Tag Archives: half faced respirator

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″.

 

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Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a lot of protection….

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

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Hubbard

Charles Foster

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

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

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″.

 

Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a lot of protection….

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

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew — Repost

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 live time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  So, 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.

“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 on 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.

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 t-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 my lanyard 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.  It 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 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.

Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator — Repost

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a lot of protection….

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

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew — Repost

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012:

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

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 live time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  So, 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.

“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 on 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.

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 t-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 my lanyard 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.  It 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 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.

Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a lot of protection….

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

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

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

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

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 live time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  So, 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 Bud Schoonover 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.

“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”.  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 on 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.

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 t-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 my lanyard 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.  It 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 are 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.

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 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 the entire time 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, because he was leaving our plant to go work at another one.

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.

Question 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 the everyone who had already made that decision.