Tag Archives: Boiler

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

Originally Posted on April 13, 2012:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pump or BAOSP for Short

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This works when you are using is 120 or 220 volts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

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

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

Richard Pryor trying to look like Reggie Deloney

Richard Pryor trying to look like Reggie Deloney

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

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

Like this

Like this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments from Original Post:

  • eideard April 21, 2012

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

    As you would with a fork lift truck.

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

  • jackcurtis May 5, 2012

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

    Comments from Previous repost:

    1. John Comer April 28, 2014

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

      1. Plant Electrician April 28, 2014

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

    2. A.D. Everard August 3, 2014

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

Where Do Knights of the Past Go To Fight Dragons Today

Originally posted on April 27, 2012:

It may not seem obvious what fighting dragons has to do with Power Plant Men but when I was a Power Plant Man in-training I was able to witness quite the battle between the Power Plant Men and a Dragon one night.  The main weapon they used was a Lance and the Dragon spewed hot scalding water in their faces as they stood against it to fell that foul beast!  The Hot fiery breath blew two men off of a landing with one of them ending up hospitalized.

I was in training to be a Power Plant Man my first four years as a summer help.  The first summer I worked in the maintenance shop as a helper on different crews of mechanics.  The second summer (1980), however, was when I began learning the skills to become a Knight of the Power Plant Kingdom.  I was first introduced to my weapons of battle by Stanley Elmore when he attempted to train the fresh summer help crew by giving each of us a Weed Wacker:

The first feeble try at chopping weeds

We were driven to the road leading out to the dam. A three mile stretch of guard rails on both sides with weeds growing up around them and down the dike to the water.  Our job was to chop all of the weeds from there to the dam on both sides of the road.  And when we were done, there were plenty of other roadways that needed to be cleared.  Sort of Chain Gang style only without the chains.

Needless to say, we came back for break and all of our weed wackers were broken.  We were chopping large weeds, a lot of them full grown sunflowers taller than us.  The weed wackers just bent back and forth until they quickly fell apart.

So, Stanley went to the welders and had them weld the blades back on the weed wackers using angle iron.  This worked a little better, but the flimsy blades were no match for the thousands of sunflowers and thistles and small bushes.

An Army of Sunflowers invading the land!

So Stanley did the next best thing.  The next day he brought us some heavy duty brush choppers that he had the welding shop reinforce, making them weigh about 15 pounds.

Our Weed Choppers were reinforced with extra metal on the blade and the handle

Armed with this I found that chopping Sunflowers became enjoyable.  With each swing of this heavy weight I could lay a sunflower down without missing a stride.  I was well on my way as squire of the Power Plant Knights.  Later Stanley gave us gas powered Industrial sized weed-eaters with saw blades.

The weed-eater attached to a harness so you could swing it back and forth all day mowing down the enemy.  I wore a face shield and ear muffs attached to my hardhat to guard against flying debris.  This was much like the helmets worn by knights, and probably as hot I’m sure as we cleared away miles and miles of roadway of weeds under the searing sun.

But nothing prepared me as much as one Saturday after shoveling coal since 8 in the morning until 5 in the evening during coal clean-up when we were told that the Number 1 Boiler had a large buildup of ash in the bottom ash hopper and the clinker grinder couldn’t break it up.  If we weren’t able to break it up quickly the boiler would have to come off line and we would stop producing electricity (as number 2 boiler was not yet online).   So, the Power Plant Men who had been shoveling coal since the break of day made their way to the bottom ash hopper under the boiler.

Some began building a scaffold (as if they had done this before).  Chuck Ross was in charge along with Cleve Smith and they had developed a plan where the Power Plant Men would stand on the scaffold back away from the hopper while someone would pop open the hopper door by standing off to one side (I think this was Cleve Smith) and one unlucky guy standing on the landing directly in front of the hopper door would guide a 30 foot lance into the portal and into the jaws of the dragon.  Once there, the he-men in the back would stab the rock hard bottom ash with all of their might as steaming hot water came gushing out the doorway.

I don’t remember if we drew lots or someone just said, “Let the summer help do it.” but I was the person chosen to stand directly in front of the door of the bottom ash hopper when it was knocked open as Cleve hit the latch with a sledge hammer.  I was told that water was going to come blasting out of the doorway, so be prepared, because it was important that I guide the lance into the portal so that it could be used to smash up the bottom ash clinkers enough to allow the clinker grinder to do it’s work.

I wasn’t really prepared when the door was knocked open.  First there was a loud boom as the door flew open and hit the side of the structure.  I was blown back against the handrail by hot water (The stairway came up the side then, not like it is today).  After gaining my footing, I was able to guide the lance through the door so the 6 or so he-men behind me could go to work thrusting the lance in, backing it out, and thrusting it back in all while I was guiding it so that it remained lined up with the doorway.  I also was not prepared for the hot water to turn into scalding hot water as the water level in the bottom ash hopper became lower.  The main hopper gate wasn’t able to close the first few times because of the clinkers, so all I could do was hope that I didn’t end up like a boiled egg by the time we were through.

After the door was closed, the operators went to work filling the hoppers back up with water, as Chuck and Cleve watched the Clinker grinder to see if it was able to crush the clinkers.  You could tell by looking at the shaft that would go one way, then stop and go the other way when it wasn’t able to crush the clinkers.

We repeated these steps over and over until the clinker grinder was finally able to function.  At one point when the hopper was being filled, everyone took off running when all of the sudden water was pouring out from up above all over the bottom area of the boiler.  I didn’t understand how that could have happened until someone explained to me that the bottom ash hopper sits underneath the boiler, but the boiler is suspended from the top and floats over the bottom ash hopper, and when the hopper was filled with water too high, it overflowed, and spilled out the space between the hopper and the boiler. (Remember the Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pump from a previous post?  Well, it wasn’t working that night).

We all went up to the break room to take a break.  It was about 10 pm.  We were given big “atta boys” for saving the company tons of money because they didn’t have to shutdown the boiler to clear the hopper.  We waited around to see if they would send us home for the night.

A little while later, we found out that there was a section of ash that was still built up on the side of the boiler just above the hopper and they were afraid that if it were to fall into the hopper all at once, it would jam up the clinker grinder again and leave us in the same predicament as before.  So we went back to work trying to figure out how to knock down the shelf of hard ash piece at a time.

It turned out that if you shoot the ash with a fire hose, the ash would sort of explode because of the cold water hitting such a hot object.  So, a fire hose was used to knock down most of the ash shelf and it worked pretty good.  After a while there was only one more spot to knock down and we could all go home.  The only problem was that it was directly above the hatchway door on one side of the boiler, and it was too far across the boiler to hit it with the fire hose.

So Mike Vogle was called out (he was a new welder that hadn’t been at the plant too long at this point).  It was Mike’s job to weld the fire hose nozzle to the end of a long pipe (the second lance of the evening) so that it could be extended into the boiler far enough to shoot water on the ash shelf above the hatchway door on the far side.

At one point Chuck told me to go see how Mike was doing with the pipe, and I went to the welding shop and asked him how long it would be.  He told me not much longer, maybe 15 minutes.  I was on my way back to the boiler when I met Cleve Smith and Chuck Ross on their way back to the shop by way of the locker room.  So, I followed along behind them in the dark.

I told them Mike would be done in about 15 minutes and they said that it was all right because the ash was knocked down.  They didn’t need it anymore.  As they passed by the tool room back door, by the light from the window I could see blood running down the arms of both Chuck and Cleve.  So, I said, “Hey Chuck.  Do you know you’re bleeding?”  He replied that he did, and then I realized that both of them had been injured.

They both walked straight into the shower and Mike Grayson came in and explained to me that they had tried to knock down the ash from the hatchway directly underneath the shelf of ash, and when they did, the ash shelf broke loose and fell.  When that happened, it sent a blast of hot air through the doorway knocking Chuck and Cleve off of the landing as their arms went up to protect their faces.

Mike Grayson was my ride home.  We left shortly after the ambulance left to bring Chuck to the hospital in Stillwater.  It was close to 2 in the morning.  Mike was a new employee also.  We both sat silently in the truck on the way home numbed by the accident and worn out from shoveling coal and lancing the boiler, which we had started 21 hours before.

I was so tired I took Mike’s lunch box by mistake.  I was surprised when he called me the next morning and told me, but when I looked in the lunchbox, sure enough.  There was his worn Bible, a typical item in a Power Plant Man’s lunch box.  My dad drove me by his house near the hospital to exchange lunch boxes.  After that I went to visit Chuck in the hospital where he had both of his arms bandaged up.  Other than those burns, he was all right.

No one knows more than Chuck and Cleve that they paid dearly for not waiting for Mike Vogle to finish the nozzle extension.  Something happens when you’ve been up all day working hard, meeting one frustration after another.  When you are up at the crack of dawn, and it becomes past midnight, it is easy to let your guard down.

When fighting dragons, if you leave any opportunity for them to strike back they will.  We defeated the dragon that night, but not without its victims.  Chuck recovered and was quickly ready for the next battle.  All of those men that were there that night are heroes to me.  Today I don’t remember everyone that was there, but they were all on my list of True Power Plant Knights!

Comments from the original Post:

rjdawarrior April 28, 2012

That was awesome! I love Dragons :) but I love sunflowers so I was sad to here they were slaughtered.

  1. Plant Electrician April 29, 2012

    Thanks Warrior, We just cut the sunflowers down to size… they were back before we knew it. Shining like the sun.

  • martianoddity April 30, 2012

    I really like how you’ve likened the work you men did to fighting dragons. In its essence it’s pretty much the same thing. :-P It takes courage, resourcefulness and teamwork.
    I really enjoyed reading this story!

  • jackcurtis October 6, 2012

    Thanks for the ride to the industrial past…
    I was a Telephone Man in the day that too had meaning. Those and many other occupations meant something we seem to have lost along the way: It was important to be a MAN, something one had to live up to…and work was a serious challenge to be attacked and mastered, not a necessary evil imposed upon us.
    You paint a memorable picture of another time and bring history to life, a very good work indeed.

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.  Added a picture of Larry Riley:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.

I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a life time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  Each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 while I was a janitor when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Biff Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.

As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a tee shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 160 degrees.  I was wearing my hard hat with a chin strap to keep it from blowing off because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out every 10 minutes.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Biff said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.

I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Jonathan Caswell August 12, 2014

    GLAD that you made it….even if the mallet didn’t!!!

    I can dig it. When I was hired for Security at one post…I really looked forward to working with and for that particular Supervisor who’d hired me. No such luck–she was gone in a month or two. THAT hurt! 🙂

  2. Ron Kilman August 13, 2014

    If the environment is too hot for a respirator to function properly in, it’s too hot for people to work in (if safety is actually job #1). I saw too many examples of “Get the Unit Back On is Job #1″.

 

What Does a Hard Hat Sticker Tell You about a Power Plant Man?

Originally Posted September 28, 2012:

I have learned one thing from Power Plant Men, and the Power Plant Safety Process is that, when you become comfortable doing a dangerous job, that is when an accident is most likely to happen.  Isn’t that when a young driver seems to become careless?

They drive carefully for the first couple of months when they have just learned how to drive, and then when they feel confident about their driving ability, they begin to cut safety corners, and the next thing you know an accident occurs. That was one lesson we learned in our Defensive Driving Course.

The Defensive Driving Course we took when I was a summer help

The Defensive Driving Course we took when I was a summer help

In the spring of 1986, while I was an electrician at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I went with another electrician, Ted Riddle, to work on a Major Overhaul for three months in Oklahoma City at a Power Plant just North of Mustang. While we worked there, we would eat lunch with a man well into his 50’s that was our acting foreman for the overhaul. His name was Willard Stark.

During lunch we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio. When Paul would mention a date 20 years in the past, Willard would be able to tell us what he was doing on that day, many years earlier.

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

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

I was fascinated by his ability. I will probably talk about Willard more in a later post, but today, I mention him only because of his ability to remember what happened on dates long gone by.

Now that I am about the same age as Willard was then, I am beginning to see that certain dates hold a special significance. The more memorable the experience, either for the good or the bad, and I seem to remember what day it happened. That leads me to one of the memorable dates in my past life at the Power Plant.

The particular date was July 15, 1980. I was working at the power plant during my second summer when I was normally working out of the garage. But Stanley Elmore had told me to go to the Maintenance Shop and get with Ray Butler, because he was going to have me do some cleaning up around the shop.

When I arrived, Ray told me to go over and wait with this new hand that they had just hired the day before, and he would be over there in a few minutes when he finished what he was doing. I walked over to the young man (I say young, but he was 6 years older than I was. He was 25) named Kerry Lewallen.

I introduced myself to him, and we waited together for a few minutes until Ray came over and told us to get a forklift and move some crates that were nearby over to the Warehouse, and then meet him there to help build some shelves in the warehouse to store the larger material on pallets.

The reason I remember this day so well was because of what happened right after Ray walked away. Kerry looked at me and asked me if I wanted to drive the forklift. Well. I really did want to drive the forklift, because I thought it would be fun, but from my experience at the plant, I noticed that people like Larry Riley had a Hard Hat Sticker that said: “Certified Operator Industrial Powered Trucks”.

So I explained to Kerry that I wasn’t Certified to drive a forklift. Kerry had only worked there one day before that day, and even though he probably had a lot of experience driving a forklift (as most Power Plant Men did), he didn’t feel comfortable driving the forklift either.

Certified Forklift Drivers had these on their hardhats

So, we waited for Ray to come back and Ray asked if we were going to go get the forklift. Then Kerry said something that I have never forgotten, and that I have used repeatedly throughout my career at the Power Plant, as well as my current career. He explained to Ray, “I would like to, but I haven’t been circumcised to drive the forklift.”

I watched Ray as he listened, and I noticed a very faint smile as he realized what Kerry meant to say. Ray agreed, and said he would take care of it. I believe that was the day he took us to the warehouse and circumcised both of us to drive the forklift right then and there.

I couldn’t wait to get home and show my parents. As you can see, I was so proud of my new hardhat sticker, I didn’t put it on my hardhat, I just brought it home and framed it and hung it on the wall. That was July 15, 1980. Being Circumcised to drive the forklift was kind of like my “Come to Jesus” moment in my Power Plant journey.

Kerry Lewallen, as it turned out was a great welder, as were all the True Power Plant Welders. He stayed on at the plant to become one of the True Power Plant Men that worked side-by-side with the other great welders in the boilers welding boiler tubes, or in the bowl mill welding inside them in the tremendous heat that mere mortals like myself found totally unbearable.

Kerry Lewallen

Kerry Lewallen

As with Jerry Mitchell, my wife came home one day and told me about this very nice person that she worked with as a Nurse in the Stillwater Medical Center. She described her as being a very honest and pleasant person to work with. She also told me that her husband worked at the Power Plant. Her name was Vicki Lewallen, Kerry’s wife.

Through the years, there were many opportunities where we received Hardhat stickers. Most of them were safety related. Each year we would receive a safety sticker, if we hadn’t had an accident. It would indicate how many years in a row it has been that we have been accident free. I received my last safety sticker the last day I worked at the Power Plant during my going away party.

I worked 20 years without an accident

I didn’t place this on a hardhat either. Well. I was walking out the door leaving my hardhat behind (so to speak). I don’t remember how long the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh had worked for the electric company, (about 40 years) but just a couple of months before he retired, while driving back to the plant from Oklahoma City, he took an exit off of I-35 behind a semi-truck.

The truck stopped on the ramp realizing that he had taken the wrong exit and proceeded to back up. He ran into the company truck that Eldon was driving causing an accident. This was enough to ruin Eldon’s perfect safety record just months before he retired. The thought was that Eldon should not have pulled up so close to the truck, or have kept the truck in line with the driver’s side mirror so that he knew he was there.

Throughout the years that I worked at the plant we would have different Safety programs or initiatives that would help to drive our safe behavior. Since back injuries were a major concerned, we would watch films about lifting properly. Since we worked with heavy equipment we would watch videos about people being injured while working with dozers, and other big tractors.

One video that we watched was called: “Shake Hands With Danger”.  You can watch it here on YouTube:

This is a classic Safety film shown at the Power Plant periodically. I always thought we should have been provided with popcorn when we watched these. Harry in this film reminds me of a cross between Ken Conrad and Darrell Low. The “Old timer” reminds me of Mike Lafoe. I could go on.

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

Darrel Low is the tall man in the far back left with the white shirt between two shifty looking characters

When our new plant manager Ron Kilman arrived after Eldon Waugh, he had us watch a film where there was a near fatal race car accident. When they looked more closely at the accident, it turned out that there were many things that had to happen wrong that led up to the accident.

When an accident occurs on the race track, a Yellow Flag is raised, and everyone gets in line and takes it slow around the track until the accident is cleared. In the movie, the thought was that it would have been helpful if the yellow flag had come out each time someone was about to do something wrong “Before” the accident happened.

The foremen at the plant were given yellow flags to put on their desks as a reminder to see yellow flags whenever you see something that has the potential to be dangerous. We were even given yellow flag stickers to put on our hardhat. — By now, you probably know what I did with mine. Yep. I have it right here. I keep it by my bedside as a reminder:

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

At one point during the years at the plant, we created a Safety Task Force. When Bill Gibson was the head of the Task Force, he used his Safety imagination to come up with some customized Hardhat Safety Stickers that people at our plant would appreciate. One of the more patriotic Hardhat Safety Stickers looked like this:

A Patriotic Customized Safety Sticker from the Safety Task Force

I didn’t receive one of the stickers that he came up with that I really liked because I was away at the time on an overhaul when they were being handed out. Many years later, when I mentioned it to the guys at the plant in an e-mail, I was given a stack of them by Randy Dailey the next time I visited the plant.

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

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

Randy Dailey the Plant Machinist that was known as “Mister Safety” himself. Thanks to Randy Dailey I am able to show you a hardhat safety sticker that was created based on a particular phrase that was going around the plant at the time:

The phrase was: ‘Cause I Love You Man!

That really says it all doesn’t it. The real truth about Power Plant Men. They really do care about each other. The close bond between the Power Plant Men is what kept us safe. In the “Shake Hands with Danger” at one point, it mentions that each person should “Watch out for the other guy.”

That is how our plant remained as safe as it did throughout the years that I was there. When I received the Hardhat Safety Sticker for working 20 years without an accident, it wasn’t because I was always being safe in every job I was doing, because that wasn’t always true. It was because there were enough Power Plant Men and Women looking out for me that decreased my odds of being injured by decreasing the number of times that I would end up doing something stupid and getting myself hurt or killed.

So, not only do I thank all the True Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with throughout those years, but so does my wife and my two children. One little mistake at the wrong time. One extra time of Shaking Hands with Danger, and I might not have come home one day from work. It was more than luck that kept me safe. I thank each and everyone of the Power Plant People that I worked with throughout my career for watching out for the other guy.

NOTE: After posting this last year, Ron Kilman, the plant manager at our plant from 1988 to 1994 sent me a picture of his Hard hat. I thought I would post it here so you can see it:

Ron Kilman's Hard Hat

Ron Kilman’s Hard Hat

Ron said he stacked his Yearly safety stickers on top of each other as you can see. 24 years of working safely.

A Power Plant Halloween Election Story

Originally posted on October 27, 2012:

I can’t say that the Coal-fired Power Plant located in the middle of the North Central Plains of Oklahoma had visitors on Halloween Night trick-or-treating looking for candy.  I have mentioned before that we had an evil plant manager when I first arrived as a summer help at the plant that did what he could to make life miserable for his employees.  That would sometimes send chills up your spine.

I could tell you stories about the coffin houses on top of the precipitators.  I already told you about the Bug Wars in the Basement (see: “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“), and even about the Boiler Ghost that ate Bob Lillibridge (See: “Bob Liilibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost“).  Instead, I’ll tell a simple story about the Evil Plant Manager and his bees.

A Honey Bee

One time out of the blue when I was a summer help in 1980, the Plant Manager asked me in a suspiciously benevolent voice if I would stay after work to help him tend to his bees.  You see.  Eldon Waugh was a beekeeper.

Beekeeping is a noble profession, and I admire their ability to make a good thing out of a seemingly bad situation.  Sonny Karcher was a beekeeper.  Sonny was a Hero of Mine.

The plant grounds was a great place for bees because we had fields full of clover.  But Eldon and bees?  I have a slightly different take on it. Bees are industrious workers that are single-minded.  They each have their job, and they go about doing it.  They are willing to give their life for their hive and in that way, are sort of unsung heroes.  Or maybe bees do sing about their heroes and we just don’t know it.  Maybe their buzzing away is at times a lament for those who have worked their wings away to the point that they are no longer able to contribute.

Sort of reminds you of a Power Plant Man.

Since I was carpooling at the time and didn’t have my own car, Eldon said that he would drive me back to Stillwater and drop me off at the corner of Washington and Lakeview where I normally was let off, where I would walk up to the University Estates where my parents lived (and still do – or did when I first wrote this post.  Now they live across the street from me in Round Rock, Texas).  So I went to Eldon’s office when I finished work that day, and I followed him down to his pickup truck.  We drove up by the coalyard where he had a trailer that had a bunch of white boxes lined up, which housed his beehives.

Beehives like this only lined up on a trailer

Eldon Waugh gave me a hood that beekeepers wear to keep the bees from finding out what the beekeeper really looks like so the bees don’t attack them later when they are flying by and realize that they are the person that keeps interrupting their beehive.

No. That’s not me. This is a picture I found on Google Images

Eldon explained to me that when a bee stings you, you don’t grab the stinger and pull it out because that injects the bee’s venom into your body when you squeeze it.  Instead you take a straight edge, like a knife or piece of thin cardboard or something similar and you scrape it off.

That’s when I realized that Eldon had only given me a hood.  He hadn’t given me a full beekeeper suit like I would see on TV or in the neighborhood when I was young and some beekeeper came to collect a swarm of bees that had settled in a tree across the street from our house.

Eldon proceeded to open the beehive boxes and inspect them.  He had me hold things while he was doing this.  He showed me things like how the Queen was kept in a smaller box inside the bigger one that kept it from leaving.  Somehow this reminded me of the ball of fire in the boiler that produced the steam that turns the turbine that makes the electricity at the plant.

When he went to open one box he told me that this particular box had bees that were more troublesome than the other bees, and they liked to sting.  “Ok.” I thought.  “Thanks for letting me know.”  Like that was going to help.

I had already resigned myself to the idea of being stung by a bee that was unhappy that the beekeeper had called an unscheduled inspection of the beehive when Eldon jumped back; Pulled off his hood and started batting around in the air.  Sure enough.  A bee had climbed up under his hood and had stung him on the back of the neck.

I took a key out of my pocket and scraped the stinger off as he whimpered and pointed to where the stinger was jabbing him.  The bee was on his collar making peace with his maker (because bees die after they sting you) as I wiped him away. Besides that one incident, the rest of the time went smoothly.  Eldon inspected his beehives.  It seemed like he was looking for mold or moisture or some such thing.  He was satisfied.  When we left he gave me a jar of his “Eldon Waugh” Honey that he used to sell at the Farmer’s Market in Stillwater.  Then he drove me back to Stillwater.

There was something surreal about this experience, and in a few days, I was compelled to write a poem about it.  This is not a poem about Beekeepers in General.  This is a poem about Eldon Waugh, the Beekeeper as I saw him.  I don’t know where I placed it, so I can’t quote it now, so I’ll remake it up the best I can.  You have to excuse me, because I am not a poet (as you could tell with the Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost story), so bear with me.  It is short:

The Beekeeper

Bees diligently gathering nectar,

Weaving honey for the hive.

Pouring life into their work,

Spending energy for queen to stay alive.

Beekeeper gives shelter to be safe,

Benevolent ruler over all.

Sharing fields of flowers not of his making,

Protecting helpless and small.

When time to pay the dues,

Beekeeper expects all to comply.

If one tries to deny his share,

Sting him once and you will die.

Why is this a Halloween story?  I know I speak harshly of Eldon Waugh and I know that when he went home he had a family like everyone else.  I know that Bill Moler his assistant plant manager was the same way.  If you met him at Church or somewhere else, he would treat you with the dignity that you deserved.  Something happened to them when they drove through the plant gates (I felt), that made them think they were invulnerable and all powerful.  Like Mister Burns in the Simpsons (as I was reminded this week).

Mr. Burns. The Evil Plant Manager. Amazing similar to the Evil Plant Manager at our plant.

Mr. Burns. The Evil Plant Manager. Amazingly similar to the Evil Plant Manager at our plant.

It was Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton) in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 that said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”.   At this particular power plant, because it was so far removed from Corporate Headquarters and any other Electric Company departments, the situation allowed the Plant Manager to be an absolute ruler.  There wasn’t anyone there to look out for the employees.

A union had come through when the power plant was first coming online trying to get the plant to vote to join the union.  Many employees had worked for unions before, and they preferred the tyranny of the evil plant manager over the stifling corruption of the union.

I remember the first summer I was at the plant (in 1979) when everyone was abuzz about the union election.  Some people thought it would stop this “absolute power” syndrome infesting the two top dogs.  Those employees that had worked for unions warned the rest that to me sounded like joining a union was like selling their soul to the devil.  Some had even left their former employers to escape what they referred to as the “manipulation of their morals”.  It came down to voting for the lesser of two evils.

I would like to point out that Lord Acton said that Great men are almost “Always” bad.  There are exceptions.  There was one great liberating moment in Power Plant history at our plant that occurred in 1987 the day that our new plant manager arrived at our plant.  His name is Ron Kilman.

Ron called the maintenance department to a meeting to introduce himself to us in the main break room.  I remember that when he began speaking he told us a joke about himself.  I don’t recall the joke, but I do remember the reaction of the room.  I’m sure our reaction puzzled Ron, because we were all stunned.

I gave Charles Foster a look that said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could joke!”  There must be some mistake.  No rattling of chains.  No “sacrifice your lives and families to provide honey for my table.”  Ron was a rather likable person.  It didn’t fit.  What was he doing as a Plant Manager?

Throughout the almost 7 years that Ron was the plant manager, we were free from the tyranny of the “Beekeeper”.  I have invited Ron to read my blog posts because he is one Plant Manger that even though he wasn’t one of the True Power Plant Men in the field showing their character daily by fighting dragons and saving fair maidens, he was our benevolent dictator that had the power to put his thumb down on the rest, but choosing “Might for Right” as King Arthur preferred.

King Arthur

Ok, so Ron Kilman doesn’t look exactly like King Arthur.  That would be stretching it a little.  Also… I’m sure some people found some reason to not like Ron Kilman through the years that he was Plant Manager.  That would be because he made some unpopular decisions from time to time.  That is the life of a Plant Manager.

When Ron first came to the plant, he really wanted to stay at the level of the regular working person. I believe that he meant it when he told us that.  As the years went by, the demands of managing the large plant occupied so much of his time that little time was left to spend with the people he cared about.

I remember him saying that his manager demanded him to be downtown in Corporate Headquarters so many days a week, and that left him little time at the plant. He asked me what I thought would be a solution to this problem.  I told him that I thought he should have a representative that would stay at the plant in his stead that would perform Plant activities and report to him directly.  Sort of as an extension of himself.  I was not thinking of his Assistant Plant Manager because he had his own job to do.

I was sometimes taken aback when Ron would ask a question like that because it surprised me that he valued my opinion. I will discuss Ron Kilman and why I believe that he is a man of great character in a later post.  I only mention him here to show the contrast between Eldon Waugh and Ron.  Both were in a position of ultimate power over their employees.  One took the high road, and one took the low.  Neither of them had ever been to Scotland as far as I know (ok.  I had to add another rhyme…  geez).

I also titled this post as a “Halloween Election” story.  I told you the scary part… that was the story about the beekeeper, in case you forgot to be frightened by it.  I also threw in the part about the Union Election as a meager attempt to rid the plant of total managerial tyranny.  But the real reason I made this a story about an Election is because of the striking similarity between Ron Kilman and Mitt Romney. My Gosh!  Have any of you noticed this?  Am I the only one that sees the resemblance?  Notice the chin, the hairline and even the gray side burns.

Ron Kilman

Mitt Romney

Happy Halloween, and good luck with the next election.

Comment from last Repost:

  1. Ron   October 30, 2013

    Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate your kind words. And thanks for inviting me to receive these posts. I love reading them and remembering my days with the Power Plant Men at Sooner. And by the way, we lived in University Estates too (at 30 Preston Circle).

Blowing it with Power Plant Retracts and Wall Blowers

Originally Posted February 23, 2013:

I never gave it much thought that when I was on the labor crew at the Coal-fired Power Plant in Oklahoma and we had to go in the boiler to shake the boiler tubes, that next to the portals where you would climb into the boiler there were long metal benches where you could sit just outside while you rested between moments when the dynamiters were getting ready to set off their explosives. (All right… right off the bat…. a run-on sentence the size of a paragraph… I can tell it’s going to be a long night).

To learn more about the dynamiters and shaking boiler tubes you can read the post: Cracking a boiled Egg in the Boiler. At other times while I was on the labor crew, I had heard these same benches making a tremendous sound that you could hear from a few landings away. It sounded like a large steam leak would sound, and at the same time, you could hear some kind of mechanical gears or something running and maybe a chain clanging. I didn’t really understand what the purpose these long benches served then, only that it was a good place to put the water jug and the box of fly ash suits to keep them from being stepped on.

It was after I had become an electrician that these long metal benches took on another meaning. I found out that they were called “Retracts”. I was told that they called them retracts because what they do is they run a long metal pipe into the boiler and then Retract it back. Ok. I thought it was rather odd to name something for a seemingly insignificant part of the function. After I understood what they were used for, I thought I could come up with a lot better name than “Retract”.

After all, we had equipment like “Honey Wagon” , “Coffin Houses”, “Clinker Grinder”. All really descriptive names. So, when Charles Foster told me to go with Diane Lucas (later Diane Brien) to work on 7R retract, I was expecting to go find some little lever going back and forth making a sound like “brrrr…oops…..brrr…..oops” as it swung back and forth. I would name something like that a “Retract”.

Actually, I would like to have been able to have kept a couple of Retracts in my pocket so that when I would smart off to Leroy Godfrey our Electrical Supervisor, I could pull one out and press the button and… “swoop”! Retracted!

So, what is a Retract? Well. In the story that I linked to above about the cracked egg in the boiler, I explained how when I was on the labor crew we had to go in the boiler and tie ropes to these hanging boiler tubes and then shake them back and forth to clean out the hard ash that had built up on them. Well, The Retract would sort of do that when the boiler was online. They would clean out the tubes in the reheat area of the boiler for the most part.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

What it would do is this. It seemed like 7R retract was about 40 feet long (someone at the plant can correct me if I’m wrong about the length). When it would turn on, it would start rotating a pipe about that long and start pushing it into the boiler. Once the nozzle at the end of the pipe was in the boiler a couple of feet steam would start blasting down the pipe to the nozzle on the end that would shoot the steam out at right angles to the pipe. As the pipe rotated, it would be shooting out steam in a circular motion as the pipe slowly traversed into the boiler.

You see… My dentist told me a long time ago that I should Floss my teeth more if I didn’t want to wear dentures when I was older. By keeping the bits of food out from between my teeth, not only did my breath smell better, but my gums could remain healthy as well. So, I listened to him and started flossing. Retracts are kind of like that.

The Retracts were designed to clean out the areas of the boiler where the ash would build up the most causing the efficiency of the boiler to be degraded. So at certain times of the day, the Control Room operator will push a button on the side panel (at least that was what they used to do… now they probably click an icon on their computer) and it would start the cycle of the retracts going in and out one at a time cleaning out the boiler.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler. I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers... no, not really.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler. I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers… no, not really. Sorry the picture is a little small

Anyway. I finally learned what those long metal benches were for and it fascinated me. I wonder how long it took before someone said what now would seem obvious…. “Hey. Instead of having to bring the boiler offline every week or so, how about if we just create this boiler flossing equipment that cleans the boiler out while it is online?”

It made me wonder about the other equipment around the plant. I’ll bet there was a good use for just about everything. And you know what? I think I was right. Instead of just putting all that equipment all over the place for us to play on like a big jungle gym, everything seemed to have a real good purpose.

After 4 years working as a summer help, and one more year as a janitor and on the labor crew, I thought I had seen just about everything in the plant. When I became an electrician, all of the sudden a whole new world opened up to me. Even that bench I had been sitting on turned into a monster machine that blasted away ash clinkers while the rest of us lay at home in our beds dreaming of chocolate, and dragons, and um… other things people dream about.

So, what about the Wall Blower? Well. These are like the retracts, only they are much smaller. they were placed around the walls of the main boiler at strategic locations to blast clinkers that may be building up along the main wall of the boiler. The area in the boiler diagram up above called the Water Wall.

For some reason (and I’m sure it’s a good one), From what was called floor 6 1/2, though it was actually about the 13th floor, on down was an area called the “Boiler Enclosure”. This meant that when you walked up to the boiler, you first had to go through a door and enter an enclosed area around the boiler. 7th floor and above, the boiler was outside.

I’ve been to plants where the entire boiler was enclosed, and I’ve seen some that didn’t look like any of it was enclosed, so I figure this was a happy median between the two. It meant that if it was raining outside and you needed to work on the boiler, it made a big difference how high up you had to go as to whether you needed your rain suit or not.

I mention this because one day I had to go by myself to work on a wall blower that was on the 6 and 1/2 floor just at the top of the boiler enclosure. The wall blower was naturally situated right next to the boiler. and all the heat generated from the boiler and the piping that came from the bowl mills that blew the coal into the furnace had made the area very hot. The Wall blower had been tripping the breaker and I was supposed to go fix it.

I brought an infrared temperature gun with me and found that the area where the wall blower was mounted was 160 degrees. Maybe it was that high because it was the middle of a hot summer day, and with everything else going on, all the heat trapped right at the top of the boiler enclosure, it had just turned into a huge easy-bake oven.

When I touched the metal door to the control panel on the side of the wall blower, it burned my fingers. I had to use my tee-shirt as a rag to keep from burning myself. I could only stand next to the wall blower for about 30 seconds and then I had to walk back over the doorway and breathe some fresh air and cool off for a minute before going back.

After opening the control panel, I could see what the problem was right away. The insulation on the wires going to the terminal block had the insulation dripping off the wires. The insulation was melting.

I went back to the shop and found some wire that was designed for high temperatures, because obviously someone had used the wrong type of wire when assembling this particular wall blower, given it’s location on the boiler.

High Temperature Wire

High Temperature Wire

Because of the intense heat where I was standing when trying to rewire the wall blower, I was not able to take very big breaths. I had to breathe very shallow, or not at all. So, I would go up to the blower and work as fast as I could removing a screw or putting a new wire down and then I would go back to the doorway about 60 feet from the wall blower and cool off.

As I mentioned in the post about the Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew, when you are in this intense heat, your hardhat becomes soft like a baseball cap. In this case, I wasn’t in the heat long enough for this to happen, though I was sweating like a pig.

I had been doing this for a while when an operator showed up wondering what I was doing. His name was Jim Waller and he had been watching me from a distance. He said he was trying to figure out what I was up to because he would see me show up at the doorway and stand there for a while not doing anything, then turning around like I had forgotten something only to show up again about 1/2 minute later.

When he couldn’t figure out what I was doing on his own, he decided to take a closer look. I found him standing at the doorway waiting for me to arrive with a puzzled look on his face. I was tempted to just say nothing and just stand there and take a few breathes and then go back to the wall blower and continue my work.

I couldn’t do that however, when Jim asked me what I was doing. Jim was one of the nicest and most normal operators you could run across. I just couldn’t joke with him (as if he was Gene Day). So, I told him I was working on that wall blower over there, but that it was so hot that I had to keep coming to the doorway to cool off.

Jim Waller had come to work for the electric company a month before I began my last summer as summer help in 1982. At the time that I was working on the wall blower in 1984 I was just about to become 24 years old, and a couple of months later, he was going to be 29. Like Gene Day, you instantly knew when you saw Jim that he you liked him. He sort of had that Jim Nabors kind of smile.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger. He had the same likable demeanor.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger. He had the same likable demeanor.

Unlike Gene Day, I never felt like playing a joke on Jim. For some reason, Jim just seemed like too nice of a guy. Where Gene had a slight sort of hidden orneriness about him, Jim was just purely a “good guy”.

This past Christmas eve, five days before Jim turned 57 years old, he passed away after a sudden illness. When the guys at the power plant told me about it, I was sad for their loss and for his family. For Jim, on the other hand…. I think he has always had one foot in heaven from the day I met him. I think he finally stepped the rest of the way through the gate.

For someone like me. If I am ever able to make it to heaven, I’m sure there will be a big to-do about it, because someone would have won the pot and I’m sure the odds would have been high against it. However, the day Jim arrived, it was probably more like “business as usual”. — “Oh, Jim’s arrived….. Like no one didn’t see that coming….” If I could say something to Jim now (and being Catholic, I’m allowed to do that), I would ask Jim, “Put in a good word for all the Power Plant Men!” Because I know that Jim’s word is as good as gold. Here is a real picture of Jim, a true Power Plant Man:

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

 

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman February 23, 2013:

Good post on Jim, Kevin. Now, what is a “normal operator”? 🙂
I remember doing several jobs in super hot areas where I had to wear a heavy coat and gloves to keep from getting burned. Had to take off rings and wrist watch too. Needed to take off my glasses, but then I couldn’t see.

 

Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond

Originally posted April 26, 2013:

Less than 6 months after Arthur Hammond was hired as an electrician, OD McGaha (pronounced Muh Gay Hay), his foreman, wanted to fire him. Not because he wasn’t a good electrician. Not because he had done something wrong. Not even because he smelled bad, or used bad language. OD (pronounced “Oh Dee”) wanted to fire him because he argued too much.

Art and I started the same day in the electric shop. I remember very well when I first walked in the door the morning that I became an electrician. I talked about that day in an earlier post New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop. That was the first day I met Arthur Francis Hammond Jr. Oh yes. I remember his full name. Everyone just called him Art. I always called him Arthur.

I had the habit of calling people by their full name…. Sometimes I would even embellish their name some. For instance. I used to call Scott Hubbard “Scotland”. Not because he looked Scottish, but because Scott seemed too short of a name for such a great guy. It would be like calling Jesus “Geez”.

Anyway. Arthur had this one trait that became obvious for anyone that had spent more than 5 minutes with him. He liked to argue. He may have thought of it more of playing the devil’s advocate. So, often when you made a statement about anything, Arthur would say something like, “Nah. That couldn’t be true. Nope. What about this?….”

Well. OD McGaha (OD’s first name was OD. The O and the D didn’t stand for anything other than O and D… OD) didn’t like being told he was wrong by anyone, especially by one of his direct reports. He soon went to Bill Bennett to see about having Arthur fired. Of course, Arthur never really did anything to be fired over, he was just pushing OD’s buttons and OD was falling for it.

So, in less than 6 months after Arthur and I joined the electric shop, Bill Bennett decided it would be best if Arthur Hammond moved to our team to help keep the peace in the shop. I’m not sure, but I think Ben Davis was traded from Howard Chumbley’s crew while Diana Lucas (later Brien) moved from our team over to Howard’s, making the circle complete…. except that now Ben, who was as content as all get out to stay on Howard’s crew (who wouldn’t be?), was stuck on OD’s crew… which is another story in itself that I will not be writing about in a later post (well, I may mention an after effect in passing).

Once Arthur was on my team, we worked together often. One reason was that I was perfectly content arguing with Art Hammond (See… I can call him Art, especially in the same sentence as “arguing”, since Arthur made an art out of arguing). I wish I had a picture of this tall man with tired eyes, yet a happy disposition (once you overlooked the tendency to argue). I do have this picture though:

Sgt. Arthur Hammond who won the Military Medal for his heroic work in the swamps of Flanders during World War I. I believe this is an ancestor of Arthur's because they look so much alike.

This is Sgt. Arthur Hammond who earned the Military Medal for his heroic work in the swamps of Flanders as a Newfoundland soldier during World War I. I thought that this Arthur Hammond was related to our Arthur Hammond since they look just like twins. A member of Sgt. Arthur Hammond’s family has assured me that they are not related.

Arthur and I were able to happily work together because he liked to argue and I liked to argue back. You see, I had grown up with an Italian mom. Few people like to argue like Italian mothers, especially mine.

I remember one Thanksgiving sitting with my brother on the couch in the house of my mom’s cousin Larry listening to our Italian relatives arguing in the dining room. We were keeping count on our fingers of how many people were talking at the same time. All of them sounded like they were arguing. Usually it took more than the fingers on one hand.

After a while, we realized that there were several conversations (well…. arguments really) going on at the same time. Yet, there was one person that was in the middle of all the arguments at the same time….. yep….. my mother. She would be taking part in at least three arguments simultaneously. My children grew up thinking that I hated my mother because we were always arguing. It wasn’t until they were older that they realized that we were just trying to decide where to go eat for dinner.

Anyway. When Arthur and I would be working together, all I had to do was say something… anything…. and the argument would start. At least that would be how it would appear to an unsuspecting person walking by listening to us. I knew that what it really meant was nothing more important than my mom and I trying to figure out where we should go out for dinner.

An argument with Arthur would go something like this. Here is one particular one I remember…. I was explaining that what someone had said wasn’t really what they meant. They were just saying that to get a reaction, because they really wanted to see how someone else would react (come to think of it… we were probably talking about Bill Rivers, See the post Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant from last week).

Arthur then proceeded to tell me that lying was never right…. ever. It was never all right to lie. If someone says something, it should be what they mean. I pointed out that people may tell a “white lie”. One that isn’t intended to deceive someone as much as it is to hide something for another purpose. Arthur said that he disagreed. That even a white lie is always wrong….

So, I asked him if he ever told his kids that Santa Claus brought them Christmas Presents on Christmas Day, or that the Tooth Fairy put a coin under their pillow at night. He had to admit that he did. He did have to ponder whether it was right or not. So I told him that I thought it was all right to tell his children this. It didn’t necessarily mean that he was doing something wrong.

I could see that this had really puzzled him, because this was a steadfast dogma of Arthur’s. One thing that really bugged him was when someone lied to him. I have another post that I will write in a few weeks that will give a definite situation where someone was lying to Arthur. It really bugged the heck out of him.

So, I explained to Arthur that even though he told his children that Santa Claus had given them presents, that in some way, maybe Santa Claus really did. Maybe Santa Claus represented the spirit of Christmas, and it was the Spirit of Christmas that prompted Arthur to go out and buy the presents for his children in order to surprise and delight them on Christmas morning. That seemed to satisfy him…..

So, we immediately found something else to argue about, and you know what? The days would fly by when I was working with Arthur. We would go out to wire up a Boiler Water Circulating Pump, using regular rubber tape (as this was before we started using the synthetic stuff), and four hours would go by like nothing. Three small arguments and we would be done.

A Boiler Water Circulating Pump Motor like ours, only ours was painted Silver

A Boiler Water Circulating Pump Motor like ours, only ours was painted Silver

To get an idea of how big this pump is…. you can easily stand (and dance… um…. if you were inclined to… er…) on the junction box on the lower left corner of this motor.

I actually had a great time working with Arthur Hammond. I was heartbroken the day he told me in 1988 that he had decided to take the money being offered for anyone that wanted to leave before a downsizing was going to occur. He explained the reasons to me. I just wanted to grab him and shake him and tell him “No!” I wanted him to realize that he was making a mistake….. but I didn’t.

You see, Arthur had been a construction electrician before joining the electric shop. He had traveled from one job to another. He hadn’t stayed in one place for more than a couple of years. He was already working on 3 1/2 years in the shop…. He wasn’t used to that. He said that he just didn’t like settling down in one job. He had to keep moving.

I know what he really wanted to do. He wanted to go into business for himself. He wanted to start a cleaning business. He had made a business case for it and was trying to get the funding from a fund for American Indian Entrepreneurs. He just needed the down payment. This looked like the opportunity to do this. He wanted to buy a big steam cleaning truck.

A steam cleaning truck

A steam cleaning truck

So, I think Arthur’s last day was sometime early June, 1988. I always hate to see my friends walking out the door, not knowing if I will ever see them again. That was the way I felt when Arthur left.

The only shining event that came out of Arthur leaving was that it left an opening in the electric shop that was filled by Scott Hubbard from the Testing team. Scott and I would spend the rest of my years working together along with Charles Foster until the day I left the plant in 2001.

I did see Arthur three months later. He called me at work one day and asked me if I would help him out. His going away package that the company gave him to opt out had run out and he needed some cash. He had 50 shares of company stock left and was wondering if I would buy them from him. He knew that I bought and sold stock and thought I might be interested.

I was glad to help him out, so we arranged to meet at the house he was renting in Stillwater (I was living in Ponca City at the time), on a Saturday. He went to the Morrison, Oklahoma bank and had the bank president sign the stock certificates, and when I arrived, at his home, I handed him a check for $1600.00 and he gave me the stock certificate for 50 shares ($32 per share).

The price of the stock has gone up and down through the years…. I could have made a profit on them I suppose. I have kept them to this day. They split once so then I had 100 shares.  Every 3 months I receive a dividend check in the mail for $36.00 from those 100 shares….. I hang onto those shares. Maybe it is because ever three months, I am reminded of the day I bought them.

When I arrived at Arthur’s house out in the country, just down the road from where I eventually bought my own home up on the hill, Arthur handed me the certificates and said, “that’s it…. That’s the last of the package I received…. It sure didn’t last long.” I shook his hand, gave him a hug and said goodbye. That was the last time I ever heard from Arthur.

I think today he is living in Tulsa. I am not certain. He would be in his mid 60’s now. I only hope that all is well with him and his family. I hope that he finally found a place to settle down. Some place where he could wake up each day….. go to work, or walk down the street and talk to a friend who enjoys a good argument. I know that if he could do that, then he would be content. Nothing was more enjoyable to Arthur than being able to take part in a good argument.

In Pursuit of the Power Plant Gai-tronics Gray Phone Ghost

Originally Posted June 14, 2013:

When I first watched the movie “The Goonies”, I recognized right away that the script was inspired from another Pirate treasure movie I had watched when I was a child. I have never seen the movie again, and it was probably a made for TV movie or something that has been lost in the archives years ago. I’m sure that Steven Spielberg when he was growing up must have been inspired by this movie when he wrote the script to Goonies, because this was a movie that had inspired us when we were young.

The Goonies looking at the treasure map

The Goonies looking at the treasure map

You see… In the movie I had watched as a kid, some children that were trying to save their family or an old house or something similar to the Goonies story, found a clue to where a Pirate treasure was buried. The clue had something to do with a “crow’s nest”. It turned out that the model of a ship that had been sitting on the mantle piece in the old house had another clue in the pole holding the crow’s nest. This clue had holes in the paper, and when held up to a certain page in a certain book, it gave them another clue to where there was a hidden passageway. Which led them one step closer to the treasure.

Anyway. As a child, this inspired us (and I’m sure a million other kids) to play a game called “Treasure Hunt”. It was where you placed clues all around the house, or the yard, or the neighborhood (depending on how ambitious of a treasure hunt you were after), with each clue leading to the other clue, and eventually some prize at the end.

Why am I telling you this story about this movie that I watched when I was a child? Well, because I felt this same way all over again when I became an electrician at a coal-fired power plant out in the country in north central Oklahoma. Here is why.

I used to carpool to work from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the power plant 25 miles north of town with another electrician named Bill Rivers. He had kept urging me to become an electrician along with Charles Foster, who had suggested that I take some electric courses to prepare for the job. Once I became an electrician, Charles Foster, my foreman, would often send me with Bill Rivers to repair anything that had to do with electronics. Bill Rivers was good at troubleshooting electronic equipment, and well, he was generally a good troubleshooter when he wasn’t getting himself into trouble.

I remember the morning when Charles told me to go with Bill to go fix the incessant humming that was coming over the PA system…. “What?” I asked him. “I can’t hear you over the loud hum coming over the PA system.” — No not really… We called the Gai-tronics PA system the “Gray Phone” because the phones all over the plant where you could page people and talk on 5 different lines was gray.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

I walked into the electric lab where Bill Rivers was usually hanging out causing Sonny Kendrick grief. I hadn’t been in the electric shop very long at this point. I think it was before the time when I went to work on the Manhole pumps (see the post Power Plant Manhole Mania). In the lab there was an electric cord going from a plug-in on the counter up into the cabinet above as if something inside the cabinet was plugged in…. which was true. I asked Bill what was plugged in the cabinet and he explained that it was the coffee maker.

An old Coffee pot like this

An old Coffee pot like this

You see, our industrious plant manager had decided that all coffee at the plant had to come from the authorized coffee machines where a dime had to be inserted before dispensing the cup of coffee. This way the “Canteen committee” could raise enough money to…. uh…. pay for the coffee. So, all rogue coffee machines had to go. There was to be no free coffee at the plant.

So, of course, the most logical result of this mandate was to hide the coffee maker in the cabinet in case a wandering plant manager or one of his undercover coffee monitor minions were to enter the lab unexpectedly. Maintaining the free flow of coffee to those electricians that just had to silently protest the strong arm tactics of the Power Plant Coffee Tax by having a sort of… “Tea Party” or was it a “Coffee Party”.

I told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him fix the hum on the gray phones. Bill Rivers said, “Great! Then let us play a game. let’s call it, ‘Treasure Hunt’.”

Bill reached up in one of the cabinets and pulled out a blue telephone test set. I’m sure you must have seen a telephone repairman with one of these hanging from his hip. ” Oh boy.” I thought. “A new toy!”

Telephone Test Set

Power Plant Telephone Test Set

I grabbed my tool bucket from the shop and followed Bill Rivers out into the T-G basement. This is a loud area where the steam pipes carry the steam to the Turbine to spin the Generator. It is called T-G for Turbine Generator. Bill walked over to a junction box mounted near the north exit going to unit 1. He explained that except for the gray phones in the Control-room section of the plant, all the other gray phones go through this one junction box.

Bill said that the game was to find the Gray Phone ghost. Where is the hum coming from? He showed me how the different cables coming into this one box led to Unit 1, Unit 2, the office area and the coal yard. I just had to figure out which way the hum came from. So, I went to work lifting wires off of the terminal blocks. We could hear the hum over the gray phone speakers near us, so if I were to lift the right wires, we should know right away that I had isolated the problem.

Gray Phone Speaker

Power Plant Gray Phone Speaker

We determined that the noise was coming from Unit 1. So we took the elevator halfway up the boiler to another junction box, and then another where we traced the problem to a gray phone under the surge bin tower. It took 4 screws to remove the phone from the box. When I did, I could clearly see the problem. The box was full of water. Water had run down the conduit and into the phone box.

Bill Rivers told me that now that we found the problem, we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so we drilled a small weep hole in the bottom of the box, and we took plumbers putty and stuffed it into the top of the conduit where it opened into a cable tray.

A tub of Power Plant Plumbers Putty

A tub of Power Plant Plumbers Putty

The box would fill with water when the labor crew would do coal cleanup. On labor crew we would spray the entire surge bin tower down with high powered water hoses to wash off all the coal dust. Each time, some water would end up going down the conduit into the gray phone until it grounded the circuit enough to cause a hum.

Bill and I continued searching throughout the plant for phones that were causing a hum. Most were caused by water in the box. Some were caused by circuits that had gone bad (most likely because they had water in them at some point). Those we took to the electric shop lab where we played a different kind of treasure hunt. — Let’s call it…. Finding the bad component. It reminded me of an old video game I had bought for my brother for Christmas in 1983 that winter when I gave him an Intellivision (so I could play with it). It was the latest greatest video game console at the time.

An Intellivision Game Console

An Intellivision Game Console

I had given my brother a game called “Bomb Squad”. Where you had a certain amount of time to diffuse a bomb by going through a circuit board cutting out components with some snippers. If you cut the wrong connection, you had to hurry up and solder it back on before the bomb blew up.

Bomb Squad. It even talked to you and a siren went off if you were going to blow yourself up.

Bomb Squad. It even talked to you and a siren went off if you were going to blow yourself up.

That’s what we were doing with the Gray Phones. We were testing the different components until we found one that wasn’t working correctly. Then we would replace that transistor, or capacitor, or resistor, or diode, and then test the phone by plugging it in the switchgear gray phone box and calling each other.

I have a story later about someone using this technique while fixing gray phones, only he would call himself on the gray phone where I would call Bill and Bill would call me. Someone misinterpreted this and thought the person was trying to make everyone think he was more important because he was always being paged, when he was only paging himself. He was removed from fixing gray phones for this reason, even though he was only person at the plant in Mustang Oklahoma that knew a transistor from a capacitor.

So, why am I going on about a seemingly boring story about fixing a hum on a PA system? I think it’s because to me it was like a game. It was like playing a treasure hunt. From the day I started as an electrician, we would receive trouble tickets where we needed to go figure something out. We had to track down a problem and then find a solution on how to fix it. As I said in previous posts, it was like solving a puzzle.

Each time we would fix something, someone was grateful. Either the operator or a mechanic, or the Shift Supervisor, or the person at home vacuuming their carpet, because the electricity was still flowing through their house. How many people in the world can say that they work on something that impacts so many people?

Well… I used to feel like I was in a unique position. I was able to play in a labyrinth of mechanical and electrical equipment finding hidden treasures in the form of some malfunction. As I grew older, I came to realize that the uniqueness was limited only to the novelty of my situation. If you took all the power plant men in the country, they could probably all fit in one large football stadium. But the impact on others was another thing altogether.

The point I am trying to make is that it was obvious to me that I was impacting a large portion of people in the state of Oklahoma by helping to keep the plant running smoothly by chasing down the boiler ghosts and exorcising the Coalyard demons from the coal handling equipment. Even though it isn’t so obvious to others, like the janitor, or the laborer or the person that fills the vending machine. Everyone in some way helps to support everyone else.

A cook in a restaurant is able to cook the food because the electricity and the natural gas is pumped into the restaurant by others. Then the cook feeds the mailman, who delivers that mail, that brings the check to the person waiting to go to the grocery store so they can buy food that was grown by some farmer who plowed his field on a tractor made in a huge tractor factory by a machinist after driving there in a car made by a manufacturer in Detroit who learned how to use a lathe in a Vocational school taught by a teacher who had a degree from a university where each day this person would walk to class during the winter snow wearing boots that came from a clothes store where the student had bought them from a store clerk that greeted people by saying “Good Morning! How are you today?” Cheering up all the people that they met.

I could have walked into the lab and told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him find the hum in the PA system and he could have responded by saying, “Oh really? Good luck with that!” Instead he said, “Let’s go play a game. ‘Treasure Hunt!” This attitude had set the stage for me as a Power Plant Electrician: “Let’s go have some fun and fix something today!” Where would that cook have been today if the power had gone out in his restaurant that morning all because an attitude had gotten in the way….. I wonder…

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron Kilman June 15, 2013:

    Great story! It’s neat how God puts us in teams to “fix stuff” and make life happen.

  2. Monty Hansen August 16, 2013:

    I wonder why they don’t make ‘em bright yellow or some other color easy to spot in an emergency? Anyway, I remember this one gray phone/speaker we had & when you’d wash down the basement if you accidentally got water in it, it would bellow throughout the plant like a sick cow moose until it finally dried out!

    1. Plant Electrician August 16, 2013:

      Thanks Monty, I remember having to stuff putty down the end of conduit from a cable tray to gray phones so that water wouldn’t run down them during washdown. We pulled a gray phone out of the box one day and water just poured out of it. We took to drilling a small hole in the bottom of some of them just to let the water drain out (as I mentioned above).

Sky Climbing in the Dark with Power Plant Boiler Rats

Originally Posted July 26, 2013:

I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.

This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.

As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.

At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.

David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.

During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.

This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.

Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Or even a normal rat like this:

Normal looking rat

Normal looking rat

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

rat from kootation

rat picture taken from kootation.com

Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….

Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.

If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.

A sky climber

A sky climber

You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.

So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.

Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.

There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.

There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.

We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.

By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.

I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.

I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.

I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”

That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.

I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.

There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.

I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.

Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.

Comment from previous post:

  1. A.D. Everard August 3, 2014

    You tell a wonderful story and keep the reader spellbound. I love this sort of inside information!
    Coming to your blog has given me the same rush of excitement I get when I’m researching something and find a gem! Now I want to write about boiler rats! 🙂

Prolonged Power Plant Pause Before the Panic

Originally posted September 6, 2013:

Today when I attend meetings while on the job at Dell (and now at GM) and the discussion is about something new, and the manager is looking for input from the team, I usually sit there quietly while the others share their thoughts. This is not my usual behavior in other settings as I am usually quick to respond with a quip or something sarcastic.

Later, after everyone else has given their two cents, then if asked, I will wade in with both feet. This hasn’t always been the course of action I would have taken. Actually, I used to be pretty hot-headed. I was usually the first person to respond when someone asked a question. I already had my mind made up about just about everything.

My wife began noticing a change in my behavior a few years after we were married. She would ask me a simple question, like, “Would you like a piece of gum.” I would suddenly go into a momentary comatose state where I would stare off into space and think about it. She would say something like, “The answer doesn’t need a lot of thought. It is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

After careful analysis, I finally figured out what happened. The transformation began the day I entered the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant as an electrician. I described that first day in the post “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“. In that post I described my first job as an electrician when I went to the coalyard with my foreman Charles Foster to fix a room heater that wasn’t working.

The first time I used my new tools, Charles told me to remove a screw from a fuse block so that we could lift a wire in order to replace the fuse block.

A small fuse block like this.

A small fuse block like this.

When I was removing the wire (with one hand, as Charles had warned me that an electrician never uses two hands to do this), the screwdriver slipped and shorted out on the mounting screw which caused a brief flash. In the millisecond that the flash occurred, it cut a notch in the tip of my new Stanley screwdriver.

A Stanley screwdriver used by electgricians because of the rubber on the handle

A Stanley screwdriver used by electricians because of the rubber on the handle

This was the beginning of my 18 year career of various minor electrocutions and small explosions. We did things to minimize the chances of shorting out your screwdriver when working on a hot circuit (that means a circuit that has the electricity still turned on). One thing we would do is wrap rubber tape up the metal shank so that if it leaned against something metal with it while the tip was touching something hot, it wouldn’t short out the circuit.

Inevitably, something would happen every now and then and something was going to explode. So you just had to be prepared for that. This is where the “Prolonged Pause” comes in.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do. Let me give you a “For Instance”. One time when we had an overhaul on Unit 1 (we had 2 units at our Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma), Richard Moravek was visiting from the Power Plant in Muskogee, Oklahoma. I have written about him in the Post “Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant“. Each morning at Muskogee, he and Jay Harris would sing the song, “Nestle’s makes the very best Chocolate”, with Richard whistling as he sang like the Nestle’s rabbit with a whistle in his voice.

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

On one particular day, Richard and I were sent to perform a “quick and dirty” elevator inspection on the Unit 1 elevator. It received a lot of wear and tear during overhaul with everyone riding up and down from the 9th floor where you could reach the upper echelons of the boiler. If things didn’t work perfectly every time, then the work would be slowed, and schedules wouldn’t be met.

During our elevator inspection we decided that we needed to change out some lights on the push buttons, because…. well… because some of them were burned out. Which caused them to not light up when they were supposed to, causing some Power Plant workers to become confused because they would forget which button they had pushed when they entered the elevator, thus, allowing them to forget which floor they were supposed to get off (working long hours will do that to you).

Anyway, Richard had taken the screws out of the push button panel and had swung the door on the panel open so that the wiring inside was all exposed. He reached in to pulled out one of the push button assemblies so that he could remove the bulb (oh… electricians call bulbs, Lamps… I mentioned that in the post “Place On Light Duty at the Power Plant“, if you recall).

I had reached down into my tool bucket and pulled out a box of special elevator lamps….. Actually, I think it was a standard 6S6 lamp, but it looked like a bulb to me:

A 12 Volt 6S6 bulb

A 12 Volt 6S6 bulb (or is it a lamp?)

Richard had put his hand out to receive the bulb I had in my hand, so I handed it to him. At that point, a funny thing happened. You see, my other hand was on the elevator scissor gate.

An Elevator Scissor Gate

An Elevator Scissor Gate

As I placed the lamp into Richard’s hand, he suddenly twitched and sort of jumped at the same time. When he did, he pushed into me and he began doing a jig. My legs were twitching and I was sort of doing a jig myself, or maybe a jog.

It became apparent right away what had happened. While Richard’s one hand was in the elevator push button panel taking out the bulb, he had come in contact with the electric circuit. This was fine as long as he wasn’t grounded. That is, he wasn’t touching anything else metal, like the front of the panel.

Being a good electrician, Richard had kept his other hand at his side like Charles Foster had taught me my first day as an electrician. That is, until he raised that hand for me to give him a lamp. When my fingers touched his palm, and my other hand was holding the elevator gate, we suddenly made a circuit to ground. From Richard, to me, to the gate, to the ground, and back to the the main power generator through various grounds and circuits and transformers….

About the time that I realized what was happening, we had separated from each other, and were no longer dancing. It cracked us up and we stood there laughing about it for a minute because both of us had just been dancing in the elevator.

As I explained in the post about being on light duty that I mentioned above, when you went to work on the stack lights, you carried metal prod with you that you used to ground the large capacitors before you worked on the circuit. When you did this, there would be a bright flash and a loud explosion.

If a noise or a flash like that made you jump, you may end up going over the handrail and falling 500 feet to the ground. So, you learned that in the event of a flash, your first reaction is to freeze. Then assess the situation, and then if necessary, Panic.

Many years later (like 16), I became very aware of how well trained we were when something like this happened when I was once again working with Charles Foster in a junction box on the 11 landing of Unit 1 on the west side. We were standing side-by-side and we were working on something hot.

Suddenly there was a bright flash and a loud boom as something shorted out. By that time in our history, we had learned all about wearing fire resistant clothing, so that even though what we were wearing wasn’t fire proof, it also wasn’t going to melt to our skin.

What amazed me about this moment was that we both stood there still for a moment before we panicked. There was about a one second pause where we both restrained ourselves from jumping back. I chalked this up to our years of being around explosive situations. Jumping back as the first reaction can often lead to other injuries.

I took this resistance to panic with me into other situations. Before 1994 when OSHA added a bunch of new laws protecting people in confined spaces, I was crawling inside the main generator bus that goes out to the main power transformer. No hole watch. No one watching me outside that could grab me and pull me out if something went wrong.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer. The bus piping are those three pipes going into the building at the top in the back

I had squeezed myself into one of these pipes to clean the insulators that held the bus in place in the middle of the pipe. This meant that I was crammed into the pipe under the bus bar that ran through the middle of the pipe.

I had made it to the insulator that I needed to clean and wiped it down with the rag I had taken with me. Then I decided I couldn’t go forward anymore to look at any more of the insulators because it was too tight of a fit. So, I started to back myself out.

As I went to push myself back I suddenly realized that I was stuck. It was easy moving forward because I was using the soles of my sneakers to push on the pipe, but as soon as I wanted to go back, there didn’t seem to be anyway to maneuver my body in a way that would back myself out. My arms were stretched out in front of me.  This was one of a few times when I began to feel the panicky feeling of claustrophobia.

I had seen claustrophobia in others and I knew that when you are gripped with it, you can hurt yourself, or even Bob Lillibridge if he happened to be the one grabbing your legs at the time (see the post: Bob Lillibridge Meets the Power Plant Ghost for an explanation.

Here it came… I felt myself swelling up tight in the pipe as the panic was gripping me. I knew I had to do something quickly or it wasn’t going to be pretty…. Well, either way… nothing about this was pretty. So, I forced myself to calm down. I told myself to breathe out, and slowly back in.

Then I decided to use the palms of my hands that were stretched out straight in front of me to push against the pipe to move me back. With that effort, I could see (in the darkness) that I had moved myself back about 1/2 inch. I thought. “Ok, 1/2 inch is something. If I did that 100 more times, that would be more than 4 feet. 200 times and I would be out of this pipe.”

Realizing I could move myself at least a little bit allowed me to calm down and quell the panic. I did nothing but concentrate on pushing with my palms 1/2 inch at a time and eventually, I did climb out of that pipe (What?  You expected me to say I was still in there?).

I don’t know how many times over the years I have woken up in the middle of the night and swung my feet over the side of the bed and taken a few large breaths because I had been dreaming about being in that pipe again. I will discuss the topic of claustrophobia in a later post, but this example fit the topic of training yourself not to panic so I thought I would use it here.

If you ever end up talking to someone that doesn’t quite look at you when they look like they are trying to look at you, then you may think that they are a welder. There are some welders that seem to look at you from the corner of their eye. I suppose it was because the middle of their vision has been burned out because they have looked at the welding arc too many times without their visor down.  Or maybe they had just learned to look away from whatever they are seeing just as a safety habit.

Similarly, if you ever encounter someone that momentarily goes into a comatose state for a few moments when you ask them a simple question, you may now think that maybe this person was a Power Plant Electrician that has learned to have a Prolonged Pause before they Panic… or… respond to your question. If they aren’t from a power plant, then they probably were just trying to ignore you.

Comments from previous repost:

    1. Dan Antion September 11, 2014

      Good advice for anyone in similar situations.

    1. Slowmoto September 11, 2014

      Pause before panic is my response to most stressors perceived by a presenter or an emerging reality. You hit the mark!

  1. Monty Hansen November 26, 2014

    Excellent writing! I felt myself getting panicky with you! As a control room operator I had an electrician drop a screwdriver & blow the unit out from under me at full load + 5% overpressure (2520#)-(It caused a false boiler feedpump saturation temp trip). The power plant has trained me not to startle as well, inside I may be screaming like a schoolgirl, but outside I am calm and handling emergencies as though routine.