Tag Archives: Control Room

Lifecycle of a Power Plant Lump of Coal

Originally posted August 16, 2013:

Fifty Percent of our electricity is derived from coal. Did you ever wonder what has to take place for that to happen? I thought I would walk through the lifecycle of a piece of coal to give you an idea. I will not start back when the it was still a tree in a prehistoric world where dinosaurs grew long necks to reach the branches. I will begin when the large scoop shovel digs it out of the ground and loads it onto a coal truck.

The coal is loaded onto trucks like these before it is dumped onto the train cars. This photo was found at http://www.gillettechamber.com/events/eventdetail.aspx?EventID=2827

The coal is loaded onto trucks like these before it is dumped onto the train cars. This photo was found at http://www.gillettechamber.com/events/eventdetail.aspx?EventID=2827

The coal for the power plant in North Central Oklahoma came from Wyoming. There were trains from the Black Thunder Mine and the Powder River Basin.

Coal Trains on their way to power plants

Coal Trains on their way to power plants

It’s a long ride for the lump of coal sitting in the coal train on it’s way to Oklahoma. Through Nebraska and Kansas. It’s possible for the coal to be visited by a different kind of traveler. One that we may call “A tramp.” Someone that catches a ride on a train without paying for the ticket.

One time a tramp (or a hobo, I don’t remember which), caught a ride on one of our coal trains. They forgot to wake up in time, and found their self following the lumps of coal on their next phase of the journey. You see. Once the coal reached the plant, one car at a time enters a building called the “Rotary Dumper”.

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

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

As each train car enters the dumper four clamps come done on the car and it rolls upside down dumping the coal into a bin below. Imagine being a tramp waking up just in time to find yourself falling into a bin full of coal. with a car full of coal dumping coal on top of you. One coal car contained 102 tons of coal (today they carry 130 tons). Today one train contains 13,300 tons of coal. This is over 26 million pounds of coal per train.

Miraculously, this passenger survived the fall and was able to call for help or someone saw him fall. He was quickly rescued and brought to safety. Needless to say, the tramp went from being penniless to being, “comfortable” very quickly. I don’t know that it made the news at the time. I think the electric company didn’t want it to become “viral” that they had dumped a hobo into a coal bin by accident. Well. They didn’t know what “going viral” meant at the time, but I’m sure they had some other phrase for it then.

Ok. Time for a Side Story:

Since I’m on the subject of someone catching a clandestine ride on a train, this is as good of a place as any to sneak in the tragic story of Mark Meeks. Well. I say it was tragic. When Mark told the story, he seemed rather proud of his experience. You see. Mark was a construction electrician. He hired on as a plant electrician in order to settle down, but in his heart I felt like he was always a construction electrician. That is, he didn’t mind moving on from place to place. Doing a job and then moving on.

Mark explained that when he was working at a construction job in Chicago where he worked for 2 years earning a ton of overtime, he figured that by the time he finished he would have saved up enough to buy a house and settle down. He was married and living in an apartment in Chicago. He didn’t spend much time at home as he was working 12 hour days at least 6 days each week. He figured that was ok, because when he was done, he would be set for life.

Unknown to him at the time, each morning when he woke up before the crack of dawn to go to work, his wife would drive to O’Hara airport and catch a plane to Dallas, Texas where she was having an affair with some guy. By the time Mark returned from work 14 hours later, she was back home. Each day, Mark was earning a ton of overtime, and his wife was burning it on airline tickets.

When the two years were over, Mark came home to his apartment to collect his wife and his things and go live in peace in some small town some where. That was when he learned that his wife had been having the affair and using all his money to do it. She was leaving him. Penniless.

Completely broke, Mark drifted around for a while. Finally one day he saw a train that was loaded down with wooden electric poles. Mark figured that wherever those poles were going, there was going to be work. So, he hopped on the train and traveled all the way from Minneapolis Minnesota riding in the cold, wedged between some wooden poles on one of the cars on the train.

The train finally arrived at its destination somewhere at a port in the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t remember if it was Mississippi or Louisiana. He watched as they unloaded the poles, waiting to see what jobs were going to be needed for whatever the poles were for. He watched as they took the large wooden poles and piled them up in the ocean. They were using them to build up the shoreline. There were no jobs.

It is when you have been beaten down to the point of breaking when you reach a very important point in your life. Do you give up, or do you pick yourself up and make something of yourself? Mark chose the latter. He was a natural fighter. He eventually ended up at our plant as contract help, and then was hired as a plant electrician.

End of side story.

Let’s follow the lump of coal after it is poured out of the coal train in the dumper…

The coal is fed onto a conveyor belt. Let’s call this Conveyor 1, (because that is what we called it in the plant). This has a choice to feed it onto belt 2 which leads up to the stack out tower, or it can feed the other way to where some day it was planned to add another conveyor with another stackout tower. This was going to go to a pile of coal for two other units that were never built.

Anyway, when the coal drops down on Conveyor 2, way under ground, it travels up to the ground level, and continues on its way up to the top of the stackout tower where it feeds onto Belt 3. Belt 3 is a short belt that is on an arm that swings out over the coal pile. The coal is fed onto the coal pile close to the stack out tower. I suppose it is called stack out, because the coal is stacked up next to the tower.

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

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack. The tower with the conveyor running up to the top is the stack out tower. Belt 3 is the arm pointing to the right in this picture

Anyway, there are large dozers (bulldozers) and dirt movers that pickup the coal and spread it out to make room for more coal from more coal trains. As mentioned above. One train now carries 26 million pounds of coal.

Dirt Mover full of coal

Dirt Mover full of coal

the coal that is spread out on the coal pile has to stay packed down otherwise it would spontaneously combust. That is, it would catch on fire all by itself. Once coal on a coal pile catches on fire it is impossible to “reasonably” put out. You can spray all the water on it you want and it won’t go out. When a fire breaks out, you just have to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn out.

In order to keep the coal from performing spontaneous combustion, the dirt movers kept it packed down. As long as the coal is packed tight, air can’t freely reach the buried coal, and it doesn’t catch fire. So, dirt movers were constantly driving back and forth on the coal pile to keep the coal well packed. Even on the picture of the coalyard above from the smoke stack, you can see two pieces of heavy equipment out on the coal pile traveling back and forth packing the coal.

Anyway, the next phase in the life of the lump of coal happens when it finds itself directly under the stack out tower, and it is fed down by a vibratory feeder onto a conveyor. In our plant, these belts were called, Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7. Belts 4 and 5 fed onto Belt 8 and belts 6 and 7 fed onto belt 9.

Belts 8 and 9 brought the coal up from under the coal pile to the top of the Crusher tower. In the picture above you can see that tower to the right of the stack out tower with the long belts coming from the bottom of the tower toward the plant. The crusher tower takes the large lumps of coal that can be the size of a baseball or a softball and crushes it down to the size of marbles and large gumballs.

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard. This is the size of the coal after it has been crushed by the crusher

From the crusher tower the lump of coal which is now no more than a nugget of coal travels from the coal yard up to the plant on belts 10 and 11.

conveyor 10 and 11 are almost 1/2 mile long

conveyor 10 and 11 are almost 1/2 mile long

Up at the top of this belt in the distance you can see another tower. This tower is called the Transfer tower. Why? Well, because it transfers the coal to another set of belts, Belt 12 and 13. You can see them going up to the right to that tower in the middle between the two boilers.

The tower between the two boilers is called the Surge Bin tower. That basically means that there is a big bin there that can hold a good amount of coal to feed to either unit. At the bottom of the white part of the tower you can see that there is a section on each side. This is where the tripper galleries are located. There are two belts in each tripper, and two belts that feed to each tripper belt from the surge bin. So, just to keep counting, Belts 14 and 15 feed to unit one and belts 16 and 17 feed to unit 2 from the surge bin. then Belts 18 and 19 are the two tripper belts that dump coal into the 6 silos on unit one, while belts 20 and 21 feed the silos on unit 2.

Once in the Coal silos, the coal is through traveling on belts. The silos are positioned over things called bowl mills. The coal is fed from the silo into the bowl mill through something called a Gravimetric feeder, which is able to feed a specific amount of coal into the bowl mill. This is the point that basically decides how hot the boiler is going to be.

Once the coal leaves the gravimetric feeder and drops down to the bowl mill, it is bound for the boiler. The gravimetric feeder is tied right to the control room. When they need to raise load more than just a minimal amount, a control room operator increases the amount of coal being fed from these feeders in order to increase the flow of coal into the boiler….. I don’t know… maybe it’s more automatic than that now…. The computer probably does it these days.

When the nugget of coal falls into the bowl mill the long journey from the coal mine in Wyoming is almost complete. Its short life as a nugget is over and it is pulverized into powder. The powder is finer than flour. Another name for a bowl mill is “Pulverizer”. The coal comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and just before it is consumed in Oklahoma it really does become powder.

Big rollers are used to crush the coal into fine particles. The pulverized coal is blown up pipes by the primary air fans and blown directly into the boiler where they burst into flames. A bright orange flame. The color reminds me of orange sherbet Ice cream.

The color of the fireball in the boiler

The color of the fireball in the boiler

At this point an incredible thing happens to the coal that so many years ago was a part of a tree or some other plant. The chemical process that trapped the carbon from the carbon dioxide millions of years earlier is reversed and the carbon is once again combined to the oxygen as it was many millennium ago. A burst of heat is released which had been trapped after a cooling effect below the tree as it sucked the carbon out of the environment way back then.

The heat is transferred to the boiler tubes that line the boiler. The tubes heat the water and turn it into steam. The steam shoots into the turbine that turns a generator that produces the electricity that enters every house in the country. The solar power from eons ago that allowed the tree to grow is being used today to power our world. What an amazing system.

To take this one step further, the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere today is replenishing the lost carbon dioxide from many years ago. Back when plants could breathe freely. Back before the carbon dioxide level was depleted almost to the point of the extinction of plant life on this planet. Remember, what we look on as a pollutant and a poison, to a plant is a chance to grow. The Sahara desert used to be a thriving forest. Maybe it will be again some day.

So, there is the question of global warming. We humans are so short sighted sometimes. We want to keep everything the same way we found it when we were born. We try desperately to keep animals from becoming extinct. We don’t think about the bazillions (ok, so I exaggerate) of animals that were extinct long before man arrived. It is natural for extinction to occur. That is how things evolve. We are trying to keep a system the same when it has always been changing.

Years from now we may develop ways to harness the energy from the sun or even from the universe in ways that are unimaginable today. When that time arrives, let’s just hope that we remain good stewards of the world so that we are around to see it. I believe that the use of fossil fuels, (as odd as that may seem) is a major step in reviving our planet’s natural resources.

Comments from the previous repost:

twotiretirade  August 20, 2014

Glad Mark fought the good fight, still a sad story.

Antion August 21, 2014
Great read. I love knowing how things work. As I read the sad story of the traveling electrician, I kept wondering if she could have pulled that off in today’s world of air travel.

hiwaychristian August 22, 2014
when I went to the Christian College in Eugene Oregon, they forced me to take a course in biology at the University of Oregon. I willingly sat and listened to the mix of science and evolution. I admit their perspective was intriguing.
at the end of the class, the last day, the instructor asked each one of her students to tell how the class had affected their thinking.
each one gave the politically correct answer in a variety of form. all the while I sat joyfully waiting my turn.
my response hushed the class for a moment. (it’s been some decades ago so I have to paraphrase but let it be sufficient) “I’m impressed with all the material you’ve covered. it’s astounding to think of all the things that were. but for me this class has only glorified my God. because I realize that in his wisdom he created gasoline for my car.”
you’ve covered a lot of material in your post. and I’m impressed at your diligence to complete it. I thank God for His faithfulness that he has put into you. may He prosper your testimony for the glory of His Holy Son.
By His Grace
(please overlook the syntax errors in this reply it was generated on a mobile device)

Monty Hansen November 4, 2014

We processed several hobo’s through our coal system, & injured a few, but none ever got anything from the power company. I remember we would always worried about finding a chunk of scalp or something in the grating where the tripper car drops coal down into the silo. One especially memorable event was when a coal yard operator found a down vest jacket on the coal pile and bragged about how lucky he was to find this jacket, the size even fit, but the jacket did smell a little funny. yes it was ripped off the body of a hobo by the plow above conveyor one & shot out onto the coal pile by the stackout conveyor.

It was always unnerving to have a pull cord go down in the middle of the night deep down in the coal trestle, while the belts were shut down. You’d have to go down there alone, in the dark & reset the pull cords, so the belts could be started later when needed. You knew it wasn’t a trick because the whole crew had been up in the control room together eating dinner or something. You always wondered if you might run into a real hobo – or the ghost of one.


Petty Power Plant Jokes Played on Prominent Power Plant Men

Originally posted September 13, 2013:

Of the 1,500 jokes played on Power Plant Men while I was working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I can only remember a handful of the smaller ones. There are some I’m saving for later topics. Sometimes it was the smallest jokes that spoke the loudest. Especially when great care was taken to play the joke just right.

I think it was the idea that someone thought enough of you to spend a great deal of time setting up a joke just for the one little moment that the person finally realizes that they have been played. It’s when that smile comes across their face that all that work pays off. The realization that someone else would spend so much time just to make you smile was a good indication that they really did care about you.

In the post called, “Why Stanley Elmore and Other Power Plant Questions” I told a story about when I was a janitor in the electric shop and one of the electricians Andy Tubbs had been playing jokes on me while I was cleaning the bathroom. The funniest one was when I had turned around for a moment and when I went to go grab the dust mop, the handle to the mop was missing, while the dust mop was just sitting there on the floor.

Like this only with a mop handle

Like this, except the bracket for the handle was still there.

Charles Foster, my electric foremen had told me of a time when he played a joke on a welder in the welding shop that was welding away on something. The power to the welding machine was around the corner. Charles picked up the cord for the welder and kinked it like you would kink a water hose to stop the water from flowing. When he kinked it, the welding machine stopped working.


An arc welding machine like this only gray

The welder looked at the machine to find that the power was off. Then he looked over and saw that Charles was standing about 40 feet away grinning at him holding the kinked cable. About that time, Charles straightened out the cable and the welding machine turned back on. The welder spun around to find the welding machine humming away. He looked back at Charles who kinked the cable again and the welding machine again shut off.

Amazed, the welder said something like, “I didn’t know you could do that!” Charles shrugged, dropped the cable and walked off. Unbeknownst to the welder, as Charles left, he met up with the other electrician that had been opening an closing the electric disconnect where the welding machine received its power. Leaving the welder unaware.

An Electrical Disconnect like this one by Square D

An Electrical Disconnect like this one by Square D

In the electric shop there is one bathroom. It is shared by all electricians, and therefore it has a lock on the door because Diana Lucas (Brien) had to use it. But sometimes someone might not realize that it was used jointly by both male and female members of the Power Plant family, and they might not lock the door. So, on occasion, Dee would go into the bathroom only to find that it was already occupied.

Once she entered the bathroom and found that someone was in the stall. She waited around for a while and asked me to go check it out because the guy was taking quite a long time and what at first was only a minor inconvenience was becoming higher priority. So, I entered there bathroom and sure enough. The stall was closed and there was a pair of boots easily visible under the stall where someone sat taking their own sweet time.

Dee finally figured that it wasn’t worth the wait and walked across the T-G floor to the maintenance shop to the nearest women’s restroom. After a while someone else remarked that someone was in the bathroom and had been in there a long time. At that point, it became obvious that either someone had died while sitting on his thinkin’ chair, or something else was definitely amiss.

So, one of the electricians decided to see if everything was all right. That was when they peered into the stall to find that there was only a pair of boots sitting all by themselves in the stall. It turned out that O D McGaha had put them there. He locked the stall, then climbed out under the stall and left them there. — It was a pretty good joke. It had half the shop concerned about the mysterious stranger in the stall.

Soon after this episode, a new sign was placed on the bathroom door:

A Power Plant Unisex bathroom sign

A Power Plant Unisex bathroom sign

Other little jokes like that were played on individuals throughout the 20 years that I worked at the plant. One small one that is a typical example of many was when Mickey Postman drove to work one morning with a brand new motorcycle. He was really proud of the new machine. Well. Mickey’s nickname at the time was “Pup”.

Mickey had two main reasons why he was a prime target for having jokes played on him. First, he took the jokes pretty well, because he would have a definite reaction. Sometimes good. Sometimes not so. The second reason was that he was red-headed. That meant that when he realized that a joke was being played on him, his face would turn as red as his hair. Everyone witnessing this couldn’t help but smile.

Mickey had worked his way into the maintenance shop from a janitor as I had, though he missed the labor crew (I believe) because it hadn’t been dreamed up by Ray Butler yet. He and I were practically the same age. He is 7 months older than I am. So, I always felt like, “but for the grace of God go I”. No. I don’t really mean it. I care a lot for Mickey and I never personally considered him as a candidate for jokes. I guess it was because he already had a cohort of Power Plant Men willing to play that part.

So, anyway. Mickey had this shiny new motorcycle parked out in the parking lot all day, so it was inevitable that at least one of the many Power Plant Men that had been assigned to the “Play a Joke on Mickey” detail, would happen to pass by the motorcycle in the parking lot. One of them would have felt obligated to reach down and turn the gas valve off.

motorcycle gas valve

The Gas valve on a motorcycle

The word had gone out throughout the plant that the valve had been closed on Mickey’s motorcycle so that we were all to expect that about the time that Mickey hit the bridge over the discharge on the way out the gate, his motorcycle would run out of fuel and die. It’s times like this that you never forget. A simple joke. A couple hundred Power Plant men all chuckling as they drove across the discharge bridge grinning at Mickey trying to restart his brand new motorcycle that had died perfectly positioned midway across the bridge. His face beaming as red as his hair!

Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

I won’t go into the Wedding present that was given to Mickey Postman the day before his wedding. I intended this post to be only about petty or “minor” jokes. That one was a doozy. Actually. I will never post anything about it, other than to say that I wouldn’t ever say anything about how the machinist’s blue dye was applied.

Machinist's Blue Dye

Machinist’s Blue Dye

Machinist’s Blue Dye, or Layout fluid is used when honing down a surface to make sure it is flat. There are other uses for it, but that is the one I am most familiar with. I wonder how that blue color looked along with Mickey’s red face…

A example of how the blue dye shows the low spots on a flat surface

A example of how the blue dye shows the low spots on a flat surface

Here are examples of two small jokes that took a lot of preparation.

The first one involved Howard Chumbley’s chair. Howard was a foreman in the electric shop. One of the nicest Power Plant Men in all of God’s creation. He was shorter than most taller people. And he was particular about how high his chair was adjusted. Being particular about anything automatically meant that you were a prime target for a joke dealing with whatever you were particular about.

Back then (1984), the height of an office chair was adjusted by turning it upside down and spinning the wheel bracket around to screw in or out the shaft.

An old office chair that is adjusted by spinning the bracket where the wheels attach

An old office chair that is adjusted by spinning the bracket where the wheels attach

So, Charles and I would rotate the bottom of the wheels around 1/4 turn each day. That meant just moving the wheels around to one set of wheels. Not very much. Every week the bracket would only be turned about 1 time, especially given that we wouldn’t remember to do it every day.

Eventually, after 5 or 6 weeks, Howard would go to sit down in his chair and realize that it was lower than he would like it to be. So, he would turn it over and lay the seat on his desk and spin the wheel bracket around a few times. Then test it and do it again until it was just the right height. Howard probably never thought about why every month and a half or so, his chair would be too short and he would end up turning it over and adjusting it back up.

This was a joke that Howard never knew was being played, but every time that chair went upside down, you can bet that Charles and I were grinning from ear-to-ear to have been there to watch it.

Ok. the last story has to be about Gene Day. After all. There was no one that I loved playing jokes on more than Gene Day. Actually, half of them, Gene probably never knew had been jokes. I have written two posts about playing jokes on Gene Day. One of them was just about one joke. See “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” and “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“.

So, this particular week, I noticed that Gene Day was the auxiliary operator for Unit 1 Boiler. That meant that at least once each shift he was going to walk through the Unit 1 Precipitator Control Room that housed the controls for the 84 transformers on the precipitator roof.

So, I decided, this was a perfect opportunity to play a petty joke on Gene Day. I took an Eeprom chip that was used to hold the control program for a Precipitator control cabinet, and proceeded to rewrite the program.

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the precipitator controls

I found the code in the assembly language code that sent the message to the display when there was an overcurrent trip. That is, when the cabinet trips, the little LCD display would say: “Overcurrent Trip”. I rewrote the code to say: “Gene Day Trip”. This meant finding the code string: 4F:76:65:72:63:75:72:72:65:6E:74:20:54:72:69:70 and replacing it with: 47:65:6E:65:20:44:61:79:20:54:72:69:70:20:20:20. I wrote the program for a specific cabinet in the middle of the precipitator that I could trip without causing an issue in the general operation of the precipitator.

Then I took the chip to the Precipitator Control room and replaced the control chip for that cabinet and left it running. I had seen Gene Day on his way to the Precipitator Control room the day before, so I had a pretty good idea what time he would be passing through. Because no matter how lazy Gene Day was, he was always consistent. (Gene you know I’m kidding…. right?)

Anyway. I spied Gene leaving the control room around the time I expected, so I made haste to the Precip. Control Room and with my screwdriver, after opening the cabinet, I reached down to the tripping mechanism for an overcurrent trip and I tripped the cabinet. Then leaving from the opposite direction that Gene would be arriving, I slipped out of the Precip Control Room and headed for the plant control room to see Gene’s reaction when he arrived.

About the time I was going around the corner in the breezeway toward the Unit 1 elevator, I saw that Gene had already exited the precip. area, so when I entered the T-G basement I quickly called Gene on the gray phone. Gene turned around and went back in the Precip switchgear (which was just below the control cabinets).

When Gene answered the phone I told him that I was looking at the Precipitator controls in the control room and I saw that one of the cabinets had tripped and I was wondering if he had just been out there because the error indicated something very strange. He said he had just been in there and hadn’t noticed that a cabinet had tripped.

So, I asked him if he could look again, it was 1D8. I needed to know what the cabinet display said had happened because it looked like Gene had done something to it. He told me he hadn’t touched anything, but he would go look. — of course, when went to look at it, the display showed: “Gene Day Trip”.

This is the size of the LCD Display on the Precipitator Control cabinets

This is the size of the LCD Display on the Precipitator Control cabinets

So, I was sitting at the precipitator computer for Unit 1 when Gene Day arrived in the Control room. As was typical with Gene Day, my head began to waiver and my eyes began to blur as Gene had grabbed me by the throat and was shaking me back and forth. My eyes may have been blurry, and I know that I was acting totally surprised as if I didn’t know what had happened, but you can believe that inside I was grinning ear-to-ear!

Comment from original post:

Jack Curtis September 21, 2013:

Folks will go to elaborate lengths and great effort to perform jokes like these on fellow workers while feeling put-upon and resentful at something half the trouble requested done by the boss… We are a funny species!

More comments from the last repost:

    1. mpsharmaauthor September 18, 2014

      “Folks will go to elaborate lengths and great effort to perform jokes like these on fellow workers while feeling put-upon and resentful at something half the trouble requested done by the boss… We are a funny species!” Keeps it entertaining, right? 🙂

    1. wisediscerner September 18, 2014

      I’ve been following your blog, and in the early a.m. after I’ve gotten the coffee started and my husbands lunch prepared and breakfast fixed, then I sit down to relax and I read your stories, I start laughing, sometimes really hard, and my husband looks at me like I’ve fallen off my rocker!!! What a good way to wake up in the mornings. Thank you for sharing. May God bless you today!

    2. Dan Antion September 18, 2014

      Cool stories. Workplaces should be like this. I think this is something that is lost on people these days, that you need to laugh.

    1. Ron Kilman September 18, 2014

      I love these stories!
      OK Kevin – how could you remember those lines of Eeprom code from 30 years ago?
      Also, I know somebody is playing a joke on me (like what you did to Howard Chumbley). My bathroom scales are going up about 1 pound every week. Can’t figure out who’s responsible yet 😦

        1. Plant Electrician September 18, 2014

          The code is easy to remember: “Overcurrent trip” is translated into ASCII numbers. Where a capital A is 65 and a small A is 97 and then just count up from there. So, the capital O is the ASCII number 79 which when converted to a Hexidecimal number is 4F (16 goes into 79 4 times, with 15 left over. An F represents the number 15). So, “Overcurrenct trip” becomes: 4F:76:65:72:63:75:72:72:65:6E:74:20:54:72:69:70. “Gene Day Trip” is three characters shorter than Overcurrent trip, so, I had to add extra spaces at the end, which are the three “20”s (an ASCII number of 32) on the end of 47:65:6E:65:20:44:61:79:20:54:72:69:70:20:20:20. in order to keep the addresses on the chip consistent.

          Another note is that each two digit Hexidecimal code is equal to 8 bits which is a byte. You can determine what each byte is by taking each digit of the Hex number and translating it into 4 binary digits. So… 1 is 0001, 2 is 0010, 3 is 0011, 4 is 0100, 5 is 0101, 6 is 0110, 7 is 0111, 8 is 1000, 9 is 1001, A is 1010, B is 1011, C is 1100, D is 1101, E is 1110, F is 1111

          So, the Hex number for a Capital O is 4F, and that indicates an 8 bit byte of: 01001111

          And that’s how computers interpret the world. Zeroes and One’s. Or On and Off. So, if there is voltage on the first bit it is a 1 if the voltage is missing, it is a 0.

  1. chriskeen September 18, 2014

    So funny! We used to have fun like this on the volunteer fire department. Always makes the tough stuff better when you can laugh together.

When Power Plant Durability and Automation Goes Too Far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A picture from Shutterstock of a locomotive pulling a coal train

A picture from Shutterstock of a locomotive pulling a coal train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Caboose

A Caboose

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

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

That is all fine and dandy until the final car rolled into the dumper. You see… One night…. while all the creatures were sleeping (even a mouse)… the car clamps came down on the caboose. Normally the car clamps had to be raised to a higher position to keep them from tearing the top section off of the caboose.

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

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

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

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

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

This is a short story of durability…

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

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

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

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

Old Power Drill

Old Power Drill

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

new variable speed reversible drill

new variable speed reversible drill

Comments from original post:


Ron October 12, 2013:

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

devin October 12, 2013:

It takes about 7 hrs to dump 150 car train

Bruce Kime October 12, 2013:

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


NEO October 12, 2013:

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

Jack Curtis November 3, 2013:

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

Telling Time Power Plant Man Style

Originally posted November 1, 2013:

You would think that telling time is a pretty universal past time. I used to think that myself. That is, until I went to work at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I first went to work there in 1979 as a summer help. I noticed something was different when I walked into the office to meet the Assistant Plant Manager, Bill Moler and the clock on his wall looked kind of funny. I had to stare at it for a moment before I realized what it meant:

24 hour clock

24 hour clock

The Power Plant Men called it Military Time because many of them had been in the military during the Vietnam War and had learned to tell time using this type of clock. When we filled out our timecards at the end of the day we put 0800 to 1600 Well. I put in the colons like this: 8:00 to 16:00 but that wasn’t the real Power Plant Man way to do it.

That wasn’t the only thing I learned about Power Plant Man time. Power Plant Men keep time in other ways. One of those ways, though it involves a clock, the time being observed isn’t the time of day. Instead it centers around five events.

Startin’ Time, Morning Break, Lunch Time and Afternoon Break and Quitin’ Time. A Power Plant Man’s day revolves around these events.

The moment Startin’ Time begins, the Power Plant Men are looking forward to Morning Break. They schedule their efforts around this event. That is, if they need to do a certain job that would run them into Morning Break, then they figure out something else to do, and push that event out until Morning Break is over.

In General, Morning Break would begin at 9:30 (Oh. I mean 0930 — pronounced “Oh Nine Thirty”). It was supposed to be 15 minutes long, but in order to make sure you didn’t miss your break, you usually headed toward the shop 15 minutes early. Then by the time you headed back out the door to and returned to your work, another 10 to 15 minutes went by. Essentially stretching morning break from 15 minutes to 40 to 45 minutes.

This was especially true in the early days of the Power Plant. The Power Plant Men’s culture evolved over time so that the actual time spent on their 15 minute break probably shortened from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.

The idea that the employees weren’t spending every moment of their day when not on break working just confounded Plant Managers, such as the “Evil Plant Manager” that I often talk about. Our first plant manager was so tight, when he worked at a gas plant in Oklahoma City, he was known for taking rags out of the trash and putting them back in the rag box because they weren’t dirty enough.

Now that I work at Dell as a Business Systems Analyst (and since I first wrote this post, I have changed jobs and now work for General Motors) after many years of working for great managers and not-so-great managers, I am always relieved when I find that a new manager doesn’t measure you by how many hours you are sitting at the computer, but by your results.

For those that looked closely at the performance of the Power Plant Men at our particular plant, they would find that when a job needed to be done, it would be done… on time. The bottom line was that when you treat the employees with respect, they go the extra mile for you.

“Quitin’ Time” was always an interesting time. From the first day that I arrived as a summer help (1979) until the day I left 22 years later (2001), Even though “Quitin’ Time” was at 4:30 (or 1630, later changing to 1730), it really began at 4:00 (or 1600, pronounced “sixteen hundred”).

at 4:00, a half hour before it was time to go out to the parking lot and drive home, everyone would return to the shop, where they would spend the next 30 minutes cleaning up and filling out their daily timecard. The timecard was, and probably still is, a sheet of paper.

A Daily timecard similar to this

A Daily timecard similar to this

Amazing huh? You would think with the way things are that paper timecards would have disappeared a long time ago. I could be wrong about that. If it is any different at the plant today, I’ll encourage one of them to leave a comment below updating me.

There are other ways that Power Plant Men tell time. Sure, they know that there are seasons, like Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. But it is more likely that in their minds the Power Plant Men are thinking more like this…. Instead of Summer, they would think that this is “Peak Load”. That is, the units need to stay operational because the citizens of this country are in dire need of air conditioning.

Instead of Fall, there are two thoughts running through a Power Plant Man’s mind…. Hunting Season and the start of “Overhauls”.

As hunting season nears, many Power Plant Men are staking out their territories and setting up their deer stands. Some are out practicing with their bows as Bow Season starts first before you can use a rifle. The Plant staff didn’t like their employees taking off Christmas vacation, and did everything they could to keep you in town during the holiday. But when it came down to it… The real time to worry was during hunting season.

An Overhaul is when you take one of the units offline to work on things that you can’t work on when it is running. the main area being inside the boiler. When overhauls come around, it is a chance for working a lot of overtime. The pay is good especially if you get to go to another plant to work because then you not only get to work 10 or 12 hour days, but you receive a Per Diem of somewhere from $28.50 to $35.00 each day depending on how far back you want to look.

I don’t know what the Per Diem is today. I’m sure it must be much higher. Plus you get driving time back and forth each week, and you also receive mileage! So, you can see why Power Plant Men were often very anxious to go away on overhaul.

Overhaul season ran from the Fall into the Spring. It is during that time when the electric company could take a couple of units offline at a time because the electric demand wasn’t so high.

Another season that many Power Plant Men counted on was “Fishing Season”. It wasn’t like the other seasons, because it kind of ran into a lot of the others. If the weather was right, and the rain was right and the Missus was all right with it… Then it was fishing season. There were different types of fishing. In the electric shop, “Noodling” was popular. That is when you reach under the rocks in a river and feel around for a fish and then end up catching it with your bare hands.

Here is a picture I found on Google Images of someone that noodled an over-sized catfish

Here is a picture I found on Google Images of someone that noodled an over-sized catfish

Another timekeeping tool used by Power Plant men was “Pay Day”. It came around every two weeks. After a while everyone was on direct deposit, so it wasn’t like they were all waiting around for someone to actually hand them a paycheck. Many did plan their trips to the mall or to the gun shows in Oklahoma City around Pay Day. It was common to live from paycheck to paycheck.

If you worked in the coalyard, then you calibrated your clock by when the next coal train was going to roll into the dumper. There was generally a steady stream of coal trains coming and going. When a coal train was late, or even early, then I think it seemed to throw some coalyard hands into a state of confusion. But, then again, now that I think about it…. Walt Oswalt usually did seem to be in a state of confusion. — I’m just joking of course….. Well… you know…

If you were a Control Room Operator, then you were in a sort of Twilight Zone, because there really was only one small window in the entire Control room and that was only so that you could look through a small telescope at the Main Power Substation in case…. well… in case you were bored and you needed to be reassured that the world still did exist out there.

In the control room, there were clocks, but the control room operators had a lot more pretty lights to look at back then. Here is my favorite picture of a Power Plant Control Room (not the one where I worked):

I love this picture!

I love this picture!

See all those lights? Now everything is on the computer. That way if some foreign terrorist group decides they want to shut down the electric grid, all they have to do is hack into the system and down it goes. They couldn’t do that when the control room looked like this.

It seemed that being in the control room was out of time. It didn’t matter what time of the day you went in the control room. In the morning, the afternoon, even at two in morning. It always seemed the same. There were always two control room operators sitting or standing at their posts. The Shift Supervisor was sitting in his office, or was standing somewhere nearby. Other operators were walking in and out going on their rounds. I think the Control Room operators only knew that it was time to go home because the next shift would show up to take their place.

Electricians on the other hand, had their own kind of timekeeping. Well, not all of them… ok…. well… maybe just me…. I used an oscilloscope a lot when I was working on the precipitator controls, and so very small amounts of time meant a lot to me. For instance… The regular 60 cycle electricity in your house goes from zero to about 134 volts and then back to zero about every 8 and 1/3 thousands of a second (or .00833333…).

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

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

I will talk about it later, but when you are testing tripping relays, even as little as one thousandth of a second can be important. So, telling time with an oscilloscope can vary widely.

Then there were those timekeeping Power Plant Men that kept time by how long it was going to be to retirement. It was more of a countdown. I remember one Power Plant Man saying that he only had 21 more years and then he was outta there. An even more sad story was when Charles Lay at Muskogee who was 63 asked me to figure out his retirement because he wanted to retire in 2 years. Well….. sad to say… He had only been working there for 3 or so years, so his retirement package wasn’t going to be much and had never put anything into a 401k or an IRA.

Those who spent their lives working at the plant were able to retire with great benefits. It wasn’t like a union with all the healthcare and stuff, but the company did offer a very good retirement plan for those that had been there for the long haul. I suppose at this point they are measuring time in terms of their lifetime.

What it boils down to is that some Power Plant Men measured their life one-day-at-a-time, while others just looked at the entire time of their life as one time. Some looked forward to a time when they would be able to rest, while others enjoyed their work each day.

When I think about time, I realize that an infinite number of things can take place each second. Yet, a lifetime can go by without ever grasping what is important and what is fleeting. When I think back at the time that I spent working at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, what I feel is that I was blessed by the presence of such great men and women and it was time well spent.

Comments from Original Post:

  1. Ron November 2, 2013:

    Time ran backwards on one clock at the Seminole Plant. Bob Henley (Seminole Plant Electrical Supervisor) rewired his office clock motor to run in reverse! You had to mentally reverse the clock face to read the time. If you noticed the smallest “hand” tracking seconds was moving counter-clockwise, that gave you a clue. Bob was a unique Power Plant Man.

  2. Roomy: November 5, 2013:

    If you will remember we were working with guys from the Korean, Vietnam & WW2 back then. As for the time cards, what a mess, some like me do direct entry into SAP and some put it on a spreadsheet that the timekeeper can cut & paste. Yes, there are some that still do timecards every day!!!! I would like to relate a little more but it is almost lunch time!! Maybe after my final break I can pass on more info. Later

    Comments from the last repost

      1. coffeegrounded November 5, 2014

        I sometimes feel like a fly on the wall…a fly spy, if you will. LOL

        I worked in Tulsa for a vendor-on-site at the A/A Computer Center. Got quickly indoctrinated with Military time. To this day I still enjoy using it. Go figure…must be the Military brat in me. 😉

    1. Tory Thames November 6, 2014

      The planet I work in still uses Military time for everything. They longer use time cards as everything is computerized, but the whole plant still looks at time the same way. Thankfully, we have outside break rooms. And you still have people that go out just to check that the world is still moving. It blows me away how much of life in a factory/plant revolves around this type of time that’s described. It’s truly like you say it is. At least of your little plant.

Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals

Originally posted January 3, 2014:

After the reorganization at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma during 1987, a bunch of new faces showed up at the plant.  I mentioned in last week’s post that we had a new plant manager, Ron Kilman (See Post:  “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“).  In that post I also mentioned that the PC age was rapidly growing and I had bought a computer of my own and was eager to learn more.  The Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey had retired, and was replaced by a guy named Tom Gibson.  Tom was a good supervisor who was willing to think out of the box.

Tom gave me one of my first assignments directly by calling me to his office.  Well, Leroy had never really called me to his office before.  When Leroy wanted to chew you out, he was happy to come down to the Electric Shop and do it, so I didn’t really know what to expect by being “called to his office”.  Believe me… it wasn’t the last time he had “called me to his office.”  But it was the most satisfying time.  Mainly because this time, when I arrived, Tom’s face wasn’t beet red with anger like it was on one later occasion.

This is what Tom told me to do…  He said that we needed to install computer terminals all over the plant.  They had a chart where they wanted the terminals to go.  There were about 15 locations all over the plant including the coalyard which was about 1/2 mile from the main plant.  Along with those, there were a bunch of IBM Network printers that needed to be installed with the terminals.

Then Tom told me the best part.  He wanted me to do it all myself.  Then he told me an even better part…. He said, (and I quote) “I want you to learn everything you can about this computer stuff.  I think it will come in handy.”  As my friend Stephen Todd at Dell would say, “That was the ‘Keys to the Kingdom”.  I told him I would be glad to do everything he asked.

That last part later came back to haunt Tom…. but he did tell me…. learn “everything” I could about the computer.  When he was referring to “The Computer”, he was talking about the company mainframe, a Honeywell system that resided in Oklahoma City at Corporate Headquarters.

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

The Terminals I was going to install were called “Dumb terminals”.  they weren’t computers, they were just monitors with a keyboard that connected directly to a switch back in the telephone room that was connected via a microwave link directly to Oklahoma City and the Honeywell system:

A DEC terminal like this.

A DEC terminal like this.

So, when I returned to the electric shop, I began my “hacker” apprenticeship.  One that would later allow me to harass Gene Day in the Control Room, confuse Dick Dale in the warehouse, cause headaches for the IT department downtown, and finally cause the President of the Electric Company to personally call our Plant Manager Ron asking who was this guy Kevin Breazile!  Hence the reason for Tom Gibson’s beet red face a few years later.  But that is another story for another time.

I had two things right away that I had to figure out.  How was I going to run cables from the telephone room in the office to each of the places around the plant that needed a computer terminal and what are these funny connectors and what do I need to do with them?

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

Ok, so I figured they plugged in the back of the terminal and then there was a Cat1 cable (no, not a Cat3, a Cat1) that plugged into that, and needed to plug into a jack in the wall that I was going to have to install.  They called these funny connectors “Hoods”.  The 25 pin Hoods that we used were blue.  We had 9 pin hoods also that we used for the actual PCs that the clerks and the chemist were using.  They had an emulator program to make them act like a dumb terminal:

 A Serial RS232-DB9 9-Pin Female to RJ45 Adapter

A Serial RS232-DB9 9-Pin Female to RJ45 Adapter

In an early post called “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck” I explained how I have always been cursed with being very lucky.  Well, that’s what some may call it, but I prefer to believe that one of my best friends St. Anthony helps me out at certain times.  Well, this was one time when I asked for his assistance.  St. Anthony of Padua is considered the Patron Saint of lost items.  So, I asked him to help me figure out how I was going to do all this work in a reasonable amount of time.

St. Anthony of Padua

St. Anthony of Padua

As is often the case, St. Anthony pointed me in the right direction.  This particular day, he told me to tell my problem to Charles Foster.  My close friend and one of the two Electric Shop foremen (not mine.  I was working for Andy Tubbs).  So, during lunch I told him what Tom Gibson told me to do, and showed him the blueprints where they wanted the terminals placed throughout the plant.

One of the places that needed a terminal was right there in the electric shop office.  Charles looked around the office and said, “You know what?  there used to be an old intercom system in this office that I think goes up to the telephone room.  In fact, I think all the intercoms that were originally installed in the plant went to the telephone room.”

An old intercom sort of like this only in a box that sat on the desk and it had more switches

An old intercom sort of like this only older and in a box that sat on the desk and it had more switches

I vaguely remembered the intercoms when I was working as a summer help as there used to be an old box sitting in the garage when I worked for Stanley Elmore.  They were later cut out and removed, because it wasn’t really practical and so it wasn’t used.  Charles told me to start there, because there were intercoms everywhere.  In the control room, the warehouse, and even in the coalyard!  And definitely in the office area.  This was just what I needed to hear.  My work was already half done.

I pulled the cables out from under the desk where they had been cut and checked them out.  There were definitely enough cable pairs to do the job.  In most places I had to install both a terminal and a printer, so I had a lot of dual wall jacks just for this job:

A dual RJ45 Wall Jack

A dual RJ45 Wall Jack

There were some places where the intercom system didn’t go where I needed to install either a dumb terminal or at least connect a computer.  So, I was looking for any kind of alternate way to install the jack without having to run cables all the way from the telephone room to these locations.  So, I went out and bought a book about networking so that I could learn more about what was really going on.  If I had bought it a few years later it might have been called “Dumb Terminals for Dummies”, but the Dummies books hadn’t come around yet.

I have since thrown that book away after using it for years to prop up the corner of our sofa bed for the times when my mom would come and visit and she would sleep on the bed, only it had a broken bracket, and the Networking book was just the right thickness to level the bed…. But there was one page in the book that I found that allowed me to hook up dumb terminals in places where there was only a phone line.

You see.  When the phone lines were run throughout the plant, they used a three pair cable.  Well.  A phone really only uses two wires (or one pair).  so, this left 4 more wires not doing anything.  The only problem was that the dumb terminal used 4 pair, or 8 wires…

An RJ45 Cable

An RJ45 Cable has 8 wires

So, when I was reading the networking book, I ran across a diagram that made me stop and stare.  I like to think that I was holding a half eaten apple in my hand and I had just taken a bite when I stopped mid-bite and stared.  It would have been a nice picture to remember sort of like when the apple fell on Newton’s head.  Only we didn’t have cellphones with cameras in those days, so no one was around to take my picture.  The diagram I saw was this:

The pin configuration for an RJ45 connector

The pin configuration for an RJ45 connector

What?  This showed 4 of the wires are nothing but grounds….  The network cable only really uses 4 of the 8 wires.  Which means I only needed two pair.  And guess what?  The phone lines run all over the plant were 3 pair with only one pair being used!  So, I was able to install the computer jacks right next to the telephone jacks and use the same cable that the telephone was using, and they all tied back to the telephone room where the main computer switch was located that connected to the Mainframe computer back in Oklahoma City through something called a Memotec X.25 Modem.

So, now that I have gone through all this detail to tell you how I was able to quickly install all these terminals and printers around the plant in a way as if it is exciting (because it is to me).  I know that many of you are so bored out of your gourd that you have already stopped reading before you have reached this sentence….  I suppose those of you that are still following along are wondering “Why?”

Why would we want to install all these dumb terminals throughout a power plant that connected to the Honeywell Mainframe down at Corporate Headquarters?  Well.  It was because all the plant operators, mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians, instrument and controls and heavy equipment operators were going to start using it to do stuff.  Yeah.  All of us were being introduced to the computer age.  From the janitor on up.

Each printer had 4 character ID that identified it, so if you were looking at a work order on the terminal, you could choose to print it.  You just had to know the 4 character number and you could print the work order out on any computer in the company.  Usually, this meant, you wanted to use the printer that was closest to you.  But if you wanted to print something out for the warehouse, as long as you knew their printer ID, you could send them a printout of some part that you wanted them to retrieve for you.  Then call them up and tell them you printed something out on their printer.

Ok.  So the average Joe didn’t see much benefit, but it did get them used to seeing computer monitors all over the place, which at least helped them in the future when the real computers showed up.  Right now, they were just “Dumb Terminals” and that’s what a lot of the operators and maintenance people thought… they are just dumb…

I, on the other hand was in hog heaven.  You see.  I had called downtown to the IT department and asked to get a user name so that I could log directly into the mainframe.   After all, my supervisor Tom had told me to learn “everything” I could about “this computer”.  So, I took him up on it.  I quickly was learning UNIX commands, though at the time, I didn’t know that’s what they were called.

I began learning the Computer language called “A” before I realized there was a “B” language and a “C” language, and that C was the one that was really used at the time.  As it turned out the mainframe had manuals for everything right on it.  That is how I was able to cause so much trouble the next few years.

Oh, and one more interesting thing I discovered on the mainframe.  It had this interesting feature called “Email”.  Yeah.  Only, after figuring out how to pull up a list of all the emails on the system I found that there was only a handful of people that actually had e-mail addresses.  So, the only person I would email on the mainframe was an engineer named Craig Henry.

Craig Henry.  Engineer and Gentleman

Craig Henry. Engineer and Gentleman

I had met him briefly once, but in the next few years, he was a valuable source of information.  Email seemed like a great idea, but what good was it if there was only a few people you could send an email?

As for Craig Henry… As Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains in Casablanca, “This is the beginning of a Beautiful Friendship.” Come to think of it… Craig Henry sort of reminds me of Claude Rains…  I must admit, I learned a lot more from him than he ever learned from me.

Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer

Originally posted on January 11, 2014:

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

Joke Book

Joke Book

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

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

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

I love this picture!

I love this picture!

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Word Perfect for DOS

Word Perfect for DOS

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

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

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

50 foot Power Plant Parallel Printer Cable

50 foot Power Plant Parallel Printer Cable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power Plant Paradox of Front to Back and Back to Front

Originally posted February 8, 2014:

After the downsizing in 1987 some new engineers were assigned to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  I wasn’t used to an engineer actually pausing to listen to what I was saying.  I remember the first time I said something sort of out of the ordinary and Doug Link stopped and asked me why I thought that.  The usual response was to roll their eyes as if I was some dumb electrician that almost knew how to lace my boots correctly… Ok… Lacing your boots isn’t as easy as it looks…. especially when you put them on in the dark in the morning before you leave the house.

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

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

Now, before you think “Front to Back and Back to Front” has to do with lacing up my boots, you are mistaken.

Back to Doug Link.  I was surprised when  he actually stopped and asked me to explain myself.  I know I had said something that had sounded a little bombastic, but what I believed to be true anyway.  So, I sat down and explained it to him.  It was something that ran contrary to what a person might think was logical.  Once I explained it to him, he said he understood what I meant. — Wow.  What kind of new engineers are they breeding out there (I thought).  Well he did go to Missouri University at the same time I did, we just didn’t know each other at the time.

Doug Link

Doug Link

Another engineer that showed up at the plant was Toby O’Brien.  Even the maintenance department recognized right away that Toby would listen to you.  Not only would he listen to the crazy rantings of an electrician like me, but he would also ask advice from mechanics!  And…  (now brace yourself for this) Welders!  I believe that if he could corner a janitor, he probably would have listened to them as well…. because… well… I was just a janitor pretending to be an electrician, and he listened to me all the time.

So, what does this all have to do with “Front to Back and Back to Front”?  Well.  Almost nothing.  Except that these new engineers knew about a secret that we were all keeping from George Bohn, another engineer that I talked about in the post “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer”  In that post we had kept from George that the computer had an extra drive partitioned on the hard drive for a while.  In this post, I will talk about a much more significant secret (at least in George’s eyes).

With the reorganization Terry Blevins worked on one precipitator and I worked on the other.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

For those of you who don’t know, the precipitator is what takes the “smoke” out of the exhaust from the boiler so that it can be collected in hoppers and sent up to the coalyard to silos where trucks would come and haul it away to make highways.

Fly Ash Hoppers

Fly Ash Hoppers underneath the precipitator

The electric Supervisor Tom Gibson thought that a little competition would be good between the two teams to see who could make their precipitator work the best.   Only it didn’t work out that way.  Terry had one way of doing things and I had a completely opposite way of approaching a problem.  Terry would study a problem.  Analyze it, and do everything he could to understand what was going on.  Then he would go out and make a major change.  I on the other hand would make incremental small changes and observe the effects.  Then work toward what seemed to work best.

Between the two of us approaching a problem from completely different points of view, we were able to come up with solutions that apart I don’t think either of us would have ever thought about.  So, we became a team instead.

Now for the boring part of the story.  I am going to explain Back to Front…..   With the new digital controls, we could set up the controls so that each of the 84 precipitator transformers could be backed down one KV (kilovolt) at a time in order from the front cabinets to the back ones.  Then it would start from the front again backing the power on the cabinets down slightly each time.  — I know this is boring.   The front of the precipitator is where the exhaust enters the precipitator.  The back is where the exhaust leaves the precipitator.

The cabinets would do this until the amount of ash going out of the smoke stack hit a certain limit that was 1/4 of the legal limit (the legal limit was 20% opacity.  So, we controlled the cabinets to keep the opacity at 5%).  Opacity is the amount of light that is blocked by the ash coming out of the smokestack.

Well, if the opacity went too high (say 6.5%) the back cabinets would start powering all the way back up, and it would work its way toward the front of the precipitator until the opacity went down below the set limit. — sound good?  Well… after running this way for a while we realized that this wasn’t so good.

What ended up happening was that the front cabinets which normally collected 90% of the ash were always powered down and the back cabinets were powered up, because they would power up each time the opacity would spike.  So the ash collection was shifted from the front to the back.  This meant that if there was a puff of ash going out of the stack, it probably came from the back of the precipitator and there wasn’t anything that could be done to stop it.

We asked George if we could reverse the Front to Back powering down of the cabinets so that it went from Back to Front.  That way the back of the precipitator would be powered down most of the time and the front would be powered up.  This would keep the back half of the precipitator clean and if there was a need to power them up because of some disturbance in the boiler, the back of the precipitator would be in good shape to handle the extra ash.

George, however, insisted that since the EPA had tested the precipitator with the new controls when they were setup to go from front to back, we couldn’t risk changing it, or the EPA could come back and make us put scrubbers on the plant.  We were grandfathered into not needing scrubbers and we didn’t want to go through that mess and cost that would have raised electric rates for everyone.

This was frustrating because we could easily see that every hour or so we would be sending big puffs out of the smokestack on the account of the inherent flaw of backing the cabinets down using a Front to back method.  Even though we knew the engineers would blow their top if they found out, we called the EPA one day and asked them about it.  The EPA said they didn’t care as long as the precipitator wasn’t physically being altered and we were adjusting the controls to maximize operations.

So, one day when I was in the Precipitator Control Room, I walked over the main processor unit in the middle of the room where the seven sections of 12 cabinets each plugged in.  I took the A row cable and swapped it with G.  I took B and swapped it with F, C and swapped it with E.  D I just left it where it was since it was in the middle.

Then I walked to each Cabinet in a section and swapped the eeprom chip from cabinet 1 and put it in 12.  And from cabinet 2 and put it in 11, and so on.  Without leaving the precipitator control room, I had just changed the order of the cabinets backing down from “Front to Back” to “Back to Front”.  As far as the control room was concerned, nothing changed (unless you looked closely at the voltages on the cabinets on the computer.  The front cabinets usually were around 30kv while the back were closer to 45kv).

So, now that the cabinets were backing down from back to front, everything worked a lot smoother.  No more hourly puffs and wild power swings as cabinets were released.  As long as George didn’t know, he was happy.  The precipitator suddenly was working very well.  So well in fact that one winter while the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator was using only 70 Kilowatts of power and the opacity was well below the 5% threshold.

The space heaters in the precipitator control room were using over 120 kilowatts of power.  More than the entire precipitator.  This is important because normally the precipitator used more power than any other piece of equipment in the plant.  It was not unusual before we had the back down working for one precipitator to use 3 Megawatts of power.  That is 3,000 Kilowatts.

Then one day in 1992 an electric Intern (who later became a full time engineer) came in the precipitator control room with George Bohn while we were calibrating the cabinets one at a time.  George began explaining to Steve Wilson how the precipitator controls worked.  We were in the front section (G row).  George introduced Steve to us and started explaining to him about the back down and how it worked.

Steve Wilson

Steve Wilson

Just then, the cabinet that he was showing him powered up. — oops.  This was a front row cabinet and in George’s mind, they should be the last to power up.  He looked around and could see that the cabinets in F row were still powered down.  I thought, “The jig is up.”  George said, “That’s not right!  That shouldn’t happen!”  (Ok George.  We’ve only been doing this for 3 years and you are just now noticing?).

So, I asked him what the problem was (knowing full well).  He explained that the cabinet in G row had just powered up.  — You could tell when a cabinet was powered down because a certain light in the lower left corner of the display would be on.  I looked at the cabinet and the Primary current limit light was lit.  Obviously not in the back down mode.

So, I said this, “George, this cabinet still is in the back down mode.  You just can’t tell because it is also hitting the primary current limit and both lights won’t light up at the same time.”  — Geez… I thought…. would he believe this hair brain explanation?  George nodded.  Then he went on to explain to Steve what I just said to him as if it was something he knew all the time (even though I sort of just made it up).

A short time after Steve and George left, I found Steve and explained to him that we really do power down the precipitator from back to front instead of front to back, because front to back doesn’t work, and I explained to him why it works better and why we don’t tell George Bohn.  Steve was another sensible engineer that knew how to listen and learn.  I enjoyed the little time I spent working with him.

Well…. The efficiency of the precipitators caught the attention of EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute), and they wanted to come and study our precipitator controls.  Not only the back down feature we were using but also a pulse capability that Environmental Controls had that allowed you to power off for so many electric pulses and then power on again.

So, when the EPRI scientists showed up to test our precipitators for a couple of weeks trying the different modes of operation, I knew that it was important for them to really understand how we were operating the precipitators.  So, after George had taken them to the computers in the control room and explained the back to front back down mode.

I took them aside one at a time and explained to them that even though the computer looked like it was backing down from front to back, it was really backing down from back to front.  I explained to them why we had to do it that way, and I also explained to them why we didn’t let George know about it.  They all seemed to understand, and for the next two weeks no one from EPRI let the cat out of the bag.

To this day I don’t think George knew that we had swapped the direction of the back down from “front to back” to “Back to front”.  At least not until he reads this post.


Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron February 8, 2014:

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

    Great story!

    1. Plant Electrician February 8, 2014:

      Yeah. That’s one of the reasons. 🙂

  2. Monty Hansen April 2, 2014:

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

    1. Plant Electrician April 2, 2014:

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

Electric Company Substation Transformer Shooter

Originally Posted February 14, 2014:

There has been reports on the news this week about someone who has been shooting transformers in PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) substations in California.  It is interesting that the national news is picking up this story now even though the FBI has been investigating similar attacks since December, and even earlier attacks against PG&E as early as last April, 2013.

These reports always catch my attention because back in the early 1990’s, the electric company where I worked in Oklahoma had their own episode when a shooter was going around shooting at substation transformers, and high voltage electric lines.  At that time it was OG&E, not PG&E that was being plagued by someone that seemed to be randomly attacking the electric grid.

Back in early 1993, the first transformer that was shot by a high powered rifle using armor piercing bullets was in the middle of Stillwater Oklahoma near the Pizza Hut on Perkins Road.  It is easy to remember the location, because it later became very significant when it came down to finding out who might be responsible.

Much like the reaction in California this week, everyone was alerted to keep a watch for anyone acting suspicious near substations and high voltage electric lines.

An Electric Substation.  Who would ever want to damage at something so beautiful?

A High Voltage Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage such a wonderful work of art?

I enjoy watching a TV show called Forensic Files.  It shows how important facts are collected that finally lead to a conviction of someone who has murdered someone.  It is amazing how so many clues are left behind that can be used to prove who is the guilty person.

I suppose the main point that I walk away with after watching a show like this is that criminals are generally pretty stupid.  Especially the really smart ones.  I guess it’s because if they were really smart, then they wouldn’t have turned to a life of crime in the first place.  Maybe it’s like the lazy people that work harder avoiding work than they would if they just did their job.

Of course, working at the Power Plant during  this time meant that we were all put on a kind of “high alert”.  We were extra suspicious of cars parked down side roads near our plant.  Our security guards doubled up a little on their rounds on the lookout for someone suspicious.  In a weird way it brought me back to when I was a dishwasher one summer at the Sirloin Stockade in Stillwater.

When I first moved to Stillwater in the Spring of 1978, right out of High School, I went to work as a dishwasher/busboy/cook at the local Sirloin Stockade franchise restaurant.  This is not the newer company Sirloin Stockade that is on Perkins road today.  No.  This one was on the Strip next to the Oklahoma State University campus.  It was privately owned.

One night during that summer there was a mass murder committed at a Sirloin Stockade in Oklahoma City after the restaurant had closed.  All of the employees had been forced into the freezer and they were all shot in the head.  At the time, no one knew the motive.  It could have been that the murderer (or murderers) could have been upset with Sirloin Stockades in general.

For the rest of the summer, the manager Ken Low, who also managed a hamburger joint up the street for the same owner, would leave the Sirloin Stockade when the restaurant was just closing at 9:00 to go close the other restaurant.  He would leave a young 17 year old boy in charge of closing up the restaurant and getting it ready for when it opened the next morning.  Yeah…. That was me.

I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Ken had suddenly gained a lot of confidence in my ability to handle closing the entire restaurant all by myself the same week that the Sirloin Stockade Massacre happened in Oklahoma City.  Ken was a friend of mine and I understood him well enough.

Me.  I was fearless anyway.  I always seemed to be missing that gene.  So, I just felt that if some murderer came busting in the back door, I would, of course, defend myself by using the handle of the broom I was using to sweep the floor.  Well.  I was 17.  So, of course I was invincible.

The same question was being asked about the person that was shooting the transformers and high voltage lines.  It seemed as if he had a grievance with the electric company.  So, when a witness had seen a man going down a remote country road in the same area where a high voltage electric line was shot, and a sketch of a possible suspect was created, they turned to the employees for help.

I wasn’t much help because I lack the imagination to take a composite drawing and extrapolate it into a person that I know.  If someone were to draw a picture of me and ask me who I thought it was, I probably wouldn’t have a clue.  I guess I lack that gene also.

Other Power Plant Men thought they knew who the drawing depicted.  It reminded them of a former employee at the Power Plant.  His name was Clyde Bateman.  When others told me that, I thought, “Yeah.  I suppose it could be him.”

Clyde had been a chemist at the plant.  He had been fired a year or two before.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing his job well.  His problem was that some days he just wouldn’t show up for work without leaving any word.  It would have been all right if he would have called the plant to let his manager, George Pepple know that he wasn’t going to be able to make it that day.   He just wouldn’t say anything until he returned.

Clyde had been given the appropriate number of warnings and was told that if he didn’t show up to work again without leaving word that he wouldn’t be in, he was going to be fired.  So, the next time that happened, he was “let go”.  No one likes that to happen, because you know that there is some underlying reason for such odd behavior, but we had to keep the plant running, and when you rely on a certain number of employees to keep it going, what can you do?

This by itself wouldn’t make one suspicious that he might turn into someone that would flip his lid and start shooting at electric company assets.  The psychological profile looked more like a Timothy McVeigh type character.  For those of you who are from other countries that read this blog, Timothy McVeigh was a “homegrown” terrorist that decided to blow up a Federal Building in the middle of Oklahoma City one day (along with a number of other accomplices, some of which have never been identified), and he needlessly killed a lot of innocent people.

I didn’t know Clyde that well, so when others suggested that it might be Clyde, I was skeptical.  Then, as the investigation went forward, I learned that Clyde was more like Timothy McVeigh than I had realized. — Well.  At the time, no one had heard of Timothy McVeigh, since that hadn’t happened yet.

Power Plant Men that knew him said that he owned some land behind our power plant and he would go out there at times and blow things up.  He like high powered rifles and all that.  I thought that might be an indication, but it still didn’t convince me.  I also liked to blow things up and I would enjoy shooting high powered rifles if I had the opportunity.  I’m sure many Power Plant Men would enjoy doing the same.

Just a typical High Powered Rifle

Just a typical High Powered Rifle

Remember.  This was back when it was still all right to play cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers.  This was before eating your Pop-Tart until it was in the shape of gun was never given a second thought.  You could even take a Cowboy doll onto a plane with a tiny 1/2 inch plastic gun in the holster without being afraid that the TSA would take it away.

Anyway.  It was later discovered that Clyde Bateman lived in a trailer park behind the Braum’s on Perkins Road in Stillwater.

Braum's is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger.  It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

Braum’s is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger. It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

This was important because his trailer was only about 250 yards from the first transformer that had been shot.  Ok.  With all the other things, this finally convinced me.  They were on the right track.  I think the OSBI (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation) was on his trail and were keeping close tabs on him.  It seems like they even asked us at the plant to not try to contact him or let him know that he was a suspect.

Scott Hubbard, a True Power Plant Electrician was out inspecting the equipment in the substation one day when he noticed a hole in one of the 345KV breaker operating arm enclosures.  Scott thought it looked a lot like a bullet hole, so he alerted the control room.  The control room contacted the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department to come out and look at it.

Sure enough.  It was a bullet hole.  The OSBI recovered the bullet from inside the pipe.  Luckily where the bullet had entered, it had missed hitting anything that would have damaged the equipment.  If the shooter had been a lineman, or an electrician, or from the T&D department, he would have not shot the part that he did.  It looked like a critical part if you didn’t know better.   So, the shooter was not familiar with the equipment he was shooting.  That was clear.

Not only that, but there were much worse targets in the area that would have caused real damage.  So, luckily this was not someone who did a lot of homework.  It was interesting that the first transformer was only a block away from where Clyde lived, and the last shot was at the plant where he used to work.

The breaker was at a spot where he would have had to know to park on a dirt road a mile away and walk across a field to get the shot that he did.  All the plant employees knew that road well.  It was where the public had to go if they wanted to fish in the discharge channel where the warm water exits the condensers.  The fish like it there.

With all that said, Clyde Bateman was due in court in Ponca City on August 11, 1993.  Not for being the shooter that everyone was looking for, but for another offense.  I don’t remember exactly what it was.  He never showed up.  Clyde took his own life that morning.  After that day, there were no more shootings associated with this particular shooter.  it was understood by the employees at the plant that the matter was behind us now.  Business was back to usual.

I mentioned earlier that Clyde turned out to be more of a Timothy McVeigh type than we had originally thought.  I didn’t mean that he was that way because he liked guns, because any self respecting Power Plant Man knows that if you care about your family and want to keep them safe, that a handy firearm is the best way to stop an intruder.

Clyde was an activist.  I found this out only today when I decided to write about him.  I found a very interesting case that the U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit ruled on only two and a half months after Clyde’s death.  You see, Clyde had filed a complaint against the Federal Government alleging that the entire body of federal environmental laws were unconstitutional, because its enactment allegedly exceeded the authority granted in the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, and lacked any other source of constitutional support.  The District Court had ruled that Clyde had no standing.  So he appealed it to the US Appeals Court.

The Appeals court ruled unanimously that Clyde didn’t have any standing to bring this complaint against the Federal Government because (no… not that he was already dead) he hadn’t demonstrated that he was injured by the law.  They didn’t rule that he was wrong about his complaint, only that he didn’t have any standing to file the complaint.

So, as Paul Harvey would have said, “Now you know the rest of the story.”  If you want to read more about the Appeal Courts decision, you can find it here:  “Clyde Bateman v United States of America

Power Plant Pilfering and Being Peeved with Peavler

Originally posted April 5, 2014:

Today, work ended in a strange way.  I was working away at Dell when I had a call with a business partner to go over some configuration of our timekeeping application.  When I joined the call, the person on the other end of the line, who usually sounded like a normal woman with a slightly Hispanic accent sounded more like an insect alien with a very nervous tic.

I tried several quick remedies on my computer to resolve the audio issues I was experiencing.  You see, at Dell, when we use the telephone, we are actually using our computer with a headset attached.  After shutting down a few processes that I knew were not necessary in the hope of clearing up our communication, I thought that maybe rebooting my computer would be the simple solution.  That was the lesson I had learned back at the gas-powered power plant in Harrah Oklahona in 1985.

Ellis Rook had told me back then that he didn’t mess with trying to figure out why the phone system wasn’t working.  Whenever there was a problem, he preferred to just reload the program from disk, which took about a half an hour.  No worries that all the phones in the plant would be down for a half an hour as the Rolm Phone computer was rebooting.  So, I rebooted my system, since restarting the communication program didn’t work.

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

When my computer rebooted and I attempted to log in, when the screen would go blank just before the moment when you would expect the wallpaper to show up, my computer would indicate that it was logging me off and then would shutdown only to restart again….  Drats!  …and I had this important call with my coworker that I was sure had not really changed into the alien that had been talking to me moments before.

I tried this a couple more times, and each time the computer would shutdown and restart.  So, I swiveled around in my chair and turned to my current manager who was sitting across the bullpen cube from me and I said, “My computer has crashed.”  It just keep restarting.  She replied, “Go take it down to the computer clinic and have them fix it.  They are great!  They will fix you up right away.

Like this only bigger to fit seven docking stations

Our bullpen cube is like this only bigger to fit seven docking stations.  adding an extra seat in the back and one extra on each side

On a side note, I just want to add that my current manager at Dell has been the absolute most influential manager I have ever met next to Charles Foster.  She has perfected the art of “Expanding her bubble”.  Charles taught me this technique many years ago.

So, on a side note of a side note, let me just tell you what my former foreman Charles Foster at the Power Plant did once.  He ordered some equipment for everyone in the electric shop which ran into a few “extra” dollars.  When he was called on the carpet to explain why he thought he had the authority to make this purchase, he explained it this way:

“When I went to ‘manager training’ they told me that during your career you will have times where it will be necessary to perform activities that you are not sure you are able to perform, so you should go ahead and try them.  If you get your hand slapped, you just pull back and don’t do that again.’  This is called ‘Expanding your bubble’.  I was just  expanding my bubble.”  He said Ben Brandt, the assistant plant manager, looked at him with a blank stare for a moment, and then told him that he was free to go.  Evidently, according to the listening devices that we had hidden in his office, Ben turned to Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor, and said, “That’s a pretty good explanation.”

I bring this encounter up, because my current manager, Ali Levin, of whom I also have the greatest respect, just recently had an opportunity to expand her bubble.  She was so successful that those around her that know what she has accomplished just stare in awe at her.  I predict that within the next decade this young lady will have become the CIO (Chief Information Officer) of a Fortune 500 company (mark my word).

So, what does this all have to do with Charles Peavler and Power Plant Pilfering?  Well.  The final verdict from the super technicians down in our computer repair lab, said that since it was Friday afternoon, I wouldn’t be able to have my computer back in working order until Monday morning.  Which meant that I would have to go all weekend without being able to log in and perform feats of magic on my laptop.

Ok.  I was resigned to go home early and wait patiently until Monday morning when I could begin popping up various applications and flipping between them and the multiple Instant Message windows talking to various business customers throughout the day as I performed the satisfying dance of my day-to-day job.  So.  I left work early.

This evening as I sat down to create a post about Power Plant Men and my previous life working as an electrician at a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahama, the sudden loss of my computer flashed me back to a time when someone that was working with me experienced a similar loss.  Instead of a laptop.  This electrician had lost a set of “Jumpers”.


Electric Jumpers

Electric Jumpers

Ok.  These jumpers don’t look like much, I know.  But jumpers are almost as important to a plant electrician as a laptop is to an IT developer at Dell.  That is, you just can’t get your work done without it.

So, it was either Donald Relf or Bob Eno who was working with me on Friday, March 29, 1993.  During overhaul, we had been calibrating precipitator control cabinets all day.  Much like today, April 5, 2014 when my computer died.  At the end of the day as we were packing up our equipment Bob or Donald, I don’t remember, saw me leave my tool bucket next to the old typewriter stand that we were using as a portable workbench.  He asked me if it was safe to leave our tool buckets there over the weekend.

I assured him that the coal-fired plant in North Central Oklahoma hired only “top-notch” Power Plant Men.  His tools would be perfectly safe sitting out in the Precipitator control room over the weekend.  I was so confident because I had always left my tools where I was working in the precipitator during overhaul and I had never had anything stolen.  If anything, someone may have left me a present of chocolate behind only because they knew that I always did favors for chocolate.

You can imagine my surprise when we returned to the Precipitator Control Room on Unit 1 on Monday morning only to find that Bob (or Donald) had their jumpers missing from their tool bucket.  We each used 5 gallon buckets to carry our tools.  Mine had been untouched.  No extra chocolate that day, but no unsavory fingerprints were detected.

A black tool bucket like this

I had a black tool bucket like this

As it turned out, we relied on Bob’s (or Donald’s) jumpers to do our job, so we actually had to return to the electric shop and create a new set of jumpers for him.  I felt so ashamed.  After all, I had so proudly explained that only those with the greatest integrity worked at our plant, and he didn’t have to worry about leaving his tools, and here I was having to cover for his losses.  This was the only time in the 20 years I worked at the Power Plant where someone had stolen something from a tool bucket when they weren’t purposely playing a joke on me.

When I found time that day, I went to the control room and asked the Shift Supervisor if he could tell me who worked as the Unit 1 auxiliary operator over the weekend.  I knew that this would narrow the culprit down to three people.  He looked through his logs and said that Darrell Low, Charles Peavler and Jim Kanelakos had Unit 1 over the weekend.

Knowing how the shifts worked, I knew that each of these people had walked through the Unit 1 precipitator exactly 3 times over the weekend, before we returned on Monday morning. I also knew that no one else would have ventured to stroll through the Precipitator control room who was working over the weekend on overhaul.  I knew this because of all the hundreds of hours I had already spent in this control room over the weekend, only one operator per shift ever visited.  It was usually my reminder to take a break and go to the bathroom and buy something from a vending machine before returning.

I studied this list.  Hmmm….. Darrell Low….  A person with impeccable character.  Would love to play a good joke when given the change, but honest as the day is long.  Jim Kanelakos…. Devious at times, but personally a very good friend.  A person so dear to me that I him kept personally in my daily prayers.  Charles Peavler… well… by the title of this post…. you already know the rest of the story.

I eliminated Darrell immediately since I knew his character and I would trust him with my life (which I actually would at times when he would place clearances for me).  I suspected Peavler right off, but I thought I would make sure that Jim Kanelakos wasn’t just playing a joke on me first.  So, I approached him and asked him if he had taken a pair of jumpers from a tool bucket in the Precipitator control room over the weekend.

At first Jim looked at me with a hurt feeling that I thought might be a perfect expression if he was playing a joke on me.  He was holding the look of sorrow and hurt that I would actually accuse him vaguely of stealing a pair of jumpers from a tool bucket.  When I pressed him on the issue.  The hurt look changed to a look of resolve and he said directly, “No.  I didn’t take them.”

I knew immediately that he was telling me the truth.  Jim and I had worked together with Charles Peavler on the labor crew together.  We actually used to analyse his behavior as sort of a joke, and kind of a refresher of our Psychology background.  Jim Kanelakos had earned a Masters Of Arts in Psychology, while I had a bachelors in the same field.  So, we used to have fun joking around together about the unusual behavior of Peavler.

Charles Peavler looked like the Sergeant on Gomer Pyle.  Except that he had chewed tobacco so long that his lower lip was permanently curled so that he looked like Popeye.  I say that because they had the same lower jaw and the same amount of hair on his head:


Popeye or is it Charles Peavler

Once I was certain that Charles Peavler had taken the Jumpers from Bob’s (or Donald’s – I’m relying on one of you telling me which one) tool bucket, I approached him with the attitude that I already knew it was him.  I came up to him in the Control room and said, “Charles!  You know that pair of jumpers that you took from that tool bucket over the weekend?  I need those back!”

I  explained to him that I had told the visiting electrician that it was safe to leave his tools there because no one would touch his stuff.  So, I felt personally responsible to get the jumpers back.  Charles immediately denied that he had taken the jumpers.  He said that he didn’t know what I was talking about.  I told him that I had checked, and he was the only person over the weekend that would have taken them.  So, I needed them back.  He continued to deny that he had taken them.

As the overhaul was lasting a few weeks longer, I continually approached Charles in the middle of the control room where the Control Room operators were within earshot asking him to give the jumpers back to me.  I would tell him how I need them so that we could continue our work.  Also I would explain each time that the reputation of our Power Plant was at stake.

Finally one day he said, “Well.  I don’t have them here.  I took them home.” — That was a great relief to me.  I had been continually accusing him day after day of taking those jumpers.  I was finally glad to find out I hadn’t been accusing someone falsely, which was always a vague thought in the back of my mind.  The moment he told me he had taken the jumpers home, I jumped on him (not literally – though the thought occurred to me).  I said, “I need those jumpers back!”

It took about a week.  Each day whether he was on the day shift or the night shift or the evening shift, since we were on overhaul working a lot of overtime, he was not able to escape me.  I would go up to him and ask him, “Did you bring those jumpers today? ”  Each time in the middle of the control room, quite loudly.

Finally, about a week after he admitted having the jumpers when I asked him about it in the middle of the control room, he went into the locker room and soon returned with the pair of jumpers and handed them to me.  I quickly returned them to Bob (or Donald), and apologized profusely for the inconvenience.  I didn’t tell him exactly what had happened to the jumpers, only that I had finally tracked them down.

I guess, he didn’t know that I knew him so well.  So well in fact that to this day, I have kept Charles Peavler also in my prayers every day.  When he lost his mother in on April 1, 2000 (fourteen years this week), I felt his loss also.  He left the plant on July 29, 1994 during the last (and the worst) downsizing the Power Plant ever experienced.  To this day, though I was peeved with Peavler back then, I still care for him deeply.  I don’t think he was a “True Power Plant Man”, but neither was Jim Kanelakos or myself.

Some day Charles will meet our maker.  When he does, he will be able to say,  “Yeah.  I did steal a pair of jumpers once.  But I ended up by giving them back.”  I clearly remember the look of relief that day when Charles placed those jumpers in my hand.  It was if a heavy burden had been lifted.  Actually, by that time I had decided that it was as important for Charles to give back those jumpers as it was for Bob (or Donald) to get them back.  Something had compelled him to lift that pair of jumpers, I think it was an opportunity for him to face reality.  I thought that he was having a “Come to Jesus” moment when he confessed.

I often wondered what Charles’ mother Opal Peavler would have thought of Charles.  I suppose she finally found out.  I suspect that by the time she found out, that Charles had mended his ways.  After all, he was on his way when we had danced this dance in the middle of the control room that week in 1992.  He did finally admit that he had stolen something.  I’m sure he thought at the time that an electrician could easily make a new pair of first class jumpers.  We wouldn’t care that someone had come along and taken one measly pair of jumpers.

Actually, if Charles had ever come to the electric shop and asked any electrician for a pair of jumpers, any one of the electricians would have been glad to whip up a pair as if by magic.  I think it was just that one moment when he was alone with a tool bucket staring at him and a  perfectly prepared pair of jumpers were gleaming up at him that in a moment of weakness, he decided he could pilfer this pair without anyone knowing.

To tell you the truth.  I was very proud of Charles Peavler the day he placed those jumpers in my hand.  Geez.  I didn’t realize until after I finished this post that I have a picture of Peavler:

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Charles Peavler is the one standing on the left with the Pink shirt.



Power Plant “We’ve Got The Power” Stress Buster

Originally posted April 12, 2014:

In an earlier post titled “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” I explained how in 1990 we broke up into teams at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to find ways to save the Electric Company money.  Before we were actually able to turn in our first set of ideas, we had a month or more to prepare those ideas and to turn them into proposals.  During this time, and throughout the entire “We’ve Got the Power” program, teams who wanted to succeed and outdo the other teams became very secretive.  Our team was definitely that way.  We had secret experiments going on throughout the plant, and we didn’t want other teams to even know what areas we were investigating.

As the program progressed, a certain level of stress developed between teams.  In a later post I will tell a story about how this level of stress led to a situation of suspicion and eventually even animosity.  This  post will not go into that situation.  Instead I want to explain what our team did to try to alleviate some of the stress by devising a special “Power Plant Joke” that we played on the rest of the Power Plant Men (and Women).

There were some teams that had setup some experiments that they were running to see if their ideas may save the company money.  Our team had several experiments running throughout the beginning months.  All of which we carefully hid from prying eyes.  We were proud of our stealthiness.  Sneaking around, making sure we weren’t being followed when we went to take readings from our carefully hidden recorders and other devices.

Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and I were sitting in the electric shop office discussing the stress level that had permeated the plant, and we thought we could take advantage of the stress by setting up a “We’ve Got The Power” Experiment out in the open that would be obvious to anyone that walked by.  Only it would be a fake experiment designed to play a joke on the unsuspecting Power Plant Man.

Here is what we did….

Right outside the electric shop in the Turbine Generator basement there is a water fountain.  We placed a hazard waste barrel a few feet away from the water fountain.  Like this:

Hazardous Waste Barrel

Hazardous Waste Barrel

Then we mounted a junction box on the wall a few feet above the chemical waste barrel and a little to the right.

A junction box like this

A junction box like this

We turned the junction box so that the hinge was on the top, allowing the door to fall closed naturally.  This was an important part of the setup to allow for the joke to automatically reset each time it was operated.

We ran some copper tubing from the water fountain water line over to the box.  Then another copper line came out the bottom of the box and into the barrel.  Next to that copper tube, another smaller copper tube came out of the bottom of the box and just bent toward the front of the box.  It was not noticeable.  We had a plastic hose coming out of the barrel and over to the drain next to the water fountain.  Then we put Yellow Barrier Tape around the entire setup.

Barrier Tape

Barrier Tape


We tied Caution tags to the Barrier tape that said “We’ve Got the Power Experiment” Do not enter!  I signed the tags.

Caution Tags like this

Caution Tags like this

There was an electric conduit running up from the junction box, that went up and into the wall about 6 feet above the junction box.  So, this looked like a legitimate experiment going on, but for the life of anyone, no one would be able to tell what it was doing.  — Mainly because it wasn’t doing anything….. At least not until someone went to investigate it.

So.  Here is what would happen….

Employees would walk by and see the barrier tape with the hazardous waste barrel and the hoses and water lines coming from the back of the water fountain, with a junction box above it that was not completely closed.  The door to the junction box was down, but not screwed closed.  Conduit was going into the box, which meant that something electrical was probably inside  Maybe a solenoid or something that was controlling the experiment.

They would read the Caution Tag that explained that this was a “We’ve Got the Power” experiment, and it would pique (pronounced “peak”) their curiosity enough that they couldn’t help but investigate it to see what was really going on.

So, what would invariably happen, was that someone would enter the area that was barrier taped off, and open the junction box to see what was inside.  When they lifted the lid, they would find that they were instantly being soaked with water that would spray out of a small copper line pointing right at them directly under the junction box.  At the same time, an alarm would go off above them behind the wall right above the electric shop office.  It was very loud.  A counter inside the junction box would register an “intruder’ had just opened the box.

So, as we would be sitting there during lunch, we would suddenly hear the alarm go off, and we could dart out the door to the Turbine Generator basement to find a drenched Power Plant Man.  They were usually amused that they had fallen into the trap.  I say usually, because I have the feeling that one particular person who found himself violating the barrier tape and getting soaked didn’t act too cordial about it.  I’ll get to him later.

As I said, inside the box was a counter.  It counted how many times the box had been opened and sprayed someone with water.  So, we could go inspect it in the morning and we would know if anyone had looked at it while we were gone.

After the experiment had been there about a week, an overhaul began where Power Plant Men from different plants came to our plant to perform the overhaul.  The plant would shut off one of the units and we would take it apart, and put it back together again fixing problems along the way (well.  maybe not quite that drastic.  It was a time to fix things that couldn’t be maintained or repaired while the unit was running).

So, the Power Plant Men at our plant, who by that time all knew about the bogus experiment just outside the electric shop, would bring unsuspecting Power Plant Men from other plants over to the see the “We’ve Got the Power” experiment going on in the hopes of seeing them get sprayed with water.  So, a new round of alarms were going off during that time.

Eventually, when people had heard about the experiment, and knew that it was spraying people, they would approach the experiment with caution.  When they opened the lid of the junction box, they would stand next to it against the wall in order to not get wet.  The spray pattern from the crimped copper line was fairly wide, so you would have to stand practically against the wall next to the box in order to stay dry.

So, this was when we implemented Phase 2 of the experiment.  — Yeah.  It’s the second phase of many Power Plant Jokes that usually make the joke a much bigger success than the first phase.  For instance, I have written a post about the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” in which I had played a joke on Gene Day, where after a week of preparing him for the final joke, I had coaxed him to look over my shoulder, only to have him read that according to his psychological profile, he was the type of person that would look over your shoulder and read your private material.

That would be a good joke in itself, but when Gene Day read that and began choking the life out of me, I pointed out to him the final statement in Gene Day’s profile which stated that he tends to choke people who try to help him by creating Psychological profiles of him.  This second part of the joke is what really completes the joke and makes it a real success.  The first part just makes it funny.

So, here is how we modified the experiment for Phase 2….  The nozzle that sprayed the employee actually came out the bottom of the box and elbowed to point toward the front of the box.  So, what we did was we took a file and filed a tiny notch in the side of the copper tubing just below the junction box just above the elbow.  The notch was on the side of the copper tube, and it was deep enough of a notch to make a little hole in the side of the copper line.

So, then, if someone was standing to the only side they could stand next to the box and the barrel and they opened up the lid of the Junction Box to show someone how the experiment worked, they wouldn’t notice right away, but a small stream of  water would be spraying on their pants in just the appropriate location to make it look like the person had just pee’ed their pants.

Right when we had finished modifying the experiment for Phase 2, Howard Chumbley walked into the electric shop.  He was a retired Electric Foreman, that I have written about in the post “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace“.  He had come to visit the plant that day because there was going to be a Men’s Club lunch and he wanted to come and see some other old codgers that he used to work with that liked to attend the Men’s Club dinners.  He always wanted to see us of course as well.

So, we told him about the “We’ve Got The Power” Joke Experiment just outside the electric shop that sprayed water on people.  Of course, he wanted to see it, so we took him out and let him observe it.  We explained that when you open the lid, an alarm goes off, the counter toggles and water sprays out of that little nozzle sticking out at the bottom.  We told him he could try it if he wanted to see how it worked.

So,  he climbed under the barrier tape and walked around the side of the junction box that didn’t have the barrel, and reached over and lifted the lid.  The alarm when off, water sprayed out, and Howard laughed with glee to see how we had devised such a nice trick.  After watching the water spray for about 3 or 4 seconds, he suddenly realized that something was wrong.  He dropped the lid and looked down, only to find that it looked like he had just pee’ed his pants.

That was it!  That was icing on the cake.  Howard laughed even more when he realized what had happened.

The next morning when we came in the shop, we went to look at the experiment, it had been disassembled, or shutdown in some manner.  I think some caution tag had been placed there by Gary Wright, the Shift Supervisor stating something like this was a safety hazard, or some such thing.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gary Wright is the one down in the front with the glasses.  He had more hair in this photograph than I remember

Anyway, when I went up to the Control Room to ask him why he shutdown our experiment he was adamant that it constituted Horseplay and someone could get hurt.  Maybe when the water sprayed on them, they might jerk back and fall down and get hurt.  Ok….

I suppose.  Though, by the time he took it down, everyone at the plant already knew about it, and we were just in the Phase 2 part of the experiment.  In this phase anyone who was looking at the experiment was doing it by opening up the door from the side, and peeing their pants and they wouldn’t jerk back……—- Oh….. I see….  Shift Supervisors don’t usually like to walk into the control room looking like they have just pee’ed their pants.

I will say that I hadn’t expected that type of reaction from Gary Wright, because up to that time, he seemed more mild-mannered than the rest of the Shift Supervisors.  We just took it that the more upset Gary was with us about it, the more successful the joke had been implemented.  The joke had played out by that time, and we were good with it either way.

After it was all said and done.  We thought it did help to reduce the overall tension that was permeating the plant due to the “We’ve Got the Power Program”.