Tag Archives: Cigarette Smoke

What’s That Strange Power Plant Smell?

Originally posted July 18, 2014

Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle?” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”

Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.

One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.

 

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.

As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.

I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew the dust off of myself with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.

Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.

As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.

After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.

I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”

He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.

One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.

I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile through a pipe to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.

It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.

I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.

Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:

 

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.

Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.

I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.

So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.

When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.

I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.

George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.

Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.

Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire.  He called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.

When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I left the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.

Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….

There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.

I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.

I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.

But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.

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Power Plant Grows Up in Smoke

Originally posted September 13, 2014.

I chalked it up to being a trouble maker when someone approached me in the electric shop one day to ask me if I would be an “Advocate of Change”. I figured this person asked me either because he thought I couldn’t resist fighting for a cause, or because he thought he might enjoy watching me make a fool out of myself. Either way, I accepted the challenge.

Last night I was watching TV with my son. We decided to watch a show where “If we weren’t careful, we might learn something.” It was a cartoon from my childhood called “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids”. The episode was called “Smoke gets in your Hair”. The main theme was about the health hazards from smoking cigarettes. Nothing like Educational TV on a Friday Night. I told my son I had a Power Plant Story about that…

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had recently made a change to the “Smoking Policy” at the power plant. New rules went in place that restricted smoking in the office areas. Specifically, it made any area that had a lower ceiling and was enclosed off limit to smokers.

This may seem like a normal restriction today, but this was January, 1990. Before that, smoking in an office was not out of the ordinary. In fact, in the A foreman’s office there was such a stink about not allowing smoking that a compromise was reached (at least for a while) where probes were mounted on the ceiling that was supposed to clean the smoke out of the air by ionizing the particles, causing them to stick to the walls and ceiling, and floor, and…. well… and you…

Smoke Ionizer

Smoke Ionizer

This became evident a few months later when the walls began turning darker and the ceiling tiles turned from white to a smoky shade of gray.

The company offered smoking cessation classes for anyone who wanted to quit smoking. I think as a whole, our medical insurance rates went down if we took these measures. Back then, it was common to have an ashtray in every office and on the break room tables. It seems rather odd now to think about it after living in an “anti-smoking” culture for the past 25 years.

A few years earlier there was an electrician that had tried to make the electric shop a No Smoking area. At that time, there were 5 electricians that smoked as well as our A foreman Bill Bennett, who often came to the electric shop for his smoke break. Bill Bennett had made it clear then that the electric shop was going to remain a smoking area. Just not in the office or the lab.

Times had changed by 1991. Three smokers had retired and Diana Brien had just declared that her New Year’s resolution was that this time she was going to give up smoking for good. She had tried that a few times before, but with the encouragement from Bill, the first time a stressful situation came around, she would start back up again.

I think my fellow electrician had seen that this was the perfect opportunity to try again to make the electric shop a “No Smoking” area. With Dee giving up cigarettes, this left only Mike Rose as the only smoker in the electric shop. — Well… and Bill Bennett, but technically his office was upstairs in the main office area.

Mike Rose was not just a smoker. He was an avid smoker. When I was watching Fat Albert, there was a father of one of the characters that was a smoker. He coughed a lot, and at one point, went on a coughing jag. When I saw that, I turned to my son, and I said, “That’s when Mike Rose would reach for a cigarette.”

Mike Rose. A fair plant electrician, but a great family man!

Mike Rose

I used to marvel at how after having a coughing jag, barely able to catch his breath, the first thing Mike Rose would do while leaning against the counter was reach in his vest pocket and pull out a pack of cigarettes and quickly light up. — All that stress from coughing…

So, with Dee on the wagon, and only Mike on the verge of keeling over any moment from…. well…. it wasn’t only smoking that made Mike teeter… I approached Bill Bennett and told him that I thought that it was time that we made the electric shop a “No Smoking” area. Bill replied right back that it would be over his dead body before the electric shop would be a “No Smoking” area.

I pointed out that Dee had just decided to quit smoking and that left only Mike Rose as a smoker in the shop. Bill said, it still wouldn’t be fair to the smokers in the shop. I had polled the electricians, and there were at least 5 people would like the shop to be smoke-free. So, with only one smoker, and 5 that would rather not have smoking, what was more fair?

Bill refused to give in, so I told him I would take it to Tom Gibson, our Electrical Supervisor (Bill’s boss). Bill said, “Ok, but I’m not going to bend on this one.” Bill was a chain smoker, and I didn’t really expect him to agree, but this was only the first step.

I had found in the past that in dealing with Tom Gibson, it is best to have some facts in your back pocket. It didn’t do any good to just go up there and whine about something. So, I signed up with a group called “Oklahoma Smoke-Free Coalition”.

Smoke Free Oklahoma Button

Smoke Free Oklahoma Button

I called them (this was before the World Wide Web had become popular) and asked them if they could send me some information about the problems with second-hand smoke. I told them what I was trying to do, and they said they would send me some pamphlets about the hazards of smoking with statistics. I was surprised a week later when I received, not only a few pamphlets but a large tube with anti-smoking posters. I hung one up in the electric shop and would change it out each week.

One poster showed the lungs of a healthy person, then the lungs of a smoker, then the lungs of someone who had quit smoking for 10 years, to show that if you gave up smoking and lived long enough, you could clear yourself up after a while. I had 25 posters, so, I thought I could put one up a week for 6 months.

Signing up with the Oklahoma Smoke Free Coalition was a strange step for me. It gave me a strange feeling because I am normally a very conservative person who doesn’t believe in restricting individual rights whenever feasible. I believe that people should have the right to smoke cigarettes, even though I don’t like it when people smoke around me.

The problem I have with smoking is that, it’s not just an individual smoking their own cigarette. When someone smokes in a room, they are imposing their smoke on everyone else. I believe in the individual having the right to breathe smoke free air and they shouldn’t have to leave a room just because someone else comes in there with a lit cigarette.

I understood that a lot of the people that are active in groups like “Oklahoma Smoke-Free Coalition” have a liberal agenda to curb individual rights in a large range of areas. So, I felt I was straddling a fence that made me uneasy. I resolved to keep this effort focused on one thing…. making the electric shop a smoke free area.

Armed with some statistics about the hazards of breathing second hand smoke, I went to Tom Gibson’s office to make my stand… (well, to ask the question anyway). I told Tom about the situation in the electric shop. I explained that Mike Rose was the only “current” smoker in the shop and I listed the names of the people in the shop that would rather have a smoke free shop.

I told him that even though we had a high ceiling, which had made our shop exempt from the “Smoke Free” office policy, we still felt as if we were in an enclosed room. The air supply for the office and lab was in the shop, and when people smoked in the shop, the smoke ended up in the office area. I mentioned some statistics about how second hand smoke could be dangerous. I also told him I was prepared to take this all the way to Corporate Headquarters if necessary.

To my surprise, Tom didn’t push back. I told him that I had talked to Bill and that he refused to let the shop be smoke free. So, Tom said that he would talk to Bill about it. — Not wanting to lose any time, I asked Tom if we could order some No Smoking signs to put on the doors in the shop. He agreed.

Signs placed on the electric shop doors

Signs placed on the electric shop doors

I was in a hurry to get this done because I knew that any day now, Dee would be back to smoking again, and then I would lose all the leverage I had with only having one smoker in the shop. Even Dee had said that she would support a smoke free shop if that’s what we wanted. So, it really came down to Mike and Bill.

More than 20 years later, Oklahoma is still fighting the smoking fight. Mary Fallin, the Governor of the State, has said that she supports cities and towns crafting their own anti-smoking laws. Coming from a Conservative Governor, I feel like I was in good company when fighting for the shop to become smoke free.

I know a few people at the plant were upset with me for restricting their right to smoke in the electric shop. Well, they knew I was a troublemaker when they hired me…

Now it seems like the culture in the United States has shifted so that we recognize the rights of individuals are actually impaired by someone smoking in your face. Sometimes I can just pass a smoker walking down the side walk, and my clothes smell like cigarette smoke the rest of the day.

I think that either noses become more aware of cigarette smoke when you don’t breathe it every day, or the cigarette companies put something in the cigarette to make the smell stronger than before. Today, I can sit in my car with my windows up, and if a car is in front or alongside me at an intersection while we are waiting for the light to change, I can smell the cigarette being smoked in another car.

It’s not just me, my son can smell it too. We can usually smell the cigarette before we see the person smoking it. One of us will say…. “Someone’s smoking.” And we’ll whip our heads around looking for the car. I guess our noses are more sensitive these days.

I know this phenomenon hasn’t reached Europe like it has in the United States. When visiting there, it is like being back in the 1970’s here with people standing around smoking on the street corners, and in the restaurants.

On a side note… I have a story about my mom….

My mom would smoke cigarettes some times when I was growing up. She would do that when she was on a diet. So, on occasion, my brother and I would find a pack of cigarettes lying around.

We had purchased a small metal container of “Cigarette Loads”.

Cigarette Loads

Cigarette Loads

These are small explosives you stick down in the end of a cigarette. When the flame reaches the load, it explodes, destroying the end of the cigarette. So, we put a Load in one of our mom’s cigarettes and put it back in the pack of cigarettes.

Well, my mom didn’t smoke very often, so I was confused a couple of months later when my mom picked me up from High School one day and I found that I was in trouble. My mom’s cigarette had blown up in her face and she wasn’t too happy about it.

End of that side story…. time for one more….

I have always bragged about never smoking a cigarette in my life…. but the truth is that one time I tried to smoke a cigarette… here is what happened….

I was in the 9th grade, and I had cooked the steaks for dinner on the grill in the backyard that evening…. After dinner I went for a walk in the weeds behind my house, which was one of the favorite things I enjoyed doing while growing up.

I ended up down the road from our house where a new church was being built. I walked around the outside of the brick building looking in the windows that were all open as the glass hadn’t been installed yet….

While looking through one window, I noticed a pack of cigarettes left by a construction hand laying on the window sill. I picked it up and there was one cigarette still in the package. I realized I had a book of matches in my pocket that I had used to light the charcoal grill that evening… No one was around, and no one could see me because there were no houses around behind the church where I was standing, so I thought…. “I’ll smoke this one cigarette just to see what it’s like.”

So, I put the cigarette in my mouth, and lit the match. At that very moment, out of nowhere, it began to rain. The rain immediately soaked the cigarette and put out the match. I threw them both on the ground as if they had burned my hand and walked quickly away from the church knowing full well what had just happened. The rain stopped just as suddenly as it began. I said out loud, “I received your message God. I’m not going to try that again!” I only needed that kick in pants once.

Comments from the Original post:

    1. lisalabelle2014 September 13, 2014

      Great post, very informative, but I just can’t get the ‘coal-fired power plant non smoking policy’ out of my head. Isn’t that like an oxymoron?

       

      bmj2k September 13, 2014

      After seeing the Smoke-Free Coalition button, the state will always be “Klahoma” to me

    1. Garfield Hug September 14, 2014

      Good write up! 2nd hand smoke is just as lethal. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Emily Rose Lewis September 15, 2014

      Good writing. Interesting article. I grew up with a chain smoking step dad and ended up smoking for the first time at 13. I continued smoking until I was 24. I would hide my smoking from my son though and did quit while pregnant. When he was four he caught me smoking and I explained it was bad and could make you sick and he looked at me very concerned and like I was slightly crazy and asked me to please stop so I wouldn’t hurt myself. I quit not to long after that.

    1. John Robinson September 15, 2014

      A No-Smoking policy at a coal-powered plant IS interesting. Here in Ohio most of our electricity comes from coal-powered plants, but some of them are in danger of closing because of the EPA’s stricter carbon-emission rules.

  1. wisediscerner September 25, 2014

    I enjoyed your story…I have my own story to tell about the Lord delivering me from smoking, if you care to read it… I tell about it in my Journal, “Praying To The Lord”. May God bless you today!

What’s That Strange Power Plant Smell?

Originally posted July 18, 2014

Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle?” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”

Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.

One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.

 

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.

As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.

I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew the dust off of myself with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.

Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.

As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.

After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.

I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”

He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.

One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.

I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moonwalk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.

It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.

I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.

Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:

 

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard.  It had a cotton looking filter on the top

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.

Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.

I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.

So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.

When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.

I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.

George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.

Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.

Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire.  He called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.

When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I left the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.

Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….

There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.

I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.

I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.

But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.

Power Plant Grows Up in Smoke

Originally posted September 13, 2014.

I chalked it up to being a trouble maker when someone approached me in the electric shop one day to ask me if I would be an “Advocate of Change”. I figured this person asked me either because he thought I couldn’t resist fighting for a cause, or because he thought he might enjoy watching me make a fool out of myself. Either way, I accepted the challenge.

Last night I was watching TV with my son. We decided to watch a show where “If we weren’t careful, we might learn something.” It was a cartoon from my childhood called “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids”. The episode was called “Smoke gets in your Hair”. The main theme was about the health hazards from smoking cigarettes. Nothing like Educational TV on a Friday Night. I told my son I had a Power Plant Story about that…

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had recently made a change to the “Smoking Policy” at the power plant. New rules went in place that restricted smoking in the office areas. Specifically, it made any area that had a lower ceiling and was enclosed off limit to smokers.

This may seem like a normal restriction today, but this was January, 1990. Before that, smoking in an office was not out of the ordinary. In fact, in the A foreman’s office there was such a stink about not allowing smoking that a compromise was reached (at least for a while) where probes were mounted on the ceiling that was supposed to clean the smoke out of the air by ionizing the particles, causing them to stick to the walls and ceiling, and floor, and…. well… and you…

Smoke Ionizer

Smoke Ionizer

This became evident a few months later when the walls began turning darker and the ceiling tiles turned from white to a smoky shade of gray.

The company offered smoking cessation classes for anyone who wanted to quit smoking. I think as a whole, our medical insurance rates went down if we took these measures. Back then, it was common to have an ashtray in every office and on the break room tables. It seems rather odd now to think about it after living in an “anti-smoking” culture for the past 25 years.

A few years earlier there was an electrician that had tried to make the electric shop a No Smoking area. At that time, there were 5 electricians that smoked as well as our A foreman Bill Bennett, who often came to the electric shop for his smoke break. Bill Bennett had made it clear then that the electric shop was going to remain a smoking area. Just not in the office or the lab.

Times had changed by 1991. Three smokers had retired and Diana Brien had just declared that her New Year’s resolution was that this time she was going to give up smoking for good. She had tried that a few times before, but with the encouragement from Bill, the first time a stressful situation came around, she would start back up again.

I think my fellow electrician had seen that this was the perfect opportunity to try again to make the electric shop a “No Smoking” area. With Dee giving up cigarettes, this left only Mike Rose as the only smoker in the electric shop. — Well… and Bill Bennett, but technically his office was upstairs in the main office area.

Mike Rose was not just a smoker. He was an avid smoker. When I was watching Fat Albert, there was a father of one of the characters that was a smoker. He coughed a lot, and at one point, went on a coughing jag. When I saw that, I turned to my son, and I said, “That’s when Mike Rose would reach for a cigarette.”

Mike Rose. A fair plant electrician, but a great family man!

Mike Rose

I used to marvel at how after having a coughing jag, barely able to catch his breath, the first thing Mike Rose would do while leaning against the counter was reach in his vest pocket and pull out a pack of cigarettes and quickly light up. — All that stress from coughing…

So, with Dee on the wagon, and only Mike on the verge of keeling over any moment from…. well…. it wasn’t only smoking that made Mike teeter… I approached Bill Bennett and told him that I thought that it was time that we made the electric shop a “No Smoking” area. Bill replied right back that it would be over his dead body before the electric shop before the electric shop would be a “No Smoking” area.

I pointed out that Dee had just decided to quit smoking and that left only Mike Rose as a smoker in the shop. Bill said, it still wouldn’t be fair to the smokers in the shop. I had polled the electricians, and there were at least 5 people would like the shop to be smoke-free. So, with only one smoker, and 5 that would rather not have smoking, what was more fair?

Bill refused to give in, so I told him I would take it to Tom Gibson, our Electrical Supervisor (Bill’s boss). Bill said, “Ok, but I’m not going to bend on this one.” Bill was a chain smoker, and I didn’t really expect him to agree, but this was only the first step.

I had found in the past that in dealing with Tom Gibson, it is best to have some facts in your back pocket. It didn’t do any good to just go up there and whine about something. So, I signed up with a group called “Oklahoma Smoke-Free Coalition”.

Smoke Free Oklahoma Button

Smoke Free Oklahoma Button

I called them (this was before the World Wide Web had become popular) and asked them if they could send me some information about the problems with second-hand smoke. I told them what I was trying to do, and they said they would send me some pamphlets about the hazards of smoking with statistics. I was surprised a week later when I received, not only a few pamphlets but a large tube with anti-smoking posters. I hung one up in the electric shop and would change it out each week.

One poster showed the lungs of a healthy person, then the lungs of a smoker, then the lungs of someone who had quit smoking for 10 years, to show that if you gave up smoking and lived long enough, you could clear yourself up after a while. I had 25 posters, so, I thought I could put one up a week for 6 months.

Signing up with the Oklahoma Smoke Free Coalition was a strange step for me. It gave me a strange feeling because I am normally a very conservative person who doesn’t believe in restricting individual rights whenever feasible. I believe that people should have the right to smoke cigarettes, even though I don’t like it when people smoke around me.

The problem I have with smoking is that, it’s not just an individual smoking their own cigarette. When someone smokes in a room, they are imposing their smoke on everyone else. I believe in the individual having the right to breathe smoke free air and they shouldn’t have to leave a room just because someone else comes in there with a lit cigarette.

I understood that a lot of the people that are active in groups like “Oklahoma Smoke-Free Coalition” have a liberal agenda to curb individual rights in a large range of areas. So, I felt I was straddling a fence that made me uneasy. I resolved to keep this effort focused on one thing…. making the electric shop a smoke free area.

Armed with some statistics about the hazards of breathing second hand smoke, I went to Tom Gibson’s office to make my stand… (well, to ask the question anyway). I told Tom about the situation in the electric shop. I explained that Mike Rose was the only “current” smoker in the shop and I listed the names of the people in the shop that would rather have a smoke free shop.

I told him that even though we had a high ceiling, which had made our shop exempt from the “Smoke Free” office policy, we still felt as if we were in an enclosed room. The air supply for the office and lab was in the shop, and when people smoked in the shop, the smoke ended up in the office area. I mentioned some statistics about how second hand smoke could be dangerous. I also told him I was prepared to take this all the way to Corporate Headquarters if necessary.

To my surprise, Tom didn’t push back. I told him that I had talked to Bill and that he refused to let the shop be smoke free. So, Tom said that he would talk to Bill about it. — Not wanting to lose any time, I asked Tom if we could order some No Smoking signs to put on the doors in the shop. He agreed.

Signs placed on the electric shop doors

Signs placed on the electric shop doors

I was in a hurry to get this done because I knew that any day now, Dee would be back to smoking again, and then I would lose all the leverage I had with only having one smoker in the shop. Even Dee had said that she would support a smoke free shop if that’s what we wanted. So, it really came down to Mike and Bill.

More than 20 years later, Oklahoma is still fighting the smoking fight. Mary Fallin, the Governor of the State, has said that she supports cities and towns crafting their own anti-smoking laws. Coming from a Conservative Governor, I feel like I was in good company when fighting for the shop to become smoke free.

I know a few people at the plant were upset with me for restricting their right to smoke in the electric shop. Well, they knew I was a troublemaker when they hired me…

Now it seems like the culture in the United States has shifted so that we recognize the rights of individuals are actually impaired by someone smoking in your face. Sometimes I can just pass a smoker walking down the side walk, and my clothes smell like cigarette smoke the rest of the day.

I think that either noses become more aware of cigarette smoke when you don’t breathe it every day, or the cigarette companies put something in the cigarette to make the smell stronger than before. Today, I can sit in my car with my windows up, and if a car is in front or alongside me at an intersection while we are waiting for the light to change, I can smell the cigarette being smoked in another car.

It’s not just me, my son can smell it too. We can usually smell the cigarette before we see the person smoking it. One of us will say…. “Someone’s smoking.” And we’ll whip our heads around looking for the car. I guess our noses are more sensitive these days.

I know this phenomenon hasn’t reached Europe like it has in the United States. When visiting there, it is like being back in the 1970’s here with people standing around smoking on the street corners, and in the restaurants.

On a side note… I have a story about my mom….

My mom would smoke cigarettes some times when I was growing up. She would do that when she was on a diet. So, on occasion, my brother and I would find a pack of cigarettes lying around.

We had purchased a small metal container of “Cigarette Loads”.

Cigarette Loads

Cigarette Loads

These are small explosives you stick down in the end of a cigarette. When the flame reaches the load, it explodes, destroying the end of the cigarette. So, we put a Load in one of our mom’s cigarettes and put it back in the pack of cigarettes.

Well, my mom didn’t smoke very often, so I was confused a couple of months later when my mom picked me up from High School one day and I found that I was in trouble. My mom’s cigarette had blown up in her face and she wasn’t too happy about it.

End of that side story…. time for one more….

I have always bragged about never smoking a cigarette in my life…. but the truth is that one time I tried to smoke a cigarette… here is what happened….

I was in the 9th grade, and I had cooked the steaks for dinner on the grill in the backyard that evening…. After dinner I went for a walk in the weeds behind my house, which was one of the favorite things I enjoyed doing while growing up.

I ended up down the road from our house where a new church was being built. I walked around the outside of the brick building looking in the windows that were all open as the glass hadn’t been installed yet….

While looking through one window, I noticed a pack of cigarettes left by a construction hand laying on the window sill. I picked it up and there was one cigarette still in the package. I realized I had a book of matches in my pocket that I had used to light the charcoal grill that evening… No one was around, and no one could see me because there were no houses around behind the church where I was standing, so I thought…. “I’ll smoke this one cigarette just to see what it’s like.”

So, I put the cigarette in my mouth, and lit the match. At that very moment, out of nowhere, it began to rain. The rain immediately soaked the cigarette and put out the match. I threw them both on the ground as if they had burned my hand and walked quickly away from the church knowing full well what had just happened. The rain stopped just as suddenly as it began. I said out loud, “I received your message God. I’m not going to try that again!” I only needed that kick in pants once.

Comments from the Original post:

  1. lisalabelle2014 September 13, 2014

    Great post, very informative, but I just can’t get the ‘coal-fired power plant non smoking policy’ out of my head. Isn’t that like an oxymoron?

     

    bmj2k September 13, 2014

    After seeing the Smoke-Free Coalition button, the state will always be “Klahoma” to me

  2. Garfield Hug September 14, 2014

    Good write up! 2nd hand smoke is just as lethal. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Emily Rose Lewis September 15, 2014

    Good writing. Interesting article. I grew up with a chain smoking step dad and ended up smoking for the first time at 13. I continued smoking until I was 24. I would hide my smoking from my son though and did quit while pregnant. When he was four he caught me smoking and I explained it was bad and could make you sick and he looked at me very concerned and like I was slightly crazy and asked me to please stop so I wouldn’t hurt myself. I quit not to long after that.

  4. John Robinson September 15, 2014

    A No-Smoking policy at a coal-powered plant IS interesting. Here in Ohio most of our electricity comes from coal-powered plants, but some of them are in danger of closing because of the EPA’s stricter carbon-emission rules.

  5. wisediscerner September 25, 2014

    I enjoyed your story…I have my own story to tell about the Lord delivering me from smoking, if you care to read it… I tell about it in my Journal, “Praying To The Lord”. May God bless you today!

Power Plant Grows Up in Smoke

Originally posted September 13, 2014.

I chalked it up to being a trouble maker when someone approached me in the electric shop one day to ask me if I would be an “Advocate of Change”. I figured this person asked me either because he thought I couldn’t resist fighting for a cause, or because he thought he might enjoy watching me make a fool out of myself. Either way, I accepted the challenge.

Last night I was watching TV with my son. We decided to watch a show where “If we weren’t careful, we might learn something.” It was a cartoon from my childhood called “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids”. The episode was called “Smoke gets in your Hair”. The main theme was about the health hazards from smoking cigarettes. Nothing like Educational TV on a Friday Night. I told my son I had a Power Plant Story about that…

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had recently made a change to the “Smoking Policy” at the power plant. New rules went in place that restricted smoking in the office areas. Specifically, it made any area that had a lower ceiling and was enclosed off limit to smokers.

This may seem like a normal restriction today, but this was January, 1990. Before that, smoking in an office was not out of the ordinary. In fact, in the A foreman’s office there was such a stink about not allowing smoking that a compromise was reached (at least for a while) where probes were mounted on the ceiling that was supposed to clean the smoke out of the air by ionizing the particles, causing them to stick to the walls and ceiling, and floor, and…. well… and you…

Smoke Ionizer

Smoke Ionizer

This became evident a few months later when the walls began turning darker and the ceiling tiles turned from white to a smoky shade of gray.

The company offered smoking cessation classes for anyone who wanted to quit smoking. I think as a whole, our medical insurance rates went down if we took these measures. Back then, it was common to have an ashtray in every office and on the break room tables. It seems rather odd now to think about it after living in an “anti-smoking” culture for the past 25 years.

A few years earlier there was an electrician that had tried to make the electric shop a No Smoking area. At that time, there were 5 electricians that smoked as well as our A foreman Bill Bennett, who often came to the electric shop for his smoke break. Bill Bennett had made it clear then that the electric shop was going to remain a smoking area. Just not in the office or the lab.

Times had changed by 1991. Three smokers had retired and Diana Brien had just declared that her New Year’s resolution was that this time she was going to give up smoking for good. She had tried that a few times before, but with the encouragement from Bill, the first time a stressful situation came around, she would start back up again.

I think my fellow electrician had seen that this was the perfect opportunity to try again to make the electric shop a “No Smoking” area. With Dee giving up cigarettes, this left only Mike Rose as the only smoker in the electric shop. — Well… and Bill Bennett, but technically his office was upstairs in the main office area.

Mike Rose was not just a smoker. He was an avid smoker. When I was watching Fat Albert, there was a father of one of the characters that was a smoker. He coughed a lot, and at one point, went on a coughing jag. When I saw that, I turned to my son, and I said, “That’s when Mike Rose would reach for a cigarette.”

Mike Rose. A fair plant electrician, but a great family man!

Mike Rose

I used to marvel at how after having a coughing jag, barely able to catch his breath, the first thing Mike Rose would do while leaning against the counter was reach in his vest pocket and pull out a pack of cigarettes and quickly light up. — All that stress from coughing…

So, with Dee on the wagon, and only Mike on the verge of keeling over any moment from…. well…. it wasn’t only smoking that made Mike teeter… I approached Bill Bennett and told him that I thought that it was time that we made the electric shop a “No Smoking” area. Bill replied right back that it would be over his dead body before the electric shop before the electric shop would be a “No Smoking” area.

I pointed out that Dee had just decided to quit smoking and that left only Mike Rose as a smoker in the shop. Bill said, it still wouldn’t be fair to the smokers in the shop. I had polled the electricians, and there were at least 5 people would like the shop to be smoke-free. So, with only one smoker, and 5 that would rather not have smoking, what was more fair?

Bill refused to give in, so I told him I would take it to Tom Gibson, our Electrical Supervisor (Bill’s boss). Bill said, “Ok, but I’m not going to bend on this one.” Bill was a chain smoker, and I didn’t really expect him to agree, but this was only the first step.

I had found in the past that in dealing with Tom Gibson, it is best to have some facts in your back pocket. It didn’t do any good to just go up there and whine about something. So, I signed up with a group called “Oklahoma Smoke-Free Coalition”.

Smoke Free Oklahoma Button

Smoke Free Oklahoma Button

I called them (this was before the World Wide Web had become popular) and asked them if they could send me some information about the problems with second-hand smoke. I told them what I was trying to do, and they said they would send me some pamphlets about the hazards of smoking with statistics. I was surprised a week later when I received, not only a few pamphlets but a large tube with anti-smoking posters. I hung one up in the electric shop and would change it out each week.

One poster showed the lungs of a healthy person, then the lungs of a smoker, then the lungs of someone who had quit smoking for 10 years, to show that if you gave up smoking and lived long enough, you could clear yourself up after a while. I had 25 posters, so, I thought I could put one up a week for 6 months.

Signing up with the Oklahoma Smoke Free Coalition was a strange step for me. It gave me a strange feeling because I am normally a very conservative person who doesn’t believe in restricting individual rights whenever feasible. I believe that people should have the right to smoke cigarettes, even though I don’t like it when people smoke around me.

The problem I have with smoking is that, it’s not just an individual smoking their own cigarette. When someone smokes in a room, they are imposing their smoke on everyone else. I believe in the individual having the right to breathe smoke free air and they shouldn’t have to leave a room just because someone else comes in there with a lit cigarette.

I understood that a lot of the people that are active in groups like “Oklahoma Smoke-Free Coalition” have a liberal agenda to curb individual rights in a large range of areas. So, I felt I was straddling a fence that made me uneasy. I resolved to keep this effort focused on one thing…. making the electric shop a smoke free area.

Armed with some statistics about the hazards of breathing second hand smoke, I went to Tom Gibson’s office to make my stand… (well, to ask the question anyway). I told Tom about the situation in the electric shop. I explained that Mike Rose was the only “current” smoker in the shop and I listed the names of the people in the shop that would rather have a smoke free shop.

I told him that even though we had a high ceiling, which had made our shop exempt from the “Smoke Free” office policy, we still felt as if we were in an enclosed room. The air supply for the office and lab was in the shop, and when people smoked in the shop, the smoke ended up in the office area. I mentioned some statistics about how second hand smoke could be dangerous. I also told him I was prepared to take this all the way to Corporate Headquarters if necessary.

To my surprise, Tom didn’t push back. I told him that I had talked to Bill and that he refused to let the shop be smoke free. So, Tom said that he would talk to Bill about it. — Not wanting to lose any time, I asked Tom if we could order some No Smoking signs to put on the doors in the shop. He agreed.

Signs placed on the electric shop doors

Signs placed on the electric shop doors

I was in a hurry to get this done because I knew that any day now, Dee would be back to smoking again, and then I would lose all the leverage I had with only having one smoker in the shop. Even Dee had said that she would support a smoke free shop if that’s what we wanted. So, it really came down to Mike and Bill.

More than 20 years later, Oklahoma is still fighting the smoking fight. Mary Fallin, the Governor of the State, has said that she supports cities and towns crafting their own anti-smoking laws. Coming from a Conservative Governor, I feel like I was in good company when fighting for the shop to become smoke free.

I know a few people at the plant were upset with me for restricting their right to smoke in the electric shop. Well, they knew I was a troublemaker when they hired me…

Now it seems like the culture in the United States has shifted so that we recognize the rights of individuals are actually impaired by someone smoking in your face. Sometimes I can just pass a smoker walking down the side walk, and my clothes smell like cigarette smoke the rest of the day.

I think that either noses become more aware of cigarette smoke when you don’t breathe it every day, or the cigarette companies put something in the cigarette to make the smell stronger than before. Today, I can sit in my car with my windows up, and if a car is in front or alongside me at an intersection while we are waiting for the light to change, I can smell the cigarette being smoked in another car.

It’s not just me, my son can smell it too. We can usually smell the cigarette before we see the person smoking it. One of us will say…. “Someone’s smoking.” And we’ll whip our heads around looking for the car. I guess our noses are more sensitive these days.

I know this phenomenon hasn’t reached Europe like it has in the United States. When visiting there, it is like being back in the 1970’s here with people standing around smoking on the street corners, and in the restaurants.

On a side note… I have a story about my mom….

My mom would smoke cigarettes some times when I was growing up. She would do that when she was on a diet. So, on occasion, my brother and I would find a pack of cigarettes lying around.

We had purchased a small metal container of “Cigarette Loads”.

Cigarette Loads

Cigarette Loads

These are small explosives you stick down in the end of a cigarette. When the flame reaches the load, it explodes, destroying the end of the cigarette. So, we put a Load in one of our mom’s cigarettes and put it back in the pack of cigarettes.

Well, my mom didn’t smoke very often, so I was confused a couple of months later when my mom picked me up from High School one day and I found that I was in trouble. My mom’s cigarette had blown up in her face and she wasn’t too happy about it.

End of that side story…. time for one more….

I have always bragged about never smoking a cigarette in my life…. but the truth is that one time I tried to smoke a cigarette… here is what happened….

I was in the 9th grade, and I had cooked the steaks for dinner on the grill in the backyard that evening…. After dinner I went for a walk in the weeds behind my house, which was one of the favorite things I enjoyed doing while growing up.

I ended up down the road from our house where a new church was being built. I walked around the outside of the brick building looking in the windows that were all open as the glass hadn’t been installed yet….

While looking through one window, I noticed a pack of cigarettes left by a construction hand laying on the window sill. I picked it up and there was one cigarette still in the package. I realized I had a book of matches in my pocket that I had used to light the charcoal grill that evening… No one was around, and no one could see me because there were no houses around behind the church where I was standing, so I thought…. “I’ll smoke this one cigarette just to see what it’s like.”

So, I put the cigarette in my mouth, and lit the match. At that very moment, out of nowhere, it began to rain. The rain immediately soaked the cigarette and put out the match. I threw them both on the ground as if they had burned my hand and walked quickly away from the church knowing full well what had just happened. The rain stopped just as suddenly as it began. I said out loud, “I received your message God. I’m not going to try that again!” I only needed that kick in pants once.

Comments from the Original post:

  1. lisalabelle2014 September 13, 2014

    Great post, very informative, but I just can’t get the ‘coal-fired power plant non smoking policy’ out of my head. Isn’t that like an oxymoron?

     

    bmj2k September 13, 2014

    After seeing the Smoke-Free Coalition button, the state will always be “Klahoma” to me

  2. Garfield Hug September 14, 2014

    Good write up! 2nd hand smoke is just as lethal. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Emily Rose Lewis September 15, 2014

    Good writing. Interesting article. I grew up with a chain smoking step dad and ended up smoking for the first time at 13. I continued smoking until I was 24. I would hide my smoking from my son though and did quit while pregnant. When he was four he caught me smoking and I explained it was bad and could make you sick and he looked at me very concerned and like I was slightly crazy and asked me to please stop so I wouldn’t hurt myself. I quit not to long after that.

  4. John Robinson September 15, 2014

    A No-Smoking policy at a coal-powered plant IS interesting. Here in Ohio most of our electricity comes from coal-powered plants, but some of them are in danger of closing because of the EPA’s stricter carbon-emission rules.

  5. wisediscerner September 25, 2014

    I enjoyed your story…I have my own story to tell about the Lord delivering me from smoking, if you care to read it… I tell about it in my Journal, “Praying To The Lord”. May God bless you today!

What’s That Strange Power Plant Smell?

Originally posted July 18, 2014

Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle?” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”

Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.

One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.

 

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.

As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.

I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew the dust off of myself with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.

Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.

As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.

After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.

I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”

He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.

One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.

I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moonwalk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.

It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.

I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.

Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:

 

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard.  It had a cotton looking filter on the top

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.

Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.

I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.

So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Door Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.

When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.

I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.

George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.

Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.

Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her through across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.

When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I let the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.

Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….

There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.

I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.

I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.

But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.

Power Plant Grows Up in Smoke

I chalked it up to being a trouble maker when someone approached me in the electric shop one day to ask me if I would be an “Advocate of Change”.  I figured this person asked me either because he thought I couldn’t resist fighting for a cause, or because he thought he might enjoy watching me make a fool out of myself.  Either way, I accepted the challenge.

Last night I was watching TV with my son.  We decided to watch a show where “If we weren’t careful, we might learn something.”  It was a cartoon from my childhood called “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids”.  The episode was called “Smoke gets in your Hair”.  The main theme was about the health hazards from smoking cigarettes.  Nothing like Educational TV on a Friday Night.  I told my son I had a Power Plant Story about that…

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had recently made a change to the “Smoking Policy” at the power plant.  New rules went in place that restricted smoking in the office areas.  Specifically, it made any area that had a lower ceiling and was enclosed off limit to smokers.

This may seem like a normal restriction today, but this was January, 1990.  Before that, smoking in an office was not out of the ordinary.  In fact, in the A foreman’s office there was such a stink about not allowing smoking that a compromise was reached (at least for a while) where probes were mounted on the ceiling that was supposed to clean the smoke out of the air by ionizing the particles, causing them to stick to the walls and ceiling, and floor, and…. well… and you…

Smoke Ionizer

Smoke Ionizer

This became evident a few months later when the walls began turning darker and the ceiling tiles turned from white to a smoky shade of gray.

The company offered smoking cessation classes for anyone who wanted to quit smoking.  I think as a whole, our medical insurance rates went down if we took these measures.  Back then, it was common to have an ashtray in every office and on the break room tables.  It seems rather odd now to think about it after living in an “anti-smoking” culture for the past 25 years.

A few years earlier there was an electrician that had tried to make the electric shop a No Smoking area.  At that time, there were 5 electricians that smoked as well as our A foreman Bill Bennett, who often came to the electric shop for his smoke break.  Bill Bennett had made it clear then that the electric shop was going to remain a smoking area.  Just not in the office or the lab.

Times had changed by 1991.  Three smokers had retired and Diana Brien had just declared that her New Year’s resolution was that this time she was going to give up smoking for good.  She had tried that a few times before, but with the encouragement from Bill, the first time a stressful situation came around, she would start back up again.

I think my fellow electrician had seen that this was the perfect opportunity to try again to make the electric shop a “No Smoking” area.  With Dee giving up cigarettes, this left only Mike Rose as the only smoker in the electric shop.  — Well… and Bill Bennett, but technically his office was upstairs in the main office area.

Mike Rose was not just a smoker.  He was an avid smoker.  When I was watching Fat Albert, there was a father of one of the characters that was a smoker.  He coughed a lot, and at one point, went on a coughing jag.  When I saw that, I turned to my son, and I said, “That’s when Mike Rose would reach for a cigarette.”

Mike Rose.  A fair plant electrician, but a great family man!

Mike Rose

I used to marvel at how after having a coughing jag, barely able to catch his breath, the first thing Mike Rose would do while leaning against the counter was reach in his vest pocket and pull out a pack of cigarettes and quickly light up. — All that stress from coughing…

So, with Dee on the wagon, and only Mike on the verge of keeling over any moment from…. well…. it wasn’t only smoking that made Mike teeter…  I approached Bill Bennett and told him that I thought that it was time that we made the electric shop a “No Smoking” area.  Bill replied right back that it would be over his dead body before the electric shop before the electric shop would be a “No Smoking” area.

I pointed out that Dee had just decided to quit smoking and that left only Mike Rose as a smoker in the shop.  Bill said, it still wouldn’t be fair to the smokers in the shop.  I had polled the electricians, and there were at least 5 people would like the shop to be smoke-free.  So, with only one smoker, and 5 that would rather not have smoking, what was more fair?

Bill refused to give in, so I told him I would take it to Tom Gibson, our Electrical Supervisor (Bill’s boss).  Bill said, “Ok, but I’m not going to bend on this one.”  Bill was a chain smoker, and I didn’t really expect him to agree, but this was only the first step.

I had found in the past that in dealing with Tom Gibson, it is best to have some facts in your back pocket.  It didn’t do any good to just go up there and whine about something.  So, I signed up with a group called “Oklahoma Smoke-Free Coalition”.

Smoke Free Oklahoma Button

Smoke Free Oklahoma Button

I called them (this was before the World Wide Web had become popular) and asked them if they could send me some information about the problems with second-hand smoke.  I told them what I was trying to do, and they said they would send me some pamphlets about the hazards of smoking with statistics.  I was surprised a week later when I received, not only a few pamphlets but a large tube with anti-smoking posters.  I hung one up in the electric shop and would change it out each week.

One poster showed the lungs of a healthy person, then the lungs of a smoker, then the lungs of someone who had quit smoking for 10 years, to show that if you gave up smoking and lived long enough, you could clear yourself up after a while.  I had 25 posters, so, I thought I could put one up a week for 6 months.

Signing up with the Oklahoma Smoke Free Coalition was a strange step for me.  It gave me a strange feeling because I am normally a very conservative person who doesn’t believe in restricting individual rights whenever feasible.  I believe that people should have the right to smoke cigarettes, even though I don’t like it when people smoke around me.

The problem I have with smoking is that, it’s not just an individual smoking their own cigarette.  When someone smokes in a room, they are imposing their smoke on everyone else.  I believe in the individual having the right to breathe smoke free air and they shouldn’t have to leave a room just because someone else comes in there with a lit cigarette.

I understood that a lot of the people that are active in groups like “Oklahoma Smoke-Free Coalition” have a  liberal agenda to curb individual rights in a large range of areas.  So, I felt I was straddling a fence that made me uneasy.  I resolved to keep this effort focused on one thing….  making the electric shop a smoke free area.

Armed with some statistics about the hazards of breathing second hand smoke, I went to Tom Gibson’s office to make my stand… (well, to ask the question anyway).  I told Tom about the situation in the electric shop.  I explained that Mike Rose was the only “current” smoker in the shop and I listed the names of the people in the shop that would rather have a smoke free shop.

I told him that even though we had a high ceiling, which had made our shop exempt from the “Smoke Free” office policy, we still felt as if we were in an enclosed room.  The air supply for the office and lab was in the shop, and when people smoked in the shop, the smoke ended up in the office area.  I mentioned some statistics about how second hand smoke could be dangerous.  I also told him I was prepared to take this all the way to Corporate Headquarters if necessary.

To my surprise, Tom didn’t push back.  I told him that I had talked to Bill and that he refused to let the shop be smoke free.  So, Tom said that he would talk to Bill about it. — Not wanting to lose any time, I asked Tom if we could order some No Smoking signs to put on the doors in the shop.  He agreed.

Signs placed on the electric shop doors

Signs placed on the electric shop doors

I was in a hurry to get this done because I knew that any day now, Dee would be back to smoking again, and then I would lose all the leverage I had with only having one smoker in the shop.  Even Dee had said that she would support a smoke free shop if that’s what we wanted.  So, it really came down to Mike and Bill.

More than 20 years later, Oklahoma is still fighting the smoking fight.  Mary Fallin, the Governor of the State, has said that she supports cities and towns crafting their own anti-smoking laws.  Coming from a Conservative Governor, I feel like I was in good company when fighting for the shop to become smoke free.

I know a few people at the plant were upset with me for restricting their right to smoke in the electric shop.  Well, they knew I was a troublemaker when they hired me…

Now it seems like the culture in the United States has shifted so that we recognize the rights of individuals are actually impaired by someone smoking in your face.  Sometimes I can just pass a smoker walking down the side walk, and my clothes smell like cigarette smoke the rest of the day.

I think that either noses become more aware of cigarette smoke when you don’t breathe it every day, or the cigarette companies put something in the cigarette to make the smell stronger than before.  Today, I can sit in my car with my windows up, and if a car is in front or alongside me at an intersection while we are waiting for the light to change, I can smell the cigarette being smoked in another car.

It’s not just me, my son can smell it too.  We can usually smell the cigarette before we see the person smoking it.  One of us will say…. “Someone’s smoking.”  And we’ll whip our heads around looking for the car.  I guess our noses are more sensitive these days.

I know this phenomenon hasn’t reached Europe like it has in the United States.  When visiting there, it is like being back in the 1970’s here with people standing around smoking on the street corners, and in the restaurants.

On a side note… I have a story about my mom….

My mom would smoke cigarettes some times when I was growing up.  She would do that when she was on a diet.  So, on occasion, my brother and I would find a pack of cigarettes lying around.

We had purchased a small metal container of “Cigarette Loads”.

Cigarette Loads

Cigarette Loads

These are small explosives you stick down in the end of a cigarette.  When the flame reaches the load, it explodes, destroying the end of the cigarette.  So, we put a Load in one of our mom’s cigarettes and put it back in the pack of cigarettes.

Well, my mom didn’t smoke very often, so I was confused a couple of months later when my mom picked me up from High School one day and I found that I was in trouble.  My mom’s cigarette had blown up in her face and she wasn’t too happy about it.

End of that side story…. time for one more….

I have always bragged about never smoking a cigarette in my life…. but the truth is that one time I tried to smoke a cigarette… here is what happened….

I was in the 9th grade, and I had cooked the steaks for dinner on the grill in the backyard that evening…. After dinner I went for a walk in the weeds behind my house, which was one of the favorite things I enjoyed doing while growing up.

I ended up down the road from our house where a new church was being built.  I walked around the outside of the brick building looking in the windows that were all open as the glass hadn’t been installed yet….

While looking through one window, I noticed a pack of cigarettes left by a construction hand laying on the window sill.  I picked it up and there was one cigarette still in the package.  I realized I had a book of matches in my pocket that I had used to light the charcoal grill that evening… No one was around, and no one could see me because there were no houses around behind the church where I was standing, so I thought…. “I’ll smoke this one cigarette just to see what it’s like.”

So, I put the cigarette in my mouth, and lit the match.  At that very moment, out of nowhere, it began to rain.  The rain immediately soaked the cigarette and put out the match.  I threw them both on the ground as if they had burned my hand and walked quickly away from the church knowing full well what had just happened.  The rain stopped just as suddenly as it began.  I said out loud, “I received your message God.  I’m not going to try that again!”  I only needed that kick in pants once.

What’s That Strange Power Plant Smell?

Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?”  You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle ”   If you thought, rotten fish,  diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong.  Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant.  Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”

Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where.  There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone….  Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.

One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.

 

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell.  It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before.  I looked around to see where it was coming from.  There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.

As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs.  He was smoking a cigarette.  Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.

I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break.   When I came out, I blew myself off with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion.  After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.

Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell.  I couldn’t mistake it.  It was a unique chemical smell.  looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.

As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser.  One of the guys was smoking a cigarette.  I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid?  It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower.  I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.

After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling.  I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator.  I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose.  And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.

I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that  had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside.  I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent.  I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”

He looked around and no one was in sight.  He said, “There isn’t anyone here.”  I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.”  About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind.  Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette.  As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See.  Cigarette.”  He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.

One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator.  Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone.  Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.

I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moonwalk in a Power Plant Precipitator“.  The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.

It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate.  When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.

I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu.  I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it.  I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older.  Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.

Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using.  I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had.  He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…”  I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s.  He would make this same expression:

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Bud handed me a box of filters labeled:  Organic Vapor Filter:

 

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard.  It had a cotton looking filter on the top

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice.  I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside.  I wasn’t used to that.  I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell.  After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid.  Sort of a sour smell.  When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks.  Sure enough.

Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning.  I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued.  I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill.  Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.

I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator.  If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.

So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple.  I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“.  I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t.  And the effect it had on the ash on the plates.  He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited.  There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.

When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways.  He described it as a sewage type of odor.  Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it.  I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.

I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical.  George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.

George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical.  When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name).  She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.

Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining.  And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.

Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer  Extraordinaire called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.”  I know I didn’t look at all like she expected.  I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots.   When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her through across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.

When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket).  As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?”  I replied, “Huh?”  As if I couldn’t hear her.  — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to…  I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was.  — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit.  I let the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis.  They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.

Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….

There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.

I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below…..  Anyway.  we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.

I decided to take a different approach.  I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before.  I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark…..  That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.

But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.