Originally posted February 28, 2014:
One day, seemingly out of the blue, a van drove into the parking lot of the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. It was carrying some people that had come to our plant to perform drug tests on everyone in the plant. The test consisted of each one of us going into the Men’s rest room (or Women’s rest room, depending on the usual one you occupied) and peeing into a small bottle while someone stood behind you keeping their eye on you. This was the first time drug testing like this had taken place at the plant. A few years earlier, in order to find “druggies”, the “snitch” was hired to go around and try to coax people to go hide somewhere and do drugs with the snitch. I wrote about this in the post “Power Plant Snitch“.
This was different. The first time, it would obviously have been a case of entrapment to have someone come around and ask you to go to a janitor closet somewhere and smoke an illegal substance. Drug testing was more objective. If the drug test came up positive, you knew you were either guilty of taking illegal drugs or you were pregnant (or… maybe that was the other test). We had heard before that we may at any time be subjected to drug testing, so when the people showed up to actually do it, I don’t think many people were surprised.
For the most part, there were few people that had an issue with going into the bathroom and peeing in a small bottle. There were, however, a couple of exceptions. The person that I remember had the most problem with it was Diana Brien. She said that when she went in to try to pee in a bottle with someone watching her, she just couldn’t do it. I figured this must be a problem more with women then men. For one reason. Men are always standing there peeing into something with other people standing right next to them watching them.
Just today when I was at work peeing into the urinal at work, I turned to the right and said, “Hey Tom! How’s it going?” Tom said, “Fine buddy! How are things with you?” I replied, “Oh, you know. I’m still here. That’s something.” We both nodded and went about our business. Something tells me the same thing doesn’t happen in the Women’s restroom.
With Power Plant Men, it is even more cordial than that. We tend to take showers in groups in one big community shower, where in the women’s locker room, they each had their own stall with a curtain. I only know because as an electrician, I had to go in there to change light bulbs.
The cordial nature of Power Plant Men in the shower came to my attention one day when I was a janitor cleaning out the bathroom in the Coalyard Maintenance building where the Labor Crew was housed. I remember hearing a conversation between Dale Mitchell and Chuck Morland as they were coming out of the shower. Dale told Chuck, “Gee Chuck, after seeing you, I have to question my manhood….” He went on to describe why. I won’t go into detail, but it had to do with Chuck Morland having a lot more “Manhood” than Dale had. You can probably guess that while I was around the corner mopping out the stalls where the toilets were, I was doing my best not to laugh out loud.
It literally took Dee all day to drum up enough nerve to go take the drug test. She kept drinking coffee, and water, but every time she had to go pee in front of the person from Corporate Headquarters, she froze up. By the end of the day, she had peed in the bottle, and it was over. Of the 250 employees, I don’t know if any were found to have been on drugs. After the warning, I wouldn’t have thought so. We were under the impression that if it was determined that you were on drugs, then they would take you to someplace where a more trustworthy test could be performed. If you were found to be on drugs, then we thought at that point that you would lose your job.
A few weeks before the drug tests began, when they were warning us that they were coming they said that if any of us had a drinking or a drug problem, they should come forward soon and ask for help. If you asked for help, then the company would provide services for you that would help you with your problem. If you later failed the drug test and you hadn’t asked for help, then you were going to be fired.
There was one person in our shop that we figured wasn’t going to be able to pass the drug test. That was Michael Rose. He drank so much that his blood alcohol level was normally high enough that if you were in an underground coal conveyor tunnel and the lights all went out, all you had to do was prick his finger and light it with your lighter, and you had a mini-torch until you were able to find your way out. When he passed the drug test it was pretty plain that either the test wasn’t worth a flip, or they weren’t testing for the type of alcohol Mike consumed.
In the following years, drug tests were supposedly administered by random. I will tell you why I say, “supposedly”. Some time after the initial drug test, one morning, our team was told to all get in a truck with our foreman and drive to Ponca City to a clinic and have a drug test taken. I think this was a blood test. It was done in such a rushed way, it was like they were on to someone, but didn’t want to just have that one person go take the test. That way, no one would be upset by being singled out to go take a drug test. At least that is what it seemed.
I remember our team all sitting there in the waiting room waiting to be tested. We each went in one at a time. When we were done, we drove back to the plant, and nothing was ever found (as far as we knew). I thought maybe this was the second level test because some anomaly had showed up on one of our initial tests. Anyway, it seems like all of us passed the second round of drug tests.
After that, about once ever year or two, a set of people would be randomly chosen from the plant to be drug tested. I know when most of those drug tests occurred because I was randomly chosen more times than not to be tested. In the next 10 years, I was tested at least 5 more times. So much so that I began to wonder why. It seemed as if every time there was a “random” drug test, I was chosen. I was usually with a different bunch of Power Plant Men, but each time I was there. Was I just so lucky? I am you know. I wrote a post about that. See “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck“.
I may have just been paranoid, but it came as less of a surprise each time. The tests even became more sophisticated. Eventually, there was a chart on the side of the bottle you peed in. So, not only did it take your temperature, but it also measured your urine to see if you were trying to cheat the test.
I didn’t mind taking the tests. I figured it might as well be me than any of the other Power Plant Men. Why bother them? We were all clean.
It was when I was watching a movie once where someone sniffed some cocaine up their nose that an idea came to me as to why I might be singled out to take the drug test each couple of years. You see, I had the habit of wiping my nose with the back of my hand. Not because I had the sniffles, but because it was irritated all the time.
When I was in college I had my nose broken one night when a friend, Jeff Firkins and I were going for a walk in Columbia, Missouri. It was around two in the morning, and somehow we just ended up in Douglas Park spinning around on a merry-go-round.
My friends from Columbia who read this blog know that when you were Caucasian in the spring of 1980, it is not a clever idea to go play on the merry-go-round in Douglas Park at night. I seem to remember looking very Caucasian in 1980.
We were having so much fun that we didn’t mind when a couple of local park dwellers came and gave us a subtle hint that they wanted us to leave their turf. So, eventually, it ended with a scuffle between myself and 4 other guys in which I ended up with a broken nose. I knew that I had a cut across my nose from one guy’s ring, but I didn’t realize it was actually broken until many years later when an ear, nose and throat doctor x-rayed it and showed it to me.
I thought that because I was always rubbing my nose, then Louise Kalicki was suggesting to the drug testers that I would be likely candidate for sniffing something up my nose. I didn’t mind disappointing them each time. The nearest I came to sniffing something up my nose was when I worked in the bakery and I ate a lot of powdered donuts.
When I left the electric company in 2001, in order to go work for Dell, I had to take a drug test. I had to go to a local doctor in Stillwater, Oklahoma and have my blood drawn. Then that was the end of it. After working for Dell for 12 years, I have not been subjected to repeated drug testing. Working in a corporate environment is much different, however than working in a power plant.
I think it is much more of a factor when the Power Plant Men and Women that work in a Power Plant are on drugs. I certainly wouldn’t want to work around someone on drugs in a power plant. There are too many ways in which someone could be hurt or killed. Driving heavy equipment, or operating machinery that could crush you in a heartbeat, you want to make sure that the person in the driver’s seat is fully functional and aware.
There was only one time when I was at the plant where I can remember that someone was fired because they were on the job while they were intoxicated. It was an unfortunate case, because the poor guy had things going on in his life at the time that were only exacerbated by him losing his job. I think at one point, he became so low after being fired that someone described him as a bum roaming the streets of Tulsa.
I had only wished that it had been possible for him to kept his dignity and been offered help. I know those things aren’t always possible and there were other factors involved I’m sure. Just a side note. I believe that this man, whom I have always held in the highest regard, finally picked himself up by his bootstraps and regained his self respect.
As I mentioned earlier, Mike Rose passed his drug test that day, to everyone’s surprise. Even he was surprised. One weekend he had been called out to work to fix the air conditioner for the logic room. When Bill Bennett called Mike, Mike told him that he had been drinking and he wasn’t really fit to go to work at the moment. Bill assured him that it would be all right, if he could only go out and get the logic room air conditioner fixed quickly.
The logic room is the room that houses the plant computer that runs all the equipment in the plant (or it did at the time). It didn’t like being warm. If you can imagine the heat in the middle of the summer in Oklahoma. The plant operation was going to be jeopardized if something wasn’t done quickly. Jim Stevenson had already been fired because of the Snitch that I mentioned at the top of the post. So at the time, Mike was the only option available.
Mike went to work and found that the main relay to the air conditioning unit wasn’t picking up. So, in his inebriated state, he took a block of wood and pressed it against the lever that manually pushed the relay in, and closed the door on it so that the block of wood was pinned between the door and the lever. Keeping the air conditioner running. Needless to say, there was a legitimate reason why the relay wasn’t picking up, and by Monday morning the unit had burned up.
I think it was Leroy (or it may have been Tom Gibson) wanted to fire him right away for going to work drunk and destroying the air conditioner. Bill Bennett came to his rescue and pointed out that Mike had warned him before he came to work that he was drunk and Bill had assured him that it would be all right just this once. What could you say? I suppose shoulders were shrugged and life at the Power Plant went on as usual. I don’t think the drug testing ever amounted to anything. When someone was let go, it wasn’t because they had peed in a bottle.
Originally posted March 8, 2014. Added comments from the original post:
I have many stories that I am going to write about the extraordinary Power Plant Men in North Central Oklahoma from 1988 to 1994 this year, but it happened that I was watching a recorded episode of Forensic Files (otherwise known as Mystery Detectives) on TV tonight and it made me remember…. The story I was watching was about a women that was kidnapped in Pennsylvania June 1988 and murdered in order to draw the husband to a location where the kidnapper could collect the ransom and murder the husband. The man guilty of the crime was found to be a person that shared a pew in the Presbyterian Church with the couple but held a grudge against the husband for turning him down for a loan at the bank a few months earlier.
While I watched this show, I flashed back to June 9, 1988 and suddenly remembered the moment I was standing in the parts cage in the back of the electric shop in the main switchgear at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Okahoma when I heard about the murder of Mark Stepp.
Mark Stepp was an Instrument and Controls employee at our plant. Both he and his wife had been brutally murdered while they slept in their home in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Mark Stepp had been shot once and stabbed many times. His wife Delores had been stabbed to death an excessive amount of times until she was passed dead. I cringe to think about it to this day.
The next thing that entered my mind while watching this video was one month earlier on May 6, 1988. We had a new Electrical Supervisor, Tom Gibson, and he had sent Terry Blevins and I with two of the Instrument and Controls men to Tulsa to a class at Nelson Electric to learn how to program an Allen Bradley PLC (programmable Logic controller).
When I think about this instance, I remember Ron Madron driving us to Tulsa to the training (Ron. I know you read this post, so you an correct me if I’m wrong). It could have been Glenn Morgan. One thing I definitely remember is that Mark Stepp was with us that day.
The reason I remember that Mark was with us that day, was because when the training was over around 1:30 or 2:00 pm. Mark didn’t want to go directly back to the plant. He wanted to go for a ride around Tulsa. This wouldn’t be so peculiar, except that a little more than a month later, Mark Stepp was brutally shot and stabbed to death while he slept in his bed along with his wife.
Somehow I always felt that Mark’s behavior the day when we went to learn how to program Allen Bradley Programmable Logic Controllers was somehow related to his death. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. I’ll let you decide.
So, let me describe what happened early morning on June 8, 1988 (or 6/8/88 for those of you who are fascinated with numbers like I am). In the middle of the night, someone walked into Mark Stepp and his wife’s Dolore’s bedroom, and shot Mark Stepp in the neck. Then proceeded to stab Mark Stepp and his wife an excessive amount of times until they were past dead. I lost count of the number of stab wounds. They were stabbed so many times.
I remember first hearing about this when I had walked into the electric shop parts cage when I had gone there to look for some receptacle boxes. Andy Tubbs came into the cage and told me about the murder. The entire Instrument and Control Shop was on “high alert”. Suppose this person was murdering Instrument and Controls Power Plant Men at our plant! That day, no one really knew the motive.
I think some people from our plant were interviewed about the murder. I don’t know. I do know that Francine Stepp, their daughter was often mentioned in the discussion. She was on the same Softball team with her mother and father and many people at the plant were on this same softball team. They were all concerned with her well-being since after spending the night at her friend’s house, she came home and found her parents murdered in their bed.
During the next month while the police were investigating the crime, many revelations came out about Mark Stepp and his wife Dolores. None of which surprised me, though, it may have surprised those that worked more closely with Mark. You see, Mark has showed his true colors that day when we had all driven together to Tulsa to go to training.
When training had finished for the day, Terry Blevins and I (and Ron Madron, if he was the person driving) had counted on getting back to the plant in time to go home at a decent time. Mark Stepp, on the other hand had something else in mind. He wanted to go for a drive through Tulsa.
This didn’t make much sense to me at first, since I couldn’t figure out why someone wouldn’t want to return to the plant in plenty of time to fill out our time cards and get ready to go home to our wives and children (well… I didn’t have any children at the time, but I do remember wanting to go home at the regular time).
It didn’t make sense to me until we were driving down what seemed to be the frontage road of I-44 at the time and we came up to 6410 E. 11th Street. A similar thing happened to me just last week when a friend of mine was celebrating his 20th year at Dell and a person from Security who was playing a joke on my friend pulled into a location at 6528 North Lamar in Austin Texas. My gut sucked up like I was going to be sick as his friend pulled up to the entrance and proclaimed that this was the second part of his 20 year anniversary present. Well. my friend happened to be in like mind with me, which felt a sudden urge of betrayal and confusion. I’ll let you do your own homework at this point.
Mark Stepp asked us if we wanted to stop at a “Gentleman’s Club”. Really? With three die-hard Power Plant Men in the car? The rest of us unanimously voted to go back to the plant. Ok. That was an indicator that Mark had something going on with his life that was not quite wholesome.
I bring this up because later I was not surprised to learn during the investigation of Mark Stepp’s murder that he had been involved with a group that included “Wife Swapping”. I know there were a lot of rumors going around at the time that one of the persons involved in the murder must have been involved in the occult, and that it made sense given the manner of death. None of this surprised me.
At one point we learned that videotapes had been found in the house of hidden tapes of their daughter while she thought she had privacy in her bathroom or bedroom. I don’t know if this was true or not, but I wasn’t surprised if it had been true. Actually, after that day in Tulsa, nothing surprised me about Mark Stepp anymore.
I don’t mean to sound cruel. I grieved when I learned about Mark and is wife’s death as much as many other Power Plant Men. No matter the circumstances. It was a great tragedy. Whatever hatred had been the cause of this murder, it had been caused by tragic events proceeding this murder, I have no doubt.
I say this, because within a month of the murder, the murderer had been located. It turned out to be their own daughter Francine. I didn’t know the family at all, and I have never met Francine. Other Power Plant people knew them much better. As I said, they were on a softball team together. Francine played on a team with her mother and father. This came as a shock to them all.
Many people blamed her accomplice Cindy Sue Wynn. Francine’s parents had told Francine that they didn’t like Cindy and wanted her to stay away from her. The story is that Francine was spending the night at Cindy’s house when they devised a plot to kill Mark and Delores. Francine was 18 years old at the time, and was a Freshman at Oklahoma State University. If you would like to learn more about the murder you can find articles from the Daily Oklahoman here: “Two Stillwater Teens Facing Death Charges” and “Man Says he Heard Death Plot“.
They both pleaded guilty and Cindy was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 1990, two years later, Cindy pleaded to be placed on a “pre-parole” program which was denied. Francine was sentenced to life in prison. Since that tragic day, Francine Stepp was eligible for parole in 2003. She was denied parole then, and has since been up for parole in 2006, 2009 and 2012. Francine’s next parole hearing is June 2015.
Just like the day that Jim Stevenson walked out of the shop telling Bill Ennis about the Snitch stealing the portable generator (See the post, “The Power Plant Snitch“), I sat back and didn’t say anything when I heard about Francine’s conviction. What I had to say really wasn’t relevant. Just because it didn’t shock me that this particular daughter was so easily talked into murdering her parents by her friend, what I knew was no proof that she had been abused as a child.
Francine has now served 26 years in prison for murdering her parents. Her accomplice has been our of jail for at least 16 years. Francine is now over 44 years old. After 25 years, I think someone needs to take a fresh look at the motive as to why she would have wanted to take the life of her parents. Was it really because her parents didn’t want her to “play” with Cindy? Does that make much sense? Especially with all the other possible motives floating around.
I have recently been watching reruns of “Forensic Files” (also known as Mystery Detectives) on Headline News (CNN). I keep waiting for the episode about Francine Stepp running to her neighbor’s house on the morning of June 8, 1988 screaming that her parents have been murdered. Knowing full well that she had murdered them… But what really was the motive?
Was it really that her parents didn’t let this 18 year old girl spend time with her friend? Then how was she spending the night with her on June 7? Which parent hasn’t forbidden their child to play with someone because they were a bad influence? When did that ever do any good or amount to a hill of beans?
The little time I had spent with Mark Stepp a couple of months before his murder gave me a small glimpse into his life, and maybe the life of his daughter. I didn’t really know the guy. I do know, however, that a true Power Plant Man wouldn’t try to drag three other married Power Power Plant Men (though I was only a pseudo-Power Plant Man myself), to an indecent “Gentleman’s Club” (especially while on the clock).
So, I have to wonder. Will anyone go to Francine’s defense June 2015? Does she even care anymore? I don’t think she even showed up to her own parole hearing in 2012. She has spent many more years in prison than out of it in her life so far. If she was released, what would she do? Can you start your life over again when it came to a halt when you were only 18?
This is a hard post for me to write. I have a daughter who is 24 years old this month. She was born almost 2 years after this tragic even took place, and one year after Francine was convicted of murdering her parents. During my own daughter’s entire life, Francine has been in jail for murdering her parents. Her father worked at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
If Mark Stepp could speak from the grave today at Francine’s next parole hearing, I wonder what he would say? I only know what those at the plant who knew her would say. They all thought she got along with her parents. They thought her parents were proud of her. Billy Joel sang a song called “The Stranger“. It is about looking in the mirror and seeing that other side of you that you don’t let anyone else see. I suppose some people really have one of those lives where they aren’t really honest with the rest of the world. Billy Joel did, evidently. Maybe Mark Stepp did as well.
I have known for a while that I had to write about this story. I have dreaded this post. I am glad to have finally written it. Now I can put it behind me.
Comments from the original Post:
Originally posted March 14, 2014:
Early January, 1990 the entire maintenance shop at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma was called to the break room which doubled as our main conference room in order to attend an important meeting. We watched as a new program was explained to us. It was a program called “We’ve Got the Power”. It centered around the idea that the best people who knew how to improve the operation of the plant were the people that worked there every day… The employees. When it was over, we were all given an Igloo Lunch box just for attending the meeting. We were also promised a lot more prizes in the future for participating in the program.
In order to participate further, we needed to sign up on a team. Preferably the team would be cross-functional, because, as they explained, a cross-functional team usually could come up with the most creative ideas for improving things at the plant. Once we signed up for the team each member on the team was given a gray windbreaker.
I don’t have an actual picture of the windbreaker I was given. I wore it to work for a number of months until we found out that the material was highly flammable and that it was not safe for us to wear it on the job. We were supposed to wear only flame retardant clothing. I kept the jacket for 15 years, but the jacket was made with material that disintegrated over time, and one day when I pulled it out of the closet to wear, I found that it was literally falling apart on the hanger. I had no choice but to throw it away.
There were some interesting reactions to this program. I thought the program was a great idea and couldn’t wait until it began in order to submit our ideas for improving the plant. Others decided for some reason that they didn’t want to have any part in the program. Most of the Power Plant Men were eager to take part.
So, here’s how it worked. We had about 5 weeks to prepare our first ideas to submit to steering committee, which consisted of our plant manager Ron Kilman, the assistant plant manager Ben Brandt and I believe the Engineering Supervisor Jim Arnold. I don’t remember for sure if Jim Arnold was on the steering committee. We could only submit three ideas. At any given time, we could only have three ideas in the pipeline. Once a decision had been made about that idea, then we could submit another one.
I was the leader of the team that we assembled. It consisted of the following electricians besides myself: Scott Hubbard, Charles Foster and Terry Blevins. One mechanic Jody Morse. We also had two people from the warehouse on our team: Dick Dale and Darlene Mitchell. Here are their pictures:
I was somehow the luckiest guy in the plant to have some of the best brain power on my team. I will go into some of our ideas in a later post. Actually, I think I will have to have at least two more posts to completely cover this topic. For now, I just want to explain how this program worked and maybe share a thing or two about our team.
If one of the ideas we submitted was approved to be implemented, then we would receive an number of award points that was consistent with the amount of money the idea would save the company in one year. If it wasn’t a money saving idea or you couldn’t figure out how to calculate the savings, then there was a set amount of points that would be granted to the team. Each team member would receive the same number of points as everyone else on the team. Each person would receive the full savings of the idea.
We were given a catalog from a company called Maritz Inc. This is a company that specializes in employee motivation. They have been around a long time, and the gifts in the catalog ranged from small items such as a toaster, all the way up to pretty large pieces of furniture and other big items. I challenge the Power Plant Men who read this blog that were heavily involved in this program to leave a comment with the types of prizes they picked from this catalog.
The rules for the program were very specific, and there was a healthy (and in some cases, not so healthy) competition that ensued during the event. Once we were able to submit our ideas, we had 13 weeks to turn in all of our ideas. Keeping in mind that you could only have 3 ideas in the pipeline at a time. (well… they bent that rule at the last minute. — I’m sure Ron Kilman was thrilled about that).
I mentioned Ron Kilman, because for the entire 13 weeks and probably beyond, Ron (our plant manager)was sort of sequestered in his office reviewing the hundreds of ideas that were being turned in. At first some mistakes were made, and then there were attempts to correct those, and you can imagine that it was sort of organized (or disorganized) chaos for a while.
I will go into our ideas in a later post, but I will say that despite the fact that a good deal of our points were incorrectly allocated to other teams, we still came out in second place at our plant, and in sixth place in the company. Only the top 5 teams were able to go to Hawaii, and we were only a few points behind the fifth place team. So, all in all, I think our team was happy with our progress. Especially since we knew that over 200,000 of our points, were mistakenly given away and never corrected. Which would have made us close to 2nd place companywide. Our team had no hard feelings when it was over. We felt that for the effort that we put into it, we were well rewarded.
In the middle of this program, my daughter was born and so a lot of my points went to purchasing things like a play pen, a baby swing, and a large assortment of baby toys. I had been such a miser in my marriage up to this point so that the majority of the furniture in our house had been purchased in Ponca City garage sales early on Saturday mornings. I had the idea that for the first few years of our marriage, we would live real cheap, and then work our way up gradually. That way, we would always feel like we were moving up in the world. The first house that we rented in Ponca City was a little dumpy old house for $250 per month.
I had been married for 4 years by the time this program rolled around, and when the first few boxes of prizes had just arrived at our house, one Sunday in April, a priest came to the house we were renting on Sixth Street in Stillwater, Oklahoma to bless the house.
When he walked in and saw a large box leaning against the wall in the living room, and not a stitch of furniture, he asked us if we were moving. I asked him what he meant. He said, “Well, you don’t have any furniture.” I said, “Oh. No. We’re not moving. We just have the furniture in the other room” (which was a spare bedroom that we used as the computer room. That was where our old couch was along with an old coffee table (both of which had been given to me by my friend Tim Flowers).
From this program I was able to furnish my entire living room. I had a nice sofa (with a fold out bed), a new coffee table with two matching end tables. All of them good quality. Through the years, we have replaced the sofa and the coffee table. I also had two Lazy Boys, which I still own, but we keep in the game room:
The biggest prize I purchased from this program was a real nice Thomasville Dining room table and chairs:
Two of the chairs are missing because they are across the street in my parents house (on loan).
So, you see, you could get some really nice prizes from this program. The furniture came along just at the time my family was beginning to grow.
When we were originally forming our team Ron Kilman’s secretary, Linda Shiever had joined our team. We had signed her up and had even held our first meeting. Then one day she came to me and told me that she was going to be a part of the steering committee. She was pretty excited about this because she figured that the steering committee, with all their hard work would be well off when it came to prizes. So, we wished her well.
During the program it turned out that the team that had the most work to do was the steering committee. They worked day and night on this program. They basically gave up their day job to focus solely on this program for those 13 weeks. As it turned out, they were the least compensated as far as awards went. So, it was turning out that Linda had left our team, which was raking in the points, to go to a team that was barely receiving any points.
When the time came to implement the projects that were selected, the foreman that was over the team that was going to implement an idea would receive a percentage of the award points for doing the implementation. I remember my foreman Andy Tubbs (who was on the winning team at our plant), coming to us and telling us that we were to go implement some ideas and that he was going to be receiving award points while we went to actually do the work. — It was just one of those interesting rules in this program.
Andy Tubbs, being the true Power Plant Man that he was, said this didn’t set too well with him. So, what he decided to do was spend the points that he was awarded for implementing ideas on prizes for the employees to use in the electric shop. I remember that he had purchased various different items that came in handy for us in the shop. I don’t remember off-hand what they were. If one of the electricians would leave a comment below to remind me… that would be great.
So. I was bothered by the idea that Linda Shiever had been coaxed onto her team with visions of grandeur, only to find out (like Ron found out), that all their hard work was not going to be compensated at a reasonable level. I never blamed Ron Kilman for this, because it made sense that Linda should be on that team anyway, since she spent her day in Ron’s office and he did need someone to help with the enormous amount of paperwork. So, I decided to help her out.
Two of our biggest ideas had been approved to save the company over $315,000 each per year (when we tracked it the following year, it ended up with a savings of $345,000). In order to implement the idea, I believe the implementer would receive either a half or a third of the points. So, I thought of a way to have Linda Shiever be the implementer of the idea.
I remember explaining to Ron Kilman that in order to implement this idea, since it mainly consisted of a process change to how the precipitator is powered up during start-up, we just needed someone that could type up the procedures so that we could place them in our precipitator manuals. I suggested that Linda Shiever would be the best person to type up the procedure. And that is what happened. She received the award points for implementing our biggest idea.
When it was all said and done, the company was able to quickly save a lot of money, and in some cases increase revenue. I think the biggest idea at our plant from the winning team came from Larry Kuennen who figured out a way to change the way the boiler was fired that greatly increased the efficiency. This one idea probably made the entire program worth the effort that everyone went through.
It’s amazing what happens when you add a little extra motivation. Great things can happen.
Comments from the Orignal Post:
Originally posted April 5, 2014:
Today, work ended in a strange way. I was working away at Dell when I had a call with a business partner to go over some configuration of our timekeeping application. When I joined the call, the person on the other end of the line, who usually sounded like a normal woman with a slightly Hispanic accent sounded more like an insect alien with a very nervous tic.
I tried several quick remedies on my computer to resolve the audio issues I was experiencing. You see, at Dell, when we use the telephone, we are actually using our computer with a headset attached. After shutting down a few processes that I knew were not necessary in the hope of clearing up our communication, I thought that maybe rebooting my computer would be the simple solution. That was the lesson I had learned back at the gas-powered power plant in Harrah Oklahona in 1985.
Ellis Rook had told me back then that he didn’t mess with trying to figure out why the phone system wasn’t working. Whenever there was a problem, he preferred to just reload the program from disk, which took about a half an hour. No worries that all the phones in the plant would be down for a half an hour as the Rolm Phone computer was rebooting. So, I rebooted my system, since restarting the communication program didn’t work.
When my computer rebooted and I attempted to log in, when the screen would go blank just before the moment when you would expect the wallpaper to show up, my computer would indicate that it was logging me off and then would shutdown only to restart again…. Drats! …and I had this important call with my coworker that I was sure had not really changed into the alien that had been talking to me moments before.
I tried this a couple more times, and each time the computer would shutdown and restart. So, I swiveled around in my chair and turned to my current manager who was sitting across the bullpen cube from me and I said, “My computer has crashed.” It just keep restarting. She replied, “Go take it down to the computer clinic and have them fix it. They are great! They will fix you up right away.
On a side note, I just want to add that my current manager at Dell has been the absolute most influential manager I have ever met next to Charles Foster. She has perfected the art of “Expanding her bubble”. Charles taught me this technique many years ago.
So, on a side note of a side note, let me just tell you what my former foreman Charles Foster at the Power Plant did once. He ordered some equipment for everyone in the electric shop which ran into a few “extra” dollars. When he was called on the carpet to explain why he thought he had the authority to make this purchase, he explained it this way:
“When I went to ‘manager training’ they told me that during your career you will have times where it will be necessary to perform activities that you are not sure you are able to perform, so you should go ahead and try them. If you get your hand slapped, you just pull back and don’t do that again.’ This is called ‘Expanding your bubble’. I was just expanding my bubble.” He said Ben Brandt, the assistant plant manager, looked at him with a blank stare for a moment, and then told him that he was free to go. Evidently, according to the listening devices that we had hidden in his office, Ben turned to Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor, and said, “That’s a pretty good explanation.”
I bring this encounter up, because my current manager, Ali Levin, of whom I also have the greatest respect, just recently had an opportunity to expand her bubble. She was so successful that those around her that know what she has accomplished just stare in awe at her. I predict that within the next decade this young lady will have become the CIO (Chief Information Officer) of a Fortune 500 company (mark my word).
So, what does this all have to do with Charles Peavler and Power Plant Pilfering? Well. The final verdict from the super technicians down in our computer repair lab, said that since it was Friday afternoon, I wouldn’t be able to have my computer back in working order until Monday morning. Which meant that I would have to go all weekend without being able to log in and perform feats of magic on my laptop.
Ok. I was resigned to go home early and wait patiently until Monday morning when I could begin popping up various applications and flipping between them and the multiple Instant Message windows talking to various business customers throughout the day as I performed the satisfying dance of my day-to-day job. So. I left work early.
This evening as I sat down to create a post about Power Plant Men and my previous life working as an electrician at a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahama, the sudden loss of my computer flashed me back to a time when someone that was working with me experienced a similar loss. Instead of a laptop. This electrician had lost a set of “Jumpers”.
Ok. These jumpers don’t look like much, I know. But jumpers are almost as important to a plant electrician as a laptop is to an IT developer at Dell. That is, you just can’t get your work done without it.
So, it was either Donald Relf or Bob Eno who was working with me on Friday, March 29, 1993. During overhaul, we had been calibrating precipitator control cabinets all day. Much like today, April 5, 2014 when my computer died. At the end of the day as we were packing up our equipment Bob or Donald, I don’t remember, saw me leave my tool bucket next to the old typewriter stand that we were using as a portable workbench. He asked me if it was safe to leave our tool buckets there over the weekend.
I assured him that the coal-fired plant in North Central Oklahoma hired only “top-notch” Power Plant Men. His tools would be perfectly safe sitting out in the Precipitator control room over the weekend. I was so confident because I had always left my tools where I was working in the precipitator during overhaul and I had never had anything stolen. If anything, someone may have left me a present of chocolate behind only because they knew that I always did favors for chocolate.
You can imagine my surprise when we returned to the Precipitator Control Room on Unit 1 on Monday morning only to find that Bob (or Donald) had their jumpers missing from their tool bucket. We each used 5 gallon buckets to carry our tools. Mine had been untouched. No extra chocolate that day, but no unsavory fingerprints were detected.
As it turned out, we relied on Bob’s (or Donald’s) jumpers to do our job, so we actually had to return to the electric shop and create a new set of jumpers for him. I felt so ashamed. After all, I had so proudly explained that only those with the greatest integrity worked at our plant, and he didn’t have to worry about leaving his tools, and here I was having to cover for his losses. This was the only time in the 20 years I worked at the Power Plant where someone had stolen something from a tool bucket when they weren’t purposely playing a joke on me.
When I found time that day, I went to the control room and asked the Shift Supervisor if he could tell me who worked as the Unit 1 auxiliary operator over the weekend. I knew that this would narrow the culprit down to three people. He looked through his logs and said that Darrell Low, Charles Peavler and Jim Kanelakos had Unit 1 over the weekend.
Knowing how the shifts worked, I knew that each of these people had walked through the Unit 1 precipitator exactly 3 times over the weekend, before we returned on Monday morning. I also knew that no one else would have ventured to stroll through the Precipitator control room who was working over the weekend on overhaul. I knew this because of all the hundreds of hours I had already spent in this control room over the weekend, only one operator per shift ever visited. It was usually my reminder to take a break and go to the bathroom and buy something from a vending machine before returning.
I studied this list. Hmmm….. Darrell Low…. A person with impeccable character. Would love to play a good joke when given the change, but honest as the day is long. Jim Kanelakos…. Devious at times, but personally a very good friend. A person so dear to me that I him kept personally in my daily prayers. Charles Peavler… well… by the title of this post…. you already know the rest of the story.
I eliminated Darrell immediately since I knew his character and I would trust him with my life (which I actually would at times when he would place clearances for me). I suspected Peavler right off, but I thought I would make sure that Jim Kanelakos wasn’t just playing a joke on me first. So, I approached him and asked him if he had taken a pair of jumpers from a tool bucket in the Precipitator control room over the weekend.
At first Jim looked at me with a hurt feeling that I thought might be a perfect expression if he was playing a joke on me. He was holding the look of sorrow and hurt that I would actually accuse him vaguely of stealing a pair of jumpers from a tool bucket. When I pressed him on the issue. The hurt look changed to a look of resolve and he said directly, “No. I didn’t take them.”
I knew immediately that he was telling me the truth. Jim and I had worked together with Charles Peavler on the labor crew together. We actually used to analyse his behavior as sort of a joke, and kind of a refresher of our Psychology background. Jim Kanelakos had earned a Masters Of Arts in Psychology, while I had a bachelors in the same field. So, we used to have fun joking around together about the unusual behavior of Peavler.
Charles Peavler looked like the Sergeant on Gomer Pyle. Except that he had chewed tobacco so long that his lower lip was permanently curled so that he looked like Popeye. I say that because they had the same lower jaw and the same amount of hair on his head:
Once I was certain that Charles Peavler had taken the Jumpers from Bob’s (or Donald’s – I’m relying on one of you telling me which one) tool bucket, I approached him with the attitude that I already knew it was him. I came up to him in the Control room and said, “Charles! You know that pair of jumpers that you took from that tool bucket over the weekend? I need those back!”
I explained to him that I had told the visiting electrician that it was safe to leave his tools there because no one would touch his stuff. So, I felt personally responsible to get the jumpers back. Charles immediately denied that he had taken the jumpers. He said that he didn’t know what I was talking about. I told him that I had checked, and he was the only person over the weekend that would have taken them. So, I needed them back. He continued to deny that he had taken them.
As the overhaul was lasting a few weeks longer, I continually approached Charles in the middle of the control room where the Control Room operators were within earshot asking him to give the jumpers back to me. I would tell him how I need them so that we could continue our work. Also I would explain each time that the reputation of our Power Plant was at stake.
Finally one day he said, “Well. I don’t have them here. I took them home.” — That was a great relief to me. I had been continually accusing him day after day of taking those jumpers. I was finally glad to find out I hadn’t been accusing someone falsely, which was always a vague thought in the back of my mind. The moment he told me he had taken the jumpers home, I jumped on him (not literally – though the thought occurred to me). I said, “I need those jumpers back!”
It took about a week. Each day whether he was on the day shift or the night shift or the evening shift, since we were on overhaul working a lot of overtime, he was not able to escape me. I would go up to him and ask him, “Did you bring those jumpers today? ” Each time in the middle of the control room, quite loudly.
Finally, about a week after he admitted having the jumpers when I asked him about it in the middle of the control room, he went into the locker room and soon returned with the pair of jumpers and handed them to me. I quickly returned them to Bob (or Donald), and apologized profusely for the inconvenience. I didn’t tell him exactly what had happened to the jumpers, only that I had finally tracked them down.
I guess, he didn’t know that I knew him so well. So well in fact that to this day, I have kept Charles Peavler also in my prayers every day. When he lost his mother in on April 1, 2000 (fourteen years this week), I felt his loss also. He left the plant on July 29, 1994 during the last (and the worst) downsizing the Power Plant ever experienced. To this day, though I was peeved with Peavler back then, I still care for him deeply. I don’t think he was a “True Power Plant Man”, but neither was Jim Kanelakos or myself.
Some day Charles will meet our maker. When he does, he will be able to say, “Yeah. I did steal a pair of jumpers once. But I ended up by giving them back.” I clearly remember the look of relief that day when Charles placed those jumpers in my hand. It was if a heavy burden had been lifted. Actually, by that time I had decided that it was as important for Charles to give back those jumpers as it was for Bob (or Donald) to get them back. Something had compelled him to lift that pair of jumpers, I think it was an opportunity for him to face reality. I thought that he was having a “Come to Jesus” moment when he confessed.
I often wondered what Charles’ mother Opal Peavler would have thought of Charles. I suppose she finally found out. I suspect that by the time she found out, that Charles had mended his ways. After all, he was on his way when we had danced this dance in the middle of the control room that week in 1992. He did finally admit that he had stolen something. I’m sure he thought at the time that an electrician could easily make a new pair of first class jumpers. We wouldn’t care that someone had come along and taken one measly pair of jumpers.
Actually, if Charles had ever come to the electric shop and asked any electrician for a pair of jumpers, any one of the electricians would have been glad to whip up a pair as if by magic. I think it was just that one moment when he was alone with a tool bucket staring at him and a perfectly prepared pair of jumpers were gleaming up at him that in a moment of weakness, he decided he could pilfer this pair without anyone knowing.
To tell you the truth. I was very proud of Charles Peavler the day he placed those jumpers in my hand. Geez. I didn’t realize until after I finished this post that I have a picture of Peavler:
Originally posted April 12, 2014:
In an earlier post titled “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” I explained how in 1990 we broke up into teams at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to find ways to save the Electric Company money. Before we were actually able to turn in our first set of ideas, we had a month or more to prepare those ideas and to turn them into proposals. During this time, and throughout the entire “We’ve Got the Power” program, teams who wanted to succeed and outdo the other teams became very secretive. Our team was definitely that way. We had secret experiments going on throughout the plant, and we didn’t want other teams to even know what areas we were investigating.
As the program progressed, a certain level of stress developed between teams. In a later post I will tell a story about how this level of stress led to a situation of suspicion and eventually even animosity. This post will not go into that situation. Instead I want to explain what our team did to try to alleviate some of the stress by devising a special “Power Plant Joke” that we played on the rest of the Power Plant Men (and Women).
There were some teams that had setup some experiments that they were running to see if their ideas may save the company money. Our team had several experiments running throughout the beginning months. All of which we carefully hid from prying eyes. We were proud of our stealthiness. Sneaking around, making sure we weren’t being followed when we went to take readings from our carefully hidden recorders and other devices.
Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and I were sitting in the electric shop office discussing the stress level that had permeated the plant, and we thought we could take advantage of the stress by setting up a “We’ve Got The Power” Experiment out in the open that would be obvious to anyone that walked by. Only it would be a fake experiment designed to play a joke on the unsuspecting Power Plant Man.
Here is what we did….
Right outside the electric shop in the Turbine Generator basement there is a water fountain. We placed a hazard waste barrel a few feet away from the water fountain. Like this:
Then we mounted a junction box on the wall a few feet above the chemical waste barrel and a little to the right.
We turned the junction box so that the hinge was on the top, allowing the door to fall closed naturally. This was an important part of the setup to allow for the joke to automatically reset each time it was operated.
We ran some copper tubing from the water fountain water line over to the box. Then another copper line came out the bottom of the box and into the barrel. Next to that copper tube, another smaller copper tube came out of the bottom of the box and just bent toward the front of the box. It was not noticeable. We had a plastic hose coming out of the barrel and over to the drain next to the water fountain. Then we put Yellow Barrier Tape around the entire setup.
We tied Caution tags to the Barrier tape that said “We’ve Got the Power Experiment” Do not enter! I signed the tags.
There was an electric conduit running up from the junction box, that went up and into the wall about 6 feet above the junction box. So, this looked like a legitimate experiment going on, but for the life of anyone, no one would be able to tell what it was doing. — Mainly because it wasn’t doing anything….. At least not until someone went to investigate it.
So. Here is what would happen….
Employees would walk by and see the barrier tape with the hazardous waste barrel and the hoses and water lines coming from the back of the water fountain, with a junction box above it that was not completely closed. The door to the junction box was down, but not screwed closed. Conduit was going into the box, which meant that something electrical was probably inside Maybe a solenoid or something that was controlling the experiment.
They would read the Caution Tag that explained that this was a “We’ve Got the Power” experiment, and it would pique (pronounced “peak”) their curiosity enough that they couldn’t help but investigate it to see what was really going on.
So, what would invariably happen, was that someone would enter the area that was barrier taped off, and open the junction box to see what was inside. When they lifted the lid, they would find that they were instantly being soaked with water that would spray out of a small copper line pointing right at them directly under the junction box. At the same time, an alarm would go off above them behind the wall right above the electric shop office. It was very loud. A counter inside the junction box would register an “intruder’ had just opened the box.
So, as we would be sitting there during lunch, we would suddenly hear the alarm go off, and we could dart out the door to the Turbine Generator basement to find a drenched Power Plant Man. They were usually amused that they had fallen into the trap. I say usually, because I have the feeling that one particular person who found himself violating the barrier tape and getting soaked didn’t act too cordial about it. I’ll get to him later.
As I said, inside the box was a counter. It counted how many times the box had been opened and sprayed someone with water. So, we could go inspect it in the morning and we would know if anyone had looked at it while we were gone.
After the experiment had been there about a week, an overhaul began where Power Plant Men from different plants came to our plant to perform the overhaul. The plant would shut off one of the units and we would take it apart, and put it back together again fixing problems along the way (well. maybe not quite that drastic. It was a time to fix things that couldn’t be maintained or repaired while the unit was running).
So, the Power Plant Men at our plant, who by that time all knew about the bogus experiment just outside the electric shop, would bring unsuspecting Power Plant Men from other plants over to the see the “We’ve Got the Power” experiment going on in the hopes of seeing them get sprayed with water. So, a new round of alarms were going off during that time.
Eventually, when people had heard about the experiment, and knew that it was spraying people, they would approach the experiment with caution. When they opened the lid of the junction box, they would stand next to it against the wall in order to not get wet. The spray pattern from the crimped copper line was fairly wide, so you would have to stand practically against the wall next to the box in order to stay dry.
So, this was when we implemented Phase 2 of the experiment. — Yeah. It’s the second phase of many Power Plant Jokes that usually make the joke a much bigger success than the first phase. For instance, I have written a post about the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” in which I had played a joke on Gene Day, where after a week of preparing him for the final joke, I had coaxed him to look over my shoulder, only to have him read that according to his psychological profile, he was the type of person that would look over your shoulder and read your private material.
That would be a good joke in itself, but when Gene Day read that and began choking the life out of me, I pointed out to him the final statement in Gene Day’s profile which stated that he tends to choke people who try to help him by creating Psychological profiles of him. This second part of the joke is what really completes the joke and makes it a real success. The first part just makes it funny.
So, here is how we modified the experiment for Phase 2…. The nozzle that sprayed the employee actually came out the bottom of the box and elbowed to point toward the front of the box. So, what we did was we took a file and filed a tiny notch in the side of the copper tubing just below the junction box just above the elbow. The notch was on the side of the copper tube, and it was deep enough of a notch to make a little hole in the side of the copper line.
So, then, if someone was standing to the only side they could stand next to the box and the barrel and they opened up the lid of the Junction Box to show someone how the experiment worked, they wouldn’t notice right away, but a small stream of water would be spraying on their pants in just the appropriate location to make it look like the person had just pee’ed their pants.
Right when we had finished modifying the experiment for Phase 2, Howard Chumbley walked into the electric shop. He was a retired Electric Foreman, that I have written about in the post “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace“. He had come to visit the plant that day because there was going to be a Men’s Club lunch and he wanted to come and see some other old codgers that he used to work with that liked to attend the Men’s Club dinners. He always wanted to see us of course as well.
So, we told him about the “We’ve Got The Power” Joke Experiment just outside the electric shop that sprayed water on people. Of course, he wanted to see it, so we took him out and let him observe it. We explained that when you open the lid, an alarm goes off, the counter toggles and water sprays out of that little nozzle sticking out at the bottom. We told him he could try it if he wanted to see how it worked.
So, he climbed under the barrier tape and walked around the side of the junction box that didn’t have the barrel, and reached over and lifted the lid. The alarm when off, water sprayed out, and Howard laughed with glee to see how we had devised such a nice trick. After watching the water spray for about 3 or 4 seconds, he suddenly realized that something was wrong. He dropped the lid and looked down, only to find that it looked like he had just pee’ed his pants.
That was it! That was icing on the cake. Howard laughed even more when he realized what had happened.
The next morning when we came in the shop, we went to look at the experiment, it had been disassembled, or shutdown in some manner. I think some caution tag had been placed there by Gary Wright, the Shift Supervisor stating something like this was a safety hazard, or some such thing.
Anyway, when I went up to the Control Room to ask him why he shutdown our experiment he was adamant that it constituted Horseplay and someone could get hurt. Maybe when the water sprayed on them, they might jerk back and fall down and get hurt. Ok….
I suppose. Though, by the time he took it down, everyone at the plant already knew about it, and we were just in the Phase 2 part of the experiment. In this phase anyone who was looking at the experiment was doing it by opening up the door from the side, and peeing their pants and they wouldn’t jerk back……—- Oh….. I see…. Shift Supervisors don’t usually like to walk into the control room looking like they have just pee’ed their pants.
I will say that I hadn’t expected that type of reaction from Gary Wright, because up to that time, he seemed more mild-mannered than the rest of the Shift Supervisors. We just took it that the more upset Gary was with us about it, the more successful the joke had been implemented. The joke had played out by that time, and we were good with it either way.
After it was all said and done. We thought it did help to reduce the overall tension that was permeating the plant due to the “We’ve Got the Power Program”.
Originally Posted April 18, 2014:
When I was an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma I inherited working on the Precipitators from Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist in the electric shop. One time after I had been struggling with the performance of the precipitator trying to lower the emissions of Fly Ash going out of the smoke stacks, I encountered a very odd situation.
One morning as I was walking out to the precipitator as I passed the Unit 1 boiler I noticed that a couple of tanker trailers were sitting outside the bottom ash area. Hoses had been attached to one of them and were running up the side of the boiler. What looked like a pump was running. I didn’t have a clue what was in the tanker. I figured it was just some routine thing that power plants did every so often to make things more interesting. You wouldn’t believe how many times Power Plant Men would come up with new and interesting things just to keep me in awe. (Of course, I am easily amazed).
Anyway, I didn’t really pay much attention to the tanker on the way to the precipitator. I just walked around the tankers that were there and entered the precipitator switchgear and up the stairs to the Precipitator control room where 84 control cabinets were waiting for my attention. On the way into the switchgear I had glanced up at the smoke stacks and noticed that the exhaust from the boiler was looking pretty good.
As I walked passed the control cabinets that controlled the back of the precipitator, I was surprised to find that they were powered up all the way and there wasn’t any sparking happening. Well. I thought. Maybe they are at low load and not much is happening inside the precipitator this morning.
As I walked between the two rows of cabinets toward the cabinets that controlled the transformers near the intake of the precipitator, my surprise turned into astonishment. I had never seen the front cabinets powered up to such a high level with no sparking. Everything was 180 degrees from the way I had left the cabinets the evening before when I was struggling to adjust the power to lower the emissions.
After going through each of the cabinets adjusting the power levels higher only to find that I was able to easily increase the performance even further, I returned to the electric shop for break. When I arrived in the electric shop office I told Charles that something very strange had happened this morning and I’m trying to figure it out, because all of the sudden the precipitator was operating at maximum efficiency.
After break I walked back out to the precipitator control room past the tanker trailers and found that everything was still running smoothly. “My work is done” I thought. I decided to go to the top of the precipitator and start working on fixing malfunctioning vibrators for the rest of the day.
I worked on the precipitator roof until noon, and then went back to the shop for lunch. I sat with Charles as we talked about movies we had seen. Charles was telling me about how the song for Ghostbusters had been on the radio. When the song said,
“If there’s something strange
in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call?
Charles’ son Tim (not having seen the movie) thought that instead of saying “Ghostbusters” they were saying “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!” Besides being exceptionally cute, it was also an honor for Charles for him to hear Tim sing, “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!”
After lunch was over I went back out to the precipitator control room to check on the cabinets one more time. To my surprise when I walked through the row of cabinets, they were sparking again as they had been the day before! Not quite as bad, but bad enough that I had to go through the cabinets and adjust them back down almost to the levels where I had them before.
It took longer to adjust the cabinets down than it did to raise them in the morning. When break time came along, I was too engrossed in adjusting the cabinets to notice, so I continued working through break. It must have taken me close to three hours. At that time I was still using a small screwdriver on some potentiometers inside each of the cabinets to make the adjustments.
About the time I finished, all the sudden something happened. The cabinets began acting the way I had seen them in the morning! All the sparking stopped and the cabinets began powering up to the highest point they could go based on where I had set them. Ok. Now I needed to find out what was going on!
I walked out of the precipitator and headed for the Control Room. I walked past the tanker trailers and noticed that the pump was running again. I hadn’t thought about it, but when I had walked by them a few hours earlier they had been turned off. This was curious. I figured that it was more than a coincidence.
Pat Quiring was the Unit 1 Control Room operator when I arrived. I asked him what has been going on with Unit 1. I explained to him that when I arrived in the morning I found the precipitator running smoothly, then later it wasn’t, and just a few minutes ago, something happened again and there it was. Pat said two things were going on that day.
One thing was that we had been burning a pile of sand that had been soaked with oil. They had been mixing it with the coal at the coalyard and blowing it into the boiler with the pulverized coal in order to dispose of the hazardous waste. Hmm.. This was a possibility. I couldn’t see how the sand would make a difference, but maybe the mixture of the chemicals in the oil had something to do with it.
Then I asked him. “What about those tankers on the side of the boiler? Why are they there?” Pat said that we were also burning Vertan. Well, not “burning” exactly. We were destroying it in the boiler, because it was chemical waste that needed to be disposed and it is easily destroyed into it’s chemical components in the heat of the boiler.
“Vertan? What’s Vertan?” I asked Pat. He said it was some chemical used to clean boiler tubes. These tankers had been sent to our plant from another plant that had just had the boiler tubes cleaned, and we were just burning it off to get rid of it. They had a schedule they were using to burn the Vertan. They couldn’t just get rid of it all at once because it caused a buildup in the economizer that caused the airflow to be affected through the tail end of the boiler.
So, I wondered, maybe this has to do with airflow. Diverting the airflow to different parts of the precipitator could definitely affect things. The cabinets out in the middle of the precipitator definitely had different electrical properties than those out on the edge.
I suddenly realized that this was 1988 and the Internet was not readily available to the typical user, and the World Wide Web still had a few years before it was widely going to be used. Frustrated that I couldn’t just go “Google” something for another ten years, I did the next best thing that I could do. I decided to pay a visit to our Power Plant Doctor! I wrote about Doctor George Pepple in the post “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. He was the head Power Plant Chemist.
I went to the Chemistry Lab and found George working away on some diabolical experiment. No. Not really, he was probably just testing some water samples. When Dr. Pepple was working on any kind of chemical test, he did it with such mastery and grace that it always reminded me of a mad scientist.
I asked George about Vertan. He explained to me that it was a chemical that was mixed in water and pumped through the boiler tubes to clean out calcium buildup and the like. I mentioned to him that I thought it may be affecting the operation of the precipitator and I was curious to know more about it.
Professor Pepple then explained to me that Vertan was called TetraAmmonia EDTA. EDTA? Yeah, he said, “Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid”. He said this just like my Animal Learning Professor, Dr. Anger used to say “Scopalamine” (See the Post “Poison Pill for Power Plant Pigeons“).
I wrote down this information and I continued monitoring the progress of the precipitator throughout the rest of the week. Each time the pumps were running on the Vertan trailers, the precipitator operated as if it was new and completely clean. Each time the pumps turned off, the precipitator reverted back to the regular mode of operation, only it would be a little better each time. By the time all the Vertan had been destroyed in the boiler, the precipitator was running very well on it’s own.
Over the weekend I went to the University Library at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and Looked up TetraAmmonia EDTA. Not much had been written about it. I was able to find an article about it in a Journal. It had the chemical composition.
A few years later when the Internet became available I was able to find a better model of the Vertan molecule:
I mentioned that at the same time that the Vertan was being burned in the boiler, we were also blowing contaminated sand into the boiler in order to burn off oil that had soaked into the sand. At one point, I had to go work on the head end of the number 10 long belt to find a 480 volt ground in a circuit. When I arrived, I could see where the oil from the sand had caused the coal to cake up on the belt and cause a big mess where the conveyor dumped the coal onto the belt 12.
There didn’t seem to be any correlation between the times that sand was being burned. The process for burning the sand lasted a lot longer than burning off the Vertan. By the time that the sand was burned off, the precipitator was humming away operating at near maximum efficiency. So, it seemed as if the sand didn’t have anything to do with the increase in performance.
I was convinced that burning Vertan in the boiler was more convincing. If not Vertan, then just injecting water could have been a factor. Since the Vertan was in water and they were pumping large amounts of water into the fireball in order to destroy the Vertan. Maybe the increase in Humidity had something to do with the improvement.
A couple of years later when the “We’ve Got The Power” Program was underway (See the Post, “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“). Terry Blevins and I were investigating the idea that Vertan could be used to improve the performance of the precipitator. We found that Ammonia Injection was used to treat Precipitators.
This is done by injecting ammonia into the intake of the precipitator to treat it when it was performing poorly. This reinforced our idea that Vertan was the main reason that the precipitator had responded favorably during that time since Vertan broke down into Ammonia at high temperatures. Even then, we didn’t exclude the possibility that the increase of humidity may have also played a role.
Another team had the idea that injecting sand into the intake of the precipitator would improve the performance of the precipitator by sandblasting the ash off of the plates. They had seen this happen when sand had been burned earlier. I had rejected this idea as being viable. I knew that the velocity of the airflow in the precipitator was no faster than 4 miles an hour. Hardly fast enough to keep grains of sand airborne.
It was worth a try though, and the other team pursued the idea and ran a test by injecting the sand. It definitely wouldn’t hurt anything to try. The idea was rejected by the Steering Committee (Ron Kilman), based on my input, even though something extraordinary happened during the test. When this happened, I became the instant enemy of the team leader.
I will cover this dilemma in a later post (possibly next week). For now I will just leave you with the knowledge that because I had chosen Vertan over Sand, I had definitely made an enemy of a True Power Plant Man.
Originally posted April 25, 2014:
Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood. I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend. Sometimes I was downright selfish. Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate. Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way. I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.
I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.
Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“. At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I explained this program in the post: “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“. With all that said, here is the story:
I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program. At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator. The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.
My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance. I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.
I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.
When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment. Who knows. Maybe something unexpected would happen. — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.
On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator. When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room. She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.
At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going. One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up. Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack. Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.
I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets. After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1A10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer. It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts. The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates. Cabinet 1A10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.
When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off. I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet. The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it. So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.
I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator. When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer. The fuse had obviously failed. Interesting timing. Coincidence? I thought it was. The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).
I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves). Then I powered the cabinet back on.
I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1A10. The opacity had returned to normal. I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.
When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened. Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment. So, he asked me what I thought about it.
First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas. So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.
I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack. I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse. I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time. After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.
I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it. On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post. To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.
The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett. He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment. Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:
It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy. The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me. Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”
When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why. If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way. It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important. So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend. This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.
I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him. It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing. Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away. It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt. I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.
Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club. I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop. Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases. For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.
Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business. I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim. That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.
I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well. Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years. I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.
Here is what happened:
The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000. I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night. It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem. Who else would be up on in the middle of the night? The night shift of course.
When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.” I replied, “No. That’s okay. What’s up?” Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water. I said, “Ok. I’ll be right out.”
I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper. She already knew of course. I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up. Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.
It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived. I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room. Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown. I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.
Power Plants at night take on magical properties. It’s hard to explain. Lights shining from the 25 story boilers, noises from steam pipes. Hums from motors and transformers. Night Hawks screeching.
When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted. Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep. — Actually, I may have done just that. It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.
When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office. I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure. Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually. I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression. He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it. I replied, “Well. That happens.” (No. Not the other thing that happens). I told him I was going to go home. It was about 3:40 by that time.
Jim wished me a good night, and smiling with gratitude, thanked me again for coming out. As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace. That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends. This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).
When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house. I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning. I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.
That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City. When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack. That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.
I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim. Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace. In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had that morning into my mind so that I would never forget it.
To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally (which still happens occasionally), I am determined that they will become one of my best friends. I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”). I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett. Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.
I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it. It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:
Note: If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link: Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted May 2, 2014:
Last week I mentioned in the post “Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes” that Jim Padgett called me at 2:15 am one morning to tell me that the coal dumper was broken and he needed for me to come out to the plant to work on it. You may have wondered why a plant electrician living in North Central Oklahoma would answer the phone in the middle of the night when it most certainly meant that they would have to crawl out of bed and go to work to fix something that was broken. Why not just roll over and pretend that the phone never rang?
You see… I knew when the phone rang that it was the power plant, because in the 20 years that I worked at the plant, just about every time the phone rang after midnight it meant that I would have to get dressed, and drive 30 miles to the plant to work on something that was most likely going to be in a dusty dirty place. You could always count on the coal train dumper switchgear being covered with coal dust. That was the usual point of failure past the “witching hour”.
I suppose I could say there were two reasons why a Power Plant Man would answer the phone. One was that they were just all around nice guys and they wanted to help out any chance they could. The other reason was because of the pay.
Even though working at the power plant was perhaps one of the best jobs in the neighborhood (being the only job in the neighborhood, since the plant ground consisted of its own neighborhood out in the middle of nowhere), that didn’t mean that the pay was especially lucrative. That is, if a Power Plant Man had to rely on their base pay alone. So, in order to help the Brave Men and Women of Power Plant Fame pay their bills, many opportunities were provided for working overtime.
Think about this. What if, when I answered the call to save the day (uh… I mean the night) and spent 35 minutes driving out to the plant only to fix the problem in fifteen minutes? Then I would spend another 35 minutes driving back home with my clothes all full of coal dust, only to be paid a measly 15 minutes of over time? Even at double time, that would only be 30 minutes of pay. That would hardly cover the gas and the laundry soap.
Early in the life of this particular plant, it became apparent that something had to be done to motivate the heroic masters of Power Plant Maintenance to make the long lonely drive down Highway 177 at the wee hours of the morning. So, certain methods were devised to coax the restful souls to the phones when they rang. Once they answered the phone, then sheer guilt was enough to drag them out of the sack. It was that moment when the phone first began to ring, before the reasoning part of the brain kicked in and the more base reflexes such as those that were out to make an extra buck reacted instinctively that needed to be targeted.
So “Black Time” was introduced to the plant. Black time had probably been around long before the plant came into existence, but it came in handy when someone had to be called out in the middle of the night. Black time was the time that a person would be paid even though they didn’t actually work during that time. So, when a Power Plant Man was called out in the middle of the night, they would be guaranteed at least two hours of overtime even though they may only work for 15 minutes.
This would help defray the cost of gas and time for driving both ways to and from the plant. Anything from 7:30 pm to 7:00 am was paid as double-time. That is two times the normal base salary. So, two hours at double time came out to four hours of pay, or as much pay as someone would make for half of a day at work. That was some incentive for disturbing a Power Plant Man from their pleasant dreams of adventuring through the Power Plant Kingdom where the rule was always “Might For Right”. — Well, at least that’s what I was dreaming some of the time when the phone rang.
If Black Time wasn’t enough, it was taken a step further when the six hour rule was introduced. The Six Hour Rule was added fairly early on in the life of the Power Plant and went through a few variations when I was working at the plant. When it was first introduced, it came across as if someone downtown had made the decision that when someone is disturbed from their sleep during certain hours of their sleep cycle, it directly impacted their safety. Hence the Six Hour Rule was born.
Originally it worked like this…. The hours of midnight to 6:00 am were considered the prime sleeping hours for Heroic Power Plant Men. During this time, it was deemed that all Power Plant Men should be tucked in their beds dreaming of ways to work safely during the following day. Whenever this time period was disturbed, then the Electric Company should provide the loyal Power Plant Man for answering the call of duty during a time of early morning emergency by giving him back the same number of hours in black time so that he could go home and continue his all-important dreams and regeneration.
So, if I had been called out at one o’clock in the morning to work on something, and it took me two hours to fix it, then I could come into work two hours later in the morning. The first two hours of my regular work day would be payed as “Black Time”. — Makes sense… right? Two hours of work…. Come in two hours late in the morning…. black time… Easy to calculate.
This provided a pretty good incentive for going out to work in the middle of the night. First, you would get at least 2 hours of double time. Second, you would be able to make up for lost sleep by coming in late in the morning without having to lose any pay. You could also come in at the regular time and leave early in the afternoon if you wanted.
Well… That lasted for a few years, then the rules for the 6 hour rule began to change. Originally, even if the job was only 15 minutes, the least amount of black time that you would get was 2 hours. After all, it was an hour of driving for the large majority of the Power Plant Men that lived in a civilized village of more than 50 people. Later, the Six Hour Rule was changed so that only the actual time worked would count for the six hour rule.
This meant that if I drove all the way out to the plant to work on something that only took 15 minutes, then I could only come in 15 minutes late then next morning, even though I had spent at least an hour and 45 minutes away from my dreams of serving nobly in the Power Plant Palace. In that case the six hour rule didn’t apply anymore. I figured that someone who was short-sighted had come up with that idea. I’ll explain why in a few minutes.
The next phase of the Six Hour Rule came a few years after that… It was decided that after a person had been called out at night to fight the good fight, as soon as they left the plant, the six hour rule would start counting down. Let me explain this in a little more detail….
Say, I were called out to work in the middle of the night, and I worked from 1:00 am to 3:00 am (two hours). Then I left to go home at three. The hours start counting down so that by 5:00 am, the time I had spent at the plant were no longer valid, and I was expected to show up at work at the regular time. 8:00 am. Okay. So, in more and more cases (it would seem), the six hour rule would be made meaningless.
So, with this rule in place, if I was called out at midnight, and worked until 4:00 am, for a total of 4 hours, then by 8:00 am when I was supposed to be back at work all of the four hours would have ticked off and I would have no black time. I would have to show up at 8:00 am. See how that was supposed to basically take the six hour rule and make a joke out of it? (Or so, someone thought).
As most attempts at being underhanded without actually just coming out and telling us that it was decided that the Honorable Power Plant Men no longer needed their six hours of prime sleeping time to work safely the next day, the opposite effect was the result. Kind of like raising the minimum wage to help the workers, when you put more people out of work.
When the six hour rule was changed to count down from the time you left the plant, was when I made the most money from the six hour rule. I racked up loads of black time from this change as well as most Power Plant Men that were called out before Morning Prayers (Lauds). Here is how and why:
Suppose the phone rings and it is 1 o’clock in the morning. You decide to answer it and get called out to work on something that takes 15 minutes. You finish the job some time around 2:15 am (because, after all, you had to drive all the way out to the plant). What should you do now? If you go back home and go to bed, then because of the way the 6 hour rule worked, you would certainly have to come back to work at 8 o’clock. — hmm… You will still have collected 2 hours of double time. That’s something.
Look at the alternatives. What if you went to the shop and worked on some other tasks while you were already there? For Power Plant Maintenance Men, there is always something that needs to be fixed. You may even ask the Shift Supervisor, “While I’m here, is there anything else you want me to work on?” Shift Supervisors just love having their own personal maintenance man in the middle of the night eager to help. There is always something they could find that needs fixing.
So, instead of turning around and going home, invariably, after the 15 minute job was over, I would end up doing other jobs for the Shift Supervisor until morning. Well, once 6:00 am rolled around, it was really too late to drive home and then wait an hour and drive back. So, I would just stay until 8.
Now look what happened! Instead of 2 hours of double time, I worked from 2:00 to 8:00 with all but the last hour at double time, the last hour at time and a half. That comes to 11 1/2 hours of my base salary. Compare that to the 4 hours I would have received for 2 hours of double time.
But here is the best part. 8:00 rolls around. We have our morning meeting. Since I worked for 4 hours of the special 6 hours from midnight to 6, I get to leave at noon and get paid black time for the rest of the day.
What fun! Every time the six hour rule was reigned in to reduce black time it produced more black time. And how was that safer? The final tweaks to the 6 hour rule before it was basically abolished a few years later came during the fall of 1991. I’m not saying that this alone was the reason, but in 1992, the Power Plant had the highest Accident Rate since 1983. Somewhere around 23 accidents. Given that in 1983, we had 50% more employees, 1991 had a much higher accident rate.
The number of call-outs in the early hours of the morning were not as common as I may have made them out to be. So, I don’t mean to claim that the change in the six hour rule was ever the cause of even one additional accident. I studied all the accidents that happened that year, and even though some of them were the result of fatigue, it was usually because they had worked an extra long shift – over 12 hours, and were injured because they were tired. Not because they were affected by the six hour rule. The question was never asked if the person had been called out the night before.
Even though (as far as we know, because we never asked the question) the six hour rule changes didn’t directly cause any particular accident that year, it was a symptom of an overarching problem. A certain apathy toward safety had crept into the plant. The previous years, we had an excellent safety record. One of our best years was in 1987. I believe we had only 3 accidents that entire year. None of them serious.
I will discuss Safety in various other posts, so I won’t belabor the point now. The point I wanted to make from this post was that by focusing on the bottom line, or some other performance metric without putting your most important asset first (The Power Plant Man), almost always guarantees the opposite results.
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted May 9, 2014:
There were times when I was working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I wondered if there was anything that we couldn’t do. Surrounded by True Power Plant Men I found that when we were facing a seemingly impossible task, a Power Plant Man would come up with an extremely creative solution to the problem. One such example was during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I talked about this program in an early post called “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” so I won’t go into detail here about the program itself. I will just say that we broke out into teams to find creative ways to operate more efficiently, and to cut costs.
I was a team leader of our team, and looking back I must have had two criteria in mind when I picked the team members that would be on my team. The first would have been that they were True Power Plant Men (and woman) with a higher than average intelligence. The second criteria would have been that they were friends of mine. I say this, because everyone on my team fit the bill.
During out team meetings, Terry Blevins would often say some bombastic statement that the average person may be inclined to dismiss immediately as being absurd. I say that because I remember more than once thinking that what Terry had just said wouldn’t amount to much. As it turned out, our biggest money saving ideas were those truly bombastic statements that Terry was making. One such idea had to do with the heaters on the precipitators that kept the hoppers and the insulators on the roof too hot to collect moisture.
The Precipitator is a very large box that takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack (how many times have I made that statement in the last two years?). Anyway, the exhaust from the boiler after the coal has been turned to ash in the fireball in the boiler contains a large amount of moisture. The last thing you want to happen is for the temperature of the flue gas to fall below the dew point. When that happens, moisture collects on the structure in a form of… well… of Acid Rain. Basically eating away the precipitator and the duct work from the inside.
Somewhere along the line, it had been determined that the dewpoint of the flue gas was not higher than 250 degrees. So, as long as the structure was at least 250 degrees, no moisture would be collected. Four heaters were mounted on each of the 84 hoppers (on each of the two precipitators) and heaters were mounted on the roof around each of the insulators that held up the wire racks on both ends.
When Terry walked into the office to attend one of our first “We’ve Got The Power” team meetings, he said, I think we could save a lot of money if we did something about the heaters on the precipitator. — He may remember being greeted with blank stares (at least from me). Um. Ok. Heaters on the precipitator. I knew they were everywhere, but I never gave them much thought.
I think Terry could tell right away that I hadn’t taken his idea seriously. I don’t know. Maybe he was bothered by the sound of my eyeballs rolling around in circles as if someone has conked me on the head. So, he explained his idea further. He pointed out that the roof heaters on just one of the precipitators used about 211 kilowatt-hours and the hopper heaters used about 345 kilowatt-hours. Together it more than half a Megawatt of power. — This definitely caught our attention. That meant that between both of the Precipitators (since we had two boilers at our plant), we could possibly save over a Megawatt of electricity every hour we could shut down the heaters.
After discussing all the aspects of the idea, we decided that in order for the idea to have any merit, we had to know if the dew point really was around 250 degrees, or was it possibly a lot lower. 250 degrees seemed high to begin with since the boiling point of water is 212 degrees. If lower, then we could have a workable idea. Originally, I wanted to tackle the task of finding the dew point. So, I went about it in a Science Experiment sort of way.
I figured that if we were able to lower the temperature of the flue gas to a known temperature below the dewpoint, and by knowing the volume of the gas, and the amount of liquid we could condense out of it, we could determine (possibly) the dew point. So, I brought my Graham Condenser to work, and Scott Hubbard and I went up to the 250 foot landing on the smoke stack with the intent of sucking a known amount of exhaust from the smoke stack while the unit was at full load.
We would run it through the condenser while running cool water through it to lower the temperature.
I could measure the output of the vacuum pump by filling up an inverted Erlemeyer flask with water and then letting the flue gas displace the water. — I always loved doing experiments like this in the 9th grade science glass with Mr. Godfrey our Physical Science Teacher (Donna Westhoff, who may sometimes read this blog was in my class and sat right behind me).
Ok. Side Story, since I mentioned Donna Westhoff from the 9th grade 1974-75 school year.
I knew that Donna’s father was a fire fighter, because one day during a special outing when we were with a group of bicycling Junior High School students and a teacher, we stopped at Donna Westhoff’s house to get a drink of water. On the walls in her house were different types of fire fighting treasures. Donna explained that her father was a fire fighter… That was the Spring of 1975 in Columbia, Missouri
Fast forward 16 years later (1991) at the Power Plant in the middle of nowhere in North Central Oklahoma. Just about a year after the story I’m telling now…. I left the logic room and went to catch the elevator to the Control room. When the doors opened, Tony Mena was in there with a bunch of college age students giving them a tour of the plant. I entered the elevator and turned around to face the door as it closed.
As I was standing there, I suddenly became aware that the person standing next to me was staring right at me. So, I turned to see who it was. Standing next to me was someone that looked very familiar wearing a big grin as if she knew who I was. I recognized her, and while my mind was going through filing cabinets of memories trying to index this particular person, I asked her, “Don’t I know you?” She shook her head and said, “I’m Donna Westhoff!”
As the elevator door opened and we stepped out, Donna and I began talking about what we were both doing there. She was surprised to find that I had become an electrician at a power plant instead of some kind of scientist in a lab somewhere. Donna was going to school in Stillwater where one of the best Fire Fighting Schools in the country is found. Following in her father’s footsteps, I thought. After a while I could tell that Tony was getting a little perturbed that the wisdom he was imparting about the fire protection system on the Turbine Generator wasn’t being absorbed by Donna, so I cut our conversation short. It turned out that a very good friend of hers lived just two houses from where we lived, and her friend’s mother was my landlord. Peggy Pickens.
Ok. End of the side story, and another example of how I occasionally run into friends from my childhood in the most unexpected places (see the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“).
So. Scott Hubbard and I tried using the Graham Condenser and the Erlenmeyer Flask, but we quickly found out that this wasn’t big enough, to capture a large enough quantity. So, we increased the size of the condenser by winding a garden hose around inside of a water bucket and filling it with ice. Then we captured all the water that condensed in the hose.
When it finally came down to it. Even though it was fun trying to do this experiment halfway up the 500 foot smoke stack, I never was able to figure out how to calculate the dew point given the data I had collected.
That’s when we decided to look at dew point sensors in the parts catalogs. If we could stick a probe down into the precipitator and measure the dew point directly in the flue gas, that would be best. After looking at a few in the catalog, Terry Blevins said he thought he could make one. So, he went to work.
The next day he came in with an inch and a half conduit with hoses hanging out the back and a homemade sensor on the other end. I won’t go into detail how the sensor was built because some day Terry may want to patent this thing because, as it turned out, it was so sensitive that it could detect my breathe from about a foot away. If I breathed out of my mouth toward the sensor, it would detect the moisture in my breath. This was perfect!
We went to work on the roof of the precipitator sticking the probe down into different sections of the precipitator. It not only measured the moisture, it also had thermocouples on it that we used to accurately measure the temperature of the sensor as we varied the temperature by blowing cold air through the conduit using the same ice bucket and hose from before.
I could go into a lot of detail about how we performed our experiments, but it would only excite me and bore you. So, let me just say that we came up with two very important results. First of all, at full load when the humidity outside was at 100% the dew point was around 150 degrees! A full 100 degrees below what the plant had originally assumed. This was very important, because a lot of energy was spent trying to keep the flue gas above 250 degrees, and just by lowering it down to 210 degrees, still a safe amount above the dew point, that extra energy could be used to create electricity.
The second thing that we discovered was that the middle sections of the precipitator was a lot cooler inside than the outer fields. We realized that this was caused by the air preheater coils that rotated between the flue gas and the Primary Air intake duct. This took the last amount of heat safely possible from the exhaust and transferred it to the air going into the boiler so that it was already hot when it was used to burn the coal. Because of the way the air preheater coils rotated, the part of the duct toward the middle of the precipitator was a lot cooler than the air on the outside.
Lower temperatures in the precipitator increased the performance, so we decided that if we could mix the air around as it was going into the precipitator so that the outer edges were cooler, then it would increase the overall performance. One suggestion was to put a mobile home in the duct work because in Oklahoma it was a known fact that mobile homes attracted tornadoes and it would probably cause a tornadic reaction that would mix up the flue gases. — We just couldn’t figure out how to convince management to put a mobile home in the duct between the economizer and the precipitator.
Thanks to Terry’s handy dandy Dew Point Sensor, we were able to prove that the hopper and roof heaters could be lowered to where we set the thermostat at 180 degrees. At that setting the heaters that used to always run at 250 degrees would remain off anytime the ambient temperature was above 45 degrees. In Oklahoma, that is most of the year. This turned out to save over $350,000 per year in energy savings at a cost of about 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Not to mention the unknown savings from being able to lower the flue gas temperature by 40 degrees.
Originally posted May 17, 2014:
Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.
One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.
The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.
Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.
Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.
I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.
When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.
I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.
Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.
When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.
When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.
Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.
I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait) See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.
With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.
While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.
Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.
By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.
The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.
The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.
So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.
As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”
So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.
Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….
George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.
Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.
The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.
This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.
You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).
Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.
Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.
This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….
Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.
I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….
In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.
In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.
Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.
Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.
I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.
It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.
He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?
The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.
When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.
That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…
I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.
Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.
Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.
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