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.
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).
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:
Or even a normal rat like this:
No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:
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.
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:
Originally posted October 25, 2015.
It was no secret at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was Catholic. When I was a summer help and working on the labor crew, I wore a large crucifix under my tee shirt. I had worn the crucifix since I was 13 years old.
When I joined the electric shop I had to take it off. Electricians should not wear any kind of metal jewelry for the obvious reason that if it were to come into contact with a “hot” circuit, the effect would be the same as if I wrapped the live electric wire around my neck. In other words… I could easily have been electrocuted.
In place of the crucifix, I wore a Scapular instead. Wearing a cord around my neck was unsafe enough, but it didn’t take much for the cord to break away from the piece of cloth on either end.
So, as I said, most everyone at the plant knew that I was Catholic. It was common for someone to see the cloth with the picture on it sticking out the back of my tee shirt and ask me, “What is that around your neck with the postage stamp on it?” I usually hesitated to answer the question because I understood that living in Oklahoma where there was only a 5% Catholic population, the Catholic Church was greatly misunderstood and I really didn’t want to enter a lengthy discussion about why Catholics do what they do.
Diana Brien (my bucket buddy) helped me out one day when someone asked me why I wore the scapular, and I was hesitating trying to decide if they wanted a short answer or a long one, when Diana broke in and said, “It’s a Catholic thing.” I quickly agreed. “Yeah. It’s a Catholic thing. It reminds me to be good. I need all the reminders I can get. Sort of like ‘Catholic Protection’.”
Before I discuss what a Power Plant Catholic has to do with checking Cathodic Protection, let me just add that though I wasn’t the only Catholic at the plant, I was sort of the “Token” Catholic. Which meant, when someone wanted a straight answer about what the Catholic Church believes about any subject, I was the person that they turned to for answers.
Living in the midst of the Bible Belt, Monday mornings is when most of the questions would be asked. Preachers from various religions would occasionally say something during their Church service about Catholics and their “strange” beliefs. So, the next day, some would come to me to hear the other side of the story.
I will list a few questions…. “Why do Catholics say, ‘Hell Mary’?” “Is it true that the Pope has 666 on his Tiara?” “Is it true that Catholics are not able to say the entire ‘Our Father’?” “Are Catholics really against abortion because they need newborn babies to sacrifice in the basement of their Church?” “Is it true that Catholics can’t say for sure that they are going to heaven?” Aren’t Catholics cannibals by believing they are eating the real Body and Blood of Jesus?” “Don’t Catholics believe that they can do anything wrong they want because they know that they can just go to confession and have it forgiven?”
These are all actual questions I was asked when I was an electrician at the power plant. I understood why the Power Plant Men were asking me the questions, and I respectfully answered them. I would rather they felt comfortable asking me these questions than just going around thinking that I was some kind of barbaric pagan behind my back.
By feeling free to talk to me about being Catholic, I knew that I was respected by the Power Plant Men even though I was from a religion that they viewed as far from their own. There was one day when this became obvious to me.
I was on the second landing on Unit 2 boiler just about to enter the boiler enclosure when Floyd Coburn walked out. He was nicknamed “Coal Burner” partly because he was black, and partly because he worked in the coal yard for a long time, but mostly because his last name was Coburn which sounds a lot like Coal Burner. Someone figured that out one day, and called him that, and it stuck. When Floyd came out of the enclosure he stopped me. He tapped me on the arm and signaled for me to follow him.
We stepped out of the walkway a short distance and he held out his fist in front of me. Floyd was built like a wrestler. Actually, he was State Champion of the 148 lb weight class for 4A High Schools in Oklahoma in 1972 and 1973. This meant a lot because in Oklahoma, Wrestling was an important sport. He also had earned an associates degree at Rogers State College in Claremore.
Not once did I ever hear Floyd Coburn brag about his accomplishments, or even mention them. I suspect that few people if any knew much about Floyd’s background because as much fun as he was to work with, he was very humble, as are most True Power Plant Men.
Floyd was grinning at me as if he was about to show me a trick or a joke or something. Then he opened his fist. In the middle of his palm he held a small crucifix. The size of one on a typical rosary.
When I saw the cross I looked up at Floyd and he was grinning ear-to-ear. I gave him a puzzled looked. Then he told me. “I found Jesus! I just wanted you to know. I know you would understand.”
I felt very privileged that Floyd felt like sharing his experience with me. I thanked him for letting me know. I patted him on the shoulder and we went on our way.
Throughout the years after that, Floyd would set me down every now and then and share how he was expanding his faith with Jesus. He finally became a minister and re-opened a Church in Ponca City where his family used to worship when he was a boy. Floyd was the Pastor of the Broken Heart Ministers Church.
I always felt blessed that he came to me to tell me about his journey. The last time I talked with Floyd Coburn was around Christmas, 2005. I had dropped in at the plant to say hello while I was visiting Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Floyd wanted to talk to me about the progress he was making as Pastor of the Church in Ponca City. He explained the troubles he was having and asked for my prayers. He felt as if the devil was fighting against him. I assured him I have always kept him in my prayers.
One day around the end of October 2006, I felt compelled to write to the plant about a Power Plant Man David Hankins, who had died after my first summer as a summer help in 1979. I have always remembered him on November 1, All Saints Day, because I know that he’s in heaven as he had a tremendous heart.
I hadn’t written to the plant for some time. When I did, I received a couple of e-mails back telling me that Floyd Coburn had died on August 25 during his son’s birthday party. He died of a sudden heart attack.
Though I felt very sorrowful for Floyd’s family because of the circumstance surrounding his death, I felt a great relief for Floyd. I know he had a great desire to be united with Jesus Christ.
So. Now that I discussed some of my experience as a Catholic at the Power Plant, let me tell you about Cathodic Protection (that is not a misspelling of ‘Catholic Protection’).
Have you ever noticed on a car battery how one post is more shiny, than the other post? Especially after it has been in your car for a while. It’s not real noticeable so you may not have realized it. The shiny post is the Cathode or Positive post. Well. Cathodic Protection is just that.
You see the main ingredient besides Power Plant Men at a Power Plant is Iron. The boilers are almost entirely made from the stuff. There are underground and above ground pipes running all over the place. Well. You can paint most of the iron that is above the ground to keep it from rusting, but it doesn’t work very well when you bury the pipes and structure in the dirt.
So, how do you protect your investment? The answer is by using Cathodic Protection. There is a grounding grid made of copper wires buried in the dirt that ties to all the metal objects around the plant grounds. This not only helps absorb things like lightening strikes, but it also allows for the seemingly miraculous anti-rust system known as “Cathodic Protection”.
This is how Cathodic Protection works… You bury a large piece of metal in the dirt and you tie a negative DC (direct current) power source to it. Then you tie the positive power to the grounding grid. By creating a positive charge on the boiler structure and the piping you inhibit rusting, while you enhance the corrosion on the large piece of buried metal with the negative charge.
A nifty trick if you ask me. The only thing about using cathodic protection is that you have to keep an eye on it because the large piece of buried metal will eventually need to be replaced, or the charge will need to be adjusted as it decays in order to protect all the other metal in the plant.
The Power Plant doesn’t just have one source for cathodic protection. There are numerous boxes placed around the plant that protected a specific set of equipment and buildings. So, when it came time to do Cathodic Protection checks, we would go to each station and take readings. If there were anomalies in the readings then someone would be alerted, and tap settings may be adjusted. In extreme cases, the large piece of metal would need to be replaced with a new one…. Though I never saw that happen.
Once I understood the concept of how Cathodic Protection worked I came to the conclusion that what Catholic Protection was doing for me, Cathodic Protection was doing for the Power Plant. It was helping to prevent corrosion.
If you don’t keep a close watch on how well your Cathodic Protection is doing, then you won’t realize when it needs to be re-calibrated. I have found the same thing applies with how well I am doing as a person. Sometimes I find I need to do a little adjustment to keep myself in line…
When checking a Cathodic Protection rectifier, when you use your multimeter to check the voltages, you have to put your leads and usually your hands into a container of transformer oil. This is somewhat messy and unpleasant. But we realize that it is something that just has to be done. We may wear latex disposable gloves to help keep our hands from soaking in the oil, but inevitably, I would end up dripping some on my jeans.
It’s the same way when trying to adjust myself to be a better person. It seems a little unpleasant at first, but you know it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s swallowing your pride. Sometimes it’s admitting that you are wrong. Sometimes it is just getting off your duff and stop being so lazy.
This is why I always felt so honored working with such True Power Plant Men. They were the ones that, even though they struggled in their individual lives like the rest of us, they always kept their mind on what was right and used that as a guide to make the right decisions.
Originally posted November 1, 2013:
You would think that telling time is a pretty universal past time. I used to think that myself. That is, until I went to work at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I first went to work there in 1979 as a summer help. I noticed something was different when I walked into the office to meet the Assistant Plant Manager, Bill Moler and the clock on his wall looked kind of funny. I had to stare at it for a moment before I realized what it meant:
The Power Plant Men called it Military Time because many of them had been in the military during the Vietnam War and had learned to tell time using this type of clock. When we filled out our timecards at the end of the day we put 0800 to 1600 Well. I put in the colons like this: 8:00 to 16:00 but that wasn’t the real Power Plant Man way to do it.
That wasn’t the only thing I learned about Power Plant Man time. Power Plant Men keep time in other ways. One of those ways, though it involves a clock, the time being observed isn’t the time of day. Instead it centers around five events.
Startin’ Time, Morning Break, Lunch Time and Afternoon Break and Quitin’ Time. A Power Plant Man’s day revolves around these events.
The moment Startin’ Time begins, the Power Plant Men are looking forward to Morning Break. They schedule their efforts around this event. That is, if they need to do a certain job that would run them into Morning Break, then they figure out something else to do, and push that event out until Morning Break is over.
In General, Morning Break would begin at 9:30 (Oh. I mean 0930 — pronounced “Oh Nine Thirty”). It was supposed to be 15 minutes long, but in order to make sure you didn’t miss your break, you usually headed toward the shop 15 minutes early. Then by the time you headed back out the door to and returned to your work, another 10 to 15 minutes went by. Essentially stretching morning break from 15 minutes to 40 to 45 minutes.
This was especially true in the early days of the Power Plant. The Power Plant Men’s culture evolved over time so that the actual time spent on their 15 minute break probably shortened from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.
The idea that the employees weren’t spending every moment of their day when not on break working just confounded Plant Managers, such as the “Evil Plant Manager” that I often talk about. Our first plant manager was so tight, when he worked at a gas plant in Oklahoma City, he was known for taking rags out of the trash and putting them back in the rag box because they weren’t dirty enough.
Now that I work at Dell as a Business Systems Analyst (and since I first wrote this post, I have changed jobs and now work for General Motors) after many years of working for great managers and not-so-great managers, I am always relieved when I find that a new manager doesn’t measure you by how many hours you are sitting at the computer, but by your results.
For those that looked closely at the performance of the Power Plant Men at our particular plant, they would find that when a job needed to be done, it would be done… on time. The bottom line was that when you treat the employees with respect, they go the extra mile for you.
“Quitin’ Time” was always an interesting time. From the first day that I arrived as a summer help (1979) until the day I left 22 years later (2001), Even though “Quitin’ Time” was at 4:30 (or 1630, later changing to 1730), it really began at 4:00 (or 1600, pronounced “sixteen hundred”).
at 4:00, a half hour before it was time to go out to the parking lot and drive home, everyone would return to the shop, where they would spend the next 30 minutes cleaning up and filling out their daily timecard. The timecard was, and probably still is, a sheet of paper.
Amazing huh? You would think with the way things are that paper timecards would have disappeared a long time ago. I could be wrong about that. If it is any different at the plant today, I’ll encourage one of them to leave a comment below updating me.
There are other ways that Power Plant Men tell time. Sure, they know that there are seasons, like Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. But it is more likely that in their minds the Power Plant Men are thinking more like this…. Instead of Summer, they would think that this is “Peak Load”. That is, the units need to stay operational because the citizens of this country are in dire need of air conditioning.
Instead of Fall, there are two thoughts running through a Power Plant Man’s mind…. Hunting Season and the start of “Overhauls”.
As hunting season nears, many Power Plant Men are staking out their territories and setting up their deer stands. Some are out practicing with their bows as Bow Season starts first before you can use a rifle. The Plant staff didn’t like their employees taking off Christmas vacation, and did everything they could to keep you in town during the holiday. But when it came down to it… The real time to worry was during hunting season.
An Overhaul is when you take one of the units offline to work on things that you can’t work on when it is running. the main area being inside the boiler. When overhauls come around, it is a chance for working a lot of overtime. The pay is good especially if you get to go to another plant to work because then you not only get to work 10 or 12 hour days, but you receive a Per Diem of somewhere from $28.50 to $35.00 each day depending on how far back you want to look.
I don’t know what the Per Diem is today. I’m sure it must be much higher. Plus you get driving time back and forth each week, and you also receive mileage! So, you can see why Power Plant Men were often very anxious to go away on overhaul.
Overhaul season ran from the Fall into the Spring. It is during that time when the electric company could take a couple of units offline at a time because the electric demand wasn’t so high.
Another season that many Power Plant Men counted on was “Fishing Season”. It wasn’t like the other seasons, because it kind of ran into a lot of the others. If the weather was right, and the rain was right and the Missus was all right with it… Then it was fishing season. There were different types of fishing. In the electric shop, “Noodling” was popular. That is when you reach under the rocks in a river and feel around for a fish and then end up catching it with your bare hands.
Another timekeeping tool used by Power Plant men was “Pay Day”. It came around every two weeks. After a while everyone was on direct deposit, so it wasn’t like they were all waiting around for someone to actually hand them a paycheck. Many did plan their trips to the mall or to the gun shows in Oklahoma City around Pay Day. It was common to live from paycheck to paycheck.
If you worked in the coalyard, then you calibrated your clock by when the next coal train was going to roll into the dumper. There was generally a steady stream of coal trains coming and going. When a coal train was late, or even early, then I think it seemed to throw some coalyard hands into a state of confusion. But, then again, now that I think about it…. Walt Oswalt usually did seem to be in a state of confusion. — I’m just joking of course….. Well… you know…
If you were a Control Room Operator, then you were in a sort of Twilight Zone, because there really was only one small window in the entire Control room and that was only so that you could look through a small telescope at the Main Power Substation in case…. well… in case you were bored and you needed to be reassured that the world still did exist out there.
In the control room, there were clocks, but the control room operators had a lot more pretty lights to look at back then. Here is my favorite picture of a Power Plant Control Room (not the one where I worked):
See all those lights? Now everything is on the computer. That way if some foreign terrorist group decides they want to shut down the electric grid, all they have to do is hack into the system and down it goes. They couldn’t do that when the control room looked like this.
It seemed that being in the control room was out of time. It didn’t matter what time of the day you went in the control room. In the morning, the afternoon, even at two in morning. It always seemed the same. There were always two control room operators sitting or standing at their posts. The Shift Supervisor was sitting in his office, or was standing somewhere nearby. Other operators were walking in and out going on their rounds. I think the Control Room operators only knew that it was time to go home because the next shift would show up to take their place.
Electricians on the other hand, had their own kind of timekeeping. Well, not all of them… ok…. well… maybe just me…. I used an oscilloscope a lot when I was working on the precipitator controls, and so very small amounts of time meant a lot to me. For instance… The regular 60 cycle electricity in your house goes from zero to about 134 volts and then back to zero about every 8 and 1/3 thousands of a second (or .00833333…).
I will talk about it later, but when you are testing tripping relays, even as little as one thousandth of a second can be important. So, telling time with an oscilloscope can vary widely.
Then there were those timekeeping Power Plant Men that kept time by how long it was going to be to retirement. It was more of a countdown. I remember one Power Plant Man saying that he only had 21 more years and then he was outta there. An even more sad story was when Charles Lay at Muskogee who was 63 asked me to figure out his retirement because he wanted to retire in 2 years. Well….. sad to say… He had only been working there for 3 or so years, so his retirement package wasn’t going to be much and had never put anything into a 401k or an IRA.
Those who spent their lives working at the plant were able to retire with great benefits. It wasn’t like a union with all the healthcare and stuff, but the company did offer a very good retirement plan for those that had been there for the long haul. I suppose at this point they are measuring time in terms of their lifetime.
What it boils down to is that some Power Plant Men measured their life one-day-at-a-time, while others just looked at the entire time of their life as one time. Some looked forward to a time when they would be able to rest, while others enjoyed their work each day.
When I think about time, I realize that an infinite number of things can take place each second. Yet, a lifetime can go by without ever grasping what is important and what is fleeting. When I think back at the time that I spent working at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, what I feel is that I was blessed by the presence of such great men and women and it was time well spent.
Comments from Original Post:
Originally posted November 16, 2013:
Most of us have watched the Alfred Hitchcock Thriller “The Birds” at least once in their life. When I was young it used to come on TV around Thanksgiving about the same time that Wizard of Oz would rerun. What a mix of movies to watch after eating turkey in one of our Italian relative’s house in Kansas City as I was growing up. During those years of sitting passively by watching the birds gang up on the humans, it never occurred to me that some day I might take part in my own private version of “Blackbird Wars” amid the playground equipment found in a typical Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
A tale like this is best starts out with the line, “It was a cold and windy night…” That was close. My story begins with, “It was a dark and cold winter morning…” Unit 1 was on overhaul. That meant that it was offline while we climbed inside the inner workings of the boiler, precipitator, Turbine and Generator in order to perform routine yearly maintenance. Being on overhaul also meant that we came to work earlier in the morning and we left later in the evening. Since it was in the middle of the winter, it also meant that we came to work in the dark, and we left for home in the dark…. These were dark times at the Power Plant for those of us on long shifts.
At this time in my career I was working on Unit 1 precipitator by myself. I had my own agenda on what needed to be done. Sometimes I would have contractors working with me, but for some reason, we had decided that we didn’t need them for this overhaul. Maybe because it was an extra long one and I would have plenty of time to complete my work before it was over.
I can remember grabbing my tool bucket and heading for the precipitator roof to begin my day of calibrating vibrators and checking rappers to make sure they were operating correctly. I was wearing my winter coat over my coveralls because it was cold outside. In Oklahoma, 20 degrees was pretty cold. 20 degrees in Oklahoma with 30 mile an hour winds gives you a pretty low wind chill…. which chills you to the bone.
I had a red stocking liner on my hardhat that wrapped around my forehead that kept my head warm.
All bundled up, I left the shop through the Turbine Room basement and headed toward the breezeway between Unit 1 and 2. I climbed the stairs up the Surge Bin Tower until I had reached the landing where you can go to either Unit 1 or 2 precipitator roofs. Using rote memory after having performed this same task every morning for the past month and a half, I turned toward Unit 1.
The Precipitator is a big box that takes the ash out of the exhaust from boiler. It drops the ash into hoppers where it is transported to the coalyard into large silos, where trucks haul it away to make concrete for roads and buildings. The precipitator roof is full of large transformers (84 of them), 168 vibrators that shake the 29568 high voltage wires in the precipitator, and 672 rappers that bang on the 7560 metal plates. The transformers are used to collect the ash using “static cling”. The rappers and vibrators are used to knock the ash into the hoppers.
The Precipitator roof is a very noisy place when all the rappers and vibrators are running. It is covered with a sheet metal roof. It wasn’t originally designed that way, but someone with foresight thought that it would be a great idea to insulate the precipitator roof. In doing so, they needed to add a roof to keep the insulation from being exposed to the weather.
It wasn’t noisy that morning as I reached the ladder and quickly tied my tool bucket to a rope hanging down from above. It was dark, and lonely and quiet. Well. There were some lights, but this morning, the light from the precipitator didn’t seem to shine much as I pulled myself up the ladder. When I reached the top I turned around and sat at the top of the ladder and began pulling my tool bucket up.
It was at that moment when I realized that something was much different than usual. I had spent a couple of years working on the precipitator roof and inside and I had become friends with each of the transformers, and I even knew the unique sounds of each of the vibrators. I could tell when a rapper wasn’t rapping correctly. There would be a slight sucking sound as the rapper was drawn up into the cylinder…. There was a slight pause, then it would drop onto an anvil that was connected to the plate rack. But this morning everything was turned off. Yet, I could feel that there was something wrong.
There was a strange hum. I was trying to place it as I grabbed each foot of rope and pulled my bucket closer. There was more than a hum… There was a weird muffled sound all around. I had a chill down my back as if I was being watched. I quickly grabbed the handle of the bucket and stood up and turned around. I was ready to spot whoever it was that was spying on me!
What I saw immediately sucked the breath out of me. The precipitator is 200 feet wide and 120 feet long. Every inch as far as I could see was black. Not just the equipment, but the air itself.
During the night a cold wave had moved into Oklahoma from the north. With it, it had brought a horde of blackbirds. Thousands upon thousands of them. They had found refuge from the cold blasting wind in the precipitator roof enclosure. Safe and warm and undisturbed….. That is, until I arrived.
It was as if the blackbirds had discovered me at the same time I had found them. They suddenly burst into a frenzy.
I stood there in wonder for a few moments watching the swirling mass of blackness obscuring what little light was given off by the 100 watt Mercury Vapor lights. As I began to move toward the walkway the flying mass of feathers parted so that the birds kept a safe distance from me. As I grabbed the rungs of the ladder, I suddenly realized why keeping an aviary at a Power Plant is not a good idea. A warm moist gooey mass squished between my fingers as I pulled myself up the ladder and onto the walkway.
I took a few steps to where a package of WypAlls was laying on the walkway and pulled out a couple of heavy duty sheets of durable wiping material:
I decided that I was going to try to chase the birds out of the shelter so I began waving a couple of rags around as I walked down the walkway. All it did was cause the birds to bunch up in corners away from me. They would circle back around behind me. So, when I reached the other end of the roof, I climbed down to one of the rapper control cabinets and powered it up.
The rappers and vibrators began their music. A medley of humming and clanking. I went to each of the 14 cabinets on the roof turning on each of them until the entire roof had risen to a symphony of buzzing and banging. Music to my ears. After wiping down a few places where I needed to work, I spent some time testing and taking notes so that I could make adjustments in the control cabinet after I had made my way around each rapper and vibrator in that area. Then I left for break.
The sun was now up and daylight was shining through the openings in the precipitator roof. When I returned from break the hoard of blackbirds had decided to continue their journey south.
There was one time when I was working as an electrician at the Power Plant where I felt close to being a bird myself. It was when I had to travel to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack to repair some equipment. I was not only at the top of the smokestack, but I was literally sitting on the edge of it and shimming my way around it.
Why me? Well. Our A Foreman, Bill Bennett summed it up like this…. “Have Kevin do it. He likes heights.” Sure. Just like he said I liked to get dirty, so put me in a coal bin to fix a proximity switch. Or, just like he said that I liked climbing in holes in the ground, so I was assigned the job of fixing all the manhole pumps at the plant. What could I say? At some point, he was right. I couldn’t argue with him. Especially since he would call me a “scamp” with such endearment (See the post “Tales of a Tall Power Plant A Foreman“).
Well. You learn something new every day when working at a power plant, and I sure learned something that day. Quite a few things. I already knew that inside the tall concrete smoke stack was another smoke stack made out of brick. The outer stack would sway in the strong Oklahoma wind, while the brick stack inside would remain steady. On a windy day, at the very top, the stack would sway as much as six inches.
On this particular day I rode on top of the stack elevator to the top so that I could climb up onto the rim where the lightning rods were placed about 6 feet apart around the top.
When the wind is blowing there is a certain amount of a difference in the electric potential at the top of the stack as there is on the ground, so you could hear a slight crackling sound around the lightning rods even though it was a clear sunny day. I was wearing a safety belt and as I stopped to work, I would clip the lanyard to the closest lightning rod knowing full well that if I decided to jump off the stack, the lightning rod would just bend and the lanyard would just slide off the end.
I was not in any mood to do any jumping that day. I was there to fix jumpers instead. You see, there is a metal cap on the top rim of the smoke stack. Actually, there is a metal rim on the top of both smoke stacks. The concrete one and the brick stack inside the concrete stack. And there was supposed to be a set of jumpers around the top of the stacks connecting the two metal caps together electrically. This way, if perchance a bolt of lightning hit the inside stack, then the electricity would be routed to the outer rim and down the large grounding cables to the ground grid 500 feet below.
As I shimmied around the top of the stack, I became aware that as far as I could see… clear to the horizon, there wasn’t anything higher than me. At first this threw me a little off balance, because I usually focused on other objects to help me keep my bearings. In this case, only the other smoke stack was as high as me. So, I focused on the rim where I was sitting and tried as hard as I could to ignore the fact that I was a tenth of a mile up in the air.
I removed the broken jumpers and replaced them with the new ones. I didn’t think these new jumpers would last long considering that as the stack swayed back and forth, it would quickly wear the jumpers in two. But, there was some regulation or something that said they had to be replaced, and so that was why I was there.
I noticed while I was working on the top of the stack that birds were flying around below me. Actually, most of them were way below me. Few birds would fly as high as the stacks, and they were usually the predatory types that liked to swoop down on unsuspecting pigeons below. It felt a little odd to be working and looking down at birds flying when it is so normal to look up to see birds. From up there, a large flock of birds like those in “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock didn’t look so intimidating. They were nothing but small dots far below.
Comment from original post:
Originally Posted April 18, 2014:
When I was an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma I inherited working on the Precipitators from Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist in the electric shop. One time after I had been struggling with the performance of the precipitator trying to lower the emissions of Fly Ash going out of the smoke stacks, I encountered a very odd situation.
One morning as I was walking out to the precipitator as I passed the Unit 1 boiler I noticed that a couple of tanker trailers were sitting outside the bottom ash area. Hoses had been attached to one of them and were running up the side of the boiler. What looked like a pump was running. I didn’t have a clue what was in the tanker. I figured it was just some routine thing that power plants did every so often to make things more interesting. You wouldn’t believe how many times Power Plant Men would come up with new and interesting things just to keep me in awe. (Of course, I am easily amazed).
Anyway, I didn’t really pay much attention to the tanker on the way to the precipitator. I just walked around the tankers that were there and entered the precipitator switchgear and up the stairs to the Precipitator control room where 84 control cabinets were waiting for my attention. On the way into the switchgear I had glanced up at the smoke stacks and noticed that the exhaust from the boiler was looking pretty good.
As I walked passed the control cabinets that controlled the back of the precipitator, I was surprised to find that they were powered up all the way and there wasn’t any sparking happening. Well. I thought. Maybe they are at low load and not much is happening inside the precipitator this morning.
As I walked between the two rows of cabinets toward the cabinets that controlled the transformers near the intake of the precipitator, my surprise turned into astonishment. I had never seen the front cabinets powered up to such a high level with no sparking. Everything was 180 degrees from the way I had left the cabinets the evening before when I was struggling to adjust the power to lower the emissions.
After going through each of the cabinets adjusting the power levels higher only to find that I was able to easily increase the performance even further, I returned to the electric shop for break. When I arrived in the electric shop office I told Charles that something very strange had happened this morning and I’m trying to figure it out, because all of the sudden the precipitator was operating at maximum efficiency.
After break I walked back out to the precipitator control room past the tanker trailers and found that everything was still running smoothly. “My work is done” I thought. I decided to go to the top of the precipitator and start working on fixing malfunctioning vibrators for the rest of the day.
I worked on the precipitator roof until noon, and then went back to the shop for lunch. I sat with Charles as we talked about movies we had seen. Charles was telling me about how the song for Ghostbusters had been on the radio. When the song said,
“If there’s something strange
in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call?
Charles’ son Tim (not having seen the movie) thought that instead of saying “Ghostbusters” they were saying “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!” Besides being exceptionally cute, it was also an honor for Charles for him to hear Tim sing, “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!”
After lunch was over I went back out to the precipitator control room to check on the cabinets one more time. To my surprise when I walked through the row of cabinets, they were sparking again as they had been the day before! Not quite as bad, but bad enough that I had to go through the cabinets and adjust them back down almost to the levels where I had them before.
It took longer to adjust the cabinets down than it did to raise them in the morning. When break time came along, I was too engrossed in adjusting the cabinets to notice, so I continued working through break. It must have taken me close to three hours. At that time I was still using a small screwdriver on some potentiometers inside each of the cabinets to make the adjustments.
About the time I finished, all the sudden something happened. The cabinets began acting the way I had seen them in the morning! All the sparking stopped and the cabinets began powering up to the highest point they could go based on where I had set them. Ok. Now I needed to find out what was going on!
I walked out of the precipitator and headed for the Control Room. I walked past the tanker trailers and noticed that the pump was running again. I hadn’t thought about it, but when I had walked by them a few hours earlier they had been turned off. This was curious. I figured that it was more than a coincidence.
Pat Quiring was the Unit 1 Control Room operator when I arrived. I asked him what has been going on with Unit 1. I explained to him that when I arrived in the morning I found the precipitator running smoothly, then later it wasn’t, and just a few minutes ago, something happened again and there it was. Pat said two things were going on that day.
One thing was that we had been burning a pile of sand that had been soaked with oil. They had been mixing it with the coal at the coalyard and blowing it into the boiler with the pulverized coal in order to dispose of the hazardous waste. Hmm.. This was a possibility. I couldn’t see how the sand would make a difference, but maybe the mixture of the chemicals in the oil had something to do with it.
Then I asked him. “What about those tankers on the side of the boiler? Why are they there?” Pat said that we were also burning Vertan. Well, not “burning” exactly. We were destroying it in the boiler, because it was chemical waste that needed to be disposed and it is easily destroyed into it’s chemical components in the heat of the boiler.
“Vertan? What’s Vertan?” I asked Pat. He said it was some chemical used to clean boiler tubes. These tankers had been sent to our plant from another plant that had just had the boiler tubes cleaned, and we were just burning it off to get rid of it. They had a schedule they were using to burn the Vertan. They couldn’t just get rid of it all at once because it caused a buildup in the economizer that caused the airflow to be affected through the tail end of the boiler.
So, I wondered, maybe this has to do with airflow. Diverting the airflow to different parts of the precipitator could definitely affect things. The cabinets out in the middle of the precipitator definitely had different electrical properties than those out on the edge.
I suddenly realized that this was 1988 and the Internet was not readily available to the typical user, and the World Wide Web still had a few years before it was widely going to be used. Frustrated that I couldn’t just go “Google” something for another ten years, I did the next best thing that I could do. I decided to pay a visit to our Power Plant Doctor! I wrote about Doctor George Pepple in the post “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. He was the head Power Plant Chemist.
I went to the Chemistry Lab and found George working away on some diabolical experiment. No. Not really, he was probably just testing some water samples. When Dr. Pepple was working on any kind of chemical test, he did it with such mastery and grace that it always reminded me of a mad scientist.
I asked George about Vertan. He explained to me that it was a chemical that was mixed in water and pumped through the boiler tubes to clean out calcium buildup and the like. I mentioned to him that I thought it may be affecting the operation of the precipitator and I was curious to know more about it.
Professor Pepple then explained to me that Vertan was called TetraAmmonia EDTA. EDTA? Yeah, he said, “Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid”. He said this just like my Animal Learning Professor, Dr. Anger used to say “Scopalamine” (See the Post “Poison Pill for Power Plant Pigeons“).
I wrote down this information and I continued monitoring the progress of the precipitator throughout the rest of the week. Each time the pumps were running on the Vertan trailers, the precipitator operated as if it was new and completely clean. Each time the pumps turned off, the precipitator reverted back to the regular mode of operation, only it would be a little better each time. By the time all the Vertan had been destroyed in the boiler, the precipitator was running very well on it’s own.
Over the weekend I went to the University Library at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and Looked up TetraAmmonia EDTA. Not much had been written about it. I was able to find an article about it in a Journal. It had the chemical composition.
A few years later when the Internet became available I was able to find a better model of the Vertan molecule:
I mentioned that at the same time that the Vertan was being burned in the boiler, we were also blowing contaminated sand into the boiler in order to burn off oil that had soaked into the sand. At one point, I had to go work on the head end of the number 10 long belt to find a 480 volt ground in a circuit. When I arrived, I could see where the oil from the sand had caused the coal to cake up on the belt and cause a big mess where the conveyor dumped the coal onto the belt 12.
There didn’t seem to be any correlation between the times that sand was being burned. The process for burning the sand lasted a lot longer than burning off the Vertan. By the time that the sand was burned off, the precipitator was humming away operating at near maximum efficiency. So, it seemed as if the sand didn’t have anything to do with the increase in performance.
I was convinced that burning Vertan in the boiler was more convincing. If not Vertan, then just injecting water could have been a factor. Since the Vertan was in water and they were pumping large amounts of water into the fireball in order to destroy the Vertan. Maybe the increase in Humidity had something to do with the improvement.
A couple of years later when the “We’ve Got The Power” Program was underway (See the Post, “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“). Terry Blevins and I were investigating the idea that Vertan could be used to improve the performance of the precipitator. We found that Ammonia Injection was used to treat Precipitators.
This is done by injecting ammonia into the intake of the precipitator to treat it when it was performing poorly. This reinforced our idea that Vertan was the main reason that the precipitator had responded favorably during that time since Vertan broke down into Ammonia at high temperatures. Even then, we didn’t exclude the possibility that the increase of humidity may have also played a role.
Another team had the idea that injecting sand into the intake of the precipitator would improve the performance of the precipitator by sandblasting the ash off of the plates. They had seen this happen when sand had been burned earlier. I had rejected this idea as being viable. I knew that the velocity of the airflow in the precipitator was no faster than 4 miles an hour. Hardly fast enough to keep grains of sand airborne.
It was worth a try though, and the other team pursued the idea and ran a test by injecting the sand. It definitely wouldn’t hurt anything to try. The idea was rejected by the Steering Committee (Ron Kilman), based on my input, even though something extraordinary happened during the test. When this happened, I became the instant enemy of the team leader.
I will cover this dilemma in a later post (possibly next week). For now I will just leave you with the knowledge that because I had chosen Vertan over Sand, I had definitely made an enemy of a True Power Plant Man.
Originally posted May 9, 2014:
There were times when I was working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I wondered if there was anything that we couldn’t do. Surrounded by True Power Plant Men I found that when we were facing a seemingly impossible task, a Power Plant Man would come up with an extremely creative solution to the problem. One such example was during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I talked about this program in an early post called “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” so I won’t go into detail here about the program itself. I will just say that we broke out into teams to find creative ways to operate more efficiently, and to cut costs.
I was a team leader of our team, and looking back I must have had two criteria in mind when I picked the team members that would be on my team. The first would have been that they were True Power Plant Men (and woman) with a higher than average intelligence. The second criteria would have been that they were friends of mine. I say this, because everyone on my team fit the bill.
During out team meetings, Terry Blevins would often say some bombastic statement that the average person may be inclined to dismiss immediately as being absurd. I say that because I remember more than once thinking that what Terry had just said wouldn’t amount to much. As it turned out, our biggest money saving ideas were those truly bombastic statements that Terry was making. One such idea had to do with the heaters on the precipitators that kept the hoppers and the insulators on the roof too hot to collect moisture.
The Precipitator is a very large box that takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack (how many times have I made that statement in the last two years?). Anyway, the exhaust from the boiler after the coal has been turned to ash in the fireball in the boiler contains a large amount of moisture. The last thing you want to happen is for the temperature of the flue gas to fall below the dew point. When that happens, moisture collects on the structure in a form of… well… of Acid Rain. Basically eating away the precipitator and the duct work from the inside.
Somewhere along the line, it had been determined that the dewpoint of the flue gas was not higher than 250 degrees. So, as long as the structure was at least 250 degrees, no moisture would be collected. Four heaters were mounted on each of the 84 hoppers (on each of the two precipitators) and heaters were mounted on the roof around each of the insulators that held up the wire racks on both ends.
When Terry walked into the office to attend one of our first “We’ve Got The Power” team meetings, he said, I think we could save a lot of money if we did something about the heaters on the precipitator. — He may remember being greeted with blank stares (at least from me). Um. Ok. Heaters on the precipitator. I knew they were everywhere, but I never gave them much thought.
I think Terry could tell right away that I hadn’t taken his idea seriously. I don’t know. Maybe he was bothered by the sound of my eyeballs rolling around in circles as if someone has conked me on the head. So, he explained his idea further. He pointed out that the roof heaters on just one of the precipitators used about 211 kilowatt-hours and the hopper heaters used about 345 kilowatt-hours. Together it is more than half a Megawatt of power. — This definitely caught our attention. That meant that between both of the Precipitators (since we had two boilers at our plant), we could possibly save over a Megawatt of electricity every hour we could shut down the heaters.
After discussing all the aspects of the idea, we decided that in order for the idea to have any merit, we had to know if the dew point really was around 250 degrees, or was it possibly a lot lower. 250 degrees seemed high to begin with since the boiling point of water is 212 degrees. If lower, then we could have a workable idea. Originally, I wanted to tackle the task of finding the dew point. So, I went about it in a Science Experiment sort of way.
I figured that if we were able to lower the temperature of the flue gas to a known temperature below the dewpoint, and by knowing the volume of the gas, and the amount of liquid we could condense out of it, we could determine (possibly) the dew point. So, I brought my Graham Condenser to work, and Scott Hubbard and I went up to the 250 foot landing on the smoke stack with the intent of sucking a known amount of exhaust from the smoke stack while the unit was at full load.
We would run it through the condenser while running cool water through it to lower the temperature.
I could measure the output of the vacuum pump by filling up an inverted Erlemeyer flask with water and then letting the flue gas displace the water. — I always loved doing experiments like this in the 9th grade science glass with Mr. Godfrey our Physical Science Teacher (Donna Westhoff, who may sometimes read this blog was in my class and sat right behind me).
Ok. Side Story, since I mentioned Donna Westhoff from the 9th grade 1974-75 school year.
I knew that Donna’s father was a fire fighter, because one day during a special outing when we were with a group of bicycling Junior High School students and a teacher, we stopped at Donna Westhoff’s house to get a drink of water. On the walls in her house were different types of fire fighting treasures. Donna explained that her father was a fire fighter… That was the Spring of 1975 in Columbia, Missouri
Fast forward 16 years later (1991) at the Power Plant in the middle of nowhere in North Central Oklahoma. Just about a year after the story I’m telling now…. I left the logic room and went to catch the elevator to the Control room. When the doors opened, Tony Mena was in there with a bunch of college age students giving them a tour of the plant. I entered the elevator and turned around to face the door as it closed.
As I was standing there, I suddenly became aware that the person standing next to me was staring right at me. So, I turned to see who it was. Standing next to me was someone that looked very familiar wearing a big grin as if she knew who I was. I recognized her, and while my mind was going through filing cabinets of memories trying to index this particular person, I asked her, “Don’t I know you?” She shook her head and said, “I’m Donna Westhoff!”
As the elevator door opened and we stepped out, Donna and I began talking about what we were both doing there. She was surprised to find that I had become an electrician at a power plant instead of some kind of scientist in a lab somewhere. Donna was going to school in Stillwater where one of the best Fire Fighting Schools in the country is found. Following in her father’s footsteps, I thought. After a while I could tell that Tony was getting a little perturbed that the wisdom he was imparting about the fire protection system on the Turbine Generator wasn’t being absorbed by Donna, so I cut our conversation short. It turned out that a very good friend of hers lived just two houses from where we lived, and her friend’s mother was my landlord. Peggy Pickens.
Ok. End of the side story, and another example of how I occasionally run into friends from my childhood in the most unexpected places (see the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“).
So. Scott Hubbard and I tried using the Graham Condenser and the Erlenmeyer Flask, but we quickly found out that this wasn’t big enough, to capture a large enough quantity. So, we increased the size of the condenser by winding a garden hose around inside of a water bucket and filling it with ice. Then we captured all the water that condensed in the hose.
When it finally came down to it. Even though it was fun trying to do this experiment halfway up the 500 foot smoke stack, I never was able to figure out how to calculate the dew point given the data I had collected.
That’s when we decided to look at dew point sensors in the parts catalogs. If we could stick a probe down into the precipitator and measure the dew point directly in the flue gas, that would be best. After looking at a few in the catalog, Terry Blevins said he thought he could make one. So, he went to work.
The next day he came in with an inch and a half conduit with hoses hanging out the back and a homemade sensor on the other end. I won’t go into detail how the sensor was built because some day Terry may want to patent this thing because, as it turned out, it was so sensitive that it could detect my breathe from about a foot away. If I breathed out of my mouth toward the sensor, it would detect the moisture in my breath. This was perfect!
We went to work on the roof of the precipitator sticking the probe down into different sections of the precipitator. It not only measured the moisture, it also had thermocouples on it that we used to accurately measure the temperature of the sensor as we varied the temperature by blowing cold air through the conduit using the same ice bucket and hose from before.
I could go into a lot of detail about how we performed our experiments, but it would only excite me and bore you. So, let me just say that we came up with two very important results. First of all, at full load when the humidity outside was at 100% the dew point was around 150 degrees! A full 100 degrees below what the plant had originally assumed. This was very important, because a lot of energy was spent trying to keep the flue gas above 250 degrees, and just by lowering it down to 210 degrees, still a safe amount above the dew point, that extra energy could be used to create electricity.
The second thing that we discovered was that the middle sections of the precipitator was a lot cooler inside than the outer fields. We realized that this was caused by the air preheater coils that rotated between the flue gas and the Primary Air intake duct. This took the last amount of heat possible from the exhaust and transferred it to the air going into the boiler so that it was already hot when it was used to burn the coal. Because of the way the air preheater coils rotated, the part of the duct toward the middle of the precipitator was a lot cooler than the air on the outside.
Lower temperatures in the precipitator increased the performance, so we decided that if we could mix the air around as it was going into the precipitator so that the outer edges were cooler, then it would increase the overall performance. One suggestion was to put a mobile home in the duct work because in Oklahoma it was a known fact that mobile homes attracted tornadoes and it would probably cause a tornadic reaction that would mix up the flue gases. — We just couldn’t figure out how to convince management to put a mobile home in the duct between the economizer and the precipitator.
Thanks to Terry’s handy dandy Dew Point Sensor, we were able to prove that the hopper and roof heaters could be lowered to where we set the thermostat at 180 degrees. At that setting the heaters that used to always run at 250 degrees would remain off anytime the ambient temperature was above 45 degrees. In Oklahoma, that is most of the year. This turned out to save over $350,000 per year in energy savings at a cost of about 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Not to mention the unknown savings from being able to lower the flue gas temperature by 40 degrees.
Originally posted May 17, 2014:
Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.
One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.
The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.
Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.
Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.
I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.
When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.
I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.
Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.
When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.
When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.
Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.
I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait) See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.
With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.
While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.
Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.
By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.
The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.
The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.
So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.
As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”
So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.
Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….
George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.
Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.
The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.
This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.
You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).
Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.
Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.
This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….
Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.
I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….
In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.
In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.
Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.
Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.
I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.
It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.
He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?
The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.
When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.
That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…
I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.
Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.
Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.
Comments from the Original post
Originally posted September 20, 2014.
I remember the moment when it dawned on me that I may be witnessing an incredible Coal-fired Power Plant Conspiracy! I had just walked into the Control Room one morning in 1990 at the plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw the Shift Supervisor Jack Maloy and Merl Wright in a state of high concentration.
I always knew something was up when Jack Maloy was standing behind the large blue monitors near the Unit 1 Main Electric Board watching the big picture while the Control Room Operator Merl Wright was at the Main Control Panel turning knobs, tapping indicators to make sure they had the correct readings, twisting switches, holding them until red lights turned green…
Where had I seen this before? Something was telling me that everything wasn’t as it seemed. Sure… there was an emergency going on. There was no doubt about that. I knew that between Jack Maloy and Merl Wright, the current problem of the main boiler drum losing water was quickly going to be solved. I knew that Oklahoma City wasn’t going to experience any blackouts that day. This was a Cracker Jack team! But I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this somewhere before, and it was gnawing at my common sense.
Here is a picture of Jack Maloy’s team at the time:
I backed off in a corner to observe the situation while a crowd of operators began to grow to watch the master Shift Supervisor and his faithful Control Room Operator divert a disaster. Merl picked up the walkie talkie from the desk and called Larry Tapp ( Larry is the man in the light blue shirt in the front row in the middle. He’s the only one in the front row that is actually standing, while the rest are down on their knees while the picture is being taken).
Larry was on the boiler opening and closing valves. John Belusko, the Unit Supervisor was out there with him. I can’t tell you what magic they were performing, since I think that’s top secret. I figured that, because the operators seemed to be talking in code. Merl would key the microphone on the walkie talkie and say something like, “Larry, 45”. Larry would reply with something like “Quarter Turn”. “Position?”, “18 as far as I can tell”.
I translated the coded words to say: “….crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it around the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped and all was safe.” (Something I had read in Moby Dick, by Herman Melville).
Jack paced back and forth behind the counter with the monitors. Then he stopped and read the paper that was streaming out of the alarm printer as it continued humming as the paper piled up on the floor in front of him. Jack was a heavy smoker, and I could tell that right then he would rather be standing out on the T-G floor having a smoke at that moment. Before cigarettes were banned in the control room, Jack would have been pointing at that board with the cigarette.
When the water level began rising in the Boiler Drum, I could see the relieve on everyone’s face. I supposed it meant that a major catastrophe had been avoided due to the intricate knowledge that each operator possessed and their ability to quickly respond to any situation. This made the uneasy feeling I was having even worse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this before. Just like Deja Vu.
It wasn’t till about a week later when my mom asked me if I knew someone at work named Jack Maloy. She had been talking to a friend of hers from Church named Louise and she mentioned that her husband worked at the Power Plant north of town. I replied by saying that I knew Jack Maloy well. He is a Shift Supervisor. She said that his wife Louise told her that Jack was a real nice person, but she wished that he would go to Church more. She hoped he would come around to that some day.
Then my mom mentioned something that brought back that feeling of uneasiness again. She said that the Maloys had moved to Oklahoma in 1979 from California. I thought that was odd that Jack had only arrived in Oklahoma in 1979, as he was a Shift Supervisor for as long as I could remember. Maybe even as far back as 1979 when I first worked at the plant as a summer help.
In that case, he would have been hired as a Shift Supervisor straight from California. — That seemed odd, since the majority of Shift Supervisors had worked their way up from Auxiliary Operator to Control Room Operator to Unit Supervisor, then finally to Shift Supervisor. Why would Jack be hired fresh from California? And how did Jack know so much about being a Shift Supervisor at our plant so quickly?
Then it dawned on me. You see…. It all went back to a lunch break about a year earlier when Charles Foster, an Electric Foreman and I were eating lunch in the Electric Shop office. When we didn’t know what to talk about, our favorite past time was to talk about movies and TV shows we had watched. We would describe the movie in detail to each other. On this particular day, Charles was doing the talking, and he was telling me about a movie that had to do with a Power Plant in California (yeah. California).
As Charles described the story, he told me that there was this Shift Supervisor named Jack (yeah… like our Shift Supervisor… Jack Maloy), and he was such a good Shift Supervisor that he could tell that there was something wrong with the Boiler Feed Pumps just by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate. Yeah. He was that good.
Charles went on to tell me about how at one part of the movie the water level was dropping in a tank and it was imperative that they raise the water level or some big disaster was going to happen. — Now you see where I’m going with this? Yeah. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? At that time, the incident in the Control Room hadn’t happened yet with Jack Maloy.
The movie sounded interesting so, when I had the opportunity, we rented the VHS tape from the video store and I watched it. Sure enough. This is what I saw….
Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:
Very similar don’t you think? Two Shift Supervisors named Jack from California with the exact same hairstyle. Two Control Room Operators that look like Wilford Brimley. Coincidence?
Even Wilford Brimley’s hairline is the same as Merl Wright’s hairline!
For those of you who don’t know yet. The name of the movie is: The China Syndrome. It is about a nuclear Power Plant that has a near meltdown:
Need more? Ok. — hey this is fun….. So…. This movie came out in 1979. The same year that Jack Maloy shows up in Oklahoma from California. Obviously an experienced Power Plant Shift Supervisor. Merl Wright went to work 10 months earlier in 1978 at an older power plant just down the road (The old Osage plant), and then shortly after, was transferred to the same plant with Jack Maloy, only to end up working for Jack.
Need more? The China Syndrome Movie came out on March 16, 1979. Jack Maloy began working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma February 26, 1979, just two and a half weeks earlier.
I mentioned this coincidence to Charles Foster one day, but as far as I know, I never mentioned it again to anyone else… Maybe Scott Hubbard, since he was my best friend as well…
So, here are my thoughts about this….
What if Jack Maloy was the Shift Supervisor being portrayed in the movie “The China Syndrome”? He needed to move out of California just before the movie came out just in case someone found out his true identity. Being a Shift Supervisor at a Nuclear Power Plant, he would surely be in high demand at any Electric Company. Our particular Power Plant was in an out-of-the-way location. Sort of like a “witness protection program”.
I don’t know Merl’s earlier background, so I can still think that he moved to Oklahoma from California and began working for the Electric Company on April 24, 1978 just two weeks before I moved to Oklahoma from Columbia, Missouri. Since I don’t know any better, I can continue thinking this. It makes it more fun that way. — Of course, Merl, who may on occasion read this blog, may correct me in the comment section below…
So, what was it that I was experiencing that morning when I walked in the control room? I mean… What was I “really” experiencing? If, suppose, Jack and Merl really are the two that were in the control room when the “China Syndrome” almost occurred? Was it just an innocent crisis where the water level somehow decided to drop to a dangerously low level all by itself because of a faulty valve that was supposed to be closed, but was really open?
Was Jack and Merl trying to relive the excitement they had felt years earlier when they worked in a nuclear plant and they almost melted a hole all the way from there to China? Was this what experienced bored Power Plant Heroes do during downtime? I suppose it’s possible. It could have been a drill drummed up to test the acuity of the operators. To keep them on their toes. All “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” just like on the Pequod in Moby Dick.
Something to think about.
Today Merl still lives in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Jack Maloy has moved to Cape Carol, Florida with his wife Louise. I suppose now that he has more time on his hand, hopefully he has given up smoking and is now making his wife happy by attending Church regularly. We can only hope he is at peace, on the opposite side of the United States from California so he doesn’t accidentally run into his old cohorts.
We are all glad that on his way to Florida from California that Jack decided to stop for 25 or so years in Oklahoma to Supervise the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the middle of the countryside…. As Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times said of the movie “The China Syndrome” — “Stunning and Skillfully Executed!” — Yeah. That describes Merl and Jack. Either way… Conspiracy or not. These two men are my heroes!
I wish Merl and Jack the best rest of their lives!