Tag Archives: flashlight

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

Originally published on May 25, 2012:

Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime during September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had  shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced.

While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.

Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.

Half-face respirator

Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.

Yellow Flashlight similar to the one I carried

The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to keep the wires straight, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.

The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.

Fly Ash Hoppers. Our hoppers were 12 foot by 12 foot at the top.

I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.

I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper (read that again…. one index finger was holding me up). I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time.

I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.

I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.

Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.

After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash in the hopper to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.

So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.

All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper.

I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.

Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”

Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.

It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.

While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened.

I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my finger). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.

Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.

I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!

Comments from previous repost:

  1. Dan Antion May 27, 2014

    Scary thought there at the end. Sounds like quick sand.

  2. Ron May 27, 2014

    I’m glad you chose to “give up” on going after a flashlight! There is a Proverb that says “There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof is the way death.” Sounds like you found one of those “ways”. To choose to find your flashlight and lose your life would be the ultimate bad choice. God, give us the wisdom to choose the way of life.

  3. A.D. Everard August 4, 2014

    Wow. So close! You have a book with all these adventures, you really do. I’m enjoying reading these pages very much. I’m so glad you survived to write them!

  4. inmytwisteddreams August 17, 2014

    You are a very good story teller! I was drawn in from the first sentence, and engulfed in your words until the last. Great Story! I mean, not so great at the time, but glad you brought it full circle in the end! I always say, “You must never hesitate” – a simple statement, whose words most might take for granted. As humans, it’s typically against our nature to trust our first (or gut) instinct, but as you know, it is there for a reason! Good story! 🙂

    ~Nikki

Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline.  The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators.  This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust.  The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”.  The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust.  When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air (or 99.999%).

Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop.  These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator.  I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post:  Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant.  It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years.  You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant.  I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.

When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it.  He likes to get dirty.”  At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop.  Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning…  Now those words took on their full meaning.

I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning.  Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post:  Singing’ Along with Sonny Kendrick).  I was his chance to be lifted from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey.  I had accepted that.  I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.

So, here I was…  One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post:  Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door).  Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers.  I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit.  Just a rain suit.

A man wearing a half faced respirator -- not me... just an image I found on Google Images

A man wearing a half faced respirator — not me… just an image I found on Google Images

Not a lot of protection….

I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul.  I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string.  I had  a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world.  It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon.  We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point.  We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.

Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart.  He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above.  At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me.  Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip.  There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.

Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip.  Then even lower.  About 10 feet above us.  A third clip.  — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“),  then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….”  A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.

Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate.  Every clip must be in their place.  Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so.  Ok.  I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 clips per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and  7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…

Bill explained….. Clean each insulator.  there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers.  there were 84 hoppers,   Great.  Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks….  Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof.  two on each section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension house on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a clip or broken.  Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force.  That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below.  Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each.  There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers.  In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.

Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates.  In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly.  There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers.   This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul.  Oh.  And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.

So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units).  Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators.  Some of my closest friends were precipitator components.  Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.

We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me.  I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment.  I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.

Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in the boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas….  I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”.  I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash.  I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby…  Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it.  He apologized.  He explained that he meant it with affection.

At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it.  The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter.  That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs.  Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.

I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu.  This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so.  I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth.  I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.

I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator.  So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters.  They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles.  I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.

To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell.  The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors.  Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals….  Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.

You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate.  Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.

I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post:  A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff.  He said it had some kind of  a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….

He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell.  You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.

There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name).  She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical.  Unfortunately, we never found out what it was.  In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces.  This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.

I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of  an electron microscope.  I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one.  I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.

So, I just continued wearing the organic filters.  This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms.  Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator.  When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands.  They knew everything I did.

One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job.  One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma.  They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had.  They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.

Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be.  I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously.  No.  I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it.  I loved it.   I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.

I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator.  I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them.  Coaxing them.  Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job.  If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”.  Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7.  But they were each my friends in their own way.

You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?”  I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me.  I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.

I have my own understanding of who I should be.  My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is.  I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again….  What was I going to do?  Give up?  How could I do that to a friend?  I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma.  That isn’t going to change who I am.”

Today I am called an IT Business Analyst.  I work for Dell  Computers (now I work for General Motors).  It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world.  I see the same pattern.  When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job.  You become invaluable.  Almost irreplaceable.  People look to you for answers.  They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business.  I am glad to be able to serve them.

Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?”  Arnold replied, “Oh.  nothing anyone wants.”  (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators.  No.  I wouldn’t do that.  Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.

Scott Hubbard

Charles Foster

Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good.  His son, Tim Foster has taken his place.  One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator.  I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim….  I know Scott understands….

Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them….  Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness.   Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly…  Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good…  next row….

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

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

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

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

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

Originally published on May 25, 2012:

Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime during September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had  shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced.

While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.

Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.

Half-face respirator

Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.

Yellow Flashlight similar to the one I carried

The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to keep the wires straight, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.

The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.

Fly Ash Hoppers. Our hoppers were 12 foot by 12 foot at the top.

I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.

I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper. I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time.

I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.

I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.

Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.

After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.

So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.

All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper. I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.

Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”

Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.

It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.

While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened.

I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my finger). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.

Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.

I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!

Comments from previous repost:

  1. Dan Antion May 27, 2014

    Scary thought there at the end. Sounds like quick sand.

  2. Ron May 27, 2014

    I’m glad you chose to “give up” on going after a flashlight! There is a Proverb that says “There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof is the way death.” Sounds like you found one of those “ways”. To choose to find your flashlight and lose your life would be the ultimate bad choice. God, give us the wisdom to choose the way of life.

  3. A.D. Everard August 4, 2014

    Wow. So close! You have a book with all these adventures, you really do. I’m enjoying reading these pages very much. I’m so glad you survived to write them!

  4. inmytwisteddreams August 17, 2014

    You are a very good story teller! I was drawn in from the first sentence, and engulfed in your words until the last. Great Story! I mean, not so great at the time, but glad you brought it full circle in the end! I always say, “You must never hesitate” – a simple statement, whose words most might take for granted. As humans, it’s typically against our nature to trust our first (or gut) instinct, but as you know, it is there for a reason! Good story! 🙂

    ~Nikki

Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline.  The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators.  This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust.  The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”.  The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust.  When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air (or 99.999%).

Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop.  These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator.  I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post:  Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant.  It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years.  You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant.  I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.

When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it.  He likes to get dirty.”  At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop.  Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning…  Now those words took on their full meaning.

I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning.  Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post:  Singin’ Along with Sonny Kendrick).  I was his chance to be lifted from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey.  I had accepted that.  I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.

So, here I was…  One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post:  Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door).  Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers.  I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit.  Just a rain suit.

A man wearing a half faced respirator -- not me... just an image I found on Google Images

A man wearing a half faced respirator — not me… just an image I found on Google Images

Not a lot of protection….

I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul.  I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string.  I had  a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world.  It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon.  We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point.  We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.

Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart.  He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above.  At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me.  Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip.  There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.

Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip.  Then even lower.  About 10 feet above us.  A third clip.  — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“),  then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….”  A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.

Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate.  Every clip must be in their place.  Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so.  Ok.  I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 clips per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and  7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…

Bill explained….. Clean each insulator.  there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers.  there were 84 hoppers,   Great.  Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks….  Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof.  two on each section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension hosue on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a clip or broken.  Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force.  That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below.  Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each.  There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers.  In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.

Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates.  In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly.  There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers.   This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul.  Oh.  And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.

So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units).  Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators.  Some of my closest friends were precipitator components.  Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.

We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me.  I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment.  I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.

Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in the boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas….  I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”.  I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash.  I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby…  Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it.  He apologized.  He explained that he meant it with affection.

At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it.  The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter.  That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs.  Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.

I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu.  This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so.  I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth.  I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.

I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator.  So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters.  They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles.  I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.

To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell.  The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors.  Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals….  Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.

You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate.  Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.

I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post:  A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff.  He said it had some kind of  a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….

He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell.  You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.

There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name).  She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical.  Unfortunately, we never found out what it was.  In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces.  This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.

I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of  an electron microscope.  I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one.  I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.

So, I just continued wearing the organic filters.  This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms.  Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator.  When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands.  They knew everything I did.

One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job.  One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma.  They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had.  They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.

Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be.  I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously.  No.  I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it.  I loved it.   I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.

I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator.  I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them.  Coaxing them.  Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job.  If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”.  Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7.  But they were each my friends in their own way.

You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?”  I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me.  I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.

I have my own understanding of who I should be.  My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is.  I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again….  What was I going to do?  Give up?  How could I do that to a friend?  I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma.  That isn’t going to change who I am.”

Today I am called an IT Business Analyst.  I work for Dell  Computers.  It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world.  I see the same pattern.  When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job.  You become invaluable.  Almost unreplaceable.  People look to you for answers.  They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business.  I am glad to be able to serve them.

Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?”  Arnold replied, “Oh.  nothing anyone wants.”  (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators.  No.  I wouldn’t do that.  Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.

Scott Hubbard

Charles Foster

Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good.  His son, Tim Foster has taken his place.  One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator.  I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim….  I know Scott understands….

Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them….  Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness.   Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly…  Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good…  next row….

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

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

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

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

Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline.  The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators.  This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust.  The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”.  The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust.  When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air.

Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop.  These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator.  I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post:  Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant.  It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years.  You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant.  I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.

When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it.  He likes to get dirty.”  At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop.  Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning…  Now those words took on their full meaning.

I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning.  Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post:  Singin’ Along with Sonny Kendrick).  I was his chance to be from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey.  I had accepted that.  I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.

So, here I was…  One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post:  Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door).  Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers.  I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit.  Just a rain suit.

A man wearing a half faced respirator -- not me... just an image I found on Google Images

A man wearing a half faced respirator — not me… just an image I found on Google Images

Not a lot of protection….

I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul.  I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string.  I had  a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world.  It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon.  We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point.  We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.

Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart.  He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above.  At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me.  Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip.  There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.

Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip.  Then even lower.  About 10 feet above us.  A third clip.  — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“),  then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….”  A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.

Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate.  Every clip must be in their place.  Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so.  Ok.  I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 plates per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and  7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…

Bill explained….. Clean each insulator.  there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers.  there were 84 hoppers,   Great.  Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks….  Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof.  two on section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension hosue on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a ciip or broken.  Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force.  That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below.  Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each.  There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers.  In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.

Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates.  In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly.  There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers.   This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul.  Oh.  And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.

So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units).  Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators.  Some of my closest friends were precipitator components.  Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.

We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me.  I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment.  I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.

Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas….  I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”.  I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash.  I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby…  Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it.  He apologized.  He explained that he meant it with affection.

At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it.  The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter.  That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs.  Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.

I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu.  This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so.  I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth.  I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.

I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator.  So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters.  They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles.  I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.

To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell.  The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors.  Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals….  Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.

You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate.  Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.

I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post:  A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff.  He said it had some kind of  a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….

He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell.  You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.

There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name).  She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical.  Unfortunately, we never found out what it was.  In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces.  This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.

I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of  an electron microscope.  I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one.  I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.

So, I just continued wearing the organic filters.  This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms.  Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator.  When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands.  They knew everything I did.

One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job.  One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma.  They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had.  They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.

Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be.  I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously.  No.  I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it.  I loved it.   I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.

I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator.  I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them.  Coaxing them.  Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job.  If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”.  Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7.  But they were each my friends in their own way.

You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?”  I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me.  I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.

I have my own understanding of who I should be.  My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is.  I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again….  What was I going to do?  Give up?  How could I do that to a friend?  I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma.  That isn’t going to change who I am.”

Today I am called an IT Business Analyst.  I work for Dell  Computers.  It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world.  I see the same pattern.  When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job.  You become invaluable.  Almost unreplaceable.  People look to you for answers.  They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business.  I am glad to be able to serve them.

Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?”  Arnold replied, “Oh.  nothing anyone wants.”  (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators.  No.  I wouldn’t do that.  Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.

Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good.  His son, Tim Foster has taken his place.  One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator.  I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim….  I know Scott understands….

Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them….  Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness.   Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly…  Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good…  next row….

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

Originally published on May 25, 2012:

Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime in September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had  shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced. While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.

Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.

Half-face respirator

Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.

Yellow Flashlight similar to the one I carried

The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to keep the wires straight, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.

The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.

Fly Ash Hoppers. Our hoppers were 12 foot by 12 foot at the top.

I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.

I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper. I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time.

I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.

I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.

Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.

After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.

So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.

All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper. I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.

Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”

Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.

It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.

While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened. I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my fingers). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.

Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.

I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!

Comments from previous repost:

  1. Dan Antion May 27, 2014

    Scary thought there at the end. Sounds like quick sand.

  2. Ron May 27, 2014

    I’m glad you chose to “give up” on going after a flashlight! There is a Proverb that says “There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof is the way death.” Sounds like you found one of those “ways”. To choose to find your flashlight and lose your life would be the ultimate bad choice. God, give us the wisdom to choose the way of life.

  3. A.D. Everard August 4, 2014

    Wow. So close! You have a book with all these adventures, you really do. I’m enjoying reading these pages very much. I’m so glad you survived to write them!

  4. inmytwisteddreams August 17, 2014

    You are a very good story teller! I was drawn in from the first sentence, and engulfed in your words until the last. Great Story! I mean, not so great at the time, but glad you brought it full circle in the end! I always say, “You must never hesitate” – a simple statement, whose words most might take for granted. As humans, it’s typically against our nature to trust our first (or gut) instinct, but as you know, it is there for a reason! Good story! 🙂

    ~Nikki

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

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

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

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

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door — Repost

Originally published on May 25, 2012:

Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime in September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had  shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced. While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.

Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.

Half-face respirator

Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.

Yellow Flashlight similar to the one I carried

The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to take out the tension, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.

The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.

Fly Ash Hoppers. Our hoppers were 12 foot by 12 foot at the top.

I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.

I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper. I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time. I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.

I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.

Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.

After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.

So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.

All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper. I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.

Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”

Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.

It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.

While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened. I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my fingers). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.

Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.

I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!