About a year after I had joined the electric shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, when it was my week to be the truck driver in Fall of 1984, I had an conversation with a contract electrician that I have never forgotten. It was with a guy named Mark Meeks. I have talked about him before in the post entitled, “Life Cycle of a Power Plant Lump of Coal“.
At the time, Mark was working as a contract help for the electric shop. He had been hired to help Mike Rose and Bill Ennis to work on Freeze Protection. I was driving him to the coal yard. He was telling me how he liked working on a job for a while and then he would move on to do another job working somewhere else.
I replied back that I liked having a job where no one had ever been laid off. The electric company had been in existence for about 70 years and had never had a downsizing. I noticed that when I said that, Mark paused and thought about what I said. I was not surprised when a few weeks later, Mark was hired as a plant electrician in the shop.
I’m not saying that no one was ever fired from a power plant. I’m just saying that there wasn’t a general downsizing where a group of people were laid off. After all. you can’t really ship the jobs overseas. Not when you want to provide electricity to Oklahoma City. So, as long as you did your job and showed up to work on time, you had job until it was time to retire. That type of job security sure felt good.
All good things have to come to an end at some point. Toward the end of 1986, Martin Louthan, the Superintendent over all the Power Plants, came to our plant to talk to us. He told us that when our plant was created, it was engineered so that it would accommodate 6 units. At the time we had two. He said that when they staffed the plant, they hired enough people to operate and maintain four units.
He explained that when the oil boom went bust in 1982, it changed everything. The demand for electricity dropped instead of increased as the company had projected. So, our power plant had too many employees for the foreseeable future. We were going to have to downsize. At the time we had over 350 employees.
I think we all knew that we had too many employees at the time. There was a lot of downtime when the maintenance crews had to look for something to do. There are innumerable “for instances” I could bring up. Like times when a team of welders had to go weld something at the train gate, which would normally take a couple of hours. Instead of having it done by lunch time, the crew would park their truck at the train gate, way out where no one would bother them, and listen to the radio for a week.
There were a lot of times like these where there just wasn’t enough work during a regular work week to keep everyone busy. Everyone seemed to have their own special place where they could go take a nap if they needed one. I think we all figured that they kept us all around because when it came time for overhaul, everyone was hard at work making all kinds of overtime. Anyway. We knew it was true. There were too many employees at our plant. Especially since we weren’t going to be expanding anytime soon.
So, here is how the company decided to downsize the company. They offered everyone a “Voluntary Separation Package.” (Or VSP as we refer to it at Dell where I work today – or I did when I originally wrote this post… Now I work at General Motors who just recently – in 2019 had a VSP of their own). They would give you so many weeks of pay for every year of service you had with the company. I don’t remember the exact amount. The employees had until a certain date to decide.
Employees that were over 55 years old would be able to take an early retirement package that would amount to a normal retirement if they had stayed until they had reached retirement age. Our retirement pension plan had grown large enough that it could comfortably absorb those who would early retire. You had until a certain date when you had to decide whether or not you would take the early retirement.
There was one caveat to the taking the Voluntary Separation Package or the early retirement. You had to decide to take one of these options before you were told if your permanent position with the company was going to be terminated at the end of the year. That is, if by the end of June, if you didn’t take the package, then in July if you were told that your position was being eliminated, then the package and retirement was no longer an option. So, if you doubted your “good standing” with the company, you probably would be inclined on taking the retirement package if you were old enough.
In the electric shop I think we had one person old enough to retire. Bill Ennis. He decided to stick it out and hope that his position would still be around. Bill was a good worker, so if that had anything to do with it, he was in good shape. Only one person in our shop decided to take the Voluntary Separation Package.
It broke my heart the day that Arthur Hammond told me he was going to take the package. He only had three years with the company, so his package wasn’t going to be that big, but there was a lump sum associated with it as well. I explained his decision in the post “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“. Arthur was a dear friend of mine. I feared that he hadn’t thought this decision through. On one hand, he was used to moving from job to job like Mark Meeks as a Contract electrician. On the other hand, he was raising a family who would benefit from a stable income without having to move from place to place.
The one an only good thing about Arthur Hammond leaving was that Scott Hubbard moved to the electric shop in his place. This was fortunate for Scott because the testing team was not surviving the downsizing and his position was surely going away. I had a bias toward the testers from their inception because when I was on the labor crew, we had not been allowed to apply for the testing jobs. I was also biased because Scott was replacing my friend Arthur. I explained this in the post: “Take a Note Jan, Said the Supervisor of Power Production“. As it turned out, Scott and I became like brothers. We worked together for years, and carpooled most of the time after he joined the shop.
As a side note. I ‘fessed up to Scott one day while we were driving home from work…. He was driving, and I told Scott, “I just want you to know that when you first came to the electric shop. I didn’t like you. It wasn’t anything you did. I just didn’t like you because you were on the testing team.” When I told Scott that, I could tell that he was uncomfortable and that he felt hurt by what I was saying. He turned his head away from me. I went on…. “When I came to know you while we have worked together, I just want you to know that you have become one of my best friends. I am sorry that I had prejudged you. I just wanted to let you know. I’m glad we are on the same team.”
So, what does this have to do with Bif? Well, Lynn “Bif” Johnson and Mark Meeks were two of the few people left that were told on the “day of reckoning” that their jobs were going way.
I remember how our entire team was called up to the front office. We waited in Leroy Godfrey’s office. (He was early retiring). They called us one at a time to Bill Moler’s office (He was early retiring also). There we were told that who we would be working for.
Gary Wehunt had been sure that he was going to be axed. I think by that time we knew that the electric shop needed to downsize one more person. Gary was shocked when he was told he still had his job. He was going to be working for Andy Tubbs on the same team I was on. — Of course, in my own cocky 26 year old way, I never thought I would be let go.
Mark Meeks was told he would no longer be employed at the end of the year. The same was true for Bif Johnson. The company offered to help find a job somewhere in the company if there was position left vacant that needed a person with your skills. They also provided a service to help you create a resume and would help you find a job so that by the end of the year, you wouldn’t just be sent packing.
Mark called up some of his contract buddies and was soon on his way to another job. He had been a contract electrician for so long, this was “Situation Normal” (which is the first two words for the acronym “SNAFU”) for him. I thought it was ironic that he should be the one person from the electric shop that was laid off when I knew that the reason he had applied for the position in the first place was most likely because he thought he could be there until he retired, as we had discussed that day in the truck a couple of years earlier.
I later learned that before Leroy Godfrey early retired he had singled out Mark Meeks and had seen to it that he was the person that was going to be laid off because he had said something to Leroy one day that had annoyed him. Much like the comment I had made to Leroy one day when he went to Bill Bennett and told him to fire me. See the Post: “Chief Among the Power Plant Machinists ” As Bill Bennett explained. Leroy wanted to make sure that Mark was included in the downsizing. It was his gift to him.
So, what about Bif? With all the help offered by the company to find a new position and five months to find a new job, what happened to Bif? Well. Bif had the attitude that I had, though he is 10 years older than me. He had it in his mind that for some reason the plant couldn’t do without him…. or maybe it was more like the attitude I have at my current job. “I am going to stay here until you make me leave.” The last day of the year came around…. Bif was no longer working for the electric company.
It seems like there were two people at the plant at the end of the year that had their positions eliminated that decided to remain at the plant up until the last day of the year (Off hand, I have forgotten who the other person was). Neither of them had sought help from the company to find another position in the company or even outside the company. They were really only laid off because they chose to be. The company had offered them every opportunity.
There were a few lessons I learned from the different events that happened during this time. The first was that I shouldn’t dislike someone because of someone else’s decision. It wasn’t Scott Hubbard’s decision not to let labor crew hands apply for the testing positions. I saw the same thing happen at the gas plant in Harrah, Oklahoma when Mel Woodring became the foreman ahead of obviously more qualified electricians. The general feeling was to dislike Mel, but who was it that picked him? Mel didn’t have anything to do with that decision. He was a pawn in an effort to move him out of the Muskogee Plant.
The second was that no matter how much you think you are indispensable, you aren’t. We all knew the saying that if you want to find out how important you are, just put your hand into a bucket of water and pull it out and see what kind of hole you leave. That’s how important you are. — Well…. Archimedes would disagree with this assessment given that the water level in the bucket changed, but that wasn’t the point.
Third, Job Security? What’s that? A Power plant probably still has more job security than most other jobs.
The fourth lesson I learned was that when your friend has decided to make a dumb decision, no matter how much it is going to hurt them in the long run, after you have tried to convince them not to take that route, you have to stand by them as much as possible. I have had some friends in the past make really stupid decisions in their lives. No matter how dumb it is…. remain their friend. How much of a friend are you if you cut and run because of their bad decisions? Like my friend Bob Ray reminds me often…. “You can’t fix stupid.” No. You can’t. But you can be there to help when needed.
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Originally posted January 3, 2014:
After the reorganization at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma during 1987, a bunch of new faces showed up at the plant. I mentioned in last week’s post that we had a new plant manager, Ron Kilman (See Post: “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“). In that post I also mentioned that the PC age was rapidly growing and I had bought a computer of my own and was eager to learn more. The Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey had retired, and was replaced by a guy named Tom Gibson. Tom was a good supervisor who was willing to think out of the box.
Tom gave me one of my first assignments directly by calling me to his office. Well, Leroy had never really called me to his office before. When Leroy wanted to chew you out, he was happy to come down to the Electric Shop and do it, so I didn’t really know what to expect by being “called to his office”. Believe me… it wasn’t the last time he had “called me to his office.” But it was the most satisfying time. Mainly because this time, when I arrived, Tom’s face wasn’t beet red with anger like it was on one later occasion.
This is what Tom told me to do… He said that we needed to install computer terminals all over the plant. They had a chart where they wanted the terminals to go. There were about 15 locations all over the plant including the coalyard which was about 1/2 mile from the main plant. Along with those, there were a bunch of IBM Network printers that needed to be installed with the terminals.
Then Tom told me the best part. He wanted me to do it all myself. Then he told me an even better part…. He said, (and I quote) “I want you to learn everything you can about this computer stuff. I think it will come in handy.” As my friend Stephen Todd at Dell would say, “That was the ‘Keys to the Kingdom”. I told him I would be glad to do everything he asked.
That last part later came back to haunt Tom…. but he did tell me…. learn “everything” I could about the computer. When he was referring to “The Computer”, he was talking about the company mainframe, a Honeywell system that resided in Oklahoma City at Corporate Headquarters.
The Terminals I was going to install were called “Dumb terminals”. they weren’t computers, they were just monitors with a keyboard that connected directly to a switch back in the telephone room that was connected via a microwave link directly to Oklahoma City and the Honeywell system:
So, when I returned to the electric shop, I began my “hacker” apprenticeship. One that would later allow me to harass Gene Day in the Control Room, confuse Dick Dale in the warehouse, cause headaches for the IT department downtown, and finally cause the President of the Electric Company to personally call our Plant Manager Ron asking who was this guy Kevin Breazile! Hence the reason for Tom Gibson’s beet red face a few years later. But that is another story for another time.
I had two things right away that I had to figure out. How was I going to run cables from the telephone room in the office to each of the places around the plant that needed a computer terminal and what are these funny connectors and what do I need to do with them?
Ok, so I figured they plugged in the back of the terminal and then there was a Cat1 cable (no, not a Cat3, a Cat1) that plugged into that, and needed to plug into a jack in the wall that I was going to have to install. They called these funny connectors “Hoods”. The 25 pin Hoods that we used were blue. We had 9 pin hoods also that we used for the actual PCs that the clerks and the chemist were using. They had an emulator program to make them act like a dumb terminal:
In an early post called “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck” I explained how I have always been cursed with being very lucky. Well, that’s what some may call it, but I prefer to believe that one of my best friends St. Anthony helps me out at certain times. Well, this was one time when I asked for his assistance. St. Anthony of Padua is considered the Patron Saint of lost items. So, I asked him to help me figure out how I was going to do all this work in a reasonable amount of time.
As is often the case, St. Anthony pointed me in the right direction. This particular day, he told me to tell my problem to Charles Foster. My close friend and one of the two Electric Shop foremen (not mine. I was working for Andy Tubbs). So, during lunch I told him what Tom Gibson told me to do, and showed him the blueprints where they wanted the terminals placed throughout the plant.
One of the places that needed a terminal was right there in the electric shop office. Charles looked around the office and said, “You know what? there used to be an old intercom system in this office that I think goes up to the telephone room. In fact, I think all the intercoms that were originally installed in the plant went to the telephone room.”
I vaguely remembered the intercoms when I was working as a summer help as there used to be an old box sitting in the garage when I worked for Stanley Elmore. They were later cut out and removed, because it wasn’t really practical and so it wasn’t used. Charles told me to start there, because there were intercoms everywhere. In the control room, the warehouse, and even in the coalyard! And definitely in the office area. This was just what I needed to hear. My work was already half done.
I pulled the cables out from under the desk where they had been cut and checked them out. There were definitely enough cable pairs to do the job. In most places I had to install both a terminal and a printer, so I had a lot of dual wall jacks just for this job:
There were some places where the intercom system didn’t go where I needed to install either a dumb terminal or at least connect a computer. So, I was looking for any kind of alternate way to install the jack without having to run cables all the way from the telephone room to these locations. So, I went out and bought a book about networking so that I could learn more about what was really going on. If I had bought it a few years later it might have been called “Dumb Terminals for Dummies”, but the Dummies books hadn’t come around yet.
I have since thrown that book away after using it for years to prop up the corner of our sofa bed for the times when my mom would come and visit and she would sleep on the bed, only it had a broken bracket, and the Networking book was just the right thickness to level the bed…. But there was one page in the book that I found that allowed me to hook up dumb terminals in places where there was only a phone line.
You see. When the phone lines were run throughout the plant, they used a three pair cable. Well. A phone really only uses two wires (or one pair). so, this left 4 more wires not doing anything. The only problem was that the dumb terminal used 4 pair, or 8 wires…
So, when I was reading the networking book, I ran across a diagram that made me stop and stare. I like to think that I was holding a half eaten apple in my hand and I had just taken a bite when I stopped mid-bite and stared. It would have been a nice picture to remember sort of like when the apple fell on Newton’s head. Only we didn’t have cellphones with cameras in those days, so no one was around to take my picture. The diagram I saw was this:
What? This showed 4 of the wires are nothing but grounds…. The network cable only really uses 4 of the 8 wires. Which means I only needed two pair. And guess what? The phone lines run all over the plant were 3 pair with only one pair being used! So, I was able to install the computer jacks right next to the telephone jacks and use the same cable that the telephone was using, and they all tied back to the telephone room where the main computer switch was located that connected to the Mainframe computer back in Oklahoma City through something called a Memotec X.25 Modem.
So, now that I have gone through all this detail to tell you how I was able to quickly install all these terminals and printers around the plant in a way as if it is exciting (because it is to me). I know that many of you are so bored out of your gourd that you have already stopped reading before you have reached this sentence…. I suppose those of you that are still following along are wondering “Why?”
Why would we want to install all these dumb terminals throughout a power plant that connected to the Honeywell Mainframe down at Corporate Headquarters? Well. It was because all the plant operators, mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians, instrument and controls and heavy equipment operators were going to start using it to do stuff. Yeah. All of us were being introduced to the computer age. From the janitor on up.
Each printer had 4 character ID that identified it, so if you were looking at a work order on the terminal, you could choose to print it. You just had to know the 4 character number and you could print the work order out on any computer in the company. Usually, this meant, you wanted to use the printer that was closest to you. But if you wanted to print something out for the warehouse, as long as you knew their printer ID, you could send them a printout of some part that you wanted them to retrieve for you. Then call them up and tell them you printed something out on their printer.
Ok. So the average Joe didn’t see much benefit, but it did get them used to seeing computer monitors all over the place, which at least helped them in the future when the real computers showed up. Right now, they were just “Dumb Terminals” and that’s what a lot of the operators and maintenance people thought… they are just dumb…
I, on the other hand was in hog heaven. You see. I had called downtown to the IT department and asked to get a user name so that I could log directly into the mainframe. After all, my supervisor Tom had told me to learn “everything” I could about “this computer”. So, I took him up on it. I quickly was learning UNIX commands, though at the time, I didn’t know that’s what they were called.
I began learning the Computer language called “A” before I realized there was a “B” language and a “C” language, and that C was the one that was really used at the time. As it turned out the mainframe had manuals for everything right on it. That is how I was able to cause so much trouble the next few years.
Oh, and one more interesting thing I discovered on the mainframe. It had this interesting feature called “Email”. Yeah. Only, after figuring out how to pull up a list of all the emails on the system I found that there was only a handful of people that actually had e-mail addresses. So, the only person I would email on the mainframe was an engineer named Craig Henry.
I had met him briefly once, but in the next few years, he was a valuable source of information. Email seemed like a great idea, but what good was it if there was only a few people you could send an email?
As for Craig Henry… As Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains in Casablanca, “This is the beginning of a Beautiful Friendship.” Come to think of it… Craig Henry sort of reminds me of Claude Rains… I must admit, I learned a lot more from him than he ever learned from me.
Originally posted January 24, 2014:
Reorganizations naturally shuffle things around. People are generally resistant to change and don’t like to find that their routine has been changed without having their input on how to make things better. When the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma went through a downsizing and reorganization in the latter part of 1987, my job changed slightly. Personally, I was grateful for the changes.
Before the reorganization, I had inherited both the precipitators (the large boxes at a power plant that take the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler). This meant that every overhaul, I knew what I was doing. I was working on and in the precipitator. This was generally a dirty and thankless job.
After the reorganization, however, Terry Blevins was assigned to work on the Unit 2 precipitator, while I worked on Unit 1. I will go into this in more detail later, but for this post, I’ll just point out that this meant that when Unit 2 was on an overhaul (that means the unit is taken offline for one to three months in order to fix and repair things that can only be done while it is offline) I wasn’t automatically assigned to the precipitator. So, I could work on other things.
Before the reorganization, Sonny Kendrick had the title “Electric Specialist”. After the reorganization we no longer had a specialist. I’m not sure exactly why. I know that at Muskogee, they still had a specialist in the electric shop. — I will talk about him next year (the specialist at Muskogee). Anyway, I know that Sonny, at the time, was not too happy about his change in job title. I don’t blame him. I would be too.
One of the things that the Electric Specialist did during overhauls was test tripping relays. Now that we no longer had a specialist, that was left up to whomever…. The first electricians, besides Sonny, that were assigned to relay testing was Ben Davis and myself. I had started doing it on my own and after about a week, Ben Davis was assigned to help me out.
We were on a major overhaul on Unit 2 and it had been decided that we were not only going to test the regular super-high voltage breaker relays, we were also going to test all the 480 volt switchgear relays for Unit 2, as well as the intake and coalyard switchgears. I don’t remember if we made it to the river pump switchgear, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Once we started, there was no stopping us.
When I first was told to test the relays, Bill Bennett (our A foreman) told me to have Sonny tell me how to do them. So, I walked into the lab and told Sonny that Bill had told me to ask him to help me learn how to test the protective relays on the switchgear. Sonny, not looking too happy, grabbed a small stack of manuals, walked out into the main switchgear with me, and said, “Here is the relay test set. Here are the manuals that tell you how to hook up the test set and test them.” He turned and walked away…. I was sort of hoping for a more intimate lesson…
I knew the reason Sonny was so upset. Later I learned why he would be as upset as he was to not be able to test the protective relays. It was because when you test, clean and adjust protective relays you have an immediate rush of satisfaction that you have just done something very important. Let me just say quickly (because in another post I will expound upon this), a protective relay is what keeps motors from blowing up. It is what prevents blackouts from happening across the nation. Without properly calibrated protective relays, a power company is just asking for a disaster (or… well….. their insurance company is, because they are the ones that usually end up paying for the damage — which I will also talk about in a later post).
I thought the relay test set that Sonny showed me was the neatest thing I had seen so far in the electric shop. There were two boxes that hooked together with an umbilical cord. They had dials, switches, connectors, meters and a digital readout down to the millisecond. That is, you can read the time to trip a relay down to the one thousandth of a second.
I only wish that I had a bigger picture of this relay test set so that you could admire it as much as I did. Even today it gives me goosebumps! Ok. I can imagine those relay technicians that read this blog are looking at this and thinking…. “What kind of piece of junk is this?” Hey (as Mark Fielder used to say), this was my “baby” (only he was referring to the precipitator).
So, back to the story at hand…
Even though I was having a heck of a fun time trying to figure out how to perform these relay tests by reading these manuals about the different kinds of relays, I was glad when Ben Davis was assigned to work with me. I don’t know if he had worked on relays before, but he seemed to know just what to do to hook up the test set and make things easier.
The best suggestion that Ben had right off the bat was that we should be listening to the radio while we were working. This might have been a preventative measure after the first couple of days to prevent the same situation from occurring that happened to Ed Shiever when he and I were trapped inside a confined space for a couple of weeks (See the post: “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“). Either way, it was a great idea.
You wouldn’t think that inside a switchgear 20 miles from the nearest town with a radio station, that we would have any reception on a little transistor radio, but we were able to manage. It seemed that we had to be a little creative at times with the antenna in certain locations, but, like I said. We managed.
My perception of Ben Davis up to this point was that he was a “Good-ol’ boy”. That is, a country music type Oklahoman that had grown up in Shidler, Oklahoma where the major attraction in the town was the High School. To my surprise, I quickly found out that he was a connoisseur of Rock and Roll.
It wasn’t until I was in college before I realized that the easy listening station I had been listening to on our family radio at home while I was growing up was playing rock and roll songs using an orchestra with violins and clarinets instead of electric guitars. I learned from my dorm mates all about groups like Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles (yeah… can you believe it? I mean. I knew “Hey Jude”, “Let it Be” and a few others, but most of the Beatles I thought were instrumentals normally played on violins with a man waving a wand) and many others. When I found out about “Rock and Roll”, I had to go out and buy dozens of 8-track tapes, as fast as I could find them.
So, here was Ben Davis. Even better than the “Good Ol’ Boy” that I already thought he was. And he loved classical rock and roll. I can only say that the next month and a half while we tested relays all over the plant, were one of the best times I have ever spent in my life! He knew all the 60’s and 70’s rock and roll bands.
As each song would come on the radio, we would guess (well, I was guessing most of the time…. most of the time Ben already knew), what the name of the song was and the name of the band. So, not only were we doing one of the most satisfying jobs at a power plant, but I was also have a lot of fun with Ben listening to the radio! Who would have thought it? No wonder Sonny was upset he wasn’t testing relays this overhaul.
I could go on about all the different bands and their backgrounds that I learned from Ben during that overhaul, but (unlike me), you probably already know all that stuff. It never ceases to amaze me how many holes I have in my education until one is staring at me in the face.
This reminds me of a side story, and I apologize if I have told this before…. I don’t think I have….
After the Reorganization, and after I moved to Stillwater from Ponca City, Scott Hubbard (and Toby O’Brien) and I began carpooling. One morning as we were listening to NPR, Scott Hubbard mentioned something about a “cur”. I asked him, “What’s a cur?” Well, he had the exact same reaction when 11 years earlier I had asked my friends in college at Oklahoma University, Tim Flowers and Kirby Davis, “What’s an orgasm?” — See how little holes in your education can make a big impact?
Just so you don’t get caught in the same predicament… A “Cur” is a mongrel dog. Scott Hubbard couldn’t believe that someone that read the dictionary for fun wouldn’t know what a “cur” was. What the heck? I didn’t grow up in Oklahoma! — end of side story… which really isn’t a side story, since it was about a Power Plant Man — Scott Hubbard. He probably knew what a “cur” was before he could walk. — I know I haven’t told that story before! I would have remembered that.
I’m not going to go on about all the fun that I had with Ben Davis testing protective relays. I enjoy my memories, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear all about how much I looked up to this Power Plant Hero. The only thing I will add is that the time I spent with Ben during that overhaul has been etched into my memory as one of the most enjoyable times of my life. So, I’ll go onto the next step in our Protective Relay story….
A few years later, in 1993, Sonny Kendrick and Ben Davis and I were sent to “Advanced Protective Relay Maintenance” training in Dallas, Texas. I remember this time so well, I remember the address where we were went. It was at 4271 Bronze Way, Dallas, Texas. It was hosted by the same company that made that wonderful test set I pictured above. The AVO Multi-Amp Corporation.
I brought my wife Kelly and my three year old daughter Elizabeth with me. They stayed at the hotel during the day and played in the swimming pool, while I went to class.
The classes lasted four days, Monday through Thursday. That was where I learned that even though I thought our relay test set was the coolest piece of equipment in the electric shop, it turned out to be archaic by “Protective Relay Maintenance” standards. Not that it didn’t do the job…. So, in order to train us properly, they let us use our own old test set during the training so that we could see how to properly test really advanced relays such as Distant Relays, Syncro-verifier relays, Negative Sequence Relays,directional distance relays and Pilot Wire relays. — These are relays that are found in a large substation that trips high voltage lines that run long distances across the country. — I can tell you’re jealous. — Well.. I imagine it anyway. Knowing what I know now.
So, why drag you all the way to Dallas for this story? There’s a reason.
time for a second side story:
You see. Tim Flowers, whom I mentioned above, knew not too long after he met me that I have the knack of running into people that I know (or should have known in this case), would love this story. You see, I met Tim and Kirby at Oklahoma University and they drove with me to Columbia Missouri in 1979 (along with my brother Greg) when I went to register for classes at Missouri University when I decided to go back to school in my home town.
When we arrived in the town, we were hungry after driving for 8 hours straight from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Columbia, Missouri… so we stopped at Godfather’s Pizza. As we walked in, there was a girl and a guy standing at the counter ordering a pizza. The pretty girl (Pamela Ramsey) with long red hair turned and saw me. She immediately came toward me saying “Kevin Breazile!!!! You owe Me!!! Slightly shocked and pleased, I said, “What for?” She reminded me that I never gave her the pictures that were taken during the Senior Prom. You see. I had taken her to the Senior Prom.
Later I explained that this happens to me a lot. I meet people that I know in the oddest places (even though this wasn’t so odd, since I had grown up in Columbia). It was just that this was the first person we had seen since we entered town. From that point on, Tim (who later worked as a summer help at the power plant) expected that everywhere we went we would run into someone I knew….
End of the second side story. I’m sorry that this is making the post a little longer than usual. I know you have to get back to work….
So, back to the relay training course in 1993 that Ben Davis, Sonny Kendrick and I were taking in Dallas…. On Wednesday night during the training there was a dinner held in a small banquet room in the hotel. Well… of course I had to take my wife and my daughter. So here we were sitting around this table at dinner with the rest of the class of about 10 other non-Sooner Plant employees….
I decided to talk to the guy next to me. He said something back and my wife Kelly asked him, “Where in New Jersey are you from?” She had picked up on a New Jersey accent. He said, Well.. I work in the east for a company called Ebasco, but I’m really from the Midwest. (oh. That was my territory). So I asked a follow-up question. “Where in the Midwest are you from?” He said, “From Missouri.” — Oh. I thought. This is interesting. So was I.
I asked a follow-up question. “Where in Missouri are you from?” He answered…. “Columbia, Missouri.” (What? Where I had grown up?)…. So, I asked a second follow-up Question…. “What High School did you go to?” With a curious look the man answered….. “Rockbridge High School…” (Man!!! the same one as me!!!)…. The third follow-up question….. “What year did you graduate?” Now, looking really suspicious… he said, “1978”. Trying to contain my excitement… I replied….. “Oh… so, you graduated from Rockbridge High School the same year I did….”
What are the odds? There were 254 students in our graduating class. This guy who currently lived somewhere in the east is sitting next to me at a dinner of about 10 people attending Advanced Protective Relay Training in Dallas, Texas where neither of us are from, and we both graduated from the same school back in Columbia, Missouri 15 years earlier! His name is Randy Loesing. He was working for a company called Ebasco at the time. He said, “I thought I recognized you! I just wasn’t sure.” I didn’t recognize him at all until I went back home and looked in my yearbook.
It turned out that he kept in touch with two of my oldest friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper and Brent Stewart. So we talked about them. What an incredible coincidence. Like I may have mentioned before. It happens to me all the time. It turns out that an old friend of mine from the 3rd grade in Columbia, Missouri that I used to go to his house when we were stamp collectors and had a stamp collecting club, lives 5 miles south of me today in Round Rock Texas (He’s in Pflugerville).
Russell Somers lives in the same direction and just about the same number of miles as when we were kids. Not only that, but he worked at Dell while I was working at Dell (though I didn’t know it at the time). He has an older daughter and a younger son, just like me only younger. The same is true for another 3rd grade friend that I graduated from Rockbridge Highschool and the University of Missouri with, Caryn Lile (now Caryn Iber) who lives in Wisconsin. She has a daughter and a son the same age as my kids. She was living in Tulsa when I was living in Stillwater, Oklahoma. — Like I said… happens to me all the time.
Tim Flowers realized this odd phenomenon in college. I had told him earlier that my father told me that if I was every stranded somewhere that I could look up the local Veterinarian and tell him that I was the son of Dr. James Edward Breazile, and they would help me. So, when we were hiking in the mountains in Colorado and we met a man walking along a trail in the middle of nowhere above Estes Park near the Great Divide, when I told him who I was, he gave us a curious look…. then divulged his most intimate secrets of his life and where he had stashed his most values possessions, Tim told me later. “I really thought he was going to know who you were when he gave us that funny look.” I replied. “I think he did..”
I again apologize for the length of this post. It is rare that I ramble on this long. I can thank Ramblin’ Ann for the ability to Ramble so well. I can thank Ben Davis for recognizing a rambling situation and replacing it with a rock and roll learning opportunity. As I said earlier. One of the most enjoyable times I have spent in my entire life is the time I spent with Ben Davis testing Protective Relays! Bless you Ben and I pray for you, your wife, your son and your daughter on the way to work each morning.
Today when I hear any of the hundreds of rock and roll songs come on the radio that we listened to that month and a half, I can see us testing the relays, looking off into space saying, “Rolling Stones?” “No. Steve Miller Band?” Really? I thought Browneyed Girl was sung by the Rolling Stone! It turned out that the version that we listened to was from the creator of the song, Van Morrison. Who would have thought that he would sound so much like Mick Jagger. I can see Ben saying… I see what you mean… it kind of sounds like Mick Jagger.
As an add on to this story…
I now work at General Motors in Austin Texas. My best friend in High School was a guy named Jesse Cheng (I have mentioned him in other posts, especially in reference to the phrase “Jesse! Come get your Chili!). He was two years older than me, and throughout the years we would lose track of each other and then reconnect. He went to Yale to become an Engineer, then to the University of Missouri to become a Medical Doctor, then to Harvard to earn a Masters in Public Health and Epidemiology.
It turns out that we both now work at General Motors where he works in Arlington Texas as a Medical Director and I work in IT in Austin. We can IM (Instant Message) each other whenever we want, and we talk now at least once every week.
Originally posted February 8, 2014:
After the downsizing in 1987 some new engineers were assigned to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I wasn’t used to an engineer actually pausing to listen to what I was saying. I remember the first time I said something sort of out of the ordinary and Doug Link stopped and asked me why I thought that. The usual response was to roll their eyes as if I was some dumb electrician that almost knew how to lace my boots correctly… Ok… Lacing your boots isn’t as easy as it looks…. especially when you put them on in the dark in the morning before you leave the house.
Now, before you think “Front to Back and Back to Front” has to do with lacing up my boots, you are mistaken.
Back to Doug Link. I was surprised when he actually stopped and asked me to explain myself. I know I had said something that had sounded a little bombastic, but what I believed to be true anyway. So, I sat down and explained it to him. It was something that ran contrary to what a person might think was logical. Once I explained it to him, he said he understood what I meant. — Wow. What kind of new engineers are they breeding out there (I thought). Well he did go to Missouri University at the same time I did, we just didn’t know each other at the time.
Another engineer that showed up at the plant was Toby O’Brien. Even the maintenance department recognized right away that Toby would listen to you. Not only would he listen to the crazy rantings of an electrician like me, but he would also ask advice from mechanics! And… (now brace yourself for this) Welders! I believe that if he could corner a janitor, he probably would have listened to them as well…. because… well… I was just a janitor pretending to be an electrician, and he listened to me all the time.
So, what does this all have to do with “Front to Back and Back to Front”? Well. Almost nothing. Except that these new engineers knew about a secret that we were all keeping from George Bohn, another engineer that I talked about in the post “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer” In that post we had kept from George that the computer had an extra drive partitioned on the hard drive for a while. In this post, I will talk about a much more significant secret (at least in George’s eyes).
With the reorganization Terry Blevins worked on one precipitator and I worked on the other.
For those of you who don’t know, the precipitator is what takes the “smoke” out of the exhaust from the boiler so that it can be collected in hoppers and sent up to the coalyard to silos where trucks would come and haul it away to make highways.
The electric Supervisor Tom Gibson thought that a little competition would be good between the two teams to see who could make their precipitator work the best. Only it didn’t work out that way. Terry had one way of doing things and I had a completely opposite way of approaching a problem. Terry would study a problem. Analyze it, and do everything he could to understand what was going on. Then he would go out and make a major change. I on the other hand would make incremental small changes and observe the effects. Then work toward what seemed to work best.
Between the two of us approaching a problem from completely different points of view, we were able to come up with solutions that apart I don’t think either of us would have ever thought about. So, we became a team instead.
Now for the boring part of the story. I am going to explain Back to Front….. With the new digital controls, we could set up the controls so that each of the 84 precipitator transformers could be backed down one KV (kilovolt) at a time in order from the front cabinets to the back ones. Then it would start from the front again backing the power on the cabinets down slightly each time. — I know this is boring. The front of the precipitator is where the exhaust enters the precipitator. The back is where the exhaust leaves the precipitator.
The cabinets would do this until the amount of ash going out of the smoke stack hit a certain limit that was 1/4 of the legal limit (the legal limit was 20% opacity. So, we controlled the cabinets to keep the opacity at 5%). Opacity is the amount of light that is blocked by the ash coming out of the smokestack.
Well, if the opacity went too high (say 6.5%) the back cabinets would start powering all the way back up, and it would work its way toward the front of the precipitator from the back until the opacity went down below the set limit. — sound good? Well… after running this way for a while we realized that this wasn’t so good.
What ended up happening was that the front cabinets which normally collected 90% of the ash were always powered down and the back cabinets were powered up, because they would power up each time the opacity would spike. So the ash collection was shifted from the front to the back. This meant that if there was a puff of ash going out of the stack, it probably came from the back of the precipitator and there wasn’t anything that could be done to stop it.
We asked George if we could reverse the Front to Back powering down of the cabinets so that it went from Back to Front. That way the back of the precipitator would be powered down most of the time and the front would be powered up. This would keep the back half of the precipitator clean and if there was a need to power them up because of some disturbance in the boiler, the back of the precipitator would be in good shape to handle the extra ash.
George, however, insisted that since the EPA had tested the precipitator with the new controls when they were setup to go from front to back, we couldn’t risk changing it, or the EPA could come back and make us put scrubbers on the plant. We were grandfathered into not needing scrubbers and we didn’t want to go through that mess and cost that would have raised electric rates for everyone.
This was frustrating because we could easily see that every hour or so we would be sending big puffs out of the smokestack on the account of the inherent flaw of backing the cabinets down using a Front to back method. Even though we knew the engineers would blow their top if they found out, we called the EPA one day and asked them about it. The EPA said they didn’t care as long as the precipitator wasn’t physically being altered and we were adjusting the controls to maximize operations.
So, one day when I was in the Precipitator Control Room, I walked over the main processor unit in the middle of the room where the seven sections of 12 cabinets each plugged in. I took the A row cable and swapped it with G. I took B and swapped it with F, C and swapped it with E. D I just left it where it was since it was in the middle.
Then I walked to each Cabinet in a section and swapped the eeprom chip from cabinet 1 and put it in 12. And from cabinet 2 and put it in 11, and so on. Without leaving the precipitator control room, I had just changed the order of the cabinets backing down from “Front to Back” to “Back to Front”. As far as the control room was concerned, nothing changed (unless you looked closely at the voltages on the cabinets on the computer. The front cabinets usually were around 30kv while the back were closer to 45kv).
So, now that the cabinets were backing down from back to front, everything worked a lot smoother. No more hourly puffs and wild power swings as cabinets were released. As long as George didn’t know, he was happy. The precipitator suddenly was working very well. So well in fact that one winter while the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator was using only 70 Kilowatts of power and the opacity was well below the 5% threshold.
The space heaters in the precipitator control room were using over 120 kilowatts of power. More than the entire precipitator. This is important because normally the precipitator used more power than any other piece of equipment in the plant. It was not unusual before we had the back down working for one precipitator to use 3 Megawatts of power. That is 3,000 Kilowatts.
Then one day in 1992 an electrical engineer Intern (who later became a full time engineer) came in the precipitator control room with George Bohn while we were calibrating the cabinets one at a time. George began explaining to Steve Wilson how the precipitator controls worked. We were in the front section (G row). George introduced Steve to us and started explaining to him about the back down and how it worked.
Just then, the cabinet that he was showing him powered up. — oops. This was a front row cabinet and in George’s mind, they should be the last to power up. He looked around and could see that the cabinets in F row were still powered down. I thought, “The jig is up.” George said, “That’s not right! That shouldn’t happen!” (Ok George. We’ve only been doing this for 3 years and you are just now noticing?).
So, I asked him what the problem was (knowing full well). He explained that the cabinet in G row had just powered up. — You could tell when a cabinet was powered down because a certain light in the lower left corner of the display would be on. I looked at the cabinet and the Primary current limit light was lit. Obviously not in the back down mode.
So, I said this, “George, this cabinet still is in the back down mode. You just can’t tell because it is also hitting the primary current limit and both lights won’t light up at the same time.” — Geez… I thought…. would he believe this hair brain explanation? George nodded. Then he went on to explain to Steve what I just said to him as if it was something he knew all the time (even though I sort of just made it up).
A short time after Steve and George left, I found Steve and explained to him that we really do power down the precipitator from back to front instead of front to back, because front to back doesn’t work, and I explained to him why it works better and why we don’t tell George Bohn. Steve was another sensible engineer that knew how to listen and learn. I enjoyed the little time I spent working with him.
Well…. The efficiency of the precipitators caught the attention of EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute), and they wanted to come and study our precipitator controls. Not only the back down feature we were using but also a pulse capability that Environmental Controls had that allowed you to power off for so many electric pulses and then power on again.
So, when the EPRI scientists showed up to test our precipitators for a couple of weeks trying the different modes of operation, I knew that it was important for them to really understand how we were operating the precipitators. So, after George had taken them to the computers in the control room and explained the back to front back down mode. I took them aside one at a time and explained to them that even though the computer looked like it was backing down from front to back, it was really backing down from back to front.
I explained to them why we had to do it that way, and I also explained to them why we didn’t let George know about it. They all seemed to understand, and for the next two weeks no one from EPRI let the cat out of the bag.
To this day I don’t think George knew that we had swapped the direction of the back down from “front to back” to “Back to front”. At least not until he reads this post.
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted March 21, 2014:
As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by three. At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly three feet apart. Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be three feet.
So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel. So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.
I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed. So. I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.
I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have seen me pause and stand still for a moment looking down. Start messing around with my feet. Then take a few more steps. Pause once more and do the same thing.
What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.
I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly three feet. I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway. It turned out to be exactly 30 inches. Or two and a half feet. So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant Man measured by my stride.
I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by two and a half feet. With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that. Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.
During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant. We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”. When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”. But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.
Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed. And where the network server was going to be setup. This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.
So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard. Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks. I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.
One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office. There were no good phone lines running to this building. There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time. So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.
Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage. When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system. There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone. Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.
All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse. After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.
A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it. Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.
When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer. I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived. While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.
I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer. It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm. Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.
We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me. I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch. He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.
The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it. He was all bundled up trying to keep warm. I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard. He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.
When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March. I told him I did. Then he said, “Come here.” We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough. There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage. He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.
The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse. Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up. So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse. Oh. Before I forget. Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:
So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse. I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground. From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 30 inches – remember?) counting my steps.
I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse. In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.
I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable. That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse. He said that he would order some.
I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe. Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet. It was too late to change it.
I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet. Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly. So, I told myself it would be all right.
Sure enough. a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop. In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.” Oh geez.
Ok. Somehow I was going to have to make this work. Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 28 and a half inches now instead of 30 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.
So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse. In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape. I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.
As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole. I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore. Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.
So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block. I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help. Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.
I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole. Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense. Yeah. I know.
When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out. But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box. A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.
So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had to put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit. On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end. After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.
I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks me how much cable I need. That was too close! You would have thought I learned my lesson.
Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell. Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project. I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value. The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.
My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates. I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time. I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.
Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date. Oh. Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare. We are always up to the wire. Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned. Believe me. Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.
So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short. I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.
Comments form the original post:
Originally Posted April 18, 2014:
When I was an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma I inherited working on the Precipitators from Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist in the electric shop. One time after I had been struggling with the performance of the precipitator trying to lower the emissions of Fly Ash going out of the smoke stacks, I encountered a very odd situation.
One morning as I was walking out to the precipitator as I passed the Unit 1 boiler I noticed that a couple of tanker trailers were sitting outside the bottom ash area. Hoses had been attached to one of them and were running up the side of the boiler. What looked like a pump was running. I didn’t have a clue what was in the tanker. I figured it was just some routine thing that power plants did every so often to make things more interesting. You wouldn’t believe how many times Power Plant Men would come up with new and interesting things just to keep me in awe. (Of course, I am easily amazed).
Anyway, I didn’t really pay much attention to the tanker on the way to the precipitator. I just walked around the tankers that were there and entered the precipitator switchgear and up the stairs to the Precipitator control room where 84 control cabinets were waiting for my attention. On the way into the switchgear I had glanced up at the smoke stacks and noticed that the exhaust from the boiler was looking pretty good.
As I walked passed the control cabinets that controlled the back of the precipitator, I was surprised to find that they were powered up all the way and there wasn’t any sparking happening. Well. I thought. Maybe they are at low load and not much is happening inside the precipitator this morning.
As I walked between the two rows of cabinets toward the cabinets that controlled the transformers near the intake of the precipitator, my surprise turned into astonishment. I had never seen the front cabinets powered up to such a high level with no sparking. Everything was 180 degrees from the way I had left the cabinets the evening before when I was struggling to adjust the power to lower the emissions.
After going through each of the cabinets adjusting the power levels higher only to find that I was able to easily increase the performance even further, I returned to the electric shop for break. When I arrived in the electric shop office I told Charles that something very strange had happened this morning and I’m trying to figure it out, because all of the sudden the precipitator was operating at maximum efficiency.
After break I walked back out to the precipitator control room past the tanker trailers and found that everything was still running smoothly. “My work is done” I thought. I decided to go to the top of the precipitator and start working on fixing malfunctioning vibrators for the rest of the day.
I worked on the precipitator roof until noon, and then went back to the shop for lunch. I sat with Charles as we talked about movies we had seen. Charles was telling me about how the song for Ghostbusters had been on the radio. When the song said,
“If there’s something strange
in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call?
Charles’ son Tim (not having seen the movie) thought that instead of saying “Ghostbusters” they were saying “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!” Besides being exceptionally cute, it was also an honor for Charles for him to hear Tim sing, “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!”
After lunch was over I went back out to the precipitator control room to check on the cabinets one more time. To my surprise when I walked through the row of cabinets, they were sparking again as they had been the day before! Not quite as bad, but bad enough that I had to go through the cabinets and adjust them back down almost to the levels where I had them before.
It took longer to adjust the cabinets down than it did to raise them in the morning. When break time came along, I was too engrossed in adjusting the cabinets to notice, so I continued working through break. It must have taken me close to three hours. At that time I was still using a small screwdriver on some potentiometers inside each of the cabinets to make the adjustments.
About the time I finished, all the sudden something happened. The cabinets began acting the way I had seen them in the morning! All the sparking stopped and the cabinets began powering up to the highest point they could go based on where I had set them. Ok. Now I needed to find out what was going on!
I walked out of the precipitator and headed for the Control Room. I walked past the tanker trailers and noticed that the pump was running again. I hadn’t thought about it, but when I had walked by them a few hours earlier they had been turned off. This was curious. I figured that it was more than a coincidence.
Pat Quiring was the Unit 1 Control Room operator when I arrived. I asked him what has been going on with Unit 1. I explained to him that when I arrived in the morning I found the precipitator running smoothly, then later it wasn’t, and just a few minutes ago, something happened again and there it was. Pat said two things were going on that day.
One thing was that we had been burning a pile of sand that had been soaked with oil. They had been mixing it with the coal at the coalyard and blowing it into the boiler with the pulverized coal in order to dispose of the hazardous waste. Hmm.. This was a possibility. I couldn’t see how the sand would make a difference, but maybe the mixture of the chemicals in the oil had something to do with it.
Then I asked him. “What about those tankers on the side of the boiler? Why are they there?” Pat said that we were also burning Vertan. Well, not “burning” exactly. We were destroying it in the boiler, because it was chemical waste that needed to be disposed and it is easily destroyed into it’s chemical components in the heat of the boiler.
“Vertan? What’s Vertan?” I asked Pat. He said it was some chemical used to clean boiler tubes. These tankers had been sent to our plant from another plant that had just had the boiler tubes cleaned, and we were just burning it off to get rid of it. They had a schedule they were using to burn the Vertan. They couldn’t just get rid of it all at once because it caused a buildup in the economizer that caused the airflow to be affected through the tail end of the boiler.
So, I wondered, maybe this has to do with airflow. Diverting the airflow to different parts of the precipitator could definitely affect things. The cabinets out in the middle of the precipitator definitely had different electrical properties than those out on the edge.
I suddenly realized that this was 1988 and the Internet was not readily available to the typical user, and the World Wide Web still had a few years before it was widely going to be used. Frustrated that I couldn’t just go “Google” something for another ten years, I did the next best thing that I could do. I decided to pay a visit to our Power Plant Doctor! I wrote about Doctor George Pepple in the post “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. He was the head Power Plant Chemist.
I went to the Chemistry Lab and found George working away on some diabolical experiment. No. Not really, he was probably just testing some water samples. When Dr. Pepple was working on any kind of chemical test, he did it with such mastery and grace that it always reminded me of a mad scientist.
I asked George about Vertan. He explained to me that it was a chemical that was mixed in water and pumped through the boiler tubes to clean out calcium buildup and the like. I mentioned to him that I thought it may be affecting the operation of the precipitator and I was curious to know more about it.
Professor Pepple then explained to me that Vertan was called TetraAmmonia EDTA. EDTA? Yeah, he said, “Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid”. He said this just like my Animal Learning Professor, Dr. Anger used to say “Scopalamine” (See the Post “Poison Pill for Power Plant Pigeons“).
I wrote down this information and I continued monitoring the progress of the precipitator throughout the rest of the week. Each time the pumps were running on the Vertan trailers, the precipitator operated as if it was new and completely clean. Each time the pumps turned off, the precipitator reverted back to the regular mode of operation, only it would be a little better each time. By the time all the Vertan had been destroyed in the boiler, the precipitator was running very well on it’s own.
Over the weekend I went to the University Library at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and Looked up TetraAmmonia EDTA. Not much had been written about it. I was able to find an article about it in a Journal. It had the chemical composition.
A few years later when the Internet became available I was able to find a better model of the Vertan molecule:
I mentioned that at the same time that the Vertan was being burned in the boiler, we were also blowing contaminated sand into the boiler in order to burn off oil that had soaked into the sand. At one point, I had to go work on the head end of the number 10 long belt to find a 480 volt ground in a circuit. When I arrived, I could see where the oil from the sand had caused the coal to cake up on the belt and cause a big mess where the conveyor dumped the coal onto the belt 12.
There didn’t seem to be any correlation between the times that sand was being burned. The process for burning the sand lasted a lot longer than burning off the Vertan. By the time that the sand was burned off, the precipitator was humming away operating at near maximum efficiency. So, it seemed as if the sand didn’t have anything to do with the increase in performance.
I was convinced that burning Vertan in the boiler was more convincing. If not Vertan, then just injecting water could have been a factor. Since the Vertan was in water and they were pumping large amounts of water into the fireball in order to destroy the Vertan. Maybe the increase in Humidity had something to do with the improvement.
A couple of years later when the “We’ve Got The Power” Program was underway (See the Post, “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“). Terry Blevins and I were investigating the idea that Vertan could be used to improve the performance of the precipitator. We found that Ammonia Injection was used to treat Precipitators.
This is done by injecting ammonia into the intake of the precipitator to treat it when it was performing poorly. This reinforced our idea that Vertan was the main reason that the precipitator had responded favorably during that time since Vertan broke down into Ammonia at high temperatures. Even then, we didn’t exclude the possibility that the increase of humidity may have also played a role.
Another team had the idea that injecting sand into the intake of the precipitator would improve the performance of the precipitator by sandblasting the ash off of the plates. They had seen this happen when sand had been burned earlier. I had rejected this idea as being viable. I knew that the velocity of the airflow in the precipitator was no faster than 4 miles an hour. Hardly fast enough to keep grains of sand airborne.
It was worth a try though, and the other team pursued the idea and ran a test by injecting the sand. It definitely wouldn’t hurt anything to try. The idea was rejected by the Steering Committee (Ron Kilman), based on my input, even though something extraordinary happened during the test. When this happened, I became the instant enemy of the team leader.
I will cover this dilemma in a later post (possibly next week). For now I will just leave you with the knowledge that because I had chosen Vertan over Sand, I had definitely made an enemy of a True Power Plant Man.
Originally posted April 25, 2014:
Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood. I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend. Sometimes I was downright selfish. Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate. Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way. I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.
I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.
Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“. At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I explained this program in the post: “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“. With all that said, here is the story:
I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program. At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator. The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.
My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance. I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.
I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.
When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment. Who knows. Maybe something unexpected would happen. — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.
On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator. When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room. She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.
At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going. One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up. Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack. Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.
I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets. After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1A10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer. It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts. The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates. Cabinet 1A10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.
When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off. I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet. The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it. So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.
I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator. When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer. The fuse had obviously failed. Interesting timing. Coincidence? I thought it was. The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).
I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves). Then I powered the cabinet back on.
I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1A10. The opacity had returned to normal. I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.
When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened. Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment. So, he asked me what I thought about it.
First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas. So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.
I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack. I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse. I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time. After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.
I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it. On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post. To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.
The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett. He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment. Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:
It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy. The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me. Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”
When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why. If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way. It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important. So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend. This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.
I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him. It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing. Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away. It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt. I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.
Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club. I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop. Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases. For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.
Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business. I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim. That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.
I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well. Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years. I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.
Here is what happened:
The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000. I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night. It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem. Who else would be up on in the middle of the night? The night shift of course.
When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.” I replied, “No. That’s okay. What’s up?” Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water. I said, “Ok. I’ll be right out.”
I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper. She already knew of course. I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up. Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.
It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived. I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room. Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown. I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.
Power Plants at night take on magical properties. It’s hard to explain. Lights shining from the 25 story boilers, noises from steam pipes. Hums from motors and transformers. Night Hawks screeching.
When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted. Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep. — Actually, I may have done just that. It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.
When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office. I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure. Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually. I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression. He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it. I replied, “Well. That happens.” (No. Not the other thing that happens). I told him I was going to go home. It was about 3:40 by that time.
Jim wished me a good night, and smiling with gratitude, thanked me again for coming out. As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace. That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends. This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).
When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house. I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning. I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.
That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City. When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack. That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.
I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim. Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace. In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had that morning into my mind so that I would never forget it.
To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally (which still happens occasionally), I am determined that they will become one of my best friends. I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”). I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett. Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.
I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it. It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:
Note: If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link: Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted May 2, 2014:
Last week I mentioned in the post “Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes” that Jim Padgett called me at 2:15 am one morning to tell me that the coal dumper was broken and he needed for me to come out to the plant to work on it. You may have wondered why a plant electrician living in North Central Oklahoma would answer the phone in the middle of the night when it most certainly meant that they would have to crawl out of bed and go to work to fix something that was broken. Why not just roll over and pretend that the phone never rang?
You see… I knew when the phone rang that it was the power plant, because in the 20 years that I worked at the plant, just about every time the phone rang after midnight it meant that I would have to get dressed, and drive 30 miles to the plant to work on something that was most likely going to be in a dusty dirty place. You could always count on the coal train dumper switchgear being covered with coal dust. That was the usual point of failure past the “witching hour”.
I suppose I could say there were two reasons why a Power Plant Man would answer the phone. One was that they were just all around nice guys and they wanted to help out any chance they could. The other reason was because of the pay.
Even though working at the power plant was perhaps one of the best jobs in the neighborhood (being the only job in the neighborhood, since the plant ground consisted of its own neighborhood out in the middle of nowhere), that didn’t mean that the pay was especially lucrative. That is, if a Power Plant Man had to rely on their base pay alone it would be difficult. So, in order to help the Brave Men and Women of Power Plant Fame pay their bills, many opportunities were provided for working overtime.
Think about this. What if, when I answered the call to save the day (uh… I mean the night) and spent 35 minutes driving out to the plant only to fix the problem in fifteen minutes? Then I would spend another 35 minutes driving back home with my clothes all full of coal dust, only to be paid a measly 15 minutes of over time? Even at double time, that would only be 30 minutes of pay. That would hardly cover the gas and the laundry soap.
Early in the life of this particular plant, it became apparent that something had to be done to motivate the heroic masters of Power Plant Maintenance to make the long lonely drive down Highway 177 at the wee hours of the morning. So, certain methods were devised to coax the restful souls to the phones when they rang. Once they answered the phone, then sheer guilt was enough to drag them out of the sack. It was that moment when the phone first began to ring, before the reasoning part of the brain kicked in and the more base reflexes such as those that were out to make an extra buck reacted instinctively that needed to be targeted.
So “Black Time” was introduced to the plant. Black time had probably been around long before the plant came into existence, but it came in handy when someone had to be called out in the middle of the night. Black time was the time that a person would be paid even though they didn’t actually work during that time. So, when a Power Plant Man was called out in the middle of the night, they would be guaranteed at least two hours of overtime even though they may only work for 15 minutes.
This would help defray the cost of gas and time for driving both ways to and from the plant. Anything from 7:30 pm to 7:00 am was paid as double-time. That is two times the normal base salary. So, two hours at double time came out to four hours of pay, or as much pay as someone would make for half of a day at work. That was some incentive for disturbing a Power Plant Man from their pleasant dreams of adventuring through the Power Plant Kingdom where the rule was always “Might For Right”. — Well, at least that’s what I was dreaming some of the time when the phone rang.
If Black Time wasn’t enough, it was taken a step further when the six hour rule was introduced. The Six Hour Rule was added fairly early on in the life of the Power Plant and went through a few variations when I was working at the plant. When it was first introduced, it came across as if someone downtown had made the decision that when someone is disturbed from their sleep during certain hours of their sleep cycle, it directly impacted their safety. Hence the Six Hour Rule was born.
Originally it worked like this…. The hours of midnight to 6:00 am were considered the prime sleeping hours for Heroic Power Plant Men. During this time, it was deemed that all Power Plant Men should be tucked in their beds dreaming of ways to work safely during the following day. Whenever this time period was disturbed, then the Electric Company should provide the loyal Power Plant Man for answering the call of duty during a time of early morning emergency by giving him back the same number of hours in black time so that he could go home and continue his all-important dreams and regeneration.
So, if I had been called out at one o’clock in the morning to work on something, and it took me two hours to fix it, then I could come into work two hours later in the morning. The first two hours of my regular work day would be payed as “Black Time”. — Makes sense… right? Two hours of work…. Come in two hours late in the morning…. black time… Easy to calculate.
This provided a pretty good incentive for going out to work in the middle of the night. First, you would get at least 2 hours of double time. Second, you would be able to make up for lost sleep by coming in late in the morning without having to lose any pay. You could also come in at the regular time and leave early in the afternoon if you wanted.
Well… That lasted for a few years, then the rules for the 6 hour rule began to change. Originally, even if the job was only 15 minutes, the least amount of black time that you would get was 2 hours. After all, it was an hour of driving for the large majority of the Power Plant Men that lived in a civilized village of more than 50 people. Later, the Six Hour Rule was changed so that only the actual time worked would count for the six hour rule.
This meant that if I drove all the way out to the plant to work on something that only took 15 minutes, then I could only come in 15 minutes late then next morning, even though I had spent at least an hour and 45 minutes away from my dreams of serving nobly in the Power Plant Palace. In that case the six hour rule didn’t apply anymore. I figured that someone who was short-sighted had come up with that idea. I’ll explain why in a few minutes.
The next phase of the Six Hour Rule came a few years after that… It was decided that after a person had been called out at night to fight the good fight, as soon as they left the plant, the six hour rule would start counting down. Let me explain this in a little more detail….
Say, I were called out to work in the middle of the night, and I worked from 1:00 am to 3:00 am (two hours). Then I left to go home at three. The hours start counting down so that by 5:00 am, the time I had spent at the plant were no longer valid, and I was expected to show up at work at the regular time. 8:00 am. Okay. So, in more and more cases (it would seem), the six hour rule would be made meaningless.
So, with this rule in place, if I was called out at midnight, and worked until 4:00 am, for a total of 4 hours, then by 8:00 am when I was supposed to be back at work all of the four hours would have ticked off and I would have no black time. I would have to show up at 8:00 am. See how that was supposed to basically take the six hour rule and make a joke out of it? (Or so, someone thought).
As most attempts at being underhanded without actually just coming out and telling us that it was decided that the Honorable Power Plant Men no longer needed their six hours of prime sleeping time to work safely the next day, the opposite effect was the result. Kind of like raising the minimum wage to help the workers, when you put more people out of work.
When the six hour rule was changed to count down from the time you left the plant, was when I made the most money from the six hour rule. I racked up loads of black time from this change as well as most Power Plant Men that were called out before Morning Prayers (Lauds). Here is how and why:
Suppose the phone rings and it is 1 o’clock in the morning. You decide to answer it and get called out to work on something that takes 15 minutes. You finish the job some time around 2:15 am (because, after all, you had to drive all the way out to the plant). What should you do now? If you go back home and go to bed, then because of the way the 6 hour rule worked, you would certainly have to come back to work at 8 o’clock. — hmm… You will still have collected 2 hours of double time. That’s something.
Look at the alternatives. What if you went to the shop and worked on some other tasks while you were already there? For Power Plant Maintenance Men, there is always something that needs to be fixed. You may even ask the Shift Supervisor, “While I’m here, is there anything else you want me to work on?” Shift Supervisors just love having their own personal maintenance man in the middle of the night eager to help. There is always something they could find that needs fixing.
So, instead of turning around and going home, invariably, after the 15 minute job was over, I would end up doing other jobs for the Shift Supervisor until morning. Well, once 6:00 am rolled around, it was really too late to drive home and then wait an hour and drive back. So, I would just stay until 8.
Now look what happened! Instead of 2 hours of double time, I worked from 2:00 to 8:00 with all but the last hour at double time, the last hour at time and a half. That comes to 11 1/2 hours of my base salary. Compare that to the 4 hours I would have received for 2 hours of double time.
But here is the best part. 8:00 rolls around. We have our morning meeting. Since I worked for 4 hours of the special 6 hours from midnight to 6, I get to leave at noon and get paid black time for the rest of the day.
What fun! Every time the six hour rule was reigned in to reduce black time it produced more black time. And how was that safer? The final tweaks to the 6 hour rule before it was basically abolished a few years later came during the fall of 1991. I’m not saying that this alone was the reason, but in 1992, the Power Plant had the highest Accident Rate since 1983. Somewhere around 23 accidents. Given that in 1983, we had 50% more employees, 1991 had a much higher accident rate.
The number of call-outs in the early hours of the morning were not as common as I may have made them out to be. So, I don’t mean to claim that the change in the six hour rule was ever the cause of even one additional accident. I studied all the accidents that happened that year, and even though some of them were the result of fatigue, it was usually because they had worked an extra long shift – over 12 hours, and were injured because they were tired. Not because they were affected by the six hour rule. The question was never asked if the person had been called out the night before.
Even though (as far as we know, because we never asked the question) the six hour rule changes didn’t directly cause any particular accident that year, it was a symptom of an overarching problem. A certain apathy toward safety had crept into the plant. The previous years, we had an excellent safety record. One of our best years was in 1987. I believe we had only 3 accidents that entire year. None of them serious.
I will discuss Safety in various other posts, so I won’t belabor the point now. The point I wanted to make from this post was that by focusing on the bottom line, or some other performance metric without putting your most important asset first (The Power Plant Man), almost always guarantees the opposite results.
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted June 21, 2014. I updated dates and added some new things.
I don’t know if anyone of us knew what to expect Wednesday morning January 13 , 1993 when we were told to go to a meeting in the break room that was going to take all day. We were supposed to be in some kind of training. Everyone at the plant was going to have to go through whatever training we were having. Training like this always seemed funny to me for some reason. I think it was because the hodgepodge of welders, mechanics, machinists, electricians and Instrument and Controls guys seemed so out of place in their coal-stained worn out old jeans and tee shirts.
I remember walking into the break room and sitting down across the table from Paul Mullon. He was a new chemist at the time. He had just started work that day. We became friends right away. Scott Hubbard, Paul and I were carpooling buddies. He always looked a lot younger than he really was:
See how much younger he looks? — Oh. That’s what I would always say about Gene Day because he was always as old as dirt. Even when he was young. Paul is only four years older than I am, but he still looks like he’s a lot younger than 70. Even his great great grand daughter is saluting him in this photo. Actually. I love Paul Mullon as if he was my own brother. He still looks younger than my younger brother who is four years younger than I am. People used to think that he was his own daughter’s boyfriend.
When our training began, the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, Ron Kilman came in and told us that we were going to learn about the “Quality Process”. He explained that the Quality Process was a “Process”, not a “Program” like the “We’ve Got The Power Program” we had a few years earlier. This meant that it wasn’t a one time thing that would be over any time soon. The Quality Process was something that we will be able to use the rest of our lives.
At this point they handed out a blue binder to each of us. The title on the front said, “QuickStart – Foundations of Team Development”. A person from a company called “The Praxis Group”, Rick Olson from Utah (when I originally posted this last year, I couldn’t remember his name. Then I found my Quality book and it had Rick’s name in it). I had looked Rick Olson up to see if he was a member of CompuServe and there was Rick Olson from Ogden, Utah. When I asked him if he was from Ogden, he told me he was from Provo, Utah.
One of the first things Rick asked us to do was to break up into teams of four or five and we were asked to come up with 3 facts about ourselves. Two of which were true and one that was false. Then our team mates were asked to vote on which fact they thought was the false one. The only one I remember from that game was that Ben Brandt had dinner with the Bill Clinton on one occasion when he was Governor of Arkansas. — At least, I think that was what it was… Maybe that was the fact that was false.
The purpose of this game was to get to know each other…. Well…. We had all been working with each other for the past 15 years, so we all knew each other pretty good by that time. Except for someone new like Paul. I think my false fact was that I had hitchhiked from Columbia, Missouri to New Orleans when I was in college. — That was an easy one. Everyone knew that I had hitchhiked to Holly Springs National Forest in Mississippi, not New Orleans.
Anyway, after we knew each other better, we learned about the different roles that members of our teams would have. Our “Quality” teams were going to be our own crews. Each team was going to have a Leader, a Facilitator, a Recorder, and if needed (though we never really needed one), a Logistics person. The Logistics person was just someone that found a place where the team could meet. We always just met in the Electric Shop office. I wanted to be “Facilitator”.
We learned about the importance of creating Ground Rules for our Quality Meetings. One of the Ground rules we had was to be courteous to each other. Another was to “Be willing to change” (I didn’t think this really belonged as a “Ground Rule”. I thought of it more as a “Nice to have” given the present company). Another Ground Rule was to “Discuss – Don’t Lecture”. One that I thought was pretty important was about “Confidentiality”. We had a ground rule that essentially said, “What happens in a team meeting… Stays in the team meeting.”
I recently found a list of the Quality teams that were formed at our plant. Here is a list of the more interesting names and which team it was: Barrier Reliefs (that was our team — Andy Tubbs team). Rolaids (Ted Holdges team). Elmore and the Problem Solvers (Stanley Elmore’s team… of course). Spit and Whittle (Gerald Ferguson’s Team). Foster’s Mission (Charles Foster’s team). Sooner Elite (Engineer’s team). Boiler Pukes (Cleve’s Smith’s Welding crew I believe). Quality Trek (Alan Kramer’s Team). Designing Women (Linda Dallas’s Team). There were many more.
I think all the Power Plant Quality Teams had the same “Mission Statement”. It was “To Meet or Exceed our Customer’s Expectations”. I remember that the person that was teaching all this stuff to us was really good at motivating us to be successful. As we stepped through the “QuickStart” training manual, the Power Plant He-men were beginning to see the benefit of the tools we were learning. There were those that would have nothing to do with anything called “Quality”, just because… well…. it was a matter of principle to be against things that was not their own idea.
Later they gave us a the main Quality binder that we used for our team meetings:
When we began learning about the different quality tools that we could use to solve problems, I recognized them right away. I hadn’t learned any “Quality Process” like Six Sigma at that time, but I was about to graduate from Loyola University in New Orleans in a couple of months with a Masters of Religious Education (MRE) where I had focused my courses on Adult Education. Half of my classes were about Religious topics, and the other half was about how to teach adults. The same methods were used that we learned about in this training.
It just happened that I had spent the previous three years learning the same various quality tools that the Power Plant Men were being taught. We were learning how to identify barriers to helping our customers and breaking them down one step at at time. We also learned how to prioritize our efforts to break down the barriers by looking at where we had control and who we were trying to serve… such as ourselves or others. I remember we tried to stay away from things that were “Self Serving.”
We learned how to do something called a “Barrier Walk”. This was where we would walk around the plant almost as if we were looking at it for the first time to find barriers we hadn’t noticed before. We also learned how to brainstorm ideas by just saying whatever came to our minds no matter how silly they may sound without anyone putting anyone down for a dumb idea. Rick called each barrier that your customer encountered a “SPLAT”. Our goal was to reduce “SPLAT”s. I think at one point we even discussed having stickers that said “SPLAT” on them that we could put on barriers when we located them.
When we implemented a quality idea, we were taught to do a “Things Gone Right, Things Gone Wrong” exercise so that we could improve future projects. This had two columns. On one side you listed all the good things (which was generally fairly long), and on the other, all the things that went wrong (which was a much shorter list). This was done so that we could consider how to avoid the things that didn’t work well.
We learned how to make proposals and turn them into a team called “The Action Team”. I was on this team as the Facilitator for the first 6 months. Sue Schritter started out as our Action Team Leader. The other Action team members in the beginning were: Richard Allen, John Brien, Jim Cave, Robert Grover, Phil Harden, Alan Hetherington, Louise Kalicki, Bruce Klein, Johnnie Keys, Kerry Lewallen, Ron Luckey and George Pepple.
The Power Plant Men learned that there were five S’s that would cause a proposal to fail.
One of those was “Secrecy”. If you are going to propose something that affects others, then you have to include them in the decision making up front or else even if you think it’s a great idea, others may have legitimate reasons for not implementing it, and you would have wasted your time.
The second was “Simplicity”. It follows along with Secrecy in that if you just threw the idea together without considering all the others that will be affected by the change, then the proposal would be sent back to you for further study.
The third was “Subjectivity”. This happens when something just sounds like a good idea. All the facts aren’t considered. The solutions you may be proposing may not be the best, or may not even really deal with the root of a problem. You might even be trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist, or is such a small problem that it isn’t worth the effort.
The fourth was “Superficiality”. This happens when the outcomes from the proposal are not carefully considered. Things like, what are the long term effects. Or, What is the best and worst case of this proposal… Those kind of things are not considered.
The last one is “Self-Serving”. If you are doing this just because it benefits only your own team and no one else, then you aren’t really doing much to help your customers. Most likely it may even be causing others an inconvenience for your own benefit.
I know this is becoming boring as I list the different things we learned that week in 1993. Sorry about that. I will cut it short by not talking about the “Empowerment Tool” that we learned about, or even the importance of Control Charts and go right to the best tool of them all. One that Power Plant Men all over can relate to. It is called the “Fishbone Diagram”.
There are few things that Power Plant Men like better than Fishing, so when we began to learn about the Fishbone diagram I could see that even some of the most stubborn skeptics couldn’t bring themselves to say something bad about the Fishbone diagram. Some were even so enthusiastic that they were over-inflating the importance (and size) of their Fishbone diagrams! — This along with the Cause and Effect chart were very useful tools in finding the root cause of a problem (or “barrier” as we referred to them).
All in all, this was terrific training. A lot of good things were done as a result to make things more efficient at the plant because of it. For the next year, the culture at the plant was being molded into a quality oriented team. This worked well at our particular plant because the Power Plant Men employed there already took great pride in their work. So, the majority of the crews fell in behind the effort. I know of only one team at the coal yard where the entire team decided to have nothing to do with it.
When training was done, I told Rick that I thought that his company would really benefit by having a presence on the Internet. As I mentioned in last week’s post “Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Interloper” During this time the World Wide Web did not have browsers and modems did not have the bandwidth at this point, so CompuServe was the only service available for accessing the Internet for the regular population.
I asked Rick if he had heard about CompuServe. He said he had not heard of it. I told him that I thought the Internet was going to be the place where training would be available for everyone eventually and he would really benefit by starting a “Quality” Forum on CompuServe, because there wasn’t anything like that on the Internet at the time. I remember the puzzled look he gave me as he was leaving. I realized he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Few people knew about the Internet in those days….
I have a number of stories about how the Quality Process thrived at the Power Plant over the next year that I will share. I promise those stories will not be as boring as this one.