Tag Archives: Dumper

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.

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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!

Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes

Originally posted April 25, 2014:

Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood.  I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend.  Sometimes I was downright selfish.  Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate.  Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way.  I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.

Mark Schlemper with his Mother.  Two very good people.

My favorite picture of Mark Schlemper with his Mother

I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.

Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“.  At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  I explained this program in the post:  “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“.  With all that said, here is the story:

I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator.  The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.

My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance.  I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.

I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler.  The precipitator is after the air preheater where it is labelled “Flue gas”

When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment.  Who knows.  Maybe something unexpected would happen.  — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.

On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator.  When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room.  She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.

At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going.  One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up.  Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack.  Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.

I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets.  After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1A10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer.  It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts.  The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates.  Cabinet 1A10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.

When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off.  I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet.  The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it.  So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.

I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator.  When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer.  The fuse had obviously failed.  Interesting timing.  Coincidence?  I thought it was.  The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the writing was pink instead of blue

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the print was orange instead of blue

I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves).  Then I powered the cabinet back on.

 

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1A10.  The opacity had returned to normal.  I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.

When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened.  Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment.  So, he asked me what I thought about it.

First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas.  So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.

I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack.  I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse.  I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time.  After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.

I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it.  On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post.  To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.

The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett.  He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment.  Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:

Dining Room Table received as an award from the "We've Got The Power" program

Dining Room Table received as an award from the “We’ve Got The Power” program

It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy.  The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me.  Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”

When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why.  If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way.  It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important.  So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend.  This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.

I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him.  It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing.  Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away.  It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt.  I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.

Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club.  I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop.  Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases.  For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.

Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business.  I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim.  That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.

I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well.  Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years.  I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.

Here is what happened:

The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000.  I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night.  It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem.  Who else would be up on in the middle of the night?  The night shift of course.

When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.”  I replied, “No.  That’s okay.  What’s up?”  Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water.  I said, “Ok.  I’ll be right out.”

I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper.  She already knew of course.  I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up.  Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.

It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived.  I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room.  Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown.  I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.

Power Plants at night take on magical properties.  It’s hard to explain.  Lights shining from the 25 story boilers, noises from steam pipes.  Hums from motors and transformers.  Night Hawks screeching.

When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted.  Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep.  — Actually, I may have done just that.  It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.

When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office.  I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure.  Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually.  I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression.  He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it.  I replied, “Well.  That happens.” (No.  Not the other thing that happens).  I told him I was going to go home.  It was about 3:40 by that time.

Jim wished me a good night, and smiling with gratitude, thanked me again for coming  out.  As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace.  That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends.  This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).

When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house.  I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning.  I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.

That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City.  When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack.  That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.

 

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim.  Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace.  In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had that morning into my mind so that I would never forget it.

To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally (which still happens occasionally), I am determined that they will become one of my best friends.  I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”).  I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett.  Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.

I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it.  It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:

Note:  If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link:  Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel

 

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion April 26, 2014

    I’m glad that you were able to work through a tough situation and reach the point of friendship. although, it does make the loss harder to accept.

  2. Jack Curtis May 6, 2014

    Your story would have been a matter of course for my grandparents and immediately understood and admired by my parents. I suspect that telling it to today’s children might draw blank stares …

    Midwestern values likely still include such behaviors, at least for a reasonable number of people. I doubt many folk on the coasts would identify with it. We have lost a lot and have yet to learn the price of that, seems to me.

Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules

Originally posted May 2, 2014:

Last week I mentioned in the post “Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes” that Jim Padgett called me at 2:15 am one morning to tell me that the coal dumper was broken and he needed for me to come out to the plant to work on it.  You may have wondered why a plant electrician living in North Central Oklahoma would answer the phone in the middle of the night when it most certainly meant that they would have to crawl out of bed and go to work to fix something that was broken.  Why not just roll over and pretend that the phone never rang?

You see… I knew when the phone rang that it was the power plant, because in the 20 years that I worked at the plant, just about every time the phone rang after midnight it meant that I would have to get dressed, and drive 30 miles to the plant to work on something that was most likely going to be in a dusty dirty place.  You could always count on the coal train dumper switchgear being covered with coal dust.  That was the usual point of failure past the “witching hour”.

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

I suppose I could say there were two reasons why a Power Plant Man would answer the phone.  One was that they were just all around nice guys and they wanted to help out any chance they could.  The other reason was because of the pay.

Even though working at the power plant was perhaps one of the best jobs in the neighborhood (being the only job in the neighborhood, since the plant ground consisted of its own neighborhood out in the middle of nowhere), that didn’t mean that the pay was especially lucrative.  That is, if a Power Plant Man had to rely on their base pay alone.  So, in order to help the Brave Men and Women of Power Plant Fame pay their bills, many opportunities were provided for working overtime.

Think about this.  What if, when I answered the call to save the day (uh… I mean the night) and spent 35 minutes driving out to the plant only to fix the problem in fifteen minutes?  Then I would spend another 35 minutes driving back home with my clothes all full of coal dust, only to be paid a measly 15 minutes of over time?  Even at double time, that would only be 30 minutes of pay.  That would hardly cover the gas and the laundry soap.

Early in the life of this particular plant, it became apparent that something had to be done to motivate the heroic masters of Power Plant Maintenance to make the long lonely drive down Highway 177 at the wee hours of the morning.  So, certain methods were devised to coax the restful souls to the phones when they rang.  Once they answered the phone, then sheer guilt was enough to drag them out of the sack.  It was that moment when the phone first began to ring, before the reasoning part of the brain kicked in and the more base reflexes such as those that were out to make an extra buck reacted instinctively that needed to be targeted.

So “Black Time” was introduced to the plant.  Black time had probably been around long before the plant came into existence, but it came in handy when someone had to be called out in the middle of the night.  Black time was the time that a person would be paid even though they didn’t actually work during that time.  So, when a Power Plant Man was called out in the middle of the night, they would be guaranteed at least two hours of overtime even though they may only work for 15 minutes.

This would help defray the cost of gas and time for driving both ways to and from the plant.  Anything from 7:30 pm to 7:00 am  was paid as double-time.  That is two times the normal base salary.  So, two hours at double time came out to four hours of pay, or as much pay as someone would make for half of a day at work.  That was some incentive for disturbing a Power Plant Man from their pleasant dreams of adventuring through the Power Plant Kingdom where the rule was always “Might For Right”. — Well, at least that’s what I was dreaming some of the time when the phone rang.

If Black Time wasn’t enough, it was taken a step further when the six hour rule was introduced.  The Six Hour Rule was added fairly early on in the life of the Power Plant and went through a few variations when I was working at the plant.  When it was first introduced, it came across as if someone downtown had made the decision that when someone is disturbed from their sleep during certain hours of their sleep cycle, it directly impacted their safety.  Hence the Six Hour Rule was born.

Originally it worked like this….  The hours of midnight to 6:00 am were considered the prime sleeping hours for Heroic Power Plant Men.  During this time, it was deemed that all Power Plant Men should be tucked in their beds dreaming of ways to work safely during the following day.  Whenever this time period was disturbed, then the Electric Company should provide the loyal Power Plant Man for answering the call of duty during a time of early morning emergency by giving him back the same number of hours in black time so that he could go home and continue his all-important dreams and regeneration.

 

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

So, if I had been called out at one o’clock in the morning to work on something, and it took me two hours to fix it, then I could come into work two hours later in the morning.  The first two hours of my regular work day would be payed as “Black Time”.  — Makes sense… right?  Two hours of work…. Come in two hours late in the morning…. black time…  Easy to calculate.

This provided a pretty good incentive for going out to work in the middle of the night.  First, you would get at least 2 hours of double time.  Second, you would be able to make up for lost sleep by coming in late in the morning without having to lose any pay.  You could also come in at the regular time and leave early in the afternoon if you wanted.

Well… That lasted for a few years, then the rules for the 6 hour rule began to change.  Originally, even if the job was only 15 minutes, the least amount of black time that you would get was 2 hours.  After all, it was an hour of driving for the large majority of the Power Plant Men that lived in a civilized village of more than 50 people.  Later, the Six Hour Rule was changed so that only the actual time worked would count for the six hour rule.

This meant that if I drove all the way out to the plant to work on something that only took 15 minutes, then I could only come in 15 minutes late then next morning, even though I had spent at least an hour and 45 minutes away from my dreams of serving nobly in the Power Plant Palace.  In that case the six hour rule didn’t apply anymore.  I figured that someone who was short-sighted had come up with that idea.  I’ll explain why in a few minutes.

The next phase of the Six Hour Rule came a few years after that…  It was decided that after a person had been called out at night to fight the good fight, as soon as they left the plant, the six hour rule would start counting down.  Let me explain this in a little more detail….

Say, I were called out to work in the middle of the night, and I worked from 1:00 am to 3:00 am (two hours).  Then I left to go home at three.  The hours start counting down so that by 5:00 am, the time I had spent at the plant were no longer valid, and I was expected to show up at work at the regular time. 8:00 am.  Okay.   So, in more and more cases (it would seem), the six hour rule would be made meaningless.

So, with this rule in place, if I was called out at midnight, and worked until 4:00 am, for a total of 4 hours, then by 8:00 am when I was supposed to be back at work all of the four hours would have ticked off and I would have no black time.  I would have to show up at 8:00 am.  See how that was supposed to basically take the six hour rule and make a joke out of  it?  (Or so, someone thought).

As most attempts at being underhanded without actually just coming out and telling us that it was decided that the Honorable Power Plant Men no longer needed their six hours of prime sleeping time to work safely the next day, the opposite effect was the result.  Kind of like raising the minimum wage to help the workers, when you put more people out of work.

When the six hour rule was changed to count down from the time you left the plant, was when I made the most money from the six hour rule.  I racked up loads of black time from this change as well as most Power Plant Men that were called out before Morning Prayers (Lauds).  Here is how and why:

Suppose the phone rings and it is 1 o’clock in the morning.  You decide to answer it and get called out to work on something that takes 15 minutes.  You finish the job some time around 2:15 am (because, after all, you had to drive all the way out to the plant).  What should you do now?  If you go back home and go to bed, then because of the way the 6 hour rule worked, you would certainly have to come back to work at 8 o’clock.  — hmm…  You will still have collected 2 hours of double time.  That’s something.

24 hour clock

24 hour clock

Look at the alternatives.  What if you went to the shop and worked on some other tasks while you were already there?  For Power Plant Maintenance Men, there is always something that needs to be fixed.  You may even ask the Shift Supervisor, “While I’m here, is there anything else you want me to work on?”  Shift Supervisors just love having their own personal maintenance man in the middle of the night eager to help.  There is always something they could find that needs fixing.

So, instead of turning around and going home, invariably, after the 15 minute job was over, I would end up doing other jobs for the Shift Supervisor until morning.  Well, once 6:00 am rolled around, it was really too late to drive home and then wait an hour and drive back.  So, I would just stay until 8.

Now look what happened!  Instead of 2 hours of double time, I worked from 2:00 to 8:00 with all but the last hour at double time, the last hour at time and a half.  That comes to 11 1/2 hours of my base salary.  Compare that to the 4 hours I would have received for 2 hours of double time.

But here is the best part.  8:00 rolls around.  We have our morning meeting.  Since I worked for 4 hours of the special 6 hours from midnight to 6, I get to leave at noon and get paid black time for the rest of the day.

What fun!  Every time the six hour rule was reigned in to reduce black time it produced more black time.  And how was that safer?  The final tweaks to the 6 hour rule before it was basically abolished a few years later came during the fall of 1991.  I’m not saying that this alone was the reason, but in 1992, the Power Plant had the highest Accident Rate since 1983.  Somewhere around 23 accidents.  Given that in 1983, we had 50% more employees, 1991 had a much higher accident rate.

The number of call-outs in the early hours of the morning were not as common as I may have made them out to be.  So, I don’t mean to claim that the change in the six hour rule was ever the cause of even one additional accident.  I studied all the accidents that happened that year, and even though some of them were the result of fatigue, it was usually because they had worked an extra long shift – over 12 hours, and were injured because they were tired.  Not because they were affected by the six hour rule.  The question was never asked if the person had been called out the night before.

Even though (as far as we know, because we never asked the question) the six hour rule changes didn’t directly cause any particular accident that year, it was a symptom of an overarching problem.  A certain apathy toward safety had crept into the plant.  The previous years, we had an excellent safety record.  One of our best years was in 1987.  I believe we had only 3 accidents that entire year.  None of them serious.

I will discuss Safety in various other posts, so I won’t belabor the point now.  The point I wanted to make from this post was that by focusing on the bottom line, or some other performance metric without putting your most important asset first (The Power Plant Man), almost always guarantees the opposite results.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron May 3, 2014

    Another great story. I hadn’t thought of the “6 hour rule” for years. I really appreciated the true power plant workers who would answer the call. If I could do it all over again I think I would have gone to a Vo-Tech school and learned a skill (like machinist). The “6 hour rule” never applied to management. I never received any overtime, ever (start-ups, overhauls, routine emergencies, etc.). And we were responsible for getting those people to come to the plant who didn’t want to. I can show you a hole in the wall at the Seminole Plant today made by a mad operator that I “forced” to work (1982) when he didn’t want to. When he left my office he threw the door open so hard it hit the stop in the floor and flexed until the door knob mashed a hole in the wall. Then he told me “I’m not through with you yet.” He later transferred to Sooner – as a promotion. Oh the joys of management.

    I’m grateful today for the people who still answer the call and keep our power on!

  2. Jonathan Caswell May 3, 2014

    THAT’S HOW THEY WORK IT HERE FOR MAINTENANCE CALL-INS. TOO BAD THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN FOR SECURITY—ALTHO’ I WILL GET OVERTIME HOURS FOR COVERING THIS SHIFT.

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

If you have been following my posts for very long, you may have the idea that I just like to write posts about spiders.  After writing two posts about Spider Wars (see posts:  “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement” and “Power Plant Spider Wars II – The Phantom Menace“), another post about spiders just seems like a bit much.  Even though there is a spider in this story, another appropriate title could be something like “Another night in the Life of a Power Plant Electrician”.  Without further ado, here is the story.

Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma calling.  I don’t remember a time when the Shift Supervisor on the other end of the phone wasn’t very polite.  They knew they were waking someone from their sleep to ask them to drive 30 miles out to the plant in the wee hours of the morning.

The Shift Supervisor, whether it was Joe Gallahar, Jim Padgett, Jack Maloy, or Gary Wright, they would all start out with something like, “Hey, sorry to wake you buddy…”.  After such an apologetic introduction, how could you be upset that your sleep had just been interrupted?  Then they would proceed to tell you why they needed your assistance.  For me, it was usually because the coal dumper had stopped working while a train was dumping their coal.  This meant that 110 cars tied to three or four engines was sitting idle unable to move.

Each car on the train would be dumped one at a time as it was pulled through the rotary dumper.  The process was automated so that the operator in the control room watching out of the window only had to push one switch to dump each car.

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 train would move forward to the next car automatically as a large arm on a machine called a Positioner would come down on the coupling between the cars and pull the entire train forward to the next car.

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

There were so many moving parts involved in positioning the car in place and rolling it over to dump the coal, that it was common for something to go wrong.  When that happened the entire process would come to a halt and the train would just have to sit there until someone came to fix it.  That was usually an electrician since the dumper and the positioner was all controlled by relays much like the elevator controls, only more complicated.

This particular night, Joe Gallahar had called me.  It seemed that there was an intermittent problem with the dumper that didn’t seem to make much sense and they couldn’t figure out why it was acting so strange.  One of the train cars had actually been damaged as the positioner arm would start coming up from the coupling to the point where the holding arm on the other end of the dumper had come up, then the positioner arm began going back down, causing the train to move on it’s own only to have the arm on the positioner scrape the side of the train car as it rolled backward uncontrolled.

Though it was less frequent, it was not so strange to have a train damaged by erratic dumper controls.  I have seen the side of a train car smashed in by the positioner arm when it decided to inappropriately come down.  This night, the problem was acting like that.  So, instead of damaging the train further, they decided to call me out to have a look at it.

I always had the philosophy when being called out in the middle of the night to be just as polite back to the Shift Supervisor when I answered the phone.  I had a Marketing professor at Oklahoma State University named Dr. Lee Manzer, who explained this one day.

Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —

Dr. Manzer told a story in class one day about how he was travelling home one day from a long and difficult trip where everything had gone wrong.  It was very late at night when he arrived at his house (which, incidentally was just down the street from my parent’s house), he was really beat.  He went into his bedroom and began preparing for bed.

About the time he was taking off his tie, his wife rolled over in bed and welcomed him home.  Then she said, “Oh, by the way.  I forgot to buy milk (or maybe it was ice cream).  Do you think you could run down to the store and buy some?”

Dr. Manzer explained his decision making process at that point like this:  “I could either go on a rant and tell my wife what a long and tiring day I had just had and now you are asking me to go buy milk? , and then I would go get the milk.  Or I could say, ‘Of course Dear.  I would be glad to go buy some milk.’  Either way, I was going to go buy the milk.  So, I could do it one of two ways.  I could complain about it or I could be positive.  I could either score points or lose them…. hmm…. Let’s see…. what did I do?  I said, ‘Of course Dear.'”

— End of the side story about Dr. Lee Manzer who by the way was a terrific Marketing Professor.  I understand he still teaches to this day.

So, when Joe Gallahar called me that night, and explained that the dumper was acting all erratic, Instead of saying “Yes Dear.”  as that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I told him, “No problem.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.”  My wife Kelly knew who was on the other end of the phone when she heard my answer.  She had heard it many times before.  I usually only had to say one word after hanging up the phone, “Dumper”, and she knew what that meant.

A Power Plant Electrician’s spouse knows that this is part of the job.  As I pulled on the jeans that I had laid out before I went to bed, Kelly would usually say something in her sleep like, “Be careful”.  I would give her a hug and tell her I’ll be back in a while, even though, sometimes I would be gone for two days working on the precipitator during a start up or some major catastrophe.  Usually, it was just a couple of hours before I came crawling back in bed.

This particular night I drove to work in silence with the window open so that the cool air would keep me awake.  Normally I had the radio on some rock station so that I would be singing along (in my terribly off-key singing voice) in order to stay awake.  Sometimes I would just take the 25 minutes of silence to just think.

My thought that night was that it was nice to be wanted.  There is some comfort in knowing that the Shift Supervisor could call me with enough confidence to know that I would be able to come out on my own and fix a problem that was costing the company a large amount of money each hour the dumper was offline.  Some might think that I would be annoyed to be wakened in the middle of the night to go fix something at the plant.  That night, as most nights I was feeling honored.

That wasn’t always the case, and I’ll soon write a post about another call out in the middle of the night where Scott Hubbard and I wondered exactly why they called us… but that’s another story.

When I arrived at the plant, I rolled my car up to the speaker at the front gate and said, “Hello” with an arrogant English accent.  I don’t know why, but I always liked doing that.  I think it was Billy Epperson who answered back.  I told him I was here to work on the dumper.  He thanked me and opened the gate and I drove the 1/2 mile down the hill to the plant parking lot.  As I went over hill, in the moonlight I could see the train up at the coal yard looking like a long silver snake.

I walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a truck key off of the hook and drove around to the electric shop to pick up my hard hat and tool bucket.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

I took the long way around to the coal yard since the train blocked the shortest route.  We had a tunnel on the west end of the coal yard that went under the tracks for just this occasion.

When I arrived at the dumper, Stanley Robbins explained that he had tried troubleshooting this problem himself, but he couldn’t find anything that would explain the strange behavior.  Since the last downsizing, we were all able to sort of mix our skills so that an operator could do simple electric tasks if they felt comfortable with it.  Stanley knew enough to fix your normal minor dumper issues.  This one was a little different.

Since I had been an electrician for the past 15 years at this point, I felt pretty confident that I would quickly find the problem and be heading back home soon.  So, I walked into the dumper switchgear where the dumper controls are found.  I asked Stanley to go turn on the power to the dumper so that I could watch the relays.  When the power was on, I began tracing the circuits looking for the point of failure.

The problem was intermittent, and when Stanley started the dumper back up, everything seemed to be working just fine.  Stanley explained that this was why they couldn’t use the dumper because they couldn’t be sure when it was going to malfunction.  They had even uncoupled the train and pulled it apart right where the positioner arm was so that I could see what was happening.

Using radios (walkie talkies), I asked Stanley to move the positioner arm up and down while I checked it.  He lowered it and raised it back up without any problem.  When he began lowering it the second time, it suddenly stopped halfway down.  Watching the controls, I could see that it indicated that it had come all the way down.  It would be this case that would tell the holding arm on the far side of the dumper to go back up, which is what happened when the train rolled back earlier that night.

Then the relays rattled like they were picking up and dropping out rapidly.  Then the problem cleared up again.  Somehow the positioner arm had thought it had come down on the car clamps when it was still up in the air.  That was not likely to happen because when something fails it usually doesn’t see what it’s supposed to see, not the other way around.  It doesn’t usually see something that isn’t there.

So, I had Stanley lower the positioner arm down so that it was level with the ground, so that I could check the connections to the electric eye that was on the positioner clamp that detected the train car clamp when it came down.  I couldn’t find any lose connections or anything that would explain it.

So I told Stanley that I was going to look up from under the car clamp to look at the electric eye.  So, I asked him to kill the power to the positioner so that it wouldn’t move while I was doing that and crush me like a bug.  Kneeling on the train track, I took my flashlight and looked up at the electric eye from under the car clamp, and this is what I saw:

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

This spider had built a spider web in front of the electric eye on the positioner and was sitting right in the middle causing the positioner to think it was down on the car clamp when it wasn’t.  Stanley was watching me from the window of the dumper control room when he saw me stand up quickly and look up at him with a big grin on my face.  I gave him a thumbs up.

You know the phrase, “Everyone has 10 minutes of fame….”  It indicates that some time in most people’s lives they are famous for a brief moment.  It may or may not define the rest of their life.  Well.  This was that spiders claim to fame.  This one spider had successfully stranded a coal train with 110 cars of coal.  A train crew, a coal yard operator, and one lone electrician that had traveled 30 miles to watch it act out it’s drama of catching gnats on it’s web being constantly watched by one large electric eye.

I did not drive home in silence that early morning.  I laughed out loud all the way home.  I still laugh to myself to this day when I think about this night.  Phrases like, “Isn’t life wonderful” comes to my mind.  Or “Even Spiders desire attention every now and then.”  Could there have been a better malfunction than to have a spider dancing in front of an electric eye out in the plains of Oklahoma saying, “Look at me!  Look at me!”  and by golly.  Someone did!  I’m just glad it was me.

Suppressing the Truth about Power Plant Coal Dust Collection

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

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

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

Jimmie Moore

Jimmie Moore

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

Power Plant after a coal dust explosion

Power Plant after a coal dust explosion

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

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

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

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

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

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

Dust Collector System

Dust Collector System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a small Power Plant potentiometer like this

a small Power Plant potentiometer like this

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

Tim Crain

Tim Crain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arch Environmental

Arch Environmental

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

Dust Shark by Arch Environmental

Dust Shark by Arch Environmental

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

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

The first is about Danny Cain.

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

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

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

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

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

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

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

PLC Training Certificate

PLC Training Certificate

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

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

MicroLogix PLC like we were programming

MicroLogix PLC like we were programming

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

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

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

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

Power Plant Feather Duster

Power Plant Feather Duster

When Power Plant Durability and Automation Goes Too Far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A picture from Shutterstock of a locomotive pulling a coal train

A picture from Shutterstock of a locomotive pulling a coal train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Caboose

A Caboose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a short story of durability…

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

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

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

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

Old Power Drill

Old Power Drill

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

new variable speed reversible drill

new variable speed reversible drill

Comments from original post:

 

Ron October 12, 2013:

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

devin October 12, 2013:

It takes about 7 hrs to dump 150 car train

Bruce Kime October 12, 2013:

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

 

NEO October 12, 2013:

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

Jack Curtis November 3, 2013:

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

Suppressing the Truth about Power Plant Coal Dust Collection

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

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

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

Jimmie Moore

Jimmie Moore

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

Power Plant after a coal dust explosion

Power Plant after a coal dust explosion

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

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

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

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

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

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

Dust Collector System

Dust Collector System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a small Power Plant potentiometer like this

a small Power Plant potentiometer like this

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

Tim Crain

Tim Crain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arch Environmental

Arch Environmental

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

Dust Shark by Arch Environmental

Dust Shark by Arch Environmental

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

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

The first is about Danny Cain.

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

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

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

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

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

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

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

PLC Training Certificate

PLC Training Certificate

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

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

MicroLogix PLC like we were programming

MicroLogix PLC like we were programming

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

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

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

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

Power Plant Feather Duster

Power Plant Feather Duster

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 his 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 memerable 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 pullcord 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.

Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules

Originally posted May 2, 2014:

Last week I mentioned in the post “Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes” that Jim Padgett called me at 2:15 am one morning to tell me that the coal dumper was broken and he needed for me to come out to the plant to work on it.  You may have wondered why a plant electrician living in North Central Oklahoma would answer the phone in the middle of the night when it most certainly meant that they would have to crawl out of bed and go to work to fix something that was broken.  Why not just roll over and pretend that the phone never rang?

You see… I knew when the phone rang that it was the power plant, because in the 20 years that I worked at the plant, just about every time the phone rang after midnight it meant that I would have to get dressed, and drive 30 miles to the plant to work on something that was most likely going to be in a dusty dirty place.  You could always count on the coal train dumper switchgear being covered with coal dust.  That was the usual point of failure past the “witching hour”.

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

I suppose I could say there were two reasons why a Power Plant Man would answer the phone.  One was that they were just all around nice guys and they wanted to help out any chance they could.  The other reason was because of the pay.

Even though working at the power plant was perhaps one of the best jobs in the neighborhood (being the only job in the neighborhood, since the plant ground consisted of its own neighborhood out in the middle of nowhere), that didn’t mean that the pay was especially lucrative.  That is, if a Power Plant Man had to rely on their base pay alone.  So, in order to help the Brave Men and Women of Power Plant Fame pay their bills, many opportunities were provided for working overtime.

Think about this.  What if, when I answered the call to save the day (uh… I mean the night) and spent 35 minutes driving out to the plant only to fix the problem in fifteen minutes?  Then I would spend another 35 minutes driving back home with my clothes all full of coal dust, only to be paid a measly 15 minutes of over time?  Even at double time, that would only be 30 minutes of pay.  That would hardly cover the gas and the laundry soap.

Early in the life of this particular plant, it became apparent that something had to be done to motivate the heroic masters of Power Plant Maintenance to make the long lonely drive down Highway 177 at the wee hours of the morning.  So, certain methods were devised to coax the restful souls to the phones when they rang.  Once they answered the phone, then sheer guilt was enough to drag them out of the sack.  It was that moment when the phone first began to ring, before the reasoning part of the brain kicked in and the more base reflexes such as those that were out to make an extra buck reacted instinctively that needed to be targeted.

So “Black Time” was introduced to the plant.  Black time had probably been around long before the plant came into existence, but it came in handy when someone had to be called out in the middle of the night.  Black time was the time that a person would be paid even though they didn’t actually work during that time.  So, when a Power Plant Man was called out in the middle of the night, they would be guaranteed at least two hours of overtime even though they may only work for 15 minutes.

This would help defray the cost of gas and time for driving both ways to and from the plant.  Anything from 7:30 pm to 7:00 am  was paid as double-time.  That is two times the normal base salary.  So, two hours at double time came out to four hours of pay, or as much pay as someone would make for half of a day at work.  That was some incentive for disturbing a Power Plant Man from their pleasant dreams of adventuring through the Power Plant Kingdom where the rule was always “Might For Right”. — Well, at least that’s what I was dreaming some of the time when the phone rang.

If Black Time wasn’t enough, it was taken a step further when the six hour rule was introduced.  The Six Hour Rule was added fairly early on in the life of the Power Plant and went through a few variations when I was working at the plant.  When it was first introduced, it came across as if someone downtown had made the decision that when someone is disturbed from their sleep during certain hours of their sleep cycle, it directly impacted their safety.  Hence the Six Hour Rule was born.

Originally it worked like this….  The hours of midnight to 6:00 am were considered the prime sleeping hours for Heroic Power Plant Men.  During this time, it was deemed that all Power Plant Men should be tucked in their beds dreaming of ways to work safely during the following day.  Whenever this time period was disturbed, then the Electric Company should provide the loyal Power Plant Man for answering the call of duty during a time of early morning emergency by giving him back the same number of hours in black time so that he could go home and continue his all-important dreams and regeneration.

 

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

So, if I had been called out at one o’clock in the morning to work on something, and it took me two hours to fix it, then I could come into work two hours later in the morning.  The first two hours of my regular work day would be payed as “Black Time”.  — Makes sense… right?  Two hours of work…. Come in two hours late in the morning…. black time…  Easy to calculate.

This provided a pretty good incentive for going out to work in the middle of the night.  First, you would get at least 2 hours of double time.  Second, you would be able to make up for lost sleep by coming in late in the morning without having to lose any pay.  You could also come in at the regular time and leave early in the afternoon if you wanted.

Well… That lasted for a few years, then the rules for the 6 hour rule began to change.  Originally, even if the job was only 15 minutes, the least amount of black time that you would get was 2 hours.  After all, it was an hour of driving for the large majority of the Power Plant Men that lived in a civilized village of more than 50 people.  Later, the Six Hour Rule was changed so that only the actual time worked would count for the six hour rule.

This meant that if I drove all the way out to the plant to work on something that only took 15 minutes, then I could only come in 15 minutes late then next morning, even though I had spent at least an hour and 45 minutes away from my dreams of serving nobly in the Power Plant Palace.  In that case the six hour rule didn’t apply anymore.  I figured that someone who was short-sighted had come up with that idea.  I’ll explain why in a few minutes.

The next phase of the Six Hour Rule came a few years after that…  It was decided that after a person had been called out at night to fight the good fight, as soon as they left the plant, the six hour rule would start counting down.  Let me explain this in a little more detail….

Say, I were called out to work in the middle of the night, and I worked from 1:00 am to 3:00 am (two hours).  Then I left to go home at three.  The hours start counting down so that by 5:00 am, the time I had spent at the plant were no longer valid, and I was expected to show up at work at the regular time. 8:00 am.  Okay.   So, in more and more cases (it would seem), the six hour rule would be made meaningless.

So, with this rule in place, if I was called out at midnight, and worked until 4:00 am, for a total of 4 hours, then by 8:00 am when I was supposed to be back at work all of the four hours would have ticked off and I would have no black time.  I would have to show up at 8:00 am.  See how that was supposed to basically take the six hour rule and make a joke out of  it?  (Or so, someone thought).

As most attempts at being underhanded without actually just coming out and telling us that it was decided that the Honorable Power Plant Men no longer needed their six hours of prime sleeping time to work safely the next day, the opposite effect was the result.  Kind of like raising the minimum wage to help the workers, when you put more people out of work.

When the six hour rule was changed to count down from the time you left the plant, was when I made the most money from the six hour rule.  I racked up loads of black time from this change as well as most Power Plant Men that were called out before Morning Prayers (Lauds).  Here is how and why:

Suppose the phone rings and it is 1 o’clock in the morning.  You decide to answer it and get called out to work on something that takes 15 minutes.  You finish the job some time around 2:15 am (because, after all, you had to drive all the way out to the plant).  What should you do now?  If you go back home and go to bed, then because of the way the 6 hour rule worked, you would certainly have to come back to work at 8 o’clock.  — hmm…  You will still have collected 2 hours of double time.  That’s something.

24 hour clock

24 hour clock

Look at the alternatives.  What if you went to the shop and worked on some other tasks while you were already there?  For Power Plant Maintenance Men, there is always something that needs to be fixed.  You may even ask the Shift Supervisor, “While I’m here, is there anything else you want me to work on?”  Shift Supervisors just love having their own personal maintenance man in the middle of the night eager to help.  There is always something they could find that needs fixing.

So, instead of turning around and going home, invariably, after the 15 minute job was over, I would end up doing other jobs for the Shift Supervisor until morning.  Well, once 6:00 am rolled around, it was really too late to drive home and then wait an hour and drive back.  So, I would just stay until 8.

Now look what happened!  Instead of 2 hours of double time, I worked from 2:00 to 8:00 with all but the last hour at double time, the last hour at time and a half.  That comes to 11 1/2 hours of my base salary.  Compare that to the 4 hours I would have received for 2 hours of double time.

But here is the best part.  8:00 rolls around.  We have our morning meeting.  Since I worked for 4 hours of the special 6 hours from midnight to 6, I get to leave at noon and get paid black time for the rest of the day.

What fun!  Every time the six hour rule was reigned in to reduce black time it produced more black time.  And how was that safer?  The final tweaks to the 6 hour rule before it was basically abolished a few years later came during the fall of 1991.  I’m not saying that this alone was the reason, but in 1992, the Power Plant had the highest Accident Rate since 1983.  Somewhere around 23 accidents.  Given that in 1983, we had 50% more employees, 1991 had a much higher accident rate.

The number of call-outs in the early hours of the morning were not as common as I may have made them out to be.  So, I don’t mean to claim that the change in the six hour rule was ever the cause of even one additional accident.  I studied all the accidents that happened that year, and even though some of them were the result of fatigue, it was usually because they had worked an extra long shift – over 12 hours, and were injured because they were tired.  Not because they were affected by the six hour rule.

Even though the six hour rule changes didn’t directly cause any particular accident that year, it was a symptom of an overarching problem.  A certain apathy toward safety had crept into the plant.  The previous years, we had an excellent safety record.  One of our best years was in 1987.  I believe we had only 3 accidents that entire year.  None of them serious.

I will discuss Safety in various other posts, so I won’t belabor the point now.  The point I wanted to make from this post was that by focusing on the bottom line, or some other performance metric without putting your most important asset first (The Power Plant Man), almost always guarantees the opposite results.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron May 3, 2014

    Another great story. I hadn’t thought of the “6 hour rule” for years. I really appreciated the true power plant workers who would answer the call. If I could do it all over again I think I would have gone to a Vo-Tech school and learned a skill (like machinist). The “6 hour rule” never applied to management. I never received any overtime, ever (start-ups, overhauls, routine emergencies, etc.). And we were responsible for getting those people to come to the plant who didn’t want to. I can show you a hole in the wall at the Seminole Plant today made by a mad operator that I “forced” to work (1982) when he didn’t want to. When he left my office he threw the door open so hard it hit the stop in the floor and flexed until the door knob mashed a hole in the wall. Then he told me “I’m not through with you yet.” He later transferred to Sooner – as a promotion. Oh the joys of management.

    I’m grateful today for the people who still answer the call and keep our power on!

  2. Jonathan Caswell May 3, 2014

    THAT’S HOW THEY WORK IT HERE FOR MAINTENANCE CALL-INS. TOO BAD THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN FOR SECURITY—ALTHO’ I WILL GET OVERTIME HOURS FOR COVERING THIS SHIFT.