to me. I don’t know if the other electricians felt what I felt, but there was something about placing those gloves on my hands that seemed to transform me for a moment into someone noble. I never mentioned it to them (which was odd, because I was usually in the habit of telling them every little crazy thought that entered my head).

I remember at break time one day Margie Belongia (who was a plant janitor at the time) telling me in 1981 when I was a summer help, that she wanted to go to hell because that was where all of her friends would be. I asked her at the time how she was so certain that being in hell guaranteed that she would be able to be with her friends, and she was taken aback by my question. “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I be with my friend?” — I responded, “Suppose in hell you are alone. With no one but yourself.” I think I unnerved her by my response. She said that she had never considered that. She had counted on being with her friends. They had all decided that was the way it was going to be.

At any rate. I kept her thought in my mind. I hope every day that someday I will be able to walk up behind Howard Chumbley (not in hell of course) and just stand there and listen to him tell stories about when he worked at the old Osage Plant, and how he used to be up to his elbows in oil that contained PCBs and never thought twice about it. Or how he played a harmless joke on someone dear to him, and he would laugh….

Howard was my foreman for only about 5 months before he retired. I remember sitting in the electric shop office for a year and a half during lunch listening to him tell his stories. He would grin like Andy Griffith and laugh in such a genuine way that you knew that his heart was as pure as his manners.

Andy Griffith in this picture reminds me of Howard Chumbley

Andy Griffith in this picture reminds me of Howard Chumbley

To this day I know that I have never been richer than I was when I was able to sit in the shop and listen to Howard Chumbley pass on his life experience to us. Even years later when I was able to slip on the pair of Asbestos Gloves worn by him years earlier I could feel that I was following in his footsteps. Just the thought of that would make me proud to be an Electrician in a Power Plant.

I used to imagine that the Chief on the Chief rag boxes knew the history of all the pieces of rags in the box. When I moved to Texas in 2001, I used some sturdy Chief rag boxes when I was packing to leave. They are sturdy boxes. Just this past year, we threw away the last Chief rag box that contained Christmas decorations in exchange for plastic tubs. Even though it seems like a little thing. I miss seeing the Chief on those boxes of rags.

The chief on the Chief Rag Boxes

The chief on the Chief Rag Boxes

Why Do Power Plant Men always Lose the Things they Love the Most? — Repost

Originally posted November 9, 2013:

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards.  My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service.  There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs.  Like I said.  It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having.  Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing.  He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job.  Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application.  I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about.  He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School.  He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri.  We immediately became friends when we met.  We both enjoyed the same things.  The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games.  So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me.  We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn.  Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice.  When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal.  Chili.  So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home.  On the way home my brother started to chuckle.  I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!” in his head.  It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say.  We would just yell out, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!”  It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory.  I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm.  He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived.  The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?”  When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.”   When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was.  I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse!  You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine.  It’s poetry to my ears.  Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most?  Well… because all good things had to come to an end.  Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it.  They just aren’t used much anymore.  Everything has gone digital.  Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips.  It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant.  By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors.  We were programming chips.  Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using.  We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor.  We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing.  When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit…  Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well.  Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun.  We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature.  No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit.  Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor.  The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant.  They were made from genuine Asbestos.  I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves.  Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing.  You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well…  They were taken away.  Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”.  That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator.  Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface.   But…. I wouldn’t know about that.  I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing.  We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places.  Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards.  I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot.  The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters.  Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter.  I dare say.  It was a step up from the old Simpson meter.  A lot safer also:

Like this.  Ok.  So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

And the Safety belt?  Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body.  So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see…  What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs.  Real Power Plant Men I mean.  So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss.  They lose those things they hold dear.  Yeah.  They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had.  I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So.  That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most.  Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing.  Power plant Men just change right along with it.  But sometimes it hurts a littl

Comments from original post:

  1. Ron   November 9, 2013

    Great story, Kevin.
    When I transferred to the Seminole Plant, one of my jobs was to do the “daily sheets”. For each generating unit I calculated total MW, steam flow, gas burned, average temperatures and pressures, etc. We were privileged to have the first non-mechanical calculators in an OG&E Power Plant. The old calculators (I used at Mustang and Horseshoe Lake) were mechanical – motors, gears, shafts, levers, dials, and more gears. They made cool sounds when you hit the “Total” key. They even had a unique smell too. We paid $900 for each Monroe calculator in 1970. They didn’t make any noises. They didn’t give off any scent, either. But they were much faster, smaller, and lighter. I missed the old mechanicals. I still have the Post slide rule I used at OU too.

  2. Eve MEL Thomson November 9, 2013

    Sadly, change is progress. I used a blackboard, now it’s a white board!

  3. Wendell A. Brown November 11, 2013

    I loved your post, change comes in our lives but hopefully in our lives we blossom and become better for it, and always cherish the memories. I smiled a thousand times while reading it and will always remember “Jessie come eat your chili! Blessings!

  4. Jack Curtis November 13, 2013

    Change, yes…but it’s more than that. Old time craftsmen involved a lot of themselves in their work. I remember men who grabbed a wire to determine the voltage on it. A lot of work was done by feel, a sort of extra sense that craftsmen developed on the job. Projects came out right because they knew what was intended and how to make it happen that way. They were an important link in the chain of production.

    Now so much work is untouched by human hands; merely moved along by button-pushers who have replaced true craftsmen. An old time carpenter or electrician could do things today’s replacements never dream of. Cabinet makers and machinists are gone, replaced by machine operators. Much is no doubt gained, but so much is lost…

    An average man in those days, was pretty competent with his hands, expected to have a list of skills and competencies…and that’s gone, too.

 

From Power Plant Rags To Riches — Repost

Originally posted on March 9, 2013:

There is one item that all Oklahoma power plant men carry with them almost every day.  Whether they are electricians working on a motor, a mechanic pulling a pump, or an operator making his rounds.  All of them carry and use this one item.  It is so important that, without it, it would be difficult for the maintenance shop to function properly.

This item of course is a rag from the Chief Wiping Cloth Rag Box:

Every Power Plant Man uses Chief Wiping Cloths on a daily basis

Every Power Plant Man uses Chief Wiping Cloths on a daily basis

As an electrician, I used rags all the time.  Whether I was working on a breaker, doing battery inspection, elevator maintenance or just looking for a clean place to sit my back side, I had to have a rag from the box of Chief Wiping Cloths.  Chief Wiping Cloths come from the Oklahoma Waste & Wiping Rag Company in Oklahoma City.

When I was on the labor crew, I dirty all the time.  I was doing coal clean-up, digging ditches, pouring concrete, shoveling bottom ash and wading through fly ash.  I had little reason to stay clean or to clean things.  My life was full of dirt and grime.  I was always dirty, so much so that when I went into the electric shop in 1983 and Bill Bennett was talking to Charles Foster about who should repair the Manhole pump motors, Bill told Charles, “Let Kevin do it.  He enjoys getting dirty.”

I didn’t argue with Bill, because, well…. what was the point.  But as an electrician, I not only had desired to have a cleaner job, but I also wished to fulfill Jerry Mitchell’s prophesy that “When I become as good as him, I will be able to remain clean even in the face of “Coal Dust and Fly Ash” (See the post A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint).  The boxes of rags were my opportunity.

So, when I left to go on a job, I would always grab at least a couple of rags from the box and put them in my tool bucket and at least one hanging out of my back pocket.  That way, if I needed to plop down on the ground to unwire a motor too low to sit on my bucket, I could sit on a rag on the coal dust covered ground instead.  This helped my goal of remaining as clean as possible.

It’s funny that years later I should miss the boxes of rags that I used to use to do my job.  There was more to it than just the rags I used to wipe my hands, battery posts, greasy bearings, breaker parts and my nose.  You see, these rags were made from recycled clothes.  Yes.  They were sterilized for our use, but these were from recycled clothes.

Actually, the Oklahoma Waste and Wiping Rag Company, founded in 1940, was one of the largest purchasers of donated clothing in the country.  That meant that many of the rags we used in the rag box were actually worn by someone.  Sure, a lot of the rags came from defective clothing from factories, but some of the rags had been clothes actually worn by a person.

As odd as it may sound, while I was grabbing rags from the rag box, I was thinking (at times… it wasn’t like it was an obsession with me), that these rags may have been worn by someone for years before ending up covered with bearing grease by my hand and tossed into a proper Fire protection trash can.

Trash cans like this were used because they prevented oily rags from burning down the shop when they would spontaneously combust

Trash cans like this were used because they prevented oily rags from burning down the shop when they would spontaneously combust

So, anyway….. Thinking about how these rags were possibly once worn by people throughout the United States, I felt that some of the rags had a specific connection to some unknown person somewhere.  So, I would actually go through the rag box looking for pieces of rags that I felt had been worn by someone before.  You know (or maybe you don’t), rags that had an aura around them like someone had once had a “personal relationship” with them.

I would take these rags and I would “pseudo-dress up” in them.  So, if it was a rag made out of a pair of pants, I would tuck it in my belt and I would carry it that way until I needed it.  In a weird way (and I know… you are thinking a “really weird” way), I would feel connected to the person that had worn this piece of clothing in the past.  I felt as if I was honoring their piece of cloth just one last time before I stained it with coal dust, fly ash, or snot, just one last time.

And in my even weirder way, I would sort of pray for that person, whoever they may be.  I would even, kind of, thank them for the use of their old clothes (I know, I stretched the English Language in those last two sentences to meet my unusual need).

I have a picture in my mind of myself standing on the platform of the 6A Forced Draft Fan at Muskogee in the fall of 1984 (one year after becoming an electrician), dressing myself up in pieces of clothing from the rag box, all giddy because I had found enough pieces to make an entire outfit made of half male and half female clothing.  Ben Davis, who was on overhaul at Muskogee with me from our plant is shaking his head in disbelief that he had to work with such a goof.  Not exactly sure who he has been assigned to work with… — I actually felt sorry for Ben.  I knew I was a normal person.  The trouble was… I was the only person that knew it.

Levity is healthy.  And at times when stress is at its greatest, levity is a way back to sanity.  Just today I was invited to a conference call to discuss something that I was working on, and when I was done, I stayed on the line even though I was no longer needed.  As I listened, one  person on the other end was remarking about how he enjoyed his team so much because they were able to crack up and reduce the stress by being humorous.

A friend of mine, and fellow teammate Don McClure  who had invited me to the call was coming up with one “one-liner” after the other.  They were “spot-on” and very funny (as he usually is — ok.  He’s going to correct me on the “usually” part).  But he said one thing that hit home with me.  He said that he had been in the Hot-seat so long that he had to put on a  pair of Asbestos underwear.

This, of course, made me immediately think of the asbestos gloves we used to wear in the electric shop before Asbestos had been formerly outlawed.  We had an old pair of asbestos gloves from Osage Plant ( to find out more about the Osage Plant read about it in the post Pioneers Of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace).

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Along with the rags in the rag box, when I used to put on the asbestos gloves I used to think of Howard Chumbley (who died on August 4, 1998 at the age of 70), at the age of 24 working at the Osage Plant, before his hair turned to gray and then to white, wearing these same gloves while he pulled a bearing off of a heater and slapped it onto a motor shaft.

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

It gave a special meaning to motor repair.  Even though Howard retired from plant life in 1985, for years I could put on his old pair of asbestos gloves and feel like I was stepping into his young shoes.  I would think… If only I could be a true “Power Plant Man” like Howard….   I love Howard with all my heart, and today, I have never met a better human being than him.

Note that in the picture of Howard’s gravestone it says that he was an EM3 in the Navy.  This is an “Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class”.  There is no way I was ever going to measure up to Howard.  He was a hero to his country and a man of great integrity and humility.  If I had saved up all the nice things I had done in my life and done them all on one day, I may have slightly resembled Howard on a regular day.  Just like Jim Waller that I had discussed in my last post… Only Men of the greatest integrity measure up to be “True Power Plant Men”.

This made changing the bearings on a motor almost a sacred event to me.  I don’t know if the other electricians felt what I felt, but there was something about placing those gloves on my hands that seemed to transform me for a moment into someone noble.  I never mentioned it to them (which was odd, because I was usually in the habit of telling them every little crazy thought that entered my head).

I remember at break time one day Margie Belongia (who was a plant janitor at the time) telling me in 1981 when I was a summer help, that she wanted to go to hell because that was where all of her friends would be.  I asked her at the time how she was so certain that being in hell guaranteed that she would be able to be with her friends, and she was taken aback by my question.  “What do you mean?  Why wouldn’t I be with my friend?” — I responded, “Suppose in hell you are alone.  With no one but yourself.”  I think I unnerved her by my response. She said that she had never considered that.  She had counted on being with her friends.  They had all decided that was the way it was going to be.

At any rate.  I kept her thought in my mind.  I hope every day that someday I will be able to walk up behind Howard Chumbley (not in hell of course) and just stand there and listen to him tell stories about when he worked at the old Osage Plant, and how he used to be up to his elbows in oil that contained PCBs and never thought twice about it.  Or how he played a harmless joke on someone dear to him, and he would laugh….

Howard was my foreman for only about 5 months before he retired.  I remember sitting in the electric shop office for a year and a half during lunch listening to him tell his stories.  He would grin like Andy Griffith and laugh in such a genuine way that you knew that his heart was as pure as his manners.

Andy Griffith in this picture reminds me of Howard Chumbley

Andy Griffith in this picture reminds me of Howard Chumbley

To this day I know that I have never been richer than I was when I was able to sit in the shop and listen to Howard Chumbley pass on his life experience to us.  Even years later when I was able to slip on the pair of Asbestos Gloves worn by him years earlier I could feel that I was following in his footsteps.  Just the thought of that would make me proud to be an Electrician in a Power Plant.

I used to imagine that the Chief on the Chief rag boxes knew the history of all the pieces of rags in the box.  When I moved to Texas in 2001, I used some sturdy Chief rag boxes when I was packing to leave.  They are sturdy boxes.  Just this past year, we threw away the last Chief rag box that contained Christmas decorations in exchange for plastic tubs. Even though it seems like a little thing.  I miss seeing the Chief on those boxes of rags.

The chief on the Chief Rag Boxes

The chief on the Chief Rag Boxes

Why Do Power Plant Men always Lose the Things they Love the Most?

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards.  My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service.  There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs.  Like I said.  It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having.  Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing.  He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job.  Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application.  I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about.  He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School.  He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri.  We immediately became friends when we met.  We both enjoyed the same things.  The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games.  So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me.  We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn.  Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice.  When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal.  Chili.  So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home.  On the way home my brother started to chuckle.  I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!” in his head.  It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say.  We would just yell out, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!”  It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory.  I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm.  He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived.  The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?”  When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.”   When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was.  I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse!  You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine.  It’s poetry to my ears.  Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most?  Well… because all good things had to come to an end.  Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it.  They just aren’t used much anymore.  Everything has gone digital.  Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips.  It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant.  By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors.  We were programming chips.  Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using.  We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor.  We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing.  When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit…  Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well.  Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun.  We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature.  No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit.  Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor.  The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant.  They were made from genuine Asbestos.  I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves.  Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing.  You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well…  They were taken away.  Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”.  That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator.  Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface.   But…. I wouldn’t know about that.  I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing.  We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places.  Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards.  I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot.  The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters.  Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter.  I dare say.  It was a step up from the old Simpson meter.  A lot safer also:

Like this.  Ok.  So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

And the Safety belt?  Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body.  So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see…  What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs.  Real Power Plant Men I mean.  So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss.  They lose those things they hold dear.  Yeah.  They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had.  I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So.  That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most.  Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing.  Power plant Men just change right along with it.  But sometimes it hurts a little.

From Power Plant Rags To Riches

There is one item that all Oklahoma power plant men carry with them almost every day.  Whether they are electricians working on a motor, a mechanic pulling a pump, or an operator making his rounds.  All of them carry and use this one item.  It is so important that, without it, it would be difficult for the maintenance shop to function properly.

This item of course is a rag from the Chief Wiping Cloth Rag Box:

Every Power Plant Man uses Chief Wiping Cloths on a daily basis

Every Power Plant Man uses Chief Wiping Cloths on a daily basis

As an electrician, I used rags all the time.  Whether I was working on a breaker, doing battery inspection, elevator maintenance or just looking for a clean place to sit my back side, I had to have a rag from the box of Chief Wiping Cloths.  Chief Wiping Cloths come from the Oklahoma Waste & Wiping Rag Company in Oklahoma City.

When I was on the labor crew, I dirty all the time.  I was doing coal clean-up, digging ditches, pouring concrete, shoveling bottom ash and wading through fly ash.  I had little reason to stay clean or to clean things.  My life was full of dirt and grime.  I was always dirty, so much so that when I went into the electric shop in 1983 and Bill Bennett was talking to Charles Foster about who should repair the Manhole pump motors, Bill told Charles, “Let Kevin do it.  He enjoys getting dirty.”

I didn’t argue with Bill, because, well…. what was the point.  But as an electrician, I not only had desired to have a cleaner job, but I also wished to fulfill Jerry Mitchell’s prophesy that “When I become as good as him, I will be able to remain clean even in the face of “Coal Dust and Fly Ash” (See the post A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint).  The boxes of rags were my opportunity.

So, when I left to go on a job, I would always grab at least a couple of rags from the box and put them in my tool bucket and at least one hanging out of my back pocket.  That way, if I needed to plop down on the ground to unwire a motor too low to sit on my bucket, I could sit on a rag on the coal dust covered ground instead.  This helped my goal of remaining as clean as possible.

It’s funny that years later I should miss the boxes of rags that I used to use to do my job.  There was more to it than just the rags I used to wipe my hands, battery posts, greasy bearings, breaker parts and my nose.  You see, these rags were made from recycled clothes.  Yes.  They were sterilized for our use, but these were from recycled clothes.

Actually, the Oklahoma Waste and Wiping Rag Company, founded in 1940, was one of the largest purchasers of donated clothing in the country.  That meant that many of the rags we used in the rag box were actually worn by someone.  Sure, a lot of the rags came from defective clothing from factories, but some of the rags had been clothes actually worn by a person.

As odd as it may sound, while I was grabbing rags from the rag box, I was thinking (at times… it wasn’t like it was an obsession with me), that these rags may have been worn by someone for years before ending up covered with bearing grease by my hand and tossed into a proper Fire protection trash can.

Trash cans like this were used because they prevented oily rags from burning down the shop when they would spontaneously combust

Trash cans like this were used because they prevented oily rags from burning down the shop when they would spontaneously combust

So, anyway….. Thinking about how these rags were possibly once worn by people throughout the United States, I felt that some of the rags had a specific connection to some unknown person somewhere.  So, I would actually go through the rag box looking for pieces of rags that I felt had been worn by someone before.  You know (or maybe you don’t), rags that had an aura around them like someone had once had a “personal relationship” with them.

I would take these rags and I would “pseudo-dress up” in them.  So, if it was a rag made out of a pair of pants, I would tuck it in my belt and I would carry it that way until I needed it.  In a weird way (and I know… you are thinking a “really weird” way), I would feel connected to the person that had worn this piece of clothing in the past.  I felt as if I was honoring their piece of cloth just one last time before I stained it with coal dust, fly ash, or snot, just one last time.

And in my even weirder way, I would sort of pray for that person, whoever they may be.  I would even, kind of, thank them for the use of their old clothes (I know, I stretched the English Language in those last two sentences to meet my unusual need).

I have a picture in my mind of myself standing on the platform of the 6A Forced Draft Fan at Muskogee in the fall of 1984 (one year after becoming an electrician), dressing myself up in pieces of clothing from the rag box, all giddy because I had found enough pieces to make an entire outfit made of half male and half female clothing.  Ben Davis, who was on overhaul at Muskogee with me from our plant is shaking his head in disbelief that he had to work with such a goof.  Not exactly sure who he has been assigned to work with… — I actually felt sorry for Ben.  I knew I was a normal person.  The trouble was… I was the only person that knew it.

Levity is healthy.  And at times when stress is at its greatest, levity is a way back to sanity.  Just today I was invited to a conference call to discuss something that I was working on, and when I was done, I stayed on the line even though I was no longer needed.  As I listened, one  person on the other end was remarking about how he enjoyed his team so much because they were able to crack up and reduce the stress by being humorous.

A friend of mine, and fellow teammate Don McClure  who had invited me to the call was coming up with one “one-liner” after the other.  They were “spot-on” and very funny (as he usually is — ok.  He’s going to correct me on the “usually” part).  But he said one thing that hit home with me.  He said that he had been in the Hot-seat so long that he had to put on a  pair of Asbestos underwear.

This, of course, made me immediately think of the asbestos gloves we used to wear in the electric shop before Asbestos had been formerly outlawed.  We had an old pair of asbestos gloves from Osage Plant ( to find out more about the Osage Plant read about it in the post Pioneers Of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace).

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Along with the rags in the rag box, when I used to put on the asbestos gloves I used to think of Howard Chumbley (who died on August 4, 1998 at the age of 70), at the age of 24 working at the Osage Plant, before his hair turned to gray and then to white, wearing these same gloves while he pulled a bearing off of a heater and slapped it onto a motor shaft.

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

It gave a special meaning to motor repair.  Even though Howard retired from plant life in 1985, for years I could put on his old pair of asbestos gloves and feel like I was stepping into his young shoes.  I would think… If only I could be a true “Power Plant Man” like Howard….   I love Howard with all my heart, and today, I have never met a better human being than him.

Note that in the picture of Howard’s gravestone it says that he was an EM3 in the Navy.  This is an “Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class”.  There is no way I was ever going to measure up to Howard.  He was a hero to his country and a man of great integrity and humility.  If I had saved up all the nice things I had done in my life and done them all on one day, I may have slightly resembled Howard on a regular day.  Just like Jim Waller that I had discussed in my last post… Only Men of the greatest integrity measure up to be “True Power Plant Men”.

This made changing the bearings on a motor almost a sacred event to me.  I don’t know if the other electricians felt what I felt, but there was something about placing those gloves on my hands that seemed to transform me for a moment into someone noble.  I never mentioned it to them (which was odd, because I was usually in the habit of telling them every little crazy thought that entered my head).

I remember at break time one day Margie Belongia (who was a plant janitor at the time) telling me in 1981 when I was a summer help, that she wanted to go to hell because that was where all of her friends would be.  I asked her at the time how she was so certain that being in hell guaranteed that she would be able to be with her friends, and she was taken aback by my question.  “What do you mean?  Why wouldn’t I be with my friend?” — I responded, “Suppose in hell you are alone.  With no one but yourself.”  I think I unnerved her by my response. She said that she had never considered that.  She had counted on being with her friends.  They had all decided that was the way it was going to be.

At any rate.  I kept her thought in my mind.  I hope every day that someday I will be able to walk up behind Howard Chumbley (not in hell of course) and just stand there and listen to him tell stories about when he worked at the old Osage Plant, and how he used to be up to his elbows in oil that contained PCBs and never thought twice about it.  Or how he played a harmless joke on someone dear to him, and he would laugh….

Howard was my foreman for only about 5 months before he retired.  I remember sitting in the electric shop office for a year and a half during lunch listening to him tell his stories.  He would grin like Andy Griffith and laugh in such a genuine way that you knew that his heart was as pure as his manners.

Andy Griffith in this picture reminds me of Howard Chumbley

Andy Griffith in this picture reminds me of Howard Chumbley

To this day I know that I have never been richer than I was when I was able to sit in the shop and listen to Howard Chumbley pass on his life experience to us.  Even years later when I was able to slip on the pair of Asbestos Gloves worn by him years earlier I could feel that I was following in his footsteps.  Just the thought of that would make me proud to be an Electrician in a Power Plant.

I used to imagine that the Chief on the Chief rag boxes knew the history of all the pieces of rags in the box.  When I moved to Texas in 2001, I used some sturdy Chief rag boxes when I was packing to leave.  They are sturdy boxes.  Just this past year, we threw away the last Chief rag box that contained Christmas decorations in exchange for plastic tubs. Even though it seems like a little thing.  I miss seeing the Chief on those boxes of rags.

The chief on the Chief Rag Boxes

The chief on the Chief Rag Boxes