The 25th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally posted January 18, 2013:
The day I became an electrician at the coal-fired power plant, I suddenly became an expert in electricity. I think it was on Tuesday, just one day after joining the electric shop that I was walking through the welding shop when someone stopped me and asked me how they would wire their living room with different light switches at different corners and make it work correctly. As if I had been an electrician for years. Luckily I was just finishing a house wiring course at the Indian Meridian Vo-Tech in Stillwater, Oklahoma and they had us figure out problems just like those.
Within the first week, George Alley brought a ceiling fan to the shop that he had picked up somewhere and was wondering if we could get it to work. My foreman Charles Foster thought it would be a good small project for me to work on to help me learn about electrical circuits.
After all, this ceiling fan could go slow, medium and fast, and it could go forward or reverse. Only at the moment, all it would do was sit there and hum when you hooked up the power. — So that was my first “unofficial” project, since the main goal was to make George happy so that he would help us out when we needed something special from the mechanics.
When I was a janitor, I had observed the electricians preparing to go to work in the morning, and often, one of them would go to the print cabinets at one end of the shop and pull out a blueprint and lay it across the work table and study it for a while. Then they would either put it back or fold it and put it in their tool bucket and head out the door to go do a job. Now, it was my turn.
Andy Tubbs was one of the two people that played the best jokes on me when I was a janitor. Larry Burns was the other person, and he was the person I was replacing as he had moved to another plant. Andy was the one that had taken the handle off of my push broom the moment I had my back turned so that when I turned around to grab my broom, only the broom head was on the floor, while the broom handle was across the counter by the lab, and Andy was across the other side of the room trying to act like he wasn’t paying attention, but with an expression like he had just played a darn good joke. — I actually had to go back into the bathroom I was cleaning so that I could laugh out loud. I was really impressed by Andy’s ability to play a good joke.
While I’m on the subject, shortly after I became an electrician, I was sitting in the electric shop office talking to Charles when he stopped and said, “Wait…. Listen….” We paused, waiting for something…. A few seconds later, the sound of a hoot owl came over the PA system (what we called the “Gray Phone”). Charles said, It’s an interesting coincidence that the only time the perfect sound of a hoot owl comes over the Gray Phone is when Andy Tubbs is riding in an elevator by himself or with a close friend.
I had been sent with Andy Tubbs and Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), to go to the coal yard and figure out why some circuit for the train gate was not working. Andy had pulled out the blueprints and was studying them. I came up alongside him and looked at all the blue lines running here and there with circles with letters and numbers, and what I recognized as open and closed switches….
Andy stopped and gave me a momentary lecture on the nature of electricity. It was so perfectly summed up, that for years whenever I thought about the nature of electricity, I always began with remembering what Andy told me. He said this:
“Think of electricity like water in a hose. Voltage is the water pressure. Amperage is the amount of water going through the hose. You can have the nozzle on the end of the hose shut off so that no water is coming out and then you have no amperage, but you will still have the pressure as long as it is turned on at the source so you will still have voltage.”
“In these diagrams, you just have to figure out how the water is going to get from one side to the other. These circles are things like relays or lights or motors. When the electricity makes it through them, they turn on as long as the electricity can make it all the way to the other side.”
That was it! That was my lesson in ‘lectricity. All I needed to know. The blueprints were big puzzles. I loved working puzzles. You just had to figure out how you were going to get something to run, and that meant that certain relays had to pickup to close switches that might pick up other relays to close other switches. I found that most of the electricians in the shop were good at working all sorts of puzzles.
Andy went to the cabinet and grabbed one of the Simpson multimeters and a handset for a telephone that had red and black wires wrapped around it.
I was puzzled by this at first. I thought I would just wait to see what we did with it instead of ask what it was for. We grabbed our tool buckets (which also doubled as a stool and tripled as a trash can as needed), and put them in the substation truck. The other truck was being manned by the designated electrician truck driver for that week. We needed a truck that we could drive around in without having to hold up the truck driver.
We drove to the coalyard and went into the dumper switchgear. Andy and Diane opened up a large junction box that was full of terminal blocks with wires going every which way in an orderly fashion. They located a couple of wires, and Andy unwrapped the wires from the handset while Diane removed the screws holding the wires to the terminal block. Then Andy clipped one wire from the telephone handset to each of the two wires and handed me the phone.
Diane told me that they were going to drive down toward the train gate where the railroad tracks come into the plant and try to find these wires on the other end. So, what they needed me to do was to talk on the phone so when they find my voice, they will know that they have the right wires. Diane said, “Just say anything.” Then they left the switchgear and I could hear them drive away in the truck.
Well. This was my opportunity to just talk to no one for a while without interruption. How many times do you get to do that in one day? Probably only when you are on the way to work and back again if you aren’t carpooling with anyone. Or you’re sittin’ on your “thinkin’ chair” in a single occupant restroom. So, I just kicked into Ramblin’ Ann mode and let myself go. I believe my monologue went something like this:
“The other day I was walking through a field, and who should I run across, but my old friend Fred. I said, ‘Well, Hi Fred, how is it going?’ and Fred told me that he was doing just fine, but that he had lost his cow and was wondering if I could help him look for it. I told him I couldn’t right now because I was helping some people find a wire at the moment, and if I became distracted, we might not only lose the cow, but we might lose the wires as well, so I better just keep on talking so that my friends on the other end can find the wires they are looking for. After that I went to the store and I picked up three cans of peas. I thought about getting four cans of peas but settled on three and brought them to the checkout counter, and while I was waiting in line I noticed that the little boy in front of me with his mom was looking at me as if he wanted to have one of my cans of peas, so I quickly made it clear to him that I was buying these cans of peas for myself by sliding them further away from him and glaring at him. Luckily the boy wasn’t persistent otherwise I would have broken down and given him a can of peas because he was looking kind of hungry and I was feeling sorry for him, though, I didn’t want him to know how I was feeling, so I put on a grim expression….”
Needless to say… My monologue went on for another 15 minutes. Yes… .15 minutes. I had expected Andy and Diane to have returned earlier, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to find the other end of the wires, so I just kept on ramblin’ to the best of my ability. It’s like what it says in the Bible. If we wrote down everything I said, it would have filled many volumes. Being a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann came in handy that day. For more about Ramblin’ Ann, you can read the following post:
When Andy and Diane returned they said that they had found the wires right away, but that they had sat there for a while just listening to me ramble. They said I was cracking them up. They also mentioned that they thought I was completely crazy. Well. I was glad that they found the wires and that my rambling abilities had come in handy.
Five months after I had joined the electric shop, Andy and I were sent to Oklahoma City to learn about a new kind of electric troubleshooting. It was called “Digital Electronics”. I had just finished my electronics class at the Vo-Tech, and so I was eager to put it into practice. Andy and I went to a two day seminar where we learned to troubleshoot what was basically a PC motherboard of 1984. We used a special tool called a digital probe and learned how the processor worked with the memory chips and the bios. It wasn’t like a motherboard is today. It was simple.
It was just designed for the class so that we could use the digital probe to follow the different leads from the chips as the electric pulses turned on and off.
At the time I was thinking that this was a waste of time. I had been learning all about troubleshooting electronic circuits from Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick. I couldn’t see how this was going to be useful. I didn’t know that within a couple of years, most of our electronic circuits in the precipitator controls were all going to be replaced with digital controls, and this was exactly what I was going to need to know.
So, Andy and I spent two days learning all the basics of how new computers were going to be working. This was the same year that Michael Dell was beginning his new computer company further down I-35 in Austin Texas. Who would have thought that 18 years later I would be working for Dell. But that’s another lifetime away…
Comments from the original post:
Early in my career at the Seminole Plant I learned when someone paged you on the gray phone, you should always check the earpiece of the phone before you put it on your ear – it might be full of clear silicone calk (or worse). Also, at the end of the day when you reach to pick up your lunch box, you should pick it up gently. Someone could have slipped a full bottle of mercury (like 20 pounds) in it. This prevents you from pulling the handle off your lunch box or hearing it crash to the floor, smashing everything in its path. It’s amazing what Power Plant Men are capable of doing.
Plant Electrician January 19, 2013:
We used hand lotion in the electric shop for the gray phone trick. I remember Andy catching an unsuspecting operator in the main switchgear more than once.
Hand lotion is much nicer than silicone caulk!
Favorites Post #77
Originally posted September 26, 2015
I was five years old the first time I witnessed a shootout between two people the summer of 1966. One person was a law enforcement officer and the other person was apparently a criminal. The criminal who had run out into the middle of the street decided to stand his ground and turned around to face the Sheriff who had been calling to him to stop… “In the name of the law” I think he said. They paused for a moment, and then in a flurry of bullets the criminal fell to the ground. The crowd that had gathered around in that brief moment clapped.
I had never seen a dead body before that day.
The scene I had witnessed happened on the north side of Oklahoma City, just across I-35 from a restaurant called “The Surrey House”. It was a famous restaurant in Oklahoma City since the mid 1950’s, known for having the best pies around. We had traveled all the way from Stillwater Oklahoma to eat at this restaurant several times in the past 2 years before this incident occurred.
That particular day after we had eaten, we took a short jog across I-35 to go for a stroll down a street that had a western feel to it, much like the stockyard area of Fort Worth, Texas. At that time, this particular stretch of the Interstate Highway was different than any Interstate I had ever seen in my five informative years of existence.
You could pull off into the restaurant without taking a “formal” exit. You could even cross the highway at a couple of places by just jogging across the center median and pulling off the side of the road directly into another place of business.
As a side note:
In 1966, this particular section of I-35 was under construction. It was still under construction when we left Oklahoma in 1967 to move to Columbia, Missouri. Oh… and it was still under construction when we returned to Oklahoma in 1978. In fact. This particular stretch of I-35 was under construction for about 33 years. It was known as a “Boondoggle”. It was the laughing stock of the Interstate Highway system. It did look nice when it was finally finished some time around 1990.
At This time this small stretch of highway was still referred to as Route 66.
End Side note.
As fate would have it, August 14, 1999, when my son was 4 years old and my daughter was 9, we returned to the same street where I had witnessed the shootout 33 years earlier. The buildings were much the same, only they had a better coat of paint than when I was a child. As fate would also have it, another shootout occurred very similar to the one I had witnessed as a boy. The players were obviously not the same as before, but it did involve another lawman and another criminal. The criminal ended up with his gun being shot out of his hand then he was dragged off in handcuffs. Again, the crowd that had gathered clapped.
Here is a picture of the street where the shootout occurred:
When I was a child and we entered this small town across from the Surrey House Restaurant, this is what the entrance looked like:
When I returned with my children, here is closer to what it looked like:
As you can tell by now, I am talking about an amusement park. As a child, it was more of a place where you just strolled around and looked at the western stores and the people dressed up in western outfits, who would occasionally break out into shootouts and play tunes on tinny pianos in mocked up saloons.
When we returned 33 years later, Frontier City had turned into a full fledged amusement parks with roller coasters and water rides. It still had the occasional shootouts that would spill out into the streets when some Black Bart character would call the Sheriff out into the street for a one-on-one “discussion”.
I suppose you think I must have slipped off my usual “Power Plant” topic. Actually, the day my children were standing there watching the shootout at Frontier City, all of the people standing with us worked at the Electric Company. Frontier City had been closed to the public on August 14 (and 21) and was only allowing Power Plant Men and other Electric Company employees in the gate on those dates.
There was a sort of a rivalry within the Electric Company that I had found existed about 3 years earlier in 1996 when some lineman were at our plant from what might be called the T&D department. This stands for Transmission and Distribution. In other words, the department where the linemen and transformer people worked.
One of the linemen told me while we were working in the substation that the company really didn’t need Power Plants anymore. When I asked him why, he explained that since Electricity is bought on the open market now, the company could buy their electricity from anybody. It didn’t matter who. The company didn’t need to own the plants.
Not wanting to start a “turf war”, I kept to myself the thought that the Electric Company that produces the electricity is the one making the money just as much as the one with the wire going to the house. Do you think you can just buy electricity as cheap as you can from our power plants? After all, our electric company could produce electricity cheaper (at the time) than any other electric company our size in the country.
So, when we were walking around Frontier City going from ride to ride, I half expected to see a mock shootout between a Power Plant Man and a Lineman. Fortunately, I don’t think one incident of that nature occurred that day. If you keep reading, you may find out why.
Some time in mid-July the employees of the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma received a letter in the mailbox inviting them to spend a day at Frontier City. You might think this is a misuse of Electric Company funds to pay for the use of an amusement park for two days just for your employees… After all, this came out of someone’s electric bill.
You will notice on the invite below that the company was thanking everyone for their hard work and long hours and for working safely through a difficult time.
Wouldn’t you know I would keep a copy….
You may wonder what difficult time an Electric Company in Oklahoma could possibly face, and I suppose the first thing that comes to many people’s minds are “tornadoes”. In this case you would be right. We had a very trying year with the storms over Oklahoma that had ripped through Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999.
We call this a tragedy, and it was. Over 3,000 homes had nothing but concrete slabs where their homes used to be, as an F5 tornado tore through populated areas in the Oklahoma City area. Throughout all this destruction 36 people lost their lives. This is a very small number considering the amount of destruction.
The evening of May 3 at my home outside Stillwater, Oklahoma when I had arrived home from work, I swept the bugs and dust out of our storm shelter, which was an 8 foot by 8 foot cube with 8 inch reinforced concrete walls buried in the ground outside my bedroom window. The top of it looked like a patio with a big stainless steel plated wooden door. I stocked the storm shelter with some fresh water and snacks.
We knew tornadoes were heading our way. The weather experts on KFOR and KWTV in Oklahoma City were telling us all day the paths where tornadoes were likely to appear. The majority of the people in Central Oklahoma were bracing themselves for tornadoes all afternoon. With experts like Gary England, Oklahoma City usually found themselves well warned when tornadoes were on their way.
My wife was working as a Charge Nurse at the Stillwater Medical Center. I remember sitting on the edge of the bed in my bedroom watching the F5 tornado entering Oklahoma City. The tornadoes had traveled 85 miles from Lawton Oklahoma, growing as they moved across the state.
As the tornado tore through large residential areas in Oklahoma City I called my daughter, Elizabeth (Ebit) into my room and with tears in my eyes I told her we needed to pray for the people in Oklahoma City because this tornado we were watching on TV was destroying hundreds of people’s lives right before our eyes.
Less than an hour later we entered our own storm shelter as another F5 tornado was within 5 miles of our house. My wife, Kelly was still at the hospital moving patients to safety in the basement where we had taken shelter from tornadoes when we lived on 6th street.
We spent that night going in and out of our storm shelter as tornadoes passed close by. The F5 tornado that came close to our house took out the High Voltage power lines coming from our Power Plant to Oklahoma City for a 10 mile stretch.
There were a total of 74 tornadoes that night in Oklahoma and Kansas.
The Electric Company was scrambling to supply power to a city that had been crippled by a tornado 5 miles wide. We still had one high voltage line on the 189 KV substation intact where we could funnel electricity to the rest of the state that still had an intact transmission system.
The Oklahoma Electric Company had more experience with tornado damage than any other company in the country. They often donated their time helping out other companies in their time of need.
With the help of electric companies from nearby states, electricity was restored as quickly as possible. The men and women who work for the Electric Company in Oklahoma are the real heroes of the wild west. It is the lineman that is called out in an emergency like this.
Linemen work until the job is complete when an emergency like this occurs. Sometimes they are on the job for days at a time, resting when they can, but not returning to the comfort of their own bed until power is turned on for the Million plus customers that they serve. The lineman had completed their work repairing this natural disaster without any serious injuries.
That day at Frontier City, the heroes of the day were the T&D crews that spent a significant part of their lives working to repair the damage caused by these tornadoes. Even though there may have been some sort of rivalry between T&D and Power Supply (that is, the Power Plant employees), any Power Plant Man that came across one of the T&D linemen that day at Frontier City, tipped their hat to them (if not literally, then through their expression of gratitude).
As grateful as the Power Plant Men were for the hard work and dedication of the linemen during that time of emergency, the people who were truly grateful were the countless families who had their power restored in a timely manner. Sitting in your house in the dark trying to find out if another tornado is on the way or wondering if the food in your refrigerator is going to spoil, and water is going to be restored is a frightening thought when your family is counting on you to make everything right.
Ticker tape parades are reserved for returning soldiers from victories. Invitations to the White House are usually extended to dignitaries and distinguished individuals and basketball teams. Statues are raised for heroes who have made their mark on the nation. Pictures of our Founding Fathers are placed on our currency. All of these are great ways to honor our heroes.
Power Plant Men and Linemen do not need this sort of gesture to know that what they do for mankind is a tremendous benefit to society. If you would like to honor some great heroes of our day, then if you are ever travelling through Oklahoma and you see a bright orange truck travelling down the highway with an Electric Company Logo on it, then give them a honk and a wave. They will know what you mean. When they wave back, know that you have just been blessed by some of the greatest men and women of our generation.
Favorites Post #62
Originally posted October 19, 2013:
Everybody seemed to like Bill Bennett. We didn’t like him because he possessed a profound knowledge in the field of electricity. No. We liked him because he was a good person. Bill was a tall very thin black man that sort of reminded you of Bill Cosby.
Bill had a gruff cigarette voice as he was a chain smoker. Often he would say his first words to me when he came into the Electric Shop office for lunch each day in the same manner that Aunt Esther would say something to Fred Sanford. His lower jaw would jut out and he would shake his head with a look of total disgust… like this:
With this expression, Bill would often look at me and say, “You Scamp!” Dragging it out for the full effect. Nothing would bring a smile to my face faster than having Bill berate me by insulting my integrity as a person. He would also add on additional phrases like, “…You disgust me!” Or… “….you scum!” — I felt like Gomer Pyle by that point with a big grin on my face.
I just wish everyone could work for such a great guy at least once in their life.
I’m not saying that we didn’t have our disagreements throughout the years that he was our A Foreman at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I recognized that Bill had his way of viewing the world, and I had mine. And even though my way was always the right one, I realized he had a right to his view even when it was wrong.
At those times what could you do? Probably the same thing I would do. Fall on the ground kicking and screaming and then try to make your face turn blue by holding your breath. — That never seemed to change his mind though. Probably because I liked breathing too much and would find that it didn’t take long before I would develop an overwhelming urge to take another breath.
Anyway. After spending well over a thousand lunch times with Bill Bennett, just when I began to think that I had heard every story about Bill Bennett’s life that was imaginable, he would come up with another one.
I could tell you some stories about Bill where he was at the lowest point in his life. When he was an alcoholic at the point where he normally would have been fired from the electric company. Then someone gave him another chance for no other reason than because he understood human nature and cared about his fellow man.
You see. There are a number of people in the electric company throughout the years where they were at the low point in their lives. Sometimes people were there to give them a lift up from the gutter where they had fallen. At other times, they were cast aside mercilessly and forgotten because the company was priority. A useless and hypocritical attitude, I always thought, because what is electricity used for except to help mankind.
When Bill Bennett had reached that point in his life, someone was there to help him out of the gutter. They brushed him off (the dust I mean). Gave him some self dignity and “let it go”. Bill went on to become a good and compassionate person. I’m sure that those people in his life that helped him back then were the major force in reshaping his outlook on life. He was always fighting for the underdog. Once I understood that. I stopped my kicking and screaming, and picked myself up off of the floor.
So, I thought I would share a couple of my favorite stories about Bill.
When Bill was young, he lived in Oklahoma City, southeast of the capitol a couple of miles in the poor section of town. I could picture this story real well when he was telling it because my soon-to-be wife was living in this same area as she was attending Nursing School at the Oklahoma University Medical School.
Bill recounted this story: One day when he came home from school his dad gave him a little pet possum.
Bill was overwhelmed with happiness. This was like his one and only true friend. He took the possum with him wherever he went. After so many years since Bill told this story I don’t remember what name Bill had given the possum, but it was something like “Fred”, so I’ll just call him Fred for the rest of the story.
Bill taught Fred tricks, and he would run up his arm and perch on his shoulder. Bill would walk around the neighborhood proud to have his pet possum Fred sitting on his shoulder. The two became inseparable.
When the summer was over, in the morning when Bill went to school he would have to leave Fred at home. He had a certain sound that he would make to call his possum. So, when he would walk in the door after returning home from school he would call Fred, and he would come out from under the sofa, or the bed, or wherever he had decided to hide for the day. Fred was pretty much a grown possum by this time.
One day Bill came home from school. He didn’t remember whether he had called Fred or not when he came home, but if he had, Fred didn’t answer. This wouldn’t have concerned Bill much since Fred may have just been playing Possum as Possums are apt to do from time-to-time. Anyway. Bill didn’t see Fred when he came home.
When it came time for dinner Bill sat down and his mom served him a nice hot bowl of stew. As dinner progressed, at one point the subject of the stew came up. Maybe one of Bill’s brothers and sisters said, “Hey mom. This is sure some good tasting stew! What is it?” That was the point in Bill’s life when he decided to become a chain smoker and an alcoholic…. well… not all at once… This was just the point that led him down that path.
You see. As Granny in the Beverly Hillbillies would say, “Go eat your Possum Stew Jethro”. Here is Granny running for Possum Queen:
That’s right. Bill Bennett’s mom had cooked his pet possum Fred for dinner. When he heard this he was stunned. He didn’t have the same expression that Jethro had when Granny called him to the dinner table, that’s for sure.
When he asked his parents how they could do that to his pet possum, his father replied, “Why did you think I gave that possum to you?” That was when the grim reality of life hit Bill right between the eyes. Sick to his stomach he left the dinner table. From that day onward, Bill never again ate possum stew.
This might seem like a humorous or cute story to some. To Bill, it changed his entire outlook on life. As I mentioned. He later became an alcoholic. Which even later, with the help of his wife and others, he overcame. Though it was gradual, if you trace his life back, I believe that the downward spiral began at this one crucial point in his life. With the intentional loss of the life of someone he loved.
When Bill would call me a scamp…. I sometimes felt that down inside he was still crying for Fred, and was talking to his father instead of me. I could see a hint of sorrow even in his humor. He knew he could take out his hidden frustration in our presence because Bill always knew that friends like Charles Foster and I would always be there smiling back at him.
Ok. That was one of the more serious stories of Bill’s life, but one that I often think about when I think about Bill. Let me tell you a more humorous story:
Bill Bennett worked for an electronics store at one point in his life before he found his true calling as a “Power Plant Man”. Part of this job included making house calls to work on the security system in homes.
The employees would use the company van to go on house calls. It had the necessary equipment to install and repair the security systems. It also had one curious item sitting on the dashboard. A garage door opener.
The garage door opener was a point of amusement for the employees as they would drive through a neighborhood on the way to someone’s house they would click the opener as they drove along looking around to see if it would open anyone’s garage door. No one knew where the opener had come from, but they thought that just by chance it might randomly open a garage door here or there.
So, here is Bill’s story:
One day he was on his way to do a job in a high-end neighborhood. As he was slowly making his way down the neighborhood street to his destination, he was clicking the garage door opener to see if it would open any doors. When all of a sudden he saw a few houses up ahead that a garage door was opening.
For a brief moment Bill was excited that he had found a garage door that opened. Then he realized that the garage door that was opening was the house where he was making the service call. “Oh No!” He quickly began clicking the garage door opener to try to close the garage door, but it wouldn’t close.
Bill sat in the van for a while desperately clicking the garage door opener praying that it would work to close the garage door, but it never did. finally he decided he would act as if he didn’t know anything about how the garage door opened and climbed out of the van.
He walked over to the garage and peered in, sheepishly saying, “Hello?” He was conscious that he was a lone lower class black man in a predominantly rich white neighborhood walking into someone’s garage in broad daylight. He took a few steps into the garage when the garage door began to close!
In order to make it out of the garage, Bill would have had to dodge under the closing door, so he just froze in place and awaited his fate.
A few moments later, the door to the house opened and a little old lady entered. Bill tried to explain that he didn’t know how the garage door had opened and that he only entered the garage to see if someone was there. She said she had seen his van coming down the street, and had opened the garage door from inside the house.
So, the garage door opener in the van hadn’t opened the door after all. It was just a major coincidence that Bill happened to be driving down the street clicking a garage door opener when an elderly lady (like Granny) had seen his van and opened her garage door only to have Bill think that he had opened the door. Or was it a coincidence?
Sometimes I feel that when a coincidence of this statistical improbability occurs that there is often an extraordinary intervention from above telling you something. I’m sure that this little scare taught Bill something and helped him progress on to the view of life that he had when I met him years later. Something like: “When someone somewhere opens a garage door in life, some may find that there’s a little old lady behind the scenes actually pushing the buttons.”
I have another very coincidental story about a true Power Plant engineer that was a major turning point in this person’s life that I will share in a couple of years from now. When you read that story it will be very clear that there is someone definitely looking out for poor souls like us.
Comments from original post:
Favorites Post #53
Originally posted July 4, 2014
I never would have guessed that playing Power Plant Man jokes on Gene Day would have led me to the “Uh Oh!” moment I later encountered when I was told in no uncertain terms that the President of the Electric Company, James G. Harlow Junior was personally upset with something I had done. I had learned my first year as a summer help at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that “One ‘Uh Oh’ wipes out all previous ‘Atta Boys’!” I could tell by the way the Electric Supervisor, Tom Gibson’s ears were glowing red that this was considered a little more serious than I had first realized.
I have mentioned in previous posts that playing jokes on Gene Day was one of my favorite Power Plant Man Pastimes. See the post, “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“. Also see, “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“. My lunch breaks were usually consumed with learning more about how to program the Honeywell mainframe computer used by just about all the company processes that actually ran the company from payroll, to billing, to work orders and Inventory. I figured that as I learned more about the computer system, the more elaborate jokes I would be able to play on Gene. That was my ultimate motivation.
Already I had learned about the escape codes used by the large IBM printers that were used throughout the company at the time. This allowed me to create graphic images on the printer as well as large bold letters.
Besides the telephone and inter-company mail, printers were the only other way to communicate to non-present Power Plant Men in 1989. We had not yet been introduced to e-mail. I was one of the few people in the company that had an e-mail address on the mainframe, and the only other person that I knew that I could write to was Craig Henry, a Corporate Engineer downtown.
Much like the first time when I met Gene Day, when I first encountered Craig Henry, I could tell right away that he was a down-to-earth person that would shoot straight. Craig probably wouldn’t remember this far into the past that I would reach out to him occasionally just to say “Hi” and to pick his brain about how the corporate IT infrastructure was setup. I figured since he was one of the few people in the company that even knew what an e-mail address was at the time, he most likely had more knowledge about such things than the average person in Corporate Headquarters.
After finding out that Gene Day would go work out at the Rock Gym in Stillwater, Oklahoma after work, and I had played the joke on him with the notes from the private investigator, I used my knowledge of Printer Escape codes to write documents on the mainframe that when printed out would turn on the graphic commands on the printer so that I could print out pictures. I don’t mean that I would have a saved picture that I would send to a printer like we might do today. No. I had to create these pictures one pixel at a time using commands in a UNIX document on the mainframe. It was all codes that would not make sense to anyone that didn’t know the graphic commands of the IBM printers.
I had been teasing Gene Day about meeting up with a young “coed” from the University at the Gym each day. I would do this by printing out messages on the Control Room printer by the the Shift Supervisor’s office when I knew that Gene Day was there filling in as the Shift Supervisor. They were usually notes from someone that called herself “Bunny”. Usually they were short notes or “love letters” from Bunny just saying something about how she enjoyed her time with Gene at the Gym.
At the bottom I would sign it “Bunny” then under it, the printer would read the graphic commands and create a small Playboy Bunny symbol under the name. At the end, the document would send a command that would put the printer back into the text mode.
Of course. Whenever I walked into the control room shortly after, just to see how the precipitator was doing, Gene Day would confront me about the notes. With a grin on his face he would say, “This isn’t funny! What if my wife found one of these notes?” — Like that was ever going to happen…. unless he was like me, and likes to save everything.
In order to create the bunny at the bottom I had to create the pixels in small blocks of 9 pixel patterns. Here is the code I used to create the bunny:
In the last couple of weeks I have written about how the Power Plant Men were introduced to the “Quality Process” (otherwise known as “Six Sigma”). We had created teams with our crews and we met once each week to come up with Quality ideas. By August, 1993, I had received my official Certificate Certifying that I had completed all the QuickStart training and was on my way to making a difference in the Power Plant World!
So, what do these two events have in common and how did this lead the President of the Electric Company to send out a search warrant on a lowly (lowlife is more like it) Plant Electrician in North Central Oklahoma? Well. This is what happened…
First you have to remember that in 1993, the Internet was not easily accessible by the general public. Company e-mail was still not a reality in our company. We had dumb terminals and large IBM printers. That was the extent of most employees interaction with a computer. Each printer had a designation. It was a five character ID beginning with a “P”. So, the printer in the Electric Shop Office might be…. P1234. I needed to know this number if I wanted to send something to it.
At the time, the only thing people had to send to each other were requests for things from the mainframe systems that were used to run the company. So, for instance, if you wanted to request some parts from the warehouse at our plant, we would send over a list of parts to the warehouse printer where Dick Dale and Darlene Mitchell would pick it up and go retrieve the parts. So, the people that used the terminals and computers with mainframe emulators on them knew the most commonly used printer numbers in the plant.
If you wanted to send something to someone in Oklahoma City, or to the Power Plant in Muskogee, then you would have to call over there and ask the person what their Printer ID is so you can be sure you are sending your request to the appropriate printer. Without e-mail, and any other form of computerized communication. This was the only way at the time.
So, after our Customer Service Team was formed, we would meet once each week to brainstorm new ideas that would benefit the company. Andy Tubbs was our team leader, as he was our foreman.
The other members of our Customer Service Team were Diana Brien, Scott Hubbard, Sonny Kendrick, Ben Davis and Gary Wehunt. I haven’t properly introduced my bucket buddy Diana Brien in a post before. I have recently obtained a photograph that I can share:
We were called bucket buddies because we carried tool buckets with us whenever we went to work on something. They doubled as our stool and tripled as our trash can.
Thursday, July 15, 1993 during our Quality Brainstorming session, while we were pouring out ideas like…. “What if we changed out the street lights at the plant so that they would be different colors…. wouldn’t that help morale?…. and “How about if we wrapped fluorescent Christmas lights around the high voltage electric lines between here and Oklahoma City so that they could light up the night with colorful lights during the Christmas Season?”….. And other ingenious Brainstorming ideas that are bound to pull up an occasional brilliant idea….. well. One such idea popped up!
I don’t remember which one of our brilliant brainstorming ideas conjured up this idea, but Andy Tubbs suddenly blurted out…. “What if we had the Printer IDs added as a column in the Corporate Directory? — You see, each quarter we received an updated paper copy of the Corporate Phone Book. It included the names and office phone numbers of all the Electric Company employees. It also included their mail code. So, if you wanted to send something through inter-company mail to them, you would know where to send it. Our mail code was PP75. That was the code for our power plant.
So, what if we added a column where we had the printer ID that each person would use for people to send printed requests, among other things? This was Brilliant! We could just make this proposal and send it downtown to Corporate Headquarters where it would be lost in the “mail”. Or we could do more research to prove that it was a possible proposal that was really do-able.
So, I suggested…. Well… I can print a form out on every printer in the entire company requesting that they include all the names of all the people that use that printer and mail it through inter-company mail back to me at PP75. — I had recently uncovered a special printer command that allowed me to do this hidden away on the Honeywell mainframe. So, we took a vote and it was decided that we would pursue this proposal. I set to work on creating the form that I would send to every printer. If we could not only send the proposal to the Communications department downtown, but also a list of everyone and their printers, the work would already have been done for them.
I wanted to send a real fancy letter because I had already created a header using the Quality print settings on the printers. I had created a Company Logo that (I thought) ingeniously used the backspace command to create two words with one word on top of the other in the middle of a sentence…. Our company began as Oklahoma Gas and….. in the logo, I wanted the word Gas to be on top of the word And as it was in our company logo in smaller letters than the others. So… after playing around with it for a while, I created the logo and had it saved on the mainframe.
After attaching the header to the form, I included a message that told the person that discovered the form on the printer to add the names of all people who used the printer below and to send the form to Kevin Breazile at PP75. As I mentioned. In order to make the form look pretty, I turned on the Quality Print settings on the printer at the beginning of the document. Like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice….. I didn’t know a good way to turn off all the settings I changed to revert the printers back to their original settings.
I ran the command to send the document to every printer on the print server and away they went…. A copy printed out on the printer in the Electric Shop office so I knew it was working. Copies printed out on the other 12 printers at our plant. They also printed out on the 500 other printers throughout Oklahoma. — With the thought that “My work here is done.” I went back to work repairing plant electric equipment.
The following Monday I had the day off. When I returned to work on Tuesday, Denise Anson called me from the front office. She said that I had a large stack of mail. I thought, “Oh good!” Results from our request on Thursday have arrived! I hurried up to the front office.
When I entered the mail cubicle I was surprised to see how big the pile of envelopes were. The stack of inter-company envelopes was over two feet high. “Um…. Thanks….” I said to Denise. I picked up the stack and headed back to the Electric Shop to sort out the forms.
After opening the first few envelopes. I suddenly came to an astonishing discovery. Not only did the form print out on the large mainframe IBM printers used in office areas, it also had printed out on other types of printers…. I opened one envelope and found the form printed out on a “Work Order” printer. The paper size was different than the standard paper size, and I hadn’t put a page feed at the end of the document, so, it had left the paper in the middle of the page…. “Uh Oh”.
My “Uh Oh” changed to “UH OH!” after opening a few more of the inter-company envelopes. I found that the form had printed out on Pay Check Printers! And Billing Printers! “UH OH!” quickly changed to “OH NO!” When I read comments like “Under no circumstances print anything on this Printer Again!!!!” I realized I had really messed things up. By changing the font size and the quality settings, the billing, payroll and work order printers all had to be manually reset and the jobs that printed out paychecks, customer bills and employee work orders had to be re-run!
After taking all the forms out of their envelopes, the stack of papers was over 4 inches thick, just to give you an idea about how many responses we had.
A couple of hours later, Tom Gibson called me to his office. “Uh Oh.” (remember… One “uh oh” erases all previous “atta boy”s). When I entered Tom’s office, I could tell that something was definitely wrong. Like I mentioned earlier. Tom’s ears were beet red…. and in case you don’t know what a beet looks like. Here is one:
Of course… I knew what this was all about, only I didn’t know yet, how Tom had found out about it…. Tom began by saying…. “Ron Kilman just received a call from James Harlow asking him who is Kevin Breazile and why is he printing something out on my printer? Ron didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t aware that you had sent something to the President of the Company’s printer.
Sorry. That’s the biggest picture I could find of James Harlow….
Um what could I say? So, I said this…
“Well. This was a quality idea that our team had. We wanted to collect the names of people that used each printer so that we could send in a proposal to have the printer ID added in the Corporate Directory.”
I didn’t mention that Harlow’s Secretary had returned the form with all the people that used his computer as I had requested, because I knew that the President of the Electric Company was not asking because he was upset that I had printed something out on HIS printer. No. He had probably been told that the reason the bills were late being sent to the one million customers that month was because some kook had messed up their printers and the jobs had to be run over again causing the delay. So, I thought it was best not to go down that route at this time…
So, I stuck with my story, which was the truth…. I had printed out the forms on all the printers as part of a quality idea by our CST (Customer Service Team). — I also didn’t mention that three years earlier, Tom had asked me to learn everything I could about the company computer, because he believe that the computer was going to be the wave of the future.
Even though Tom believed my explanation, he told me…. “Kevin, Ron never wants this to happen again, therefore, you are never to send anything out of this plant without Ron Kilman’s personal approval. Is that clear?”
I replied to Tom that this was unreasonable. I send things to other departments all the time. I send Substation Inspection forms, and blueprint revisions and all sorts of other forms downtown all the time. Ron Kilman wouldn’t want to waste his time approving all those things….
Tom thought about it and revised his statement…. “Then, don’t ever send out anything that isn’t part of your normal daily job without Ron’s approval first.” — Ok. I thought…. this works, since everything I do is part of my normal daily job…. Even printing out forms on all the printers in the company… since that was part of our normal “Quality Process” Customer Service Team activity…. So, I happily agreed. And I left Tom’s office happy that I hadn’t joined the ranks of the unemployed.
That was one thing about working at the plant at this time. As long as your heart was in the right place…. That is, you tried your best to keep the electricity humming through the electric lines…. then the chances of being fired for messing up, even as big of a mess up as this, most often didn’t end up by losing your job.
I sometimes think that this was my biggest mess up of all time… however…. after this episode was over… there was a part two to this story….. Believe it or not…. Someone else in the company was overjoyed about what I had just done. They had been trying to do something similar for a long time, only to be told that it was impossible. — Doing the Impossible… I was good at that… Part two of this story is a story for another day…
Since this is a repost of this story, I have written part two, which you can read here: “Printing Impossible Power Plant Fast News Post“.
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Favorites Post #23
Originally post 2/21/2015
Don’t let the title fool you. I love testing Power Plant Protective Relays. There is a sense of satisfaction when you have successfully cleaned, calibrated and tested a relay that is going to protect the equipment you have to work on every day. With that said, I was hit with such an unbelievable situation when testing Muskogee Relays in 1995 that I was left with a serious pain in the neck.
On August 14, 2003 the electric power in the Northeast United States and Canada went out. The Blackout lasted long enough to be a major annoyance for those in the that region of the United States.
When I heard about how the blackout had moved across the region, I immediately knew what had happened. I was quickly reminded of the following story. I told my wife Kelly, “I know exactly why such a large area lost power! They hadn’t done proper preventative maintenance on the Protective Relays in the substations! Just like….” Well…. I’ll tell you that part now:
I have mentioned in a couple of earlier posts that something always seemed a little “off” at the Muskogee Power Plant. I had decided early on that while working there I would stick to drinking sodas instead of water. See the post: “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“. Even with that knowledge, I was still shocked at what I found while testing relays at the plant.
This story really begins one Sunday at Muskogee when one of the Auxiliary Operators was making his rounds inspecting equipment. He was driving his truck around the south edge of the Unit 6 parking lot on the service road. He glanced over at a pump next to the road, and at first, he thought he was just seeing things. After stopping the truck and backing up for a second glance, he was sure he wasn’t dreaming. It’s just that what he was seeing seemed so strange, he wasn’t sure what was happening.
The operator could see what appeared to be silver paint chips popping off of the large pump motor in all directions. After closer examination, he figured out that the motor was burning up. It was still running, but it had become so hot that the paint was literally burning off of the motor.
A motor like this would get hot if the bearings shell out. Before the motor is destroyed, the protective relays on the breaker in the 4,000 Volt switchgear shuts the motor off. In this case, the relay hadn’t tripped the motor, so, it had become extremely hot and could have eventually exploded if left running. The operator shut the motor down and wrote a work order for the electricians.
Doyle Fullen was the foreman in the electric shop that received the work order. When he looked into what had happened, he realized that the protective relay had not been inspected for a couple of years for this motor.
I couldn’t find a picture of Doyle. In his youth he reminds me of a very smart Daryl in Walking Dead:
In fact, since before the downsizing in 1994, none of the Protective Relays at the plant had been inspected. The person that had been inspecting the relays for many years had moved to another job or retired in 1994. This was just a warning shot across the bow that could have had major consequences.
No one at Muskogee had been trained to test Protective Relays since the downsizing, so they reached out to our plant in North Central Oklahoma for help. That was when I was told that I was going to be going to Muskogee during the next overhaul (outage). I had been formally trained to inspect, clean, calibrate and test Protective Relays with two of my Power Plant Heroes, Ben Davis and Sonny Kendrick years earlier. See the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“.
Without going into too much detail about the actual tests we performed as I don’t want to make this a long rambling post (like… well…. like most of my posts…..I can already tell this is going to be a long one), I will just say that I took our antiquated relay tester down to Muskogee to inspect their relays and teach another electrician Charles Lay, how to perform those tests in the future. Muskogee had a similar Relay Test Set. These were very outdated, but they did everything we needed, and it helped you understand exactly what was going on when you don’t have a newfangled Relay Test Set.
You need to periodically test both mechanical and electronic protective relays. In the electronic relays the components change their properties slightly over time, changing the time it takes to trip a breaker under a given circumstance (we’re talking about milliseconds). In the mechanical relays (which I have always found to be more reliable), they sit inside a black box all the time, heating up and cooling as the equipment is used. Over time, the varnish on the copper coils evaporates and settles on all the components. This becomes sticky so that the relay won’t operate at the point where it should.
In the picture above, the black boxes on the top, middle and right are mechanical relays. This means that something actually has to turn or pick up in order to trip the equipment. The electronic relays may have a couple of small relays, but for the most part, they are made up of transistors, resistors, capacitors and diodes.
So, with all that said, let me start the real story…. gee…. It’s about time…
So, here I am sitting in the electric shop lab just off of the Unit 6 T-G floor. We set up all the equipment and had taken a couple of OverCurrent relays out of some high voltage breakers in the switchgear. I told Charles that before you actually start testing the relays, you need to have the test documents from the previous test and we also needed the instruction manuals for each of the relays because the manuals will have the diagrams that you use to determine the exact time that the relays should trip for each of the tests. So, we went up to the print room to find the old tests and manuals. Since they weren’t well organized, we just grabbed the entire folder where all the relays tests were kept since Unit 6 had been in operation.
When we began testing the relays at first I thought that the relay test set wasn’t working correctly. Here I was trying to impress my new friend, Charles Lay, a 63 year old highly religious fundamental Christian that I knew what I was doing, and I couldn’t even make a relay trip. I was trying to find the “As Found” tripping level. That is, before you clean up the relay. Just like you found it. Only, it wouldn’t trip.
It turned out that the relay was stuck from the varnish as I explained above. It appeared as if the relay hadn’t been tested or even operated for years. The paperwork showed that it had been tested three years earlier. Protective Relays should be tested at least every two years, but I wouldn’t have thought that the relay would be in such a bad condition in just three years. It had been sitting in a sealed container to keep out dust. But it was what it was.
I told Charles that in order to find the “As Found” point where the relay would trip, we would need to crank up the test set as high as needed to find when it actually did trip. It turned out that the relay which should have instantaneously tripped somewhere around 150 amps wouldn’t have tripped until the motor was pulling over 4,000 amps. I could tell right away why the Auxiliary Operator found that motor burning up without tripping. The protective relays were stuck.
As it turned out… almost all of the 125 or so relays were in the same condition. We cleaned them all up and made them operational.
There is an overcurrent relay for the main bus on each section of a main switchgear.
When I tested the “As Found” instantaneous trip for the main bus relay, I found that it was so high that the Unit 6 Main Turbine Generator would have melted down before the protective relay would have tripped the power to that one section of switchgear. The entire electric bus would have been nothing but molten metal by that time.
As I tested each of these relays, I kept shaking my head in disbelief. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The mystery as to why these relays were all glued shut by varnish was finally solved, and that reason was even more unbelievable.
Here is what I found….. The first thing you do when you are going to test a relay is that you fill out a form that includes all the relay information, such as, what it is for, what are the settings on the relay, and what are the levels of tests that you are going to perform on it. You also include a range of milliseconds that are acceptable for the relay for each of the tests. Normally, you just copy what was used in the previous test, because you need to include the time it took for the Previous “As Left” test on your form. That is why we needed the forms from the previous test.
So, I had copied the information from the previous test form and began testing the relay (one of the first overcurrent relays we tested)… Again… I was a 34 year old teacher trying to impress my 63 year old student. So, I was showing him how you mechanically adjust the relay in order for it to trip within the acceptable range. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t adjust the relay so that it would even be close to the desired range for the longer time trip times…. like the 2 second to 25 second range. It wasn’t even close to the range that was on the form from the last test.
The form from the last test showed that the relay was in the right range for all the levels of test. When I tested it, like I said, it wasn’t even close. So, I went to the diagram in the instruction manual for this type of relay. The diagram looks similar to this one used for thermal overloads:
See all those red lines? Well, when you setup a relay, you have a dial where you set the range depending on the needs for the type of motor you are trying to trip. Each red line represents each setting on the dial. Most of the relays were set on the same number, so we would be using the same red line on the diagram to figure out at different currents how long it should take for a relay to trip….
Here is the clincher….The time range that was written on the previous form wasn’t for the correct relay setting. The person that tested the relay had accidentally looked at the wrong red line. — That in itself is understandable, since it could be easy to get on the wrong line… The only thing is that as soon as you test the relay, you would know that something is wrong, because the relay wouldn’t trip in that range, just like I had found.
I double and triple checked everything to make sure we were looking at the same thing. The previous form indicated the same settings on the relay as now, yet, the time ranges were for a different line! — Ok. I know. I have bored you to tears with all this stuff about time curves and overcurrent trips… so I will just tell you what this means…
This meant that when the person completed the forms the last time, they didn’t test the relays at all. They just filled out the paperwork. They put in random values that were in the acceptable range and sat around in the air conditioned lab during the entire overhaul smoking his pipe. — Actually, I don’t remember if he smoked a pipe or not. He was the Electrical Specialist for the plant. I remembered seeing him sitting in the lab with a relay hooked up to the test set throughout the entire overhaul when I had been there during previous overhauls, but I realized finally that he never tested the relays. He didn’t even go so far as try to operate them.
I went back through the records to when the plant was first “checked out”. Doyle Fullen had done the check out on the relays and the test after that. Doyle had written the correct values from the manual on his forms. I could see where he had actually performed the tests on the relays and was getting the same values I was finding when I tested the relays, so I was certain that I wasn’t overlooking anything.
As I tested each of the relays, I kept shaking my head in disbelief. It was so unbelievable. How could someone do such a thing? Someone could have been killed because a protective relay wasn’t working correctly. This was serious stuff.
One day while Charles and I were working away on the relays, Jack Coffman, the Superintendent of all the Power Plants came walking through the lab. He asked us how we were doing. I swiveled around in my chair to face him and I said, “Pretty good, except for this pain in my neck” as I rubbed the back of my neck.
Jack stopped and asked me what happened. I told him that I had been shaking my head in disbelief for the last two weeks, and it gave me a pain in the neck. Of course, I knew this would get his attention, so he asked, “Why?” I went through all the details of what I had found.
I showed him how since the time that Doyle Fullen last tested the relays more than 10 years earlier, these relays hadn’t been tested at all. I showed him how the main bus relays were so bad that it would take over 100,000 amps to have tripped the 7100 KV switchgear bus or 710 Megawatts! More power than the entire generator could generate. The main generator was only rated at about 550 Megawatts at the most.
Jack stood there looking off into space for a few seconds, and then walked out the door…. I thought I saw him shaking his head as he left. Maybe he was just looking both ways for safety reasons, but to me, it looked like a shake of disbelief. I wonder if I had given him the same pain in the neck.
That is really the end of the relay story, but I do want to say a few words about Charles Lay. He was a hard working electrician that was nearing retirement. People would come around to hear us discussing religion. I am Catholic, and he went to a Fundamental Christian Church. We would debate the differences between our beliefs and just Christian beliefs in general. We respected each other during our time together, even though he was sure I am going to hell when I die.
People would come in just to hear our discussion for a while as we were cleaning and calibrating the relays. One day Charles asked me if I could help him figure out how much he was going to receive from his retirement from the electric company. He had only been working there for three years. Retirement at that time was determined by your years of service. So, three years didn’t give him too much.
When I calculated his amount, he was upset. He said, “Am I going to have to work until I die?” I said, “Well, there’s always your 401k and Social Security.” He replied that he can’t live on Social Security. I said, “Well, there’s your 401k.” He asked, “What’s that?” (oh. not a good sign).
I explained that it was a retirement plan where you are able to put money in taxed deferred until you take it out when you retire. He said, “Oh. I never put anything in something like that.” My heart just sank as I looked in his eyes. He had suddenly realized that he wasn’t going to receive a retirement like those around him who had spent 35 years working in the Power Plant.
When I left the plant after teaching Charles Lay how to test the relays, that was the last time I ever saw him. I don’t know what became of Charles. I figure he would be 83 years old today. I wonder if he finally retired when he reached the 80 points for your age and years of service. He would have never reached enough years of service to receive a decent amount of retirement from the Electric Company since he didn’t start working there until he was 60 years old. That is, unless he’s still working there now.
As I said earlier in this post, Charles Lay was a very good worker. He always struck me as the “Hardworking type”. I often think about the time we spent together, especially when I hear about a power blackout somewhere. — A word of caution to Power Companies…. keep your protective relays in proper working condition. Don’t slack off on the Preventative Maintenance. — I guess that’s true for all of us… isn’t it? Don’t slack off on Preventative Maintenance in all aspects of your life.
Added note: On 7/6/2019, 3 weeks after re-posting this story, look what happened: Con Edison says cause of NYC blackout was substation’s faulty relay protection system
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Favorites Post #22
This story was originally posted on February 11, 2012:
There are five main power plants in the electric company in Central Oklahoma, and maintenance men from each plant would work at other plants when there was an overhaul. An overhaul is when a generator was taken off line for the purpose of doing maintenance on major parts of the plant that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. Such as repairing boiler tubes, and working on the turbine and generator.
Because employees would work at other plants for months at a time, living in camping trailers or cheap hotel rooms to save money, most people were able to work with and had the opportunity to know the Power Plant Men from the other four plants.
I have noticed that most non-plant people have a general misconception about Power Plant Men when they first meet them. As a young 18 year old entering my first job with real men, I learned very quickly that they each possessed a certain quality or talent that made them unique and indispensable Sure there were some “bad apples”, but they were never really and truly Power Plant Men. They either left because of incompatibility or were promoted to upper management.
I know more than once the plant hired someone new only to have them work one day and never show up again. There were few if any real Power Plant Men that ever left the plant where the character of the plant and its ability to be maintained properly wasn’t instantly changed.
While I am writing this post this evening a wake service is being held at the First Methodist Church in Moore, Oklahoma for a true Power Plant man; Jimmy Armarfio. He was an electrician at Mustang plant. I had heard some stories about Jimmy before I actually met him; most of them about humorous things that had happened to him at one time or other.
Everyone liked his African accent (Jimmy was from Ghana, a country in Africa) as they would imitate his voice while telling the stories. It seems that Bill Bennett our Electrical A foreman had more than a few stories to tell.
Jimmy came to our plant on an overhaul and worked out of our electric shop. The first time I talked to Jimmy, he was leaning against a counter during lunch just finishing a book. I happened to notice when I was walking by that the book was titled “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I had read that book not too long before, so I stopped and asked him what he thought of it.
He said that it was interesting how this man who was in a prison camp in Siberia living in a miserable state could go to bed at night thinking that he had a pretty good day. I think I said something like, “Yeah, sort of like us working in this Power Plant.”
Then he said something that has always stuck in my mind. He said that in the English language there are many words that mean the same thing. For instance, for a rock, there is pebble, rock, stone and boulder. In his native language there is one word. It means “rock”. You may say, large rock, small rock, smooth rock, but there is only one word for rock. It made me reflect on the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word…” Suppose there was one word that included everything.
What I didn’t know at that time was that not only was Jimmy Armarfio from Ghana but he was the king of his tribe. Steven Trammell said that his friends referred to him as “King Jimmy” after he was elected King of his tribe.
When I heard that Jimmy had died, I looked at the funeral home site and saw that one of his coworkers George Carr said the following: “Jimmy was a beloved coworker and one of my personal heroes.”
Another friend, Jack Riley wrote: “It was my blessing to work with Jimmy. The most cheerful person I have had the privilege of knowing.” I have included his picture below. Jimmy Armarfio…. Take a good long look at A True Power Plant Man! A Hero and a King!
Favorites Post #17 (posted in no particular order)
originally post 8/23/2014
I suppose when you are a Plant Manager, the last person you want to see at your Power Plant doorstep is the OSHA Man! That’s exactly what happened on Thursday, March 10, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. He was not paying a social call. He was there to conduct an investigation. One in which I was heavily involved.
In my post from last week, “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” I described a near death accident where a contract worker was engulfed in fly ash in a precipitator hopper. The accident was on all channels on the 5 o’clock news in Oklahoma City. The press was there when the Life Flight helicopter arrived at the hospital where they interviewed the flight crew. The OSHA office in the Federal building a few blocks from the Electric Company’s Corporate Headquarters had quickly assigned someone to the case. Armed with all the authority he needed, he began a full investigation of the accident.
The day before Gerald Young, (the OSHA Man) arrived, I had done some investigation myself into the accident. I was trying to figure out exactly what had happened. Why had someone who thought that he had emptied out a hopper so much so that he climbed inside, had suddenly become engulfed in ash? Where did this large volume of ash come from, and why did it decide to suddenly break loose and fill the hopper at the particular moment when James Vickers had decided to climb into the hopper?
Larry Kuennan, the lead engineer had asked me to show him the hopper from the inside of the Precipitator, so he could have an idea of what took place. I told him he needed to put on a fly ash suit and a full face respirator in order to go into the precipitator. After we were all suited up, I took him on a tour of the inside. A sight few people have had the chance to experience. I could write an entire post just about the experience…. Oh…. maybe I already have. See “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator”
The hopper we needed to investigate was not at the edge, so, we had to squeeze our way around a few beams in order to see the hopper where the accident took place. When we arrived, I explained that when I had first inspected the precipitator, I had found that the ash had piled up five foot above the bottom of the plates because the feeder wasn’t feeding properly.
So, I had figured that when they were vacuuming out the hopper, the ash that was lodged between the plates (that were 9 inches apart) must have still been there when James climbed into the hopper. Something had caused the ash to give way all at once.
Larry and I climbed down between the hoppers where we could see the bottle racks underneath the plates. The bottles are 30 pound cast iron anchors in the shape of the old style milk bottles. They are used to keep the tension on the wires, which are the electrodes that are normally charged with up to 45,000 volts of electricity when the precipitator is online.
When we sat down to look at the four bottle racks, I noticed right away that one rack of bottles was about a foot and a half lower than the rest of the bottle racks. This didn’t make sense to me at first. I couldn’t think of any way that 176 wires and bottles would be lower than the rest of the wires in the hopper. It was a paradox that took a while to soak in.
When we left, Larry Kuennen made a statement I will never forget. He said, “Until now, I thought that Plant Electricians did nothing but twist wires together. I never thought they worked on things like this.” I replied, “We work on anything that has a wire connected to it. That includes almost everything in the plant.” He replied, “Well, I have a new appreciation for Plant Electricians.”
It wasn’t until I returned to the electric shop and heard Scott Hubbard’s recount of the accident (again). Scott and his crew was working on the roof of the precipitator when the accident happened. He said that when the accident happened he heard a loud bang. Sort of like an explosion.
I told him what I had found inside the precipitator. This could only mean one thing…. An electric insulator on the roof of the precipitator that held up the wires on that bottle rack had broken. When that happened, it fell the foot and half causing all the ash that had been lodged between the plates to be immediately jolted loose, engulfing James Vickers who had just climbed in the hopper below.
After lunch, Scott went up on the roof and opened the portal on the tension house that housed the insulator that held up that row of wires. Sure enough. The three foot by 3 inch diameter ceramic insulator had broken. Something that had never happened at the plant up to that point. A tremendous load must have been put on this insulator, or it must have been defective in order to just break. These insulators are designed to hold up to 10,000 pounds of weight. the weight of the bottles and wires altogether weighed about 6,000 pounds add another 1000 pounds for the beam attached to the insulators on the top of the plates. This meant that at least 3,000 pounds of ash was pressing down from the ash above in order for it to just pull apart.
There was only one person that the OSHA man Jerry wanted to speak to when he arrived at the plant (other than to arrange things). That was me. I was the acting foreman in charge of the operations in, on and below the precipitator when the accident happened. I was also just a regular hourly employee, not so “beholden” to the company that I would participate in any kind of “cover-up”.
The first thing OSHA Jerry wanted to see was the inside of the precipitator. So, I procured a respirator for him, and we climbed up to the landing where one enters the precipitator through side doors. The first thing he did when he arrived at the door was take out a measuring tape to measure the height of the door.
I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but a new set of OSHA regulations had a new set of Confined Space regulations 1910.146 that dealt specifically with confined spaces. It had gone into effect on April 15, 1993. Here we were almost a year later. I had always treated the precipitator as a confined space, so I had always checked the air quality before I entered it.
So, I asked OSHA Jerry why he measured the size of the door. He said, he was checking if the entrance was “restricted” or “limited”. This was the requirement of a Confined space as stated in OSHA regulation 1910.146. I asked him how small does an entrance have to be to be restricted? He said, “Well. That’s not clearly defined. We could enter the precipitator by bending over and stepping in.
That was the first time I thought that maybe the precipitator itself may not really fit into the strict definition of a confined space. The hoppers do for sure, but does the precipitator? Hmm…. I wondered…. I still do come to think of it. The hoppers were definitely confined spaces by definition… “any space with converging walls, such as a hopper…..”
Oh. I forgot to describe OSHA Jerry. He reminded me a little of the guy who was a sidekick in Cheers named Paul Willson:
Actually, he looked so much like him that I thought of him right away.
When we were done inspecting the precipitator, we returned to the front office where we went to Tom Gibson’s (our Electric Supervisor) office. He closed the door and locked it. And he began to interview me by explaining that anything that was said in this room would be held in confidence. He explained that I could speak freely and that the Electric Company could do nothing to me for telling him the truth.
I thought… Ok…. um…. I have always been known for speaking my mind (maybe a little too much), so he wasn’t going to hear anything that I wouldn’t personally tell the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman to his face. Just ask Ron. I’m sure he would agree that I was pretty open about anything that popped into my mind.
He asked me if I had been trained about the OSHA Confined Space regulations. I responded by saying that we had a class on it one day where we went over our new confined space requirements. That consisted of reading the company policy. I knew that I needed to have a hole watch, and I needed to check the air before I went into a confined space.
We checked to make sure there was 20.9% oxygen, that there was less than 10 parts per million Carbon Monoxide, less than 5 parts per million H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide) and that there was less than 5% explosive vapors. OSHA Jack wrote everything down.
Actually, while I was talking, Jerry asked me to pause often because he was writing everything I said word-for-word on a yellow notepad what I was saying.
While we were talking, I asked him a few questions also. I asked Jack how he decided to work for OSHA. Where he had come from (Kansas. Wichita, I think). How long he had been working for OSHA. Did he enjoy his job….. At times, I could get him to digress and tell me a story about his life.
As we continued with our interview over this grave accident that almost resulted in the loss of someone’s life, I was busy making a new friend. By the time he had asked me everything he needed to know, I knew all about how he had grown up in Kansas, and how he had gone from job-to-job until he had ended up in front of me… interviewing me.
When we had finished the interview, he explained to me that this was an official document that contained all the answers to the questions he had asked me. He said that this would be private and that the Electric Company would not be able to ever see what I said unless I wanted them to see it. I asked him if I could show it to them. He said he would give me a copy of it, and I could do whatever I wanted with it. He asked me to sign it. I did.
I took Jerry to the copy machine in the front office where he made copies for me. When he handed them to me, I shook his hand. I told him I enjoyed talking to him. I also told him that I wished him well. I showed him to the elevator, and he left the plant. I made a copy of the papers that I had signed and went directly to the plant manager Ron Kilman’s office and gave him a copy of the document I had signed.
Ron asked me how it went. I told him that it went fine. Here is everything we talked about. I had nothing to hide. It did amaze me that OSHA Jack thought I might want to “spill the beans” about something as if we were treated like peons where the King had total rule. — I guess he didn’t know that Eldon Waugh had retired in 1987.
From there, I went to Bill Bennett’s office. Bill Bennett was our A Foreman. His office was across the hall from Tom Gibson’s office where I had been interviewed for the previous 3 hours. — Yeah. 3 hours. OSHA Jerry didn’t know Shorthand.
Bill asked me how the interview went. I said it went fine. He said that Ron and Ben Brandt had been worried about me because the interview had lasted so long. Bill said he told them, “Don’t worry about Kevin. He probably has this guy wrapped around his little finger. He’s probably using his ‘psychology’ on him”
I always loved Bill with all my heart. He knew me too well. I told Bill that I knew OSHA Jerry’s life story by the time we were done. Bill smiled…. just like this:
I smiled back at Bill. I returned to the Electric Shop to continue with Unit 1 Overhaul. After all. That was my “real” job. I put on my fly ash suit, my full face respirator, and my rubber boots and returned to the innards of the precipitator to continue where I had left off. I had a lot to think about as I scanned the Precipitator plates and wires in the dark with my flashlight safely strapped around my neck.
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Favorites Post #14 (posted in no particular order)
Originally posted August 16, 2014.
I knew that we had our work cut out for us when Unit 1 was taken offline for a major overhaul on February 19, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had learned to expect the unexpected. I just never suspected this to happen. As acting foreman, I had a crew that consisted of a few of our own electricians, as well as a number of contract workers. I was also coordinating efforts between Brown & Root contractors that were going to be doing some major work inside the Precipitator (that takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler) during the 12 weeks we were going to be offline and a Vacuum Truck Company that was going to vacuum ash out of the hoppers where the ash is collected and blown through pipes to the coal yard to be trucked away to make concrete.
When I inspected the precipitator during the first week, I had found numerous hoppers that had filled up with ash. One hopper in particular was so full that the ash had built up between the plates over 5 feet above the top of the hopper. Because of this, I had to coordinate with Brown and Root contractors which hoppers to begin building scaffolding, and those hoppers the vacuum truck needed to vacuum out first.
I had learned to deal with full hoppers the first time I entered the precipitator back when I was on the Labor Crew in 1983. Since that day, I had understood the potential dangers lying in wait. Especially with hoppers full of ash. See the Post “Angel of Death Passes By the Precipitator Door“.
The crew I was directly managing was on the Precipitator roof working on vibrators, insulators, transformers and rappers. I worked inside the precipitator aligning plates, and removing broken wires and cleaning insulators. The vacuum truck company vacuumed out the full hoppers by attaching a vacuum hose from a large vacuum truck to clean out pipes at the bottom of the hoppers. The Brown and Root crew climbed into the hoppers through an access door near the bottom of the hopper and constructed scaffolding in order to work at the top of the hoppers immediately below the plates.
This operation had been going on for 3 days and had seemed to be going smoothly. The Brown and Root crews and the vacuum truck crews were working shifts 24 hours a day. I would come in the morning and see the progress that had been made during the night. We kept a sheet taped to a beam in the hopper area that the vacuum truck would update when they had finished a hopper, and the Brown and Root crew indicated where they had finished building their scaffold.
On Thursday March 3, 1994, just after lunch, instead of making my way out to the precipitator to continue my work, I went up to the office area to meet in the conference room with the Safety Task Force. I was the leader of the task force, and we were meeting with upper management to work out some issues that I outlined in last week’s post. See “Taking Power Plant Safety To Task“. As you may have noticed, the last two weekly posts are a continuation of a long story.
Our meeting began shortly after 12:30 and we were discussing ways in which the Safety Task Force could work in a more cooperative way with the Maintenance Supervisor, Ken Scott. I felt that we were making good progress. We seemed to have come up with a few solutions, and we were just working out the details.
At 1:10 pm, the Electric A Foreman knocked on the door and opened it. He explained that there had been an accident at the precipitator in one of the hoppers and he thought that I might have been in the hopper at the time. He was checking to see if I was in the meeting. Once he was assured that I was all right, he left (presumably to tell the rest of my crew that I was not involved in the accident).
At this point, my head started to spin. What could have happened? None of my crew would have been in the hoppers. Maybe someone fell off of a scaffold and hurt themselves. I know I had locked out all of the electricity to the precipitator and grounded the circuits that have up to 45,000 volts of electricity when charged up, so, I’m pretty sure no one would have been electrocuted. Bill’s voice seemed real shaky when he entered the room, and when he saw me he was very relieved.
When working in a Power Plant, the Power Plant Men and Women become like a real family. Everyone cares about each other. Bill Bennett in some ways was like a father to me. In other ways, he was like an older brother. The nearest picture I have of Bill is a picture of Bill Cosby, as they looked similar:
I don’t know how long I was staring off into space counting my crew and thinking about what each of them would be doing. I was sure they were all on the roof. I knew that if a Brown & Root hand had been hurt that their own Safety Coordinator would be taking care of their injury. The thought of someone being hurt in a hopper sent flashbacks of the day I nearly dived off into the hopper full of ash ten and a half years earlier.
After about 5 minutes, Bill Bennett came back to the conference room, where we were still trying to focus on the task at hand. I don’t remember if we were doing any more good or not since I wasn’t paying any attention. Bill said that he needed for me to leave the meeting because they needed me out at the precipitator. Someone had been engulfed in fly ash!
Then I realized that the first time Bill had come to the room to check on me, he had mentioned that. I think I had blocked that from my mind. He had said that someone had been engulfed in ash, and they couldn’t tell if it was me or someone else. That was why he was so shaken up. Bill had thought that I may have died, or at least been seriously injured. The pain he was feeling before he saw me sitting in the room, alive and well, flooded my thoughts.
I quickly stood up and left the room. Bill and I quickly made our way to the precipitator. He said that Life Flight was on the way. One of the vacuum truck workers had climbed into the hopper to get the last bits of ash out of the hopper when a large amount of ash had broken loose above him and immediately engulfed him in the hopper.
When that happened there was a large boom and a cloud of ash came pouring out from the side of the precipitator. Scott Hubbard, who would have been my twin brother if I had been able to pick my own twin brother (though I never had a real twin brother)… heard the boom on the roof and when he looked down and saw the cloud of ash, immediately thought that I may have been hurt. I suppose he had called Bill Bennett on the radio and told him.
As we arrived at the precipitator, a young man was being carried out on a stretcher. A Life Flight from Oklahoma City was on it’s way, and landed just a few minutes later. I looked at the man all covered with ash. I could see how someone may have mistaken him for me. He was dressed like I was. A white t-shirt and jeans. He was unconscious.
Without going into detail as to the cause of the accident, as that will be in a later post, let me tell you about the heroic Power Plant Men and their actions before I had arrived on the scene…
James Vickers, a 26 year old vacuum truck worker, had climbed in the hopper carrying a shovel. He had a hole watch standing out the door keeping an eye on him. They had sucked out the hopper from the outside pipes and had banged on the walls in order to knock down any ash build up on the sides until they figured they had cleaned out the hopper.
James had opened the door to the hopper, and maybe because he saw some buildup on the hopper walls, he decided to climb in the hopper in order to knock it down with the shovel. While he was doing this, a large amount of ash that had bridged up in the plates above was knocked free all at once and immediately filled up the hopper probably more than half full.
James was crammed down into the throat of the hopper, which at the bottom is only about 8 inches in diameter with a plate across the middle about 2 feet above the throat of the hopper. He was immediately knocked unconscious by the impact.
The person assigned to be the hole watch was standing at the door to the hopper and when the ash fell down, he was knocked back about 6 or 7 feet when the ash came pouring out of the door. Panicking, He ran to the edge of the walkway yelling for help. Luckily, he was not also knocked unconscious, or this would pretty much have been the end of the story.
Men came running. Especially a couple of Power Plant Men working in the area. I wish I could remember who they were. When I try to think of the most heroic Power Plant Men I knew at the plant at the time, the list is about a long as my arm, so it is hard to narrow it down.
The Power Plant Men began to frantically dig the ash out of the hopper to uncover James Vickers. When they reached his head, they immediately cleared his face to where they could perform Mouth-to-Mouth resuscitation. They began breathing for James as soon as they could, and continued mouth-to-mouth as they dug out more of the ash.
As they dug the ash out, they were using their hardhats for shovels. When they tried to move James, they found that he had been crammed down into the bottom of the hopper to where he was trapped in the throat of the hopper. Heroically they continued without hesitation to breath for James, while simultaneously working to free him from the hopper. The shovel had been wedged into the bottom of the hopper with him.
Almost immediately after the accident happened, the control room became aware that someone had been engulfed in a hopper, they called Life Flight in Oklahoma City. A helicopter was immediately dispatched. By the time James was safely removed from the hopper, placed on a stretcher and carried out to the adjacent field, the Life Flight Helicopter was landing to take him to the Baptist Medical Center. I would say the helicopter was on the ground a total of about 3 or so minutes before it was took off again.
Bill and I inspected the hopper where the accident had taken place. On the ground below under the grating was a pile of ash, just like I had experienced years before when I almost bailed off into the hopper to look for my flashlight. I was suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of sorrow.
I was sorry for James Vickers, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was sorry for Bill Bennett who thought for a while that I had died in that hopper. I remembered hanging by one finger in a hopper only two rows down from this one, ten years ago with my life hanging by a thread, and I just wanted to cry.
So, I gave Bill a big hug as if I was hugging my own father and just started to cry. The whole thing was just so sad.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….
On the roof of the Baptist Medical Center, a Triage unit had been setup waiting for the helicopter to arrive with James. Hazardous Waste protective suits were being worn by the people that were going to begin treating James. They had heard that he had been engulfed in hazardous chemicals which consisted of: Silica, Aluminum Oxide, Hexavalent Chromium, arsenic and other unsavory and hard to pronounce chemicals. The Life Flight People on the helicopter had to be scrubbed down by the Hazmat team as soon as they exited the helicopter to clean off the hazardous Fly Ash. The news reporters were all standing by reporting the incident.
Yes. The same fly ash that I went swimming in every day during the overhaul. The same fly ash that I tracked through the Utility Room floor when I came home at night. The same fly ash used to create highways all across the country. It’s true it has some carcinogenic material in it. I’m sure I have my share of Silica in my lungs today, since it doesn’t ever really clear out of there.
Besides the psychological trauma of a near-death experience, Jame Vickers was fairly unharmed considering what he went through. He came out of the ordeal with an eye infection. Randy Dailey pointed out that this was because the Safety Coordinator from Brown & Root had opened his eyes to check if he was alive when he was laying on the stretcher, and had let ash get in his eyes. Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t have developed an eye infection.
When I arrived at home that evening I explained to my wife what had happened. She had heard something on the news about it, but hadn’t realized they were talking about our plant since the person was in Oklahoma City when the reporters were talking about it.
All I can say is… Some Safety Meetings in the past have been pretty boring, but nothing made me want to improve my Safety Attitude like the Safety Meeting we had that afternoon. I’m glad that I had to experience that only once in my career as a Plant Electrician.
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Favorites Post #13 (posted in no particular order)
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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