Tag Archives: conduit

When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough

Originally posted March 21, 2014:

As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by three. At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly three feet apart. Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be three feet.

So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel. So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.

I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed. So. I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.

I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have seen me pause and stand still for a moment looking down. Start messing around with my feet. Then take a few more steps. Pause once more and do the same thing.

What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly three feet. I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway. It turned out to be exactly 30 inches. Or two and a half feet. So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant Man measured by my stride.

I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by two and a half feet. With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that. Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.

During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant. We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”. When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”. But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.

Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed. And where the network server was going to be setup. This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.

So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard. Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks. I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.

Telephone punch down block

Telephone punchdown block

One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office. There were no good phone lines running to this building. There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time. So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.

Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage. When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system. There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone. Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.

All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse. After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.

A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it. Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.

A man standing in a handhole

A man standing in a handhole

When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer. I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived. While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.

I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer. It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm. Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.

We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me. I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch. He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it. He was all bundled up trying to keep warm. I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard. He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.

When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March. I told him I did. Then he said, “Come here.” We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough. There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage. He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.

The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse. Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up. So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse. Oh. Before I forget. Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse. I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground. From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 30 inches – remember?) counting my steps.

I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse. In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.

I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable. That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse. He said that he would order some.

I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe. Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet. It was too late to change it.

I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet. Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly. So, I told myself it would be all right.

Sure enough. a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop. In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.” Oh geez.

Ok. Somehow I was going to have to make this work. Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 28 and a half inches now instead of 30 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.

So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse. In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape. I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.

As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole. I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore. Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.

So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block. I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help. Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.

I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole. Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense. Yeah. I know.

When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out. But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box. A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.

So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had to put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit. On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end. After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.

Telephone wire punch down tool

Telephone wire punch down tool

I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks me how much cable I need. That was too close! You would have thought I learned my lesson.

Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell. Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project. I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value. The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.

My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates. I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time. I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.

Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date. Oh. Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare. We are always up to the wire. Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned. Believe me. Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.

So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short. I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.

Comments form the original post:

    1. NEO March 21, 2014

      Hah! my stride (heel to toe) is 3 feet, two strides to the link. That’s what practice does.

      But I have learned to add 10% to everything (nearly), somehow it always gets used. 🙂

    1. jerrychicken March 24, 2014

      In the early 70s I was an assistant to a surveyor in a large electrical contractors when we tendered for, and won, a contract to rewire a local Town Hall, the unusual thing about the job being that the engineers had specified pyro (fireproof) cable throughout the building, some of which was large three phase stuff and very expensive.

      We scaled up the runs from a 1:100 drawing and placed the orders according to those measurements, each of the large cables being cut specially for that run – every single length was wrong when it was installed, short by several feet.

      It took a lot of measuring on site to realize that the drawings were totally inaccurate, this was a Town Hall that had been built in stone around 150 years earlier and some of the walls were two or three feet thick, on the drawings they looked like standard stud walls.

      Expensive lesson to learn but I kept my job 🙂

    1. Jonathan Caswell March 24, 2014

      Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
      MEASURING YOUR STRIDE—IS THAT ANYTHING FOR A NOVICE LIKE LOOKING FOR SNIPE IS FOR A YOUNG BOY SCOUT?

  1. They always told me to expect things that needed measurement to be available in one of only two quantities: Too much, or too little. I discovered for myself that cutting something to fit where it was needed inevitably reclassified it from on of those categories to the other …

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Power Plant Farm Fixing and Risk Management

We were told at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that we were going to have to stop doing the excellent job we were used to doing.  We no longer had time to make everything perfect.  We just had to patch things together enough so that it was fixed and leave it at that.  Jasper Christensen told us that we were going to have to “Farm Fix” things and work harder because we now only had half the employees.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

Two things bothered me right away….

First, “Work Harder.”  What exactly does that mean?  How does one work harder?  When I pick up my tool bucket to go work on a job, should I put some extra bricks in it so that it is harder to carry?  What then?  Think about it… Shouldn’t we be working “Smarter” instead of “Harder”?  We were all hard workers (if that means, spending a good 8 hour day doing your job).  Any slackers were laid off 7 years earlier.

When I heard “Farm Fixing” I took offense to the reference.  Jasper had mentioned using baling wire to hold something up instead of taking the time to make our jobs look pretty.  As if baling wire was somehow synonymous with “Farm Fixing”.  My grandfather was a farmer….  I’ll talk about that in a bit….

Jasper also informed us that we were no longer stuck doing only our own trade.  So, an electrician should expect to help out as a mechanic or a welder as long as it wasn’t too involved.  Certain welding jobs, for instance, require a certified welder.  If the job was just to tack weld up a bracket somewhere, then I, as an electrician, could wheel a welding machine over there and weld it up.

After that initial meeting after we had been downsized to pint-sized, we met with our own teams.  Alan Kramer was my new foreman.  He encouraged us to learn the different skills from our teammates.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

I asked Ed Shiever to teach me how to weld.  After about an hour, I decided I wasn’t too interested in melting metal using electricity.  I would leave it to the experts.  I was left with a sunburned chest, as I usually wore a V-Neck Tee Shirt in the summer.

Ed Shiever 15 years later

Ed Shiever Welder Extraordinaire

Jody Morse was a mechanic on our team, who had been a friend of mine since I was a janitor.  We had been on the labor crew together.  He asked me if he could do some electrical work with me.  He thought it would be a useful skill to learn.  I happily agreed to let him work alongside me running conduit and pulling wire around the precipitator hoppers.

Jody Morse

Jody Morse

It wouldn’t include working on any circuits where he might accidentally come into contact with anything live.  So, I thought this was a good starting point.  That was one of the first skills I learned as an electrician-in-training when I was taught by Gene Roget, a master of conduit bending.

I showed Jody how to bend the conduit and have it end up being the right length with the curves in the right place (which is a little tricky at first).  Then I showed Jody where the conduit needed to go, and where the wire needed to end up.  He said he wanted to do this all by himself, so I left him to it and left to do something else.

A little while later, Jody came back and said he had a slight problem.  He had cut the cable just a little bit too short (Yeah.  I had done that myself, see the post: “When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough“).  I looked at the problem with him, and he was about six inches too short.

Jody looked the job over and decided he had two options.  Pull some new longer cable, or try to make the existing cable work.He figured out that if he cut off 6 inches of the conduit, and sort of bent it out so that it was no longer exactly at 90 degrees, then it would still reach where it needed to go, only the conduit wouldn’t look so pretty because the conduit would appear a little cockeyed.  We figured this would be all right because Jasper had just finished telling us that we needed to make things not so pretty anymore.  Jody finished the job, and filled out the Maintenance Order indicating that the job was done.

The cable and conduit job had been requested by Ron Madron, one of the Instrument and Controls guys on our team.  When he went out and looked at the conduit, let’s just say that he wasn’t too impressed.  He went to Alan Kramer and complained that the conduit job was disgraceful.  I don’t remember his exact words, but when I heard about it, it sounded to me like he said “It was an abomination to all things electrical”.

I had always taken pride in my work, and doing a “sloppy” job was not normal for me.  I didn’t want Jody to feel bad about this because he was pretty proud of having completed the job all by himself without my help.  So I went and had a one-on-one with Ron and explained the situation to him.  I also told him that the next time he has  problem with something I did, come directly and talk to me about it instead of our foreman.  We’re all on the same team now.

I think once he realized the situation, he was more receptive.  Jody and I did go back out there and fix the issue by running a new cable that was long enough, with a new piece of conduit that was installed with the best of care so that it looked pretty.  — None of us informed Jasper that behind his back we were still performing our jobs with great care and precision.

 

Conduit Bending Basics

Conduit Bending Basics

The more I thought about the idea of “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management” and how it was being applied at our plant, after about a year, I wrote a letter to the Superintendent over all the Power Plants, Jack Coffman.

Here is the letter I wrote (It was titled “Farm Fixing and Risk Management” — appropriate, don’t you think?):

Dear Jack Coffman,

I went through the Root Learning Class on Friday, September 6.  After the class our table remained to discuss with Bruce Scambler the situation that exists at the power plants concerning the way we maintain our equipment.  We attempted to discuss our concerns with our facilitator, however, the canyon depicted in the first visual became more and more evident the further we discussed it.

Roo-Learning-Canyon

The Canyon Root Learning Map

My two concerns are the terms “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management”.  These are two good processes which I believe must be employed if we are to compete in an open market.  I do believe, however, that our management has misunderstood their true meaning and has turned them into catch phrases that are something totally different than they were originally intended.

I come from a family of farmers.  My father and grandfather were farmers.  I was concerned about our use of the term “Farm-fixed”, so I discussed the way we were using it in our company with my father and I have confirmed my understanding of the term.

My grandfather as a farmer was a Welder, a Blacksmith, a Carpenter, and an Engine Mechanic.  When a piece of machinery broke down while he was out harvesting or plowing a field, it is true that baling wire and a quick fix was needed to continue the work for the day.  There is a small window of opportunity when harvesting and the equipment had to be running during this time or the farmer’s livelihood was at stake.

That evening, however, the piece that broke was reworked and re-machined until it was better than the original store bought item.  Thus guaranteeing that it wouldn’t break down the following day.  If the repairs took all night to make it right, they would stay up all night repairing it correctly.  It was vital to their livelihood to have their machinery running as well as possible.

A Ford Tractor soon became my grandfather’s tractor as the original factory parts were replaced with more sturdy parts.  It wasn’t repainted (gold-plated), because they weren’t planning on selling their equipment.  The tractors and plows would last years longer than originally designed.  All this was before farming became a subsidized industry.

We need to “Farm-Fix” our equipment.  Our management however, focuses on the use of baling wire during an emergency and replaces the true meaning of Farm-Fixing with the meaning of “Jerry-Rigging”.  Which is merely a temporary fix while farming and is NOT farm-fixing something.  We have been maintaining our plant with quick fixes and have not been farm-fixing them.  If so, our equipment would be more reliable, and would last longer than originally intended.

Risk Management is another area that has been misunderstood by our management.  They have gone to school and have been trained in Risk Management.  I don’t believe they are using their tools in the way that they were taught.  They have taken the underlying idea that we may not need to make a change or repair a certain piece of equipment at this particular time and have made it the center of their idea of Risk Management.  Risk Management is more than that.  It is weighing the consequences of both actions against the cost and making an informed decision to determine the timing of maintenance.

Risk Management at our plant has become nothing more than speculation, or what I call “Wish Management”.  The decision is often made based on the immediate cost and downtime to delay maintenance without properly identifying the possible damage that could occur and the cost of that scenario.

The phrase “It’s run that way this long, it will probably be all right” is used to justify not repairing the equipment.  No real analysis is done.  Then we cross our fingers and “Wish” that it will continue running forever.

I believe in the concepts of Risk Management and Farm-fixing.  I think they are processes that should be used in our company to achieve and maintain “Best-In-Class”.  I am concerned, however, that if we continue on the course that we are on where “Wishing” and “Jerry-rigging” are our processes, it will only be a matter of time before our workers get killed and our plants melt down around us.

Kevin Breazile

Sooner Station

— End of the letter.  See?  I was always trying to stir things up.

The first summer I worked at the Power Plant as a summer help, we had a couple of floor drain covers in the maintenance shop that were missing from the floor drains.  Plywood had been used to cover the drains, which had been smashed down by the heavy equipment that traveled in and out of the shop.  One day during lunch I wrote a Maintenance Order to have the floor drain covers replaced and placed it on Marlin McDaniel’s (the only A Foreman at the time) desk.  I was only an 18 year old kid that was just learning my way around in the world and already stirring things up, but I figured this was an accident waiting to happen.

The very next day, a plant mechanic, Tom Dean stepped onto one of those floor drains while carrying a heavy ladder and seriously hurt his back.  It was a life changing event for Tom that immediately changed his career.  The next day, the drains had new covers.  I talked about this in the post:  “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One

Approximately one year after I wrote the Farm-fixing and Risk Management letter to Jack Coffman, we had a major incident at the power plant that was directly caused by the decision not to replace a coupling when it was known to be faulty (risk management, they called it).  It would have required extending an overhaul a day or two.  Instead, after half of the T-G floor burned to the ground and the plant was offline for about 3 months.  Millions of dollars of damage.  That is a story for another post.

Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark

Originally posted on July 6, 2013:

Ted Riddle and I were working for an “Acting” foreman named Willard Stark during an overhaul at the plant outside Mustang, Oklahoma the spring of ’86.  Willard seemed much older than he was.  I would have guessed he was in his late 60’s or early 70’s, but it turned out he was only in his mid to lower 50’s.  I found out why he had aged as the overhaul unfolded.

I heard some slight grumblings from a few in the shop when Bill Bennett told me that I was going to the plant near Mustang, Oklahoma that spring.  I suppose it was because since I had become an electrician in the Fall of 1983, this was already going to be my third overhaul away from our plant, and all of them ended up being major overhauls.

The reason others were grumbling about this was because when you were able to go on an extended overhaul at another plant, it meant that you were going to earn not only a lot of extra overtime, but you also received travel time, mileage and a per diem (a daily amount of money for expenses).  I believe at the time the Per Diem rate was $32.00 each day.  This was supposed to pay for your hotel room and your meals while you were away from your family.  We lived in trailers to cut down on costs.

Others believed that I had received more than my share of the piece of this pie.  I had been sent on every available overhaul since just before I had reached my first year as an electrician.  So, by this time, most people would have saved up quite a sum of money.  I, however, was making around $7.50 my first year, and by the time 1986 had rolled around, I was still making just under $10.00 an hour.  So, overtime amounted to $14.50 an hour.

When you compared this to the first class electricians that were making around $19.00 an hour at the time, they would have been making $28.50 an hour overtime.  This was about twice what I was making.  So, I was a cheap date.

On December 21, 1985 I had been married (the day following my last day at Horseshoe Lake overhaul — see the post:  A Slap in the Face at a Gas-Fired Power Plant), and I had used every cent I had in the world to pay for our honeymoon.  I was even relying on paychecks I was receiving while I was away to finish paying for it.

So, it helped to come back and find that we were on a major overhaul at our plant on Unit 1 doing the 5 year checkout.  Then finding that I was going to a major overhaul at the plant in Mustang, Oklahoma where I could live with my wife in her apartment in Oklahoma City while she finished her last semester to obtain her nursing degree from Oklahoma University.  I went on the overhaul with Ted Riddle.

Ted was hired into the electric shop the previous summer.  He wasn’t on my crew so I hadn’t worked much with him.  He was a farmer that had an electric background.  He was a bigger man than I was and had a good sense of humor.  He had a steady temper and didn’t let much bother him.  He would laugh at things that might bother others.

I appreciated working with Ted, because his steady mood helped to teach me that blowing my top about little things did little to help the situation.  So, for this overhaul, I decided that I would try to emulate Ted Riddle by keeping up with his easy-going-ness (I know…. the dictionary couldn’t find that one).

Bob Kennedy was on this overhaul as well.  He had been my acting foreman during the  overhaul at Horseshoe Lake.  I had described our relationship in the post:  “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“.  I was glad to be working with Bob again. As I mentioned, Willard Stark was our acting foreman.

For those that don’t know…. an acting foreman is someone that normally isn’t a foreman, but is appointed to lead a crew for a particular job.  These men usually are the best foremen to work for, because they haven’t attended any official “manager training”.  This usually made them better foremen, as the manager training had a tendency to destroy one’s character and moral integrity.  — I never could figure that one out.  Some people came back unscathed, but others came back with PTMD (Post-Traumatic Manager Disorder).

The plant at Mustang was the smallest gas-fired power plant that had people permanently working there.  It had some smaller units that they wouldn’t run when the newer larger units weren’t running because the water treatment plant (that creates the boiler water) used more power than the small units could generate.  — That amazed me.  So, while we were there, I don’t think any of the units were running so they didn’t have to run the water treatment plant.

Willard Stark had spent a good portion of his life working at the plant and had a lot of stories about the plant manager and assistant manager at our plant.  He had been an electrician when Bill Moler had first come to the plant as a new green electrician like me.  I enjoyed sitting during lunch in Mark Thomas’s electric lab as Willard told us stories.

Willard had an incredible memory.  He could remember what he was doing on any specific day decades before. We would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio during lunch, and whenever Paul would say, “….noon news and comment.”  Willard would always finish the sentence by saying “…mostly comment.” I had spent a good part of my childhood listening to Paul Harvey on the radio because when I was young, we always had a radio playing in the house and the car.  So, Paul Harvey’s voice was always a comfort to me.  I was saddened a few years ago when he passed away.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality.  No one will ever fill his shoes.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality. No one will ever fill his shoes.

Working with Ted Riddle cracked me up.  He would notice things that I was totally oblivious to (yeah.  I see it.  A preposition at the end of a sentence).  For instance, one day while we were working, Ted asked me if I ever noticed how Bob Kennedy drinks water out of his jar.  I told him I hadn’t noticed.

You see, Bob had this jar that looked like a pickle jar that he brought to work each day filled with water.  During lunch, he would drink out of this jar.  Ted said, “Watch Bob during lunch today.  Tell me what you think.” So as I was sitting next to Bob during lunch listening to Paul Harvey, and Willard Stark telling us what he did on any particular date in the past that Paul Harvey might mention, I kept one eye on Bob.

As Bob lifted his jar to his mouth I watched as he began to drink.  I immediately knew what Ted had wanted me to see. As Bob took a drink, he  slowly tilted the jar up until the water reached his mouth.  As the jar was being tilted, Bob’s upper lip would reach way into the jar as far as it could, quivering in anticipation of a cool drink of fresh water.  The upper lip of a camel came to my mind.

Bob Kennedy's upper lip reaching into the water jar...

Bob Kennedy’s upper lip reaching into the water jar…

With all my might, I struggled to keep a straight face as I turned my head slowly to look over at Ted who had a grin from ear-to-ear….. ok.  I’ll show you the picture of Andy Griffith again that I included in my post from last week, just so you can see what I saw when I looked over at Ted:

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

I think I almost choked on my ham sandwich as I swallowed while trying to keep my composure.

Another day while Ted and I were cleaning ignitors on the shop work bench Ted asked me if I had noticed what Randy Oxley and Jimmy Armafio were working on.  I told him I hadn’t noticed.  Ted said that if he’s not mistaken Randy Oxley has been coming into the shop all morning with the same piece of conduit.  He bends it, then cuts a little off the end and re-threads it.

So, the next time Randy came into the shop I noticed he had a piece of  one and a half inch conduit in his hand.  It was about 3 1/2 feet long and had a couple of bends in it.  Randy hooked the conduit up in the large conduit bender and using his measuring tape carefully lined it up as Armafio stood back and watched.  He bent the conduit a little, then put it in the bandsaw and cut off a few inches.  Then he put it in the vice on the work bench and proceeded to thread the end of the conduit.

Then Jimmy and Randy left. Ted said that if he wasn’t mistaken, that’s the same piece of conduit Randy has been working on all morning.  So, as we continued the boring job of cleaning the 30 or so ignitors piled on our workbench, I told Ted about the time I was at the plant at Horseshoe Lake and Randy had told a Mechanical A foreman Joe Balkenbush (I think his first name was Joe), who was Randy’s uncle on his mom’s side, that Randy was the best electrician at the plant at Mustang, only he was the only one that knew it.

I mentioned this meeting and the reason for it in the post:  “Bobbin Along with Bob Kennedy” (See the link above). Sure enough, a little while later, Randy came back to the shop with the same piece of conduit and performed the same procedure of bending, cutting and threading and scadoodling.

A little while later the electrical B foremen came out into the shop (I can’t remember his name for the life of me… I can see his face), and asked us if we knew how to run conduit.  We assured him that we did.  I had been thoroughly trained by Gene Roget and Ted, well, as it turned out, Ted was a crackerjack conduit hand.

The foremen took us up onto the boiler and asked us if we could run some conduit from one place to another.  He sounded apologetic when he asked if that would be all right.  We assured him it was no problem.  We would get right on it.

On the way back to the shop, as we were coming down from the boiler, Ted tapped my shoulder and pointed down to the bottom of a light fixture.  He said, “Hey!  Isn’t that the piece of conduit that Randy has been working on all morning?”  Sure enough.  There is was.  He finally bent it and cut it to fit! Well… The rest of this part of the story is that instead of running back and forth to the shop to bend and cut and thread conduit, Ted and I grabbed a conduit stand, and the appropriate tools and hauled them up on the boiler.

Conduit threader stand

Rigid Conduit threader stand

We carried about 40 foot of conduit up there and began bending, cutting and threading and mounting the conduit.  We finished just before lunch.  As I mentioned above, Ted was a heck of a conduit person.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  We carried all the equipment back to the shop.

After lunch Ted and I went back to cleaning ignitors.  The foreman saw us out of the window of the office and came out and asked us why we weren’t working on the conduit.  When we told him we were done, he had a look of disbelief.  He left the shop (to go check out our work).  Ted and I smiled at each other.

A little while later the foreman returned with the electric supervisor. The electric supervisor asked us if we wouldn’t mind working on some more jobs to run conduit.  Ted told him that we were there to do whatever they needed.  I nodded in agreement.

During the rest of the overhaul we worked to repair broken conduit, pull wire and install new conduit where needed. Mark Thomas, the electric specialist, that was about my age, asked if he could use us to pull and mount some new controls.  He said he wouldn’t let the others in the shop touch it because he would just have to follow through and redo it when they were done.  So, we did that also.

We did get in trouble one day when we went to install some conduit over a control room just off of the T-G floor.  We noticed that all of the lights were out except a couple, so we found a couple of large boxes of light bulbs and replaced the burned out bulbs.  The Electric Foreman came running up to us a little while later and said, “What are you trying to do?  Run us out of business?”

With looks on our faces that conveyed that we didn’t understand what he meant, he explained that in small plants like this one, they don’t have a budget like the bigger plants.  They can’t afford to keep the lights burning all over the plant all the time.  So, we were only supposed to replace lights in the immediate area where we had to work.  Now the foreman had to figure out where he was going to find the money to buy another box of light bulbs.  — These were incandescent bulbs that don’t have a long life span.

I had mentioned in an earlier post called Resistance in a Coal-fire Power Plant that Bill Rivers had been given a bum deal when another person had accused him of cutting off the leads of electronic components so that no one could check them to see if they were really bad (which doesn’t make any sense given that you could still check them no matter how short the leads are).  Well, I found that the same situation had existed in this plant.

There was this one guy that sat in the electric shop Lab (not the same electric shop lab where Willard and Mark Thomas hung out), working on Gray Phones all day.  Ted had asked me if I had noticed how many gray phone boxes were missing gray phones (gray phones are the PA system in a plant.  You could go to any one of them and page someone).

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Ted would point to empty gray phone boxes as we walked through the plant.  He told me that they have one electrician that doesn’t do anything else but sit in the electric lab working on gray phones.  That is all he does.  When we asked Willard about it, he told us this story.

Mark Thomas used to work on all the gray phones, and kept them all running in good order.  When Mark worked on a gray phone, sometimes to make sure it is working, he would page himself.  Just to make sure that part worked.  I understood this.  When I was working on gray phones with Bill Rivers, he would page me, or I would page him, just to test it.

If you were working by yourself, it would make sense that you would page yourself instead of bugging someone else several times a day while you went from one gray phone to the next. Anyway, people accused Mark Thomas of trying to make himself more important by making others think that he was being paged all the time by paging himself.

Now, anyone with any sense would know how lame of an idea that is.  I mean, anyone would recognize Mark Thomas’s voice.  The plant wasn’t that big.  There weren’t that many people working there.  Everyone knew everyone else.  Mark was obviously just working on gray phones.

So, after the foreman accused him of trying to promote his self importance by paging himself several times a day, Mark said, “Fine!  Let someone else work on the gray phones!”  Mark was by far the most intelligent person at the plant.  He obviously didn’t need to artificially promote his reputation by making a fool of himself.

So, they gave the job of gray phone maintenance to someone that didn’t understand electronics.  They even bought an expensive gray phone test set to help him out.  So each day he would sit in the lab smoking his pipe staring at an ever-growing pile of gray phones.  At one point, Ted and I offered to fix them all for him.  He said, “That’s ok.  It keeps me in the air conditioning.

I know in later times, Mark Thomas went on to greater successes within the company.  I believe that Willard stayed around until there was a downsizing and he was able to early retire. I mentioned at the beginning that Willard looked a lot older than he really was.  Willard brought this to my attention.  He showed me a picture of himself a few years earlier.  It was of him standing by a car wearing a suit.

He reminded me of an actor from an old movie, though, I can’t remember the actor’s name at the moment. Willard said that in the past few years he aged rapidly.  It happened when the previous foreman had retired.  Willard had seniority in the shop and had been at the plant most of his life.  He knew what he was doing, and had filled in as foreman many times.  He really expected to become the foreman.

Nevertheless, they gave the job to someone from somewhere else who didn’t know the plant, or even much about being a foreman. This upset Willard so much that he said he just gave up.  He said the stress from that experience aged him.  Mark Thomas agreed.

Mark had his own encounter with this attitude when he decided to retreat to his lab off and away from the electric shop.  Willard and Mark, the two electricians that really knew what they were doing at the plant had sequestered themselves in their own hideaway where they would sit each day listening to Paul Harvey at lunch and biding their time until the next phase of their life came around.

When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough

Originally posted March 21, 2014:

As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by three. At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly three feet apart. Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be three feet.

So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel. So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.

I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed. So. I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.

I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have seen me pause and stand still for a moment looking down. Start messing around with my feet. Then take a few more steps. Pause once more and do the same thing.

What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly three feet. I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway. It turned out to be exactly 30 inches. Or two and a half feet. So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant Man measured by my stride.

I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by two and a half feet. With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that. Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.

During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant. We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”. When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”. But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.

Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed. And where the network server was going to be setup. This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.

So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard. Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks. I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.

Telephone punch down block

Telephone punchdown block

One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office. There were no good phone lines running to this building. There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time. So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.

Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage. When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system. There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone. Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.

All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse. After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.

A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it. Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.

A man standing in a handhole

A man standing in a handhole

When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer. I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived. While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.

I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer. It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm. Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.

We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me. I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch. He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it. He was all bundled up tying to keep warm. I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard. He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.

When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March. I told him I did. Then he said, “Come here.” We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough. There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage. He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.

The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse. Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up. So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse. Oh. Before I forget. Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse. I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground. From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 30 inches – remember?) counting my steps.

I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse. In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.

I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable. That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse. He said that he would order some.

I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe. Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet. It was too late to change it.

I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet. Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly. So, I told myself it would be all right.

Sure enough. a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop. In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.” Oh geez.

Ok. Somehow I was going to have to make this work. Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 28 and a half inches now instead of 30 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.

So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse. In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape. I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.

As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole. I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore. Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.

So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block. I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help. Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.

I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole. Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense. Yeah. I know.

When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out. But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box. A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.

So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had to put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit. On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end. After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.

Telephone wire punch down tool

Telephone wire punch down tool

I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks me how much cable I need. That was too close! You would have thought I learned my lesson.

Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell. Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project. I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value. The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.

My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates. I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time. I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.

Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date. Oh. Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare. We are always up to the wire. Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned. Believe me. Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.

So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short. I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.

Comments form the original post:

    1. NEO March 21, 2014

      Hah! my stride (heel to toe) is 3 feet, two strides to the link. That’s what practice does.

      But I have learned to add 10% to everything (nearly), somehow it always gets used. 🙂

    1. jerrychicken March 24, 2014

      In the early 70s I was an assistant to a surveyor in a large electrical contractors when we tendered for, and won, a contract to rewire a local Town Hall, the unusual thing about the job being that the engineers had specified pyro (fireproof) cable throughout the building, some of which was large three phase stuff and very expensive.

      We scaled up the runs from a 1:100 drawing and placed the orders according to those measurements, each of the large cables being cut specially for that run – every single length was wrong when it was installed, short by several feet.

      It took a lot of measuring on site to realise that the drawings were totally inaccurate, this was a Town Hall that had been built in stone around 150 years earlier and some of the walls were two or three feet thick, on the drawings they looked like standard stud walls.

      Expensive lesson to learn but I kept my job 🙂

    1. Jonathan Caswell March 24, 2014

      Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
      MEASURING YOUR STRIDE—IS THAT ANYTHING FOR A NOVICE LIKE LOOKING FOR SNIPE IS FOR A YOUNG BOY SCOUT?

  1. They always told me to expect things that needed measurement to be available in one of only two quantities: Too much, or too little. I discovered for myself that cutting something to fit where it was needed inevitably reclassified it from on of those categories to the other …

Power Plant Farm Fixing and Risk Management

We were told at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that we were going to have to stop doing the excellent job we were used to doing.  We no longer had time to make everything perfect.  We just had to patch things together enough so that it was fixed and leave it at that.  Jasper Christensen told us that we were going to have to “Farm Fix” things and work harder because we now only had half the employees.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

Two things bothered me right away….

First, “Work Harder.”  What exactly does that mean?  How does one work harder?  When I pick up my tool bucket to go work on a job, should I put some extra bricks in it so that it is harder to carry?  What then?  Think about it… Shouldn’t we be working “Smarter” instead of “Harder”?  We were all hard workers (if that means, spending a good 8 hour day doing your job).  Any slackers were laid off 7 years earlier.

When I heard “Farm Fixing” I took offense to the reference.  Jasper had mentioned using baling wire to hold something up instead of taking the time to make our jobs look pretty.  As if baling wire was somehow synonymous with “Farm Fixing”.  My grandfather was a farmer….  I’ll talk about that in a bit….

Jasper also informed us that we were no longer stuck doing only our own trade.  So, an electrician should expect to help out as a mechanic or a welder as long as it wasn’t too involved.  Certain welding jobs, for instance, require a certified welder.  If the job was just to tack weld up a bracket somewhere, then I, as an electrician, could wheel a welding machine over there and weld it up.

After that initial meeting after we had been downsized to pint-sized, we met with our own teams.  Alan Kramer was my new foreman.  He encouraged us to learn the different skills from our teammates.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

I asked Ed Shiever to teach me how to weld.  After about an hour, I decided I wasn’t too interested in melting metal using electricity.  I would leave it to the experts.  I was left with a sunburned chest, as I usually wore a V-Neck Tee Shirt in the summer.

Ed Shiever 15 years later

Ed Shiever Welder Extraordinaire

Jody Morse was a mechanic on our team, who had been a friend of mine since I was a janitor.  We had been on the labor crew together.  He asked me if he could do some electrical work with me.  He thought it would be a useful skill to learn.  I happily agreed to let him work alongside me running conduit and pulling wire around the precipitator hoppers.

Jody Morse

Jody Morse

It wouldn’t include working on any circuits where he might accidentally come into contact with anything live.  So, I thought this was a good starting point.  That was one of the first skills I learned as an electrician-in-training when I was taught by Gene Roget, a master of conduit bending.

I showed Jody how to bend the conduit and have it end up being the right length with the curves in the right place (which is a little tricky at first).  Then I showed Jody where the conduit needed to go, and where the wire needed to end up.  He said he wanted to do this all by himself, so I left him to it and left to do something else.

A little while later, Jody came back and said he had a slight problem.  He had cut the cable just a little bit too short (Yeah.  I had done that myself, see the post: “When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough“).  I looked at the problem with him, and he was about six inches too short.

Jody looked the job over and decided he had two options.  Pull some new longer cable, or try to make the existing cable work.He figured out that if he cut off 6 inches of the conduit, and sort of bent it out so that it was no longer exactly at 90 degrees, then it would still reach where it needed to go, only the conduit wouldn’t look so pretty because the conduit would appear a little cockeyed.  We figured this would be all right because Jasper had just finished telling us that we needed to make things not so pretty anymore.  Jody finished the job, and filled out the Maintenance Order indicating that the job was done.

The cable and conduit job had been requested by Ron Madron, one of the Instrument and Controls guys on our team.  When he went out and looked at the conduit, let’s just say that he wasn’t too impressed.  He went to Alan Kramer and complained that the conduit job was disgraceful.  I don’t remember his exact words, but when I heard about it, it sounded to me like he said “It was an abomination to all things electrical”.

I had always taken pride in my work, and doing a “sloppy” job was not normal for me.  I didn’t want Jody to feel bad about this because he was pretty proud of having completed the job all by himself without my help.  So I went and had a one-on-one with Ron and explained the situation to him.  I also told him that the next time he has  problem with something I did, come directly and talk to me about it instead of our foreman.  We’re all on the same team now.

I think once he realized the situation, he was more receptive.  Jody and I did go back out there and fix the issue by running a new cable that was long enough, with a new piece of conduit that was installed with the best of care so that it looked pretty.  — None of us informed Jasper that behind his back we were still performing our jobs with great care and precision.

 

Conduit Bending Basics

Conduit Bending Basics

The more I thought about the idea of “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management” and how it was being applied at our plant, after about a year, I wrote a letter to the Superintendent over all the Power Plants, Jack Coffman.

Here is the letter I wrote (It was titled “Farm Fixing and Risk Management” — appropriate, don’t you think?):

Dear Jack Coffman,

I went through the Root Learning Class on Friday, September 6.  After the class our table remained to discuss with Bruce Scambler the situation that exists at the power plants concerning the way we maintain our equipment.  We attempted to discuss our concerns with our facilitator, however, the canyon depicted in the first visual became more and more evident the further we discussed it.

Roo-Learning-Canyon

The Canyon Root Learning Map

My two concerns are the terms “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management”.  These are two good processes which I believe must be employed if we are to compete in an open market.  I do believe, however, that our management has misunderstood their true meaning and has turned them into catch phrases that are something totally different than they were originally intended.

I come from a family of farmers.  My father and grandfather were farmers.  I was concerned about our use of the term “Farm-fixed”, so I discussed the way we were using it in our company with my father and I have confirmed my understanding of the term.

My grandfather as a farmer was a Welder, a Blacksmith, a Carpenter, and an Engine Mechanic.  When a piece of machinery broke down while he was out harvesting or ploughing a field, it is true that baling wire and a quick fix was needed to continue the work for the day.  There is a small window of opportunity when harvesting and the equipment had to be running during this time or the farmer’s livelihood was at stake.

That evening, however, the piece that broke was reworked and re-machined until it was better than the original store bought item.  Thus guaranteeing that it wouldn’t break down the following day.  If the repairs took all night to make it right, they would stay up all night repairing it correctly.  It was vital to their livelihood to have their machinery running as well as possible.

A Ford Tractor soon became my grandfather’s tractor as the original factory parts were replaced with more sturdy parts.  It wasn’t repainted (gold-plated), because they weren’t planning on selling their equipment.  The tractors and plows would last years longer than originally designed.  All this was before farming became a subsidized industry.

We need to “Farm-Fix” our equipment.  Our management however, focuses on the use of baling wire during an emergency and replaces the true meaning of Farm-Fixing with the meaning of “Jerry-Rigging”.  Which is merely a temporary fix while farming and is NOT farm-fixing something.  We have been maintaining our plant with quick fixes and have not been farm-fixing them.  If so, our equipment would be more reliable, and would last longer than originally intended.

Risk Management is another area that has been misunderstood by our management.  They have gone to school and have been trained in Risk Management.  I don’t believe they are using their tools in the way that they were taught.  They have taken the underlying idea that we may not need to make a change or repair a certain piece of equipment at this particular time and have made it the center of their idea of Risk Management.  Risk Management is more than that.  It is weighing the consequences of both actions against the cost and making an informed decision to determine the timing of maintenance.

Risk Management at our plant has become nothing more than speculation, or what I call “Wish Management”.  The decision is often made based on the immediate cost and downtime to delay maintenance without properly identifying the possible damage that could occur and the cost of that scenario.

The phrase “It’s run that way this long, it will probably be all right” is used to justify not repairing the equipment.  No real analysis is done.  Then we cross our fingers and “Wish” that it will continue running forever.

I believe in the concepts of Risk Management and Farm-fixing.  I think they are processes that should be used in our company to achieve and maintain “Best-In-Class”.  I am concerned, however, that if we continue on the course that we are on where “Wishing” and “Jerry-rigging” are our processes, it will only be a matter of time before our workers get killed and our plants melt down around us.

Kevin Breazile

Sooner Station

— End of the letter.  See?  I was always trying to stir things up.

The first summer I worked at the Power Plant as a summer help, we had a couple of floor drain covers in the maintenance shop that were missing from the floor drains.  Plywood had been used to cover the drains, which had been smashed down by the heavy equipment that traveled in and out of the shop.  One day during lunch I wrote a Maintenance Order to have the floor drain covers replaced and placed it on Marlin McDaniel’s (the only A Foreman at the time) desk.  I was only an 18 year old kid that was just learning my way around in the world and already stirring things up, but I figured this was an accident waiting to happen.

The very next day, a plant mechanic, Tom Dean stepped onto one of those floor drains while carrying a heavy ladder and seriously hurt his back.  It was a life changing event for Tom that immediately changed his career.  The next day, the drains had new covers.  I talked about this in the post:  “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One

Approximately one year after I wrote the Farm-fixing and Risk Management letter to Jack Coffman, we had a major incident at the power plant that was directly caused by the decision not to replace a coupling when it was known to be faulty (risk management, they called it).  It would have required extending an overhaul a day or two.  Instead, after half of the T-G floor burned to the ground and the plant was offline for about 3 months.  Millions of dollars of damage.  That is a story for another post.

Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark

Originally posted on July 6, 2013:

We were working for an “Acting” foreman named Willard Stark during an overhaul at the plant outside Mustang, Oklahoma the spring of ’86.  Willard seemed much older than he was.  I would have guessed he was in his late 60’s or early 70’s, but it turned out he was only in his mid to lower 50’s.  I found out why he had aged as the overhaul unfolded.

I heard some slight grumblings from a few in the shop when Bill Bennett told me that I was going to the plant near Mustang, Oklahoma that spring.  I suppose it was because since I had become an electrician in the Fall of 1983, this was already going to be my third overhaul away from our plant, and all of them ended up being major overhauls.

The reason others were grumbling about this was because when you were able to go on a an extended overhaul at another plant, it meant that you were going to earn not only a lot of extra overtime, but you also received travel time, mileage and a per diem (a daily amount of money for expenses).  I believe at the time the Per Diem rate was $32.00 each day.  This was supposed to pay for your hotel room and your meals while you were away from your family.  We lived in trailers to cut down on costs.

Others believed that I had received more than my share of the piece of this pie.  I had been sent on every available overhaul since just before I had reached my first year as an electrician.  So, by this time, most people would have saved up quite a sum of money.  I, however, was making around $7.50 my first year, and by the time 1986 had rolled around, I was still making just under $10.00 an hour.  So, overtime amounted to $14.50 an hour.

When you compared this to the first class electricians that were making around $19.00 an hour at the time, they would have been making $28.50 an hour overtime.  This was about twice what I was making.  So, I was a cheap date.

On December 21, 1985 I had been married (the day following my last day at Horseshoe Lake overhaul — see the post:  A Slap in the Face at a Gas-Fired Power Plant), and I had used every cent I had in the world to pay for our honeymoon.  I was even relying on paychecks I was receiving while I was away to finish paying for it.

So, it helped to come back and find that we were on a major overhaul at our plant on Unit 1 doing the 5 year checkout.  Then finding that I was going to a major overhaul at the plant in Mustang, Oklahoma where I could live with my wife in her apartment in Oklahoma City while she finished her last semester to obtain her nursing degree from Oklahoma University. I went on the overhaul with Ted Riddle.

Ted was hired into the electric shop the previous summer.  He wasn’t on my crew so I hadn’t worked much with him.  He was a farmer that had an electric background.  He was a bigger man than I was and had a good sense of humor.  He had a steady temper and didn’t let much bother him.  He would laugh at things that might bother others.

I appreciated working with Ted, because his steady mood helped to teach me that blowing my top about little things did little to help the situation.  So, for this overhaul, I decided that I would try to emulate Ted Riddle by keeping up with his easy-going-ness (I know…. the dictionary couldn’t find that one).

Bob Kennedy was on this overhaul as well.  He had been my acting foreman during the  overhaul at Horseshoe Lake.  I had described our relationship in the post:  “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“.  I was glad to be working with Bob again. As I mentioned, Willard Stark was our acting foreman.

For those that don’t know…. an acting foreman is someone that normally isn’t a foreman, but is appointed to lead a crew for a particular job.  These men usually are the best foremen to work for, because they haven’t attended any official “manager training”.  This usually made them better foremen, as the manager training had a tendency to destroy one’s character and moral integrity.  — I never could figure that one out.  Some people came back unscathed, but others came back with PTMD (Post-Traumatic Manager Disorder).

The plant at Mustang was the smallest gas-fired power plant that had people permanently working there.  It had some smaller units that they wouldn’t run when the newer larger units weren’t running because the water treatment plant (that creates the boiler water) used more power than the small units could generate.  — That amazed me.  So, while we were there, I don’t think any of the units were running so they didn’t have to run the water treatment plant.

Willard Stark had spent a good portion of his life working at the plant and had a lot of stories about our plant manager and assistant manager.  He had been an electrician when Bill Moler had first come to the plant as a new green electrician like me.  I enjoyed sitting during lunch in Mark Thomas’s electric lab as Willard told us stories.

Willard had an incredible memory.  He could remember what he was doing on any specific day decades before. We would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio during lunch, and whenever Paul would say, “….noon news and comment.”  Willard would always finish the sentence by saying “…mostly comment.” I had spent a good part of my childhood listening to Paul Harvey on the radio because when I was young, we always had a radio playing in the house and the car.  So, Paul Harvey’s voice was always a comfort to me.  I was saddened a few years ago when he passed away.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality.  No one will ever fill his shoes.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality. No one will ever fill his shoes.

Working with Ted Riddle cracked me up.  He would notice things that I was totally oblivious to.  For instance, one day while we were working, Ted asked me if I ever noticed how Bob Kennedy drinks water out of his jar.  I told him I hadn’t noticed.

You see, Bob had this jar that looked like a pickle jar that he brought to work each day filled with water.  During lunch, he would drink out of this jar.  Ted said, “Watch Bob during lunch today.  Tell me what you think.” So as I was sitting next to Bob during lunch listening to Paul Harvey, and Willard Stark telling us what he did on any particular date in the past that Paul Harvey might mention, I kept one eye on Bob.

As Bob lifted his jar to his mouth I watched as he began to drink.  I immediately knew what Ted had wanted me to see. As Bob took a drink, he  slowly tilted the jar up until the water reached his mouth.  As the jar was being tilted, Bob’s upper lip would reach way into the jar as far as it could, quivering in anticipation of a cool drink of fresh water.  The upper lip of a camel came to my mind.

Bob Kennedy's upper lip reaching into the water jar...

Bob Kennedy’s upper lip reaching into the water jar…

With all my might, I struggled to keep a straight face as I turned my head slowly to look over at Ted who had a grin from ear-to-ear….. ok.  I’ll show you the picture of Andy Griffith again that I included in my post from last week, just so you can see what I saw when I looked over at Ted:

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

I think I almost choked on my ham sandwich as I swallowed while trying to keep my composure.

Another day while Ted and I were cleaning ignitors on the shop work bench Ted asked me if I had noticed what Randy Oxley and Jimmy Armafio were working on.  I told him I hadn’t noticed.  Ted said that if he’s not mistaken Randy Oxley has been coming into the shop all morning with the same piece of conduit.  He bends it, then cuts a little off the end and re-threads it.

So, the next time Randy came into the shop I noticed he had a piece of  one and a half inch conduit in his hand.  It was about 3 1/2 feet long and had a couple of bends in it.  Randy hooked the conduit up in the large conduit bender and using his measuring tape carefully lined it up as Armafio stood back and watched.  He bent the conduit a little, then put it in the bandsaw and cut off a few inches.  Then he put it in the vice on the work bench and proceeded to thread the end of the conduit.

Then Jimmy and Randy left. Ted said that if he wasn’t mistaken, that’s the same piece of conduit Randy has been working on all morning.  So, as we continued the boring job of cleaning the 30 or so ignitors piled on our workbench, I told Ted about the time I was at the plant at Horseshoe Lake and Randy had told a Mechanical A foreman Joe Balkenbush (I think his first name was Joe), who was Randy’s uncle on his mom’s side, that Randy was the best electrician at the plant at Mustang, only he was the only one that knew it.

I mentioned this meeting and the reason for it in the post:  “Bobbin Along with Bob Kennedy” (See the link above). Sure enough, a little while later, Randy came back to the shop with the same piece of conduit and performed the same procedure of bending, cutting and threading and scadoodling.

A little while later the electrical B foremen came out into the shop (I can’t remember his name for the life of me… I can see his face), and asked us if we knew how to run conduit.  We assured him that we did.  I had been thoroughly trained by Gene Roget and Ted, well, as it turned out, Ted was a crackerjack conduit hand.

The foremen took us up onto the boiler and asked us if we could run some conduit from one place to another.  He sounded apologetic when he asked if that would be all right.  We assured him it was no problem.  We would get right on it.

On the way back to the shop, as we were coming down from the boiler, Ted tapped my shoulder and pointed down to the bottom of a light fixture.  He said, “Hey!  Isn’t that the piece of conduit that Randy has been working on all morning?”  Sure enough.  There is was.  He finally bent it and cut it to fit! Well… The rest of this part of the story is that instead of running back and forth to the shop to bend and cut and thread conduit, Ted and I grabbed a conduit stand, and the appropriate tools and hauled them up on the boiler.

Conduit threader stand

Rigid Conduit threader stand

We carried about 40 foot of conduit up there and began bending, cutting and threading and mounting the conduit.  We finished just before lunch.  As I mentioned above, Ted was a heck of a conduit person.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  We carried all the equipment back to the shop.

After lunch Ted and I went back to cleaning ignitors.  The foreman saw us out of the window of the office and came out and asked us why we weren’t working on the conduit.  When we told him we were done, he had a look of disbelief.  He left the shop (to go check out our work).  Ted and I smiled at each other.

A little while later the foreman returned with the electric supervisor. The electric supervisor asked us if we wouldn’t mind working on some more jobs to run conduit.  Ted told him that we were there to do whatever they needed.  I nodded in agreement.

During the rest of the overhaul we worked to repair broken conduit, pull wire and install new conduit where needed. Mark Thomas, the electric specialist, that was about my age, asked if he could use us to pull and mount some new controls.  He said he wouldn’t let the others in the shop touch it because he would just have to follow through and redo it when they were done.  So, we did that also.

We did get in trouble one day when we went to install some conduit over a control room just off of the T-G floor.  We noticed that all of the lights were out except a couple, so we found a couple of large boxes of light bulbs and replaced the burned out bulbs.  The Electric Foreman came running up to us a little while later and said, “What are you trying to do?  Run us out of business?”

With looks on our faces that conveyed that we didn’t understand what he meant, he explained that in small plants like this one, they don’t have a budget like the bigger plants.  They can’t afford to keep the lights burning all over the plant all the time.  So, we were only supposed to replace lights in the immediate area where we had to work.  Now the foreman had to figure out where he was going to find the money to buy another box of light bulbs.  — These were incandescent bulbs that don’t have a long life span.

I had mentioned in an earlier post called Resistance in a Coal-fire Power Plant that Bill Rivers had been given a bum deal when another person had accused him of cutting off the leads of electronic components so that no one could check them to see if they were really bad (which doesn’t make any sense given that you could still check them no matter how short the leads are).  Well, I found that the same situation had existed in this plant.

There was this one guy that sat in the electric shop Lab (not the same electric shop lab where Willard and Mark Thomas hung out), working on Gray Phones all day.  Ted had asked me if I had noticed how many gray phone boxes were missing gray phones (gray phones are the PA system in a plant.  You could go to any one of them and page someone).

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Ted would point to empty gray phone boxes as we walked through the plant.  He told me that they have one electrician that doesn’t do anything else but sit in the electric lab working on gray phones.  That is all he does.  When we asked Willard about it, he told us this story.

Mark Thomas used to work on all the gray phones, and kept them all running in good order.  When Mark worked on a gray phone, sometimes to make sure it is working, he would page himself.  Just to make sure that part worked.  I understood this.  When I was working on gray phones with Bill Rivers, he would page me, or I would page him, just to test it.

If you were working by yourself, it would make sense that you would page yourself instead of bugging someone else several times a day while you went from one gray phone to the next. Anyway, people accused Mark Thomas of trying to make himself more important by making others think that he was being paged all the time by paging himself.

Now, anyone with any sense would know how lame of an idea that is.  I mean, anyone would recognize Mark Thomas’s voice.  The plant wasn’t that big.  There weren’t that many people working there.  Everyone knew everyone else.  Mark was obviously just working on gray phones.

So, after the foreman accused him of trying to promote his self importance by paging himself several times a day, Mark said, “Fine!  Let someone else work on the gray phones!”  Mark was by far the most intelligent person at the plant.  He obviously didn’t need to artificially promote his reputation by making a fool of himself.

So, they gave the job of gray phone maintenance to someone that didn’t understand electronics.  They even bought an expensive gray phone test set to help him out.  So each day he would sit in the lab smoking his pipe staring at an ever-growing pile of gray phones.  At one point, Ted and I offered to fix them all for him.  He said, “That’s ok.  It keeps me in the air conditioning.

I know in later times, Mark Thomas went on to greater successes within the company.  I believe that Willard stayed around until there was a downsizing and he was able to early retire. I mentioned at the beginning that Willard looked a lot older than he really was.  Willard brought this to my attention.  He showed me a picture of himself a few years earlier.  It was of him standing by a car wearing a suit.

He reminded me of an actor from an old movie, though, I can’t remember the actor’s name at the moment. Willard said that in the past few years he aged rapidly.  It happened when the previous foreman had retired.  Willard had seniority in the shop and had been at the plant most of his life.  He knew what he was doing, and had filled in as foreman many times.  He really expected to become the foreman.

Nevertheless, they gave the job to someone from somewhere else who didn’t know the plant, or even much about being a foreman. This upset Willard so much that he said he just gave up.  He said the stress from that experience aged him.  Mark Thomas agreed.

Mark had his own encounter with this attitude when he decided to retreat to his lab off and away from the electric shop.  Willard and Mark, the two electricians that really knew what they were doing at the plant had sequestered themselves in their own hideaway where they would sit each day listening to Paul Harvey at lunch and biding their time until the next phase of their life came around.

When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough

Originally posted March 21, 2014:

As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by two. At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly two feet apart. Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be three feet.

So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel. So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.

I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed. So. I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.

I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have seen me pause and stand still for a moment looking down. Start messing around with my feet. Then take a few more steps. Pause once more and do the same thing.

What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly three feet. I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway. It turned out to be exactly 30 inches. Or two and a half feet. So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant measured by my stride.

I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by two and a half feet. With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that. Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.

During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant. We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”. When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”. But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.

Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed. And where the network server was going to be setup. This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.

So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard. Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks. I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.

Telephone punch down block

Telephone punchdown block

One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office. There were no good phone lines running to this building. There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time. So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.

Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage. When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system. There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone. Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.

All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse. After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.

A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it. Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.

A man standing in a handhole

A man standing in a handhole

When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer. I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived. While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.

I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer. It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm. Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.

We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me. I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch. He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it. He was all bundled up tying to keep warm. I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard. He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.

When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March. I told him I did. Then he said, “Come here.” We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough. There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage. He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.

The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse. Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up. So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse. Oh. Before I forget. Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse. I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground. From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 18 inches – remember?) counting my steps.

I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse. In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.

I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable. That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse. He said that he would order some.

I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe. Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet. It was too late to change it.

I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet. Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly. So, I told myself it would be all right.

Sure enough. a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop. In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.” Oh geez.

Ok. Somehow I was going to have to make this work. Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 17 and a half inches now instead of 18 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.

So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse. In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape. I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.

As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole. I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore. Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.

So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block. I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help. Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.

I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole. Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense. Yeah. I know.

When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out. But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box. A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.

So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit. On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end. After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.

Telephone wire punch down tool

Telephone wire punch down tool

I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks me how much cable I need. That was too close! You would have thought I learned my lesson.

Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell. Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project. I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value. The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.

My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates. I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time. I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.

Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date. Oh. Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare. We are always up to the wire. Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned. Believe me. Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.

So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short. I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.

Comments form the original post:

    1. NEO March 21, 2014

      Hah! my stride (heel to toe) is 3 feet, two strides to the link. That’s what practice does.

      But I have learned to add 10% to everything (nearly), somehow it always gets used. 🙂

    1. jerrychicken March 24, 2014

      In the early 70s I was an assistant to a surveyor in a large electrical contractors when we tendered for, and won, a contract to rewire a local Town Hall, the unusual thing about the job being that the engineers had specified pyro (fireproof) cable throughout the building, some of which was large three phase stuff and very expensive.

      We scaled up the runs from a 1:100 drawing and placed the orders according to those measurements, each of the large cables being cut specially for that run – every single length was wrong when it was installed, short by several feet.

      It took a lot of measuring on site to realise that the drawings were totally inaccurate, this was a Town Hall that had been built in stone around 150 years earlier and some of the walls were two or three feet thick, on the drawings they looked like standard stud walls.

      Expensive lesson to learn but I kept my job 🙂

    1. Jonathan Caswell March 24, 2014

      Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
      MEASURING YOUR STRIDE—IS THAT ANYTHING FOR A NOVICE LIKE LOOKING FOR SNIPE IS FOR A YOUNG BOY SCOUT?

  1. They always told me to expect things that needed measurement to be available in one of only two quantities: Too much, or too little. I discovered for myself that cutting something to fit where it was needed inevitably reclassified it from on of those categories to the other …

Power Plant Farm Fixing and Risk Management

We were told at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that we were going to have to stop doing the excellent job we were used to doing.  We no longer had time to make everything perfect.  We just had to patch things together enough so that it was fixed and leave it at that.  Jasper Christensen told us that we were going to have to “Farm Fix” things and work harder because we now only had half the employees.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

Two things bothered me right away….

First, “Work Harder.”  What exactly does that mean?  How does one work harder?  When I pick up my tool bucket to go work on a job, should I put some extra bricks in it so that it is harder to carry?  What then?  Think about it… Shouldn’t we be working “Smarter” instead of “Harder”?  We were all hard workers (if that means, spending a good 8 hour day doing your job).  Any slackers were laid off 7 years earlier.

When I heard “Farm Fixing” I took offense to the reference.  Jasper had mentioned using bailing wire to hold something up instead of taking the time to make our jobs look pretty.  As if bailing wire was somehow synonymous with “Farm Fixing”.  My grandfather was a farmer….  I’ll talk about that in a bit….

Jasper also informed us that we were no longer stuck doing only our own trade.  So, an electrician should expect to help out as a mechanic or a welder as long as it wasn’t too involved.  Certain welding jobs, for instance, require a certified welder.  If the job was just to tack weld up a bracket somewhere, then I, as an electrician, could wheel a welding machine over there and weld it up.

After that initial meeting after we had been downsized to pint-sized, we met with our own teams.  Alan Kramer was my new foreman.  He encouraged us to learn the different skills from our teammates.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

I asked Ed Shiever to teach me how to weld.  After about an hour, I decided I wasn’t too interested in melting metal using electricity.  I would leave it to the experts.  I was left with a sunburned chest, as I usually wore a V-Neck Tee Shirt in the summer.

Ed Shiever 15 years later

Ed Shiever Welder Extraordinaire

Jody Morse was a mechanic on our team, who had been a friend of mine since I was a janitor.  We had been on the labor crew together.  He asked me if he could do some electrical work with me.  He thought it would be a useful skill to learn.  I happily agreed to let him work alongside me running conduit and pulling wire around the precipitator hoppers.

Jody Morse

Jody Morse

It wouldn’t include working on any circuits where he might accidentally come into contact with anything live.  So, I thought this was a good starting point.  That was one of the first skills I learned as an electrician-in-training when I was taught by Gene Roget, a master of conduit bending.

I showed Jody how to bend the conduit and have it end up being the right length with the curves in the right place (which is a little tricky at first).  Then I showed Jody where the conduit needed to go, and where the wire needed to end up.  He said he wanted to do this all by himself, so I left him to it and left to do something else.

A little while later, Jody came back and said he had a slight problem.  He had cut the cable just a little bit too short (Yeah.  I had done that myself, see the post: “When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough“).  I looked at the problem with him, and he was about six inches too short.

Jody looked the job over and decided he had two options.  Pull some new longer cable, or try to make the existing cable work.He figured out that if he cut off 6 inches of the conduit, and sort of bent it out so that it was no longer exactly at 90 degrees, then it would still reach where it needed to go, only the conduit wouldn’t look so pretty because the conduit would appear a little cockeyed.  We figured this would be all right because Jasper had just finished telling us that we needed to make things not so pretty anymore.  Jody finished the job, and filled out the Maintenance Order indicating that the job was done.

The cable and conduit job had been requested by Ron Madron, one of the Instrument and Controls guys on our team.  When he went out and looked at the conduit, let’s just say that he wasn’t too impressed.  He went to Alan Kramer and complained that the conduit job was disgraceful.  I don’t remember his exact words, but when I heard about it, it sounded to me like he said “It was an abomination to all things electrical”.

I had always taken pride in my work, and doing a “sloppy” job was not normal for me.  I didn’t want Jody to feel bad about this because he was pretty proud of having completed the job all by himself without my help.  So I went and had a one-on-one with Ron and explained the situation to him.  I also told him that the next time he has  problem with something I did, come directly and talk to me about it instead of our foreman.  We’re all on the same team now.

I think once he realized the situation, he was more receptive.  Jody and I did go back out there and fix the issue by running a new cable that was long enough, with a new piece of conduit that was installed with the best of care so that it looked pretty.  — None of us informed Jasper that behind his back we were still performing our jobs with great care and precision.

 

Conduit Bending Basics

Conduit Bending Basics

The more I thought about the idea of “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management” and how it was being applied at our plant, after about a year, I wrote a letter to the Superintendent over all the Power Plants, Jack Coffman.

Here is the letter I wrote (It was titled “Farm Fixing and Risk Management” — appropriate, don’t you think?):

Dear Jack Coffman,

I went through the Root Learning Class on Friday, September 6.  After the class our table remained to discuss with Bruce Scambler the situation that exists at the power plants concerning the way we maintain our equipment.  We attempted to discuss our concerns with our facilitator, however, the canyon depicted in the first visual became more and more evident the further we discussed it.

My two concerns are the terms “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management”.  These are two good processes which I believe must be employed if we are to compete in an open market.  I do believe, however, that our management has misunderstood their true meaning and has turned them into catch phrases that are something totally different than they were originally intended.

I come from a family of farmers.  My father and grandfather were farmers.  I was concerned about our use of the term “Farm-fixed”, so I discussed the way we were using it in our company with my father and I have confirmed my understanding of the term.

My grandfather as a farmer was a Welder, a Blacksmith, a Carpenter, and an Engine Mechanic.  When a piece of machinery broke down while he was out harvesting or ploughing a field, it is true that baling wire and a quick fix was needed to continue the work for the day.  There is a small window of opportunity when harvesting and the equipment had to be running during this time or the farmer’s livelihood was at stake.

That evening, however, the piece that broke was reworked and re-machined until it was better than the original store bought item.  Thus guaranteeing that it wouldn’t break down the following day.  If the repairs took all night to make it right, they would stay up all night repairing it correctly.  It was vital to their livelihood to have their machinery running as well as possible.

A Ford Tractor soon became my grandfather’s tractor as the original factory parts were replaced with more sturdy parts.  It wasn’t repainted (gold-plated), because they weren’t planning on selling their equipment.  The tractors and plows would last years longer than originally designed.  All this was before farming became a subsidized industry.

We need to “Farm-Fix” our equipment.  Our management however, focuses on the use of baling wire during an emergency and replaces the true meaning of Farm-Fixing with the meaning of “Jerry-Rigging”.  Which is merely a temporary fix while farming and is NOT farm-fixing something.  We have been maintaining our plant with quick fixes and have not been farm-fixing them.  If so, our equipment would be more reliable, and would last longer than originally intended.

Risk Management is another area that has been misunderstood by our management.  They have gone to school and have been trained in Risk Management.  I don’t believe they are using their tools in the way that they were taught.  They have taken the underlying idea that we may not need to make a change or repair a certain piece of equipment at this particular time and have made it the center of their idea of Risk Management.  Risk Management is more than that.  It is weighing the consequences of both actions against the cost and making an informed decision to determine the timing of maintenance.

Risk Management at our plant has become nothing more than speculation, or what I call “Wish Management”.  The decision is often made based on the immediate cost and downtime to delay maintenance without properly identifying the possible damage that could occur and the cost of that scenario.

The phrase “It’s run that way this long, it will probably be all right” is used to justify not repairing the equipment.  No real analysis is done.  Then we cross our fingers and “Wish” that it will continue running forever.

I believe in the concepts of Risk Management and Farm-fixing.  I think they are processes that should be used in our company to achieve and maintain “Best-In-Class”.  I am concerned, however, that if we continue on the course that we are on where “Wishing” and “Jerry-rigging” are our processes, it will only be a matter of time before our workers get killed and our plants melt down around us.

Kevin Breazile

Sooner Station

— End of the letter.  See?  I was always trying to stir things up.

The first summer I worked at the Power Plant as a summer help, we had a couple of floor drain covers in the maintenance shop that were missing from the floor drains.  Plywood had been used to cover the drains, which had been smashed down by the heavy equipment that traveled in and out of the shop.  One day during lunch I wrote a Maintenance Order to have the floor drain covers replaced and placed it on Marlin McDaniel’s (the only A Foreman at the time) desk.  I was only an 18 year old kid that was just learning my way around in the world and already stirring things up, but I figured this was an accident waiting to happen.

The very next day, a plant mechanic, Tom Dean stepped onto one of those floor drains while carrying a heavy ladder and seriously hurt his back.  It was a life changing event for Tom that immediately changed his career.  The next day, the drains had new covers.  I talked about this in the post:  “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One

Approximately one year after I wrote the Farm-fixing and Risk Management letter to Jack Coffman, we had a major incident at the power plant that was directly caused by the decision not to replace a coupling when it was known to be faulty (risk management, they called it).  It would have required extending an overhaul a day or two.  Instead, after half of the T-G floor burned to the ground and the plant was offline for about 3 months.  Millions of dollars of damage.  That is a story for another post.

Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark — Repost

  1. Originally posted on July 6, 2013:

We were working for an “Acting” foreman named Willard Stark during an overhaul at the plant outside Mustang, Oklahoma the spring of ’86.  Willard seemed much older than he was.  I would have guessed he was in his late 60’s or early 70’s, but it turned out he was only in his mid to lower 50’s.  I found out why as the overhaul unfolded.

I heard some slight grumblings from a few in the shop when Bill Bennett told me that I was going to the plant near Mustang, Oklahoma that spring.  I suppose it was because since I had become an electrician in the Fall of 1983, this was already going to be my third overhaul away from our plant, and all of them ended up being major overhauls.

The reason others were grumbling about this was because when you were able to go on a an extended overhaul at another plant, it meant that you were going to earn not only a lot of extra overtime, but you also received travel time, mileage and a per diem (a daily amount of money for expenses).  I believe at the time the Per Diem rate was $32.00 each day.  This was supposed to pay for your hotel room and your meals while you were away from your family.  We lived in trailers to cut down on costs.

Others believed that I had received more than my share of the piece of this pie. I had been sent on every available overhaul since just before I had reached my first year as an electrician.  So, by this time, most people would have saved up quite a sum of money.  I, however, was making around $7.50 my first year, and by the time 1986 had rolled around, I was still making just under $10.00 an hour.  So, overtime amounted to $14.50 an hour.

When you compared this to the first class electricians that were making around $19.00 an hour at the time, they would have been making $28.50 an hour overtime.  This was about twice what I was making.  So, I was a cheap date.

On December 21, 1985 I had been married (the day following my last day at Horseshoe Lake overhaul — see the post:  A Slap in the Face at a Gas-Fired Power Plant), and I had used every cent I had in the world to pay for our honeymoon.  I was even relying on paychecks I was receiving while I was away to finish paying for it.

So, it helped to come back and find that we were on a major overhaul at our plant on Unit 1 doing the 5 year checkout.  Then finding that I was going to a major overhaul at the plant in Mustang, Oklahoma where I could live with my wife in her apartment in Oklahoma City while she finished her last semester to obtain her nursing degree from Oklahoma University. I went on the overhaul with Ted Riddle.

Ted was hired into the electric shop the previous summer.  He wasn’t on my crew so I hadn’t worked much with him.  He was a farmer that had an electric background.  He was a bigger man than I was and had a good sense of humor.  He had a steady temper and didn’t let much bother him.  He would laugh at things that might bother others.

I appreciated working with Ted, because his steady mood helped to teach me that blowing my top about little things did little to help the situation.  So, for this overhaul, I decided that I would try to emulate Ted Riddle by keeping up with his easy-going-ness (I know…. the dictionary couldn’t find that one).

Bob Kennedy was on this overhaul as well.  He had been my acting foreman during the  overhaul at Horseshoe Lake.  I had described our relationship in the post:  “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“.  I was glad to be working with Bob again. As I mentioned, Willard Stark was our acting foreman.

For those that don’t know…. an acting foreman is someone that normally isn’t a foreman, but is appointed to lead a crew for a particular job.  These men usually are the best foremen to work for, because they haven’t attended any official “manager training”.  This usually made them better foremen, as the manager training had a tendency to destroy one’s character and moral integrity.  — I never could figure that one out.  Some people came back unscathed, but others came back with PTMD (Post-Traumatic Manager Disorder).

The plant at Mustang was the smallest gas-fired power plant that had people permanently working there.  It had some smaller units that they wouldn’t run when the newer larger units weren’t running because the water treatment plant (that creates the boiler water) used more power than the small units could generate.  — That amazed me.  So, while we were there, I don’t think any of the units were running so they didn’t have to run the water treatment plant.

Willard Stark had spent a good portion of his life working at the plant and had a lot of stories about our plant manager and assistant manager.  He had been an electrician when Bill Moler had first come to the plant as a new green electrician like me.  I enjoyed sitting during lunch in Mark Thomas’s electric lab as Willard told us stories.

Willard had an incredible memory.  He could remember what he was doing on any specific day decades before. We would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio during lunch, and whenever Paul would say, “….noon news and comment.”  Willard would always finish the sentence by saying “…mostly comment.” I had spent a good part of my childhood listening to Paul Harvey on the radio because when I was young, we always had a radio playing in the house and the car.  So, Paul Harvey’s voice was always a comfort to me.  I was saddened a few years ago when he passed away.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality.  No one will ever fill his shoes.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality. No one will ever fill his shoes.

Working with Ted Riddle cracked me up.  He would notice things that I was totally oblivious to.  For instance, one day while we were working, Ted asked me if I ever noticed how Bob Kennedy drinks water out of his jar.  I told him I hadn’t noticed.

You see, Bob had this jar that looked like a pickle jar that he brought to work each day filled with water.  During lunch, he would drink out of this jar.  Ted said, “Watch Bob during lunch today.  Tell me what you think.” So as I was sitting next to Bob during lunch listening to Paul Harvey, and Willard Stark telling us what he did on any particular date in the past that Paul Harvey might mention, I kept one eye on Bob.

As Bob lifted his jar to his mouth I watched as he began to drink.  I immediately knew what Ted had wanted me to see. As Bob took a drink, he  slowly tilted the jar up until the water reached his mouth.  As the jar was being tilted, Bob’s upper lip would reach way into the jar as far as it could, quivering in anticipation of a cool drink of fresh water.  The upper lip of a camel came to my mind.

Bob Kennedy's upper lip reaching into the water jar...

Bob Kennedy’s upper lip reaching into the water jar…

With all my might, I struggled to keep a straight face as I turned my head slowly to look over at Ted who had a grin from ear-to-ear….. ok.  I’ll show you the picture of Andy Griffith again that I included in my post from last week, just so you can see what I saw when I looked over at Ted:

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

I think I almost choked on my ham sandwich as I swallowed while trying to keep my composure.

Another day while Ted and I were cleaning ignitors on the shop work bench Ted asked me if I had noticed what Randy Oxley and Jimmy Armafio were working on.  I told him I hadn’t noticed.  Ted said that if he’s not mistaken Randy Oxley has been coming into the shop all morning with the same piece of conduit.  He bends it, then cuts a little off the end and re-threads it.

So, the next time Randy came into the shop I noticed he had a piece of  one and a half inch conduit in his hand.  It was about 3 1/2 feet long and had a couple of bends in it.  Randy hooked the conduit up in the large conduit bender and using his measuring tape carefully lined it up.  He bent the conduit a little, then put it in the bandsaw and cut off a few inches.  Then he put it in the vice on the work bench and proceeded to thread the end of the conduit.

Then Jimmy and Randy left. Ted said that if he wasn’t mistaken, that’s the same piece of conduit Randy has been working on all morning.  So, as we continued the boring job of cleaning the 30 or so ignitors piled on our workbench, I told Ted about the time I was at the plant at Horseshoe Lake and Randy had told a Mechanical A foreman Joe Balkenbush (I think his first name was Joe), who was Randy’s uncle on his mom’s side, that Randy was the best electrician at the plant at Mustang, only he was the only one that knew it.

I mentioned this meeting and the reason for it in the post:  “Bobbin Along with Bob Kennedy” (See the link above). Sure enough, a little while later, Randy came back to the shop with the same piece of conduit and performed the same procedure of bending, cutting and threading and scadoodling.

A little while later the electrical B foremen came out into the shop (I can’t remember his name for the life of me… I can see his face), and asked us if we knew how to run conduit.  We assured him that we did.  I had been thoroughly trained by Gene Roget and Ted, well, as it turned out, Ted was a crackerjack conduit hand.

The foremen took us up onto the boiler and asked us if we could run some conduit from one place to another.  He sounded apologetic when he asked if that would be all right.  We assured him it was no problem.  We would get right on it.  On the way back to the shop, as we were coming down from the boiler, Ted tapped my shoulder and pointed down to the bottom of a light fixture.  He said, “Hey!  Isn’t that the piece of conduit that Randy has been working on all morning?”  Sure enough.  There is was.  He finally bent it and cut it to fit! Well… The rest of this part of the story is that instead of running back and forth to the shop to bend and cut and thread conduit, Ted and I grabbed a conduit stand, and the appropriate tools and hauled them up on the boiler.

Conduit threader stand

Rigid Conduit threader stand

We carried about 40 foot of conduit up there and began bending, cutting and threading and mounting the conduit.  We finished just before lunch.  As I mentioned above, Ted was a heck of a conduit person.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  We carried all the equipment back to the shop.

After lunch Ted and I went back to cleaning ignitors.  The foreman saw us out of the window of the office and came out and asked us why we weren’t working on the conduit.  When we told him we were done, he had a look of disbelief.  He left the shop (to go check out our work).  Ted and I smiled at each other.

A little while later the foreman returned with the electric supervisor. The electric supervisor asked us if we wouldn’t mind working on some more jobs to run conduit.  Ted told him that we were there to do whatever they needed.  I nodded in agreement.

During the rest of the overhaul we worked to repair broken conduit, pull wire and install new conduit where needed. Mark Thomas, the electric specialist, that was about my age, asked if he could use us to pull and mount some new controls.  He said he wouldn’t let the others in the shop touch it because he would just have to follow through and redo it when they were done.  So, we did that also.

I had mentioned in an earlier post called Resistance in a Coal-fire Power Plant that Bill Rivers had been given a bum deal when another person had accused him of cutting off the leads of electronic components so that no one could check them to see if they were really bad (which doesn’t make any sense given that you could still check them no matter how short the leads are).  Well, I found that the same situation had existed in this plant.

There was this one guy that sat in the electric shop Lab (not the same electric shop lab where Willard and Mark Thomas hung out), working on Gray Phones all day.  Ted had asked me if I had noticed how many gray phone boxes were missing gray phones (gray phones are the PA system in a plant.  You could go to any one of them and page someone).

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Ted would point to empty gray phone boxes as we walked through the plant.  He told me that they have one electrician that doesn’t do anything else but sit in the electric lab working on gray phones.  That is all he does.  When we asked Willard about it, he told us this story.

Mark Thomas used to work on all the gray phones, and kept them all running in good order.  When Mark worked on a gray phone, sometimes to make sure it is working, he would page himself.  Just to make sure that part worked.  I understood this.  When I was working on gray phones with Bill Rivers, he would page me, or I would page him, just to test it.

If you were working by yourself, it would make sense that you would page yourself instead of bugging someone else several times a day while you went from one gray phone to the next. Anyway, people accused Mark Thomas of trying to make himself more important by making others think that he was being paged all the time by paging himself.

Now, anyone with any sense would know how lame of an idea that is.  I mean, anyone would recognize Mark Thomas’s voice.  The plant wasn’t that big.  There weren’t that many people working there.  Everyone knew everyone else.  Mark was obviously just working on gray phones.

So, after the foreman accused him of trying to promote his self importance by paging himself several times a day, Mark said, “Fine!  Let someone else work on the gray phones!”  Mark was by far the most intelligent person at the plant.  He obviously didn’t need to artificially promote his reputation by making a fool of himself.

So, they gave the job of gray phone maintenance to someone that didn’t understand electronics.  They even bought an expensive gray phone test set to help him out.  So each day he would sit in the lab smoking his pipe staring at an ever-growing pile of gray phones.  At one point, Ted and I offered to fix them all for him.  He said, “That’s ok.  It keeps me in the air conditioning.

I know in later times, Mark Thomas went on to greater successes within the company.  I believe that Willard stayed around until there was a downsizing and he was able to early retire. I mentioned at the beginning that Willard looked a lot older than he really was.  Willard brought this to my attention.  He showed me a picture of himself a few years earlier.  It was of him standing by a car wearing a suit.

He reminded me of an actor from an old movie, though, I can’t remember the actor’s name at the moment. Willard said that in the past few years he aged rapidly.  It happened when the previous foreman had retired.  Willard had seniority in the shop and had been at the plant most of his life.  He knew what he was doing, and had filled in as foreman many times.  He really expected to become the foreman.

Nevertheless, they gave the job to someone from somewhere else who didn’t know the plant, or even much about being a foreman. This upset Willard so much that he said he just gave up.  He said the stress from that experience aged him.  Mark Thomas agreed.

Mark had his own encounter with this attitude when he decided to retreat to his lab off and away from the electric shop.  Willard and Mark, the two electricians that really knew what they were doing at the plant had sequestered themselves in their own hideaway where they would sit each day listening to Paul Harvey at lunch and biding their time until the next phase of their life came around.

When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough

As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by two.  At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly two feet apart.  Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be two feet.

So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel.  So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.

I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed.  So.  I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.

I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have saw me pause and stand still for a moment looking down.  Start messing around with my feet.  Then take a few more steps.  Pause once more and do the same thing.

What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly two feet.  I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway.  It turned out to be exactly 18 inches.  Or a foot and a half.  So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant measured by my stride.

I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by one and a half feet.  With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that.  Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.

During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant.  We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”.  When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”.  But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.

Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“).  This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed.  And where the network server was going to be setup.  This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.

So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard.   Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks.  I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.

Telephone punch down block

Telephone punchdown block

One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office.  There were no good phone lines running to this building.  There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time.  So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.

Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage.  When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system.  There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone.  Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.

All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse.  After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.

A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it.  Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.

A man standing in a handhole

A man standing in a handhole

When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer.  I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived.   While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.

I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer.  It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm.  Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.

We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me.  I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch.  He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it.  He was all bundled up tying to keep warm.  I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard.  He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.

When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March.  I told him I did.  Then he said, “Come here.”  We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough.  There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage.  He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.

The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse.  Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up.  So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse.  Oh.   Before I forget.  Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse.  I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground.  From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 18 inches – remember?) counting my steps.

I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse.  In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.

I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable.  That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse.  He said that he would order some.

I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box.  So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe.  Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet.  It was too late to change it.

I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet.  Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly.  So, I told myself it would be all right.

Sure enough.  a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop.  In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.”   Oh geez.

Ok.   Somehow I was going to have to make this work.  Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 17 and a half inches now instead of 18 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.

So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse.  In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape.  I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.

As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole.  I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore.  Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.

So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block.  I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help.  Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.

I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole.  Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense.  Yeah.  I know.

When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out.  But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box.  A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.

So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit.  On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end.   After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.

Telephone wire punch down tool

Telephone wire punch down tool

I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks  me how much cable I need.  That was too close!  You would have thought I learned my lesson.

Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell.  Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project.  I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value.  The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.

My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates.  I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time.  I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.

Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date.  Oh.  Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare.  We are always up to the wire.  Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned.  Believe me.  Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.

So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short.  I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.