Tag Archives: Forced Draft fan

Runaway Fire Hydrant Leaves Power Plant in the Dark

Originally posted May 17, 2014:

Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.

A notepad like this

Power Plant Notepad

One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.

The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.

Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.

Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.

I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.

 

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.

 

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.

Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.

When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.

When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.

Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.

 

From the movie "The China Syndrome" where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

From the movie “The China Syndrome” where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait)  See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.

With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.

While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.

A High Voltage Insulator like this

A High Voltage Insulator like this

Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.

By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman is the one on the left in the plaid shirt

The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.

The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.

So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”

So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.

Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….

George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.

Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.

This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.

You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).

Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.

Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….

Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.

I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.

Telephone Grounding Panel

Telephone Grounding Panel

In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.

Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.

Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.

 

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode "Night Call"

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode “Night Call”

I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.

It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.

He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?

The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.

When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.

That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…

I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.

 

Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.

Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.

Comments from the Original post

    1. Ron May 17, 2015

      That was an exciting day! Another great story. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Dan Antion May  17, 2014

      I like the mix of storytelling and information sharing you deliver here. Thanks again

    1. Dave Tarver May 17, 2014

      Aug 8, 2011 I lost all reserve in and lost both units in 2 separate storms and A1 would not start for a few minutes and A2 was leaking antifreeze terribly not a scratch and back online in 34 hours both units and no one ever asked me one question even with a Safety Dept not one question asked of me the SS on duty. Not many men on the planet have ever experienced an uncontrolled total plant outage- you would of thought a learning opportunity would of took place. Feb 2011 worst winter temps in years 50 Units or more tripped in Texas let alone the trusty units of Redbud and McClain were fighting Sooner rolled right along with storm warnings for two weeks ahead – the ICS still went to Detroit for just tours of other facilities once again the fall guy Tarver McArthur stood alone. I had authored a Freeze Protection Plan for the plant and that seemed to save the day and explain to the regulatory bodies how we were online and everyone else in Texas was off and enjoying rolling blackouts in a terrible winter weather situation not to mention our powers that be were all stranded in Detroit and very few people could get to the plant without getting stuck trying to get there as well – but a few health heart issues later I am still here to tell about it all you would think folks would want to take advantage of someone that had went through the fire and Ice but thats ok I want them someday distant to get all the credit they deserve when the trumpets sound as that is truly what matters most. DT

  1. NEO May 17, 2014

    Great story, and yes, you took exactly the proper lesson from it, and it is too bad that many of our bosses haven’t learned it.

    And yup, I’ve buried a lot of electrocuted squirrels over the years.

 

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Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.  Added a picture of Larry Riley:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.

I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a life time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  Each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.

As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a tee shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 160 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.

I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Jonathan Caswell August 12, 2014

    GLAD that you made it….even if the mallet didn’t!!!

    I can dig it. When I was hired for Security at one post…I really looked forward to working with and for that particular Supervisor who’d hired me. No such luck–she was gone in a month or two. THAT hurt! 🙂

  2. Ron Kilman August 13, 2014

    If the environment is too hot for a respirator to function properly in, it’s too hot for people to work in (if safety is actually job #1). I saw too many examples of “Get the Unit Back On is Job #1″.

 

From Power Plant Rags To Riches

Originally posted on March 9, 2013:

There is one item that all Oklahoma power plant men carry with them almost every day. Whether they are electricians working on a motor, a mechanic pulling a pump, or an operator making his rounds. All of them carry and use this one item. It is so important that, without it, it would be difficult for the maintenance shop to function properly.

This item of course is a rag from the Chief Wiping Cloth Rag Box:

Every Power Plant Man uses Chief Wiping Cloths on a daily basis

Every Power Plant Man uses Chief Wiping Cloths on a daily basis

As an electrician, I used rags all the time. Whether I was working on a breaker, doing battery inspection, elevator maintenance or just looking for a clean place to sit my back side, I had to have a rag from the box of Chief Wiping Cloths. Chief Wiping Cloths come from the Oklahoma Waste & Wiping Rag Company in Oklahoma City.

When I was on the labor crew, I was dirty all the time. I was doing coal clean-up, digging ditches, pouring concrete, shoveling bottom ash and wading through fly ash. I had little reason to stay clean or to clean things. My life was full of dirt and grime. I was always dirty, so much so that when I went into the electric shop in 1983 and Bill Bennett was talking to Charles Foster about who should repair the Manhole pump motors, Bill told Charles, “Let Kevin do it. He enjoys getting dirty.”

I didn’t argue with Bill, because, well…. what was the point. But as an electrician, I not only had desired to have a cleaner job, but I also wished to fulfill Jerry Mitchell’s prophesy that “When I become as good as him, I will be able to remain clean even in the face of “Coal Dust and Fly Ash” (See the post A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint). The boxes of rags were my opportunity.

So, when I left to go on a job, I would always grab at least a couple of rags from the box and put them in my tool bucket and at least one hanging out of my back pocket. That way, if I needed to plop down on the ground to unwire a motor too low to sit on my bucket, I could sit on a rag on the coal dust covered ground instead. This helped my goal of remaining as clean as possible.

It’s funny that years later I should miss the boxes of rags that I used to use to do my job. There was more to it than just the rags I used to wipe my hands, battery posts, greasy bearings, breaker parts and my nose. You see, these rags were made from recycled clothes. Yes. They were sterilized for our use, but these were from recycled clothes.

Actually, the Oklahoma Waste and Wiping Rag Company, founded in 1940, was one of the largest purchasers of donated clothing in the country. That meant that many of the rags we used in the rag box were actually worn by someone. Sure, a lot of the rags came from defective clothing from factories, but some of the rags had been clothes actually worn by a person.

As odd as it may sound, while I was grabbing rags from the rag box, I was thinking (at times… it wasn’t like it was an obsession with me), that these rags may have been worn by someone for years before ending up covered with bearing grease by my hand and tossed into a proper Fire protection trash can.

Trash cans like this were used because they prevented oily rags from burning down the shop when they would spontaneously combust

Trash cans like this were used because they prevented oily rags from burning down the shop when they would spontaneously combust

So, anyway….. Thinking about how these rags were possibly once worn by people throughout the United States, I felt that some of the rags had a specific connection to some unknown person somewhere. So, I would actually go through the rag box looking for pieces of rags that I felt had been worn by someone before. You know (or maybe you don’t), rags that had an aura around them like someone had once had a “personal relationship” with them.

I would take these rags and I would “pseudo-dress up” in them. So, if it was a rag made out of a pair of pants, I would tuck it in my belt and I would carry it that way until I needed it. In a weird way (and I know… you are thinking a “really weird” way), I would feel connected to the person that had worn this piece of clothing in the past. I felt as if I was honoring their piece of cloth just one last time before I stained it with coal dust, fly ash, or snot, just one last time.

And in my even weirder way, I would sort of pray for that person, whoever they may be. I would even, kind of, thank them for the use of their old clothes (I know, I stretched the English Language in those last two sentences to meet my unusual need).

I have a picture in my mind of myself standing on the platform of the 6A Forced Draft Fan at Muskogee in the fall of 1984 (one year after becoming an electrician), dressing myself up in pieces of clothing from the rag box, all giddy because I had found enough pieces to make an entire outfit made of half male and half female clothing. Ben Davis, who was on overhaul at Muskogee with me from our plant is shaking his head in disbelief that he had to work with such a goof. Not exactly sure who he has been assigned to work with… — I actually felt sorry for Ben. I knew I was a normal person. The trouble was… I was the only person that knew it (For an explanation about where that phrase originated, see the post “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“).

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

Levity is healthy. And at times when stress is at its greatest, levity is a way back to sanity. Just today I was invited to a conference call to discuss something that I was working on, and when I was done, I stayed on the line even though I was no longer needed. As I listened, one person on the other end was remarking about how he enjoyed his team so much because they were able to crack up and reduce the stress by being humorous.

A friend of mine, and fellow teammate Don McClure who had invited me to the call was coming up with one “one-liner” after the other. They were “spot-on” and very funny (as he usually is — ok. He’s going to correct me on the “usually” part). But he said one thing that hit home with me. He said that he had been in the Hot-seat so long that he had to put on a pair of Asbestos underwear.

This, of course, made me immediately think of the asbestos gloves we used to wear in the electric shop before Asbestos had been formerly outlawed. We had an old pair of asbestos gloves from Osage Plant ( to find out more about the Osage Plant read about it in the post Pioneers Of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace).

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Along with the rags in the rag box, when I used to put on the asbestos gloves I used to think of Howard Chumbley (who died on August 4, 1998 at the age of 70), at the age of 24 working at the Osage Plant, before his hair turned to gray and then to white, wearing these same gloves while he pulled a bearing off of a heater and slapped it onto a motor shaft.

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

It gave a special meaning to motor repair. Even though Howard retired from plant life in 1985, for years I could put on his old pair of asbestos gloves and feel like I was stepping into his young shoes. I would think… If only I could be a true “Power Plant Man” like Howard…. I love Howard with all my heart, and today, I have never met a better human being than him.

Note that in the picture of Howard’s gravestone it says that he was an EM3 in the Navy. This is an “Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class”. There is no way I was ever going to measure up to Howard. He was a hero to his country and a man of great integrity and humility. If I had saved up all the nice things I had done in my life and done them all on one day, I may have slightly resembled Howard on a regular day. Just like Jim Waller that I had discussed in my last post… Only Men of the greatest integrity measure up to be “True Power Plant Men”.

This made changing the bearings on a motor almost a sacred event to me. I don’t know if the other electricians felt what I felt, but there was something about placing those gloves on my hands that seemed to transform me for a moment into someone noble. I never mentioned it to them (which was odd, because I was usually in the habit of telling them every little crazy thought that entered my head).

I remember at break time one day Margie Belongia (who was a plant janitor at the time) telling me in 1981 when I was a summer help, that she wanted to go to hell because that was where all of her friends would be. I asked her at the time how she was so certain that being in hell guaranteed that she would be able to be with her friends, and she was taken aback by my question. “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I be with my friend?” — I responded, “Suppose in hell you are alone. With no one but yourself.” I think I unnerved her by my response. She said that she had never considered that. She had counted on being with her friends. They had all decided that was the way it was going to be.

At any rate. I kept her thought in my mind. I hope every day that someday I will be able to walk up behind Howard Chumbley (not in hell of course, the other place) and just stand there and listen to him tell stories about when he worked at the old Osage Plant, and how he used to be up to his elbows in oil that contained PCBs and never thought twice about it. Or how he played a harmless joke on someone dear to him, and he would laugh….

Howard was my foreman for only about 5 months before he retired. I remember sitting in the electric shop office for a year and a half during lunch listening to him tell his stories. He would grin like Andy Griffith and laugh in such a genuine way that you knew that his heart was as pure as his manners.

Andy Griffith in this picture reminds me of Howard Chumbley

Andy Griffith in this picture reminds me of Howard Chumbley

To this day I know that I have never been richer than I was when I was able to sit in the shop and listen to Howard Chumbley pass on his life experience to us. Even years later when I was able to slip on the pair of Asbestos Gloves worn by him years earlier I could feel that I was following in his footsteps. Just the thought of that would make me proud to be an Electrician in a Power Plant.

I used to imagine that the Chief on the Chief rag boxes knew the history of all the pieces of rags in the box. When I moved to Texas in 2001, I used some sturdy Chief rag boxes when I was packing to leave. They are sturdy boxes. Just this past year, we threw away the last Chief rag box that contained Christmas decorations in exchange for plastic tubs. Even though it seems like a little thing. I miss seeing the Chief on those boxes of rags.

The chief on the Chief Rag Boxes

The chief on the Chief Rag Boxes

Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant

Originally Posted on April 12, 2013:

I witnessed a fast approaching Wall Cloud coming south from Tulsa when I was on overhaul at the Muskogee Oklahoma Coal-fired Power Plant the fall 1984. I stood outside of the Unit 6 electric shop looking north watching the darkness approaching at an alarming rate. As it approached I could see debris flying up from the highway a half mile away telling me that we were in for one heck of a wind.

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

I suppose I was mesmerized because all I did was stand there and stare at it. Maybe I thought, “At least if this blows me away, I can spend my last moments staring down a tornado. I watched as the wind hit the precipitator and stirred up the piles of ash under it and blew it away as if someone was blowing out a birthday candle.

The wall cloud rolled right over the top of me looking like a big steamroller wheel. At the same time the wind hit me knocking me back. I couldn’t breathe because of the dust and I took two steps to the electric shop door and dodged inside. The walls rattled as the wind buffeted the building. All I could think of was, “Cool!”

We found out a few minutes later that 4 miles south of us by the Fort Howard Paper plant a tornado dropped out of the cloud and touched down.

That was only one of many exciting moments at the Muskogee Power Plant. Last week I talked about how there must have been something in the water there that made people think and act a little differently than they otherwise would (See Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant). I said that because of the “interesting” way people thought and acted in Muskogee. This is the story about the day I think I drank some of the water by mistake.

Each morning when I was waiting for the work to start in the electric shop, two electricians, Jay Harris and Richard Moravek had a ritual that they performed before heading off to work on the precipitators for the day. One of them would hum a note, then together they would sing a short jingle that went like this: “Nestles makes the very best…….. Chooooocolate!!!” Richard would whistle as he sang, just like the Nestle’s Rabbit– Every morning without fail.

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

Both Richard and Jay were soldiers. Jay was a young soldier that knew my brother from the Marine Reserves. He would train with him in the TOW Anti-Tank unit somewhere around Broken Arrow. Richard…. Well… Richard was a Vietnam Veteran that had seen a lot of combat.

Richard had a metal plate in his forehead. He could tap it and you could hear it tink. “Tink, Tink, Tink.” He was a forward observer in Vietnam. They usually had a life expectancy of a couple of weeks. Richard had survived. He was attached to a group of Rangers.

Richard explained to me one time that he used to use a big M60 machine gun like Sylvester Stallone used in the movie Rambo. Only, he couldn’t shoot two of them at a time, and he couldn’t walk forward with it either like Rambo. He could only walk backward because the machine gun would knock you down.

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

I know that Richard suffered from the effects of Agent Orange and was fighting the cancer it caused at one point in his life. He died in November 6, 2007. He left behind a son named Richard that has commented to me that his dad was “A Great Man.”

If I keep talking about the people that I met while I was at Muskogee, I will never get to the story that I want to tell, because heroes seemed to be all over the place. Another electrician was Ellis Moore, who was in Vietnam while he was in the Army. He was still Shell Shocked from his experience there.

He told me stories about how his unit would be patrolling through the woods, and they would hear some gunfire, and they would just all put their backs to each other and would shoot blindly in all directions.

They were frightened and figured that was the only way they were going to stay alive. Ellis had an odd look on his face when he told me this story. One that told me that he had seen things that were too horrible to bring back into his mind.

This leads me to my story…. It began on a Friday afternoon about 2pm. I was working with Ben Davis, a fellow electrician from our plant in North Central Oklahoma.

I enjoyed working with Ben Davis during the overhaul. Ben was one of the most calm and normal person you could find. He was probably the most sane person in the electric shop. He didn’t care what other people thought about him. When he told you what he thought, you could count on it being the truth.

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

When I was dressing up in rags, (See the post From Power Plant Rags to Riches), Ben just looked a little concerned that I may have lost my sanity, but that didn’t keep him from treating me with the respect and dignity that I wasn’t even maintaining for myself.

We were working on 6A Forced Draft Fan and we made a measurement with the large Meggar indicating that the insulation might be a little weak somewhere in the motor.

We weren’t sure what the acceptable level of deviation was from the norm, so we decided that we would find Don Spears and ask him. Don was the Electrical Supervisor at Muskogee at the time. He was the splittin’ image of Oklahoma University’s Football Coach Barry Switzer’s bigger brother.

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer's Older Brother. Bigger and Meaner

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer’s Older Brother. Bigger and Meaner

Ben and I talked to John Manning, the Electrical B Foreman, and he agreed that we should talk to Don, and would let him know that we were looking for him when he returned from a meeting he was attending.

We waited around in the Unit 6 electric shop until around 3 o’clock. At 3 o’clock on Friday, we liked to bug out early to head home to our families. At lunch I would go to the trailer down by the river and pack up my stuff in my car and then park it outside the electric shop so that when 3 o’clock rolled around, we could dodge out the door and head for home.

Only this time, we were waiting around for Don to show up. We finally decided…. What the heck…. We can talk to him on Monday. We bolted out the door, and Ben and I headed back toward Stillwater at breakneck speed.

Come Monday morning, I pulled up to the electric shop parking lot, and who do you think was standing there just waiting for me? Yep. Don Spears. With his hands on his hips, and his big Football Coach stance trying his darnedest to look just like Barry Switzer telling his team at half time that they were going to have to do better than that.

I happened to pull up to the shop about the same time that Ben did. Don Spears immediately lit into us. He said, “You left early on Friday didn’t you!!!” I said, “What? Surely not!”

Don replied that he came looking for us around 3:30 and we were no where to be found. He paged us but we didn’t answer. I responded by telling him that we must have been out working on a motor and couldn’t hear him because it was too noisy.

Of course, Don wasn’t going to buy that. He said this Friday he wanted to us to meet him in his office at 4:00. He was going to make sure we didn’t bug out early. Ben and I assured him that we would be there.

So, next Friday at lunch Don came down to the shop and said….. “Remember. I want to see you in my office at 4:00 sharp. We both told him that we would be there, come rain or shine.

3 o’clock rolled around and we headed for home… I don’t think I stopped laughing until I was in Tulsa. It is always fun to play an on-going joke with someone. Especially when that someone could pulverize you with one simple punch.

So, you can imagine what I saw when I arrived at the Unit 6 Electric Shop next Monday Morning….

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Yep. That was Don. He was standing there with his feet spread apart just like Paul Bunyan. His hands were on his hips and he looked rather mad. He said, “You Did it Again!!! You left early!”

I said, “What do you mean we left early?” He said, “You didn’t come to my office at 4:00!” “Oh, ” I said, “I can’t believe we forgot! Sorry! It must have slipped our mind.”

I know. I was being rotten, but this was just too much fun.

So, here comes next Friday. Same routine. At lunch I drove down to the trailer down by the river (the Arkansas River) and packed up my stuff and parked my car outside the Unit 6 Electric Shop expecting to leave out of there around 3 o’clock

Around 2:30 in the afternoon, Ben and I were working on something in the shop getting ready to clean up and head on home. Don Spears was sitting in the electric shop office in a chair right inside the door where he could look out and watch our every move.

As 3 o’clock rolled by, there was Don Spears with his face plastered to the window in the door not taking his eyes off of us, with a big grin on his face. Ben said something like “it looks like he has us this time.”

So, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands…. I walked in the office and sat down right on Don Spear’s lap. He looked at me totally surprised. I put my arms around his neck and I looked him straight in the eyes…..

Don sat there stunned. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t speak. With the most sincere expression I could muster up, while looking in his eyes as dreamily as I could, I said, “You are just the cutest thing. I can’t hardly STAND it!” (Imagine saying that to Barry Switzer’s bigger brother). Then I stood up and sort of danced out into the shop.

I turned my head just enough to see Don darting out the back door to the office in the other direction. I turned to Ben and said, “Let’s go!” Out we went, and we were on our way home.

Come next Monday morning….. Ok…. I figured…. here it comes…. I drove up to the electric shop parking lot and there was Barry…. I mean Don… smoking a cigarette pacing back and forth in front of the electric shop door.  What?  No hands on his hips?

As I approached him he said, “I know what you’re up to!” I said in a calm voice with as straight of a face that I could muster… “What do you mean?” He said, “I talked to Bill Bennett (the A Foreman at our plant). He told me that you are just using ‘Psychology’ on me.”

I replied, “I am? What do you mean?” He said, “You know what I mean.” I looked confused as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. He continued, “Bill told me all about you.” I said something like, “Bill is a great guy.” Then I walked into the shop.

The next Friday…. Don was no where to be seen. The remainder of the overhaul, Don was keeping his distance. I don’t think we caught sight of him the next 4 weeks. It seemed that I had finally spooked him. From that point on, he decided that he didn’t care so much if we bugged out early.

Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance

The very last thing I ever learned in High School was the importance of Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance. In fact, the entire senior class of 1978 at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri learned this lesson at the same time. It was during the graduation ceremony in May while the students were walking across the stage to receive their diplomas.

I had already received mine and I was back in my seat sitting between Tracy Brandecker and Patrick Brier (we were sitting alphabetically. My name is Breazile). Pat was sitting on my left and Tracy was on my right. We were grinning from ear-to-ear to be graduating. My friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper, Russell Somers and Brent Stewart had just walked across the stage in the gymnasium while a storm raged outside. As my friend from the fifth grade forward, Matt Tapley was walking across the stage there was a loud crack of thunder and the sound of an explosion as the lights went out.

Matt Tapley has albinism, giving him white hair and skin. In his black robe, the entire class witnessed Matt’s head bobbing up and down in the faint light given off from the emergency lights to either side of the stage as he was bowing to his classmates. We all clapped. The clapping soon turned to laughter as the emergency lights quickly dimmed and went entirely out within a minute.

An emergency light

An emergency light

As we sat in total darkness waiting for some resourceful faculty member to make their way to the hidden fallout shelter in the basement of the school to retrieve the portable generator and a spotlight, I was amazed by how quickly the emergency lighting had failed. The transformer to the school had been destroyed by the lightning strike so we finished the ceremony by the light of the large spotlight from the back of gym. My thought was that the school is only 4 years old and already the emergency lighting is too old to stay lit long enough to even begin evacuating the building, if that was what we had intended to do.

Fast forward to the spring of 1984. I had become an electrician a few months earlier. As I was learning the electrical ropes, I learned the importance of Preventative Maintenance in a power plant setting. The majority of an electrician’s job when I first joined the electric shop was doing “Preventative Maintenance”. I have some horror stories of bad preventative maintenance that I will share much later. I will point out now that most Americans know of some stories themselves, they just don’t realize that the root cause of these major failures were from a lack of preventative maintenance.

A power plant, like the emergency lights in the High School, has a battery backup system, only it is on a grand scale. There are backup batteries for every system that needs to remain online when there is a total blackout of power. These batteries needed to be inspected regularly. We inspected them monthly.

At first, I had done battery inspections with various electricians. Some people didn’t seem to take this task very seriously. I remember that when I did the inspections with Mike Rose, he usually finished by taking a gallon of soda water (a gallon of water with a box of baking soda dissolved into it) and pouring it all over the batteries.

My bucket buddy, Diana Lucas (Dee), on the other hand, took a different approach. We carefully filled each cell with just the right amount of distilled water. Then she showed me how to meticulously clean any corrosion from the battery posts using a rag soaked in the soda water, and then she would paint the area on the post where the corrosion was with No-Ox grease.

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

When I say batteries, you may think that I’m talking about batteries like you have in your car, or even in a large piece of equipment like a big dirt mover. Some of the batteries were the size of a battery used in a large dozer or dirt mover:

A battery used in a large dozer

A battery used in a large dozer

Some of the batteries that we inspected were of this type. They were usually hooked up to generators that could be started up in case all the power was out and we needed to start up a diesel generator. However, this was just the puppies when it came to the Station Power Batteries. These were some serious batteries:

The battery shown on the left is about the size of a small file cabinet

These are the type of UPS Station batteries used at the plant. The battery shown on the left is about the size of a small file cabinet

As big as these batteries are, it takes 58 of them for each system to come up with a 130 volt circuit. That’s right. 58 of these batteries all in a series. The station batteries are all in rooms by themselves known as…. “Unit 1 and Unit 2 Battery rooms”. Smaller station battery sets are found at different locations. Today, those places include the relay house in the main substation, the Microwave room on the roof of #1 boiler. The River pumps, the radio tower building, the coalyard switchgear, Enid Turbine Generators and the Co-Generation plant in Ponca City. I’m sure I’m leaving some out. Maybe a current electrician at the plant can remind me of the others in a comment below. Each of these locations have approximately 58 station batteries.

While I was still a novice electrician, one morning in May I was told that I was going with Dee and Ben Davis to Enid to a Battery training class at an electric company office where the manufacturer (C&D) was going to go over the proper maintenance of the station batteries. Ben drove the pickup. I remember sitting in the middle between Dee and Ben both going and coming back from our lesson on Battery Preventative Maintenance….

Interesting that Ben was sitting to my left and Dee to my right that day… just like Pat and Tracy during the graduation ceremony 6 years earlier to the month when we first learned the impact of bad preventative maintenance on backup batteries. This time we were learning how to prevent the problem I had witnessed years before. I don’t know why I draw parallels like that. It just seem to make life a little neater when that happens. I don’t remember Ben and Dee grinning ear-to-ear like Pat and Tracy were the night we graduated from High School, but I can assure you, I was the entire 45 minutes going to Enid and the 45 minutes going back to the plant.

Since I had been trained for battery maintenance, I suppose it was like Andy Griffith becoming the Permanent Latrine Orderly (PLO) in the movie “No Time For Sergeants”. I was able to go to town inspecting all kinds of backup batteries.

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

Gene Roget (pronounced with a french accent as “Row Jay” with a soft J) was a contract electrician when I first became an electrician in the shop. I wrote about him in the post New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop. He was a great mentor that taught me a lot about how to be an electrician. He taught me how to use all the different tools in my tool bucket. He taught me how to bend conduit and make it come out the right length on both ends…

He especially taught me the importance of doing a “pretty” job when running wire or conduit or just rewiring a motor. I remember Gene stopping one day when we were walking to the precipitator and he paused to look up at the transfer tower. I asked him where he was looking. He said, “I’m just admiring the wonderful job someone did bending that set of conduit. that’s a perfect job! Just perfect!”

Anyway, Gene and I were given the task of checking all the batteries in the emergency lights throughout the plant. It happened that the emergency lights at the plant were all about 5 years old. Probably about the same age as the lights were in the high school the night of our graduation. The lights in the plant had wet cells. Which meant that you had to add distilled water to them like you do in your car, or in the station batteries. This amounted to a pretty large task as there were emergency lights stationed throughout the plant.

We found many of the lights that would never have been able to light up enough to cause a cockroach to run for cover. We took the bad ones back to the shop to work on them. A lot of the batteries had gone bad because they had never been checked. They have a built-in battery charger, and some of the chargers were not working. I drew a wiring diagram of the charger so that we could troubleshoot them and replace components that had gone bad.

All of this was like a dream to me. At the time I couldn’t think of any other place I would rather be. I loved taking things that were broken and fixing them and putting them back into operation. Eventually we decided to change the emergency light batteries to dry batteries. Those didn’t need water. We could pull out the six wet cells from each emergency light box and just plug the new batteries in place. This made a lot more sense. Who has time to go around regularly and check 50 or 60 emergency lights every 3 months? Not us. Not when we were trying to save the world.

Back to the Station Batteries:

Just to give you an idea of how important these batteries are, let me tell you what they are used for…. Suppose the power plant is just humming along at full power, and all of the sudden, the power goes out. It doesn’t matter the reason. When there is a blackout in a city, or a state, be assured, the power plant itself is in a blackout state as well. After all, the power plant is where the electricity is being created.

In the plant there is large equipment running. The largest and most valuable piece of equipment by far in a power plant is the Turbine Generator. The entire plant exists to spin this machine. As big as it is, it spins at 3600 revolutions per minute, or 60 times each second. In order to do that, oil has to be flowing through the bearings otherwise they would burn up almost instantly. This would cause the generator to come to a screeching halt — and I mean “screeching!”

A turbine Generator Room at a nuclear plant with a waxed floor!

A turbine Generator Room at a nuclear power plant with a waxed floor!

So, in order to stop a turbine generator properly, when a unit is taken offline, once it has coasted to a smooth stop, the turbine has to be engaged to something called a “Turning Gear” which slowly rotates the turbine generator. This is turned off only when the shaft has cooled down. Without this, you might as well call General Electric and order a new one.

So, one of the most important things the station batteries do is run emergency oil pumps that engage immediately when the power is cutoff from the plant. This allows the turbine generator and other important equipment throughout the plant to slowdown and come to a stop gracefully in case the power is instantly gone.

I will write a story later about a day when this happened at our plant. The moments of confusion, and the quick decisions that had to be made to keep the unit 1 boiler from melting to the ground. Rest assured that throughout this time, the emergency oil pumps had kicked in. The station batteries did their job when they were called upon. While the control room operators were performing their emergency tasks to the letter and the electricians were scrambling to come up with a workable solution to an unforeseen problem, the turbine-generator, the PA (Primary Air) fans, the FD (Forced Draft) Fans, the ID (Induction) fans were all coasting down as the groundwork was being laid to quickly restore power.

Someone in an office in the middle of Oklahoma City may have noticed their lights flicker for a moment. Maybe they dimmed slightly…

If not for the proper maintenance of the power plant station batteries, the lights would have possibly gone dark. Someone would have had to go looking for the portable generator and the spotlight. Ceremonies in progress may have to continued under candlelight.

Runaway Fire Hydrant Leaves Power Plant in the Dark

Originally posted May 17, 2014:

Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.

A notepad like this

Power Plant Notepad

One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.

The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.

Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.

Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.

I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.

 

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.

 

An example of  part of an Auxiliary Substation

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.

Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.

When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.

When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.

Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.

 

From the movie "The China Syndrome" where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

From the movie “The China Syndrome” where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait)  See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.

With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.

While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.

A High Voltage Insulator like this

A High Voltage Insulator like this

Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.

By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman is the one on the left in the plaid shirt

The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.

The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.

So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”

So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.

Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….

George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.

Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.

This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.

You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).

Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.

Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….

Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.

I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.

Telephone Grounding Panel

Telephone Grounding Panel

In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.

Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.

Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.

 

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode "Night Call"

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode “Night Call”

I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.

It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.

He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?

The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.

When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.

That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…

I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.

 

Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.

Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.

Comments from the Original post

    1. Ron May 17, 2015

      That was an exciting day! Another great story. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Dan Antion May  17, 2014

      I like the mix of storytelling and information sharing you deliver here. Thanks again

    1. Dave Tarver May 17, 2014

      Aug 8, 2011 I lost all reserve in and lost both units in 2 separate storms and A1 would not start for a few minutes and A2 was leaking antifreeze terribly not a scratch and back online in 34 hours both units and no one ever asked me one question even with a Safety Dept not one question asked of me the SS on duty. Not many men on the planet have ever experienced an uncontrolled total plant outage- you would of thought a learning opportunity would of took place. Feb 2011 worst winter temps in years 50 Units or more tripped in Texas let alone the trusty units of Redbud and McClain were fighting Sooner rolled right along with storm warnings for two weeks ahead – the ICS still went to Detroit for just tours of other facilities once again the fall guy Tarver McArthur stood alone. I had authored a Freeze Protection Plan for the plant and that seemed to save the day and explain to the regulatory bodies how we were online and everyone else in Texas was off and enjoying rolling blackouts in a terrible winter weather situation not to mention our powers that be were all stranded in Detroit and very few people could get to the plant without getting stuck trying to get there as well – but a few health heart issues later I am still here to tell about it all you would think folks would want to take advantage of someone that had went through the fire and Ice but thats ok I want them someday distant to get all the credit they deserve when the trumpets sound as that is truly what matters most. DT

  1. NEO May 17, 2014

    Great story, and yes, you took exactly the proper lesson from it, and it is too bad that many of our bosses haven’t learned it.

    And yup, I’ve buried a lot of electrocuted squirrels over the years.

 

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.  Added a picture of Larry Riley:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.

I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him.  He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a life time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  Each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.

As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a tee shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 150 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.

I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Jonathan Caswell August 12, 2014

    GLAD that you made it….even if the mallet didn’t!!!

    I can dig it. When I was hired for Security at one post…I really looked forward to working with and for that particular Supervisor who’d hired me. No such luck–she was gone in a month or two. THAT hurt! 🙂

  2. Ron Kilman August 13, 2014

    If the environment is too hot for a respirator to function properly in, it’s too hot for people to work in (if safety is actually job #1). I saw too many examples of “Get the Unit Back On is Job #1″.

 

Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance

The very last thing I ever learned in High School was the importance of Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance. In fact, the entire senior class of 1978 at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri learned this lesson at the same time. It was during the graduation ceremony in May while the students were walking across the stage to receive their diplomas.

I had already received mine and I was back in my seat sitting between Tracy Brandecker and Patrick Brier (we were sitting alphabetically. My name is Breazile). Pat was sitting on my left and Tracy was on my right. We were grinning from ear-to-ear to be graduating. My friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper, Russell Somers and Brent Stewart had just walked across the stage in the gymnasium while a storm raged outside. As my friend from the fifth grade forward, Matt Tapley was walking across the stage there was a loud crack of thunder and the sound of an explosion as the lights went out.

Matt Tapley has albinism, giving him white hair and skin. In his black robe, the entire class witnessed Matt’s head bobbing up and down in the faint light given off from the emergency lights to either side of the stage as he was bowing to his classmates. We all clapped. The clapping soon turned to laughter as the emergency lights quickly dimmed and went entirely out within a minute.

An emergency light

An emergency light

As we sat in total darkness waiting for some resourceful faculty member to make their way to the hidden fallout shelter in the basement of the school to retrieve the portable generator and a spotlight, I was amazed by how quickly the emergency lighting had failed. The transformer to the school had been destroyed by the lightning strike so we finished the ceremony by the light of the large spotlight from the back of gym. My thought was that the school is only 4 years old and already the emergency lighting is too old to stay lit long enough to even begin evacuating the building, if that was what we had intended to do.

Fast forward to the spring of 1984. I had become an electrician a few months earlier. As I was learning the electrical ropes, I learned the importance of Preventative Maintenance in a power plant setting. The majority of an electrician’s job when I first joined the electric shop was doing “Preventative Maintenance”. I have some horror stories of bad preventative maintenance that I will share much later. I will point out now that most Americans know of some stories themselves, they just don’t realize that the root cause of these major failures were from a lack of preventative maintenance.

A power plant, like the emergency lights in the High School, has a battery backup system, only it is on a grand scale. There are backup batteries for every system that needs to remain online when there is a total blackout of power. These batteries needed to be inspected regularly. We inspected them monthly.

At first, I had done battery inspections with various electricians. Some people didn’t seem to take this task very seriously. I remember that when I did the inspections with Mike Rose, he usually finished by taking a gallon of soda water (a gallon of water with a box of baking soda dissolved into it) and pouring it all over the batteries.

My bucket buddy, Diana Lucas (Dee), on the other hand, took a different approach. We carefully filled each cell with just the right amount of distilled water. Then she showed me how to meticulously clean any corrosion from the battery posts using a rag soaked in the soda water, and then she would paint the area on the post where the corrosion was with No-Ox grease.

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

When I say batteries, you may think that I’m talking about batteries like you have in your car, or even in a large piece of equipment like a big dirt mover. Some of the batteries were the size of a battery used in a large dozer or dirt mover:

A battery used in a large dozer

A battery used in a large dozer

Some of the batteries that we inspected were of this type. They were usually hooked up to generators that could be started up in case all the power was out and we needed to start up a diesel generator. However, this was just the puppies when it came to the Station Power Batteries. These were some serious batteries:

The battery shown on the left is about the size of a small file cabinet

These are the type of UPS Station batteries used at the plant. The battery shown on the left is about the size of a small file cabinet

As big as these batteries are, it takes 58 of them for each system to come up with a 130 volt circuit. That’s right. 58 of these batteries all in a series. The station batteries are all in rooms by themselves known as…. “Unit 1 and Unit 2 Battery rooms”. Smaller station battery sets are found at different locations. Today, those places include the relay house in the main substation, the Microwave room on the roof of #1 boiler. The River pumps, the radio tower building, the coalyard switchgear, Enid Turbine Generators and the Co-Generation plant in Ponca City. I’m sure I’m leaving some out. Maybe a current electrician at the plant can remind me of the others in a comment below. Each of these locations have approximately 58 station batteries.

While I was still a novice electrician, one morning in May I was told that I was going with Dee and Ben Davis to Enid to a Battery training class at an electric company office where the manufacturer (C&D) was going to go over the proper maintenance of the station batteries. Ben drove the pickup. I remember sitting in the middle between Dee and Ben both going and coming back from our lesson on Battery Preventative Maintenance….

Interesting that Ben was sitting to my left and Dee to my right that day… just like Pat and Tracy during the graduation ceremony 6 years earlier to the month when we first learned the impact of bad preventative maintenance on backup batteries. This time we were learning how to prevent the problem I had witnessed years before. I don’t know why I draw parallels like that. It just seem to make life a little neater when that happens. I don’t remember Ben and Dee grinning ear-to-ear like Pat and Tracy were the night we graduated from High School, but I can assure you, I was the entire 45 minutes going to Enid and the 45 minutes going back to the plant.

Since I had been trained for battery maintenance, I suppose it was like Andy Griffith becoming the Permanent Latrine Orderly (PLO) in the movie “No Time For Sergeants”. I was able to go to town inspecting all kinds of backup batteries.

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

Gene Roget (pronounced with a french accent as “Row Jay” with a soft J) was a contract electrician when I first became an electrician in the shop. I wrote about him in the post New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop. He was a great mentor that taught me a lot about how to be an electrician. He taught me how to use all the different tools in my tool bucket. He taught me how to bend conduit and make it come out the right length on both ends…

He especially taught me the importance of doing a “pretty” job when running wire or conduit or just rewiring a motor. I remember Gene stopping one day when we were walking to the precipitator and he paused to look up at the transfer tower. I asked him where he was looking. He said, “I’m just admiring the wonderful job someone did bending that set of conduit. that’s a perfect job! Just perfect!”

Anyway, Gene and I were given the task of checking all the batteries in the emergency lights throughout the plant. It happened that the emergency lights at the plant were all about 5 years old. Probably about the same age as the lights were in the high school the night of our graduation. The lights in the plant had wet cells. Which meant that you had to add distilled water to them like you do in your car, or in the station batteries. This amounted to a pretty large task as there were emergency lights stationed throughout the plant.

We found many of the lights that would never have been able to light up enough to cause a cockroach to run for cover. We took the bad ones back to the shop to work on them. A lot of the batteries had gone bad because they had never been checked. They have a built-in battery charger, and some of the chargers were not working. I drew a wiring diagram of the charger so that we could troubleshoot them and replace components that had gone bad.

All of this was like a dream to me. At the time I couldn’t think of any other place I would rather be. I loved taking things that were broken and fixing them and putting them back into operation. Eventually we decided to change the emergency light batteries to dry batteries. Those didn’t need water. We could pull out the six wet cells from each emergency light box and just plug the new batteries in place. This made a lot more sense. Who has time to go around regularly and check 50 or 60 emergency lights every 3 months? Not us. Not when we were trying to save the world.

Back to the Station Batteries:

Just to give you an idea of how important these batteries are, let me tell you what they are used for…. Suppose the power plant is just humming along at full power, and all of the sudden, the power goes out. It doesn’t matter the reason. When there is a blackout in a city, or a state, be assured, the power plant itself is in a blackout state as well. After all, the power plant is where the electricity is being created.

In the plant there is large equipment running. The largest and most valuable piece of equipment by far in a power plant is the Turbine Generator. The entire plant exists to spin this machine. As big as it is, it spins at 3600 revolutions per minute, or 60 times each second. In order to do that, oil has to be flowing through the bearings otherwise they would burn up almost instantly. This would cause the generator to come to a screeching halt — and I mean “screeching!”

A turbine Generator Room at a nuclear plant with a waxed floor!

A turbine Generator Room at a nuclear power plant with a waxed floor!

So, in order to stop a turbine generator properly, when a unit is taken offline, once it has coasted to a smooth stop, the turbine has to be engaged to something called a “Turning Gear” which slowly rotates the turbine generator. This is turned off only when the shaft has cooled down. Without this, you might as well call General Electric and order a new one.

So, one of the most important things the station batteries do is run emergency oil pumps that engage immediately when the power is cutoff from the plant. This allows the turbine generator and other important equipment throughout the plant to slowdown and come to a stop gracefully in case the power is instantly gone.

I will write a story later about a day when this happened at our plant. The moments of confusion, and the quick decisions that had to be made to keep the unit 1 boiler from melting to the ground. Rest assured that throughout this time, the emergency oil pumps had kicked in. The station batteries did their job when they were called upon. While the control room operators were performing their emergency tasks to the letter and the electricians were scrambling to come up with a workable solution to an unforeseen problem, the turbine-generator, the PA (Primary Air) fans, the FD (Forced Draft) Fans, the ID (Induction) fans were all coasting down as the groundwork was being laid to quickly restore power.

Someone in an office in the middle of Oklahoma City may have noticed their lights flicker for a moment. Maybe they dimmed slightly…

If not for the proper maintenance of the power plant station batteries, the lights would have possibly gone dark. Someone would have had to go looking for the portable generator and the spotlight. Ceremonies in progress may have to continued under candlelight.

Runaway Fire Hydrant Leaves Power Plant in the Dark

Originally posted May 17, 2014:

Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.

A notepad like this

Power Plant Notepad

One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.

The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.

Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.

Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.

I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.

 

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.

 

An example of  part of an Auxiliary Substation

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.

Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.

When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.

When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.

Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.

 

From the movie "The China Syndrome" where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

From the movie “The China Syndrome” where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait)  See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.

With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.

While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.

A High Voltage Insulator like this

A High Voltage Insulator like this

Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.

By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman is the one on the left in the plaid shirt

The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.

The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.

So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”

So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.

Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….

George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.

Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.

This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.

You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).

Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.

Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….

Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.

I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.

Telephone Grounding Panel

Telephone Grounding Panel

In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically was all “mechanical”.

Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.

Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.

 

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode "Night Call"

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode “Night Call”

I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.

It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.

He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?

The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.

When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.

That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…

I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.

 

Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.

Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.

Comments from the Original post

    1. Ron May 17, 2015

      That was an exciting day! Another great story. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Dan Antion May  17, 2014

      I like the mix of storytelling and information sharing you deliver here. Thanks again

    1. Dave Tarver May 17, 2014

      Aug 8, 2011 I lost all reserve in and lost both units in 2 separate storms and A1 would not start for a few minutes and A2 was leaking antifreeze terribly not a scratch and back online in 34 hours both units and no one ever asked me one question even with a Safety Dept not one question asked of me the SS on duty. Not many men on the planet have ever experienced an uncontrolled total plant outage- you would of thought a learning opportunity would of took place. Feb 2011 worst winter temps in years 50 Units or more tripped in Texas let alone the trusty units of Redbud and McClain were fighting Sooner rolled right along with storm warnings for two weeks ahead – the ICS still went to Detroit for just tours of other facilities once again the fall guy Tarver McArthur stood alone. I had authored a Freeze Protection Plan for the plant and that seemed to save the day and explain to the regulatory bodies how we were online and everyone else in Texas was off and enjoying rolling blackouts in a terrible winter weather situation not to mention our powers that be were all stranded in Detroit and very few people could get to the plant without getting stuck trying to get there as well – but a few health heart issues later I am still here to tell about it all you would think folks would want to take advantage of someone that had went through the fire and Ice but thats ok I want them someday distant to get all the credit they deserve when the trumpets sound as that is truly what matters most. DT

  1. NEO May 17, 2014

    Great story, and yes, you took exactly the proper lesson from it, and it is too bad that many of our bosses haven’t learned it.

    And yup, I’ve buried a lot of electrocuted squirrels over the years.

 

Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant

Originally Posted on April 12, 2013:

I witnessed a fast approaching Wall Cloud coming south from Tulsa when I was on overhaul at the Muskogee Oklahoma Coal-fired Power Plant the fall 1984. I stood outside of the Unit 6 electric shop looking north watching the darkness approaching at an alarming rate. As it approached I could see debris flying up from the highway a half mile away telling me that we were in for one heck of a wind.

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

I suppose I was mesmerized because all I did was stand there and stare at it. Maybe I thought, “At least if this blows me away, I can spend my last moments staring down a tornado. I watched as the wind hit the precipitator and stirred up the piles of ash under it and blew it away as if someone was blowing out a birthday candle.

The wall cloud rolled right over the top of me looking like a big steamroller wheel. At the same time the wind hit me knocking me back. I couldn’t breathe because of the dust and I took two steps to the electric shop door and dodged inside. The walls rattled as the wind buffeted the building. All I could think of was, “Cool!”

We found out a few minutes later that 4 miles south of us by the Fort Howard Paper plant a tornado dropped out of the cloud and touched down.

That was only one of many exciting moments at the Muskogee Power Plant. Last week I talked about how there must have been something in the water there that made people think and act a little differently than they otherwise would (See Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant). I said that because of the “interesting” way people thought and acted in Muskogee. This is the story about the day I think I drank some of the water by mistake.

Each morning when I was waiting for the work to start in the electric shop, two electricians, Jay Harris and Richard Moravek had a ritual that they performed before heading off to work on the precipitators for the day. One of them would hum a note, then together they would sing a short jingle that went like this: “Nestles makes the very best…….. Chooooocolate!!!” Richard would whistle as he sang, just like the Nestle’s Rabbit– Every morning without fail.

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

Both Richard and Jay were soldiers. Jay was a young soldier that knew my brother from the Marine Reserves. He would train with him in the TOW Anti-Tank unit somewhere around Broken Arrow. Richard…. Well… Richard was a Vietnam Veteran that had seen a lot of combat.

Richard had a metal plate in his forehead. He could tap it and you could hear it tink. “Tink, Tink, Tink.” He was a forward observer in Vietnam. They usually had a life expectancy of a couple of weeks. Richard had survived. He was attached to a group of Rangers.

Richard explained to me one time that he used to use a big M60 machine gun like Sylvester Stallone used in the movie Rambo. Only, he couldn’t shoot two of them at a time, and he couldn’t walk forward with it either like Rambo. He could only walk backward because the machine gun would knock you down.

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

I know that Richard suffered from the effects of Agent Orange and was fighting the cancer it caused at one point in his life. He died in November 6, 2007. He left behind a son named Richard that has commented to me that his dad was “A Great Man.”

If I keep talking about the people that I met while I was at Muskogee, I will never get to the story that I want to tell, because heroes seemed to be all over the place. Another electrician was Ellis Moore, who was in Vietnam while he was in the Army. He was still Shell Shocked from his experience there.

He told me stories about how his unit would be patrolling through the woods, and they would hear some gunfire, and they would just all put their backs to each other and would shoot blindly in all directions.

They were frightened and figured that was the only way they were going to stay alive. Ellis had an odd look on his face when he told me this story. One that told me that he had seen things that were too horrible to bring back into his mind.

This leads me to my story…. It began on a Friday afternoon about 2pm. I was working with Ben Davis, a fellow electrician from our plant in North Central Oklahoma.

I enjoyed working with Ben Davis during the overhaul. Ben was one of the most calm and normal person you could find. He was probably the most sane person in the electric shop. He didn’t care what other people thought about him. When he told you what he thought, you could count on it being the truth.

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

When I was dressing up in rags, (See the post From Power Plant Rags to Riches), Ben just looked a little concerned that I may have lost my sanity, but that didn’t keep him from treating me with the respect and dignity that I wasn’t even maintaining for myself.

We were working on 6A Forced Draft Fan and we made a measurement with the large Meggar indicating that the insulation might be a little weak somewhere in the motor.

We weren’t sure what the acceptable level of deviation was from the norm, so we decided that we would find Don Spears and ask him. Don was the Electrical Supervisor at Muskogee at the time. He was the spittin’ image of Oklahoma University’s Football Coach Barry Switzer’s bigger brother.

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer's Older Brother. Bigger and Meaner

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer’s Older Brother. Bigger and Meaner

Ben and I talked to John Manning, the Electrical B Foreman, and he agreed that we should talk to Don, and would let him know that we were looking for him when he returned from a meeting he was attending.

We waited around in the Unit 6 electric shop until around 3 o’clock. At 3 o’clock on Friday, we liked to bug out early to head home to our families. At lunch I would go to the trailer down by the river and pack up my stuff in my car and then park it outside the electric shop so that when 3 o’clock rolled around, we could dodge out the door and head for home.

Only this time, we were waiting around for Don to show up. We finally decided…. What the heck…. We can talk to him on Monday. We bolted out the door, and Ben and I headed back toward Stillwater at breakneck speed.

Come Monday morning, I pulled up to the electric shop parking lot, and who do you think was standing there just waiting for me? Yep. Don Spears. With his hands on his hips, and his big Football Coach stance trying his darnedest to look just like Barry Switzer telling his team at half time that they were going to have to do better than that.

I happened to pull up to the shop about the same time that Ben did. Don Spears immediately lit into us. He said, “You left early on Friday didn’t you!!!” I said, “What? Surely not!”

Don replied that he came looking for us around 3:30 and we were no where to be found. He paged us but we didn’t answer. I responded by telling him that we must have been out working on a motor and couldn’t hear him because it was too noisy.

Of course, Don wasn’t going to buy that. He said this Friday he wanted us to meet him in his office at 4:00. He was going to make sure we didn’t bug out early. Ben and I assured him that we would be there.

So, next Friday at lunch Don came down to the shop and said….. “Remember. I want to see you in my office at 4:00 sharp. We both told him that we would be there, come rain or shine.

3 o’clock rolled around and we headed for home… I don’t think I stopped laughing until I was in Tulsa. It is always fun to play an on-going joke with someone. Especially when that someone could pulverize you with one simple punch.

So, you can imagine what I saw when I arrived at the Unit 6 Electric Shop next Monday Morning….

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Yep. That was Don. He was standing there with his feet spread apart just like Paul Bunyan. His hands were on his hips and he looked rather mad. He said, “You Did it Again!!! You left early!”

I said, “What do you mean we left early?” He said, “You didn’t come to my office at 4:00!” “Oh, ” I said, “I can’t believe we forgot! Sorry! It must have slipped our mind.”

I know. I was being rotten, but this was just too much fun.

So, here comes next Friday. Same routine. At lunch I drove down to the trailer down by the river and packed up my stuff and parked my car outside the Unit 6 Electric Shop expecting to leave out of there around 3 o’clock

Around 2:30 in the afternoon, Ben and I were working on something in the shop getting ready to clean up and head on home. Don Spears was sitting in the electric shop office in a chair right inside the door where he could look out and watch our every move.

As 3 o’clock rolled by, there was Don Spears with his face plastered to the window in the door not taking his eyes off of us, with a big grin on his face. Ben said something like “it looks like he has us this time.”

So, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands…. I walked in the office and sat down right on Don Spear’s lap. He looked at me totally surprised. I put my arms around his neck and I looked him straight in the eyes…..

Don sat there stunned. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t speak. With the most sincere expression I could muster up, while looking in his eyes as dreamily as I could, I said, “You are just the cutest thing. I can’t hardly STAND it!” (Imagine saying that to Barry Switzer’s bigger brother). Then I stood up and walked out into the shop.

I turned my head just enough to see Don darting out the back door to the office in the other direction. I turned to Ben and said, “Let’s go!” Out we went, and we were on our way home.

Come next Monday morning….. Ok…. I figured…. here it comes…. I drove up to the electric shop parking lot and there was Barry…. I mean Don… smoking a cigarette pacing back and forth in front of the electric shop door.

As I approached him he said, “I know what you’re up to!” I said in a calm voice with as straight of a face that I could muster… “What do you mean?” He said, “I talked to Bill Bennett (the A Foreman at our plant). He told me that you are just using ‘Psychology’ on me.”

I replied, “I am? What do you mean?” He said, “You know what I mean.” I looked confused as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. He continued, “Bill told me all about you.” I said something like, “Bill is a great guy.” Then I walked into the shop.

The next Friday…. Don was no where to be seen. The remainder of the overhaul, Don was keeping his distance. I don’t think we caught sight of him the next 4 weeks. It seemed that I had finally spooked him. From that point on, he decided that he didn’t care so much if we bugged out early.