Tag Archives: junction box

Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out

Originally Posted July 12, 2013:

All safe electricians worth their salt know about OSHA regulation 1910.147(c)(3). Only Power Plant electricians have learned more about OSHA regulation 1910.147(a)(1)(ii)(C). Section 147 has to do with locking out and tagging a power source in order to protect the employees working on the circuit. 147(a)(1)(ii) says that Power plants are exempt from section 147. In other words, if you are working in a power plant it is all right to have a less stringent lock-out/tag-out procedure in place than if you didn’t work in a power plant.

One of the first things I learned from Charles Foster, my foreman when I became an electrician was how to remove the “heaters” from a breaker relay in order to protect myself from an “unauthorized” operation of the breaker. That means…. in case someone accidentally turned on the breaker and started up the motor or whatever else I was working on. “Heaters” are what we called the overloads that trip a 480 volt breaker when the circuit uses more power than it is supposed to be using. They are called heaters, because they literally “heat up” in order to trip the breaker.

typical 480 volt overload heaters

typical 480 volt overload heaters

Charles Foster told me the following story about my bucket buddy Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien):

Dee was wiring up a sump pump at the bottom of the coal dumper. The motor had been taken out while the pump had been repaired. Once back in place Dee was sent to wire it back up. The proper clearance had been taken to work on the motor. That is, she had gone to the Shift Supervisor’s office in the Control Room to request a clearance on the motor. Then later she had witnessed the operator opening the 480 volt breaker and place the clearance tag on the breaker.

A typical Clearance Tag.  Our tags had the word

A typical Clearance Tag. Our tags had the word “Clearance” at the top. We called them a “Hold Tag”

The tag is signed by the Shift Supervisor and is only to be removed by an operator sent by the Shift Supervisor. It is placed through a slot in the handle on the breaker that keeps the breaker from closing unless the tag is removed first…. well… that’s the theory anyway.

Dee had just finished hooking the three leads in the junction box together with the cable coming into the box using two wrenches. She reached down into her tool bucket that she was using as her stool to get some rubber tape to begin wrapping the connections. The three bare connections were sticking out in front of her face.

A large vertical pump motor

A large vertical pump motor

The Junction box is the box on the right side of this motor. At this point the cover would be off and the wires would be sticking straight out. As she reached into the bucket, the motor turned on and began running.

Startled, Dee stopped what she was doing. I suppose she also pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose she checked her diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose she may have said a few choice words whether anyone was around to hear them or not. Maybe not all in that order.

For those of you who don’t realize what this meant. It meant that if the motor had started running about 5 to 10 seconds later, someone, some time later may have made their way down to the west end of the dumper sump only to find one charred Diana Lucas (who never would have later become Diana Brien). They might not have recognized her at first. I can assure you. It wouldn’t have been pretty.

You see… someone had removed the Hold Tag and purposely started up the motor totally disregarding the clearance. I won’t mention any names, but his initials were Jerry Osborn.

So, after Charles told me this story, he showed me what to do to prevent this from ever happening to me.

Charles and I went to the Shift Supervisor’s office to take a clearance on a motor. Then we followed the operator to the breaker and watched him open the breaker and put the tag on the handle. Then we signed something and the operator left.

After the operator left, Charles told me to open the breaker and slip the hold tag through the slot in the door so that the door could open without removing the tag. I followed his directions.

Once the door was open, he told me to remove the three heaters on the bottom of the relay and hide them at the bottom of the breaker box.

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom.  That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom. That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

You see… with the heaters removed, even if someone were to close the breaker and try to start the motor, the electricity would never leave the breaker box because I had just created an open circuit between the relay and the wires going to the motor.

Well… If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and start talking about making it illegal to own guns.

Anyway, there is always a chance for something to go wrong. The Peter Principle demands it. So, at one point, someone forgot to replace the heaters in the relay before returning their clearance. When the motor was tested for rotation, it didn’t work. At that point the electrician knew that they had forgotten to re-insert the heaters. So, they had to return to the breaker to install the heaters before the motor would run.

This didn’t set well with the Shift Supervisor, who has supreme power at the power plant…. well… besides the janitor who had total control over the toilet paper supply.

Technically we were not going around the hold tag by removing the heaters because they were downstream from the breaker handle which cut off the power to the relay. The Shift Supervisor on the other hand believed that the hold tag included everything in the breaker box, including the relay and heaters (which really was stretching it).

An argument ensued that pitted the shift supervisors and the supervisor of operations, Ted Holdges with the electricians. Ted argued that we should not be removing the heaters to keep ourselves from becoming electrocuted accidentally when someone inadvertently removes a hold tag and turns the breaker on and starts up a motor. Electricians on the other hand argued that if we were going to be exposed to the possibility of being electrocuted, we would rather not work on any circuit. Without being completely assured that we would not occasionally be blown to pieces when someone or something accidentally caused the circuit to become hot, we concluded it wasn’t worth it.

So, a compromise was reached. We could remove the heaters, but they had to be put in a plastic bag and attached to the hold tag on the outside of the breaker. That way, when the clearance was returned, not only were the heaters readily available the operator would know to contact the electrician to re-install the heaters. The electricians didn’t really like this alternative, but we agreed. We were assured that there wasn’t any way that a breaker was going to be turned on and operated with the heaters in them when someone was actually working on a circuit.

Fast forward three years. 1992.

Bill Ennis and Ted Riddle were working on replacing a large electric junction box on the stack out tower. The Stack Out Tower is the tower that pours the coal out on the coal pile. Halfway up this tower there is a large junction box where most of the electric cables passed through going to the top of the tower. Bill Ennis had taken a clearance on a number of motor and control breakers.

Bill returned from lunch one day to work on the junction box, removing the old cables. Putting new lugs on them and placing them in the new junction box. As he began working, he decided to take out his multimeter and check the wires he was about to work on….

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

Bill was surprised to find that one set of cables were hot. They had 480 volts on them. Everything in this box should have been dead. I suppose he pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose he checked his diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose he said a few choice words that Ted may have heard if he was standing close by.

What had happened was that there had been two clearances on this one particular motor. One of the electricians had returned his clearance, and had installed the heaters that were in the plastic bag on the front of the breaker and the motor had been tested for rotation and put back in service. The operator had taken both clearances off of the breaker by mistake.

Ok. It was time for another meeting. Something had gone wrong. If it had not been for the guardian angels of both Diana Brien and Bill Ennis, at this point we would have had at least two dead electricians, and believe me…. I know that when an operator had later climbed the stack out tower to check the equipment, if he had run across the body of Bill Ennis… it definitely wouldn’t have been pretty (even on a good day).

I attended this meeting with Ted Holdges as did most of the electricians. I began by telling Ted that when we had met three years earlier I was newly married and wouldn’t have minded so much if I was killed by being electrocuted because I was young and only had a wife who knew how to take care of herself. But now it was different. I had a little girl at home and I need to be around to help her grow up.

Ted looked surprised by my remark. I had just told him the way I felt about this whole situation. The argument that we were making was that we should be able to place locks on the breakers just like OSHA demanded from the other industries. We had demonstrated that we didn’t have a system that would protect us from human error. We needed something that definitely kept us safe.

We told Ted that even if we had locks, and for some reason the breaker just had to be closed and the electrician had forgotten to remove his lock, the shift supervisor could keep a master key in his office to remove the lock. He finally agreed. His problem was a loss of control. The thought was that the Shift Supervisor had ultimate power.

If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and talk about socialized healthcare and how it destroys all concepts of quality and privacy.

So, as electricians, we weren’t really happy with this situation. We had a secret weapon against human error. Sure we would place a lock on the breaker. But after the operator would leave, before we placed our lock on the breaker, we might just open up the breaker box and remove the entire face off of the relay. It was similar to removing the heaters only it was bigger. It completely opened the circuit no matter what.

I hadn’t really planned on talking about this next story for a couple more years, but I’ll tell it now because it fits with this story.

In the month of May, 2001. I had already given my notice to leave the plant to work for Dell as a software developer. I was asked to work on a job with my old bucket buddy Diana Brien.

Diana-Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

The problem was that there was a grounded three phase circuit up on the Surge Bin tower. It had been tracked down to the dust collectors located below the surge bin conveyor floor.

Dee and I walked up to the Gravimetric feeder deck to look at the breaker to make sure it was turned off. It had a Danger tag on it that had been placed by the Shift Supervisor.

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

The breaker was open and the message on the tag said “Do not close this breaker. The circuit is grounded”.

Ok. We walked up to the surge bin tower through the counter weight room for belts 18 and 19. We opened up the big junction box that fed the power to the two large dust collector motors on the landing behind us. After taking the cover off of the box, I took out my multimeter and checked the circuit.

Like this.  Ok.  So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

The big copper bus was dead (that means, there was no electricity present).

So, Dee and I worked on locating the grounded circuit. I had just removed the cover to the junction box on one of the motors while Dee was removing some wires from the control panel when Larry Tapp arrived on the landing through the same route we had taken from the gravimetric feeder deck.

Larry asked us what we were doing. We told him we were tracking down the ground on the Dust Collectors. Larry looked surprised.

You see… Larry explained that he had just come from the Gravimetric feeder deck where he had just closed the breaker for the dust collectors. This particular breaker didn’t have a relay, as it was controlled by the control panel where Dee had been working.

So, I rechecked the copper bus with my multimeter and it was hot. 480 volts hot.

I had just been looking through my tool bucket for two wrenches to remove a piece of the bus work just to make sure the ground wasn’t in the box itself when Larry had arrived. In other words, if Larry had arrived 5 to 10 seconds later, he would have probably arrived to find Dee looking down at my body, stunned that I had just been electrocuted by a circuit that we had just tested and found dead.

If you don’t learn by history you are bound to repeat it.

You see… there is a difference between a Hold Tag and a Danger Tag. A hold tag is placed on a breaker after someone has requested a clearance by signing a form in the Shift Supervisor’s office in the control room. A Danger tag can be placed and removed at anytime by the person that placed the tag on the breaker.

So, I personally wrote this up as a “near” accident. We could have wiped our brow, pinched ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming. We could have checked our diaper to make sure it was still dry and then Dee could have said a few choice words that Larry Tapp would have agreed with (I have always had a mental block against expressing myself in that manner…. I found other ways). And we could have left this incident as a secret between Larry, Dee and I.

I thought it was a good time to remind the electricians throughout power production to follow the clearance procedures when working on high voltage circuits. Sure. Dee, Bill Ennis and I have powerful guardian Angels looking out for us…. but gee… I think we should be expected to look out for ourselves. So, I wrote up this incident to warn the rest of the team….. If we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.

I met with my roomie Steven Trammell, a month and a half later in Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma to discuss his performance plan. I was a 360 Degree Assessment Counselor and my favorite roommate from 17 years earlier had chosen me to review his performance appraisal. During this meeting I asked Steven, who had driven from Harrah, Oklahoma from another power plant to meet with me, if he had read the near accident report about the dust collector at our plant.

My roomie told me that he had, and that he thought it seemed to unduly blame the electrician. I told him I was the electrician and that I wrote the report. After 18 years of being an electrician, I had become so relaxed in my job that I had become dangerous to myself and others. So, after I did a cause-effect analysis of the near accident, most of the cause had come from my own belief that I could circumvent clearance procedures and save time and still believe that I was being safe.

On my drive back to the plant after the meeting with my favorite roomie of all time, I had time to think about this…. I was going to be leaving the power plant in a little over a month to work for Dell as a programmer. I knew this when I had been negligent with the Danger tag. I could have caused the death of both Dee and I. I will sure be glad to be in Texas. — Only.. I will miss my friends most of all.

I leave the Power Plant with this one thought…. If you don’t learn from history, you are bound to repeat it. I mean it… This time I really do.

Comments from the previous posts:

  1. Ron Kilman July 13, 2013:

    This is a great story. I thank God for His guardian angels and I thank you for taking responsibility. It was always difficult investigating accidents because people are a little reluctant to share their mistakes with the world. But a wise man knows it’s better to have a bruised ego than a fried friend.

Larry McCurry July 13, 2013:

Kevin,

  1. As an old time operator and having follows in my fathers footsteps as a Shift Supervisor, The answer to all of these problems to add steps to the clearance procedure to make sure the heaters were removed and then replaced. The second was definitely an operator error, and I agree with you about it, The Shift supervisors did argue for it however the hubris of certain power hungry people managed to intimidate and control the situation. You do not ever work on equipment without your own clearance or a plan that includes the SS, as you mentioned He is the operating authority, or was until a person by the initials of Jim Arnold rewrote the procedures and made himself the Authority.

Jack Curtis August 12, 2013:
Good Story Indeed.
There is, I’m sure, a gene in human DNA labeled: “Murphy” that assures that anything that can happen, does. And in total ignorance, I’ll bet that some constant percentage of plant electricians were fried. I suppose the onset of computer controls has reduced that but that it still happens at a lower rate. The way you and your friends sort of automatically reached for your multimeters is a clue! These are shocking, highly-charged stories…
NEO July 16, 2014
Yep, and even c.3 rules fail on occasion. Most places I’ve worked the other key was at superintendent level, and required a veritable mountain of paperwork to acquire. G-d help anybody who lost his key! 🙂
Traditionally on distribution lines, we left our shotgun hanging on the (grounded) stinger to notify everyone since there is no (effective) way to LOTO a power line. Imagine my vocabulary one fine day up in Montana when I drove up to reenergize a tap to find it energized and a crew I had never seen putting my shotgun in their truck. That day, I got a profuse apology (and assurances) from the line superintendent in person, 50 miles from the office. I never worked dead again without three point grounding, and I require my people to use it as well, I don’t like funerals. Hot line is actually safer for most operations.
Dan Antion July 17, 2014
I have great respect for electricity, power tools and the threat of human error. That was a close call. Glad you had the presence of mind and experience to think to check again.
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When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough

Originally posted March 21, 2014:

As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by three. At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly three feet apart. Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be three feet.

So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel. So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.

I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed. So. I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.

I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have seen me pause and stand still for a moment looking down. Start messing around with my feet. Then take a few more steps. Pause once more and do the same thing.

What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly three feet. I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway. It turned out to be exactly 30 inches. Or two and a half feet. So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant Man measured by my stride.

I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by two and a half feet. With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that. Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.

During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant. We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”. When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”. But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.

Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed. And where the network server was going to be setup. This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.

So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard. Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks. I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.

Telephone punch down block

Telephone punchdown block

One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office. There were no good phone lines running to this building. There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time. So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.

Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage. When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system. There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone. Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.

All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse. After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.

A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it. Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.

A man standing in a handhole

A man standing in a handhole

When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer. I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived. While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.

I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer. It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm. Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.

We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me. I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch. He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it. He was all bundled up tying to keep warm. I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard. He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.

When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March. I told him I did. Then he said, “Come here.” We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough. There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage. He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.

The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse. Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up. So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse. Oh. Before I forget. Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse. I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground. From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 30 inches – remember?) counting my steps.

I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse. In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.

I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable. That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse. He said that he would order some.

I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe. Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet. It was too late to change it.

I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet. Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly. So, I told myself it would be all right.

Sure enough. a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop. In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.” Oh geez.

Ok. Somehow I was going to have to make this work. Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 28 and a half inches now instead of 30 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.

So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse. In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape. I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.

As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole. I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore. Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.

So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block. I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help. Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.

I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole. Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense. Yeah. I know.

When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out. But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box. A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.

So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had to put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit. On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end. After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.

Telephone wire punch down tool

Telephone wire punch down tool

I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks me how much cable I need. That was too close! You would have thought I learned my lesson.

Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell. Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project. I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value. The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.

My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates. I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time. I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.

Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date. Oh. Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare. We are always up to the wire. Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned. Believe me. Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.

So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short. I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.

Comments form the original post:

    1. NEO March 21, 2014

      Hah! my stride (heel to toe) is 3 feet, two strides to the link. That’s what practice does.

      But I have learned to add 10% to everything (nearly), somehow it always gets used. 🙂

    1. jerrychicken March 24, 2014

      In the early 70s I was an assistant to a surveyor in a large electrical contractors when we tendered for, and won, a contract to rewire a local Town Hall, the unusual thing about the job being that the engineers had specified pyro (fireproof) cable throughout the building, some of which was large three phase stuff and very expensive.

      We scaled up the runs from a 1:100 drawing and placed the orders according to those measurements, each of the large cables being cut specially for that run – every single length was wrong when it was installed, short by several feet.

      It took a lot of measuring on site to realise that the drawings were totally inaccurate, this was a Town Hall that had been built in stone around 150 years earlier and some of the walls were two or three feet thick, on the drawings they looked like standard stud walls.

      Expensive lesson to learn but I kept my job 🙂

    1. Jonathan Caswell March 24, 2014

      Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
      MEASURING YOUR STRIDE—IS THAT ANYTHING FOR A NOVICE LIKE LOOKING FOR SNIPE IS FOR A YOUNG BOY SCOUT?

  1. They always told me to expect things that needed measurement to be available in one of only two quantities: Too much, or too little. I discovered for myself that cutting something to fit where it was needed inevitably reclassified it from on of those categories to the other …

Power Plant “We’ve Got The Power” Stress Buster

Originally posted April 12, 2014:

In an earlier post titled “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” I explained how in 1990 we broke up into teams at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to find ways to save the Electric Company money.  Before we were actually able to turn in our first set of ideas, we had a month or more to prepare those ideas and to turn them into proposals.  During this time, and throughout the entire “We’ve Got the Power” program, teams who wanted to succeed and outdo the other teams became very secretive.  Our team was definitely that way.  We had secret experiments going on throughout the plant, and we didn’t want other teams to even know what areas we were investigating.

As the program progressed, a certain level of stress developed between teams.  In a later post I will tell a story about how this level of stress led to a situation of suspicion and eventually even animosity.  This  post will not go into that situation.  Instead I want to explain what our team did to try to alleviate some of the stress by devising a special “Power Plant Joke” that we played on the rest of the Power Plant Men (and Women).

There were some teams that had setup some experiments that they were running to see if their ideas may save the company money.  Our team had several experiments running throughout the beginning months.  All of which we carefully hid from prying eyes.  We were proud of our stealthiness.  Sneaking around, making sure we weren’t being followed when we went to take readings from our carefully hidden recorders and other devices.

Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and I were sitting in the electric shop office discussing the stress level that had permeated the plant, and we thought we could take advantage of the stress by setting up a “We’ve Got The Power” Experiment out in the open that would be obvious to anyone that walked by.  Only it would be a fake experiment designed to play a joke on the unsuspecting Power Plant Man.

Here is what we did….

Right outside the electric shop in the Turbine Generator basement there is a water fountain.  We placed a hazard waste barrel a few feet away from the water fountain.  Like this:

Hazardous Waste Barrel

Hazardous Waste Barrel

Then we mounted a junction box on the wall a few feet above the chemical waste barrel and a little to the right.

A junction box like this

A junction box like this

We turned the junction box so that the hinge was on the top, allowing the door to fall closed naturally.  This was an important part of the setup to allow for the joke to automatically reset each time it was operated.

We ran some copper tubing from the water fountain water line over to the box.  Then another copper line came out the bottom of the box and into the barrel.  Next to that copper tube, another smaller copper tube came out of the bottom of the box and just bent toward the front of the box.  It was not noticeable.  We had a plastic hose coming out of the barrel and over to the drain next to the water fountain.  Then we put Yellow Barrier Tape around the entire setup.

Barrier Tape

Barrier Tape

 

We tied Caution tags to the Barrier tape that said “We’ve Got the Power Experiment” Do not enter!  I signed the tags.

Caution Tags like this

Caution Tags like this

There was an electric conduit running up from the junction box, that went up and into the wall about 6 feet above the junction box.  So, this looked like a legitimate experiment going on, but for the life of anyone, no one would be able to tell what it was doing.  — Mainly because it wasn’t doing anything….. At least not until someone went to investigate it.

So.  Here is what would happen….

Employees would walk by and see the barrier tape with the hazardous waste barrel and the hoses and water lines coming from the back of the water fountain, with a junction box above it that was not completely closed.  The door to the junction box was down, but not screwed closed.  Conduit was going into the box, which meant that something electrical was probably inside  Maybe a solenoid or something that was controlling the experiment.

They would read the Caution Tag that explained that this was a “We’ve Got the Power” experiment, and it would pique (pronounced “peak”) their curiosity enough that they couldn’t help but investigate it to see what was really going on.

So, what would invariably happen, was that someone would enter the area that was barrier taped off, and open the junction box to see what was inside.  When they lifted the lid, they would find that they were instantly being soaked with water that would spray out of a small copper line pointing right at them directly under the junction box.  At the same time, an alarm would go off above them behind the wall right above the electric shop office.  It was very loud.  A counter inside the junction box would register an “intruder’ had just opened the box.

So, as we would be sitting there during lunch, we would suddenly hear the alarm go off, and we could dart out the door to the Turbine Generator basement to find a drenched Power Plant Man.  They were usually amused that they had fallen into the trap.  I say usually, because I have the feeling that one particular person who found himself violating the barrier tape and getting soaked didn’t act too cordial about it.  I’ll get to him later.

As I said, inside the box was a counter.  It counted how many times the box had been opened and sprayed someone with water.  So, we could go inspect it in the morning and we would know if anyone had looked at it while we were gone.

After the experiment had been there about a week, an overhaul began where Power Plant Men from different plants came to our plant to perform the overhaul.  The plant would shut off one of the units and we would take it apart, and put it back together again fixing problems along the way (well.  maybe not quite that drastic.  It was a time to fix things that couldn’t be maintained or repaired while the unit was running).

So, the Power Plant Men at our plant, who by that time all knew about the bogus experiment just outside the electric shop, would bring unsuspecting Power Plant Men from other plants over to the see the “We’ve Got the Power” experiment going on in the hopes of seeing them get sprayed with water.  So, a new round of alarms were going off during that time.

Eventually, when people had heard about the experiment, and knew that it was spraying people, they would approach the experiment with caution.  When they opened the lid of the junction box, they would stand next to it against the wall in order to not get wet.  The spray pattern from the crimped copper line was fairly wide, so you would have to stand practically against the wall next to the box in order to stay dry.

So, this was when we implemented Phase 2 of the experiment.  — Yeah.  It’s the second phase of many Power Plant Jokes that usually make the joke a much bigger success than the first phase.  For instance, I have written a post about the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” in which I had played a joke on Gene Day, where after a week of preparing him for the final joke, I had coaxed him to look over my shoulder, only to have him read that according to his psychological profile, he was the type of person that would look over your shoulder and read your private material.

That would be a good joke in itself, but when Gene Day read that and began choking the life out of me, I pointed out to him the final statement in Gene Day’s profile which stated that he tends to choke people who try to help him by creating Psychological profiles of him.  This second part of the joke is what really completes the joke and makes it a real success.  The first part just makes it funny.

So, here is how we modified the experiment for Phase 2….  The nozzle that sprayed the employee actually came out the bottom of the box and elbowed to point toward the front of the box.  So, what we did was we took a file and filed a tiny notch in the side of the copper tubing just below the junction box just above the elbow.  The notch was on the side of the copper tube, and it was deep enough of a notch to make a little hole in the side of the copper line.

So, then, if someone was standing to the only side they could stand next to the box and the barrel and they opened up the lid of the Junction Box to show someone how the experiment worked, they wouldn’t notice right away, but a small stream of  water would be spraying on their pants in just the appropriate location to make it look like the person had just pee’ed their pants.

Right when we had finished modifying the experiment for Phase 2, Howard Chumbley walked into the electric shop.  He was a retired Electric Foreman, that I have written about in the post “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace“.  He had come to visit the plant that day because there was going to be a Men’s Club lunch and he wanted to come and see some other old codgers that he used to work with that liked to attend the Men’s Club dinners.  He always wanted to see us of course as well.

So, we told him about the “We’ve Got The Power” Joke Experiment just outside the electric shop that sprayed water on people.  Of course, he wanted to see it, so we took him out and let him observe it.  We explained that when you open the lid, an alarm goes off, the counter toggles and water sprays out of that little nozzle sticking out at the bottom.  We told him he could try it if he wanted to see how it worked.

So,  he climbed under the barrier tape and walked around the side of the junction box that didn’t have the barrel, and reached over and lifted the lid.  The alarm when off, water sprayed out, and Howard laughed with glee to see how we had devised such a nice trick.  After watching the water spray for about 3 or 4 seconds, he suddenly realized that something was wrong.  He dropped the lid and looked down, only to find that it looked like he had just pee’ed his pants.

That was it!  That was icing on the cake.  Howard laughed even more when he realized what had happened.

The next morning when we came in the shop, we went to look at the experiment, it had been disassembled, or shutdown in some manner.  I think some caution tag had been placed there by Gary Wright, the Shift Supervisor stating something like this was a safety hazard, or some such thing.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gary Wright is the one down in the front with the glasses.  He had more hair in this photograph than I remember

Anyway, when I went up to the Control Room to ask him why he shutdown our experiment he was adamant that it constituted Horseplay and someone could get hurt.  Maybe when the water sprayed on them, they might jerk back and fall down and get hurt.  Ok….

I suppose.  Though, by the time he took it down, everyone at the plant already knew about it, and we were just in the Phase 2 part of the experiment.  In this phase anyone who was looking at the experiment was doing it by opening up the door from the side, and peeing their pants and they wouldn’t jerk back……—- Oh….. I see….  Shift Supervisors don’t usually like to walk into the control room looking like they have just pee’ed their pants.

I will say that I hadn’t expected that type of reaction from Gary Wright, because up to that time, he seemed more mild-mannered than the rest of the Shift Supervisors.  We just took it that the more upset Gary was with us about it, the more successful the joke had been implemented.  The joke had played out by that time, and we were good with it either way.

After it was all said and done.  We thought it did help to reduce the overall tension that was permeating the plant due to the “We’ve Got the Power Program”.

Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out

Originally Posted July 12, 2013:

All safe electricians worth their salt know about OSHA regulation 1910.147(c)(3). Only Power Plant electricians have learned more about OSHA regulation 1910.147(a)(1)(ii)(C). Section 147 has to do with locking out and tagging a power source in order to protect the employees working on the circuit. 147(a)(1)(ii) says that Power plants are exempt from section 147. In other words, if you are working in a power plant it is all right to have a less stringent lock-out/tag-out procedure in place than if you didn’t work in a power plant.

One of the first things I learned from Charles Foster, my foreman when I became an electrician was how to remove the “heaters” from a breaker relay in order to protect myself from an “unauthorized” operation of the breaker. That means…. in case someone accidentally turned on the breaker and started up the motor or whatever else I was working on. “Heaters” are what we called the overloads that trip a 480 volt breaker when the circuit uses more power than it is supposed to be using. They are called heaters, because they literally “heat up” in order to trip the breaker.

typical 480 volt overload heaters

typical 480 volt overload heaters

Charles Foster told me the following story about my bucket buddy Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien):

Dee was wiring up a sump pump at the bottom of the coal dumper. The motor had been taken out while the pump had been repaired. Once back in place Dee was sent to wire it back up. The proper clearance had been taken to work on the motor. That is, she had gone to the Shift Supervisor’s office in the Control Room to request a clearance on the motor. Then later she had witnessed the operator opening the 480 volt breaker and place the clearance tag on the breaker.

A typical Clearance Tag.  Our tags had the word "Clearance" at the top

A typical Clearance Tag. Our tags had the word “Clearance” at the top. We called them a “Hold Tag”

the tag is signed by the Shift Supervisor and is only to be removed by an operator sent by the Shift Supervisor. It is place through a slot in the handle on the breaker that keeps the breaker from closing unless the tag is removed first…. well… that’s the theory anyway.

Dee had just finished hooking the three leads in the junction box together with the cable coming into the box using two wrenches. She reached down into her tool bucket that she was using as her stool to get some rubber tape to begin wrapping the connections. The three bare connections were sticking out in front of her face.

A large vertical pump motor

A large vertical pump motor

The Junction box is the box on the right side of this motor. At this point the cover would be off and the wires would be sticking straight out. As she reached into the bucket, the motor turned on and began running.

Startled, Dee stopped what she was doing. I suppose she also pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose she checked her diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose she may have said a few choice words whether anyone was around to hear them or not. Maybe not all in that order.

For those of you who don’t realize what this meant. It meant that if the motor had started running about 5 to 10 seconds later, someone, some time later may have made their way down to the west end of the dumper sump only to find one charred Diana Lucas (who never would have later become Diana Brien). They might not have recognized her at first. I can assure you. It wouldn’t have been pretty.

You see… someone had removed the Hold Tag and purposely started up the motor totally disregarding the clearance. I won’t mention any names, but his initials were Jerry Osborn.

So, after Charles told me this story, he showed me what to do to prevent this from ever happening to me.

Charles and I went to the Shift Supervisor’s office to take a clearance on a motor. Then we followed the operator to the breaker and watched him open the breaker and put the tag on the handle. Then we signed something and the operator left.

After the operator left, Charles told me to open the breaker and slip the hold tag through the slot in the door so that the door could open without removing the tag. I followed his directions.

Once the door was open, he told me to remove the three heaters on the bottom of the relay and hide them at the bottom of the breaker box.

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom.  That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom. That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

You see… with the heaters removed, even if someone were to close the breaker and try to start the motor, the electricity would never leave the breaker box because I had just created an open circuit between the relay and the wires going to the motor.

Well… If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and start talking about making it illegal to own guns.

Anyway, there is always a chance for something to go wrong. The Peter Principle demands it. So, at one point, someone forgot to replace the heaters in the relay before returning their clearance. When the motor was tested for rotation, it didn’t work. At that point the electrician knew that they had forgotten to re-insert the heaters. So, they had to return to the breaker to install the heaters before the motor would run.

This didn’t set well with the Shift Supervisor, who has supreme power at the power plant…. well… besides the janitor who had total control over the toilet paper supply. Technically we were not going around the hold tag by removing the heaters because they were downstream from the breaker handle which cut off the power to the relay. The Shift Supervisor on the other hand believed that the hold tag included everything in the breaker box, including the relay and heaters (which really was stretching it).

An argument ensued that pitted the shift supervisors and the supervisor of operations, Ted Holdges with the electricians. Ted argued that we should not be removing the heaters to keep ourselves from becoming electrocuted accidentally when someone inadvertently removes a hold tag and turns the breaker on and starts up a motor. Electricians on the other hand argued that if we were going to be exposed to the possibility of being electrocuted, we would rather not work on any circuit. Without being completely assured that we would not occasionally be blown to pieces when someone or something accidentally caused the circuit to become hot, we concluded it wasn’t worth it.

So, a compromise was reached. We could remove the heaters, but they had to be put in a plastic bag and attached to the hold tag on the outside of the breaker. That way, when the clearance was returned, not only were the heaters readily available the operator would know to contact the electrician to re-install the heaters. The electricians didn’t really like this alternative, but we agreed. We were assured that there wasn’t any way that a breaker was going to be turned on and operated with the heaters in them when someone was actually working on a circuit.

Fast forward three years. 1992.

Bill Ennis and Ted Riddle were working on replacing a large electric junction box on the stack out tower. The Stack Out Tower is the tower that pours the coal out on the coal pile. Halfway up this tower there is a large junction box where most of the electric cables passed through going to the top of the tower. Bill Ennis had taken a clearance on a number of motor and control breakers.

Bill returned from lunch one day to work on the junction box, removing the old cables. Putting new lugs on them and placing them in the new junction box. As he began working, he decided to take out his multimeter and check the wires he was about to work on….

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

Bill was surprised to find that one set of cables were hot. They had 480 volts on them. Everything in this box should have been dead. I suppose he pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose he checked his diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose he said a few choice words that Ted may have heard if he was standing close by.

What had happened was that there had been two clearances on this one particular motor. One of the electricians had returned his clearance, and had installed the heaters that were in the plastic bag on the front of the breaker and the motor had been tested for rotation and put back in service. The operator had taken both clearances off of the breaker by mistake.

Ok. It was time for another meeting. Something had gone wrong. If it had not been for the guardian angels of both Diana Brien and Bill Ennis, at this point we would have had at least two dead electricians, and believe me…. I know that when an operator had later climbed the stack out tower to check the equipment, if he had run across the body of Bill Ennis… it definitely wouldn’t have been pretty (even on a good day).

I attended this meeting with Ted Holdges as did most of the electricians. I began by telling Ted that when we had met three years earlier I was newly married and wouldn’t have minded so much if I was killed by being electrocuted because I was young and only had a wife who knew how to take care of herself. But now it was different. I had a little girl at home and I need to be around to help her grow up.

Ted looked surprised by my remark. I had just told him the way I felt about this whole situation. The argument that we were making was that we should be able to place locks on the breakers just like OSHA demanded from the other industries. We had demonstrated that we didn’t have a system that would protect us from human error. We needed something that definitely kept us safe.

We told Ted that even if we had locks, and for some reason the breaker just had to be closed and the electrician had forgotten to remove his lock, the shift supervisor could keep a master key in his office to remove the lock. He finally agreed. His problem was a loss of control. The thought was that the Shift Supervisor had ultimate power.

If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and talk about socialized healthcare and how it destroys all concepts of quality and privacy.

So, as electricians, we weren’t really happy with this situation. We had a secret weapon against human error. Sure we would place a lock on the breaker. But after the operator would leave, before we placed our lock on the breaker, we might just open up the breaker box and remove the entire face off of the relay. It was similar to removing the heaters only it was bigger. It completely opened the circuit no matter what.

I hadn’t really planned on talking about this next story for a couple more years, but I’ll tell it now because it fits with this story.

In the month of May, 2001. I had already given my notice to leave the plant to work for Dell as a software developer. I was asked to work on a job with my old bucket buddy Diana Brien.

The problem was that there was a grounded three phase circuit up on the Surge Bin tower. It had been tracked down to the dust collectors located below the surge bin conveyor floor.

Dee and I walked up to the Gravimetric feeder deck to look at the breaker to make sure it was turned off. It had a Danger tag on it that had been placed by the Shift Supervisor.

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

The breaker was open and the message on the tag said “Do not close this breaker. The circuit is grounded”.

Ok. We walked up to the surge bin tower through the counter weight room for belts 18 and 19. We opened up the big junction box that fed the power to the two large dust collector motors on the landing behind us. After taking the cover off of the box, I took out my multimeter and checked the circuit.

Like this.  Ok.  So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

The big copper bus was dead (that means, there was no electricity present).

So, Dee and I worked on locating the grounded circuit. I had just removed the cover to the junction box on one of the motors while Dee was removing some wires from the control panel when Larry Tapp arrived on the landing through the same route we had taken from the gravimetric feeder deck.

Larry asked us what we were doing. We told him we were tracking down the ground on the Dust Collectors. Larry looked surprised.

You see… Larry explained that he had just come from the Gravimetric feeder deck where he had just closed the breaker for the dust collectors. This particular breaker didn’t have a relay, as it was controlled by the control panel where Dee had been working.

So, I rechecked the copper bus with my multimeter and it was hot. 480 volts hot.

I had just been looking through my tool bucket for two wrenches to remove a piece of the bus work just to make sure the ground wasn’t in the box itself when Larry had arrived. In other words, if Larry had arrived 5 to 10 seconds later, he would have probably arrived to find Dee looking down at my body, stunned that I had just been electrocuted by a circuit that we had just tested and found dead.

If you don’t learn by history you are bound to repeat it.

You see… there is a difference between a Hold Tag and a Danger Tag. A hold tag is placed on a breaker after someone has requested a clearance by signing a form in the Shift Supervisor’s office in the control room. A Danger tag can be placed and removed at anytime by the person that placed the tag on the breaker.

So, I personally wrote this up as a “near” accident. We could have wiped our brow, pinched ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming. We could have checked our diaper to make sure it was still dry and then Dee could have said a few choice words that Larry Tapp would have agreed with (I have always had a mental block against expressing myself in that manner…. I found other ways). And we could have left this incident as a secret between Larry, Dee and I.

I thought it was a good time to remind the electricians throughout power production to follow the clearance procedures when working on high voltage circuits. Sure. Dee, Bill Ennis and I have powerful guardian Angels looking out for us…. but gee… I think we should be expected to look out for ourselves. So, I wrote up this incident to warn the rest of the team….. If we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.

I met with my roomie Steven Trammell, a month and a half later in Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma to discuss his performance plan. I was a 360 Degree Assessment Counselor and my favorite roommate from 17 years earlier had chosen me to review his performance appraisal. During this meeting I asked Steven, who had driven from Harrah, Oklahoma from another power plant to meet with me, if he had read the near accident report about the dust collector at our plant.

My roomie told me that he had, and that he thought it seemed to unduly blame the electrician. I told him I was the electrician and that I wrote the report. After 18 years of being an electrician, I had become so relaxed in my job that I had become dangerous to myself and others. So, after I did a cause-effect analysis of the near accident, most of the cause had come from my own belief that I could circumvent clearance procedures and save time and still believe that I was being safe.

On my drive back to the plant after the meeting with my favorite roomie of all time, I had time to think about this…. I was going to be leaving the power plant in a little over a month to work for Dell as a programmer. I knew this when I had been negligent with the Danger tag. I could have caused the death of both Dee and I. I will sure be glad to be in Texas. — Only.. I will miss my friends most of all.

I leave the Power Plant with this one thought…. If you don’t learn from history, you are bound to repeat it. I mean it… This time I really do.

Comments from the previous posts:

  1. Ron Kilman July 13, 2013:

    This is a great story. I thank God for His guardian angels and I thank you for taking responsibility. It was always difficult investigating accidents because people are a little reluctant to share their mistakes with the world. But a wise man knows it’s better to have a bruised ego than a fried friend.

Larry McCurry July 13, 2013:

Kevin,

  1. As an old time operator and having follows in my fathers footsteps as a Shift Supervisor, The answer to all of these problems to add steps to the clearance procedure to make sure the heaters were removed and then replaced. The second was definitely an operator error, and I agree with you about it, The Shift supervisors did argue for it however the hubris of certain power hungry people managed to intimidate and control the situation. You do not ever work on equipment with out your own clearance or a plan that includes the SS, as you mentioned He is the operating authority, or was until a person by the initials of Jim Arnold rewrote the procedures and made himself the Authority.

Jack Curtis August 12, 2013:
Good Story Indeed.
There is, I’m sure, a gene in human DNA labeled: “Murphy” that assures that anything that can happen, does. And in total ignorance, I’ll bet that some constant percentage of plant electricians were fried. I suppose the onset of computer controls has reduced that but that it still happens at a lower rate. The way you and your friends sort of automatically reached for your multimeters is a clue! These are shocking, highly-charged stories…
NEO July 16, 2014
Yep, and even c.3 rules fail on occasion. Most places I’ve worked the other key was at superintendent level, and required a veritable mountain of paperwork to acquire. G-d help anybody who lost his key! 🙂
Traditionally on distribution lines, we left our shotgun hanging on the (grounded) stinger to notify everyone since there is no (effective) way to LOTO a power line. Imagine my vocabulary one fine day up in Montana when I drove up to reenergize a a tap to find it energized and a crew I had never seen putting my shotgun in their truck. That day, I got a profuse apology (and assurances) from the line superintendent in person, 50 miles from the office. I never worked dead again without three point grounding, and I require my people to use it as well, I don’t like funerals. Hot line is actually safer for most operations.
Dan Antion July 17, 2014
I have great respect for electricity, power tools and the threat of human error. That was a close call. Glad you had the presence of mind and experience to think to check again.

Power Plant “We’ve Got The Power” Stress Buster

Originally posted April 12, 2014:

In an earlier post titled “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” I explained how in 1990 we broke up into teams at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to find ways to save the Electric Company money.  Before we were actually able to turn in our first set of ideas, we had a month or more to prepare those ideas and to turn them into proposals.  During this time, and throughout the entire “We’ve Got the Power” program, teams who wanted to succeed and outdo the other teams became very secretive.  Our team was definitely that way.  We had secret experiments going on throughout the plant, and we didn’t want other teams to even know what areas we were investigating.

As the program progressed, a certain level of stress developed between teams.  In a later post I will tell a story about how this level of stress led to a situation of suspicion and eventually even animosity.  This  post will not go into that situation.  Instead I want to explain what our team did to try to alleviate some of the stress by devising a special “Power Plant Joke” that we played on the rest of the Power Plant Men (and Women).

There were some teams that had setup some experiments that they were running to see if their ideas may save the company money.  Our team had several experiments running throughout the beginning months.  All of which we carefully hid from prying eyes.  We were proud of our stealthiness.  Sneaking around, making sure we weren’t being followed when we went to take readings from our carefully hidden recorders and other devices.

Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and I were sitting in the electric shop office discussing the stress level that had permeated the plant, and we thought we could take advantage of the stress by setting up a “We’ve Got The Power” Experiment out in the open that would be obvious to anyone that walked by.  Only it would be a fake experiment designed to play a joke on the unsuspecting Power Plant Man.

Here is what we did….

Right outside the electric shop in the Turbine Generator basement there is a water fountain.  We placed a hazard waste barrel a few feet away from the water fountain.  Like this:

Hazardous Waste Barrel

Hazardous Waste Barrel

Then we mounted a junction box on the wall a few feet above the chemical waste barrel and a little to the right.

A junction box like this

A junction box like this

We turned the junction box so that the hinge was on the top, allowing the door to fall closed naturally.  This was an important part of the setup to allow for the joke to automatically reset each time it was operated.

We ran some copper tubing from the water fountain water line over to the box.  Then another copper line came out the bottom of the box and into the barrel.  Next to that copper tube, another smaller copper tube came out and just bent toward the front of the box.  We had a plastic hose coming out of the barrel and over to the drain next to the water fountain.  Then we put Yellow Barrier Tape around the entire setup.

Barrier Tape

Barrier Tape

 

We tied Caution tags to the Barrier tape that said “We’ve Got the Power Experiment” Do not enter!  I signed the tags.

Caution Tags like this

Caution Tags like this

There was an electric conduit running up from the junction box, that went up and into the wall about 6 feet above the junction box.  So, this looked like a legitimate experiment going on, but for the life of anyone, no one would be able to tell what it was doing.  — Mainly because it wasn’t doing anything….. At least not until someone went to investigate it.

So.  Here is what would happen….

Employees would walk by and see the barrier tape with the hazardous waste barrel and the hoses and water lines coming from the back of the water fountain, with a junction box above it that was not completely closed.  The door to the junction box was down, but not screwed closed.  Conduit was going into the box, which meant that something electrical was probably inside  Maybe a solenoid or something that was controlling the experiment.

They would read the Caution Tag that explained that this was a “We’ve Got the Power” experiment, and it would pique (pronounced “peak”) their curiosity enough that they couldn’t help but investigate it to see what was really going on.

So, what would invariably happen, was that someone would enter the area that was barrier taped off, and open the junction box to see what was inside.  When they lifted the lid, they would find that they were instantly being soaked with water that would spray out of a small copper line pointing right at them directly under the junction box.  At the same time, an alarm would go off above them behind the wall right above the electric shop office.  It was very loud.  A counter inside the junction box would register an “intruder’ had just opened the box.

So, as we would be sitting there during lunch, we would suddenly hear the alarm go off, and we could dart out the door to the Turbine Generator basement to find a drenched Power Plant Man.  They were usually amused that they had fallen into the trap.  I say usually, because I have the feeling that one particular person who found himself violating the barrier tape and getting soaked didn’t act too cordial about it.  I’ll get to him later.

As I said, inside the box was a counter.  It counted how many times the box had been opened and sprayed someone with water.  So, we could go inspect it in the morning and we would know if anyone had looked at it while we were gone.

After the experiment had been there about a week, an overhaul began where Power Plant Men from different plants came to our plant to perform the overhaul.  The plant would shut off one of the units and we would take it apart, and put it back together again fixing problems along the way (well.  maybe not quite that drastic.  It was a time to fix things that couldn’t be maintained or repaired while the unit was running).

So, the Power Plant Men at our plant, who by that time all knew about the bogus experiment just outside the electric shop, would bring unsuspecting Power Plant Men from other plants over to the see the “We’ve Got the Power” experiment going on in the hopes of seeing them get sprayed with water.  So, a new round of alarms were going off during that time.

Eventually, when people had heard about the experiment, and knew that it was spraying people, they would approach the experiment with caution.  When they opened the lid of the junction box, they would stand next to it against the wall in order to not get wet.  The spray pattern from the crimped copper line was fairly wide, so you would have to stand practically against the wall next to the box in order to stay dry.

So, this was when we implemented Phase 2 of the experiment.  — Yeah.  It’s the second phase of many Power Plant Jokes that usually make the joke a much bigger success than the first phase.  For instance, I have written a post about the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” in which I had played a joke on Gene Day, where after a week of preparing him for the final joke, I had coaxed him to look over my shoulder, only to have him read that according to his psychological profile, he was the type of person that would look over your shoulder and read your private material.

That would be a good joke in itself, but when Gene Day read that and began choking the life out of me, I pointed out to him the final statement in Gene Day’s profile which stated that he tends to choke people who try to help him by creating Psychological profiles of him.  This second part of the joke is what really completes the joke and makes it a real success.  The first part just makes it funny.

So, here is how we modified the experiment for Phase 2….  The nozzle that sprayed the employee actually came out the bottom of the box and elbowed to point toward the front of the box.  So, what we did was we took a file and filed a tiny notch in the side of the copper tubing just below the junction box just above the elbow.  The notch was on the side of the copper tube, and it was deep enough of a notch to make a little hole in the side of the copper line.

So, then, if someone was standing to the only side they could stand next to the box and the barrel and they opened up the lid of the Junction Box to show someone how the experiment worked, they wouldn’t notice right away, but a small stream of  water would be spraying on their pants in just the appropriate location to make it look like the person had just pee’ed their pants.

Right when we had finished modifying the experiment for Phase 2, Howard Chumbley walked into the electric shop.  He was a retired Electric Foreman, that I have written about in the post “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace“.  He had come to visit the plant that day because there was going to be a Men’s Club lunch and he wanted to come and see some other old codgers that he used to work with that liked to attend the Men’s Club dinners.  He always wanted to see us of course as well.

So, we told him about the “We’ve Got The Power” Joke Experiment just outside the electric shop that sprayed water on people.  Of course, he wanted to see it, so we took him out and let him observe it.  We explained that when you open the lid, an alarm goes off, the counter toggles and water sprays out of that little nozzle sticking out at the bottom.  We told him he could try it if he wanted to see how it worked.

So,  he climbed under the barrier tape and walked around the side of the junction box that didn’t have the barrel, and reached over and lifted the lid.  The alarm when off, water sprayed out, and Howard laughed with glee to see how we had devised such a nice trick.  After watching the water spray for about 3 or 4 seconds, he suddenly realized that something was wrong.  He dropped the lid and looked down, only to find that it looked like he had just pee’ed his pants.

That was it!  That was icing on the cake.  Howard laughed even more when he realized what had happened.

The next morning when we came in the shop, we went to look at the experiment, it had been disassembled, or shutdown in some manner.  I think some caution tag had been placed there by Gary Wright, the Shift Supervisor stating something like this was a safety hazard, or some such thing.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gary Wright is the one down in the front with the glasses.  He had more hair in this photograph than I remember

Anyway, when I went up to the Control Room to ask him why he shutdown our experiment he was adamant that it constituted Horseplay and someone could get hurt.  Maybe when the water sprayed on them, they might jerk back and fall down and get hurt.  Ok….

I suppose.  Though, by the time he took it down, everyone at the plant already knew about it, and we were just in the Phase 2 part of the experiment.  In this phase anyone who was looking at the experiment was doing it by opening up the door from the side, and peeing their pants and they wouldn’t jerk back……—- Oh….. I see….  Shift Supervisors don’t usually like to walk into the control room looking like they have just pee’ed their pants.

I will say that I hadn’t expected that type of reaction from Gary Wright, because up to that time, he seemed more mild-mannered than the rest of the Shift Supervisors.  We just took it that the more upset Gary was with us about it, the more successful the joke had been implemented.  The joke had played out by that time, and we were good with it either way.

After it was all said and done.  We thought it did help to reduce the overall tension that was permeating the plant due to the “We’ve Got the Power Program”.

When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough

Originally posted March 21, 2014:

As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by two. At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly two feet apart. Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be three feet.

So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel. So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.

I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed. So. I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.

I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have seen me pause and stand still for a moment looking down. Start messing around with my feet. Then take a few more steps. Pause once more and do the same thing.

What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly three feet. I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway. It turned out to be exactly 30 inches. Or two and a half feet. So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant measured by my stride.

I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by two and a half feet. With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that. Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.

During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant. We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”. When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”. But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.

Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed. And where the network server was going to be setup. This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.

So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard. Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks. I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.

Telephone punch down block

Telephone punchdown block

One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office. There were no good phone lines running to this building. There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time. So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.

Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage. When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system. There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone. Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.

All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse. After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.

A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it. Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.

A man standing in a handhole

A man standing in a handhole

When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer. I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived. While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.

I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer. It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm. Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.

We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me. I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch. He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it. He was all bundled up tying to keep warm. I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard. He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.

When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March. I told him I did. Then he said, “Come here.” We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough. There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage. He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.

The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse. Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up. So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse. Oh. Before I forget. Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse. I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground. From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 18 inches – remember?) counting my steps.

I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse. In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.

I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable. That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse. He said that he would order some.

I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe. Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet. It was too late to change it.

I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet. Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly. So, I told myself it would be all right.

Sure enough. a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop. In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.” Oh geez.

Ok. Somehow I was going to have to make this work. Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 17 and a half inches now instead of 18 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.

So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse. In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape. I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.

As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole. I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore. Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.

So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block. I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help. Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.

I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole. Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense. Yeah. I know.

When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out. But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box. A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.

So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit. On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end. After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.

Telephone wire punch down tool

Telephone wire punch down tool

I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks me how much cable I need. That was too close! You would have thought I learned my lesson.

Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell. Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project. I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value. The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.

My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates. I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time. I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.

Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date. Oh. Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare. We are always up to the wire. Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned. Believe me. Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.

So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short. I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.

Comments form the original post:

    1. NEO March 21, 2014

      Hah! my stride (heel to toe) is 3 feet, two strides to the link. That’s what practice does.

      But I have learned to add 10% to everything (nearly), somehow it always gets used. 🙂

    1. jerrychicken March 24, 2014

      In the early 70s I was an assistant to a surveyor in a large electrical contractors when we tendered for, and won, a contract to rewire a local Town Hall, the unusual thing about the job being that the engineers had specified pyro (fireproof) cable throughout the building, some of which was large three phase stuff and very expensive.

      We scaled up the runs from a 1:100 drawing and placed the orders according to those measurements, each of the large cables being cut specially for that run – every single length was wrong when it was installed, short by several feet.

      It took a lot of measuring on site to realise that the drawings were totally inaccurate, this was a Town Hall that had been built in stone around 150 years earlier and some of the walls were two or three feet thick, on the drawings they looked like standard stud walls.

      Expensive lesson to learn but I kept my job 🙂

    1. Jonathan Caswell March 24, 2014

      Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
      MEASURING YOUR STRIDE—IS THAT ANYTHING FOR A NOVICE LIKE LOOKING FOR SNIPE IS FOR A YOUNG BOY SCOUT?

  1. They always told me to expect things that needed measurement to be available in one of only two quantities: Too much, or too little. I discovered for myself that cutting something to fit where it was needed inevitably reclassified it from on of those categories to the other …

Power Plant “We’ve Got The Power” Stress Buster

In an earlier post titled “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” I explained how in 1990 we broke up into teams at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to find ways to save the Electric Company money.  Before we were actually able to turn in our first set of ideas, we had a month or more to prepare those ideas and to turn them into proposals.  During this time, and throughout the entire “We’ve Got the Power” program, teams who wanted to succeed and outdo the other teams became very secretive.  Our team was definitely that way.  We had secret experiments going on throughout the plant, and we didn’t want other teams to even know what areas we were investigating.

As the program progressed, a certain level of stress developed between teams.  In a later post I will tell a story about how this level of stress led to a situation of suspicion and eventually even animosity.  This  post will not go into that situation.  Instead I want to explain what our team did to try to alleviate some of the stress by devising a special “Power Plant Joke” that we played on the rest of the Power Plant Men (and Women).

There were some teams that had setup some experiments that they were running to see if their ideas may save the company money.  Our team had several experiments running throughout the beginning months.  All of which we carefully hid from prying eyes.  We were proud of our stealthiness.  Sneaking around, making sure we weren’t being followed when we went to take readings from our carefully hidden recorders and other devices.

Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and I were sitting in the electric shop office discussing the stress level that had permeated the plant, and we thought we could take advantage of the stress by setting up a “We’ve Got The Power” Experiment out in the open that would be obvious to anyone that walked by.  Only it would be a fake experiment designed to play a joke on the unsuspecting Power Plant Man.

Here is what we did….

Right outside the electric shop in the Turbine Generator basement there is a water fountain.  We placed a hazard waste barrel a few feet away from the water fountain.  Like this:

Hazardous Waste Barrel

Hazardous Waste Barrel

Then we mounted an junction box on the wall a few feet above the chemical waste barrel and a little to the right.

A junction box like this

A junction box like this

We turned the junction box on so that the hinge was on the top, allowing the door to fall closed naturally.  This was an important part of the setup to allow for the joke to automatically reset each time it was operated.

We ran some copper tubing from the water fountain water line over to the box.  Then another copper line came out the bottom of the box and into the barrel.  Next to that copper tube, another smaller copper tube came out and just bent toward the front of the box.  We had a plastic hose coming out of the barrel and over to the drain next to the water fountain.  Then we put Yellow Barrier Tape around the hole setup.

Barrier Tape

Barrier Tape

 

We tied Caution tags to the Barrier tape that said “We’ve Got the Power Experiment” Do not enter!  I signed the tags.

Caution Tags like this

Caution Tags like this

There was an electric conduit running up from the junction box, that went up and into the wall about 6 feet above the junction box.  So, this looked like a legitimate experiment going on, but for the life of anyone, no one would be able to tell what it was doing.  — Mainly because it wasn’t doing anything….. At least not until someone went to investigate it.

So.  Here is what would happen….

Employees would walk by and see the barrier tape with the hazardous waste barrel and the hoses and water lines coming from the back of the water fountain, with a junction box above it that was not completely closed.  The door to the junction box was down, but not screwed closed.  Conduit was going into the box, which meant that something electrical was probably inside  Maybe a solenoid or something that was controlling the experiment.

They would read the Caution Tag that explained that this was a “We’ve Got the Power” experiment, and it would pique their curiosity enough that they couldn’t help but investigate it to see what was really going on.

So, what would invariably happen, was that someone would enter the area that was barrier taped off, and open the junction box to see what was inside.  When they lifted the lid, they would find that they were instantly being soaked with water that would spray out of a small copper line pointing right at them.  At the same time, an alarm would go off above them behind the wall right above the electric shop office.  It was very loud.

So, as we would be sitting there during lunch, we would suddenly hear the alarm go off, and we could dart out the door to the Turbine Generator basement to find a drenched Power Plant Man.  They were usually amused that they had fallen into the trap.  I say usually, because I have the feeling that one particular person who found himself violating the barrier tape and getting soaked didn’t act too cordial about it.  I’ll get to him later.

So, inside the box was a counter.  It counted how many times the box had been opened and sprayed someone with water.  So, we could go inspect it in the morning and we would know if anyone had looked at it while we were gone.

After the experiment had been there about a week, an overhaul was going on where Power Plant Men from different plants came to our plant to perform the overhaul.  The plant would shut off one of the units and we would take it apart, and put it back together again fixing problems along the way (well.  maybe not quite that drastic.  It was a time to fix things that couldn’t be maintained or repaired while the unit was running).

So, the Power Plant Men at our plant, who by that time all knew about the bogus experiment just outside the electric shop, would bring unsuspecting Power Plant Men from other plants over to the see the “We’ve Got the Power” experiment going on in the hopes of seeing them get sprayed with water.  So, a new round of alarms were going off during that time.

Eventually, when people had heard about the experiment, and knew that it was spraying people, they would approach the experiment with caution.  When they opened the lid of the junction box, they would stand next to it against the wall in order to not get wet.  The spray pattern from the crimped copper line was fairly wide, so you would have to stand practically against the wall next to the box in order to stay dry.

So, this was when we implemented Phase 2 of the experiment.  — Yeah.  It’s the second phase of many Power Plant Jokes that usually make the joke a much bigger success than the first phase.  For instance, I have written a post about the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” in which I had played a joke on Gene Day, where after a week of preparing him for the final joke, I had coaxed him to look over my shoulder, only to have him read that according to his psychological profile, he was the type of person that would look over your shoulder and read your private material.

That would be a good joke in itself, but when Gene Day read that and began joking the life out of me, I pointed out to him the final statement in Gene Day’s profile which stated that he tends to choke people who try to help him by creating Psychological profiles of him.  This second part of the joke is what really completes the joke and makes it a real success.  The first part just makes it funny.

So, here is how we modified the experiment for Phase 2….  The nozzle that sprayed the employee actually came out the bottom of the box and elbowed to point toward the front of the box.  So, what we did was we took a file and filed a tiny notch in the side of the copper tubing just below the junction box just above the elbow.  The notch was on the side of the copper tube, and it was deep enough of a notch to make a little hole in the side of the copper line.

So, then, if someone was standing to the only side they could stand next to the box and the barrel and they opened up the lid of the Junction Box to show someone how the experiment worked, they wouldn’t notice right away, but a small stream of  water would be spraying on their pants in just the appropriate location to make it look like the person had just pee’ed their pants.

Right when we had finished modifying the experiment for Phase 2, Howard Chumbley walked into the electric shop.  He was a retired Electric Foreman, that I have written about in the post “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace“.  He had come to visit the plant that day because there was going to be a Men’s Club lunch and he wanted to come and see some other old codgers that he used to work with that liked to attend the Men’s Club dinners.  He always wanted to see us of course as well.

So, we told him about the “We’ve Got The Power” Joke Experiment just outside the electric shop that sprayed water on people.  Of course, he wanted to see it, so we took him out and let him observe it.  We explained that when you open the lid, an alarm goes off, the counter toggles and water sprays out of that little nozzle sticking out at the bottom.  We told him he could try it if he wanted to see how it worked.

So,  he climbed under the barrier tape and walked around the side of the junction box that didn’t have the barrel, and reached over and lifted the lid.  The alarm when off, water sprayed out, and Howard laughed with glee to see how we had devised such a nice trick.  After watching the water spray for about 3 or 4 seconds, he suddenly realized that something was wrong.  He dropped the lid and looked down, only to find that it looked like he had just pee’ed his pants.

That was it!  That was icing on the cake.  Howard laughed even more when he realized what had happened.

The next morning when we came in the shop, we went to look at the experiment, it had been disassembled, or shutdown in some manner.  I think some caution tag had been placed there by Gary Wright, the Shift Supervisor stating something like this was a safety hazard, or some such thing.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gary Wright is the one down in the front with the glasses.  He had more hair in this photograph than I remember

Anyway, when I went up to the Control Room to ask him why he shutdown our experiment he was adamant that it constituted Horseplay and someone could get hurt.  Maybe when the water sprayed on them, they might jerk back and fall down and get hurt.  Ok….

I suppose.  Though, by the time he took it down, everyone at the plant already knew about it, and we were just in the Phase 2 part of the experiment.  In this phase anyone who was looking at the experiment was doing it by opening up the door from the side, and peeing their pants and they wouldn’t jerk back……—- Oh….. I see….  Shift Supervisors don’t usually like to walk into the control room looking like they have just pee’ed their pants.

I will say that I hadn’t expected that type of reaction from Gary Wright, because up to that time, he seemed more mild-mannered than the rest of the Shift Supervisors.  We just took it that the more upset Gary was with us about it, the more successful the joke had been implemented.  The joke had played out by that time, and we were good with it either way.

When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough

As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by two.  At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly two feet apart.  Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be two feet.

So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel.  So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.

I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed.  So.  I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.

I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have saw me pause and stand still for a moment looking down.  Start messing around with my feet.  Then take a few more steps.  Pause once more and do the same thing.

What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly two feet.  I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway.  It turned out to be exactly 18 inches.  Or a foot and a half.  So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant measured by my stride.

I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by one and a half feet.  With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that.  Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.

During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant.  We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”.  When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”.  But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.

Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“).  This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed.  And where the network server was going to be setup.  This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.

So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard.   Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks.  I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.

Telephone punch down block

Telephone punchdown block

One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office.  There were no good phone lines running to this building.  There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time.  So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.

Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage.  When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system.  There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone.  Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.

All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse.  After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.

A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it.  Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.

A man standing in a handhole

A man standing in a handhole

When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer.  I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived.   While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.

I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer.  It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm.  Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.

We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me.  I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch.  He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it.  He was all bundled up tying to keep warm.  I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard.  He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.

When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March.  I told him I did.  Then he said, “Come here.”  We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough.  There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage.  He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.

The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse.  Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up.  So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse.  Oh.   Before I forget.  Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse.  I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground.  From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 18 inches – remember?) counting my steps.

I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse.  In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.

I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable.  That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse.  He said that he would order some.

I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box.  So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe.  Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet.  It was too late to change it.

I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet.  Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly.  So, I told myself it would be all right.

Sure enough.  a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop.  In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.”   Oh geez.

Ok.   Somehow I was going to have to make this work.  Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 17 and a half inches now instead of 18 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.

So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse.  In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape.  I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.

As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole.  I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore.  Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.

So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block.  I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help.  Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.

I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole.  Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense.  Yeah.  I know.

When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out.  But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box.  A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.

So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit.  On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end.   After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.

Telephone wire punch down tool

Telephone wire punch down tool

I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks  me how much cable I need.  That was too close!  You would have thought I learned my lesson.

Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell.  Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project.  I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value.  The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.

My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates.  I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time.  I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.

Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date.  Oh.  Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare.  We are always up to the wire.  Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned.  Believe me.  Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.

So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short.  I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.