I began writing this blog more than three years ago in order to share some of the stories about the great Power Plant Men and Women that I was privileged to work with for twenty years at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I have put the men and women of this plant on a well-deserved pedestal. Don’t just take my word for it. The rest of the world had their eyes fixed on our plant. Of the 700 Coal-fired Power Plants operating in the United States, there was one that stood out above all the rest. It was no wonder to me.
The Power Plant had been told that in 1995 our plant had the lowest operating and maintenance cost of any fossil fueled Power Plant in the United States. This included the cost for the fuel, which was coal being transported from Wyoming on trains. The second lowest operating Power Plant was our sister plant in Muskogee. After that was a plant in Texas that happened to sit on coal mine, and didn’t have the cost of shipping their coal 1,000 miles before they burned it.
The company was so proud of our achievements that they gave each of us a Jean Jacket with our names embroidered on it. On the upper right it said, “1995 Low Cost Award”.
I don’t do Selfies, that’s why I draped this over a chair.
A couple of years later, we were again awarded as the low cost provider of electricity in the country. This time they gave us Denim shirts. Okies like Denim… I guess you could tell. The cuff on the sleeve says, “1997 Sooner Power Plant Model Of Cost Efficiency”.
In the spring of 1998 (someone can correct me on the year), a plant manager, Mark Draper from England came to our plant to study us. He wanted to see how a group of 124 employees could run a plant the size of a small city as efficiently as we did. Throughout the year he worked on various teams to see how we operated. He wanted to learn our secret. The plant was willing to share everything with Mark.
Mark would spend a month working as a welder, then another month working as an Instrument and Controls Technician, then another in the machine shop. He continued throughout the year bouncing from job to job watching and learning. He spent a lot of time working with the Engineers. I kept waiting for him to work as an electrician.
I had our second biggest secret just waiting to show to Mark, but it seems that it never occurred to Mark that electricians had something to offer to the efficiency of the Power Plant. Because during the twelve months Mark spent at our plant, he never worked as an electrician.
The first biggest secret came in the form of an Engineer named Larry Kuennen. He had studied the way the coal burned in the boiler and had come up with ways to increase the efficiency. I’m sure Mark learned a lot from working with Larry.
I kept itching for the day that Mark Draper ended up working out of the electric shop. I was going to take him on a tour and show him how we were saving a huge amount of electricity at our plant in a way that is totally overlooked by everyone else. Without this secret, there would be no way we would have been the low cost provider of electricity. I think at the time our plant could create electricity at a rate around 1.5 cents per killowatthour (someone at the plant can correct me. It has been a while and I may be confusing this with the percent cost of IT by revenue at Dell).
Before I tell you about the report that Mark Draper gave us at the end of his year of studying the heman habits of Oklahoma Power Plant Men, let me expand on the way the electricians had increased the efficiency of the power plant. It has to do with what a foreman, Mark Fielder would refer to as “My Baby.” The precipitator.
The Precipitator is the piece of equipment that uses more power than just about everything else at the plant combined. It takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack. That is why you don’t see smoke coming out of the smoke stack on a coal-fired Power Plant when it’s running. When a precipitator is running efficiently, it should be able to take out 99.97% of the ash from the exhaust from the boiler.
The amount of ash going out of the smoke stack is measured by opacity. That is, how much does the particles in the exhaust block a ray of light shining across the stack. We tried to keep the opacity below 5%. I think we legally had to keep it below 20%, but anything above 8% didn’t look good when you drove by the plant. You would be able to see the smoke.
The precipitator at our plant used Static electricity to collect the ash. Like I said, it used a lot of electricity. Megawatts of power. The secret is that Static electricity shouldn’t use much power. Practically none. If you calculated the work that actually had to be done, it was miniscule compared to running a conveyor or a big fan or a bowl mill. This meant that 90% or more of the electricity used by an Electrostatic precipitator is wasted energy. It is leaking, and in many cases actually working against collecting the ash. A fine tuned electrostatic precipitator shouldn’t use much electricity.
We had found a number of ways at our plant to manipulate the electric pulse used to charge the plates in the precipitator in order to reduce the wasted electricity. When everything ran correctly, when the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator could have an opacity close to 0% using less than 100 Kilowatts (yes. I said Kilowatts) of power. This was so unheard of that the company that manufactured our controls refused to believe it even when they were standing in the Precipitator Control Room watching it operate.
To put this in perspective. One winter day, while I was tuning the precipitator, the space heaters in the Precipitator control room was using more power to heat the room than the entire precipitator was using to remove the ash at full load. The opacity was almost 0%.
Another side story about this is that at one point, the opacity monitor was measuring a negative 0.2%. Tony Mena, the Instrument and Controls Technician worked on calibrating the monitor. He would take it to the logic room and set it up on some stands there that had the same measurements as the stack. No matter how many times he calibrated the monitor, he was still coming out with -.1 or -.2% when he hooked it up to the smoke stack. The final conclusion was that the precipitator was operating so efficiently that the exhaust going out of the smoke stack was cleaner than the ambient air. — I know… I know… impossible… right?
I’ll admit, it wasn’t just the manipulation of the electric pulse, it was also sensitive to the temperature of the exhaust and the amount of sulfur in the coal. We burned Wyoming coal which has a very low amount of sulfur. This made it more challenging.
I couldn’t wait to show this to Mark Draper, the UK Plant Manager. This was my baby, and I was proud of it. Only, Mark never showed up.
One day I saw a man with a clipboard walking around the precipitator hoppers writing something down as he studied them. So, I walked up to him. I could tell right away that he was someone from England that had come as part of Mark Drapers crew of spectators. I asked him if he was interested in learning how we ran our precipitators.
I thought, maybe this is someone who is finally interested in how we save tons of money in operating cost each year by not wasting it on the precipitator. He was an engineer taking notes on our ash transport system. He wasn’t interested in how we operated the controls. He said in England they just throw the switch and power up the precipitator to full power and let it go at that. — A total waste of power and it’s less efficient. I couldn’t even convince him to take a walk through the control cabinets just to see the voltage and amp meters.
Oh well, I thought… This would just be our plant’s little secret. No one else seems to want to know about it.
At the end of the year during our monthly safety meeting, Mark Draper gave us a report of his findings. He went through a lot of bullet points in a PowerPoint Presentation. — Yeah. We were beginning to get fancy with the computers around that time.
The first thing that Mark brought up was this…. He said that there was no way he was going to be able to go back to England and repeat what he had learned here. The reason was that the Fine Power Plant Men and Women at our plant came to work each day and began working at 8:00. They took close to a 20 minute break in the morning and in the afternoon. They took a 40 minute lunch (Breaks were technically 15 minutes and lunch was 30, but…. you know how it is… you have to stretch them a little). He explained that at our plant, we had about 6 and a half hours each day of productive time. 6-1/2 hours of actually working on something.
In England, this was impossible. When the workers arrived at the plant in England, they took a long time getting ready for work. They took longer breaks and longer lunches, and at the end of the day, they would take a long time to take a shower and clean up. Almost and hour to clean up at the end of the day. In England they were lucky when they were able to get 4 hours of actual work out of their workers. Because of union agreements and such, they were helpless to change this culture.
Mark was impressed at the amount of pride people took doing their jobs. I will paraphrase what Mark told us: He could tell that the Oklahoma Power Plant Men and Women wanted to do a good job. They received satisfaction by applying their skills to their work. In England, the attitude of the worker was more like this was just a job. Their real satisfaction in life was when they left the plant. In Oklahoma, when the Power Plant Men left the plant, they left with more of a feeling of pride over doing a good job.
Mark did offer us some advice on how we could better ourselves. He did give us his honest opinion about some things that he thought we might do better. They sounded more like they were coming from his Plant Manager training than from his experience at our plant.
As Mark never did work with the electricians, I was never able to work with him. Others who did, found Mark to be very friendly. I know that some also kept in touch with him long after he left to go back to England. I missed the opportunity to befriend Mark. I wish I had.
Mark Draper must have had a tremendous amount of character to be able to persuade those in England that he should take off an entire year to go work at a Power Plant in Oklahoma U.S.A.. Just think of the commitment he was making to leave his home for a year to go work alongside skilled labor in another country.
I didn’t know Mark personally like a lot of the other Power Plant Men did, but after I originally posted this post (yesterday), a Control Room Operator, Jim Cave who knew Mark better told these stories to me:
Mark told me that he wanted to live a normal American life while in the states. Bill Green had bought him a gift of an outdoor grill. The first opportunity that he had to use it he told me that he grilled the family some burgers and then they all went and sat in the car and ate them!
He also went and bought some American jeans so he would blend in with the workers. He caught all kinds of grief from the guys when they noticed his jeans didn’t have any back pockets! His wife had to go back to the store and buy him some “guy” pants.
He WAS a very nice and very smart guy. The cultural differences were interesting. He came into the control room one day asking me for “a pair of steps”. We had no idea that he wanted a ladder.
Mark did make sense when he said that what he saw at our plant he would not be able to reproduce in England. The truth was that what Mark saw at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was something that few plants in the United States could reproduce. I have been attempting to make this point each week for the past 3 years.
There was something very special at this Power Plant during the 20 years when I worked there. Something you are not going to find just anywhere. The plant housed a collection of some of the most fantastic minds and personalities on the planet. They had somehow all come together to perform a team that not only produced the “Model of Cost Efficiency” as it said on our shirts, but had also created a group of extraordinary teamwork.
Whenever I sat in a meeting like the Monthly Safety Meeting, where the entire maintenance department was present, as I looked around the room, I honestly could see that for the most part we were more of a family than we were employees. I was lucky to have been invited to be a part of this family. Kudos to you all.
The electric company in Oklahoma decided late 1995 that it was about time that the employees in the company learn about the Internet. The company recognized that the vast amount of information on the Internet was very useful and encouraged everyone to start using it. A request form was available to request access to various features the Internet provided and with your Foreman’s approval, all you had to do was take a short course in Internet Etiquette and you were in (well almost). The problem with this effort was that no one bothered to teach Plant Management about the Internet, so the “Quest for the Internet” was about to begin.
As the leading computer geek at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma I had been accessing the Internet for years. I had used CompuServe and Telnet to log into the Internet before Internet Browsers and World Wide Web (WWW) were available.
I thought it was a great idea for everyone to use the Internet, so when Alan Kramer gave us the form it didn’t take long before I filled it out. Sounds pretty simple….. but unfortunately, after a short misstep on my part, a six month battle was about to begin.
The form was simple enough, you just needed to check the boxes for which part of the Internet you needed to access, and after your foreman signed it, you mailed it to Corporate Headquarters, where you would be scheduled to attend a two hour course on how to properly use the Internet in a business setting. The form was written in a curious way that sort of indicated to me that not a lot of thought had been put into it. It was either that, or the person that created the form didn’t understand the Internet very well. Here’s why:
The different parts of the Internet that you could check that you wanted to access were these: WWW, e-mail, Telnet, NewsGroups, FTP. The World Wide Web (WWW) had yet to become popular. The number of Web sites on the Internet was still less than 250,000. Compare that to today where there is almost 1 billion websites.
Well, e-mail…. you know what that is. Telnet was the usual way I had accessed the Internet for years. I would log in through the Oklahoma State University computer using Telnet, and from there I had access to almost all of the University computers in the country as well as a lot of the Government computers. You could actually print out pages and pages of all the computers on the Internet at the time using a simple seek command.
For those of you who don’t know… Before MySpace and Facebook, NewsGroups were used to communicate to people who had similar interests. They were sort of small blog sites.
On a side note:
I was a member of a number of work related NewsGroups. One NewsGroup that I was active in was for Precipitators. There were about 50 people from all over the world in this group and we all were obsessed with working on precipitators. As it turned out, two of us lived in Stillwater Oklahoma. The other guy worked for a company called Nomadics that made bomb sniffing detectors called Fido. They had a tiny precipitator that collected the particles. We were on the opposite sides of the spectrum. We had a 70 foot tall, 200 foot wide and 100 foot long precipitator, where his precipitator was tiny. I thought a few times about applying for a job with them since they were only 4 miles from my house, but, since I wasn’t an engineer I didn’t think I had a chance of being hired. Besides, what is better than working at a Power plant?
End of Side Note.
FTP, the last item on the list stands for File Transport Protocol. This is how you downloaded or uploaded files after you have used Telnet to connect to a site.
I’m sorry I’m boring you with all this, but I’m explaining them for a reason. You see… I’m getting to the part where I made my “misstep”. Maybe it was meant to happen this way, because in the end, everything worked out better than it probably would have if I had just been a little more patient…. Here’s what I did…
After checking each of the boxes, next to WWW, Telnet, NewsGroup, e-mail and FTP, I went to the foremen’s office to have Alan Kramer sign the form so that I could mail it off to Corporate Headquarters. When I arrived, Alan was gone. He had left early that day for some reason, so I walked into Jasper Christensen’s office, our Supervisor of Maintenance and asked him to sign it. Big mistake.
I wrote a post recently about Jasper’s lack of computer knowledge and how I had goaded him for making a dumb computer decision, (see the post “Power Plant Trouble With Angels“). When I handed him the form, he glanced at it, and I could see the blank look on his face indicating that he didn’t understand the different terms such as Telnet, FTP and e-mail or WWW. He might have thought he knew what NewsGroups were, but most likely that would have been incorrect.
So, instead of signing the paper, he said, he would review it and get back to me. Well…. that was unexpected. The company was encouraging us to use the Internet, so I figured it was pretty much a slam dunk. From past experience I knew that Jasper was reluctant to approve anything that he didn’t fully understand, which makes some things difficult.
During the “We’ve Got the Power” Program (See the Post: “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got the Power’ Program“) I tried to elicit an approval from Jasper about a simple example of Thermodynamics that I thought was cut and dry, especially since Jasper was the Engineering Supervisor at the time. Even though I had a sound argument about how heat dissipates in the Air Preheater, he would never say that he would agree. Only that he understood what I was saying. So, when Jasper said that he would “get back to me on this” I knew what that meant. He was going to try to find out what these different things were.
Two weeks later, Alan Kramer told me that Jasper had decided not to approve my request for Internet access. Somewhat peeved, I went into Jasper’s office and asked him why he wouldn’t approve my request. He responded with, “Give me reasons in writing why you need each of these items on this form.” — Oh. I figured that out right away. He had tried to find out what these things meant, but (without the Internet), it was hard to find the answers. So, he was asking me to tell him what these were.
So, I went back to the Electric Shop office and I wrote a full page paper outlining what each item was (WWW, Telnet, NewsGroups, FTP and e-mail). I also explained why I was requesting access to each of these. For Telnet and FTP, one of the reasons I used was that I would Telnet into the OSHA computer and download MSDS’s (Material Safety Data Sheets) for chemicals we had at our plant. The operators had asked me a number of times if I could give them a copy of an MSDS for chemicals. It is a requirement to keep an MSDS for every chemical on the plant site, and I could easily download them from the OSHA.gov computer.
When I gave my explanation to Jasper, he said he would study it and get back to me later. Two weeks later, Jasper called me to his office and said that during a staff meeting they had discussed my request for Internet access and they had decided that I didn’t need access to the Internet to do my job. They had also decided that the only thing on the list that anyone at the plant needed was e-mail and only Jim Arnold (The Supervisor of Operations) and Summer Goebel (The head engineer) needed e-mail. No one else at the plant needed anything else. — You can see why I used phrases like “Another Brilliant Idea” when describing some of Jasper’s Management decisions. Only two people at the plant needed e-mail… . Sounds funny today, huh?
A few months later, in March 1996, I was sent to Oklahoma City to learn how to install the SAP client on desktop computers. The way I was chosen was that someone downtown called each of the Power Plants and other offices and asked the receptionist who the computer geek was at the plant. Denise Anson, our receptionist gave them my name. We were supposed to change our entire financial, inventory, maintenance, and billing system over to SAP at the end of the year from our mainframe computer system. SAP is called an ERP system or Enterprise Resource Planning system. It combines almost all the computer activities in a company into one package where everything is accessible in one application.
I will go into the implementation of SAP in more detail in later posts, but for now, I was just learning about installing the client application on the computers at our plant. There were a number of steps to the installation, and a lot of times it would fail. So, they gave us some troubleshooting tips and asked us to share any tips we came up with while we were doing this task.
When I returned to the plant, I went about installing SAP on each of the computers. I think we had 22 computers all together. Anyway, during this time, I was thinking that after 3 months, I would resubmit my request for the Internet, since after all, now everyone had e-mail since we had installed a computer network at the plant with Novell’s Netware. It was obvious that we were progressing into the computer age with or without the plant staff.
So, I filled out another request form, and even before asking I wrote up another page of reasons why I could use each of the items on the form. One new reason was that the Thomas Register was now online. This was a large set of books that had information about every supplier and vendor in the United States (and beyond). It was used to find phone number, addresses and other fun stuff about vendors. A set of books could cost $5,000.00 each and you had to buy them every couple of years to keep them current.
I didn’t even need to waste my time writing out my reasons. When I gave the form to Alan, he signed it immediately and handed it back to me. I thanked him and mailed it off. A couple of weeks later I received a note through intra-company mail that I was signed up for an Internet class in Oklahoma City. Since I had been in trouble before with going to classes in Oklahoma City, I made sure I didn’t charge any driving time expenses to go to the class.
The lady who was teaching the class knew who I was, because she had worked with me before on computer issues at the plant. It was a simple course on computer ettiquette, how the Internet worked and things we should and should not do on the Internet. At the end of the course, we were told that someone would come by our desk and install the Internet on our computers. — Well, our plant was 75 miles away and I knew that it was rare to have someone from the Computer Department come out to our plant, so I didn’t expect anything soon.
It was now the summer of 1996. I was driving down to the river pumps to clean motor filters with Charles Foster when Denise Anson called me on my radio and said that a guy from the SAP team was calling me. I asked her to patch the call to my Walkie Talkie, and she did.
It was the guy from Corporate Headquarters leading the effort to install all the client applications on the computers. He said they were going to have another meeting because everyone was having so much trouble with the installation. I told him that I had already successfully installed the client on all of the computers at the plant except for one, and that was because it was an old junky one that needed to be re-imaged.
The guy was surprised that we were already finished and said that our site was the first site in the company to complete the installation. Then he said, “If there is ANYTHING I can do for you, just let me know!” I glanced over at Charles who was driving the truck and could hear our conversation over the radio, and smiled.
I said, “There’s one thing. You see. Our plant is out here in the middle of no where. I have completed the Internet training course, but we are so far away that no one ever comes around that would install the Internet on my computer, so if you could send me the files, I’ll install it myself.” He replied, “Sure Thing Buddy! I’ll share a folder where you can go pick up the files.”
After installing the files, I realized that it was just an Internet Explorer browser. We were using Windows 3.2 at this time. After opening the browser and playing around with it for a while, I realized that there wasn’t any control around my username. That is, anyone could come into our office and log on our computer and use the browser. Then we found out that you didn’t even have to log on first. The Internet was wide open. There were no real controls around the use of the Internet. The only control was just the lack of a browser on the computer!
So, here is what I did next. I went to every computer at the plant (except the staff’s computers) and installed the Internet Explorer browser on them. At each computer, I gave the Power Plant Men the same course I had taken downtown. I told them what they should do and what they shouldn’t. I showed them how the browser worked, and how to setup shortcuts, and other things. Before long every Power Plant Man and Woman at the plant was cruising the Internet except the staff…. After all… they had decided that all they needed was e-mail and only for Summer Goebel and Jim Arnold.
A few weeks after I had taught all the Power Plant Men at the plant how to use the Internet, Jasper Christensen’s voice came over the radio…. “Kevin! I want to see you in my office right away!”. Okay. The gig was up. I recognized that tone of voice from Jasper. The showdown was about to begin. I was about to be chewed out for making the Internet available to everyone. Maybe even fired. I didn’t know how upset he was going to be when he found out.
As I walked from the Electric Shop to the far corner of the Maintenance Shop to Jasper’s office, I articulated in my mind what I would say. I had decided that the best defense was to explain that all I did was install the Internet browser on the computers. I didn’t have access to actually grant anyone access to the Internet. If everyone has access to the Internet, it isn’t because I gave them access. — This was true.
I took a deep breath just before entering Jasper’s office. I went in his office with the most straight face I could muster. “Here it comes,” I thought…. the six month battle for the Internet is coming to a head. Jasper said, “I want to ask you a question about the Internet.” Trying not to choke on my words and looking as if I was interested by cocking my head a little, I replied, “Yeah? What is it?” I was conscious of my thumb hanging in my right front pocket.
Then Jasper picked up a magazine sitting on his desk and said, “There is this article in this engineering magazine, and it has this website that you can visit. How would I go to that site?” — Oh my Gosh!!!! I wanted to laugh out loud with joy! I wasn’t about to be chewed out at all. He just wanted the computer geek to show him how to use the Internet browser that had been recently installed on his computer!
Jasper obviously hadn’t taken the Internet course, otherwise he would know where the address bar is at the top…… So, I said, “Let me show you.” I walked over to his computer and walked him through each step of the process. When we were done, he turned to look at me and smiled. He said, “Thank you.” I said, “Anytime. Just let me know if you have any other questions.” I turned and walked out of the office.
As I walked back to the Electric Shop Office, I met Charles Foster who wanted to know how it went, as he had heard Jasper call me on the radio. I told him that the battle for the Internet was now over. Jasper has now become a “user”. Life was good.
Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend. It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened. We have a natural tendency to worship something. It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water. I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed. August 5, 1996.
The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant. It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer. Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance. The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual. It must have been a cloudy morning.
We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant. It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant. We weren’t really sure what we had seen. It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.
There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual. there was a guard or an operator standing out there. He waved us through the gate. about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot. It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.
The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks. They seemed to be pulling away just about that time. Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor. The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky. I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.
We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away. We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT). The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.
Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year. That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive. Our job was to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.
Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:
The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT. Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control. He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded. The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest. This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).
At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine. The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames. The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above. The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete. The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor melting the roof as if it was butter. The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.
The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator. This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on. The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should. As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone. It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.
Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight. The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools. Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator. The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.
Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights). Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.
By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down. Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.
As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion. I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before. There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode. I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.
The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River. One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong. I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.
When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once. The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris. I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine. It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.
The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it. I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff. I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.
We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation. The soot didn’t just wash off. Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room. The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.
We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner. This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again. All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.
The thought was too overwhelming. I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe. Are clothes were now black. We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators
literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.
We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!” I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot. Then he explained. “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project. You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”
Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world? Well. I am. I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.
Now for the hard part of the story to write about:
So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test? What happened to cause the explosion?
The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage. The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.
Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target. A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time. No one really understands some of the things he works on. Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion. I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion than the person responsible. The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:
You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion. Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners. I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions. You see, I haven’t completely decided.
There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover. The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof. I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy. You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.
The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered. That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump. When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.
It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged. It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling. In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage. The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.
I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me. The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth. This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place. You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.
The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation. Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.
Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage. It was ruled as “equipment failure”. Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.
I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong. I know that. That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant. A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity. Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.
That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone. To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then. My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.
On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen. It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred. It gave me a little of my faith back in the system. When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.
All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator. I just exaggerated that part a bit. But let me ask this question… Who in this story did? Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”? Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important? That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.
The question is never, “Is there a God?” The real question is “Which God do you worship?”
When I first became an electrician at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, my foreman Charles Foster and I would sit each day at lunch and talk about movies we had seen. We would go into detail explaining each scene to each other so that when I actually watched a movie that Charles had described, I felt as if I had seen it already. In the years that followed, after we had described to each other just about every movie we could remember, we moved on to playing games.
Sure, there were those jokes we would play now and then, but I’m not talking about those. This was something different. One of the games that we played was Chess.
I brought a computerized chessboard to work one day that had pieces on a board that you pressed down when you wanted to move a piece, then you moved it and pressed down on the square where you placed the piece in order for the board to keep track where all the pieces were on the board.
This chessboard had 8 levels of difficulty when you played against the computer. Charles, Terry Blevins, Scott Hubbard and I were not really the competitive type. We were more of the team player types. So, when we played, we played against the computer as a team.
We would set the level of difficulty to the highest level, then as a team, we would spend a long time analyzing our moves. Sometimes we would discuss making our next move over several days. Actually, at the highest level, the computer would some times take up to 7 hours to decide what move to make. — This was when computers were still relatively slow.
We figured out that at level 8, the chessboard would think of all the possibilities for the next 8 moves. Once we realized that, then we knew that we had to think 9 moves ahead in order to beat it. So, you could see how together we would try several strategies that would put us ahead after we had basically forced the computer to make 9 moves… It wasn’t easy, but by realizing what we were dealing with, we were able to beat the chess computer on the highest level.
The game where we beat the computer on the highest level took us over 3 months to play and 72 turns. The four of us had teamed up against the computer in order to beat it. I remember that I would wake up in the morning dreaming about that game of chess when we were playing it and I would be anxious to go into the electric shop to try out a move that had popped in my mind when I was in the shower.
Once we were able to beat the chess board we went on to other things.
Diana Brien (my first and only “Bucket Buddy”) and I would buy Crossword puzzle magazines and when we were in a spot where we were waiting for an operator to arrive, or for a pump to finish pumping, etc.
We would pull out the crossword puzzle magazine and start working on them. If we weren’t doing crossword puzzles, we were doing Word Searches, or Cryptograms… more on them in a moment.
This kept our mine sharp, and just as Fat Albert and Cosby Kids used to say, “If you’re not careful, you might learn something before you’re through.”
I had bought some Crossword puzzles that had other types of puzzles in them. Some were pretty straightforward like Cryptograms. That is where you have a phrase where each letter of the alphabet has been changed to another letter of the alphabet, and you have to figure out what it says. So, for instance, an “A” may have been changed to a “D” and a “B” to a “Z” etc. So, you end up with a sentence or two that looks like gibberish, but it actually means something once you solve the puzzle.
The cryptogram magazine I copied for the picture isn’t complete because of the green rectangle is blocking out part of it, but I can see that it says: Everyone wants to “understand” art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? (Pablo Picasso).
We were becoming expert cryptogram puzzle solvers, when one day we ran into a short cryptogram that didn’t have many words. We tried solving this cryptogram for almost a week. Scott Hubbard was getting frustrated with me, because I would never give up and look at the answer in the back of the book. So, after he became so fed up with me, he finally looked in the back of the book and wrote the answer in the puzzle. The answer was this: “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring”
Now… how is someone supposed to figure out a puzzle like that? I had figured on the “ing” in Spring and Harbinger but since Harbinger was barely in my vocabulary to begin with, I was never going to solve this one… I’ll have to admit.
Regardless, I was upset with Scott for looking at the answer in the back of the magazine, so I ripped out all the answers from the magazine and threw them in the dumpster so we would never be able to look at them again….. Still…. I would probably be trying to figure out “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring” to this day if Scott Hubbard hadn’t looked in the back of the book. I just felt like I wasn’t getting my money’s worth if we looked at the answers…. Yeah. all $3.95 worth (pretty cheap entertainment).
So, I have a side story to go along with working Cryptograms….
In my later life I changed jobs and went to work at Dell in Texas. (It just so happened that the Puzzle Books we would buy were usually “Dell” puzzle books…. totally unrelated to the Dell Computer company where I worked). That’s not really the important part of the side story, but I thought I would throw that in for good measure.
Every so often, our department would have an offsite where some team building events were held in order to… well… build teams.
One particular team building event was held in a park in Round Rock Texas where we were assigned to teams and each team was assigned to their own picnic table. When the game began we were each given a poster board with some phrase on it… and guess what? It was a cryptogram!
I was the only person on my team that knew how cryptograms worked, though most had seen them in the newspaper below the crossword puzzle, no one on our team had ever tried solving them. As a team, we were supposed to solve the puzzle. The quote was fairly long, which made it easy for someone who had been obsessed with cryptograms for years…. — Myself.
I took one look at the puzzle and said…. “That word right there is “that” and I wrote in the word “that”. Then I began filling in all the letters that had “T”, “H” and “A”. I quickly found a couple of “The”s which gave me the “E”, then I had one three letter word that began with an “A” and ended with an “E” that could only be the word “Are”. Which gave me the letter “R”. I could see that there were a couple of places that ended in “ing”, so I quickly filled those in, and as quickly as we could write all the letters into the puzzle we were done.
My director, Diane Keating, happened to be on my team. When I first pointed to the word “That” and said, “That is the word ‘that'”, she said, “Wait, how can you tell?” I said, “Trust me. I know Cryptograms.” When we had finished the puzzle within about a minute and a half, we called the person over to check it and she was amazed that we had solved the puzzle so quickly.
That is the end of the side story, except to say that I give credit to the games that Power Plant Men Play for teaching me the fine art of solving Cryptograms. Our team came in first place…. needless to say after solving three cryptograms in a row.
There were other more complicated but equally fun types of anagram/cryptogram combination puzzles that I worked when we had worked all the cryptogram puzzles in the Dell Variety Magazines. Eventually Charles Foster and I were looking for something different. That was when Charles ordered a subscription to a magazine called “GAMES”.
This was a monthly magazine that was full of all sorts of new games. Today, I understand that this magazine is more about the Video Games that are out than puzzle sort of games. Each month we would scour the pages of the Game magazine looking for puzzles to conquer. We worked on those for about a year.
At one point in my days as an electrician, I wrote a Battleship game for my Sharp Calculator that was a two player game. We each had a battleship in a 100 x 100 grid, which you could move around. It was sort of like the Battleship game where on the commercial they would say, “You Sunk My Battleship!” Only, our ships could move and we only had one.
Each turn when you would plug in the coordinates to shoot at the other person’s ship, it would only tell you how much you missed by. Then you could plot it on a graph paper and try to figure out where the other person’s ship was. Even though it could move. If you were close, then it would damage the other ship, and it would slow down so it couldn’t move as fast.
When the next person took their turn, they could see if their ship had been damaged or sunk, or even had become dead in the water….
The person was randomly assigned a home base at the beginning of the game and they could go there to repair their ship and be given more ammo in case they were running low. If they did this more than twice, then the other guy would know because the circles they would draw on their graph paper would keep intersecting at that one point.
Anyway…. that was the calculator game I made that I played with Terry Blevins for a while.
While other Power Plant Men were playing “Rope the Bull” with an Iron rendition of a bull welders had created, some of us in the electric shop were playing different kinds of games. Puzzles.
I think the reason that electricians like puzzles so much is because a lot of what they do from day-to-day is solve puzzles. When something isn’t functioning and the electrician has to figure out why, they usually have to follow through a bunch of steps in order to figure out what exactly went wrong. Solving Circuit problems are a lot like the puzzles we were playing.
Sometimes they are like “Word Searches” where you are looking for needles in the haystacks. Sometimes they are like Cryptograms where a circuit has been wired incorrectly and you have to figure out which wire is supposed to go where. Sometimes you get so frustrated that you just wish you could look in the back of the book at the answer page. In real life, you don’t always have an answer page exactly.
Some of us may think that you can find all you need to know in the Bible, but there are different kinds of “Bibles” for different kinds of jobs. In the Electric Shop we had the National Electric Code. We had the Master Blueprints that showed us how things were supposed to be wired up. Some times we just had to wing it and try putting words in crossword puzzle that we knew might not be the right ones, but they were the best we had at the time.
I’m just glad that I spent that time working puzzles with my friends at the Power Plant. If solving puzzles together helps build a team, then we had the best darn team around!
Because someone asked me about the game we played against the computer… Here is the play by play (for those who know how to read Chess Playing Geek Language):
I know I’m getting old when I pick up a small piece of paper and I am suddenly taken back 17 years to the day I pulled the small page from the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. Notepad sitting on the desk in the Electric Shop office. It was the day that I was finally able to come to the aid of a noble Power Plant Man that the plant generally referred to as “Stick”.
Gary McCain, or Stick, is a tall thin Power Plant Man (sort of like a stick) known for his intellect and knowledge of “Machine Language”. In this case, “Machine Language” refers to the ability to understand how machines work, not how to talk directly to computers using zeroes and ones.
Gary had just walked into the Electric Shop office at the power plant in North Central Oklahoma as lunch was ending. He was carrying a textbook, which seemed odd right off the bat. He explained that some of the machinists and mechanics had been sent to motor alignment school and they had been given this textbook in case they wanted to refer back to the material that was covered in the class.
Gary sat down next to me and set the book on the desk opening it to the page he had bookmarked (Yeah. We used to use books made out of paper, and we put pieces of paper between pages to bookmark the pages we wanted to remember… Bookmarking wasn’t something new with Internet browsers).
Gary (am I going to start all my paragraphs with the word “Gary”? Maybe the next paragraph, I’ll just say “That tall guy”) pointed to a formula on the page and asked me if it was possible to use the computer to make calculations that will help him align motors using this formula.
I told that tall guy (Gary) that we could use a program called “Excel” (from Microsoft) that could be used to solve problems just like that. So, I grabbed the small sheet of paper off of the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. notepad and wrote down the variables for the formula on one side, and the four formulas on the back side. Here is what I wrote:
Oh yeah. I think I ripped off the corner of the paper to use as a bookmark because I didn’t like the one Gary was using. It was too small.
I guess at this point I should stop and tell you what is meant by “motor alignment” and why machinists and mechanics are interested in this in the first place.
The alignment that is done with a motor is performed when you are putting a pump back in place or some other equipment like a gear box or fan shaft or… well… a lot of things. You have to make sure that the shaft on the motor is perfectly aligned with the pump otherwise it will quickly tear something up when you turn it on.
This picture shows how the motor is aligned up with the compressor so that the red coupling lines up perfectly. Once it is aligned the coupling can be bolted together to connect the motor to the pump.
Notice that the motor has bolts to mount it to the skid in the front and the back on both sides, as well as the pump. These are called “Feet”. Usually when you put the pump and the motor back in place, they don’t line up perfectly, so thin pieces of brass called “shims” are used to raise the various feet just the right amount so that the shaft on the motor and shaft on the pump are looking right at each other.
A special piece of equipment is used to check the alignment. It is called a “Dial Caliper” and it is mounted to the coupling on the motor and the pump with a magnet and it tests the alignment as it is rotated around.
I’m sorry if I’m boring those of you who don’t immediately see the beauty of Motor Alignment. Try pretending that the dial caliper is something invented by ancient aliens if you need to make this part of the post more interesting (actually, who needs ancient aliens when you have machinists?).
Gary told me that the company was looking into buying laser guided motor alignment machines for only $30,000 a piece. They would probably buy three of them that could be used between the four main plants. He said that he didn’t think we needed them if we could use these formulas to calculate exactly how to align the motors. This would save the company around $90,000 and at the same time show the mechanics the “joy of math”!
So, I made some notes on another page which simplified, (or maybe complicated) the formulas further. Then I sat down at the computer and began putting them into Excel. The idea was to have the person doing the motor alignment take some notes, then go to the computer and enter them into the Excel sheet and it would tell them right away how many shims to put under any of the 8 feet (four on the motor and four on the pump).
Here are the notes I made:
If you are Jesse Cheng (or some other old time calculator geek), you can see what I was doing with my notes. I was thinking of the next steps… which I’ll explain below…. (oh… ok… I’ll tell you… this is the code that you would use if you were creating a program for a Casio calculator).
After creating the spreadsheet, Gary headed out the door to go start aligning a motor using our newfangled motor alignment method. A little while later he came back into the shop and pulling out his handy dandy notepad he read off the notes he had taken while he put the values into Excel… When he was finished, he wrote down the results and headed back out the door to add the proper shims to the motor and the pump.
We had to tweak the program a little to work out the bugs, but after a couple of tries it worked very well and Gary was pleased. Only, there was one problem with this method… Over the next couple of weeks, Gary would come bursting into the electric shop office interrupting me and Charles Foster while we were having a deep discussion about the virtues of banana peppers on ham sandwiches.
So, I suggested to Gary that we could use a calculator to do the same thing that we were doing with the spreadsheet. That way he wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to the computer. Instead, he could just stand there at the motor and enter the information and have it display the answers that he was seeking.
Right off the bat (hmm… the second time I have used that “cliche”…. I need to read more often), Gary didn’t understand how a calculator could do this. So, I explained to him that some calculators are programmable and I can write a program on the calculator that would do just that. I said, “Let me show you”….. After all, I had grown up in Missouri (the Show Me State)… So, I took my calculator off of the top of the filing cabinet and placed it on the table.
I used the thermal printer to connect the calculator to the tape recorder to store my programs, so I didn’t have to enter them manually after I entered them once.
I took my notes and wrote the following program and entered it into the calculator.
I gave the calculator to Gary and showed him how to run the program and sent him to try it out for himself. He was very excited about this and offered some suggestions to make the program easier to use.
A few days later Gary caught me walking across the maintenance shop and showed me a catalog with various calculators for sale. He said he wanted to buy some calculators for the shop so that every person that had been trained to align motors had a calculator with a program on it. I showed him a Casio calculator that would work for about $70. So, he ordered a better one.
Even though the language for programming it was different than the Sharp calculator, it didn’t take long for me to write a program for it that did the same thing since I had sort of already written it by that time. After Gary proved to his foreman that the calculator worked, he ordered several more and when they arrived he asked me if I could program them as well.
It took almost a half hour just to type the program into each calculator, so I bought a small pigtail that connected two calculators together. This allowed me to copy the program from one calculator to another one. So, when Gary arrived one day with a box of over 20 calculators for the rest of the plants, it took me longer to open the packages than it did to copy the program from one calculator to the next.
Since the calculator was a graphic calculator, I thought about improving the program by drawing a little picture of a motor shaft and a pump shaft and showing how they were out of alignment after the information was entered, but I never took the time to do that as I was on to another computer project by that time (which I will write about later).
So, think about this. The company was willing to buy $90,000 worth of laser-guided motor alignment equipment to do something that machinists and mechanics already knew how to do. The specialized equipment would work, and it might have been faster I suppose. With the aid of a programmable calculator, however, a mechanic can stand at the motor, takes a few measurements and come up with the same results probably just as fast as the laser-guided motor alignment gizmo could do it.
Either way, the mechanic still had to install the same number of shims under the same feet whether they used the calculator and the dial caliper or the laser beam. The 26 or so calculators that were purchased for the four plants came up to less than $2,000, which is a savings of $88,000. I don’t think the laser would have saved that much time. It still had to be carried over to the motor and plugged in and mounted on the motor. My guess is that as soon as the laser was dropped on the floor accidentally, it would have been broken anyway.
The best part of this little project was that I was able to help out a True Power Plant Man Gary McCain, that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to help much before. Gary didn’t need much help as he is one of those Power Plant Men that people seek out when they need advice. So, when he came to me and asked for help with the computer, I was more than glad to do what I could to help him.
Sometimes it is a little difficult for my wife to understand why I keep scraps of paper laying around that have meaningless scribbles on them. One might be a doodle that some friend of mine created one day while talking on the phone. Another might be a fortune from a cookie that I opened when I was eating lunch with a coworker. Today the piece of paper I picked up happened to have a mathematical formula written on the back.
I think my son understands now that when I seem to be picking up trash off of the table and a tear comes to my eye, it isn’t because I have just picked up something rotten, but because I have just been transported back in time to place where I am with some people that I love. It doesn’t stop him from saying, “Dad? It’s just a piece of paper. Geez!” Well… I know I’m getting old… but that scrap of paper is poetry to me.
The first time I saw Ray Eberle was during my first summer as a summer help in 1979. He was standing in the midst of a group of mechanics who sat around him as school children sit around the librarian as a story is being read. Ray was telling a story to a group of mesmerized Power Plant Men.
Many years later I heard that Ray was invited to tell stories to hunters who were hunting elk in Montana around the campfires at night as an occupation. I think he passed on that opportunity. Who would think of leaving the comfort of a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to go sit around telling stories by campfires in Montana?
For many years I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Ray. He had joined the Safety Task Force that we had created at the plant. He had also become a member of the Confined Space Rescue Team, and was a HAZWOPER Emergency Rescue responder. I was on all of these teams with Ray, but I really had never worked side-by-side with him.
I know that at times, I had disappointed Ray by not living up to his expectations of what a True Power Plant Man should be. When we were on the Safety Task Force, after the reorganization, we had shifted gears to be more of an “Idea” task force instead of one that actually fixed safety issues. I was pushing hard to have the company move to a “Behavior-Based Safety” approach. It was a misunderstood process and if not implemented correctly would have the exact opposite effect (see the post “ABCs of Power Plant Safety“)
I know this bothered Ray. He let me know one day when I received an intra-company envelope with a memo in it. It said that he was resigning from the team:
I hang on to the oddest things. Some things that lift me up and some things that break my heart. I figure that there is a lesson for me in this memo. That is why I have held onto it for the past 20 years. I suppose this enforces my philosophy of trying to make a “Bad First Impression” (See the post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“).
Ray Eberle told me once that he had always thought that I was a lazy stuck up electrician that didn’t like to get dirty and just sat around in the electric shop all the time. (read the post: “Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“) He said that he saw me as a “higher than thou” type of person that looked down on others. Then one day I said something that totally changed his perception of me. I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
It’s funny to learn sometimes what people actually think of you. Then it’s even funnier to think what makes them change their mind. You see… when Ray Eberle was sharing his thoughts about me, we had become very good friends. He said that he felt that he finally understood me when I uttered those three words “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember the moment I had said that. As members of the Confined Space Rescue Team, we were responsible for inspecting the SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) each month. We were standing in the control room and had a couple of the SCBAs sitting out while the instructor was showing us the proper way to inspect them.
Ray had asked a few “what-if” questions (like “What if the pressure is right at the minimum amount?” or “What if we send a tank off to be refilled and we have an emergency?”) and his questions weren’t being answered. He was getting a little hot under the collar, so I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember Ray’s reaction. He turned to me and said, “What did you say?” I looked him straight in the eye with a grin on my face and repeated “Don’t get twisted.”
At that moment I didn’t know if Ray was going to haul off and belt me one, so I was mentally preparing my various responses…. like…. get ready to duck… just try to stand there as if nothing had happened… run and call a therapist because my ego had been shattered (no… wait… that wasn’t then)…. Anyway… instead Ray just smiled at me and said calmly, “I thought that was what you had said.” I could see that he was in deep thought.
It was a couple of years later that I found out that at that moment Ray Eberle’s perception of who I was had done a 180. Isn’t it funny what causes someone to change their mind sometimes? Maybe he saw a spot of dirt on my tee shirt.
One day during the spring of 1998 my foreman, Alan Kramer told me that Jim Arnold wanted me to be assigned to create “Task Lists” in SAP.
Task lists are instructions on how to perform jobs associated with trouble tickets. Jim Arnold (probably to keep me out of trouble) had assigned me to write task lists and Ray Eberle to write Bill of Materials (or BOMs). Thus began our three year journey together working side-by-side entering data into the computer.
Writing task lists didn’t mean that I just sat in front of the computer all day. In order to create them, I had to find out what tools a person would use to fix something, and what procedure they would perform in order to do their job. This meant that a lot of times, I would go up to a crew that was working on something and I would ask them to tell me all the tools they used and how they did their job while standing at the job site.
I will write another post later about how I actually did the task of writing task lists, so I won’t go into any more detail. After a short while, Ray and I figured out that we needed to be in the front office close to the Master Prints and the room where the “X-Files” (or X-drawings) were kept.
X-Files didn’t have to do with “Aliens”. X-Files were files in cabinets that had all the vendor information about every piece of equipment at the plant (just about). They were called X Files because their filing numbers all began with an X. Like X-160183.
About 50% of my time for the next three years was spent creating task lists. The rest of the time, I was still doing my regular electrician job, and going to school. After the first year, I moved into the Master Print Room and Ray and I set up shop working on the computers next to each other.
Ray was a collector of Habanero Sauce bottles.
He would travel the country looking for unique Habanero Sauce bottles. Each day, Ray would bring a bottle of habanero sauce to work and pour some on his lunch.
I ate the same boring lunch every day. It consisted of a ham sandwich with a slice of American cheese. Then I had some kind of fruit, like an apple or an orange. Since I was no longer eating lunch in the electric shop where Charles would give me peppers with my sandwich, when Ray asked me if I would like some hot sauce for my sandwich I was quick to give it a try.
There is something very addictive about habanero sauce. After a few days of having this sauce on my sandwich, I went to the grocery store and bought some of my own bottles of habanero sauce and salsa.
Ok. One side story…
I was sitting at home reading a school book at the dining room table, my 9 year old daughter Elizabeth walked up to the table and took a tortilla chip from my paper plate, dipped it in the (habanero) salsa in the bowl next to it, and began to put it in her mouth. Without looking up from my book, I said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t be stealing my chips, she went ahead and put it in her mouth. Grinning because she had stolen my chip, she began to walk away. Then she started to squeal a little. Moments later she was hopping all over the kitchen trying to find some way to put out the fire.
I told her the best remedy is to eat more chips. Don’t drink water. It makes it worse. Eat chips without salsa.
End of side story…
I mentioned above that Ray Eberle is a very good storyteller. He told me a series of stories that I call the “Walt Oswalt Stories”. These were real life stories about a Power Plant Man at our plant. They were so funny that I would go home and share them with my wife and she would fold over laughing at them. She said that Ray needs to write a book about Walt Oswalt.
I have shared some of these stories with various people in my later career and the reaction is always the same. These stories belong in a book. Later this year, I will share some of the Walt Oswalt stories in a post or two then you will see what I’m talking about.
One time in 2007 when I worked for Dell, I was meeting with the CEO of the world’s leading timekeeping company called Kronos. His name is Aron Ain.
My director, Chris Enslin was with us in Massachusetts.
Aron had taken us out to eat dinner, and Chris asked me to tell Aron some Walt Oswalt stories, so I shared a couple.
Then a couple of years later in 2009, Chris told me that he was at a meeting with CEOs from companies all over the United States, and there was Aron standing in the middle of a group of CEOs telling them a Walt Oswalt story.
Here is a picture of Ray Eberle sitting next to me at our computers in the master print room at the power plant:
Each day at lunch, after we had eaten our sandwiches, Ray would reach into his lunch box and pull out a worn black book and begin reading it. He would spend about 10 to 15 minutes reading. Sometimes he would stop and tell me something interesting about something he had just read. When he was done, the book went back into his lunch box and we continued working.
I remember some of the interesting conversations we used to have about that worn black book in his lunch box. One time we talked about a story in the book about how a hand just appeared out of nowhere and began writing on a wall when this guy named Belshazzar was having a party. Then this guy named Daniel came and told him what it meant, and that night Belshazzar was killed. Ray said, “…. God sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” What do you think about that? My response was…. “Yeah. God sure has class. He could have just struck the guy down right there and then. Instead he has a hand appear and write something on the wall. That way we can now have the saying: The writing on the wall’.”
I always thought if you were going to pick a good friend to have, if you pick one that reads their Bible every day during lunch, they are bound to be trustworthy. I could tell that I could trust Ray with anything. So, I spent the three years with Ray telling him everything I knew about myself while Ray shared a good deal of his life story with me. Of course… being nine and a half years older than I was, he had lived a lot more life than I had.
When I left the Power Plant in 2001 to work for Dell, one of the things I missed the most was sitting next to Ray talking about our lives, eating our lunch with Habanero Sauce, and listening to Ray’s stories about Prominent Power Plant Men! I have considered Ray a very dear friend for many years and I am honored to have him take me into his confidence. I only hope that I could be as much of a friend to Ray as he has been to me.
Power Plant Men working for a large Coal-Fired Power Plant have the kind of culture where Cleanliness is next to “Leroy Godfrey-ness”. If you knew Leroy Godfrey, then you would know that he was a perfectionist in a lot of ways. Or… Well, he expected the Plant Electricians to be anyway. A few years after becoming an electrician, there was some work being done by Ben Davis, one of our best electricians, at the Conoco (Continental) Oil Refinery twenty miles north of the plant in Ponca City.
Being a low level Electrician Apprentice, I was not included in whatever was happening at the Refinery. I didn’t work at the refinery for many years. When I finally did go to Conoco, I wished I hadn’t.
What was happening? A Co-Generation plant was being built there. It is called a “Co-Generation” plant because it serves two purposes. Waste gas from the refinery is used to fire the boiler that produces the steam to turn the turbine. Any steam left over is sent over to the refinery to supplement their own needs. The electricity is used by the refinery and any left over electricity is sold by the Electric Company for a profit. So, in a sense, it is a “Co-Existence”.
For the most part, Power Plant Men were looking for opportunities to get in a company truck and leave the plant grounds to work on something outside the confines of the plant where they work every day, week in and week out. Trips to the river pumps or the parks on our lake were always nice, because you would see wildlife along the way. You could look out over the Arkansas River in the morning as the sun was rising and feel the cool breeze and smell the pastures nearby.
Trips to Enid to our small peaking units were fun too, because we were able to work on some different equipment out in a quiet substation where mud daubers were the only sound until the units came online. The drive to Enid was nice because the 45 mile trip across the countryside is pleasant and the traffic is very light. You can go for miles without seeing another car.
After only a couple of visits to the Conoco Oil Refinery, I never looked forward to the 20 minute drive from the plant when we had to work on the Co-Generation Plant co-owned by our company and the Oil Refinery. There were a few things about the refinery that bothered me about working there. One annoying factor was the hideous smell.
I had lived in Ponca City for three years and the sour odor that poured out of the Oil Refinery to the south of our house generally blew right up our street. One winter morning I remember stepping out of our rental house into the dark on my way to work, and the exhaust from the oil refinery must have been blowing directly down the street to our house where I lived because when I took a breath I gagged immediately and was at the point of vomiting on the front lawn.
A side note…
My wife and I lived in this tiny house shortly after we were married. Kelly was an RN (nurse) at the local hospital working the night shift while I was an electrician at the Power Plant during the day. I had the philosophy that if we started by living in a dump and saved our money, then as we gradually worked our way up to a bigger house, we would feel as if life was getting better, and we never had to worry about money, since we always lived well below our means.
I figured that if we lived far below our means, our means would keep growing. Living just below your means meant always staying in the same economic spot (how many sentences can I put the words “means” and “meant” right next to each other?). The quality of Life doesn’t get much better. When living well below your means, life continues to get better even if your job stays the same your entire life. I had figured that I was going to be a plant electrician until the day I retired, so, this was my way of planning ahead.
My wife endured living in this tiny house one block away from the railroad tracks traveled by the coal trains on their way to our plant (which shook our house as they passed) for three years before we moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma where we lived with more than twice the square feet and no smell from the oil refinery.
end of side note…
I started out by saying that the culture at our Power Plant was that Cleanliness was very important. I suppose this was true at the Oil Refinery as well, only, it seemed that even though the clutter was all picked up, there was something “inherently” dirty about the oil refinery. I’m not sure how to describe it, but you just felt like you didn’t want to touch anything because it was going to leave some sort of dirty film on you. It was….. grimy (one could say… oily… well… it was an oil refinery).
Our Power Plant is in North Central Oklahoma, and during the summer going for an entire month with over 100 degree weather every day was not uncommon. There are parts of the plant where you had to work some times where the temperature reached 160 degrees. Of course, you can’t stay in that environment very long, and those areas are generally not the areas of choice when choosing which job to work on next.
One hot summer day in 1996, Charles Foster and I had to go to the oil refinery to our Co-Generation plant to fix an Air Conditioner Condenser Fan Motor.
This isn’t like one of those fans on the side of your house in the box that you know as your “air conditioner” that blows hot air out when the air conditioner in your house is running, though it performs the same task, only on a much bigger scale.
When you entered the oil refinery you had to wear a long blue cloak or coat called “Nomex” (pronounced “No Mex”).
The reason for wearing this heavy “woolen” coat was to help save your life in case you happened to be around the next time (next time?) something exploded, blasting flames in your direction. — Yeah…. comforting huh? Knowing that this flame retardant coat was going to keep you from being burned alive when something exploded in the refinery. Oh joy.
Everyone in the refinery was wearing these blue coats. It was a requirement before you could drive your pickup through the security gate.
Once inside the gate, Charles and I checked our clearances to make sure it was safe to work on unwiring the motor that was mounted under the air conditioner coils. Another fan was running that was turning a large fan blade blowing hot air down next to us. We had brought our own fans to blow cooler air on us while we worked on the motor. This particular motor weighed about 400 lbs, to give you an idea of the size of motor we were repairing.
Charles and I had brought a temperature gun to check how hot everything was when we were working.
When we checked the temperature, we found that the area where we had to stand was 160 degrees. The motor itself was even hotter than that. We had to wear leather gloves just to work on it without burning our hands. Asbestos gloves would have rendered us useless because they make you feel like you are wearing “Hulk Hands” where your fingers are about 2 inches wide.
See what I mean?
The air was too hot to breathe except for quick shallow breaths. Even though we had a fan blowing directly on us, we took turns approaching the motor, turning some bolts a couple of times, and then quickly moving out of the area to where we could be in the cooler 105 degree temperature.
There is nothing like a mild irritation (such as working in extreme heat) to motivate you to hurry up a job. Charles and I worked diligently to remove the motor and then lowered it down with a platform hand lift that we kept in the shop.
This fan motor was on the roof of a building, so once we had removed the motor from where it was mounted, we still had to lower it down to the back of the truck which was backed up to the side of the building. Once in the truck, we brought it back to the plant where we could work on it.
When you first went to work in the oil refinery you had to take a specially designed safety course when you are issued your Nomex coat. During that class, you are told that if you hear the sirens go off, that generally means that there are some toxic gases being released accidentally in the plant, you are supposed to take action quickly.
The funniest (or not so funniest) instructions was that when the sirens go off, you are supposed to run in the opposite direction away from the sirens. Which sort of reminds me of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when they had to run away from the viscous fighting rabbit. Yelling “Run Away! Run Away!” Great safety evacuation plan. — Plan of action: “Run!!!”
The toxic gas that everyone was worried about is called Hydrogen Sulfide or H2S. This is the gas that smells like rotten eggs. The only problem is that when there is more than the minimal amount of H2S in the air, you can’t smell it anymore because it quickly deadens your sense of smell.
Another fun reason to not want to go work in the Oil Refinery.
Anyway, Charles and I safely reversed the process to return the motor to its rightful place mounted on the bottom of the coils on the roof.
A few times I had to go to work at the Co-Generation plant because something was broken (like the fan motor), but most of the time that we went to the plant was to do our quarterly battery inspections. For more information about battery inspections, you can read this post: “Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance“.
I have told you all the reasons why I didn’t enjoy working at the Oil Refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma. There were reasons why I did enjoy it. I suppose if you have been reading my posts, you will know the most obvious answer to that question (oh. I guess I didn’t really ask a question… but if I had…). The only redeeming factor with working at the Co-Generation plant at the oil refinery was being able to work with the best Power Plant Men and Women in the country.
I have given you an example above when I worked with Charles Foster. I also worked with Scott Hubbard and Diana Brien.
Both of them top class electricians and First Class Friends. Just to be able to work side-by-side with such terrific people made me forget about the poison gases. I didn’t mind the heat. I even forgot I was wearing the heavy suffocating Nomex Coat. What’s a little grime when your friend tells you about their day? About what they are planning for the weekend? Or the rest of their life?
Actually, I think that’s what made everything about working both at the Oil Refinery and the Power Plant itself the most enjoyable job I can imagine. Sure. We had a culture of “cleanliness” at the plant but I think it was the culture of “friendliness” that really made all the difference. It was also the most painful part the day I finally left the Power Plant to adventure out to find the rest of the world in 2001.
I spent 12 weeks in Oklahoma City in 1996 working in an office building while the Power Plant Men came to the rescue and caused a culture shock for some who had never experienced a group of Power Plant Men so closely packed in an office cubicle before. The effect can almost be the same as if you have too many radioactive particles compressed together causing a chain reaction ending in a tremendous explosion. Having survived this experience I became intrigued with the idea of working in an office on a computer instead of carrying a tool bucket up 25 flights of stairs to fix the boiler elevator.
Our team had been in Oklahoma City when we were converting the Electric Company in Oklahoma to a new financial and planning system known as SAP. See the post: “Corporate Executive Kent Norris Meets Power Plant Men“. One other person from out plant was in Oklahoma City for the entire 9 months it took to roll out SAP. That was Linda Dallas, our HR Supervisor at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Linda Dallas was on the core SAP team which was a coveted spot for one not so obvious reason. The few people that were on the core team were learning how to implement SAP in a fairly large public electric company. The consulting company Ernst and Young were teaching them how to build SAP screens and configure the application as well as how to run a large project. — Do you see where I’m going?
I went out and bought a book on programming SAP myself just in case I had a chance to play around with it when we were in Oklahoma City. I read the book, but unfortunately the opportunity to mess with SAP never came up.
Mark Romano, the engineer that was coordinating our efforts during the project tried to have me assigned to the testing team for SAP, but the SAP guys said they didn’t need anyone else…. For more about Mark Romano, read this post: “Power Plant Marine Battles with God and Wins“. Consequently, when Mark told me that the testing team positions were just as coveted as the core team and they didn’t want an outsider coming in and showing them up, I understood.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet…. SAP was an up and coming terrific software package that took practically your entire company’s computer activities and put them in one all encompassing application. People experienced in SAP were far and few between, so anyone looking for people with SAP experience were finding the pickin’s rather slim. Because of this, most of the people involved in the core SAP implementation could basically write their ticket when it came to finding a job with a company trying to implement SAP in 1996-97.
I thanked Mark for putting in a good word for me with the testing team. I also told him that the first time I actually am able to use SAP, I will break it within 10 minutes just so the testing team can see how it’s done. — I had a lot of experience with “Negative testing” as it is called in IT. That is when you do what you can to try to break the application.
I like the word “consequently” today, so I’m going to use it again…. Consequently, when Linda Dallas came back to our plant to show us all how to use SAP, here is what happened….
We went to the small conference room where I had setup about 15 computers all hooked up to the company’s Intranet. The team from Oklahoma City had actually brought the computers. I had just run all the network cables to the room so they could train people 15 at a time. The trainers wanted to “lock down” the computers so that they only had SAP on them and not other things like “Solitaire” that might distract the Power Plant Trainees.
Here is what happened when I showed up for my class…. Linda Dallas was teaching it along with one other guy from Corporate Headquarters…. I’ll call him “Jack”… for various reasons, but mainly because I can’t remember his name… Jack told us that the computers we were using were stripped down so that it didn’t have games like Minesweeper and Solitaire on them, (as did all the regular Windows NT computers).
The first thing I did when he told us that was to browse over to the electric shop computer through the network and copy the minesweeper and the solitaire games from the computer in the electric shop to my training computer….. See how rotten I used to be (yeah… used to be… Huh? What’s that?)… Then I opened Solitaire and started playing it while they explained how to go into SAP and start doing our jobs.
They showed us the Inventory section. That had all the parts in the company in it. That was the part of the application I had helped implement in our small way.
When they showed us the inventory section, I realized right away how I could break SAP, so I proceeded to open 10 different screens of the SAP client, and began some crazy wildcard searches on each one of them. The application came to a grinding halt. (for any developers reading this… let’s call it… “SQL Injection”).
Linda, who was trying to show us how to go from screen-to-screen suddenly was staring at a screen that was going no where. She tried to explain that they were still having some performance issues with the application….
I just stared at my own computer screen trying to figure out if I had a red ten to put on the black jack…. when a red-faced Jack came around the tables and saw me playing Solitaire. I just smiled up at him and he had a confused look on his face as we waited for the screen on the projector to begin working again.
I knew of course what had happened and after about 5 minutes of everyone’s screen being locked up, the application finally began working again and the training continued. — I was happy. I had completed my testing that the testing team didn’t think they needed. Of course, I did it to honor Mark Romano’s failed attempt to have me moved to the SAP testing team.
A couple of years later when I was working with Ray Eberle on a Saturday (as we were working 4 – 10s, and rotated onto a Saturday once every 4 weeks), I showed him how I could lock up SAP for the entire company any time I wanted. Since few people were working on Saturday, I figured I could show him how it was done without causing a raucous. It took about 35 seconds and SAP would be down for as long as I wanted. There was a way to prevent this… but…. If the testers never test it, they would never tell the developers to fix it (I’m sure they have fixed it by now… that was 18 years ago).
Anyway, the story about implementing SAP isn’t really what this post is about. It is just the preamble that explains why in the spring of 1997, Linda Dallas left as the Supervisor of HR at our plant. She found another job in Dallas with some of the other core SAP team members implementing SAP.
When the job opening for Linda Dallas’s job came out at our plant, I figured that since I met the minimum qualification, I might as well apply for it. Why not. It would mean putting away my tool bucket and working on the computer a lot more, which was something I was interested in since my experience a few months earlier when I was working at Corporate Headquarters.
I knew right away that no one would really take my job application seriously. I had all the computer related skills. I had a degree in Psychology, and a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola with a focus on adult education. That wasn’t really the point. I had never been a clerk.
The natural progression of things meant that the only “real” possible pool of applicants were the women clerks in the front office. Specifically Louise Kalicki. Her desk was closest to Linda Dallas’s office, so, in a sense, she was “next-in-line”.
Even though I knew that the plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold the Maintenance Supervisor would never want me on the “staff”, I went ahead and applied for the job anyway. I figured, it was worth the experience to apply and go through the interview process even though I wouldn’t be taken seriously.
I think Louise and I were the only two to apply for the job. Maybe Linda Shiever did as well, as she had the most seniority at the plant. Linda was actually the first person hired at the plant when it was first built. Louise had been filling in for Linda Dallas for the past year while Linda Dallas had been in Oklahoma City working on SAP, so she was really a “shoe-in” for the job.
When I went up to the interview, the first thing I had to do was take a timed typing test to see if I could type 35 words a minute (I could type 70). I had dressed up for the interview so that when I walked into the plant manager’s office, Bill Green and Jim Arnold had a little “Hee Haw” about seeing me without coal dust and fly ash coming out of my nose and ears. I told them that “I can get cleaned up when I needed to” (notice that I used the word “get” and ended my sentence with a preposition… just so they didn’t think I was too stuck up. See the post: “Power Plant Men Learned Themselves Proper English“).
No one was surprised when Louise Kalicki was promoted to HR Supervisor. She was probably the best choice when you think about it. She had a better relationship with Bill Green and Jim Arnold than I did and a good part of the job was working with those two rascals (oh… did I actually call them rascals? Bless their hearts).
This was right around the time that I had made my decision to go back to school to work toward a degree in Computer Science. Working with computers was really my passion.
I have an interesting way of making decisions about what I’m going to do with my life. I let certain events help make the decisions, instead of just jumping right in. I had decided (knowing that it was pretty much a safe bet) that if I didn’t get the job as the HR Supervisor, then I would go down to Oklahoma State University just a few miles from my house and enroll in the Arts and Science College and work on a degree in Computer Science.
I made a lot of decisions that way. I figured that if I was meant to do something, then it would work out that way. If not, then, fine, I would go a different route.
Ok. One more side story about working with Ray Eberle and SAP (See the post: “Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle“)… This happened some time around the year 2000.
SAP had this icon of a drip of water dropping and causing a ripple of waves….
When the application was thinking, this picture was in the upper right hand corner and it was animated, so that the water rippled out as the water dripped. That way you could tell the difference between the application being stuck and just thinking.
This wasn’t just an animated GIF as we might have today. It was actually a series of bitmap pictures that were all strung together into one file. Once I figured this out, I used Paint to modify the picture. I created three new versions…. The first one had a small ship with sails sailing across the rippling water. The second one had a yellow fish that would leap out of the water over and over.
It was the third picture that was my masterpiece. I reversed the flow, so that instead of the water rippling out, it came in as if it was a whirlpool sucking things down. Then I added a small picture of our HR Supervisor’s face being sucked down into the whirlpool.
Then I created a small application that allowed people to change their water rippling animated picture to any of the four (with the regular picture being the fourth option) that they wanted quickly and easily. I know the women in the front office liked the one with the HR supervisor being sucked down the whirlpool the best. I won’t mention who they were, but by the following two pictures, you may be able to guess….
I would think that Bill Green would have liked the sailing ship the best since he liked to sail…. though… for some reason, I never made it around to install my “SAP add-on” on his computer (or Louise Kalicki’s for that matter, since she was the HR Supervisor). Most of the Power Plant Men probably would like the fish jumping out of the water, since they liked fishing. — I know… I know… I was being rotten… but it was fun.
Ok. End of the Side Story and end of the post.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
They showed us something called: The “Dust Shark”.
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.
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…
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.
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:
I always loved playing with numbers, and thanks to the Birthday Phantom at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I knew everyone’s birthdays. so in 1996 I decided that I would chart them all on a graph. When I compiled them all, I found that the Power Plant was in for one heck of a train wreck. The entire basis that enabled the plant the size of a small city to run with a total of 121 employees was going to start crumbling within the next 13 years.
The original chart I made was in pencil. Here is a simple column chart of the employee ages from Excel:
Now study this chart for a minute…. The youngest person in the plant was 31. There was one. The oldest were four who were 56. If you take everyone from age 40 to 49, you have 70 employees, or 58% of the entire Power Plant population. So, in a 10 year period, the plant was going to lose a majority of their employees due to retirement. 35% were going to be retired within a 5 year period.
How did this happen? How is it that the youngest Power Plant Man was 31 years old and the age between the oldest and the youngest was only 26 years? This happened because of two situations.
The first one is that people rarely ever left the Power Plant, so new hires were rare. The second situation was that we had a downsizing in 1988 when the employees 55 and older were early retired. Then in 1994, we had another downsizing where everyone over 50 years old were early retired. So, we kept lopping off the older employees, without a need to hire anyone new.
There were three entry level jobs when I first hired on as a full time employee. I went through all of them. Summer Help, Janitor and Laborer. None of these jobs existed at the plant anymore. This had given new employees an introduction into Power Plant Life. It also gave the foremen an opportunity to pick those employees that had the natural “Power Plant Man” quality that was needed to work in this particular environment.
I brought my chart to the team and showed them how a train wreck was just down the road. Someone at Corporate Headquarters must have figured this out, so a couple of things were done to try and combat this situation. I’m sure the same problem must have existed at all of the power plants.
The first thing that was done was that the retirement policy was changed. Instead of having to wait until you were 60 to retire with full benefits, you could retire with full benefits when your age and your years of service added up to 80 or more. A couple of years after that policy went into effect, we calculated that Jim Arnold had 100 points when you added his age and his years of service.
As a side note:
When we added up Gene Day’s years of Service and his age it added up to 80. That’s because, even though he was 80 years old, no one could remember whether he ever did any service…. That’s why I didn’t include him in the chart above.
Sure. Gene had been hanging around at the Power Plants since they discovered electricity, but it never occurred to him to retire. He just walked around with his orange stapler (an Oklahoma State University fan). Anyway… I digress… Somehow, whenever I talk about being old, Gene Day always seems to pop up in my mind. I can see him waving his finger at me now (In case you’re wondering… read this post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“, or “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“).
Back to the story:
The idea was that we should have people begin to leave the plant now instead of all waiting until they were the regular retirement age, so they could be replaced with younger souls. There was only one catch and the reason why a Power Plant this size could be run with only 121 employees…. well… it had grown to 122 by this time since Brent Kautzman had been hired in the Instrument and Controls department. He was 31 years old when he was hired. I remember his birthday since it was the same date as my parent’s anniversary.
The reason that the Power Plant could operate with so few employees was because the majority of the employees at the plant had many years of experience. The majority of the employees had over 20 years or more with the company. In fact, I had another chart that I had made at the time that showed how many years of experience we would lose each year that we had a large number of people retiring. In just one year we would have lost over 220 years of experience if something hadn’t been done soon.
The company decided to hire young inexperienced employees fresh out of vo-tech and begin training them to work at a power plant. They opened a new position at each of the plants to lead the training efforts. Someone that had some computer skills and could work with employees to help teach them in the ways of Power Plant Maintenance. A training program to head off an impending train wreck.
I won’t go into too much detail about how this worked but it consisted of building a training room where new hires would take computer courses then would work part time in the plant learning how things worked. Then they would take tests and if they passed them, they could move forward with the next part of their training. All they needed were people willing to give it a try with the understanding that if they didn’t pass their tests, they would lose their jobs by a certain time period.
Training Supervisor…. I think that was the name of the job opening that came out in October, 1997. I was ready for this one. I had a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans, with an emphasis on Adult Education. I was the computer whiz at the plant. I could even write the entire training software from scratch with the help and knowledge of the Power Plant Men and Women.
The only problem with this job was that it was understood that at first the new training supervisor was going to have to be spending a lot of time going between the different plants with the training supervisors at each of the plants. I had just started going back to school at Oklahoma State University to work toward a Computer Science degree. If I had to travel a lot right away, my studies were going to have to be put on hold.
Even though I was looking forward to earning a Computer Science degree in the next four years, I thought that the Training Supervisor job would be a dream job for me, so I applied for it. My education could wait. I interviewed for it with Bill Green, the plant manager, who was the reporting manager for the job.
I explained to him that 50% of the work that I did when studying for my Masters in Religious Education (MRE) was learning techniques on how to teach adults. I had already shown my ability to do this using the computer when I taught the Switchman Training (see the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with ‘Boring’“). I had also taught almost the entire plant how to use Windows when it first came out.
I had created my own little Windows Manual that stepped people through opening up Microsoft Applications and how to maneuver around.
The Windows Icon was actually the Window Wingding character used for the Flying Windows Screensaver. I just added the colors to it.
Most of the people at the plant thought that I was a shoe-in for this job. I was custom designed for it. When the job was given to someone else, I was a little disappointed, but I was also relieved. This meant that I could go on with my work toward my degree. The job was given to Stanley Robbins. Stanley was a coal yard operator, and a very nice person.
One thing I had learned a long time ago with Scott Hubbard was that when someone is given a job that you really want, it isn’t the person who receives the job that should upset you. They were chosen by someone else. Through no fault of their own. This was a terrific opportunity for Stanley.
So, the day that Stanley began his new job, Bill Green was seen showing him around the plant, since he had spent most of his 18 year career up the hill at the coal yard. Stanley and Bill entered the electric shop and Bill asked where we kept the Electric Shop copy of the electrical blueprints. I showed him the cabinets where they were kept. Then they left.
About an hour later, Bill and Stanley returned to the shop and Bill came up to me and said that he had talked to Jerry McCurry in the training department in Oklahoma City (that is Corporate Headquarters), and he was looking for an audio book by Tom Peters, but Jerry said that I had checked it out. He wanted Stanley to read it. I told him that I had returned that audio book a couple of months ago, and now had a different audio book checked out at the time.
I took Bill and Stanley into the Electric Shop office and showed them a copy of a Tom Peters audio book that was my own personal copy “In Search of Excellence”, and gave it to Stanley and told him he was free to borrow it, as well as any of the other “motivational” business books I had, including a textbook on Organizational Behavior that I kept on the top of the filing cabinet to read during lunch when we couldn’t think of a fitting lunch time topic. I had another Tom Peters book on the bookshelf Stanley was free to read, “Thriving on Chaos”:
And a book left over from our “Quality Process” days that I had rushed out to buy the day I first heard about it from our Quality instructor:
Bill Green, our Plant Manager, who had never spent much time in the electric shop quickly learned a lot about me in those few minutes that he never knew. What he learned was that I was an avid student of just about anything I could learn. I had read every book in the Electric Company library and was now going through their list of Audio Books. I showed him the library catalog and explained to Stanley how to check out books. — Everything was still done through Intra-Company mail in 1997.
Even though I was intent on being as helpful as I could to Stanley (and I think Stanley would back me up on that. I always supported Stanley any way I could), at the same time I wanted to impress upon Bill Green that if he was really serious about making the Training Supervisor job a real success, he didn’t really pick the most qualified candidate.
With that said, I think Stanley became a great Training Supervisor. He was forever grateful for the opportunity for this position. He stated that to me over and over. I was glad for Stanley.
I was also relieved for myself, because my dream of becoming a “real” programmer was still a possibility. I continued with my school and was able to graduate in 2001. That is another story for a later time.
Six months after the training team had been chosen, and the trainers had settled into their positions, we heard that the company had purchased a specialized “Training Package” for about $400,000. With additional cost for each module that was added. Ray Eberle can tell me the price for each module, but it ran somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 for each one.
The training modules included one for each type of equipment in the plant. So, for instance, there was a module for a large vertical pump, and there was one for a large horizontal pump, and one for a small one, etc. Ray knew the prices because he was evaluating the course material for them to see if they were correct.
Ray came up to me one day and said he was embarrassed for the company who was creating the modules, because between a set of modules, they were nothing more than copying and pasting the same incorrect material in each one of them. The set of modules he was reviewing added up to $120,000, and they were all wrong.
I had looked at the application that we had bought and I could easily see that I could have written a much better program with the help of people like Ray and the other Power Plant Men to give me information. We were going to be spending over $750,000 for a computer training program that we could have created ourselves and then the company could have marketed it to other electric companies who were looking for a training program.
After I received my Computer Science degree I spent years working for Dell creating computer applications that performed any sort of feat that was required.
The train wreck finally hit the plant a few years ago, as a mass exodus of retirees left the plant. I wasn’t there to see it, so I don’t know if the plant ended up with a larger group of employees or not. I know that Stanley has retired, but I still picture him at the plant training new hires to become Power Plant Men.