Tag Archives: Computer

Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer

Originally posted on January 11, 2014:

Up front, I would like to clarify the title so that those who are quickly perusing articles looking for something salacious won’t have to read too far before they realize this isn’t what they are seeking.  The word “Boner” in this headline refers to a “joke” played on a Plant Engineer by the name of George Bohn at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  When I was a boy we had a joke book called the “Omnibus Book of Boners”.  Most of my life I never thought about the word “Boner” as having another meaning.  Which, after this joke was played might have explained the expression on George’s face.

Joke Book

Joke Book

In an earlier Post “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” I explained that when playing a Power Plant joke, the longer it takes to play a simple joke, the better the effect.  I think the reason for this is that when the person realizes that a joke has been played on them by a fellow Power Plant Man and even though it was simple, the person went through the effort over a long period of time, just to make you smile for a moment.  Then you know that this person must truly be a good friend.  Who else would waste countless hours on someone over days, weeks, or even months, just to make someone smile once?

Well…. Bohn’s Boner lasted for over six months!  Yeah.  Six months, at least.

I saw the opportunity arise one day after we had received a new hard drive for precipitator computer for Unit 2.  We had the computers for a couple of years after we went to digital controls in the precipitator before the hard drive crashed.  This happened to be a project that George Bohn had managed.  He was the project manager and had overseen the installation of the precipitator controls, which included the two precipitator computers in the control room.  One for each unit.  They sat around behind the big control panel that you see when you watch an older movie about a Power Plant Control Room, like the China Syndrome.

I love this picture!

I love this picture!

Anyway,  each of the computers had 30 Megabyte hard drives.  Yeah.  You heard that right!  30 Megabytes.  That’s not a typo.  Not Gigabytes… nope.  Megabytes.  Just this morning at Dell, I received an e-mail with a file attached that was over 30 Megabytes in size (Thanks Norma).  I’m talking about an IBM AT computer:

IBM PC

IBM PC

Well, the Unit 2 precipitator computer was used to monitor all of the 84 control cabinets in the Precipitator control room.  It indicated how much voltage and amperage were on each cabinet, as well as the spark rate, and the setting on each cabinet.  It was really a great step up.  I’m sure today you can probably do that from your phone while you are sitting in a movie theater just before they tell you to silence your “Cell Phone Now” and stop texting your neighbor.  Back then, it was amazing.

All the operator had to do was go over to the computer, pull up the screen (this was before Windows, but the program was running by default), and type the keyboard command to tell it to print and “voila”, it would print out all that information.  The operator could look at it to see if there was a problem, and if not, he just saved it with all the other reports he was supposed to create during his shift.

Believe it or not.  Before this time, the operator actually walked up to all of the 84 cabinets on each unit and looking at meters on the cabinet wrote down the voltage and amperage of each cabinet on a form.  You can imagine how much happier they were to be able to print it all out in the control room.  Hours and hours saved each week.

So, when the 30 Megabyte hard drive crashed George Bohn ordered a new hard drive from the IT department in Oklahoma City.  A couple of weeks later, we received the new hard drive from the city.  George gave it to me and asked me to install it in the computer.

When I installed the hard drive, I found that it had already been formatted.  All I had to do was install the program and we were good to go.  I backed up the program from the Unit 1 computer and copied it onto the new hard drive using a floppy disk.  Yeah.  Programs were a lot  smaller then.  A 360 Kilobyte floppy disk was all that was needed to hold the entire Precipitator program.

I noticed right away that instead of being the 30 Megabytes we had expected, there was only 20 Megabytes on the drive.  That was all right with me.  20 Megabytes would be enough so that we didn’t have to back anything up very often.

As I was installing the program and testing it, and going through the code figuring out how to change Unit 1 to Unit 2, I had an idea….  At the command prompt, I typed “D:” and hit enter.  You know what I was checking, right?  D colon, and enter…..

sure enough.  there was a D drive on this hard drive.  Another 20 Megabytes were on this partition.  You see.  This was actually a 40 Megabyte hard drive that had been partitioned as two 20 megabyte drives.

It was at this point that I thought I would play a little joke on George.  I figured he would come and look at this computer and at first he would find that the new hard drive was only a 20 Megabyte drive instead of the 30 Megabyte drive that he had ordered.  I also figured that like me, he would think about it for a minute and then check to see if there was an extra partition and would find the extra drive.

So I thought I would leave him a little present.  I went to D Drive and at the command prompt (gee… the only thing you had was a command prompt.  You didn’t even call it a command prompt then.  You called it a DOS prompt) that looked like this:  D:>  I typed –  “label d: Bohns Boner”  For all you older DOS people, you know what this did, right?  It labeled the D drive volume name “Bohns Boner”.   At the time I think we were on DOS 4.0 or something close to that.  The volume length was limited to 11 characters and Bohns Boner took exactly 11 characters.  The label couldn’t be longer than that.

Now, all I had to do was call up George Bohn, tell him I had installed the hard drive in the precipitator computer and it was up and running and go to the electric shop and wait for him to come down with a smile on his face over the name of the second drive on the computer.  So I did.  I told Charles Foster and Terry Blevins.

After the reorganization, Tom Gibson, our Electric Supervisor had decided that Terry Blevins would maintain the precipitator on Unit 2, and I would maintain Unit 1, which was great for me, because I was no longer working on both of them by myself.  So, Charles and I were waiting for George to arrive in the electric shop office.  It didn’t take long.

George came in the office and said, “Did you see that they only gave us a 20 Megabyte hard drive instead of a 30 Megabyte drive.  (Oh.  So, he hadn’t found the second partition).  I replied, “Yeah.  I noticed that.”  George was a little perturbed that he didn’t get what he ordered.  He said he was going to contact them and have them send us a 30 Megabyte drive.  We had paid for it.  I told him that he should.  Especially since we had paid for it (keeping a straight concerned look on my face).

Anyway, a couple of weeks went by and there was no new hard drive, and George hadn’t said anything more about it.  I thought he might have eventually found the second drive, but then he would say something like “I can’t believe they didn’t send us the right hard drive” and I would know that he still hadn’t figured it out.

One day the operators came to me and pulled me aside and asked me if there was some way when they were on the night shift if they could use the precipitator computer to create documents.  At this time PCs were pretty sparse.  The only good computers in the control room were these two precipitator computers and the Shift Supervisor’s office.  the Precipitator computers just sat there monitoring the precipitator all the time, even when no one cared.

The plant had purchased so many licenses to use Word Perfect, a word processor that was the “in thing” before Windows and Word came around.  So, I installed Word Perfect for them on the extra drive on the Unit 2 precipitator computer.  That is, Bohns Boner.  I explained to them that they could only use it when George Bohn was not around, because he didn’t know the drive existed and I wanted him to  find it himself someday.

Word Perfect for DOS

Word Perfect for DOS

Everyone agreed.  All the Control Room operators that were at all interested in creating documents, like Jim Cave and Dave Tarver and others, knew about Bohns Boner, and knew that it was a secret.

The Control room had a laser printer installed next to the Shift Supervisor’s office so they could print out Clearances and have them look nice.  They had some new Clearance system they installed, and this came with it.  So, the next question was… Is there a way we can print our documents out using the Laser Printer instead of the clunky Dot Matrix printer tied to the Precipitator computer?

I ordered a 50 foot Printer cable (I paid for it out of my own pocket) and kept it coiled up under the small desk where the precipitator computer sat and explained that they could just disconnect the dot matrix printer on the back of the computer and plug the other end into the Laser Printer and they could print out nice neat looking documents.  But… They had to do it at night or when they were sure that George Bohn was not around because he still didn’t know the extra drive existed.  Everyone agreed.  They would have to string the printer cable across the Control Room floor to reach the laser printer.

50 foot Power Plant Parallel Printer Cable

50 foot Power Plant Parallel Printer Cable

Like I said earlier.  this went on for well over 6 months.  It seemed like almost a year.  Then one day, George Bohn came down to the Electric Shop office while Charles and I were sitting there for lunch.  He said that he had asked Oklahoma City about the hard drive again, and they had insisted that they had sent the correct hard drive to our plant.  Then we could see a light go on in his head.  He said, “Do you suppose that they partitioned the disk into two drives?” (Bingo!  He had figured it out).  I said, “Could be.”

Charles and I sat there and looked at him while we ate our lunch.  The cherry tomatoes Charles had given me tasted especially good with my ham and cheese sandwich that day.  I knew that we were finally only minutes away from the end of the joke we had been playing on George for the past so many months.  George leaned back in the chair with his thin long legs stretched out and his hands behind his head.  I could tell he was thinking about it.

Then he rose from his chair and headed out the door.  Charles and I smiled at each other.  We both waited.  A few minutes later George came back in the office.  He had found Bohns Boner.  You see.  When you went to a drive back then on the command prompt, the first thing you would see was the volume name.  So as soon as he typed the D colon and enter, it would have said “Bohns Boner”.

George sat down in a chair.  He didn’t say anything.  He just sat there with a straight face as if he didn’t know what to think.  I thought…. well, he is an Engineer.  Maybe he doesn’t know what to do when Power Plant Men play jokes on them.  He looked like he couldn’t decide whether to be upset or glad that we had an even bigger hard drive than he ordered.  I don’t know if he ever figured out that the longer the joke takes, the more we liked him.

I guess George felt foolish that it took him so long to find that extra drive.  I suppose he might have thought he knew me well enough that if there had been an extra drive on the computer, when he first mentioned it, I would have told him that it was partitioned into two drives, so he didn’t give it a second thought.  I guess he didn’t know me as well as he thought.

Anyway, after that, he never said anything about the operators using the computer for other uses than monitoring the precipitator, which was always a problem before.  George never mentioned the hard drive again.  I don’t remember now if I later changed the volume name on the drive.  It seemed like not long after the computers were upgraded from the IBM AT to something like a XT 286.

Oh.  I had another joke I  played on George.  The other one lasted for years, and he never figured it.  I will write about that one later.  That one wasn’t so much of a joke as it was out of necessity.  I won’t say anymore about it now.  You’ll have to wait at least another week or two.

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Wayne Griffith and the Power Plant Computer Club

Originally posted February 1, 2014:

I don’t normally start a post by talking about myself. I usually reserve that for side stories. But today was very unusual. I work at Dell, and today I said goodbye to a lot of friends that decided to take a Voluntary Separation Package. People I have known for the past 12 years will be leaving on Monday. The pain I feel from their departure has brought my mind back to a dear friend of mine who worked at the power plant many years ago. Wayne Griffith, a Labor Crew hand at the Power Plant.

I normally try to keep my posts down to around 2,000 words (which is long as blog posts go), so I won’t go into great detail about Wayne. That would take about 500 words for every pound that Wayne weighed. Which would result in a post 200,000 words long. You see. Wayne was a very large fellow. On the generous side, I would say, around 400 pounds. You can decide what I mean by generous.

When we first instituted a Confined Space Rescue Team at the Power Plant in 1994, when we were developing rescue plans for various confined spaces, we began with the premise… “How would we rescue Wayne Griffith from this confined space. If we could rescue him, everyone else would be a piece of cake. The trouble was that some confined spaces had hatchways that were only 18 inches by 12 inch ovals.

Oval Hatchway bigger than some at the power plant

Oval Hatchway bigger than some at the power plant

We concluded that Wayne Griffith didn’t belong in a confined space to begin with. If we couldn’t wrap him up in a SKED stretcher and slide him through the portal, then he wouldn’t be able to enter the confined space in the first place.

A SKED stretcher can be wrapped around someone and cinched down to make them as narrow as possible.

A SKED stretcher can be wrapped around someone and cinched down to make them as narrow as possible, which by personal experience I know it also makes it hard to breath.

When I used to watch Wayne operate a Bobcat I wondered at how tightly packed he was as he sat bobbing about as he scooped up bottom ash, wandering back and forth between a dump truck and the bottom of the boiler.

This is not the type of Bobcat Ken had to Wrestle

This is the type of Bobcat Wayne Griffith used to operate

When I was young I used to watch cartoons that had a large construction hands that came to mind when I watched Wayne.

This bulldog sort of reminds me of Wayne

This bulldog sort of reminds me of Wayne. Only Wayne would have had a W on his hardhat

I know that some of you are cringing at my blatant and seeming disrespect for Wayne Griffith as I talk about how large he was. Well… This went without saying at the plant, and it does play a part in this story.

You see. One day, Wayne Griffith came into the electric shop where I was working and he said that he heard that we had a computer club and he wanted to join it. I told him that he had heard correctly. We had started a computer club where we shared software. It cost $5.00 to join, and the money was used to buy disk cases and freeware software. We also bought both 5 1/4 inch floppy disks and 3 1/2 inch floppy disks in bulk at a discount. We even bought low density 3 1/2 disks which were cheaper and punched out the extra hole automatically turning it into a large density disk.

You see. Back then (1987 and later), the low density 3 1/2 inch floppy had 720 Kb of data, while the high density disk had 1.44 Megabytes of data. Twice as much. The only difference was the extra hole in the disk case.

notice that the high density disk has two holes and the low density disk has only one

Notice that the high density disk has two holes and the low density disk has only one

I had bought a special square hole punch designed especially for turning low density disks into high density. So, we had very low cost disks at cost for all Computer Club members.

Wayne wanted to join the computer club, but he wasn’t looking for the same thing that most Power Plant Men were looking for, which was a library of games and educational software. He was looking for education all right. He wanted to learn how to use a computer.

You see. Christmas was coming up and Wayne wanted to buy a computer for his family. He had a couple of kids at home and it was important to him that they have a computer so they would be computer literate in school which would give them an extra edge. I told him I would teach him all about computers.

So, around October, Wayne purchased a computer through the company’s Computer Finance plan which allowed him to pay it off over time with deductions from his paycheck with no interest. A benefit that I often used myself.

Wayne brought the computer into the electric shop office and we set it up on a table next to the my Foreman, Andy Tubb’s desk.

IBM PC

This is an older computer than Wayne’s, He had a 3 1/2 inch floppy drive as well as a 5 1/4

Wayne would arrive at the electric shop each day at noon, and while Charles Foster and I ate our lunch with him, we walked Wayne through various programs to show him how to operate them. During that time, we covered Word Processors, Spreadsheets, like Lotus 123, and a couple of typing teacher programs (Mavis Beacon hadn’t showed up yet).

At this time we had purchased CDs with 1,000s of freeware programs on them. Freeware was something that you could use without paying for the application. If you really liked it you could donate something to the author. If you wanted something even better, you could send some money to the author and they would send you an upgraded version. Like I said. One CD had over 1,000 applications on it. Many of them were games. Some were business programs, some were computer utilities. Some were even programming languages.

We noticed right away that Wayne had one peculiar problem when learning how to type. His little pinky was about the size of my thumb. This meant that the size of his thumb was very large.

The Thumb Thing game has a thumb about the size of Wayne's thumb

The Thumb Thing game has a thumb about the size of Wayne’s thumb

With such large fingers, it was almost impossible for Wayne to type. At best, he could hit one key at a time when he was using only his pinky. It was difficult for his pointer finger to type only one key at a time. My grandfather would have had the same problem. Actually, a lot of farmers have this problem. They have hands the size of Paul Bunyan.

Like this Paul Bunyan only with tinted glasses. Actually, this is a historian named Wayne Chamberlain

Like this Paul Bunyan Actually, this is a historian named Wayne Chamberlain. Not Wayne Griffith

Even though Wayne had to pay extra attention learning how to type, he remained steadfast. Each day, he would come into the shop, and instead of eating his lunch, he would start pecking away at the computer. He was never discouraged. Each day I had a different lesson or a different program to show him.

For a month and a half we walked through all the different things that he would show his children on Christmas Day as if it was a script. We covered every point he needed to know. From taking the computer out of the box and hooking it up to running each program. This was long before the Internet and even before Windows had come along, though he did have a mouse.

By the time Wayne boxed up the computer and took it home and hid it in the closet to wait for Christmas morning to arrive, he had learned more about how to operate a computer than about 95% of the people at the power plant. I relished the idea that Wayne Griffith, the overweight labor crew hand that others may have thought didn’t have a thought in his mind other than to operate a piece of heavy equipment, was a computer whiz in disguise.

He came back after Christmas and told me that his two kids were really excited about their new computer and were enjoying the programs that we had installed on it. He was having them learn how to type using the Typing Teacher programs. I could tell that he was proud to have been able to demonstrate to his children that he knew how to operate something as sophisticated as a Personal Computer.

You have to remember. Back then, kids didn’t grow up with computers in their house. They were still a kind of a novelty. At the time, Charles Foster, Terry Blevins and I were the only people in the electric shop that had personal computers. Most of the plant wouldn’t have thought about having one until the Internet was readily accessible.

Nothing made me happier than to think about the large figure of Wayne taking the computer out of the box and setting it on their new computer desk and hooking it up and saying, “Now Janelle and Amanda, Here is how you turn this on. Here is how you learn how to type.” I can see his wife Kathy standing back very impressed that her husband knows so much about something so technical.

I know what it’s like to be extremely overweight. I am slightly overweight myself, but my mom is a very large woman. People automatically think two things. They think that you must eat a disgusting amount of food and they believe that it is the person’s fault that they are overweight. They also believe that since you are so large, you must not be very intelligent. I don’t know why exactly. It just seems that way.

The truth about overweight people is that it usually comes down to their metabolism. My grandmother (who is 100 years old), can eat my mother under the table. Yet she remains relatively thin while my mother eats a normal amount of food and weighs well over 300 pounds. I felt that this was the case with Wayne. He had a metabolism that just stored fat. I know that his sisters had the same condition. You would think that with today’s medical technology, a person’s metabolism would be easily balanced.

When you hear Wayne Griffith speak for the first time, it takes you by surprise. Here is this very large man who has trouble climbing in and out of the pickup truck. He is obviously very strong. At the same time, you may think that if he had a mind to, he could take his enormous fist and clonk you on the head and drive you right down into the ground. When you first hear his voice, you may be surprised to hear the voice of a very kind and gentle person. If you were to hear him on the phone you would think you were talking to the most kind person you could imagine.

One of the reasons I enjoyed teaching Wayne how to use the computer so much was because I really enjoyed his company. Wayne Griffith was a true Power Plant Man. He had his priorities straight. His main concern was for his family. He had thought months in advance what he wanted to do for his children at Christmas, and he knew that in order to pull it off it was going to take a tremendous amount of preparation.

It would have been easy to sit around after he bought the computer and just presented it to his children on Christmas morning and say, “Here’s your new computer! Play with it and see if you can figure out how it works.” Not Wayne. He wanted to be able to set them on their way to success by personally showing them how it worked.

So, why did I think about Wayne today? To tell you the truth, I was saving this story for my next Christmas story. It would have been perfect for that. As I said at the beginning of this post, today I said goodbye to a lot of friends that were leaving the company to work somewhere else. Some of them I have worked with for the past 12 1/2 years. This brought Wayne Griffith to mind.

I thought about Wayne because during the summer of 1994, when the plant encountered the second downsizing Wayne was let go along with a lot of other great Power Plant Men. I will talk about other friends during this year that were let go that year, but none that I felt so sad about as I did with Wayne Griffith.

Wayne probably never had a clue that I had cared about him so much. I never told him as much. I would just smile whenever I saw him as I did with all my other friends. Inside, I was putting my arm around him (well, halfway around him anyway) and giving him a true Power Plant Man Hug. As Bill Gibson would say, ” ‘Cause I Love You Man!”

Today, as far as I know, Wayne is still living in Tonkawa, Oklahoma. I don’t know what he’s up to, but if you are ever in the area and happen to see him. Give him a big (and I mean “Big”) hug from me.

Comments from the original post:

    1. Morguie February 1, 2014:

      Awww. A great story. Sorry about the job closure. Nice story about Wayne. I do hope he was able to find work too. It always hurts the nicest, hardest-working people…lay-offs and closures. I know. I have been off over 2 years. I have lots of certifications, a degree, and am highly skilled; yet no prospects. We can hope and pray it gets better. I don’t know.

  1. Ron February 1, 2014:

    Thanks! Great story. When I read it I could still hear Gibson saying “I love ya man”.
    Lay-offs are tough. Nothing good about them. I believe it was easier losing my own job than having to tell a “Wayne Griffith” he was losing his.

 

Power Plant Paradox of Front to Back and Back to Front

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.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

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.

Doug Link

Doug Link

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.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

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.

Fly Ash Hoppers

Fly Ash Hoppers underneath the precipitator

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.

Steve Wilson

Steve Wilson

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:

  1. Ron February 8, 2014:

    Now I know why George came into my office one day and begged me to have you committed!

    Great story!

    1. Plant Electrician February 8, 2014:

      Yeah. That’s one of the reasons. 🙂

  2. Monty Hansen April 2, 2014:

    I really appreciate how you describe the two methods of problem solving, and how together you could come up with solutions that neither one of you may have thought of.

    1. Plant Electrician April 2, 2014:

      Thanks for your comment Monty. It was annoying at first. I kept wanting Terry to see my point of view. Then I started seeing the benefit of taking both approaches.

Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible

Originally posted May 23, 2014:

There were three times when I was an electrician at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when, according to others, I had done something that they labelled “impossible”.  One of those times began when a Plant Engineer Toby O’Brien came to me and asked me if I could find a way to connect to the Prime Computer down at Corporate Headquarters so that he could edit some Engineering drawings he had worked on when he was working at Oklahoma City.  That in itself wasn’t what was impossible.  That came later, but it pertained to a similar subject.

Somewhere in Corporate Headquarters stashed away in a room somewhere was a Prime Computer just waiting for Toby.

Prime Computer

Prime Computer

Toby knew that I had an account on the Honeywell Mainframe computer downtown, since I was always getting myself in trouble playing around on it.  Since I could connect to that, he wondered if it would be possible to connect to the Prime Computer where his Medusa CAD drawings were kept.  He gave me some information about how he used to log into it when he was working downtown…. before  he was banished to the Power Plant Palace 70 miles north out in the middle of the country.

Toby had a CAD tablet and a disk to install the driver on a computer.  This would allow him to work on his CAD drawings.  For those of you who don’t remember, or have never seen such a thing.  It is like a very fancy mouse…. or should I say, Mouse Pad.  Since you used a stylus to draw and point and click on a large pad called a tablet.  Not anything like the little tablets we have today.

CAD Drawing Tablet

CAD Drawing Tablet

At the time, the only connection we had to the Honeywell Mainframe from the power plant was through a router called a Memotec.  The bandwidth was a whopping 28,000 baud.  A Baud is like bytes per second, only it is measured over an audio line as an audio signal.  Like the sound that a Fax machine makes when it first connects.  Toby had talked to some guys down at IT and they had a copy of the same Honeywell emulator called “GLink” we were using at the plant, only it would connect at a super whopping 56,000 baud.  Twice as fast!  They wanted someone to “Beta Test” it.  They knew I liked doing that sort of stuff, so they were willing to give us a copy to try out.

 

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

Toby and I decided that the best place to try out our “Beta Testing” was in the Chemistry Lab.  The main reason was that it had one of the newer 386 desktop computers and it was in a room right next to the data closet where the Memotec was talking to the mainframe downtown.  So, if I had to run in there real quick and spit in the back and “whomp it a good ‘un”, I wouldn’t have too go far.  That was a trick I learned from watching “No Time for Sergeants” with Andy Griffith.  Here is the lesson:

If you have trouble viewing the video from the picture above, this this link:  “No Time For Sergeants Radio Operator“.

To make the rest of this part of the story a little shorter, I’ll just summarize it to say that by logging into the Honeywell Mainframe using my account, I was then able to connect to the Prime Computer using Toby’s account and he was able to edit his CAD drawings from the Chemistry Lab at the Power Plant 70 miles away from Corporate Headquarters.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but in those days, this was “new technology” for us Power Plant guys anyway.

Before I continue with the “impossible” task, I need to explain a little about how electricians kept the Electrical Blueprints up-to-date at a Power Plant.  This was a task that I was given when Tom Gibson was the Electrical Supervisor.  I was supposed to take all the blueprints that had been revised because of some change that had happened at the plant, and make sure they were properly updated.  Then I had to go through a process to make sure they were permanently updated, not only on the three copies that we had at our plant, but also with the “System of Record” set of blueprints at Corporate Headquarters.

So, let me tell you the process, and I’m sure you will be able to relate this task to something you encounter in your job today.  Even if it is preparing the Salads at a Sirloin Stockade before opening time.

The first step happens when someone in the electric shop has to rewire some piece of equipment or something because the equipment was moved, removed, upgraded to something else, or someone thought it would work better if we did it a different way.  Then whoever made the change to the electric wiring would go to the prints that were kept in the electric shop and update them so that the new wiring job was reflected in the Blueprints.

This is important because if someone a week later had to go work on this equipment, they would need to be able to see how the equipment is now wired.  If they were working off of an old print, then they might blow something up, or injure or even kill someone…. most likely themselves, if it ever came down to it.

The other two copies of prints also needed to be updated.  One was in the Instrument and Controls shop, and the most important copy was in the “Print Room” right next to Tom Gibson’s office.

The second step was to send off a request to Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City for a copy of all the blueprints that were changed so that the change could be made on the copy and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The third step is when a fresh copy of the blueprints arrived at the plant from Oklahoma City a few weeks later.  These were updated with the changes and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The fourth step is when the blueprints are reviewed by an engineer downtown and the changes are made permanently by a drafter downtown.

Step five:  Then three copies of the permanently changed prints were sent back to plant where they replaced the three marked up copies.

This process generally took two to three months given that the drafter downtown had to take the Original drawing, scan it in the computer, make changes to it, and then save it, and send it to the printer to be printed.

Toby and I had “petitioned” our plant management to buy us a copy of AutoCAD so that we could make our own revisions right at the plant, and send the changes directly to Oklahoma City, all complete and ready to go.  The only problem with this was that AutoCAD software did not come cheap.  It was several thousand dollars for just one copy.

Even though this was before the World Wide Web, I knew where I could get a pirated copy of AutoCAD, but since neither Toby or I considered ourselves criminals, we never really considered that a viable alternative.  Tom Gibson was pitching for us to have a copy, but it was figured that if we had a copy, the company would have to buy a copy for all six main power plants, and they weren’t willing to dish out that much money.

Somewhere along the line, after Tom Gibson had kept pushing for the importance of having up-to-date Plant Electric Blueprints in a timely fashion, a task force was formed to address a faster way to make print revisions.  Because Toby and I (and Terry Blevins) had been pushing this at our plant, Tom asked Toby and I (actually, that should be “Toby and me”, but “Toby and I” makes me sound smarter than I am) to be on the Task Force with him.

So, one morning after arriving at the plant, we climbed into a company car and made the drive to Oklahoma City to the Corporate Headquarters.  When we arrived, we sat in a big conference room with members from the different power plants, and a number of engineers from downtown.  I was pretty excited that something was finally going to be done.

I don’t remember the name of the engineer that was the leader of the task force, I only remember that I had worked with him once or twice through the years on some small projects.  When the meeting began, I expected that we would have some kind of brainstorming activity.  I was all ready for it, since I had all sorts of ideas about how we could just edit the prints directly from the plant on the Prime Computer where the prints were stored, just like Toby had done.

When the meeting began there was no brainstorming session.  There wasn’t even a “What do you guys think about how this can be done?”  No.  The engineer instead went on to explain his solution to the problem.  I was a little disappointed.  Mainly because I was all fired up about being asked to be on a task force in Oklahoma City to work on…. well…. anything…. to tell you the truth.  And here we were listening to a conclusion.  — Sound familiar?  I knew it would.

This engineer had it all figured out.  Here was his solution:

Step 1:  A request was sent by company mail to downtown (same at the old second step) for some blueprints that need to be updated.

Step 2:  The prints are downloaded onto a floppy disk (3.5 inch High Density – which meant, 1.44 Megabyte disks).

Step 3:  The disks were mailed through company mail back to the Power Plant.

Step 4:  The Power Plant receives the disks and loads them onto their computer at the plant and they edit the blueprint using a pared down CAD program called “RedLine”.

Step 5:  The print revision is saved to the disk and the disk is mailed back to Corporate Headquarters using the Company Mail.

Step 6:  The print is reviewed by the engineers for accuracy and is loaded into the computer as the system of record.

Ok…. this sounded just like the previous method only we were using a “RedLine” program to edit the changes instead of using Red, Green and Gray pencils.

It was evident that the engineer in charge of the meeting was expecting us to all accept this solution and that the task force no longer had to meet anymore, and we could all go home and not ever return to consider this problem again.  — Well, this was when I said the “Impossible”.

I raised my hand as if I was in a classroom.  The guy knowing me to be a regular troublemaker asked me what I wanted.  I said, “Why mail the files?  Why not just put them in a folder and have the person at the plant go there and pick them up?”  — In today’s world the idea of a drop-box is about as easy to understand as “Google it”.  Back then… I guess not.  Especially for some engineers who had already decided on a solution.

So, the engineer responded, “Because that can’t be done.”  I said, “Why not?”  He said, “It’s impossible.  Someone in a power plant can’t just go into a computer at Corporate Headquarters and access a file.”

Well, that did it….. I told him that we were able to edit CAD drawings on the Prime computer from the power plant.  He said, “No you didn’t.  That’s impossible!”  I looked over at Toby who was sitting next to me with a big grin on his face.  So I said,  “Who is the IT guy in the room?  He can tell you that you can  get a file from the mainframe from the power plant.”

The engineer replied that he didn’t invite any IT people, because there wasn’t any reason.  Everyone knows that you can’t copy files on a Corporate computer from a power plant.  So, I said, “Invite someone from the IT department to the next meeting.  I’m sure he will agree with me that this can be done.  — Shortly after that, the  meeting was adjourned (but at least I had managed to convince the team we needed a second meeting).

You should have heard me rant and rave all the way back to the power plant that afternoon.  How could he possibly be so naive to make definite statements about something and basically call me a liar when I said that we had already done it.  I’m sure Tom Gibson was glad when we arrived back at the plant and he was able to get out of the company car and into the silence of his own car for his drive back to Stillwater.  Toby on the other hand carpooled with me, so he had to hear me rant and rave to Scott Hubbard all the way back to Stillwater that day.

Needless to say, we had another Print Revision Task Force meeting a few weeks later.  Tom, Toby and I drove back to Oklahoma City.  I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen.

The meeting began with the engineer in charge of the task force saying, “The first thing we are going to address is Kevin Breazile’s statement about sending files to the power plant.  We have invited someone from IT to answer this question.”  Then he turned to a guy sitting at the table.  I don’t remember his name either, only that I had worked with him also through the years (oh yes I do.  It was Mike Russell).

The engineer turned to the IT guy and said (using a tone that indicated that I belonged in a mental institution or maybe kindergarten), “Kevin seems to think that he can somehow get on his computer at the power plant and access a folder on a server here at Corporate Headquarters and download a file.”  He stopped and with a big smirk on his face looked at the IT guy.  Mike just sat there for a moment looking at him.

The engineer just stood there with an evil grin on his face waiting…  Mike said, “So?  What do you want to know?”  The engineer said, “Well.  Is that even possible?”  Mike replied, “Of course!  It’s actually easier for him to do that than it is for someone on the 3rd floor of this building to access the mainframe on the fourth floor.”

The engineer’s jaw dropped and he eked out a meager little  “what?”  Mike asked if that was all.  When he was assured that this was the only question, he stood up and walked out the door.  As he was leaving he turned a side glance toward me and winked at me.  I was grinning ear-to-ear.  I could tell, I wasn’t the only one that had a beef with this particular engineer.

So, you would have thought that it would have been a quieter ride back to the plant that day, but leave it to me….  I kept on going on about how that guy was so sure of himself that he didn’t even bother to ask the IT guy before the meeting began just to check his own erroneous facts.  Geez!  That was the most surprising part of the day.  If he had only asked him before the meeting, he wouldn’t have made a fool out of himself with his snide comments just before he was put in his place.

So, Toby and I proved that doing the impossible isn’t all that impossible when what someone thinks is impossible really isn’t so.  This stemmed from a lesson my dad taught me growing up when he told me, “Don’t ever say “can’t”.  There is always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion May 24, 2014

    Ah, the good old days when the best computer was the new 386. Things weren’t impossible but you had to think about it and plan quite a bit. Great stories!

  2. Ruth May 24, 2014

    Always enjoy reading and thinking about a world I wouldn’t even know about if it weren’t for your unique blog!

    Ruth in Pittsburgh

  3. Ron May 24, 2014

    Great story! I heard a pastor once say “What you “know” can keep you from learning the truth.” I saw this principle in operation many times in my career.

    I had been at the WFEC Hugo Power Plant for a short time when the Plant Manager directed me (Maint. Supt.) to have the Mechanics “block the condenser” for a “hydro”. (Prior to a condenser hydro, several mechanics would work for about 4 hours dragging heavy timbers into the 3 foot tall space between the bottom of the hotwell and the concrete floor. They would space these timbers evenly across the entire condenser floor and use wedges to remove all clearance at each support beam. All this work was “required” to support the additional water weight (several feet higher than normal operating level)). I knew this “blocking” was never done at any OG&E plant but I didn’t want to make the Plant Manager look like an idiot. So I did what he asked. We “blocked” the condenser for a hydro. Then I got with just the Plant Engineer and asked him to get the Mechanical Prints for the condenser. I asked him if it was necessary to block the condenser for hydro. He said they had always done it because of the extra weight of the water. When we looked at the condenser drawings there was a note indicating it was designed to support a full hydro water level. He showed the print to the Plant Manager (one on one). Nobody was made to look foolish and for the next condenser hydro we didn’t “block” it – and the Mechanics were really happy!

    1. Plant Electrician May 24, 2014

      We used to have a saying that I picked up from Bob Kennedy. “We’ve been doing it this way for 35 years. “

  4. Dave Tarver May 24, 2014

    Well over the years there were a lot of engineers that way.  Not all.  We have had outstanding ones as well and the stinkers too.  Just hate the politics of people so evil and cruel.  Man is beyond ugly so often.

Power Plant Trouble With Angels

Okay, so, no one ever called me an Angel unless it was one of the fallen type.  I suppose the closest was when Bill Bennett, our A Foreman at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma would call me a scamp.  I don’t know why, but I always seemed to be in trouble over one thing or another.  Well… maybe I do know why.

Not long after Bill Bennett left during the downsizing in 1994, when our Supervisor over Maintenance was Jasper Christensen, we had received newer computers all around the plant.  That is, except for the Electric Shop, because we had acquired one a year or so before so that we could program Eeprom Chips.

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

I helped install the computers all around the plant.  I had run the Ethernet cables and installed the jacks so they could be connected to the plant computer network.  I had become the computer person for the plant by default, since I had learned how everything worked on my own.

When we received all the new computers, we were told that we had to keep an inventory of all the computer programs that we were using on each computer to make sure that we weren’t using pirated software.  So, when we installed any program on a computer we were supposed to notify our Supervisor, who in this case was Jasper Christensen.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

I sort of felt sorry for Jasper at times, because, it’s sort of like when you don’t get to choose your parents…. Jasper didn’t get to choose who was working for him exactly.  So, he was stuck with me.

I’m not saying that I was a bad person, or that I wasn’t good at being an electrician.  I was just annoying.  I was always up to some sort of something that no one really told me to do.

One example of this was that I had a CompuServe account, and I would use it to access stock quotes at the end of the day.  I would save them to a file, and then each week, I would pin up charts of our 401k stocks on the bulletin board in the electric shop.  Power Plant Men would come into the shop to see how their stocks were doing.  At this time, the “Internet” hadn’t been introduced to the plant and people didn’t really know much about it.  I would connect to CompuServe through a dial up modem.

 

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

I had a 14,400 baud modem with compression that made it more like 104,000 baud which was really fast for that time.   However, when the World Wide Web became available to CompuServe users, I found that even at that speed, it took a long time just to load one web page if it had a picture on it.  The Internet was just around the corner.  I’ll write a post about how it was introduced at the plant next week.

I diligently kept a log of all the software we had on our company computer.  Whenever I would upgrade CompuServe to the latest version, I would send a form to Jasper letting him know that I now had that version of software on the electric shop computer.  We also had installed other software, such as Reflex, which was sort of a hybrid between Excel and Access.  This was still a DOS based computer.  Windows 3.1 was on it, but a lot of our programs were still run in the DOS mode.

About 6 months after all the new computers arrived, we requested that the computer in the electric shop be replaced, because it was older, and we were using it for more and more things.  The computer arrived about a month after it was approved.

This time, an IT guy from Oklahoma City brought the computer to the plant.  This computer was better than all the other computers in the plant, mainly because it was newer.  At that time, computers were quickly improving.  If you waited six months more it would have even been a better computer.  While the IT guy was in the neighborhood, he installed some software on all the computers.

I was working on the Unit 2 Precipitator with Charles Foster the day that the Electric Shop received the new computer.  Alan Kramer, our Foreman, called me on the radio (walkie talkie)…  He did this because we were using radios a lot more, and were talking about shutting down the Gray Phone PA system all together.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

Alan said that Jasper wanted to use the new Electric Shop computer at the Conoco Cogen (which stands for Cogeneration) plant in Ponca City.  We needed to take it to Ponca City and use the computer that was there for the electric shop. — Before I tell you my response…. let me tell you about the computer at the Cogen plant.

First, let me explain what a Cogeneration plant is…. This is a small power plant that uses waste gases from the Conoco (Continental Oil) Oil Refinery to create steam to turn the generator to produce electricity.  In exchange for using the waste gases from the refinery, the Power Plant gave any left over steam back to the refinery so they could use it in their refinery.  Plus, we would give the refinery the electricity that we produced.  Any electricity left over, we sold to our customers.

So, there was a desktop computer sitting on a desk in a small control room that allowed the control room at our power plant to dial into it and monitor the plant to see how it was working.  The connection was rather slow even though it had a dedicated phone line to connect to the plant.

The computer itself, even though it was somewhat older than the new computer we received for the electric shop, was sitting idle most of the time.  Even when it was working, it was never processing much.  The problem with the computer being slow wasn’t the computer itself, it was the Network connection back to the plant.

So, when Jasper had said that he was going to replace that computer with our much faster one that we had ordered, I was a little perturbed.  This meant that the nice new fast computer that we had specially ordered so that we could do our job was going to be sitting idle in Ponca City collecting dust doing next to nothing and it wasn’t going to make anything faster as far as the control room was concerned and we would be stuck with a computer that was somewhat older than the one that the computer person had just replaced.

So, in the most smarmy voice I could muster I replied over the radio, “Oh Great!  Another one of Jasper’s ‘Scathingly Brilliant Ideas’!”  I knew the phrase “Scathingly Brilliant Idea” from the movie “Trouble With Angels”.  It seemed like an appropriate remark at the time.

Trouble With Angels

Trouble With Angels

I knew that Jasper would be listening, because he had his walkie talkie set on scan so that he could hear everything we were saying.  Alan Kramer came right back after my remark and said, “Watch it Kevin.  You know who might be listening.”  I said, “Oh.  I know who’s listening.”

Approximately five minutes later, Jasper Christensen called me on the radio and asked me to meet him in his office.  “Okay.  Here it comes,” I thought.  On my way down from the roof of the precipitator I was formulating my argument as to why it was a terrible idea to take the best computer at the plant and send it to Ponca City to sit idle in a room by itself when I could easily put it to a lot of use.  I never really was able to present my arguments.

When I arrived at Jasper’s office, he told me that he wanted me to take CompuServe off of the computer in the electric shop.  I knew why.  I thought I knew why.  I figured it was because I had just insulted him on the radio.  I’m sure that was part of it, but it wasn’t the only reason.

I pressed Jasper on the issue and told him that I used CompuServe to download the stock prices for our 401k so that everyone can see how their stocks are doing and I post them on the bulletin board.  Jasper came back with “That has nothing to do with your job.”  I replied with, “I’m providing a service for our teams, just like the candy and coke machines.  I’m paying for the service myself.  I’m not charging anything.”  Jasper disagreed that I was providing a useful service.

Then Jasper said that the IT guy found a virus on one of the computers and since I was the only person at the plant that had connected to anything like CompuServe, the virus must have come from me.  When I asked him which computer had the virus, he didn’t know.  I told Jasper I better go find out, because if there was a virus on one of the computers, we need to clean it up right away.

This was at a time when McAfee’s Viruscan software was freeware.  I always had an updated copy of it that I would run on the computers.  I had checked all the computers at the plant recently, so I was surprised to hear that one of them had a virus.  Jasper told me that the IT guy was up in Bill Green’s office.  Bill Green was the plant manager.

Bill Green

Bill Green

As I was leaving Jasper’s office, I paused and turned around and asked Jasper one last question….. “Do you want me to only remove the CompuServe application, or do you want me to stop accessing CompuServe? Because I can access CompuServe without the application on the computer.  The application just makes it easier to navigate around.”  This question puzzled Jasper.  He said he would have to get back at me on that.  — So, at that point (I thought to myself), I’ll wait until Jasper gets back to me on that before I remove the software.

I knew that he knew nothing about computers, and I knew that this would confuse him.  That’s why I asked it.  I wanted him to know that if he made me remove CompuServe because he was mad at me for making my smartaleck remark about moving the computer to Ponca City it wasn’t going to make much difference to me anyway.

So, I walked back up to him as he was sitting at his desk, and I said, “Jasper.  I know that I’m the only person in this plant that has given you a list of all the programs on the computer I use.  I let you know every time I even upgrade to a new version.  I am the only person in the plant that follows the rules when it comes to what is on the computers.  I know that there has been personal software added to just about every computer at this plant.  I am the only person that has told you what software I am using.  So, just keep it in mind that you are trying to punish the only person that is following the rules.”  Then I left.

I went upstairs to Bill Green’s office where I found the IT guy running a scan on Bill’s computer.  I asked him about the virus he found.  He said that he was running a Microsoft virus scanner on the computers and on the one in the chemists lab, there was one file that was questionable.  The scan said it was a possible virus, but couldn’t tell what virus it was.

I asked the IT guy what the name of the file was.  He handed me a post it note with the file name on it.  I recognized it right away.  It was a GLink file.  GLink is the application that we used to access the mainframe computer in order to work on our Maintenance Orders, or to look up parts, and any other computer related activities.

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

I had been given a beta test version of GLink that I installed on the Chemists computer for Toby O’Brien about a year earlier when he asked me to help him find a way to connect to the Prime computer downtown so that he could work on CAD drawings from the plant.  IT had sent this Beta version of GLink to me because it could connect to the switch twice as fast as the current GLink and they were glad to let us try it out.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

About that time, Bill Green came into the office and I told him that the “supposed” virus on the Chemist computer was given to us by IT and that it probably wasn’t a virus anyway, it just acted like one because it connected to a switch a certain way which was unusual.  The IT guy was still standing there and he agreed that it just indicated that it might be a virus and probably wasn’t really one.

Then I told Bill Green that Jasper had told me to remove CompuServe from the computer in our shop.  He said that he and Jasper had talked about it and were concerned that I might download a virus from CompuServe.  I assured him that I only downloaded stock prices and MSDS sheets (Material Safety Data Sheets) from OSHA.  Everything I downloaded was in text format and would not contain a virus.

The IT guy agreed that at that time, CompuServe was very careful about viruses as they had been hit with one about 6 months earlier.  Now they scanned everything they let you download.  Bill said, “Well, that’s between you and Jasper.”  —  That’s all I needed to hear.  I knew that Jasper would forget about it and never “get back with me” on it.

As you can tell, if you’ve been reading the posts this year, I am constantly becoming more involved in computers at this point in my career.  For good or bad, it was a concern for people like Jasper and Bill.  I knew a lot more than they did to the point that they would call me to help them learn how to use their computers.  They didn’t know if they could trust me.  Luckily for them, even though I was mischievous, I wouldn’t do anything to invade someone’s privacy, or hurt plant operations.

It did seem like I was always in trouble over one thing or another.  It was often brought on by someone’s misunderstanding about what the problem really was, and their feeble incorrect attempt to fix it…. and… well….(let’s face it) my big mouth.

Serving Mankind Power Plant Style

Originally Posted on February 15, 2013:

My first job, where I wasn’t working for myself, was when I was 14 years old and I became a dishwasher in a German Restaurant called Rhinelanders in Columbia Missouri. It felt good feeding dishes through the dishwasher, and scrubbing pots and pans because I knew that in the scheme of things I was helping to feed the customers the best German food in a 60 mile radius. Later when I went to work for the Hilton Inn as a dishwasher, I was serving a lot more people as they would host banquets with 100’s of people at one time. After that I went to work for Sirloin Stockade as a dishwasher, busboy and finally a cook. The number of people that would go through that restaurant in one day dwarfed the number of people we would serve at the Hilton Inn.

The Hilton Inn had a large automated dishwasher to handle the banquet crowd

The Hilton Inn had a large automated dishwasher to handle the banquet crowd

Nothing prepared me for the massive amount of people whose lives are touched each day by a Power Plant Electrician! Or any Power Plant employee for that matter. Our plant alone could turn the lights on for over one million people in their homes, offices and factories. As a summer help mowing grass and cleaning up the park each week removing dirty diapers and rotting fish innards it never really had the impact that becoming an electrician did.

Part of the routine as an electrician was to do preventative maintenance on equipment to keep things in good working order. We performed substation inspections, emergency backup battery checks. We changed brushes on the generator exciter, performed elevator inspections and checked cathodic protection to make sure it was operational. At certain times of the year we would check out the plant freeze protection to make sure the pipes weren’t going to freeze come winter. I also worked on maintaining the precipitator equipment. All of these things were needed to keep the plant running smoothly, but, though they were each fun in their own way, they didn’t have the impact on me that fixing something that was broken did. (ok. two paragraphs ending in the word “did”… what does that tell you?).

I used to love getting a Maintenance Order that said that something was broken and we needed to go fix it. It may have been a motor that had a bad bearing, or a cooling system that had shutdown, or the Dumper that dumped the coal trains had quit working. One of my “speci-alities” (I know. I misspelled that on purpose), was working on elevators. — I will save my elevator stories for later.

When I was working on something that was broken, I could see more clearly how my job was related to keeping the lights on throughout the area of Oklahoma where our company served the public. Depending on what you were working on, one wrong slip of the screwdriver and “pow”, I could make the lights blink for 3 million people. I will talk more about certain events that happened throughout the years that I worked at the plant where things that happened at the plant were felt throughout our electric grid.

Sometimes even as far away as Chicago and Tennessee. There was a “club” for people that shut a unit down. It was called the “500 Club”. It meant that you tripped the unit when it was generating 500 or more Megawatts of power. I can say that “luckily”, I never was a member of that club.

Ok, so a broken elevator doesn’t directly impact the operation of the plant, but it was, during more than one occasion, a life threatening situation considering that a few times the elevator would pick the most opportune time to stall between 200 and 225 feet up the elevator shaft full of elderly visitors that were touring our flagship Power Plant on their way back down from experiencing the great view of the lake from the top of the boiler. (I know. My college English Professor would have a heyday with that run-on sentence). — actually, that sentence was so long, I think I’ll make it the only sentence in the entire paragraph, — well, except for my comments about it….

Charles Foster, my foreman and best friend, took me up to the top of the boiler soon after I became an electrician and showed me the “Elevator Penthouse”. I know. “Elevator Penthouse”… Sounds like a nice place…. Well. It wasn’t bad after you swept out the dead moths, beetles and crickets that had accumulated since the last Elevator Inspection. It was a noisy room on the top of the elevator shaft where the elevator motor buzzed as it pulled the elevator up and let it down. Stopping on floors where someone had pushed a button.

I told you earlier that my elevator stories will be in a later post, so for this story, I’ll just say that Charles set me down on my tool bucket (which doubled as my portable stool and tripled as my portable trash can), in front of a panel of about 100 relays all picking up and dropping out as the elevator made its way up and down. He told me to study the blueprints that hung on the side of the panel and watch the relays until I understood how it all worked.

So, one afternoon, I sat there for about 4 hours doing nothing but watching relays light up and drop out. On the other side of that panel were the main relays. There were relays there we called “Christmas Tree” relays because they looked like a fir tree. I made some notes on a piece of paper about the sequence that the relays would pick up and drop out that I kept in my wallet.

I used those notes years later (in 2000) when I was writing task lists in SAP (our Enterprise Resource Planning computer system) on how to troubleshoot the elevator controls. Anyway, that was how I learned all about how elevator logic works. You know what? It is just like writing a computer program using computer code. It is basically a set of instructions with rules built-in, only it was done with relays.

A Montgomery Elevator Penthouse similar to the boiler elevator penthouses

A Montgomery Elevator Penthouse similar to the boiler elevator penthouses. The Christmas tree relays are halfway down on the right side of the left panel

Well. Back to helping humanity…. So, usually when we were working on something that was broken there was an operator somewhere that was waiting for the equipment to be repaired so that they could go on with their job. Sometimes the Shift Supervisor would be calling us asking us periodically when we were going to be done because they were running low on coal in the silos and were going to have to lower the load on the units if we didn’t hurry up. It was times like that when you fixed the kill switch on the side of the 10 or 11 conveyor that supply the coal to the plant from the coalyard that you really understood just where you stood with your fellow man.

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

I am writing about this not because I want to pat myself on the back. Though I often did feel really proud as I returned to the truck with my tool bucket after coming down from a conveyor after fixing something. I would feel like taking a bow, though I was often by myself in situations like that when I wasn’t with my “bucket buddy”. At least the Shift Supervisor and the control room operators were very grateful when you would fix something critical to keeping the plant operating at full steam (and I mean that literally…. The electricity is made by the steam from the boiler that turned the turbine that spun the generator).

No. I am writing about this because it would hit home to me at times like these how much each of us depend on each other. We all know about how important it is to have a police force keeping order and having fire fighters and paramedics on standby to rush to protect families in time of distress. People in jobs like those are as obvious as the soldiers that protect our nation.

I think the majority of us have a much bigger impact on the rest of society than we realize. I think the Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with never gave it much thought. Like the person washing dishes in a restaurant, they didn’t look at themselves as heroes. But they are (I know… Sentence fragment). Each day they moved through an environment where a boiler ghost could reach out and grab them. They distinctively know that they are standing next to a dragon that could wake up at any moment and blast them from the face of the earth, but they don’t let it deter them from the immediate job at hand.

dragon

When the boilers were being brought on line for the first time in 1979 and 1980, when you walked through the boiler area, you carried a household straw broom with you that you waved in front of you like someone knocking spider webs out of the way (I called it searching for the boiler ghost). It was explained to me at the time that this was done to detect if there was steam leaking from the pipes. If steam was leaking from some of the pipes, you wouldn’t be able to see it, but if you stepped into the flow of the steam, it could cut you in half before you even realized there was something wrong. When the steam hit the broom, it would knock the broom to the side, and you would know the leak was there. Kind of like the canary in the mine.

Boiler Ghost Detector

Boiler Ghost Detector

I remember one day when everyone was told to leave Unit 1 boiler because during an emergency, the entire boiler was at risk of melting to the ground. If not for the quick action of brave Power Plant Men, this was avoided and the lights in the hospitals in Oklahoma City and the rest of Central Oklahoma didn’t blink once. The dragon had awakened, but was quickly subdued and put back in its place.

I entitled this post “Serving Mankind Power Plant Style”, but isn’t that what we all do? If we aren’t serving Mankind, then why are we here? Today I have a very different job. I work at Dell Inc., the computer company. Our company creates computers for people around the world. We create and sell a computer about once every 2 seconds. At the electric company we had about 3,000 people that served 3 million. At Dell, we provide high quality computers for a price that allows even lower income families to enter the computer age. Computers allow families to connect with each other and expand their lives in ways that were not even conceived of a few years ago.

Even though I spend my days serving my internal customers at Dell, I know that in the big scheme of things along with over 100,000 other employees, I am helping to impact the lives of over a billion people worldwide! I wouldn’t be able to do much if down the road the brave men and women at a Power Plant weren’t keeping the lights on. It is kind of like the idea of “Pay it Forward.”

So, the bottom line of this post is… All life is precious. Whatever we do in this life, in one way or other, impacts the rest of us. We go through life thinking that we live in a much smaller bubble than we really do. The real bubble that we live in is this planet and just like every cell in our body is in some way supported by the other cells, it is that way with us. Don’t discount what you do in life. It may seem insignificant, but the smile you give to someone today will be “paid forward” and will impact every one of us.

Comments from the Original Post:

  1. Far too few understand this, very well said, my friend.

  2. Amen!

    I remember one time at the Seminole Plant when we had a steam leak on a Unit 2 throttle valve. You could hear it (over the roar of the turbine room) but you couldn’t see it (superheated steam is invisible). Martin Louthan and Ralph McDermott found the leak with a “red rag” on the end of a broomstick.

  3. Life is precious, or it’s just another commodity, right? And that’s right down the center of the Left/Right divide…
    Abortion debates sit astride that divide; healthcare is now crossing it as government undertakes how much to spend on various age groups.
    Another side of it provided the sense of responsibility that led Power Plant Men to sacrifice and risk when those were needed. At one time, those attitudes would have been taken for granted, normal and to be expected… something that comes clear in all the Power Plant stories.

     

    Comments from the Previous Repost:

    Ron  February 20, 2014

    I love this story on serving others. Thanks 🙂
    You’ve probably heard of the Oklahoma City Thunder (NBA) star Kevin Durant? He’s just chosen a nick name for himself – “Servant”. Is that cool or what? I’m proud of him.

Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant

Originally posted April 19, 2013:

Resistance is Futile! You may have heard that before. Especially if you are a Star Trek Fan. If not, then you know that there is always some form of resistance wherever you are.

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that "Resistance is Futile"

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that “Resistance is Futile” Like that is ever going to happen

I learned a lot about resistance when I first joined the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1984. I was assigned to work with Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers on the Precipitator during overhauls and when I wasn’t working on the manhole pumps and there wasn’t any other emergencies going on. Actually, from 1984 on, on the Precipitator for the next 17 years I continued to work on the precipitator… (if I had only known my fate….).

Not only did I learn a lot about resistance, I also learned about capacitance, reactance, transformers, rectifiers, power supplies, diodes, transistors, op amps, and pots (also known as potentiometers). Bill Rivers was the brains of the outfit. Sonny was the Electric Specialist banished to the Precipitator by Leroy Godfrey (See Singing Along with Sonny Kendrick). Bill thought up the ideas and Sonny went to work to implement them. I just jumped in where I was needed.

The Precipitator is the large box between the boiler and the smokestack (maybe you can see this in the Power plant picture). The purpose of the electrostatic precipitator is to take the smoke (or fly ash) out of the exhaust before it went out of the smokestack.

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

The controls for the Precipitator were all electronic at that time. That meant that there were circuit boards full of resistors, capacitors, transistors, operational amplifiers, diodes and potentiometers. These circuit boards controlled the way the power was distributed throughout the precipitator wires and plates through high powered transformers, and how the rappers and vibrators operated that dropped the collected ash into the hoppers.

Bill had me take an electronics course at the Indian Meridian Vo-tech so I would know the basics. Then he taught me all the shortcuts. I had to be able to look at a resistor and tell right away what the value of resistance it was. Resistors are color-coded and you had to learn what each of the colors represented…

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

I was expected to know this by sight. Bill would test me. There was a mnemonic device that I was taught to remember what each color represented, but it is not appropriate to repeat it, so I won’t. It is enough to say that the colors go like this: Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, Gray, White (I will never forget this my entire life). These represent the numbers zero through 9. Here is a full explanation of how to read a resistor….. just in case you are curious, or you are such a boring person that you really need some material to bring up when you are at a party and don’t know what to say:

This is how the color codes work

This is how the color codes work for resistors works

I found that having just the correct amount of resistance was very important. Too much or too less, and everything stops working.

Isn’t it that way with management also? If the management is too resistant to change, then things come to a halt. If they have too little resistance, they lose control of the situation. Depending on the circuit (or managerial decision) and what you are trying to do, it helps to have a manager that has a variable resistance to meet the needs of each situation. Resistance to change is always a balancing act.

During the first two years I was an electrician, the main control panels that controlled the operation of the precipitators were electronic. We spent a lot of time in the lab troubleshooting electric circuits looking for blown (or bad) parts that needed to be replaced. Then we would solder new components on the circuit boards and then put them back in operation. I learned how to be an electronics junky. I became addicted to fixing electronic circuit boards. It was like a game to me.

Later, the precipitator controls were changed to digital controls. That is, they were more like little computers controlling the precipitator. Instead of a bunch of circuit boards dumbly, but cleverly, doing their job, (how many commas can I use in one sentence?), little brains were added that made decisions and reacted to conditions in a much more dynamic way.

What was interesting was that one day Bill Rivers was describing how technology was going to be in the future. He said that some day, we will be able to sit in the lab and look on a computer and see what all the controls in the precipitator were doing (this was 1984). If something isn’t working right, we could just reach over, type a few keys on the computer and adjust the controls. Drink our sweet tea (a necessary staple in Oklahoma at the time), and then wait for the next crisis…. Then he would giggle at the look of disbelief on my face.

When he was telling me this, I was thinking in my head…. Well, that would be nice, but this sounds more like a pipe dream to me than reality. What does an older guy with six kids from a tool and die company in Columbia Missouri (where I grew up, by chance) know about the future of anything….. well…. anything…uh… new age…. If that is what you might call it… I found out you just don’t really know when you are sitting in front of a true “visionary” with tremendous insight.

Bill Rivers had this incredible knack for telling the future. In 1984 he was predicting computer controls in the control room where you ran the entire plant from a computer on a desk instead of using the “Big Board”.

I love this picture!

I love this picture! It makes me feel at home! This was not our plant, but is a Power Plant control room

He said you would be able to call someone on a phone you kept in your pocket or your watch like Dick Tracey.

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

I don’t know what journals Bill was reading or if he just dreamed all this stuff up in his head, or maybe he was a Star Trek Fan that believed that if you can dream it up you can do it. I do know that he picked up on subtle queues and made great inferences from them that seemed astronomically unlikely. However, I have to admit that he caught me off guard a number of times with predictions that definitely came true.

I will talk about this more in a future post, but for now I will say that we did upgrade the precipitator to where you could sit in the control room and monitor and adjust the precipitator controls (all 84 on each unit), and even each of the rappers (672 rappers) and vibrators (168 vibrators) on the roof of each precipitator. With one key on the computer I could send a plume of ash out of the smokestack that looked like the unit had just tripped, and a moment later, clean it up again. This meant that I could send smoke signals to the Osage Indian tribe 20 miles north up the Arkansas (pronounced “Are Kansas”) river, telling them that the Pow Wow would begin at sunset.

Today, I understand that the “Big Board” at the plant is just a large junction box and the plant is controlled almost (if not) completely by computers sitting on the desk. Before I left the plant in 2001, this was being transitioned slowly to computer controls. I have another story to tell some day about this, and how an operator named Jim Cave, a Power Plant Genius and true Power Plant Man of the highest integrity, was snubbed by upper management for speeding this technology along. — Another example of Power Plant Resistance….

But for now…. back to my electronic days… before I began re-programming the Eeprom chips in the precipitator controls….

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the precipitator controls which I had a very “personal” relationship with…

Bill Rivers confided with me one day that when the new Instrument and Controls department had been formed from the “Results” department that his dream had been to become a part of this team. It meant the world to him. It was where he believed he belonged. It was one of his major goals in life.

There used to be two electrical specialists in the Power Plant. Sonny Kendrick was not always the only one. The other specialist was chosen to go to the Instrument and Controls shop. Bill Rivers wanted to move there also. He definitely had the experience and the knowledge to be a superb instrument and controls person. But Bill had this one problem.

He loved to joke around. He loved to pull strings and push buttons. I have mentioned in a previous posts that Bill would play a new joke on Sonny Kendrick every single day. As I have unfortunately found out in my own life… this tends to make them…. well….. it tends to make enemies out of those who have a chip on their shoulder. Those people who naturally feel inadequate in their abilities or their position in life. To go one step further…. anyone who feels “unloved”….. these people definitely do not like being joked with. They seem to never forgive you. My greatest regret in life is joking around with these individuals.

So, when it came time to choose who would be a part of the new Instrument and Controls shop, Bill Rivers was turned down. It was explained to him that the reason he was not given the job was because he cut off the leads of a transistor when he replaced them. — I’m not kidding. Bill Rivers had the habit of cutting off the leads of each resistor, transistor, diode or capacitor that he replaced…. this is why Monty Adams turned down his request for joining the “elite” Instrument and Controls shop (as he told Bill to his face).

Someone had told the Instrument and Controls Supervisor Monty Adams that Bill Rivers cut the leads off of transistors and resistors when he replaced them so that you couldn’t test them to see if they were all right. Implying that he didn’t want you to know whether he had replaced the transistor or resistor by mistake.

Bill Rivers took several transistors, cut the leads off of each of them and handed them to me and asked me to test them to see if they were still good or if they were bad. I took out my voltmeter, set it to ohms, and proceeded to test them as Bill Rivers had taught me. I told him…. this transistor is good….. this one is bad….

You see…. there is no way to cut the leads off of a transistor in such a way to make it impossible to tell if a transistor is good or bad…. In reality…. you cut the leads off of a bad transistor so that the person working on the circuit board knows that this is a bad transistor and doesn’t use it again by accident. This was electronics 101.

When Bill told me this story, he literally had tears in his eyes. This was because being part of the Instrument and Controls team was part of his dream. His family and the entire rest of his life was decided the day he was told that he was not going to be a part of a team that he believed was his true lot in life.

I remember his exact words as he sat there in the lab alone and told me this story. He said, “… and Monty didn’t know… He didn’t know that you cut the leads…. that is standard procedure….” In Bill’s giggly way, he was crying out loud as he told me this.

From that point on….I knew that the decisions Bill made in his life were driven by that one decision to exclude him from this team. Unlike many of us that could say to ourselves…. “That is their loss”…. Bill kept this pain in his heart each day…. Every decision from that day further was effected by this event.

I calculated it out one day that I spent 414 hours driving back and forth from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the plant and back each day with Bill Rivers (along with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer and occasionally others that needed a ride), and over that time, I became very close to Bill, even to the point of tutoring his son in Algebra (see post: How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?).

I say this because I know about the pain that inflicted Bill River by a rash decision based on the hearsay of someone that held a grudge. I know how his entire life was changed and how it ended for Bill Rivers as a power plant employee. I know that every decision by Bill after this date was made in response to this one decision. Anyone who experienced Bill after 1983 knows what I am talking about.

I realized that today my own decisions in life help spell out my future. How some little remark may be misinterpreted, or even properly so. I realize as I write this post that how I accept or reject these events in my life, determines the future of my family. After seeing how every event in Bill’s life after that day at the power company was determined by his experience was to his detriment, I am determined not to let the same thing happened to me…..

That is why I have taken on the philosophy in my life that no matter how my actions are misinterpreted, I am determined to remain true to myself. I know what I mean, and I mean what I say, and I say what I mean, and an Elephant is Faithful 100 %.

From Horton Hatches an Egg

From Horton Hatches an Egg by Dr. Seuss

Comment from the Original Post:

  1. Ron Kilman April 21, 2013

    It’s amazing how many decisions are made based on incorrect / incomplete information (at all levels).

Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer

Originally posted on January 11, 2014:

Up front, I would like to clarify the title so that those who are quickly perusing articles looking for something salacious won’t have to read too far before they realize this isn’t what they are seeking.  The word “Boner” in this headline refers to a “joke” played on a Plant Engineer by the name of George Bohn at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  When I was a boy we had a joke book called the “Omnibus Book of Boners”.  Most of my life I never thought about the word “Boner” as having another meaning.  Which, after this joke was played might have explained the expression on George’s face.

Joke Book

Joke Book

In an earlier Post “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” I explained that when playing a Power Plant joke, the longer it takes to play a simple joke, the better the effect.  I think the reason for this is that when the person realizes that a joke has been played on them by a fellow Power Plant Man and even though it was simple, the person went through the effort over a long period of time, just to make you smile for a moment.  Then you know that this person must truly be a good friend.  Who else would waste countless hours on someone over days, weeks, or even months, just to make someone smile once?

Well…. Bohn’s Boner lasted for over six months!  Yeah.  Six months, at least.

I saw the opportunity arise one day after we had received a new hard drive for precipitator computer for Unit 2.  We had the computers for a couple of years after we went to digital controls in the precipitator before the hard drive crashed.  This happened to be a project that George Bohn had managed.  He was the project manager and had overseen the installation of the precipitator controls, which included the two precipitator computers in the control room.  One for each unit.  They sat around behind the big control panel that you see when you watch an older movie about a Power Plant Control Room, like the China Syndrome.

I love this picture!

I love this picture!

Anyway,  each of the computers had 30 Megabyte hard drives.  Yeah.  You heard that right!  30 Megabytes.  That’s not a typo.  Not Gigabytes… nope.  Megabytes.  Just this morning at Dell, I received an e-mail with a file attached that was over 30 Megabytes in size (Thanks Norma).  I’m talking about an IBM AT computer:

IBM PC

IBM PC

Well, the Unit 2 precipitator computer was used to monitor all of the 84 control cabinets in the Precipitator control room.  It indicated how much voltage and amperage were on each cabinet, as well as the spark rate, and the setting on each cabinet.  It was really a great step up.  I’m sure today you can probably do that from your phone while you are sitting in a movie theater just before they tell you to silence your “Cell Phone Now” and stop texting your neighbor.  Back then, it was amazing.

All the operator had to do was go over to the computer, pull up the screen (this was before Windows, but the program was running by default), and type the keyboard command to tell it to print and “voila”, it would print out all that information.  The operator could look at it to see if there was a problem, and if not, he just saved it with all the other reports he was supposed to create during his shift.

Believe it or not.  Before this time, the operator actually walked up to all of the 84 cabinets on each unit and looking at meters on the cabinet wrote down the voltage and amperage of each cabinet on a form.  You can imagine how much happier they were to be able to print it all out in the control room.  Hours and hours saved each week.

So, when the 30 Megabyte hard drive crashed George Bohn ordered a new hard drive from the IT department in Oklahoma City.  A couple of weeks later, we received the new hard drive from the city.  George gave it to me and asked me to install it in the computer.

When I installed the hard drive, I found that it had already been formatted.  All I had to do was install the program and we were good to go.  I backed up the program from the Unit 1 computer and copied it onto the new hard drive using a floppy disk.  Yeah.  Programs were a lot  smaller then.  A 360 Kilobyte floppy disk was all that was needed to hold the entire Precipitator program.

I noticed right away that instead of being the 30 Megabytes we had expected, there was only 20 Megabytes on the drive.  That was all right with me.  20 Megabytes would be enough so that we didn’t have to back anything up very often.

As I was installing the program and testing it, and going through the code figuring out how to change Unit 1 to Unit 2, I had an idea….  At the command prompt, I typed “D:” and hit enter.  You know what I was checking, right?  D colon, and enter…..

sure enough.  there was a D drive on this hard drive.  Another 20 Megabytes were on this partition.  You see.  This was actually a 40 Megabyte hard drive that had been partitioned as two 20 megabyte drives.

It was at this point that I thought I would play a little joke on George.  I figured he would come and look at this computer and at first he would find that the new hard drive was only a 20 Megabyte drive instead of the 30 Megabyte drive that he had ordered.  I also figured that like me, he would think about it for a minute and then check to see if there was an extra partition and would find the extra drive.

So I thought I would leave him a little present.  I went to D Drive and at the command prompt (gee… the only thing you had was a command prompt.  You didn’t even call it a command prompt then.  You called it a DOS prompt) that looked like this:  D:>  I typed –  “label d: Bohns Boner”  For all you older DOS people, you know what this did, right?  It labeled the D drive volume name “Bohns Boner”.   At the time I think we were on DOS 4.0 or something close to that.  The volume length was limited to 11 characters and Bohns Boner took exactly 11 characters.  The label couldn’t be longer than that.

Now, all I had to do was call up George Bohn, tell him I had installed the hard drive in the precipitator computer and it was up and running and go to the electric shop and wait for him to come down with a smile on his face over the name of the second drive on the computer.  So I did.  I told Charles Foster and Terry Blevins.

After the reorganization, Tom Gibson, our Electric Supervisor had decided that Terry Blevins would maintain the precipitator on Unit 2, and I would maintain Unit 1, which was great for me, because I was no longer working on both of them by myself.  So, Charles and I were waiting for George to arrive in the electric shop office.  It didn’t take long.

George came in the office and said, “Did you see that they only gave us a 20 Megabyte hard drive instead of a 30 Megabyte drive.  (Oh.  So, he hadn’t found the second partition).  I replied, “Yeah.  I noticed that.”  George was a little perturbed that he didn’t get what he ordered.  He said he was going to contact them and have them send us a 30 Megabyte drive.  We had paid for it.  I told him that he should.  Especially since we had paid for it (keeping a straight concerned look on my face).

Anyway, a couple of weeks went by and there was no new hard drive, and George hadn’t said anything more about it.  I thought he might have eventually found the second drive, but then he would say something like “I can’t believe they didn’t send us the right hard drive” and I would know that he still hadn’t figured it out.

One day the operators came to me and pulled me aside and asked me if there was some way when they were on the night shift if they could use the precipitator computer to create documents.  At this time PCs were pretty sparse.  The only good computers in the control room were these two precipitator computers and the Shift Supervisor’s office.  the Precipitator computers just sat there monitoring the precipitator all the time, even when no one cared.

The plant had purchased so many licenses to use Word Perfect, a word processor that was the “in thing” before Windows and Word came around.  So, I installed Word Perfect for them on the extra drive on the Unit 2 precipitator computer.  That is, Bohns Boner.  I explained to them that they could only use it when George Bohn was not around, because he didn’t know the drive existed and I wanted him to  find it himself someday.

Word Perfect for DOS

Word Perfect for DOS

Everyone agreed.  All the Control Room operators that were at all interested in creating documents, like Jim Cave and Dave Tarver and others, knew about Bohns Boner, and knew that it was a secret.

The Control room had a laser printer installed next to the Shift Supervisor’s office so they could print out Clearances and have them look nice.  They had some new Clearance system they installed, and this came with it.  So, the next question was… Is there a way we can print our documents out using the Laser Printer instead of the clunky Dot Matrix printer tied to the Precipitator computer?

I ordered a 50 foot Printer cable (I paid for it out of my own pocket) and kept it coiled up under the small desk where the precipitator computer sat and explained that they could just disconnect the dot matrix printer on the back of the computer and plug the other end into the Laser Printer and they could print out nice neat looking documents.  But… They had to do it at night or when they were sure that George Bohn was not around because he still didn’t know the extra drive existed.  Everyone agreed.  They would have to string the printer cable across the Control Room floor to reach the laser printer.

50 foot Power Plant Parallel Printer Cable

50 foot Power Plant Parallel Printer Cable

Like I said earlier.  this went on for well over 6 months.  It seemed like almost a year.  Then one day, George Bohn came down to the Electric Shop office while Charles and I were sitting there for lunch.  He said that he had asked Oklahoma City about the hard drive again, and they had insisted that they had sent the correct hard drive to our plant.  Then we could see a light go on in his head.  He said, “Do you suppose that they partitioned the disk into two drives?” (Bingo!  He had figured it out).  I said, “Could be.”

Charles and I sat there and looked at him while we ate our lunch.  The cherry tomatoes Charles had given me tasted especially good with my ham and cheese sandwich that day.  I knew that we were finally only minutes away from the end of the joke we had been playing on George for the past so many months.  George leaned back in the chair with his thin long legs stretched out and his hands behind his head.  I could tell he was thinking about it.

Then he rose from his chair and headed out the door.  Charles and I smiled at each other.  We both waited.  A few minutes later George came back in the office.  He had found Bohns Boner.  You see.  When you went to a drive back then on the command prompt, the first thing you would see was the volume name.  So as soon as he typed the D colon and enter, it would have said “Bohns Boner”.

George sat down in a chair.  He didn’t say anything.  He just sat there with a straight face as if he didn’t know what to think.  I thought…. well, he is an Engineer.  Maybe he doesn’t know what to do when Power Plant Men play jokes on them.  He looked like he couldn’t decide whether to be upset or glad that we had an even bigger hard drive than he ordered.  I don’t know if he ever figured out that the longer the joke takes, the more we liked him.

I guess George felt foolish that it took him so long to find that extra drive.  I suppose he might have thought he knew me well enough that if there had been an extra drive on the computer, when he first mentioned it, I would have told him that it was partitioned into two drives, so he didn’t give it a second thought.  I guess he didn’t know me as well as he thought.

Anyway, after that, he never said anything about the operators using the computer for other uses than monitoring the precipitator, which was always a problem before.  George never mentioned the hard drive again.  I don’t remember now if I later changed the volume name on the drive.  It seemed like not long after the computers were upgraded from the IBM AT to something like a XT 286.

Oh.  I had another joke I  played on George.  The other one lasted for years, and he never figured it.  I will write about that one later.  That one wasn’t so much of a joke as it was out of necessity.  I won’t say anymore about it now.  You’ll have to wait at least another week or two.

Wayne Griffith and the Power Plant Computer Club

Originally posted February 1, 2014:

I don’t normally start a post by talking about myself. I usually reserve that for side stories. But today was very unusual. I work at Dell, and today I said goodbye to a lot of friends that decided to take a Voluntary Separation Package. People I have known for the past 12 years will be leaving on Monday. The pain I feel from their departure has brought my mind back to a dear friend of mine who worked at the power plant many years ago. Wayne Griffith, a Labor Crew hand at the Power Plant.

I normally try to keep my posts down to around 2,000 words (which is long as blog posts go), so I won’t go into great detail about Wayne. That would take about 500 words for every pound that Wayne weighed. Which would result in a post 200,000 words long. You see. Wayne was a very large fellow. On the generous side, I would say, around 400 pounds. You can decide what I mean by generous.

When we first instituted a Confined Space Rescue Team at the Power Plant in 1994, when we were developing rescue plans for various confined spaces, we began with the premise… “How would we rescue Wayne Griffith from this confined space. If we could rescue him, everyone else would be a piece of cake. The trouble was that some confined spaces had hatchways that were only 18 inches by 12 inch ovals.

Oval Hatchway bigger than some at the power plant

Oval Hatchway bigger than some at the power plant

We concluded that Wayne Griffith didn’t belong in a confined space to begin with. If we couldn’t wrap him up in a SKED stretcher and slide him through the portal, then he wouldn’t be able to enter the confined space in the first place.

A SKED stretcher can be wrapped around someone and cinched down to make them as narrow as possible.

A SKED stretcher can be wrapped around someone and cinched down to make them as narrow as possible, which by personal experience I know it also makes it hard to breath.

When I used to watch Wayne operate a Bobcat I wondered at how tightly packed he was as he sat bobbing about as he scooped up bottom ash, wandering back and forth between a dump truck and the bottom of the boiler.

This is not the type of Bobcat Ken had to Wrestle

This is the type of Bobcat Wayne Griffith used to operate

When I was young I used to watch cartoons that had a large construction hands that came to mind when I watched Wayne.

This bulldog sort of reminds me of Wayne

This bulldog sort of reminds me of Wayne. Only Wayne would have had a W on his hardhat

I know that some of you are cringing at my blatant and seeming disrespect for Wayne Griffith as I talk about how large he was. Well… This went without saying at the plant, and it does play a part in this story.

You see. One day, Wayne Griffith came into the electric shop where I was working and he said that he heard that we had a computer club and he wanted to join it. I told him that he had heard correctly. We had started a computer club where we shared software. It cost $5.00 to join, and the money was used to buy disk cases and freeware software. We also bought both 5 1/4 inch floppy disks and 3 1/2 inch floppy disks in bulk at a discount. We even bought low density 3 1/2 disks which were cheaper and punched out the extra hole automatically turning it into a large density disk.

You see. Back then (1987 and later), the low density 3 1/2 inch floppy had 720 Kb of data, while the high density disk had 1.44 Megabytes of data. Twice as much. The only difference was the extra hole in the disk case.

notice that the high density disk has two holes and the low density disk has only one

Notice that the high density disk has two holes and the low density disk has only one

I had bought a special square hole punch designed especially for turning low density disks into high density. So, we had very low cost disks at cost for all Computer Club members.

Wayne wanted to join the computer club, but he wasn’t looking for the same thing that most Power Plant Men were looking for, which was a library of games and educational software. He was looking for education all right. He wanted to learn how to use a computer.

You see. Christmas was coming up and Wayne wanted to buy a computer for his family. He had a couple of kids at home and it was important to him that they have a computer so they would be computer literate in school which would give them an extra edge. I told him I would teach him all about computers.

So, around October, Wayne purchased a computer through the company’s Computer Finance plan which allowed him to pay it off over time with deductions from his paycheck with no interest. A benefit that I often used myself.

Wayne brought the computer into the electric shop office and we set it up on a table next to the my Foreman, Andy Tubb’s desk.

IBM PC

This is an older computer than Wayne’s, He had a 3 1/2 inch floppy drive as well as a 5 1/4

Wayne would arrive at the electric shop each day at noon, and while Charles Foster and I ate our lunch with him, we walked Wayne through various programs to show him how to operate them. During that time, we covered Word Processors, Spreadsheets, like Lotus 123, and a couple of typing teacher programs (Mavis Beacon hadn’t showed up yet).

At this time we had purchased CDs with 1,000s of freeware programs on them. Freeware was something that you could use without paying for the application. If you really liked it you could donate something to the author. If you wanted something even better, you could send some money to the author and they would send you an upgraded version. Like I said. One CD had over 1,000 applications on it. Many of them were games. Some were business programs, some were computer utilities. Some were even programming languages.

We noticed right away that Wayne had one peculiar problem when learning how to type. His little pinky was about the size of my thumb. This meant that the size of his thumb was very large.

The Thumb Thing game has a thumb about the size of Wayne's thumb

The Thumb Thing game has a thumb about the size of Wayne’s thumb

With such large fingers, it was almost impossible for Wayne to type. At best, he could hit one key at a time when he was using only his pinky. It was difficult for his pointer finger to type only one key at a time. My grandfather would have had the same problem. Actually, a lot of farmers have this problem. They have hands the size of Paul Bunyan.

Like this Paul Bunyan only with tinted glasses.  Actually, this is a historian named Wayne Chamberlain

Like this Paul Bunyan Actually, this is a historian named Wayne Chamberlain. Not Wayne Griffith

Even though Wayne had to pay extra attention learning how to type, he remained steadfast. Each day, he would come into the shop, and instead of eating his lunch, he would start pecking away at the computer. He was never discouraged. Each day I had a different lesson or a different program to show him.

For a month and a half we walked through all the different things that he would show his children on Christmas Day as if it was a script. We covered every point he needed to know. From taking the computer out of the box and hooking it up to running each program. This was long before the Internet and even before Windows had come along, though he did have a mouse.

By the time Wayne boxed up the computer and took it home and hid it in the closet to wait for Christmas morning to arrive, he had learned more about how to operate a computer than about 95% of the people at the power plant. I relished the idea that Wayne Griffith, the overweight labor crew hand that others may have thought didn’t have a thought in his mind other than to operate a piece of heavy equipment, was a computer whiz in disguise.

He came back after Christmas and told me that his two kids were really excited about their new computer and were enjoying the programs that we had installed on it. He was having them learn how to type using the Typing Teacher programs. I could tell that he was proud to have been able to demonstrate to his children that he knew how to operate something as sophisticated as a Personal Computer.

You have to remember. Back then, kids didn’t grow up with computers in their house. They were still a kind of a novelty. At the time, Charles Foster, Terry Blevins and I were the only people in the electric shop that had personal computers. Most of the plant wouldn’t have thought about having one until the Internet was readily accessible.

Nothing made me happier than to think about the large figure of Wayne taking the computer out of the box and setting it on their new computer desk and hooking it up and saying, “Now Janelle and Amanda, Here is how you turn this on. Here is how you learn how to type.” I can see his wife Kathy standing back very impressed that her husband knows so much about something so technical.

I know what it’s like to be extremely overweight. I am slightly overweight myself, but my mom is a very large woman. People automatically think two things. They think that you must eat a disgusting amount of food and they believe that it is the person’s fault that they are overweight. They also believe that since you are so large, you must not be very intelligent. I don’t know why exactly. It just seems that way.

The truth about overweight people is that it usually comes down to their metabolism. My grandmother (who is 100 years old), can eat my mother under the table. Yet she remains relatively thin while my mother eats a normal amount of food and weighs well over 300 pounds. I felt that this was the case with Wayne. He had a metabolism that just stored fat. I know that his sisters had the same condition. You would think that with today’s medical technology, a person’s metabolism would be easily balanced.

When you hear Wayne Griffith speak for the first time, it takes you by surprise. Here is this very large man who has trouble climbing in and out of the pickup truck. He is obviously very strong. At the same time, you may think that if he had a mind to, he could take his enormous fist and clonk you on the head and drive you right down into the ground. When you first hear his voice, you may be surprised to hear the voice of a very kind and gentle person. If you were to hear him on the phone you would think you were talking to the most kind person you could imagine.

One of the reasons I enjoyed teaching Wayne how to use the computer so much was because I really enjoyed his company. Wayne Griffith was a true Power Plant Man. He had his priorities straight. His main concern was for his family. He had thought months in advance what he wanted to do for his children at Christmas, and he knew that in order to pull it off it was going to take a tremendous amount of preparation.

It would have been easy to sit around after he bought the computer and just presented it to his children on Christmas morning and say, “Here’s your new computer! Play with it and see if you can figure out how it works.” Not Wayne. He wanted to be able to set them on their way to success by personally showing them how it worked.

So, why did I think about Wayne today? To tell you the truth, I was saving this story for my next Christmas story. It would have been perfect for that. As I said at the beginning of this post, today I said goodbye to a lot of friends that were leaving the company to work somewhere else. Some of them I have worked with for the past 12 1/2 years. This brought Wayne Griffith to mind.

I thought about Wayne because during the summer of 1994, when the plant encountered the second downsizing Wayne was let go along with a lot of other great Power Plant Men. I will talk about other friends during this year that were let go that year, but none that I felt so sad about as I did with Wayne Griffith.

Wayne probably never had a clue that I had cared about him so much. I never told him as much. I would just smile whenever I saw him as I did with all my other friends. Inside, I was putting my arm around him (well, halfway around him anyway) and giving him a true Power Plant Man Hug. As Bill Gibson would say, ” ‘Cause I Love You Man!”

Today, as far as I know, Wayne is still living in Tonkawa, Oklahoma. I don’t know what he’s up to, but if you are ever in the area and happen to see him. Give him a big (and I mean “Big”) hug from me.

Comments from the original post:

    1. Morguie February 1, 2014:

      Awww. A great story. Sorry about the job closure. Nice story about Wayne. I do hope he was able to find work too. It always hurts the nicest, hardest-working people…lay-offs and closures. I know. I have been off over 2 years. I have lots of certifications, a degree, and am highly skilled; yet no prospects. We can hope and pray it gets better. I don’t know.

  1. Ron February 1, 2014:

    Thanks! Great story. When I read it I could still hear Gibson saying “I love ya man”.
    Lay-offs are tough. Nothing good about them. I believe it was easier losing my own job than having to tell a “Wayne Griffith” he was losing his.

 

Power Plant Paradox of Front to Back and Back to Front

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.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

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.

Doug Link

Doug Link

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.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

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.

Fly Ash Hoppers

Fly Ash Hoppers underneath the precipitator

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 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 electric 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.

Steve Wilson

Steve Wilson

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:

  1. Ron February 8, 2014:

    Now I know why George came into my office one day and begged me to have you committed!

    Great story!

    1. Plant Electrician February 8, 2014:

      Yeah. That’s one of the reasons. 🙂

  2. Monty Hansen April 2, 2014:

    I really appreciate how you describe the two methods of problem solving, and how together you could come up with solutions that neither one of you may have thought of.

    1. Plant Electrician April 2, 2014:

      Thanks for your comment Monty. It was annoying at first. I kept wanting Terry to see my point of view. Then I started seeing the benefit of taking both approaches.