Tag Archives: Coal Dust

Flying Leap off of a Power Plant Hot Air Duct

I was standing in the elevator on my way to the control room from the electric shop the morning of October 11, 1995 when a strange call came over the radio.  It sounded like Danny Cain, one of the Instrument and Controls Technicians on my team (or crew, as we used to call them before the reorganization).  Most of what he said was garbled, but from what I could catch from Danny’s broadcast was that there was a man down on a unit 2 hot air duct.  Danny’s voice sounded as if he was in a panic.

About that time, the elevator door opened and I stepped out.  I thought to myself… “Hot Air Duct?”  Where is a hot air duct?  I had been running around this plant since 1979 when they were still building the plant, and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember where a hot air duct was at that moment.  I may have been panicking myself.  So, I did the only thing I could think of at the time….

I walked briskly into the control room and asked the Unit 1 Control Room operator… “Where is a hot air duct?”  It must have sounded like a pretty stupid question coming from someone who rarely admitted that they didn’t know everything, but I have asked my share of stupid questions in my lifetime and most of the time, after the blank stare, someone gives me the answer.  This time, the answer was “In the bottom ash area under the boiler.”

I quickly left the control room without saying another word.  I’m not sure why I didn’t yell something out like, “Help!  Help!  There’s a man down on a Unit 2 Hot Air Duct!”  I guess it didn’t even occur to me.  I just darted out the door and down the stairs to the ground level (six flights of stairs).  I kept saying to myself… “Hot Air Duct…  Hot Air Duct…”  I jogged across the Turbine-Generator basement floor and into the breezeway between the T-G building and Unit 2 Boiler.  I picked up my pace once I was out in the open, and quickly made through the door to the spot where years before in 1983 I had seen Bob Lillibridge being swallowed alive by the Boiler Ghost (See the post: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost“).

Once inside the boiler enclosure, I realized that the Hot Air Ducts were the ducts that came from the Primary Air Fans into the Bowl Mills where the coal is ground into powder and blown into the boiler.  The air is heated first by going through the Air Preheater which gets it’s heat from the exhaust from the boiler.  It was pretty dark around the Hot Air Ducts.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler.  you can see the Hot Air at the very bottom.  That’s going through the Hot Air Ducts

As I approached I yelled out for Danny who immediately yelled in the same stressed far off voice “Help!”  His voice came from the top of the second Hot Air Duct.  I could hear a struggle going on up there, so I ran over to the ladder and quickly climbed up.  When I reached the top of the ladder, I saw Danny Cain and Alan Kramer also, wrestling with a man that I had never seen before.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

Alan was behind him with his arms wrapped around the man’s arms  and his legs wrapped around his chest (I’ll call this guy Michael, since that turned out to be his name…. Michael Hyde) as the man flailed his arms kicking his feet.  The three of them were rolling around on the top of the Hot Air Duct (which is a coal dusty dark place).  Oh.  Did I mention that it was hot?  Michael was a contract worker and this was his first day on the job.

I didn’t wait to see who was winning before I picked sides.  I decided that whoever this Michael Hyde person was, if he was wrestling with Danny and Alan, he wasn’t getting much sympathy from me.  I grabbed the man’s legs even though I was still standing at the top of the ladder.

I wrapped one of my legs through the rungs of the ladder so that it weaved through one rung, around the next rung, and into the third rung.  At this point, even if I was knocked unconscious, I wasn’t going to fall off of this ladder.  We were 25 feet above the concrete floor.  Danny said, “Hold him down!  He’s trying to jump off the Duct!”  So, while Alan and Danny wrestled with Michael’s upper torso, I decided to take care of his legs.

About that time, others started showing up down below.  Jimmie Moore was one of the first to arrive.  I yelled down to him that we needed our rescue gear.  A stretcher and rope.  Jimmie quickly coordinated getting our safety bags down to the bottom ash area.  More people arrived.  I remember seeing Jasper Christensen looking up at me.

About that time, Michael pulled one of his feet from my grip and gave me a swift kick on the right side of my head with the heal of his boot.  I was knocked back and my hardhat went flying off into space.  Jasper said something like “Don’t fall off of there!”  Shaking my head to get rid of the pain, I assured Jasper that I couldn’t fall off of the ladder if I tried.  I had my leg locked in the rungs.

I decided at that point that the best thing I could do to keep from being kicked in the head again was to remove this guy’s boots.  So, I grabbed both of his legs and squeezed them as hard as I could so that he would feel a little bit of the pain he had just inflicted on me.  At the same time, I began unlacing his work boots and dropping them to the floor.

Danny explained that Michael had had some kind of seizure.  He had fallen down and was wobbling all over the place.  Then when it was over and he came to, he tried to jump off of the duct.

Michael continued to struggle.  He wasn’t yelling or saying anything other than grunts.  It was as if he was in a total panic.  His eyes were filled with fear.  After I had removed his boots, I continued to have one arm wrapped around both of this legs squeezing as hard as I could to keep him from pulling one away and taking another kick at my head.

At this point, an interesting idea came into my head… I suddenly thought it would be a good idea to tickle his feet.  I had two reasons for doing this… First…  It was pay back for leaving a boot heel impression across the side of my face and Second…. I thought it would distract him some from his panic.  Sort of as a counter-irritant.

More of the rescue team had arrived and Jimmie threw a rope up to me that I threw over a pipe so that a stretcher could be raised up.  Either Jimmie Moore or Randy Dailey or both then climbed up the ladder and made their way around me to the duct so they could put Michael in the stretcher.  At this point, Michael was still panicking.  He was still trying to escape our grasp.

Jimmie Moore

Jimmie Moore, Plant Electrician

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

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

The stretcher was placed alongside Michael, and with a “one two three” we raised him up and set him down in the stretcher.  We started winding the rope in and out of the stretcher to tie him down.  As soon as the ropes went around his arms, Michael stopped struggling and became calm.

Rescue Stretcher

Rescue Stretcher

It appeared that the moment Michael felt safe, the struggle was over.  We raised him up from the hot air duct and then lowered him to the ground.  As soon as he was on the ground, the Ambulance from Ponca City, Oklahoma arrived.  Evidently, as soon as the Shift Supervisor had heard “Man Down” on the radio, he called 911 in Ponca City 20 miles away to have an ambulance sent.  The timing couldn’t have been better.  Just as we were untying Michael, the EMTs arrived.

The EMTs from the ambulance put him on their own stretcher.  I picked up his boots from the ground and placed them alongside him on the stretcher and he was carried away.  After all that panic, I just wanted to go back to the Electric Shop office and calm down.

This was a happy ending to what could have been a real tragedy if Michael had been able to jump off of the air duct.  We heard about an hour later that when Michael Hyde had arrived at the hospital in Ponca City, he insisted on having a drug test taken to show that he had not taken any kind of illegal drug that would have led to his bizarre behavior.  He said that nothing like that had ever happened to him before.  There must have been something about the heat and the dark and the smell (and maybe listening to Danny talk about donuts) that must have triggered a seizure.

To our surprise, a few months later, Michael Hyde showed up at our plant again.  This time, he came with a couple of other people.  They were from the Oklahoma Safety Council.  During our monthly safety meeting, many of us were presented with an award for rescuing Michael.  Even though my part in the rescue was rather small, I was very proud to have been recognized that day.  We were each given a plaque.  Here is mine:

Plaque given to me for my part in the rescue

Plaque given to me for my part in the rescue

Alan Kramer and Danny Cain had both been invited to Oklahoma City to receive their awards as they were directly involved in saving Michael’s life.  Here is the plaque that Alan was given:

Alan Kramer's Plaque for his Safety Award

Alan Kramer’s Plaque for his Safety Award

A plaque was also given to the plant from the Oklahoma Safety Council which as far as I know is still mounted by the office elevator on the first floor:

Plaque from the Oklahoma Safety Council

Plaque from the Oklahoma Safety Council

Michael said he wanted to thank each of us personally for rescuing him that day.  I shook his hand.  I told him that I was the one that was squeezing his legs so hard and tickling his feet.  I don’t think he remembered much of that moment.

I have a side story to this one and I wonder if this is the place to tell it.  I suppose so, as long as I keep it short….

A number of months after this incident occurred, I began to develop a sore throat on the right side of my throat.  I thought at first that it was Strep Throat because it hurt quite a lot.  I just waited around for it to either go away or develop into a full blown cold, so I didn’t do anything for a few months.  The pain was localized at one spot in my throat.

Then one day, my right ear began to hurt and I decided it was time to go see the doctor about it.  When I visited my family doctor, he took a throat culture and surprisingly it came back clean.  No strep throat.  I explained that it was a constant pain, and now it had moved up to my ear as well.  So, he sent me to Tulsa to an Ears Nose and Throat Doctor who was supposed to be real good.

When I went to him, after a couple of examinations, he came to the conclusion that I had a TMJ problem (TMJ is Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction).  So, he sent me to a TMJ person in Stillwater.  I went to him, and he x-rayed my head and gave me some medicine to try to stop the pain, but nothing worked.

At times the right side of my face would hurt real bad, and at work if we took the temperature gun and pointed it at the right side of my face, we would find that it was about 2 or 3 degrees colder than the left side.

I went to a good TMJ person in Enid Oklahoma, and he made a mouthpiece for me to wear which seemed to lower the number of times each day that I would feel intense pain up and down the right side of my face…. all along, the pain continued to get worse.

To make a longer story shorter, through the years, the pain continued to grow until each time (about 6 times each day) my head would hurt, it would hurt from the top of my head down to my throat on the right side.

I never knew for sure if this was a result of being kicked in the head during our struggle that day, along with a combination of a bad dentist in Stillwater named Doctor Moore who wrestled with my teeth one day to the point that I wanted to punch him back.  After going to many types of doctors (Neurologists, Endocrinologists, Oral Surgeons, etc) and dentists, having root canals, and medications and mouthpieces, nothing seemed to help.  The pain continued to grow.

I finally had a name for my condition after many years, my dad pointed out to me that according to my symptoms, in the Merck Manual, my condition would be called:  Trigeminal Neuralgia.  I told that to the Neurologist and he agreed.  There really wasn’t any treatment for it, only medication to cut down on the pain.

After 14 years, I decided I had taken enough pain medication and just decided to let the pain happen.  It would only last for 10 minutes at a time, and medication didn’t really help that much anyway.

This past summer the pain became so frequent that every hour I was having 10 minutes of terribly excruciating pain that was leaving me almost immobile.  So, I called the doctor to make and appointment.  I had decided that this was too unbearable.  On Tuesday, July 8, 2014 I called the doctor and made an appointment for July 17, the Thursday of the following week.  On July 10, the pain was so bad that for the first time since I had this pain, I actually stayed home from work because I was not able to get any sleep.

July 11, 2014, After sitting up all night in a chair, I prepared to go to work.  That morning, to my surprise, the pain had stopped coming every hour.  That day at work, I had no pain.  When I came home that evening, as I prepared to go out to dinner with my son Anthony, I felt the pain coming back.  Anthony could tell, so we just waited a few minutes, and it was over.  The pain wasn’t as harsh as it had been…..  That was the last time I ever had an attack of pain on my face.  It just went away and never came back.

It has now been over 6 months and I have not had one attack of pain on my face.  After 16 years of pain, it just went away in one day.  Could there have been a reason?  I think so… You see, my mom had been doing something on the side.  She had sent my name to a group to have them ask their founder to pray for me to God.

For years, my mom had supported a Catholic mission group called:  Pontifical Institute For Foreign Missions.  This organization was founded 164 years ago and the group was trying to have the Bishop who founded the Mission canonized as a Saint.  In order to do that, they needed to have at least three miracles associated with his intercessory prayers.  His name is  Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti.

Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti

Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti

What this means is, that as a group, we ask that (pray to) Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti (who we believe is in Heaven with Jesus) ask Jesus to heal us (or something miraculous for a good cause).  If the person (me, in this case) appears to have been miraculously and instantly healed, then an investigation is done to determine if it can be certified as a miracle.

If three such miracles have been certified after intercessory prayers have been asked of Bishop Angelo, then he could be Canonized as a Saint.  To be Canonized means that he is more or less “Recognized” as someone that is in Heaven with God.  It doesn’t mean in anyway that everyone in heaven has to be canonized.  It just means that if you want to ask a Saint in Heaven to pray for you to God, then you can be pretty darn sure, this guy is good friends with God.  Just like asking your own family to pray for you.  You would be more inclined to ask someone that you know is more “Holy” if you really need to see some results.

Well, that is what my mom had done the week before the pain suddenly went away.

If the pain that I had for the past 16 years was caused in part by the kick in the head in 1995, and this condition I had is somehow used to help Canonize Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti, then I am glad to have been a part of it.  All along, I figured that something good would come out of all that pain, I just never imagined what that might be.  Now that it’s gone, it’s sort of like missing an old friend…. only….. NOT.

Sometimes it just takes a good kick in the head to get things moving.

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Suppressing the Truth about Power Plant Coal Dust Collection

Some of you may be aware that an empty grain silo can explode if the dust from the grain is allowed to build up and an ignition source begins a chain reaction that causes the entire grain silo to explode like a bomb.  I haven’t heard about a grain explosion for a few years.  Maybe that is because a lot of effort is put into keeping the silo clean.  Think of how much easier it would be for a coal dust explosion.  After all… we know that coal when turned into a fine powder is highly combustible.

When you are covered in coal dust from head-to-toe day after day you seem to forget just how explosive the coal dust you are washing down can be.  Our coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was concerned after our downsizing in 1994 that by eliminating the labor crew from the roster of available Power Plant Jobs, that the operators may not be able to keep the entire coal handling system free from coal dust.

The plant had already experienced a major explosion the year before (in 1996) the “Dust Collector Task Force” was formed (See the post: “Destruction of a Power Plant God“).  It was clear that the question had been asked by those concerned, “Are there any other areas in the plant that could suddenly explode?”  Two electricians were asked to be on the Dust Collection Task Force. Jimmy Moore and myself.

Jimmie Moore

Jimmie Moore

We had a salesman of our Dust Collector come to the plant and train us on the proper maintenance of the dust collectors that were already in place. When he arrived he showed us a video that showed examples of plants that had explosions caused by coal dust.  Here is a picture I found on Google of a coal dust explosion at a power plant:

Power Plant after a coal dust explosion

Power Plant after a coal dust explosion

We heard a story about a coal plant where the explosion began at the coal yard, worked its way up the conveyor system, blew up the bowl mills and threw debris onto the main power transformer, which also blew up.  Ouch.  We thought it would be a good idea to do something about our coal dust problems.  Stopping an ounce of coal dust is worth a pound of explosives… as the saying goes.

The Instrument and Controls person on our team was Danny Cain.  He had become a Power Plant employee a year before the downsizing and had been at the plant for about four years at this point.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

When we began looking at our dust collectors, we found that the dust collectors on the dumper had been rusted out over the past 18 years since they were first put into operation.  the reason was that they were located down inside the dumper building below ground where they were constantly exposed to coal and water.  I hadn’t seen them actually running for years.  They were definitely going to have to be replaced with something.

Okay class… I know this is boring, but you have to learn it!

We had some fairly new dust collectors on the crusher tower and the coal reclaim, but they didn’t seem to be doing their job.  They used instrument air (which is clean, dehumidified air) in order to flush the coal off of some bags inside.  When they were installed, new instrument air compressors were installed in the coal yard just to handle the extra “instrument air” load for the dust collectors.  The very expensive and large dust collectors just didn’t seem to be doing anything to “collect” the dust.

Dust Collector System

Dust Collector System

You can see that the dust collector is very large.  You actually have to climb on top of them to change out the bags inside.

When the dust collector sales man came to talk to us about dust collection, in the middle of his “Proper Maintenance” speech he happened to mention something about…. “…and of course, if you don’t have the air pulse set at exactly 32 milliseconds, the dust collector isn’t going to work at all.”  “Wait!  What did he say?”  What pulse?”

He explained that Instrument air is puffed through the collector bags with exactly a 32 millisecond pulse at a predetermined interval.  If the pulse is longer or shorter, then it doesn’t work as well.  The idea is that it creates a ripple down the bag which shakes the dust free.  We had been studying our dust collectors in the coal yard, and the interval had been completely turned off and the instrument air was constantly blowing through the dust collectors.  This guy was telling us that it was just supposed to be a quick pulse.

Everyone in the room looked at each other with stunned silence.  The salesman just looked at us and said…. “It’s right there in the instruction manual….”  pointing his finger at the page.   We thought (or said)… “Instruction manual?  We have an instruction manual?”

We said,  “Class dismissed!  Let’s go to the coalyard after lunch and see about adjusting the “pulse” on the dust collectors.

In order to measure a pulse of 32 milliseconds, I needed the oscilloscope that I kept out at the precipitator control room to measure the “Back Corona” when trying to adjust the cabinets to their optimal voltage.  I ran out to the precipitator and retrieved it and brought it with me to the coal yard along with my tool bucket and my handy dandy little screwdriver in my pocket protector:

A pocket protector is a must for electricians and computer nerds who need a place to keep their small tools.

A pocket protector is a must for electricians and computer nerds who need a place to keep their small tools.

When we arrived at the crusher tower where the two long belts sent coal to the Power Plant 1/2 mile away, one of the belts was running.  coal dust was puffing around the equipment making the room hazy, which was normal.  Water hoses were kept running on the floor trying to wash at least some of the dust down the drain.  This was a typical day in the coal handling system.  Coal dust everywhere.

I opened the control cabinet for the dust collector and hooked up the oscilloscope.

I used an Analog oscilloscope like this until we were given a new Digital one where you could zoom in and do all sorts of neat things.

I used an Analog oscilloscope like this until we were given a new Digital one where you could zoom in and do all sorts of neat things.

When we arrived there was no pulsing.  The instrument air was on all the time.  So, I flipped a switch which put it in a pulse mode.  The pulse time was set up to the maximum setting of about a minute (that meant that when the pulse turned on, it stayed on for a minute).  As I was playing with the controls, three of the task force members were standing up on the walkway between the two belts watching the discharge from the dust collector (you see, after the dust collector collected the dust, it dropped it back onto the conveyor belt just up the belt from where the coal dropped onto the belt).  Nothing was coming out of the chute.

As I adjusted the setting down from one minute to one second, I had to keep changing settings on the oscilloscope to measure how long the air took to turn on and off.  When I finally had the pulse down within 1/10 of a second (which is 100 milliseconds), then I could easily measure the 32 millisecond interval that we needed.  I was beginning to think that this wasn’t going to really do anything, but I remembered that I had seen stranger things on the precipitator controls where the difference between a couple of milliseconds is like night and day.

When the pulse was down to 35 milliseconds I looked up toward the conveyor system because I heard a couple of people yelling.  They were running down the walkway as coal dust came pouring out of the dust collector chute causing a big cloud of dust to puff up.  We all ran outside and waited for the dust to settle.  We felt like cheering!

We were practically in disbelief that all we had to do was adjust the pulse of air to the right millisecond pulse and the dust collector began working.  This meant a lot more than a working dust collector.  This also meant that we needed only a fraction of the instrument air (literally about 1/20,000) than we had been using.

In other words.  The new Instrument Air Compressors at the coal yard that had been installed to help boost air pressure at the coal yard since the installation of the dust collectors were really never needed.  And all this was done by turning a screwdriver on a small potentiometer in a control cabinet.  It pays to read the manual.

a small Power Plant potentiometer like this

a small Power Plant potentiometer like this

Along with some rewiring of the controls to the dust collector system, and a redesign of the apron around the dust chutes by Randy Dailey and Tim Crain, the coal handling areas became practically dust free as long as regular preventative maintenance was performed.

Tim Crain

Tim Crain

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

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

That is, everywhere except for the coal dumper.  This is where the coal trains dump their coal into a hopper which is then carried on three conveyors out to the coal pile.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

You can see the conveyor going up to the building right next to the coal pile.  That is from the dumper which is the small off white building next to the fly ash silos.  The crusher tower is the tall thin building at the end of the long belts going up to the plant.

We still had a problem with the dumper.  The cost of buying new dust collectors and putting them outside where they wouldn’t be so quickly corroded by the harsh environment was “too costly”.  Jim Arnold, the maintenance Supervisor made that clear.  We had to come up with another solution.

Without a dust collector, the solution was “Dust Suppression”.  That is, instead of collecting the dust when it is stirred up, spray the coal with a chemical that keeps the dust down in the first place.  This was a good idea, except that it had to be turned off for three months during the winter months when it could freeze up.

A company called Arch Environmental Equipment came and talked to us about their dust suppression system.

Arch Environmental

Arch Environmental

They showed us something called:  The “Dust Shark”.

Dust Shark by Arch Environmental

Dust Shark by Arch Environmental

The dust shark sprayed the belt on the side with the coal and scraped the bottom side in order to make sure it was clean when it passed through.  This was the solution for the dumper.  It also worked well at other locations in the plant where you could use it to keep the area clean from coal when the coal was wet from the rain and would stick to the belt.

The task force was considered a success.  I have two side stories before I finish with this post.

The first is about Danny Cain.

Danny was a heavy smoker.  He had a young look so that he looked somewhat younger than he was. He had been born in July, 1964 (just ask the birthday phantom), so he was 33 during July 1997 when we were working on the task force, but he looked like someone still in college.  Whenever he would pull out a cigarette and put it in his mouth, he suddenly looked like he was still in High School.

I told Danny that one day.  I was always one to discourage people from smoking….  He seemed a little hurt, and I said I was just calling it like I saw it.  He was standing outside the electric shop smoking one day, so I took the air monitor that I used when I had to go in the precipitator and asked Danny if I could borrow his lit cigarette for a moment.

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

I put the butt of the cigarette up to the intake hose for the monitor about long enough for a puff and then I handed it back to him.  The monitor measures the amount of Oxygen in the air, the amount of explosive gases, the amount of Carbon Monoxide and the amount of H2S gas (Hydrogen Sulfide, an extremely toxic gas).  The monitor, as expected began beeping…

What we didn’t expect to see was that not only did the Carbon Monoxide peg out at 999 parts per million, but the H2S went out the roof as well.  In fact, everything was bad. The Percent explosive was at least 50% and the oxygen level was low.  It took about 5 minutes before the meter measured everything clean again.  Danny didn’t want to see that.

I said, “Danny?  Carbon Monoxide Poisoning!  Hello???!!!”

When we were on the Dust Collector Task Force, at one point we had to program “Programmable Logic Controllers” (or PLCs).  I had been to an Allen Bradley school a few years earlier where we had learned the basics for this.  Here is my certificate from 9 years earlier…

PLC Training Certificate

PLC Training Certificate

When Danny and I sat down to program the controller, it became clear that he expected the programming task to take a couple of weeks.  He started out by drawing some high level logic on the white board.  I said… “wait… wait…  let’s just start programming the thing.”  He told me that wasn’t the way we did things.  First we had to figure out the entire program, then we would program it.

The PLCs we were going to program were just some small ones we had bought to run the dust sharks and the dust collectors… Here’s one like it.

MicroLogix PLC like we were programming

MicroLogix PLC like we were programming

I told Danny when I program something I find that its a lot easier and quicker if we just program it as we understand the requirements and then that way we can test it as we go.  Then when we figure out what we need, we will be done.  In fact… it took us 4 hours and we were done… not two weeks.

End of the Danny Cain Side Story…. On to the second side story… much shorter….

I think it was March 2003 (the power plant men can remind me)…. a year and a half after I had left the plant, the Coal Dumper blew up.  It was the middle of the night, a coal train had finished dumping the coal about an hour earlier.  No one was in the dumper at the time and the entire dumper exploded.    The roof of the dumper, as I was told, was blown off of the building.  No injuries or deaths.  The “Dust Shark” Dust Suppression system had been turned off because it was winter.

I suppose that the insurance company ended up paying for that one.  I don’t know.  This is what happens when you say that it is too expensive to replace the dust collectors and instead you buy one of these:

Power Plant Feather Duster

Power Plant Feather Duster

When Power Plant Durability and Automation Goes Too Far

Everyone expects when they enter an elevator and push a button for the 3rd floor that when the doors open they will find themselves on the third floor. It doesn’t occur to most people what actually has to happen behind the scenes for the elevator to go through the motions of carrying someone up three stories. In most cases you want an automated system that requires as little interaction as possible.

I have found while working in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that some systems are better off with a little less than perfect automation. We might think about that as we move into a new era of automated cars, robot soldiers and automatic government shutdowns. Let me give you a for instance.

The coal trains that brought the coal from Wyoming all the way down to the plant would enter a building called “The Dumper.” Even though this sounds like a less savory place to park your locomotive, it wasn’t called a Dumper because it was a dump. It was called a Dumper because it “Dumped.” Here is a picture of a dumper:

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

The coal train would pull into this room one car at a time. I talked about the dumper in an earlier post entitled “Lifecycle of a Power Plant Lump of coal“. As each car is pulled into this building by a large clamp called the “Positioner” (How is that for a name? It is amazing how when finding names for this particular equipment they decided to go with the “practical” words. The Positioner positions the coal cars precisely in the right position so that after the car clamps come down on the car, it can be rotated upside down “Dumping” the coal into the hoppers below. No fancy names like other parts of the power Plant like the “Tripper Gallery” or the “Generator Bathtub” here.

A typical coal train has 110 cars full of coal when it enters the dumper. In the picture of the dumper above if you look in the upper left corner you will see some windows. This is the Dumper Control Room. This is where someone sits as each car pulls through the dumper and dumps the coal.

Not long after the plant was up and running the entire operation of the dumper was automated. That meant that once put into motion, the dumper and the controls would begin dumping cars and continue operating automatically until the last car was through the dumper.

Let me try to remember the sequence. I know I’ll leave something out because there are a number of steps and it has been a while since I have been so fortunate as to work on the dumper during a malfunction… But here goes…

I remember that the first coal car on the train had to positioned without the positioner because… well….. the car directly in front of the first car is, of course, the locomotive. Usually a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Engine.

A picture from Shutterstock of a locomotive pulling a coal train

A picture from Shutterstock of a locomotive pulling a coal train

Before I explain the process, let me show you a picture of the Positioner. This the machine that pulls the train forward:

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The automation begins after the first or second car is dumped. I’ll start with the second car just finishing the process as it rolls back up right after dumping the coal… The car clamps go up.

  • The rear holding arm (that holds the car in place from the entrance side of the dumper) lifts up out of the way.
  • The Positioner begins pulling the entire train forward.
  • Electric eyes on both end of the dumper detect when the next car has entered the dumper.
  • The Positioner adjusts the position of the coal car to the exact position (within an inch or two) by backing up and pulling forward a couple of times.
  • The Holding arm on the back end comes down on the couplings between the two train cars one back from the car that is going to be dumped.
  • The four car clamps come down on the train car at the same time that the dumper begins rotating.
  • The Positioner clamp lifts off of the train car couplings.
  • Water Sprayers come on that are attached to the top of the dumper so that it wets the coal in order to act as a dust suppression.
  • The Positioner travels back to the car clamp between the car that was just emptied before and the car in front of it.
  • As the train car rotates to the desired angle. (I think it’s about 145 degrees), it begins slowing down.
  • When the car has been rotated as far as desired it comes to a stop.
  • The Dumper pauses for a few seconds as all the coal is dumped from the coal car.
  • The Positioner moves back and forth until it is in just the right position for the positioner arm to lower onto the couplings between the cars.
  • The Sprayers turn off.
  • The Dumper begins returning to an upright position.
  • The Positioner arm lowers down onto the clamps between the coal cars.
  • Once the car is upright the dumper stops rotating.
  • The 4 car clamps go up.
  • The Holding arm goes up. And the process is repeated.

This is a beautiful process when it works correctly. Before I tell you about the times it doesn’t work correctly, let me tell you about how this process was a little…uh… too automated…

So. The way this worked originally, was that once the automated process was put into operation after the second car had been dumped, all the dumper control room operator had to do was sit there and look out the window at the coal cars being dumped. They may have had some paperwork they were supposed to be doing, like writing down the car numbers as they pulled through the dumper. It seems that paperwork was pretty important back then.

Each car would pull through the dumper… The coal would be dumped. The next car would be pulled in… etc.

Well. Trains come from Wyoming at any time of the day. Train operators were paid pretty well, and the locomotive engineers would come and sit in the control room while the train was being dumped. Often (more often than not it seemed) the trains would pull into the dumper in the middle of the night. Coalyard operators were on duty 24 by 7.

So, imagine this…. Imagine Walt Oswalt… a feisty sandy haired Irishman at the dumper controls around 3 in the morning watching 110 cars pull through the dumper. Dumping coal…. One after the other. I think the time it took to go from dumping one car to the next was about 2 1/2 minutes. So it took about 3 1/2 hours to dump one train (I may be way off on the time… Maybe one of the operators would like to leave a comment below with the exact time).

This meant that the dumper operator had to sit there and watch the coal cars being slowly pulled through the dumper for about 3 hours. Often in the middle of the night.

For anyone who is older than 25 years, you will remember that the last car on a train was called a Caboose. The locomotive engineers called it a “Weight Car”. This made me think that it was heavy. I don’t know. It didn’t look all that heavy to me… You decide for yourself:

A Caboose

A Caboose

Back in those days, there was a caboose on the back of every train. A person used to sit in there while the train was going down the tracks. I think it was in case the back part of the train accidentally became disconnected from the front of the train, someone would be back there to notice. That’s my guess. Anyway. Later on, a sensor was placed on the last car instead of a caboose. That’s why you don’t see them today. Or maybe it was because of something that happened one night…

You see… it isn’t easy for Walt Oswalt (I don’t mean to imply that it was Walt that was there that night.. well… it sounds like I’m implying that doesn’t it…. I use Walt when telling this story because he wouldn’t mind. I really don’t remember who it was) to keep his eyes open and attentive for 3 straight hours. Anyway… One night while the coal cars were going through the dumper automatically being dumped one by one… there was a point when the sprayers stopped spraying and the 4 car clamps rose, and there there was a moment of pause, if someone had been there to listen very carefully, they might have heard a faint snoring sound coming from the dumper control room.

That is all fine and dandy until the final car rolled into the dumper. You see… One night…. while all the creatures were sleeping (not even a mouse)… the car clamps came down on the caboose. Normally the car clamps had to be raised to a higher position to keep them from tearing the top section off of the caboose.

If it had been Walt… He woke when he heard the crunching sound of the top of the caboose just in time to see the caboose as it swung upside down. He was a little too late hitting the emergency stop button. The caboose rolled over. Paused for a moment as the person manning the caboose came to a rest on the ceiling inside… then rolled back upright all dripping wet from the sprayer that had meant to keep down the dust.

As the car clamps came up… a man darted out the back of the caboose. He ran out of the dumper…. knelt down… kissed the ground… and decided from that moment on that he was going to start going back to church every Sunday. Ok. I exaggerate a little. He really limped out of the dumper.

Needless to say. A decision had to be made. It was decided that there can be too much automation at times. The relay logic was adjusted so that at the critical point where the dumper decides to dump a coal car, it had to pause and wait until the control room operator toggled the “Dump” switch on the control panel. This meant that the operator had to actively decide to dump each car.

As a software programmer…. I would have come up with another solution… such as a caboose detector…. But given the power that was being exerted when each car was being dumped it was probably a good idea that you guaranteed that the dumper control room operator actually had his eyeballs pointed toward the car being dumped instead of rolled back in his head.

I leave you with that thought as I go to another story. I will wait until another time to talk about all the times I was called out at night when the dumper had failed to function.

This is a short story of durability…

I walked in the electric shop one day as an electrician trainee in 1984 to find that Andy Tubbs had taken an old drill and hooked it up to the 480 volt power source that we used to test motors. Ok. This was an odd site. We had a three phase switch on the wall with a fairly large cable attached with three large clips so we could hook them up to motors that we had overhauled to test the amperage that they pulled to make sure they were within the specified amount according to their nameplate.

I hesitated a moment, but I couldn’t resist…. I had to ask, “Andy…. Why have you hooked up that old drill to 480? (it was a 120 volt drill). He replied matter-of-factly (Factly? Can I really say that in public?), “I am going to burn up this old drill from the Osage Plant (See “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace” for more information about Osage Plant) so that I can turn it in for a new one.

Ok. I figured there must be a policy somewhere that said that if you turned in a burned up tool they would give you a new one. I knew that Bud Schoonover down at the toolroom was always particular about how he passed out new tools (I have experienced the same thing at my new job when trying to obtain a new security cable for my laptop).

Anyway. Andy turned the 480 volts on and powered up the drill. The drill began whining as it whirled wildly. Andy stood there holding up the drill as it ran in turbo mode for about five minutes. The drill performed like a champ.

Old Power Drill

Old Power Drill

After showing no signs of burning itself up running on 480 volts instead of 120 volts, Andy let off of the trigger and set it back on the workbench. He said, “This is one tough drill! I think I’ll keep it.” Sure. It looked like something from the 1950’s (and it probably was). But, as Andy said, it was one tough drill. On that day, because of the extra Durability of that old Pioneer Power Plant Drill, Andy was robbed of a new variable speed, reversible drill that he was so craving.

new variable speed reversible drill

new variable speed reversible drill

Comments from original post:

 

Ron October 12, 2013:

Great stories!
Coal trains today have engines at the rear of the train. I hope we never try to dump one of them!

devin October 12, 2013:

It takes about 7 hrs to dump 150 car train

Bruce Kime October 12, 2013:

Wasn’t Walt but a certain marine we won’t mention. They dumped the last car & forgot to put the car clamps in the up maximum position. They give the go ahead for the train to pull the caboose through! Instant convertible caboose! Now there are break away clamps on the north side. And there are locomotives on the rear of the train because the trains are made up of 150 cars .

 

NEO October 12, 2013:

Like you, I can think of several ways to automate the process without dumping the caboose but I think the operator pushing the button may be the best. Automation can get out of hand.

Jack Curtis November 3, 2013:

An engineer used to remind us: “A machine always does what you tell it to…whethr you want it to, or not.”
IF the union or the lawyers require a duty operator on an automated process, I’m all for giving him a button to push and attaching some responsibility. All automation designs are approved by Murphy…Wow! Thanks for the update Bruce!

Power Plant Men Fighting Fires for Fun

Originally Posted October 5, 2012:

The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor, a labor crew hand and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma.  It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country.  They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires.  As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.

It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smouldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames.  In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to driver their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smouldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.

Dirt Mover full of coal

I have seen a spot smouldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over.  That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast.  The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.

You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers, and they did.  The plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers.  As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their pressures an initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it.  This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed.  Even later, the operators inspected them as they made their rounds, since they walked by them during their shifts anyway.

The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:

More than what is needed in your average kitchen

The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well.  Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in our own homes.  Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first.

The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter.  As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth.  I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher.  So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals.  So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.

When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited.  Wow… Great!!!  Fight Fires!  That sounds fun.  A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers.  I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.

Sure.  We watched the training videos.  We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance.  We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business.  One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business.

If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety.  They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.

Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15 minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons.  Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.”  Rain Suit?  What?  It’s about 100 degrees outside.  “I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet”, I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.

I would describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray.  It’s enough to say that it was quite a tangled mess of a contraption.

“Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase  and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side?  Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe…  Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too?  This looks like it might be fun.

That was when the fun began.  One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I realized that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray.  As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene some petroleum product  came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.

This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance.  He lit it and the flames quickly spread over all the structure.  He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire.  As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.

We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think.  If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started.  By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.

Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot…  You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed.  I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.

That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant.  All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes.  They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile).  They were also lined up around the two silver painted million gallon number 2 Diesel tanks.  They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it).

I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (she was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office).  I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant.  I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wild life preserve.

An outdoor Power Plant fire hose cabinet and Metallic Rabbit shade tree

So, we were going to use the fire hose!  That sounded like more fun.  That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up”  — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…

That’s when the real training began.  First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “back up, or else…”  so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose.

4 of us.  Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny  power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them),  Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4 inch fire hose? (or was it just 3 inches?).  There were two hoses actually being used.  One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire.

A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher.  Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:

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

Notice the two different types of sprays in the picture.

Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamplets.  so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.

Well, the most fascinating thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.

This is how you open the nozzle to create the wide barrier spray

Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that tremendous fire when it was done right.  The other fire hose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up.  the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.

Anyway, not long after our first of many fire fighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today“), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor.

A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire.  It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted.  The fire refused to go out for a long time.  It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.

I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me.  A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).

The one important topic that they ingrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight.  We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do.  So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals.  The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away.  A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time.  I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces.  They know what I am talking about.

Comments from Previous Repost:

  1. coffeegrounded  October 6, 2014

    I am extremely proud of my 2006 graduate of OSU’s Fire Protection program! My son-in-law went on to establish his own fire protection services company in Northern California.

    Go OSU!

    Very interesting article; thanks for sharing. I’m forwarding this post to my #1 son. Seeing this article and knowing the integrity of the program is gratifying and greatly appreciated. (My own parents lost their lives in a house fire.) Thanks for spreading the word on fire safety.

  2. Ron Kilman October 7, 2014

    Great story and reminder. After your original post I checked our little fire extinguisher in our kitchen. The pressure gauge was still in the green but it was 10 years old. So we decided to see if it still worked. It did – emptied all the chemical with good pressure. We replaced it with a new one and my wife got some “hands on” experience. Thanks for the reminder.

Suppressing the Truth about Power Plant Coal Dust Collection

Some of you may be aware that an empty grain silo can explode if the dust from the grain is allowed to build up and an ignition source begins a chain reaction that causes the entire grain silo to explode like a bomb.  I haven’t heard about a grain explosion for a few years.  Maybe that is because a lot of effort is put into keeping the silo clean.  Think of how much easier it would be for a coal dust explosion.  After all… we know that coal when turned into a fine powder is highly combustible.

When you are covered in coal dust from head-to-toe day after day you seem to forget just how explosive the coal dust you are washing down can be.  Our coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was concerned after our downsizing in 1994 that by eliminating the labor crew from the roster of available Power Plant Jobs, that the operators may not be able to keep the entire coal handling system free from coal dust.

The plant had already experienced a major explosion the year before (in 1996) the “Dust Collector Task Force” was formed (See the post: “Destruction of a Power Plant God“).  It was clear that the question had been asked by those concerned, “Are there any other areas in the plant that could suddenly explode?”  Two electricians were asked to be on the Dust Collection Task Force. Jimmy Moore and myself.

Jimmie Moore

Jimmie Moore

We had a salesman of our Dust Collector come to the plant and train us on the proper maintenance of the dust collectors that were already in place. When he arrived he showed us a video that showed examples of plants that had explosions caused by coal dust.  Here is a picture I found on Google of a coal dust explosion at a power plant:

Power Plant after a coal dust explosion

Power Plant after a coal dust explosion

We heard a story about a coal plant where the explosion began at the coal yard, worked its way up the conveyor system, blew up the bowl mills and threw debris onto the main power transformer, which also blew up.  Ouch.  We thought it would be a good idea to do something about our coal dust problems.  Stopping an ounce of coal dust is worth a pound of explosives… as the saying goes.

The Instrument and Controls person on our team was Danny Cain.  He had become a Power Plant employee a year before the downsizing and had been at the plant for about four years at this point.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

When we began looking at our dust collectors, we found that the dust collectors on the dumper had been rusted out over the past 18 years since they were first put into operation.  the reason was that they were located down inside the dumper building below ground where they were constantly exposed to coal and water.  I hadn’t seen them actually running for years.  They were definitely going to have to be replaced with something.

Okay class… I know this is boring, but you have to learn it!

We had some fairly new dust collectors on the crusher tower and the coal reclaim, but they didn’t seem to be doing their job.  They used instrument air (which is clean, dehumidified air) in order to flush the coal off of some bags inside.  When they were installed, new instrument air compressors were installed in the coal yard just to handle the extra “instrument air” load for the dust collectors.  The very expensive and large dust collectors just didn’t seem to be doing anything to “collect” the dust.

Dust Collector System

Dust Collector System

You can see that the dust collector is very large.  You actually have to climb on top of them to change out the bags inside.

When the dust collector sales man came to talk to us about dust collection, in the middle of his “Proper Maintenance” speech he happened to mention something about…. “…and of course, if you don’t have the air pulse set at exactly 32 milliseconds, the dust collector isn’t going to work at all.”  “Wait!  What did he say?”  What pulse?”

He explained that Instrument air is puffed through the collector bags with exactly a 32 millisecond pulse at a predetermined interval.  If the pulse is longer or shorter, then it doesn’t work as well.  The idea is that it creates a ripple down the bag which shakes the dust free.  We had been studying our dust collectors in the coal yard, and the interval had been completely turned off and the instrument air was constantly blowing through the dust collectors.  This guy was telling us that it was just supposed to be a quick pulse.

Everyone in the room looked at each other with stunned silence.  The salesman just looked at us and said…. “It’s right there in the instruction manual….”  pointing his finger at the page.   We thought (or said)… “Instruction manual?  We have an instruction manual?”

We said,  “Class dismissed!  Let’s go to the coalyard after lunch and see about adjusting the “pulse” on the dust collectors.

In order to measure a pulse of 32 milliseconds, I needed the oscilloscope that I kept out at the precipitator control room to measure the “Back Corona” when trying to adjust the cabinets to their optimal voltage.  I ran out to the precipitator and retrieved it and brought it with me to the coal yard along with my tool bucket and my handy dandy little screwdriver in my pocket protector:

A pocket protector is a must for electricians and computer nerds who need a place to keep their small tools.

A pocket protector is a must for electricians and computer nerds who need a place to keep their small tools.

When we arrived at the crusher tower where the two long belts sent coal to the Power Plant 1/2 mile away, one of the belts was running.  coal dust was puffing around the equipment making the room hazy, which was normal.  Water hoses were kept running on the floor trying to wash at least some of the dust down the drain.  This was a typical day in the coal handling system.  Coal dust everywhere.

I opened the control cabinet for the dust collector and hooked up the oscilloscope.

I used an Analog oscilloscope like this until we were given a new Digital one where you could zoom in and do all sorts of neat things.

I used an Analog oscilloscope like this until we were given a new Digital one where you could zoom in and do all sorts of neat things.

When we arrived there was no pulsing.  The instrument air was on all the time.  So, I flipped a switch which put it in a pulse mode.  The pulse time was set up to the maximum setting of about a minute (that meant that when the pulse turned on, it stayed on for a minute).  As I was playing with the controls, three of the task force members were standing up on the walkway between the two belts watching the discharge from the dust collector (you see, after the dust collector collected the dust, it dropped it back onto the conveyor belt just up the belt from where the coal dropped onto the belt).  Nothing was coming out of the chute.

As I adjusted the setting down from one minute to one second, I had to keep changing settings on the oscilloscope to measure how long the air took to turn on and off.  When I finally had the pulse down within 1/10 of a second (which is 100 milliseconds), then I could easily measure the 32 millisecond interval that we needed.  I was beginning to think that this wasn’t going to really do anything, but I remembered that I had seen stranger things on the precipitator controls where the difference between a couple of milliseconds is like night and day.

When the pulse was down to 35 milliseconds I looked up toward the conveyor system because I heard a couple of people yelling.  They were running down the walkway as coal dust came pouring out of the dust collector chute causing a big cloud of dust to puff up.  We all ran outside and waited for the dust to settle.  We felt like cheering!

We were practically in disbelief that all we had to do was adjust the pulse of air to the right millisecond pulse and the dust collector began working.  This meant a lot more than a working dust collector.  This also meant that we needed only a fraction of the instrument air (literally about 1/20,000) than we had been using.

In other words.  The new Instrument Air Compressors at the coal yard that had been installed to help boost air pressure at the coal yard since the installation of the dust collectors were really never needed.  And all this was done by turning a screwdriver on a small potentiometer in a control cabinet.  It pays to read the manual.

a small Power Plant potentiometer like this

a small Power Plant potentiometer like this

Along with some rewiring of the controls to the dust collector system, and a redesign of the apron around the dust chutes by Randy Dailey and Tim Crain, the coal handling areas became practically dust free as long as regular preventative maintenance was performed.

Tim Crain

Tim Crain

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

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

That is, everywhere except for the coal dumper.  This is where the coal trains dump their coal into a hopper which is then carried on three conveyors out to the coal pile.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

You can see the conveyor going up to the building right next to the coal pile.  That is from the dumper which is the small off white building next to the fly ash silos.  The crusher tower is the tall thin building at the end of the long belts going up to the plant.

We still had a problem with the dumper.  The cost of buying new dust collectors and putting them outside where they wouldn’t be so quickly corroded by the harsh environment was “too costly”.  Jim Arnold, the maintenance Supervisor made that clear.  We had to come up with another solution.

Without a dust collector, the solution was “Dust Suppression”.  That is, instead of collecting the dust when it is stirred up, spray the coal with a chemical that keeps the dust down in the first place.  This was a good idea, except that it had to be turned off for three months during the winter months when it could freeze up.

A company called Arch Environmental Equipment came and talked to us about their dust suppression system.

Arch Environmental

Arch Environmental

They showed us something called:  The “Dust Shark”.

Dust Shark by Arch Environmental

Dust Shark by Arch Environmental

The dust shark sprayed the belt on the side with the coal and scraped the bottom side in order to make sure it was clean when it passed through.  This was the solution for the dumper.  It also worked well at other locations in the plant where you could use it to keep the area clean from coal when the coal was wet from the rain and would stick to the belt.

The task force was considered a success.  I have two side stories before I finish with this post.

The first is about Danny Cain.

Danny was a heavy smoker.  He had a young look so that he looked somewhat younger than he was. He had been born in July, 1964 (just ask the birthday phantom), so he was 33 during July 1997 when we were working on the task force, but he looked like someone still in college.  Whenever he would pull out a cigarette and put it in his mouth, he suddenly looked like he was still in High School.

I told Danny that one day.  I was always one to discourage people from smoking….  He seemed a little hurt, and I said I was just calling it like I saw it.  He was standing outside the electric shop smoking one day, so I took the air monitor that I used when I had to go in the precipitator and asked Danny if I could borrow his lit cigarette for a moment.

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

I put the butt of the cigarette up to the intake hose for the monitor about long enough for a puff and then I handed it back to him.  The monitor measures the amount of Oxygen in the air, the amount of explosive gases, the amount of Carbon Monoxide and the amount of H2S gas (Hydrogen Sulfide, an extremely toxic gas).  The monitor, as expected began beeping…

What we didn’t expect to see was that not only did the Carbon Monoxide peg out at 999 parts per million, but the H2S went out the roof as well.  In fact, everything was bad. The Percent explosive was at least 50% and the oxygen level was low.  It took about 5 minutes before the meter measured everything clean again.  Danny didn’t want to see that.

I said, “Danny?  Carbon Monoxide Poisoning!  Hello???!!!”

When we were on the Dust Collector Task Force, at one point we had to program “Programmable Logic Controllers” (or PLCs).  I had been to an Allen Bradley school a few years earlier where we had learned the basics for this.  Here is my certificate from 9 years earlier…

PLC Training Certificate

PLC Training Certificate

When Danny and I sat down to program the controller, it became clear that he expected the programming task to take a couple of weeks.  He started out by drawing some high level logic on the white board.  I said… “wait… wait…  let’s just start programming the thing.”  He told me that wasn’t the way we did things.  First we had to figure out the entire program, then we would program it.

The PLCs we were going to program were just some small ones we had bought to run the dust sharks and the dust collectors… Here’s one like it.

MicroLogix PLC like we were programming

MicroLogix PLC like we were programming

I told Danny when I program something I find that its a lot easier and quicker if we just program it as we understand the requirements and then that way we can test it as we go.  Then when we figure out what we need, we will be done.  In fact… it took us 4 hours and we were done… not two weeks.

End of the Danny Cain Side Story…. On to the second side story… much shorter….

I think it was March 2003 (the power plant men can remind me)…. a year and a half after I had left the plant, the Coal Dumper blew up.  It was the middle of the night, a coal train had finished dumping the coal about an hour earlier.  No one was in the dumper at the time and the entire dumper exploded.    The roof of the dumper, as I was told, was blown off of the building.  No injuries or deaths.  The “Dust Shark” Dust Suppression system had been turned off because it was winter.

I suppose that the insurance company ended up paying for that one.  I don’t know.  This is what happens when you say that it is too expensive to replace the dust collectors and instead you buy one of these:

Power Plant Feather Duster

Power Plant Feather Duster

Power Plant Men Show Their True Colors

Originally posted August 23, 2013:

If you happened to stop some Saturday evening at the old gas station just north of the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma back in the late 70’s around supper time, you might run into a group of grubby men that looked like they had fallen into a coal bin. They might look like they had been swimming in a batch of coal dust and sweat. Dark hair greasy with the grime of the day. If you took a closer look and observed their handkerchief after it had been used, you would have seen the black slime soaking through. The pores in their skin darkened by the black dust they had been wading through.

If you had run across a gang of shabbily dressed grubby men like this, then you would have just witnessed a group of Power Plant Men seeking a cool one on their way home after a full day of coal clean-up. Be assured, they drove with their windows down in the 100 degree heat. It helped dry the sweat that had soaked them from the top of their head to their soles of their feet. You may feel a little intimidated by this bunch of seemingly hoodlums carrying six packs of Coors out of the store that looked like nothing more than a shack.

You might think that the snickers that you hear below their breath is because they are laughing at you. You might think that it would be safer to stay in your car with the doors locked and the windows rolled up until this gang of rovers left, even though the circumference of their upper arms indicated to you that it wouldn’t take much effort for one of these brutes to shatter your windshield if they had a mind to.

If per-say you happened to make the mistake of saying something neutral to them, such as “good evening”, you would be surprised by their reply. One might grin real big and spit off to one side (maybe in the reverse order…. spit first and then grin). Another might scratch the top of his head and lift his hat… (oh. That’s backward too) while at the same time looking over your vehicle to see what kind of tires are on it, or what kind of upholstery it has. Another might act as if they can’t hear you and just ignore your “good evening”.

This would have been a real possibility back during the summer of 1979 or 1980 at this one particular power plant. You may have even noticed a light blue Volkswagen Sirocco with a young guy sitting in the back seat waiting for a couple of lugs to return with their six packs under their arms for the trip back to Stillwater where they had left 12 hours earlier. That young guy in the back of the car…. that would have been me. Observing the parade of worn Power Plant Men on their way home after a day of coal cleanup. I wrote about days like this in a post called: “Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal“.

Yeah. Just like this

Yeah. Just like this. This is a copy of a picture that can be purchased at http://depositphotos.com/2691212/stock-photo-Dirty-hands.html

I met many of the Power Plant Men those first few summers when I worked as a Summer Help at the plant. I didn’t really get to know them until I had worked as a full time employee for many years. I wasn’t like this group of Power Plant Men that seemed like a bunch of misfits that somehow stumbled into performing great feats almost as if it was by accident. At first I figured that most of them were just really lucky. Later I learned that these lumps of coal were really diamonds in disguise.

Today, looking back I realize that each of the True Power Plant Men were some of the wisest, kindest, and most caring people I would ever know. I guess I ran across this the first summer as a summer help when people would offer to do things for me for no reason other than they could. When this would happen I would be suspicious at first that either a joke was being played on me, or someone was going to want to use this as leverage for something later.

This thought was short-lived, as all I had to do was look in their eyes to see their sincerity. I had grown up looking into the eyes of deceit. I could tell when I was being snookered. It didn’t take long to find that the True Power Plant Men really did care for my well-being, even when my well-being seemed to being doing just fine.

I suppose i could go down a list of times where power plant men did something nice for me. I probably would just be describing a regular day at work with this bunch of grubby guys in tee shirts and jeans and work boots. This post would become long and monotonous pretty fast. So, let me just focus on one example that illustrates what I’m talking about.

The following story follows a regular theme when it came to Power Plant Men heroism. I will preface it with a short side story…

Back during the late 70’s and early 80’s there were a few medical miracles that had surfaced that were said to cure cancer. One example of this was Vitamin B-17. It is found in fruit seeds. People found that when taken in regular doses, cancer can be prevented and even cured. Of course, the person seeking this cure can’t wait until they are on their deathbed when they try to find a sudden cure that is going to pull them out of the jaws of death.

What makes B-17 probably the most easily accessible cure for cancer is how fast the Cancer industry, that is, the Pharmaceutical and the AMA quickly tried to ban anything with enough vitamin B-17 in it from the market. They didn’t call it Vitamin B-17. They called it “Laetrile”. If there had been nothing to it, then they would have treated it like every other snake oil remedy that came around. They would have ignored it.

People in the United States that wanted to be treated with Vitamin B-17 for their cancer had to go to Mexico. They were happy to treat you down there. Raw apricot seeds were banned from the stores because they are a good source for this vitamin. Well. They couldn’t really ban apple seeds. I think people knew many years ago that eating an apple each day would keep the doctor away. As a child long before the word “Laetrile” had hit the news wire, I remember some people that would eat the entire apple, only leaving the stem. They insisted that the best stuff was in the apple seeds. Maybe Johnny Appleseed was on a mission from God when he went across the country planting apple orchards.

The argument was that Laetrile (Vitamin B17) contained Cyanide and that it could possibly be released and become toxic in the body. — This is the same argument that those in favor of using Laetrile were making. They believe that the cyanide is released by toxins emitted by cancer cells, and in this way, the cyanide actually targets the cancer cells. By the way, the chemical symbol for Cyanide is: CN.

CN is Cyanide. You can see it in the middle of the chemical diagram. Only this isn't Laetrile (vitamin B17). This is the chemical structure of Vitamin B12.

CN is Cyanide. You can see it in the middle of the chemical diagram. Only this isn’t Laetrile (vitamin B17). This is the chemical structure of Vitamin B12.

Anyway. This was also before there was anything like the Internet (because…. Al Gore hadn’t invented it yet). So, in order to hear the alternate viewpoint than the governments, you had to read newspapers that were “on the fring”. Anyway, during that time around 1980 after the Laetrile ban, people were growing suspicious of the cancer doctors and whether they really cared to cure their patients or just grab their money while they were on their way down. The argument was that one person in California had died from apparently being poisoned by cyanide after taking Laetrile. Never mind that he was on his deathbed already from cancer and had only weeks to live.

Today is a different story, where there are a lot of homeopathic methods for fighting cancer. Laetrile is still banned I think, but who is going to ban the apple seed? — Oh. I guess they pick them before they have seeds these days, and where they used to press the entire apple to make apple cider, they may core them now first…. I’m sure it is because it makes the cider taste better…. Don’t you think? Or is it the added sugar…. maybe.

End of the Side Story Almost…

Toward the end of my first summer as a summer help in 1979 I worked for two weeks with Aubrey Cargill and Ben Hutchinson clearing out driftwood from the miles of dikes that had been built on the man-made lake to route the water around the lake from the discharge to the intake so it had time to cool. I wrote about this in the post “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“. Ben and Aubrey were best friends. They never told me that, it was just like they were two peas in a pod. Where one went, the other was always right by their side.

Well. 10 years after we had been tossing driftwood up the dikes into the dump truck, Aubrey had early retired from plant life, leaving his best buddy to fend for himself. Ben had become a foreman. I never heard a complaint about Ben as a foreman, but then, I wasn’t listening, so if someone had told me something negative, I’m sure it would have went in one ear and out the other and something inside me would have marked that person on my list of “Not True Power Plant Men”.

So, why this side story of cancer cures? Well. Around the summer of 1989 Ben Hutchinson began his fight with cancer. He took all the regular cures for cancer…. like “chemo-therapy”. — Oh. Now that is safe…. yeah. No one would ever feel poisoned by that…

Anyway. After trying all the regular cures, Ben was told that there was nothing left for him to do but to lay down and die. He was given so many months to live and sent home.

At this time there was a doctor in Athens Greece named Dr. Alivazatos that was reported to be curing cancer patients at a rate of 60%. He would say that the 40% that die come to him too late to be cured. Otherwise he would be able to cure them all. He had some special treatment that he was willing to share with the world, but he wanted to do it in a way where it was assured that he would receive credit for it. Not understanding the medical system in the United States, he said that he was waiting to be invited to the United States by the Medical community where he would tell them all how to do what he was doing.

Dr. Alivazatos, Athens Greece

Dr. Alivazatos, Athens Greece

When the Cancer doctors had drained Ben’s funds and sent him home to die, that was when the True Power Plant Men showed their true colors. They had heard about this doctor performing miracle cancer cures in Athens Greece and they were determined that Ben was not going to go down without a fight.

During the winter, while an overhaul was going on at our plant, barbecues were setup to raise money. Donations were taken. Requests went out to the other plants for help.

I don’t recall the exact amount that was raised. But I believe it was well over $30,000.00. Ben was sent to Athens for treatment. He was sent to Dr. Alivarazatos. Ben arrived too late. After his month of treatments there, he was sent home in March 1990, somewhat better than he had left, but still his cancer was too far gone by the time he had made it to the doctor’s doorstep, and by June, Ben succumbed to the cancer and died on the 13th of June.

— A personal note. June 13 is the feast day for St. Anthony. He is my patron saint and has been a personal friend of mine since my childhood.

St. Anthony of Padua

St. Anthony of Padua

I like to picture St. Anthony there with Ben when he died, taking his hand and leading him up to the pearly gates where St. Peter was standing… Without looking up, St. Anthony says…. “A True Power Plant Man…” St. Peter nods and passes him through without checking the roster. Once inside, an angel hands Ben his clean white robe. Ben puts it on, and by the time he pulls it over his head and straightens it out, it is all stained with black coal dust. The angel looks a little confused and St. Anthony, standing beside him in his brown robe with the bald spot on the top of his head says, “Power Plant Man….” The angel nods in understanding….. — end of personal note.

The Power Plant Men didn’t sit around and complain that they threw away good money to send Ben to Greece. They knew the odds were thin when they sent him. It didn’t matter to them. True Power Plant Men cherish Life. They live from day-to-day taking risks in a dangerous situation, yet they are safe, not for themselves, but for their family and friends. One extra day of life for Ben was well worth it.

This example of Ben was not the exception, it was the norm. Whenever a Power Plant Man was in need, there were 100 Power Plant Men there to help them. Never hesitating. I would say that they love each other as if they were all part of the same family. Actually, I have no doubt about it.

Oh. A side note. Dr. Alivazatos was (and some would say conveniently) killed in a hit and run accident in 1991. No one to date has been able to duplicate his treatment and many believe that he was a fraud, though he had been tried and found not guilty

Comment from preevious post

  1. sacredhandscoven August 28, 2014

    Beautiful story, thank you for sharing it. Takes me back to the days when you did for people, because that is what people do. It is just a pity that only a few of us are raising our kids in the old way, nowadays. True Power Plant Men sound a lot like the Feed Mill Men that I was raised by and with. Daddy was a feed mill worker from 17 to 56 until his emphysema got so bad he had to retire. All three brothers and one of my sisters went on to work there too for a decade or more until daddy convinced them they weren’t safe there.

    Again, thanks for a return to a more precious time of life.

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

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

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

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

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Rubber Mallet just like this

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

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

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

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

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

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

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

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a tee shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 150 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

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

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

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

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

Half-face respirator

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

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

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

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

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

Needle Gun

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

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

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

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

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

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

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Jonathan Caswell August 12, 2014

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

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

  2. Ron Kilman August 13, 2014

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

 

Not a Fan of French Power Plant Fan Filters

Originally posted August 2, 2013:

I had only been an electrician a couple of months before I heard about Power Plant Louvers. My first thought was that this was a mispronunciation of the word “Louvre”. I remembered how Marland McDaniel would pronounce the word “Italian”. He pronounced it “It-lee-un”. The first time he said that I asked him what he had said, and he said, “So, You’re an It Lee Un Huh? An It-Lee-Un from It-Lee. Meaning “An Italian from Italy”.

So, when I heard the word Louver, I immediately said to myself “ok. They are probably trying to say the word “Louvre” (pronounced “Loove” which rhymes with “move”). Why shouldn’t they be trying to say the name of the most famous museum in the world. After all. When Sonny Karcher wanted to say there were a lot of things, he would say that there were “boo-coos” of them, When I asked him what “Boo-coos” meant he explained that it was French for “A lot”. Then I understood that he was mispronouncing the word “Beau-coup” (pronounced: “Bo Coo”). I suspected that everyone knew about the Louvre in Paris, France. I had first visited the Louvre in 1974 when I was 13 with my father on our way from Rome to Liverpool which I mentioned in the post “Power Plant Snitch“.

The Louvre in Paris France.  The home of the Mona Lisa and the Venus De-Milo.

The Louvre in Paris France. The home of the Mona Lisa and the Venus De-Milo.

It didn’t surprise me that they may have named a motor after the Louvre (as we were told to go replace a Louver Motor when we were doing filters). I half expected it. I figured it was somewhere up in the Tripper Gallery which is where the coal feeds into the coal silos above the bowl mills. I explained about the Tripper Gallery in the post “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“. I have expected to see painting lining the walls when I first entered the Tripper Gallery.

So. I mentioned that we were supposed to replace a Louver Motor while we were “Doing Filters”. As a new electrician (which in my head an electrician was a vision of “elitism” going about the plant fixing electric circuits and running conduit and pulling wire), I soon learned from my foreman Charles Foster that as an electrician we were responsible for anything that had a wire going to it. That meant… well. Just about anything, one way or another. From water fountains, to elevators, to air filters.

Air Filters? Really? Not that I minded changing out air filters. It was just the connection to being an electrician that was confusing me. Ok. I could understand the filters that were on motors. Since motors were something we worked on all the time. It was the air handling filters that I was having a trouble connecting. Needless to say. within a few months my expectations of what an “electrician” meant was much more down to earth.

Even though we were the “elite” group of magical maintenance men (and woman), we were also the team that was looked to for all sorts of other tasks that was too involved for the labor crew, and too vague to fit under Mechanical Maintenance, because somewhere, there was a wire attached. God forbid if a labor crew hand was electrocuted while changing out a bank of paper air filters. — Ok. It’s not like me to complain… — or maybe in my old age, it is becoming more common… I’m not sure.

So. In most houses there are two types of filters. There is what I would call a “Paper Filter”, and there is a “Metal Filter”. The paper filter is found in the air conditioner intake. You probably don’t change it out as often as you should, but you know what I’m talking about. The metal filter is probably over your stove in your oven vent. — Oh…. You didn’t think about that one? Better go clean it then….

The Power Plant is the same. There are both paper filters and metal filters, and things we would call “Bag Filters”. — Oh.. yes. and coffee filters… but I’m not going to talk about Coffee filters in this post other than to say that, “yes. We did have coffee filters also.”

Power Plant Coffee Maker Coffee Filter

Power Plant Coffee Maker Coffee Filter

Ok. A short side story… The person that was appointed to drive the truck was responsible for making sure the coffee maker was ready to go by break time. Only, when I was the designated truck driver I told everyone that I was not going to make the coffee. My reason was that I don’t drink coffee, and I wouldn’t know how to make a good cup of coffee and they could be sure that if I made it, it was going to be as thick as syrup. — The rest of the Electric shop agreed that it would not be a good idea for me to make their coffee, so either Andy or Dee made the coffee when I was on Truck Driver Duty. — End of side story.

So, when we were placed on Filter Duty… That meant that we went around the plant and changed out filters for air handlers, and we cleaned and coated the metal filters that were used on motors. This task took about a week. “A week?” you say? Yep. I don’t remember the exact numbers, though at one point in my career I had counted everyone of the them just to amuse my self… but just one air handler for the main switchgear had about 50 large paper filters and if I remember correctly had another 50 bag filters behind them.

Industrial Paper Air Handling Unit Filter

Industrial Paper Air Handling Unit Filter. They kind of look like Modern Art I suppose

Here is the bag filters that usually were attached to the back side of the paper filters:

Industrial Air Handler Bag Filter

Industrial Air Handler Bag Filter. Except ours weren’t pink and they weren’t on a beach.

First we had to remove the old filters that were often crawling with various kinds of flying insects that had been stuck to the filters since they flew too close and were sucked onto the filter. Then we installed the new filters in their place on a wall made of a large metal frame designed specifically for these filters. I think the reason they have a picture of the beach with this bag filter is because usually when you are trying to fit the bag filter into the basket you often thought that you would rather be at the beach than doing this task.

So. In the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were a set of very large motors that spun the large fans that blew air into the boiler and that blew the exhaust up the smoke stack. Each of these motors (and we have two of each kind), had a set of large metal filters on them. You had to remove a large panel bolted to the side of the motors to remove the filters. — The motors were almost always running when this was being done. After all. We can’t stop lighting Oklahoma City just because it’s time to clean the motor filters on the fans on the boilers….

The metal filters reminded me of the filters over the stove when i was a cook at Sirloin Stockade. We would have to take them out each night and run them through the dishwasher after all the dishes had been washed after closing. Then the dishwasher was put in a self-cleaning mode to clean out all the gunk from the filters.

Galvanized, Stainless Steel Framed Air Filter used in large motors.  This is a about 2 feet by 2 feet square.

Galvanized, Stainless Steel Framed Air Filter used in large motors. ours is a about 2-1/2 feet by 2 feet in the largest motors.

Then we had pump motors around the plant and down at the river that had smaller versions of these metal filters. Each of these metal filters were taken to the shop where we used a high pressure washer (one that would take the paint off of your car), and we would disintegrate the bugs that were stuck to these filters using the high pressure washer until the filters were cleaned. Then after letting them dry, we would coat them with a “filter coat” that would collect dust so that we wouldn’t have to wait too long before they were dirty again.

Well. There were some that didn’t like using the filter coat. Especially if they thought they might have to be cleaning the same filters themselves the next time. This happened when we decided to split the Filter Duty up between teams once. We decided that one team was going to be responsible for Unit 1 and the other team was going to be responsible for Unit 2, and we split up the air filters so that they were pretty evenly divided.

When we did this, an incredible thing happened. Each time we had to clean our filters, they were really dirty. Half the time the other team cleaned their filters they were not very dirty. It was obvious what was happening…. someone wasn’t using the filter coat. We all knew that it was “Ain’t My Mota” (translated “not my motor) Michael Rose. There was nothing anyone could really do about it. His foreman tried and tried to reform him, but there was really only one cure.

Talking about “Ain’t My Mota” Michael reminds me of one guy that was on our crew, Gary Wehunt. It wasn’t that he cut corners. It’s just that he always wanted to do the easiest jobs first and work his way up to the worse jobs. I was the other way around. I always wanted to get the tough jobs over with right away, and then cruise on down to the easier jobs.

So, when I was working with Dee (Diana Brien) cleaning motor filters, we would start with the bowl mill motors and then work our way over to the big fan motors. Then we would end up down at the river cleaning the river pump motor filters. When I was working with Gary, he always wanted to go straight to the river pumps. I always had the feeling that he thought that there might be a chance that by the time the Bowl Mill motors (which were always caked with Coal Dust) he would be called off to go work on an air conditioner instead. To each their own.

So. What is a Louver? I guess I forgot to mention that. A Louver is the metal flap that opens to let the air in. When the air handler is off, the louver closes. Before it starts up, the Louver opens so the air can pass through the filters. It is like a set of blinds on a window. The Louver Motor opens and closes the Louvers:

Large Metal Louvers for an Industrial Air Handler

Large Metal Louvers for an Industrial Air Handler

Today I am not able to change out the filter for my air conditioner in my house without having a flashback to the time I spent replacing filters at the plant covered with dirt, coal dust, fly ash and bugs. I had reminded myself often early on after I joined the electric shop as an electrician what Charles Foster had told me when i was still a janitor.

In my new job I sit in a clean office area with people sitting all around typing away on their computers or talking to one another. But out of the corner of my ear I can hear the noise every so often up in the ceiling above the false ceiling of the air handler louvers adjusting the air flow as the climate control detects that more air is needed in another area.

My coworkers may think I’m sort of strange (for a lot of reasons, but one of them may be) because as I’m working away on the computer apparently oblivious to what is going on around me, I may suddenly break out in a big smile. Why? They may wonder. Because I can hear that louver slowly changing position. They sound like they are pneumatically controlled, but there is no mistaking the distinct low grind of the flaps as they slowly change. So, without stopping what I’m doing, a grin may appear on my face.

Charles had come up to me when I was a janitor while I was working on the floor scrubber in the main switchgear and asked me if I would think about becoming an electrician. He said that a lot of being an electrician was cleaning things. He had noticed that I took a lot of pride in the way I cleaned and that he thought I would make a good electrician.

I did enjoy being a Janitor and having someone encourage me to become an electrician was all I needed to pursue the honorable trade of “Electrician”. It didn’t take me long once I joined the shop to learn that Charles wasn’t stretching the truth when he said that a lot of what an electrician does is clean things.

I spent 18 years as an electrician at the Power Plant before moving on. Throughout that time, my wife never knew what to expect when I came home from work. My clothes could be just as clean as when I left in the morning, or (most likely), they would be covered with Soot or Coal Dust from the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. One thing she could usually count on when I walked in the door was that I would have a smile on my face for having the privilege to spend a day at work with such a great group of Power Plant Heroes.

“I Think I Can, I Think I Can” and Other Power Plant Chants

Originally Posted on August 3, 2012 (I added a picture of Walt Oswalt):

The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage.  It wasn’t finished during the first summer.  The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House  and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts.  A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.

I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“).  The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:

brushhog

Almost Like this without the safety guards and just about as new

It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies).  The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself.  Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise.  This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.

Tractor Weights that fit on the front of the tractor

I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.

The dam had a slope this steep but  much was taller

It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep.  I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to.  It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.

That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over.  So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope.  That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over.  It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over.  The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.

Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri.  This greatly effected my father.  He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today.  As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death.  Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.

It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt.  Every plant must have at least one person like Walt.  He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it.  I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own.  Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.

Walt reminded me of Jackie Wright only with more hair

I now have an actual picture of Walt that I found laying around….

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt — See the resemblence?  not much more hair

One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11.  These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coalyard all the way up to the plant.  You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post.  Finding the opportunity for a challenge, I volunteered.

I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt.  He was working out of the coalyard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt.  Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down.  It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while.  We could blast the tin enclosure with the high pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time.  This looked like it was going to be a fun job.

Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt.  Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also.  So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns.  it is a big loop.

Directly underneath this conveyor is the return for the belt

So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11.  Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower.  During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know…  Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt).  The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).

Disney’s Seven Dwarfs Mining

At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller.  After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.

Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it.  We could see that the roller was bad.  For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant.  The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers.  We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.

I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind.  He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did.  When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside.  When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning.  Now it was dark.  We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11.  I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch.  Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.

We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coalyard Maintenance Building.  This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before.  This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.

A Conex Box

We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews.  In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it.  Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly.  We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt.  I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.

When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work.  We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later.  See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).

Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway.   We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller.  At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coalyard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.

Socket Wrench with extension

I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt.  I think it was around 10pm.  We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night.  Walt said he would bring it back to the coalyard on Monday morning.

We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on.  I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.

I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator.  The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.

First Impression of Charles Buchanan

Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.  There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant.  Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck.  If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”

That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like.  Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes.  Something we take for granted until the power goes out.

Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:

A convoy of Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans in the dark

Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor.  See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.

Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.

Here is a YouTube video of James Taylor singing this song:

If your aren’t able to play youtube videos directly from the picture… here is the link:  “You’ve got a Friend

Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator

Originally posted on July 6, 2012:

I suppose that many parents while raising their children would hear them say, “Dad, can you read that story to us again about the pirates that go to the island to find the treasure but Jim Hawkins fights them single-handed?” Or their children might say to their mother, “Will you tell us the story again about how you met daddy?” In my household, my children would say, “Dad, tell us another story about how you played a joke on Gene Day when you were working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in Oklahoma? Those are always the best!”

As I pointed out in my third post this year called “Power Plant Humor And Joking With Gene Day” the first time I met Gene Day, I could tell that he was the type of person that would take a joke well, or so I thought…. One of the favorite stories my daughter would like for me to tell her as she was growing up was the one where I had created a Psychological Profile of Gene Day, who at that time, an Auxiliary Operator.

It began one day when I was leaving the electric shop through the Turbine Generator (T-G) building ground floor. A very noisy location as large steam pipes wound around under the Turbines where the steam caused a rumbling or whining sound. It was normal when walking through this area to reach up to the ear plugs that were draped over your shoulders and put them in your ears because the decibels were dangerously high if you were exposed earplugless too long.

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

I stepped from the landing leading from the electric shop and started toward number 1 boiler when I spied Gene Day making his way around the first floor of the T-G building inspecting equipment and marking his documents indicating that they were operating correctly. As I saw him turn toward my direction I quickly dodged behind the nearest metal pillar (I-Beam). I peaked my head out from behind the pillar and took out the notepad that was in my back pocket, and the pen from my vest pocket pocket protector.

A pocket protector is a must for electricians and computer nerds who need a place to keep their small tools.

Gene saw me and gave me a suspicious look as I began feverishly writing in my notepad while looking from my notepad back to Gene and then back to what I was writing. After I had done this for about 10 seconds or so, I put my pad away, my pen back in the pocket protector and strolled away toward unit 1 to continue my work.

A notepad like this

It happened that this particular week was Gene’s week to monitor the equipment in the T-G building, so throughout the week he would be making his way somewhere around the T-G building with his clipboard in hand. Each time I encountered him I would do the same thing. I would visibly hide behind a beam and write notes in my notepad. I saw Gene rather frequently during the week because the majority of the time, I left the electric shop by going through the T-G room to one of the boilers and then to the precipitators, where I spent most of my time working at this time in my career (but that is another story for a later time).

Each time, Gene would watch me suspiciously knowing that I was just messing with him, but not exactly sure what I was “up to”.   At the time, I wasn’t sure either.   So I just wrote down what I saw Gene doing, that way, if he ran over and grabbed my notepad from me, it wouldn’t say anything other than what I saw.

It had happened at the plant a few years earlier when I was a janitor that the company had hired an efficiency expert to monitor the employees at the plant.  He would walk around the plant with a stopwatch observing the employees. When he saw them he would write notes on his clipboard. It became very unnerving because you would walk around the corner and there he would be standing writing something down about you.

I went to the Assistant Plant Manager Bill Moler and told him that this creepy guy keeps showing up in the main switchgear by the janitors closet. And every time he sees me, he writes something down. I told Bill that it really bothered me.  He explained that he is an efficiency expert and he has a certain path that he takes throughout the day and takes a snapshot of what the workers are doing at that moment and writes it down. By doing that he calculates how efficient we are.  It seemed pretty silly to me, because most mechanics when they saw him coming put their tools down and did nothing while he walked by until he was out of sight again.

When I was on the labor crew a few weeks later, and I was blowing coal dust off of all the I-Beams above the bowl mills with a high pressure air hose, I looked down, and through my fogged up goggles I could see this guy standing directly under me. I was about 50 feet above him crawling across an I-Beam with the air hose blowing black dust everywhere. He had crossed my barrier tape to go into the bowl mill area to see how efficient I was being.

This is the type of barrier tape I was using. It is made of woven plastic fibers.

I was so mad I turned off my air hose, climbed down the wall Spiderman-like (no. not head first) and went straight into the A-Foreman’s office and told Marlin McDaniel that the Efficiency Expert had crossed my barrier tape and was standing directly under me as I was blowing down the beams with air.

It turned out that the Efficiency Expert had gone upstairs to complain that some guy in the bowl mill had dumped a bunch of coal dust on him while he was monitoring him from below. Evidently, he wasn’t expert enough to know you weren’t supposed to cross someone’s barrier tape without permission, as was indicated on the caution tags that were tied to the barrier tape. From that point on, the efficiency expert (now in lowercase) had to be accompanied by someone from the plant to make sure he wasn’t breaking any safety rules and putting himself at harm.

To make a long side story short, we turned out to be so efficient, people came from all over the world to study us. Somebody downtown hired the efficiency expert full time, but later he was laid off during the first downsizing.

He reminds me of a person on an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation where this guy Lieutenant Commander Remmick comes aboard the Enterprise and he walks around inspecting everything and asking everyone questions that make them uncomfortable and at the end asks Picard if he could come work on the Enterprise. He looked so much like him, that I thought maybe our efficiency expert went to Hollywood to become an actor.

Lieutenant Commander Remmick

Back to Gene Day. I suppose the thought of the efficiency expert may have been going through my mind as I was taking notes about Gene Day at work. Like I said, at the time, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it.

It finally came to me on Thursday morning. This was the last day that Gene was going to be on the day shift, so I figured I might as well do something about it. So when I entered the shop that morning, I sat down at the desk of my foreman Andy Tubbs and began to write. The title at the top of the page was: “The Psychological Profile of Gene Day”.

Using the notes I had taken during the week, I wrote things like the following: “Gene Day walks around the Turbine Generator building with a clipboard in his hand trying desperately to look like he’s doing something important. He constantly hopes that someone is watching him because he dislikes doing so much work to act busy for no reason.

At times Gene Day gets paranoid and believes that he sees people spying on him from behind every corner (especially I-Beams). Sometimes Gene Day stands in the middle of the T-G floor staring up into space as if he forgot what he was supposed to be doing.” I’m sure I wrote more, but I don’t remember everything… but I do remember the second from the last sentence. I will save that for a couple of paragraphs from now.

I took my Psychological Profile of Gene Day and went up to the Control Room. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Gene had just walked over toward the break room behind the Auxiliary Control Panel so I walked over by the Shift Supervisor’s office and I leaned against the top of the large Blue Monitor and placed the Psychological Profile on the top of the monitor in front of me.

Less than a minute later Gene came walking around behind me and seeing the paper on the top of the monitor came up behind me and looked over my shoulder and began to read….. He wasn’t trying to hide the fact that he was reading the paper, and I obviously knew he was there, and the title in large bold letters did say, “The Psychological Profile of Gene Day”. So, he read on.

I heard a few chuckles as he read through my interpretation of what he had done during the week. Then he came to the “Second from the Last Sentence”, as I could hear him reading quietly in my ear… The sentence read, “Gene Day sneaks up behind people and reads their private material over their shoulder!” — Bingo! I had him!

When he read that he grabbed me by the throat and started to Throttle me! Shaking me back and forth. This would have been a humdinger of a joke at that point, but I had one more sentence up my sleeve… ur… I mean on the paper….

As I was waivering (is that a word?) back and forth between life and death I managed to eke out something like: “Wait! There’s More!”…. Gene Day let up on me a little and looked down at the page and read the last sentence…… It read….. “Gene Day tries to strangle people who are only trying to help him by creating his Psychological Profile.”

That was all it took. Another perfect joke played on Gene Day, and I was able to live to tell about it. When Gene read that he was stunned into dismay. Giggling as hard as he could he retreated shaking his head in defeat.

Now, I know that Gene reads these posts, and he may remember this story a little differently, and I’ll give him that because Gene is older than dirt and his memory isn’t that good. But I was the one that was being strangled, and I still have a vivid image of those few moments. Not only do I, but so do my children, who will one day tell their children, who will say, “Mommy, will you tell us that story again about how Grandpa was strangled by Gene Day that time in the Control Room at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in Oklahoma?”