Tag Archives: manhole

Power Plant Manhole Mania

Originally posted February 1, 2013:

It is vitally important that a manhole cover be round. By just being square or even oval, it could mean death to some unsuspecting electrician. You see, only a perfectly round manhole cover will never be able to fall down into a manhole. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t fit a bigger circle through a smaller circle. An oval or square cover could fall through the hole when turned just right but not a round one. A typical cast iron manhole can weigh up to 500 pounds.

Here is a manhole cover turned upside down. Because of the way it is shaped, when you push the cover over the hole, it falls right into place.

Here is a manhole cover turned upside down. Because of the way it is shaped, when you push the cover over the hole, it falls right into place.

Not long after becoming an electrician, and shortly after the Rivers and the Rose story that I mentioned last week (see the Post “Rivers and Rose in the Power Plant Palace“), we had a cable really go to ground between the main plant and the coalyard. The cable that went to ground was called a 500 MCM cable. What this means is that 500,000 circles of 1 mil (or one milli-inch) in diameter can be put in a circle that is 500 MCM in diameter. A typical 500 MCM cable is good for a 400 amp load at 6900 volts.

500 MCM cable. Over 2 inches in diameter.

500 MCM cable. Over 2 inches in diameter.

For large industrial circuits, 3 phases of electricity are used instead of just one like you have in your house. With three phases of electricity, you have a constant amount of power being applied to the entire circuit at all times. With a one phase circuit, you have zero power 120 times every second. So with any “decent” power circuit, you have 3 phases of electricity.

When you add up the voltage of all three phases at one time, you always equal zero because you have the same amount of positive volts with negative volts at any given time. So, you will find that you always have a constant voltage between all three phases at any given time.

When you add up the difference betweenvoltages of all three phases at one time, you always equal zero because you have the same amount of positive volts with negative volts at any given time. So, you will find that you always have a constant voltage between all three phases at any time.

The cable that went to ground was the coalyard station power cable. Not only were there three phases of power, but for each phase there were two 500 MCM cables. That means that this circuit was good for 800 amps of power at 6,900 volts. Giving you a capacity of 5.5 Megawatts (or 5 million, 500 thousand watts) of power. These cables were so big that a typical industrial Wire cable chart doesn’t even go this high:

500 MCM cable is also known as 5/0 cable (pronounced 5 aught)

500 MCM cable is also known as 5/0 cable (pronounced 5 aught). The 445 amps for the 4/0 cable are for only 50 volts. We had 6900 volts.

In a Coal-fired power plant, you have a redundant system for everything. So, the coalyard wasn’t completely in the dark. It had just swapped over to the redundant circuit. — This always amused me. In my English and Poetry classes in College I would have points taken off for being “redundant”, but in the power plant this was necessary to keep the plant running at all times.

As I said 15 years later, when I was training operators and electricians to be certified substation switchmen, “I know this is boring, but you have to learn it…” (but that is another story).

So, to make a rather boring lecture shorter, I will skip the part about how we had a hypot from the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department brought in so big that it had to come in a van. They attached it to the cables to find where the short to ground was located. I’ll skip the part about how it was decided to replace the faulty cables going to the coalyard 1/2 mile away. I’ll also skip the part about how Charles Foster was able to finagle the use of Stanley Elmore’s precious blue Mitsubishi mini-tractor to try to pull the cables from one manhole to the next (the first time anyone outside the garage was able to operate his most beloved tractor…..).

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

Oh, and I’ll skip the part about how 1000 feet of this cable cost about $10,000 and we had six cable to replace for a cost of about $320,000 just for the cable… I’ll also skip the part about how this little tractor was too small to pull the cables through the manholes from manhole to manhole up to the coalyard, so we sent in for the big guns from the T&D department to use their equipment that pulled the cables through the manholes as easy as pulling the wool over Gene Day’s eyes while playing a joke on him. (Don’t get me wrong…. I know in his heart, Gene Day really appreciated a good joke. Gene Day is one of the best men I have ever been able to call “Friend” — which I would do shortly after playing a joke on him, after I returned to consciousness).

Anyway, after this episode was all over it was decided that something needed to be done about how all the manholes from the plant to the coalyard were always full of water. You see, the manholes were easily deeper than the lake level so water naturally leaked into them. Each of them had a pump in them that was supposed to keep them dry, but somewhere along the line, in the 5 years the plant had been in operation, each manhole pump had failed at one time or other… When pumping out the first manhole, it took days, because as you pumped out that first manhole, water would run from one manhole to the other as you actually ended up pumping out all the manholes down to the point where the cables went from one manhole to the other.

So, none other than the “newbie” was appointed as the keeper of the Manhole pumps. Yep. That would be me. So, for the next few months I spent almost all my times pumping out manholes and repairing all the pumps that had been submerged in water for years. This was my first real job.

This was my real introduction to becoming a real plant electrician (You can see how I really like using the word “real”). The most common job of an electrician was to take a motor that had failed or was scheduled to be overhauled and repair it and put it back in place to continue on it’s “tour of duty”. It’s amazing how you can take a motor that has failed, and you can “rebuild” it and put it back in operation. — This has come in handy at home as the cooling fan motor on the air conditioner unit on your house goes out every few years. I have yet to call an air conditioner man to my current house where I have lived for 11 1/2 years (now 16 years).

I remember that Charles Foster had told me that “paperwork” was very important when it came to motors. A history had to be kept. Certain steps had to be performed before, during and after repairing a motor. It had to be meggared properly (see the post from last week to learn more about meggars: Rivers and a Rose of the Power Plant Palace).

So, I asked Ben Davis if he could show me what I needed to do to fix a motor. His immediate indignant response was, “What? You don’t know how to fix a motor?” My response was, “No, I don’t know. Would you show me?” Ben, who up to that point had presented himself with displeasure at my presence in the shop, suddenly smiled and said, “Sure! Let me show you what you need to do!”

Ben showed me all the steps you go through to repair and “document” a motor repair in great detail. I was glad that I had found that Ben was just putting on a front of disgust at my presence in the Electric shop only to show me at the “proper” time that I had been “misjudging” him as being a grumpy person when he wasn’t really….

I had figured, before this time, that Ben really had a kind heart because I figured that if Diane Lucas and Andy Tubbs, who I both admired greatly considered Ben as a good friend, then he must really be a good guy underneath, even though he was keeping this hidden from me.

I knew the moment he smiled at my response when I told him I really didn’t know anything, that Ben had a kind heart. He couldn’t hide it any longer. If I had asked the same thing to OD McGaha, one of the other B Foremen in the shop, for instance, he would have told me to go to hell. But not Ben.

I have more to tell you about Ben, but I’ll save that for a later post. For now, I’ll just say that though Ben may not have known it during the time I spent as an electrician, he has always been close to my heart. I have always had Ben and his family in my daily prayers from the day that he smiled at me and explained to me how to repair a motor.

So, how does a lone newbie electrician pull a 500 pound lid off of a manhole by himself? Well. He uses a Manhole cover puller of course.

A Manhole cover puller

A Manhole cover puller

Ok. Our manhole cover puller wasn’t blue like this, but it had a similar shape. With a simple tool like this a 500 pound manhole cover could be popped out of the hole and dragged away. So, I used this tool as my one man crew (myself) went from manhole to manhole, where I pumped each out and lowered a ladder into each hole and disconnecting the drenched motor and brought it back to the shop where I dried it out (using the hot box in the shop that doubled as a heater for lunches), and repaired it and re-installed it.

We had all the manholes in the plant identified. I painted the numbers on each lid with orange paint. It was while I was working in the manholes 15 feet below ground that I appreciated the round manhole. I knew that as long as that manhole cover was round, it couldn’t accidentally be knocked into the hole only to crush me to death below.

Other things were of concern in the manholes where I worked… For instance, many of these holes had been underwater for at least a couple of years, and the entire manhole was covered with a kind of slime. there were also high voltage cables that had splices in some of the manholes, and I remember Gene Roget telling me that he had seen sparks flying off of some of them when they were hypoting the cables looking for the ground. The dank smell of the manholes made you think that there were probably some kind of “swamp gases” in there.

Nevertheless, when I grew weary of dragging the heavy shellacked wooden ladder from hole to hole, I devised a way to climb down into the manholes using the drain pipe from the motor. This was before OSHA had implemented all the confined spaces rules in 1994 that would have prevented me from entering a manhole alone. I was improvising and taking a risk of falling and hurting myself each time I entered a manhole.

I ran into one of the reasons for not leaving a person in a manhole alone one time when I was working in a manhole near the intake house and another crew drove up and parked their truck near the hole I was working in. I remember that while I was working there, I suddenly became nauseous. Not sure why, I climbed out of the hole.

The truck that had been left idling nearby had been emitting toxic fumes that had looked for the lowest place they could settle, and that happened to be in the manhole where I was working. After that, I always kept an ear out for any motor vehicles nearby when I was in a manhole.

Ten years later, in 1994, OHSA added some new laws to the books that made it mandatory to have a “hole watch” stand outside a hole watching you while you worked in a manhole. You even had to have a safety harness tied to a safety hoist so that if you passed out while in a manhole the hole watch could pull you out without having to enter the hole.

This is a special hoist designed to lift a person out of a confined space without seriously injuring someone that is caught on obstacles.

This is a special hoist designed to lift a person out of a confined space without seriously injuring someone that is caught on obstacles.

Needless to say. I got my feet wet as an electrician popping in and out of manholes like the gopher in the arcade that you try to bop on the head.

One interesting story that happened during this time happened when Blake Tucker, who had been a summer help with me in the garage, and then later became a summer help in the electric shop, was sitting with me while we were going to fix a pump in manhole 215 (I believe this is the number of the manhole next to the intake where the fly ash pipes go over the intake).

The hole was full of water, and the pump had naturally tripped the breaker….. For some reason I decided to go into the intake switchgear and reset the 120 volt breaker to the pump in the Distribution Panel. When I did. I returned to the hole where Blake was waiting for me. I reached down into the hole with my foot and I kicked the drain pipe that rose from the pump and made a 90 degree turn up close to the entrance.

When I kicked the pipe, the motor actually began running. We could see it 15 feet below us in the clear water running. It was an open face motor, meaning that it wasn’t sealed and made to be a submersible pump, yet it was running under water. A year later we decided that it made more sense to replace all the open motors with submersible pumps.

vertical pump with an open motor on top

vertical pump with an open motor on top

Submersible Pump made to sit in the water without the water leaking into the motor. -- That's the idea anyway.

A submersible pump designed to run underwater

Blake Tucker and I watched for 1/2 hour as the pump sucked out the water from the manhole. When the level of the water reached the top of the motor, the outboard fan that had been slowly rotating all of the sudden kicked into high gear and we could see that the pump had been running at full speed all along.

This fascinated me. I figured the water must have been pure enough not to be too conductive (pure water is a natural insulator…. oddly enough). We could easily see this pump through 15 feet of water, so it must have been pretty clean. That was the only time I have ever seen an open motor happily running submersed in water… It is not something you see every day….. for instance…. It is not every day that you see a janitor with a Psychology major acting like an electrician sitting beside a manhole staring down into the darkness in a power plant either. But there you are…

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Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant

Originally posted April 19, 2013:

Resistance is Futile! You may have heard that before. Especially if you are a Star Trek Fan. If not, then you know that there is always some form of resistance wherever you are.

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that "Resistance is Futile"

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that “Resistance is Futile” Like that is ever going to happen

I learned a lot about resistance when I first joined the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1984. I was assigned to work with Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers on the Precipitator during overhauls and when I wasn’t working on the manhole pumps and there wasn’t any other emergencies going on. Actually, from 1984 on, on the Precipitator for the next 17 years I continued to work on the precipitator… (if I had only known my fate….).

Not only did I learn a lot about resistance, I also learned about capacitance, reactance, transformers, rectifiers, power supplies, diodes, transistors, op amps, and pots (also known as potentiometers). Bill Rivers was the brains of the outfit. Sonny was the Electric Specialist banished to the Precipitator by Leroy Godfrey (See Singing Along with Sonny Kendrick). Bill thought up the ideas and Sonny went to work to implement them. I just jumped in where I was needed.

The Precipitator is the large box between the boiler and the smokestack (maybe you can see this in the Power plant picture). The purpose of the electrostatic precipitator is to take the smoke (or fly ash) out of the exhaust before it went out of the smokestack.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The controls for the Precipitator were all electronic at that time. That meant that there were circuit boards full of resistors, capacitors, transistors, operational amplifiers, diodes and potentiometers. These circuit boards controlled the way the power was distributed throughout the precipitator wires and plates through high powered transformers, and how the rappers and vibrators operated that dropped the collected ash into the hoppers.

Bill had me take an electronics course at the Indian Meridian Vo-tech so I would know the basics. Then he taught me all the shortcuts. I had to be able to look at a resistor and tell right away what the value of resistance it was. Resistors are color-coded and you had to learn what each of the colors represented…

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

I was expected to know this by sight. Bill would test me. There was a mnemonic device that I was taught to remember what each color represented, but it is not appropriate to repeat it, so I won’t. It is enough to say that the colors go like this: Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, Gray, White (I will never forget this my entire life). These represent the numbers zero through 9. Here is a full explanation of how to read a resistor….. just in case you are curious, or you are such a boring person that you really need some material to bring up when you are at a party and don’t know what to say:

This is how the color codes work

This is how the color codes work for resistors works

I found that having just the correct amount of resistance was very important. Too much or too less, and everything stops working.

Isn’t it that way with management also? If the management is too resistant to change, then things come to a halt. If they have too little resistance, they lose control of the situation. Depending on the circuit (or managerial decision) and what you are trying to do, it helps to have a manager that has a variable resistance to meet the needs of each situation. Resistance to change is always a balancing act.

During the first two years I was an electrician, the main control panels that controlled the operation of the precipitators were electronic. We spent a lot of time in the lab troubleshooting electric circuits looking for blown (or bad) parts that needed to be replaced. Then we would solder new components on the circuit boards and then put them back in operation. I learned how to be an electronics junky. I became addicted to fixing electronic circuit boards. It was like a game to me.

Later, the precipitator controls were changed to digital controls. That is, they were more like little computers controlling the precipitator. Instead of a bunch of circuit boards dumbly, but cleverly, doing their job, (how many commas can I use in one sentence?), little brains were added that made decisions and reacted to conditions in a much more dynamic way.

What was interesting was that one day Bill Rivers was describing how technology was going to be in the future. He said that some day, we will be able to sit in the lab and look on a computer and see what all the controls in the precipitator were doing (this was 1984). If something isn’t working right, we could just reach over, type a few keys on the computer and adjust the controls. Drink our sweet tea (a necessary staple in Oklahoma at the time), and then wait for the next crisis…. Then he would giggle at the look of disbelief on my face.

When he was telling me this, I was thinking in my head…. Well, that would be nice, but this sounds more like a pipe dream to me than reality. What does an older guy with six kids from a tool and die company in Columbia Missouri (where I grew up, by chance) know about the future of anything….. well…. anything…uh… new age…. If that is what you might call it… I found out you just don’t really know when you are sitting in front of a true “visionary” with tremendous insight.

Bill Rivers had this incredible knack for telling the future. In 1984 he was predicting computer controls in the control room where you ran the entire plant from a computer on a desk instead of using the “Big Board”.

I love this picture!

I love this picture! It makes me feel at home! This was not our plant, but is a Power Plant control room

He said you would be able to call someone on a phone you kept in your pocket or your watch like Dick Tracey.

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

I don’t know what journals Bill was reading or if he just dreamed all this stuff up in his head, or maybe he was a Star Trek Fan that believed that if you can dream it up you can do it. I do know that he picked up on subtle queues and made great inferences from them that seemed astronomically unlikely. However, I have to admit that he caught me off guard a number of times with predictions that definitely came true.

I will talk about this more in a future post, but for now I will say that we did upgrade the precipitator to where you could sit in the control room and monitor and adjust the precipitator controls (all 84 on each unit), and even each of the rappers (672 rappers) and vibrators (168 vibrators) on the roof of each precipitator. With one key on the computer I could send a plume of ash out of the smokestack that looked like the unit had just tripped, and a moment later, clean it up again. This meant that I could send smoke signals to the Osage Indian tribe 20 miles north up the Arkansas (pronounced “Are Kansas”) river, telling them that the Pow Wow would begin at sunset.

Today, I understand that the “Big Board” at the plant is just a large junction box and the plant is controlled almost (if not) completely by computers sitting on the desk. Before I left the plant in 2001, this was being transitioned slowly to computer controls. I have another story to tell some day about this, and how an operator named Jim Cave, a Power Plant Genius and true Power Plant Man of the highest integrity, was snubbed by upper management for speeding this technology along. — Another example of Power Plant Resistance….

But for now…. back to my electronic days… before I began re-programming the Eeprom chips in the precipitator controls….

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the precipitator controls which I had a very “personal” relationship with…

Bill Rivers confided with me one day that when the new Instrument and Controls department had been formed from the “Results” department that his dream had been to become a part of this team. It meant the world to him. It was where he believed he belonged. It was one of his major goals in life.

There used to be two electrical specialists in the Power Plant. Sonny Kendrick was not always the only one. The other specialist was chosen to go to the Instrument and Controls shop. Bill Rivers wanted to move there also. He definitely had the experience and the knowledge to be a superb instrument and controls person. But Bill had this one problem.

He loved to joke around. He loved to pull strings and push buttons. I have mentioned in a previous posts that Bill would play a new joke on Sonny Kendrick every single day. As I have unfortunately found out in my own life… this tends to make them…. well….. it tends to make enemies out of those who have a chip on their shoulder. Those people who naturally feel inadequate in their abilities or their position in life. To go one step further…. anyone who feels “unloved”….. these people definitely do not like being joked with. They seem to never forgive you. My greatest regret in life is joking around with these individuals.

So, when it came time to choose who would be a part of the new Instrument and Controls shop, Bill Rivers was turned down. It was explained to him that the reason he was not given the job was because he cut off the leads of a transistor when he replaced them. — I’m not kidding. Bill Rivers had the habit of cutting off the leads of each resistor, transistor, diode or capacitor that he replaced…. this is why Monty Adams turned down his request for joining the “elite” Instrument and Controls shop (as he told Bill to his face).

Someone had told the Instrument and Controls Supervisor Monty Adams that Bill Rivers cut the leads off of transistors and resistors when he replaced them so that you couldn’t test them to see if they were all right. Implying that he didn’t want you to know whether he had replaced the transistor or resistor by mistake.

Bill Rivers took several transistors, cut the leads off of each of them and handed them to me and asked me to test them to see if they were still good or if they were bad. I took out my voltmeter, set it to ohms, and proceeded to test them as Bill Rivers had taught me. I told him…. this transistor is good….. this one is bad….

You see…. there is no way to cut the leads off of a transistor in such a way to make it impossible to tell if a transistor is good or bad…. In reality…. you cut the leads off of a bad transistor so that the person working on the circuit board knows that this is a bad transistor and doesn’t use it again by accident. This was electronics 101.

When Bill told me this story, he literally had tears in his eyes. This was because being part of the Instrument and Controls team was part of his dream. His family and the entire rest of his life was decided the day he was told that he was not going to be a part of a team that he believed was his true lot in life.

I remember his exact words as he sat there in the lab alone and told me this story. He said, “… and Monty didn’t know… He didn’t know that you cut the leads…. that is standard procedure….” In Bill’s giggly way, he was crying out loud as he told me this.

From that point on….I knew that the decisions Bill made in his life were driven by that one decision to exclude him from this team. Unlike many of us that could say to ourselves…. “That is their loss”…. Bill kept this pain in his heart each day…. Every decision from that day further was effected by this event.

I calculated it out one day that I spent 414 hours driving back and forth from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the plant and back each day with Bill Rivers (along with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer and occasionally others that needed a ride), and over that time, I became very close to Bill, even to the point of tutoring his son in Algebra (see post: How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?).

I say this because I know about the pain that inflicted Bill River by a rash decision based on the hearsay of someone that held a grudge. I know how his entire life was changed and how it ended for Bill Rivers as a power plant employee. I know that every decision by Bill after this date was made in response to this one decision. Anyone who experienced Bill after 1983 knows what I am talking about.

I realized that today my own decisions in life help spell out my future. How some little remark may be misinterpreted, or even properly so. I realize as I write this post that how I accept or reject these events in my life, determines the future of my family. After seeing how every event in Bill’s life after that day at the power company was determined by his experience was to his detriment, I am determined not to let the same thing happened to me…..

That is why I have taken on the philosophy in my life that no matter how my actions are misinterpreted, I am determined to remain true to myself. I know what I mean, and I mean what I say, and I say what I mean, and an Elephant is Faithful 100 %.

From Horton Hatches an Egg

From Horton Hatches an Egg by Dr. Seuss

Comment from the Original Post:

  1. Ron Kilman April 21, 2013

    It’s amazing how many decisions are made based on incorrect / incomplete information (at all levels).

Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant

Originally posted April 19, 2013:

Resistance is Futile! You may have heard that before. Especially if you are a Star Trek Fan. If not, then you know that there is always some form of resistance wherever you are.

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that "Resistance is Futile"

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that “Resistance is Futile” Like that is ever going to happen

I learned a lot about resistance when I first joined the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1984. I was assigned to work with Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers on the Precipitator during overhauls and when I wasn’t working on the manhole pumps and there wasn’t any other emergencies going on. Actually, from 1984 on, on, the Precipitator for the next 17 years I continued to work on the precipitator… (if I had only known my fate….).

Not only did I learn a lot about resistance, I also learned about capacitance, reactance, transformers, rectifiers, power supplies, diodes, transistors, op amps, and pots (also known as potentiometers). Bill Rivers was the brains of the outfit. Sonny was the Electric Specialist banished to the Precipitator by Leroy Godfrey (See Singing Along with Sonny Kendrick). Bill thought up the ideas and Sonny went to work to implement them. I just jumped in where I was needed.

The Precipitator is the large box between the boiler and the smokestack (maybe you can see this in the Power plant picture). The purpose of the electrostatic precipitator is to take the smoke (or fly ash) out of the exhaust before it went out of the smokestack. The controls for the Precipitator were all electronic at that time. That meant that there were circuit boards full of resistors, capacitors, transistors, operational amplifiers, diodes and potentiometers. These circuit boards controlled the way the power was distributed throughout the precipitator wires and plates through high powered transformers, and how the rappers and vibrators operated that dropped the collected ash into the hoppers.

Bill had me take an electronics course at the Indian Meridian Vo-tech so I would know the basics. Then he taught me all the shortcuts. I had to be able to look at a resistor and tell right away what the value of resistance it was. Resistors are color-coded and you had to learn what each of the colors represented…

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

I was expected to know this by sight. Bill would test me. There was a mnemonic device that I was taught to remember what each color represented, but it is not appropriate to repeat it, so I won’t. It is enough to say that the colors go like this: Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, Gray, White (I will never forget this my entire life). These represent the numbers zero through 9. Here is a full explanation of how to read a resistor….. just in case you are curious, or you are such a boring person that you really need some material to bring up when you are at a party and don’t know what to say:

This is how the color codes work

This is how the color codes work for resistors works

I found that having just the correct amount of resistance was very important. Too much or too less, and everything stops working.

Isn’t it that way with management also? If the management is too resistant to change, then things come to a halt. If they have too little resistance, they lose control of the situation. Depending on the circuit (or managerial decision) and what you are trying to do, it helps to have a manager that has a variable resistance to meet the needs of each situation. Resistance to change is always a balancing act.

During the first two years I was an electrician, the main control panels that controlled the operation of the precipitators were electronic. We spent a lot of time in the lab troubleshooting electric circuits looking for blown (or bad) parts that needed to be replaced. Then we would solder new components on the circuit boards and then put them back in operation. I learned how to be an electronics junky. I became addicted to fixing electronic circuit boards. It was like a game to me.

Later, the precipitator controls were changed to digital controls. That is, they were more like little computers controlling the precipitator. Instead of a bunch of circuit boards dumbly, but cleverly, doing their job, (how many commas can I use in one sentence?), little brains were added that made decisions and reacted to conditions in a much more dynamic way.

What was interesting was that one day Bill Rivers was describing how technology was going to be in the future. He said that some day, we will be able to sit in the lab and look on a computer and see what all the controls in the precipitator were doing (this was 1984). If something isn’t working right, we could just reach over, type a few keys on the computer and adjust the controls. Drink our sweetened tea (a necessary staple in Oklahoma at the time), and then wait for the next crisis…. Then he would giggle at the look of disbelief on my face.

When he was telling me this, I was thinking in my head…. Well, that would be nice, but this sounds more like a pipe dream to me than reality. What does an older guy with six kids from a tool and die company in Columbia Missouri (where I grew up, by chance) know about the future of anything….. well…. anything…uh… new age…. If that is what you might call it… I found out you just don’t really know when you are sitting in front of a true “visionary” with tremendous insight.

Bill Rivers had this incredible knack for telling the future. In 1984 he was predicting computer controls in the control room where you ran the entire plant from a computer on a desk instead of using the “Big Board”.

I love this picture!

I love this picture! It makes me feel at home! This was not our plant, but is a Power Plant control room

He said you would be able to call someone on a phone you kept in your pocket or your watch like Dick Tracey.

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

I don’t know what journals Bill was reading or if he just dreamed all this stuff up in his head, or maybe he was a Star Trek Fan that believed that if you can dream it up you can do it. I do know that he picked up on subtle queues and made great inferences from them that seemed astronomically unlikely. However, I have to admit that he caught me off guard a number of times with predictions that definitely came true.

I will talk about this more in a future post, but for now I will say that we did upgrade the precipitator to where you could sit in the control room and monitor and adjust the precipitator controls (all 84 on each unit), and even each of the rappers (672 rappers) and vibrators (168 vibrators) on the roof of each precipitator. With one key on the computer I could send a plume of ash out of the smokestack that looked like the unit had just tripped, and a moment later, clean it up again. This meant that I could send smoke signals to the Osage Indian tribe 20 miles north up the Arkansas (pronounced “Are Kansas”) river, telling them that the Pow Wow would begin at sunset.

Today, I understand that the “Big Board” at the plant is just a large junction box and the plant is controlled almost (if not) completely by computers sitting on the desk. Before I left the plant in 2001, this was being transitioned slowly to computer controls. I have another story to tell some day about this, and how an operator named Jim Cave, a Power Plant Genius and true Power Plant Man of the highest integrity, was snubbed by upper management for speeding this technology along. — Another example of Power Plant Resistance….

But for now…. back to my electronic days… before I began re-programming the Eeprom chips in the precipitator controls….

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the precipitator controls which I had a very “personal” relationship with…

Bill Rivers confided with me one day that when the new Instrument and Controls department had been formed from the “Results” department that his dream had been to become a part of this team. It meant the world to him. It was where he believed he belonged. It was one of his major goals in life.

There used to be two electrical specialists in the Power Plant. Sonny Kendrick was not always the only one. The other specialist was chosen to go to the Instrument and Controls shop. Bill Rivers wanted to move there also. He definitely had the experience and the knowledge to be a superb instrument and controls person. But Bill had this one problem.

He loved to joke around. He loved to pull strings and push buttons. I have mentioned in a previous posts that Bill would play a new joke on Sonny Kendrick every single day. As I have unfortunately found out in my own life… this tends to make them…. well….. it tends to make enemies out of those who have a chip on their shoulder. Those people who naturally feel inadequate in their abilities or their position in life. To go one step further…. anyone who feels “unloved”….. these people definitely do not like being joked with. They seem to never forgive you. My greatest regret in life is joking around with these individuals.

So, when it came time to choose who would be a part of the new Instrument and Controls shop, Bill Rivers was turned down. It was explained to him that the reason he was not given the job was because he cut off the leads of a resistor when he replaced them. — I’m not kidding. Bill Rivers had the habit of cutting off the leads of each resistor, transistor, diode or capacitor that he replaced…. this is why Monty Adams turned down his request for joining the “elite” Instrument and Controls shop (as he told Bill to his face).

Someone had told the Instrument and Controls Supervisor Monty Adams that Bill Rivers cut the leads off of transistors and resistors when he replaced them so that you couldn’t test them to see if they were all right. Implying that he didn’t want you to know whether he had replaced the transistor or resistor by mistake.

Bill Rivers took several transistors, cut the leads off of each of them and handed them to me and asked me to test them to see if they was still good or if they were bad. I took out my voltmeter, set it to ohms, and proceeded to test them as Bill Rivers had taught me. I told him…. this transistor is good….. this one is bad….

You see…. there is no way to cut the leads off of a transistor in such a way to make it impossible to tell if a transistor is good or bad…. In reality…. you cut the leads off of a bad transistor so that the person working on the circuit board knows that this is a bad transistor and doesn’t use it again by accident. This was electronics 101.

When Bill told me this story, he literally had tears in his eyes. This was because being part of the Instrument and Controls team was part of his dream. His family and the entire rest of his life was decided the day he was told that he was not going to be a part of a team that he believed was his true lot in life.

I remember his exact words as he sat there in the lab alone and told me this story. He said, “… and Monty didn’t know… He didn’t know that you cut the leads…. that is standard procedure….” In Bill’s giggly way, he was crying out loud as he told me this.

From that point on….I knew that the decisions Bill made in his life were driven by that one decision to exclude him from this team. Unlike many of us that could say to ourselves…. “That is their loss”…. Bill kept this pain in his heart each day…. Every decision from that day further was effected by this event.

I calculated it out one day that I spent 414 hours driving back and forth from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the plant and back each day with Bill Rivers (along with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer and occasionally others that needed a ride), and over that time, I became very close to Bill, even to the point of tutoring his son in Algebra (see post: How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?).

I say this because I know about the pain that inflicted Bill River by a rash decision based on the hearsay of someone that held a grudge. I know how his entire life was changed and how it ended for Bill Rivers as a power plant employee. I know that every decision by Bill after this date was made in response to this one decision. Anyone who experienced Bill after 1983 knows what I am talking about.

I realized that today my own decisions in life help spell out my future. How some little remark may be misinterpreted, or even properly so. I realize as I write this post that how I accept or reject these events in my life, determines the future of my family. After seeing how every event in Bill’s life after that day at the power company was determined by his experience was to his detriment, I am determined not to let the same thing happened to me…..

That is why I have taken on the philosophy in my life that no matter how my actions are misinterpreted, I am determined to remain true to myself. I know what I mean, and I mean what I say, and I say what I mean, and an Elephant is Faithful 100 %.

From Horton Hatches an Egg

From Horton Hatches an Egg by Dr. Seuss

Comment from the Original Post:

  1. Ron Kilman April 21, 2013

    It’s amazing how many decisions are made based on incorrect / incomplete information (at all levels).

Power Plant Manhole Mania

Originally posted February 1, 2013:

It is vitally important that a manhole cover be round. By just being square or even oval, it could mean death to some unsuspecting electrician. You see, only a perfectly round manhole cover will never be able to fall down into a manhole. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t fit a bigger circle through a smaller circle. An oval or square cover could fall through the hole when turned just right but not a round one. A typical cast iron manhole can weigh up to 500 pounds.

Here is a manhole cover turned upside down.  Because of the way it is shaped, when you push the cover over the hole, it falls right into place.

Here is a manhole cover turned upside down. Because of the way it is shaped, when you push the cover over the hole, it falls right into place.

Not long after becoming an electrician, and shortly after the Rivers and the Rose story that I mentioned last week, we had a cable really go to ground between the main plant and the coalyard. The cable that went to ground was called a 500 MCM cable. What this means is that 500,000 circles of 1 mil (or one milli-inch) in diameter can be put in a circle that is 500 MCM in diameter. A typical 500 MCM cable is good for a 400 amp load at 6900 volts.

500 MCM cable.  Over 2 inches in diameter.

500 MCM cable. Over 2 inches in diameter.

For large industrial circuits, 3 phases of electricity are used instead of just one like you have in your house. With three phases of electricity, you have a constant amount of power being applied to the entire circuit at all times. With a one phase circuit, you have zero power 120 times every second. So with any “decent” power circuit, you have 3 phases of electricity.

When you add up the voltage of all three phases at one time, you always equal zero because you have the same amount of positive volts with negative volts at any given time.  So, you will find that you always have a constant voltage between all three phases at any given time.

When you add up the difference betweenvoltages of all three phases at one time, you always equal zero because you have the same amount of positive volts with negative volts at any given time. So, you will find that you always have a constant voltage between all three phases at any time.

The cable that went to ground was the coalyard station power cable. Not only were there three phases of power, but for each phase there were two 500 MCM cables. That means that this circuit was good for 800 amps of power at 6,900 volts. Giving you a capacity of 5.5 Megawatts (or 5 million, 500 thousand watts) of power. These cables were so big that a typical industrial Wire cable chart doesn’t even go this high:

500 MCM cable is also known as 5/0 cable (pronounced 5 aught)

500 MCM cable is also known as 5/0 cable (pronounced 5 aught). The 445 amps for the 4/0 cable are for only 50 volts. We had 6900 volts.

In a Coal-fired power plant, you have a redundant system for everything. So, the coalyard wasn’t completely in the dark. It had just swapped over to the redundant circuit. — This always amused me. In my English and Poetry classes in College I would have points taken off for being “redundant”, but in the power plant this was necessary to keep the plant running at all times.

As I said 15 years later, when I was training operators and electricians to be certified substation switchmen, “I know this is boring, but you have to learn it…” (but that is another story).

So, to make a rather boring lecture shorter, I will skip the part about how we had a hypot from the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department brought in so big that it had to come in a van. They attached it to the cables to find where the short to ground was located. I’ll skip the part about how it was decided to replace the faulty cables going to the coalyard 1/2 mile away. I’ll also skip the part about how Charles Foster was able to finagle the use of Stanley Elmore’s precious blue Mitsubishi mini-tractor to try to pull the cables from one manhole to the next (the first time anyone outside the garage was able to operate his most beloved tractor…..).

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

Oh, and I’ll skip the part about how 1000 feet of this cable cost about $10,000 and we had six cable to replace for a cost of about $320,000 just for the cable… I’ll also skip the part about how this little tractor was too small to pull the cables through the manholes from manhole to manhole up to the coalyard, so we sent in for the big guns from the T&D department to use their equipment that pulled the cables through the manholes as easy as pulling the wool over Gene Day’s eyes while playing a joke on him. (Don’t get me wrong…. I know in his heart, Gene Day really appreciated a good joke. Gene Day is one of the best men I have ever been able to call “Friend” — which I would do shortly after playing a joke on him, after I returned to consciousness).

Anyway, after this episode was all over it was decided that something needed to be done about how all the manholes from the plant to the coalyard were always full of water. You see, the manholes were easily deeper than the lake level so water naturally leaked into them. Each of them had a pump in them that was supposed to keep them dry, but somewhere along the line, in the 5 years the plant had been in operation, each manhole pump had failed at one time or other… When pumping out the first manhole, it took days, because as you pumped out that first manhole, water would run from one manhole to the other as you actually ended up pumping out all the manholes down to the point where the cables went from one manhole to the other.

So, none other than the “newbie” was appointed as the keeper of the Manhole pumps. Yep. That would be me. So, for the next few months I spent almost all my times pumping out manholes and repairing all the pumps that had been submerged in water for years. This was my first real job.

This was my real introduction to becoming a real plant electrician (You can see how I really like using the word “real”). The most common job of an electrician was to take a motor that had failed or was scheduled to be overhauled and repair it and put it back in place to continue on it’s “tour of duty”. It’s amazing how you can take a motor that has failed, and you can “rebuild” it and put it back in operation. — This has come in handy at home as the cooling fan motor on the air conditioner unit on your house goes out every few years. I have yet to call an air conditioner man to my current house where I have lived for 11 1/2 years.

I remember that Charles Foster had told me that “paperwork” was very important when it came to motors. A history had to be kept. Certain steps had to be performed before, during and after repairing a motor. It had to be meggared properly (see the post from last week to learn more about meggars: Rivers and a Rose of the Power Plant Palace).

So, I asked Ben Davis if he could show me what I needed to do to fix a motor. His immediate indignant response was, “What? You don’t know how to fix a motor?” My response was, “No, I don’t know. Would you show me?” Ben, who up to that point had presented himself with displeasure at my presence in the shop, suddenly smiled and said, “Sure! Let me show you what you need to do!”

Ben showed me all the steps you go through to repair and “document” a motor repair in great detail. I was glad that I had found that Ben was just putting on a front of disgust at my presence in the Electric shop only to show me at the “proper” time that I had been “misjudging” him as being a grumpy person when he wasn’t really….

I had figured, before this time, that Ben really had a kind heart because I figured that if Diane Lucas and Andy Tubbs, who I both admired greatly considered Ben as a good friend, then he must really be a good guy underneath, even though he was keeping this hidden from me.

I knew the moment he smiled at my response when I told him I really didn’t know anything, that Ben had a kind heart. He couldn’t hide it any longer. If I had asked the same thing to OD McGaha, one of the other B Foremen in the shop, for instance, he would have told me to go to hell. But not Ben.

I have more to tell you about Ben, but I’ll save that for a later post. For now, I’ll just say that though Ben may not have known it during the time I spent as an electrician, he has always been close to my heart. I have always had Ben and his family in my daily prayers from the day that he smiled at me and explained to me how to repair a motor.

So, how does a lone newbie electrician pull a 500 pound lid off of a manhole by himself? Well. He uses a Manhole cover puller of course.

A Manhole cover puller

A Manhole cover puller

Ok. Our manhole cover puller wasn’t blue like this, but it had a similar shape. With a simple tool like this a 500 pound manhole cover could be popped out of the hole and dragged away. So, I used this tool as my one man crew (myself) went from manhole to manhole, where I pumped each out and lowered a ladder into each hole and disconnecting the drenched motor and brought it back to the shop where I dried it out (using the hot box in the shop that doubled as a heater for lunches), and repaired it and re-installed it.

We had all the manholes in the plant identified. I painted the numbers on each lid with orange paint. It was while I was working in the manholes 15 feet below ground that I appreciated the round manhole. I knew that as long as that manhole cover was round, it couldn’t accidentally be knocked into the hole only to crush me to death below.

Other things were of concern in the manholes where I worked… For instance, many of these holes had been underwater for at least a couple of years, and the entire manhole was covered with a kind of slime. there were also high voltage cables that had splices in some of the manholes, and I remember Gene Roget telling me that he had seen sparks flying off of some of them when they were hipoting the cables looking for the ground. The dank smell of the manholes made you think that there were probably some kind of “swamp gases” in there.

Nevertheless, when I grew weary of dragging the heavy shellacked wooden ladder from hole to hole, I devised a way to climb down into the manholes using the drain pipe from the motor. This was before OSHA had implemented all the confined spaces rules in 1994 that would have prevented me from entering a manhole alone. I was improvising and taking a risk of falling and hurting myself each time I entered a manhole.

I ran into one of the reasons for not leaving a person in a manhole alone one time when I was working in a manhole near the intake house and another crew drove up and parked their truck near the hole I was working in. I remember that while I was working there, I suddenly became nauseous. Not sure why, I climbed out of the hole.

The truck that had been left idling nearby had been emitting toxic fumes that had looked for the lowest place they could settle, and that happened to be in the manhole where I was working. After that, I always kept an ear out for any motor vehicles nearby when I was in a manhole.

Ten years later, in 1994, OHSA added some new laws to the books that made it mandatory to have a “hole watch” stand outside a hole watching you while you worked in a manhole. You even had to have a safety harness tied to a safety hoist so that if you passed out while in a manhole the hole watch could pull you out without having to enter the hole.

This is a special hoist designed to lift a person out of a confined space without seriously injuring someone that is caught on obstacles.

This is a special hoist designed to lift a person out of a confined space without seriously injuring someone that is caught on obstacles.

Needless to say. I got my feet wet as an electrician popping in and out of manholes like the gopher in the arcade that you try to bop on the head.

One interesting story that happened during this time happened when Blake Tucker, who had been a summer help with me in the garage, and then later became a summer help in the electric shop, was sitting with me while we were going to fix a pump in manhole 215 (I believe this is the number of the manhole next to the intake where the fly ash pipes go over the intake).

The hole was full of water, and the pump had naturally tripped the breaker….. For some reason I decided to go into the intake switchgear and reset the 120 volt breaker to the pump in the Distribution Panel. When I did. I returned to the hole where Blake was waiting for me. I reached down into the hole with my foot and I kicked the drain pipe that rose from the pump and made a 90 degree turn up close to the entrance.

When I kicked the pipe, the motor actually began running. We could see it 15 feet below us in the clear water running. It was an open face motor, meaning that it wasn’t sealed and made to be a submersible pump, yet it was running under water. A year later we decided that it made more sense to replace all the open motors with submersible pumps.

vertical pump with an open motor on top

vertical pump with an open motor on top

Submersible Pump made to sit in the water without the water leaking into the motor.  -- That's the idea anyway.

Blake Tucker and I watched for 1/2 hour as the pump sucked out the water from the manhole. When the level of the water reached the top of the motor, the outboard fan that had been slowly rotating all of the sudden kicked into high gear and we could see that the pump had been running at full speed all along.

This fascinated me. I figured the water must have been pure enough not to be too conductive (pure water is a natural insulator…. oddly enough). We could easily see this pump through 15 feet of water, so it must have been pretty clean. That was the only time I have ever seen an open motor happily running submersed in water… It is not something you see every day….. for instance…. It is not every day that you see a janitor with a Psychology major acting like an electrician sitting beside a manhole staring down into the darkness in a power plant either. But there you are…

Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant — Repost

Originally posted April 19, 2013:

Resistance is Futile!  You may have heard that before.  Especially if you are a Star Trek Fan.  If not, then you know that there is always some form of resistance wherever you are.

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that "Resistance is Futile"

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that “Resistance is Futile”  Like that is ever going to happen

I learned a lot about resistance when I first joined the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1984.  I was assigned to work with Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers on the Precipitator during overhauls and when I wasn’t working on the manhole pumps and there wasn’t any other emergencies going on.  Actually, from 1984 on, on, the Precipitator for the next 17 years I continued to work on the precipitator… (if I had only known my fate….).

Not only did I learn a lot about resistance, I also learned about capacitance, reactance, transformers, rectifiers, power supplies, diodes, transistors, op amps, and pots (also known as potentiometers).  Bill Rivers was the brains of the outfit.  Sonny was the Electric Specialist banished to the Precipitator by Leroy Godfrey (See Singing Along with Sonny Kendrick).  Bill thought up the ideas and Sonny went to work to implement them.  I just jumped in where I was needed.

The Precipitator is the large box between the boiler and the smokestack (maybe you can see this in the Power plant picture).  The purpose of the electrostatic precipitator is to take the smoke (or fly ash) out of the exhaust before it went out of the smokestack.  The controls for the Precipitator were all electronic at that time.  That meant that there were circuit boards full of resistors, capacitors, transistors, operational amplifiers, diodes and potentiometers.  These circuit boards controlled the way the power was distributed throughout the precipitator wires and plates through high powered transformers, and how the rappers and vibrators operated that dropped the collected ash into the hoppers.

Bill had me take an electronics course at the Indian Meridian Vo-tech so I would know the basics.  Then he taught me all the shortcuts.  I had to be able to look at a resistor and tell right away what the value of resistance it was.  Resistors are color-coded and you had to learn what each of the colors represented…

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

I was expected to know this by sight.  Bill would test me.  There was a mnemonic device that I was taught to remember what each color represented, but it is not appropriate to repeat it, so I won’t.  It is enough to say that the colors go like this:  Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, Gray, White (I will never forget this my entire life).  These represent the numbers zero through 9.   Here is a full explanation of how to read a resistor….. just in case you are curious, or you are such a boring person that you really need some material to bring up when you are at a party and don’t know what to say:

This is how the color codes work

This is how the color codes work for resistors works

I found that having just the correct amount of resistance was very important.  Too much or too less, and everything stops working.

Isn’t it that way with management also?  If the management is too resistant to change, then things come to a halt.  If they have too little resistance, they lose control of the situation.  Depending on the circuit (or managerial decision) and what you are trying to do, it helps to have a manager that has a variable resistance to meet the needs of each situation.   Resistance to change is always a balancing act.

During the first two years I was an electrician, the main control panels that controlled the operation of the precipitators were electronic.  We spent a lot of time in the lab troubleshooting electric circuits looking for blown (or bad) parts that needed to be replaced.  Then we would solder new components on the circuit boards and then put them back in operation.  I learned how to be an electronics junky.  I became addicted to fixing electronic circuit boards.  It was like a game to me.

Later, the precipitator controls were changed to digital controls.  That is, they were more like little computers controlling the precipitator. Instead of a bunch of circuit boards dumbly, but cleverly, doing their job, (how many commas can I use in one sentence?), little brains were added that made decisions and reacted to conditions in a much more dynamic way.

What was interesting was that one day Bill Rivers was describing how technology was going to be in the future.  He said that some day, we will be able to sit in the lab and look on a computer and see what all the controls in the precipitator were doing (this was 1984).  If something isn’t working right, we could just reach over, type a few keys on the computer and adjust the controls.  Drink our sweetened tea (a necessary staple in Oklahoma at the time), and then wait for the next crisis…. Then he would giggle at the look of disbelief on my face.

When he was telling me this, I was thinking in my head…. Well, that would be nice, but this sounds more like a pipe dream to me than reality.  What does an older guy with six kids from a tool and die company in Columbia Missouri (where I grew up, by chance) know about the future of anything….. well…. anything…uh… new age….  If that is what you might call it…  I found out you just don’t really know when you are sitting in front of a true “visionary” with tremendous insight.

Bill Rivers had this incredible knack for telling the future.  In 1984 he was predicting computer controls in the control room where you ran the entire plant from a computer on a desk instead of using the “Big Board”.

I love this picture!

I love this picture! It makes me feel at home!  This was not our plant, but is a Power Plant control room

He said you would be able to call someone on a phone you kept in your pocket or your watch like Dick Tracey.

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

I don’t know what journals Bill was reading or if he just dreamed all this stuff up in his head, or maybe he was a Star Trek Fan that believed that if you can dream it up you can do it.  I do know that he picked up on subtle queues and made great inferences from them that seemed astronomically unlikely.  However, I have to admit that he caught me off guard a number of times with predictions that definitely came true.

I will talk about this more in a future post, but for now I will say that we did upgrade the precipitator to where you could sit in the control room and monitor and adjust the precipitator controls (all 84 on each unit), and even each of the rappers (672 rappers) and vibrators (168 vibrators) on the roof of each precipitator.  With one key on the computer I could send a plume of ash out of the smokestack that looked like the unit had just tripped, and a moment later, clean it up again.  This meant that I could send smoke signals to the Osage Indian tribe 20 miles north up the Arkansas (pronounced “Are Kansas”) river, telling them that the Pow Wow would begin at sunset.

Today, I understand that the “Big Board” at the plant is just a large junction box and the plant is controlled almost (if not) completely by computers sitting on the desk.  Before I left the plant in 2001, this was being transitioned slowly to computer controls.  I have another story to tell some day about this, and how an operator named Jim Cave, a Power Plant Genius and true Power Plant Man of the highest integrity, was snubbed by upper management for speeding this technology along.  — Another example of Power Plant Resistance….

But for now…. back to my electronic days… before I began re-programming the Eeprom chips in the precipitator controls….

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the precipitator controls which I had a very “personal” relationship with…

Bill Rivers confided with me one day that when the new Instrument and Controls department had been formed from the “Results” department that his dream had been to become a part of this team.  It meant the world to him.  It was where he believed he belonged.  It was one of his major goals in life.

There used to be two electrical specialists in the Power Plant.  Sonny Kendrick was not always the only one.  The other specialist was chosen to go to the Instrument and Controls shop. Bill Rivers wanted to move there also.  He definitely had the experience and the knowledge to be a superb instrument and controls person.  But Bill had this one problem.

He loved to joke around.  He loved to pull strings and push buttons.  I have mentioned in a previous posts that Bill would play a new joke on Sonny Kendrick every single day.  As I have unfortunately found out in my own life… this tends to make them…. well….. it tends to make enemies out of those who have a chip on their shoulder.  Those people who naturally feel inadequate in their abilities or their position in life.  To go one step further…. anyone who feels “unloved”….. these people definitely do not like being joked with.  They seem to never forgive you.  My greatest regret in life is joking around with these individuals.

So, when it came time to choose who would be a part of the new Instrument and Controls shop, Bill Rivers was turned down.  It was explained to him that the reason he was not given the job was because he cut off the leads of a resistor when he replaced them.  — I’m not kidding.  Bill Rivers had the habit of cutting off the leads of each resistor, transistor, diode or capacitor that he replaced…. this is why Monty Adams turned down his request for joining the “elite” Instrument and Controls shop (as he told Bill to his face).

Someone had told the Instrument and Controls Supervisor Monty Adams that Bill Rivers cut the leads off of transistors and resistors when he replaced them so that you couldn’t test them to see if they were all right.  Implying that he didn’t want you to know whether he had replaced the transistor or resistor by mistake.

Bill Rivers took several transistors, cut the leads off of each of them and handed them to me and asked me to test them to see if they was still good or if they were bad.  I took out my voltmeter, set it to ohms, and proceeded to test them as Bill Rivers had taught me.  I told him…. this transistor is good….. this one is bad….

You see…. there is no way to cut the leads off of a transistor in such a way to make it impossible to tell if a transistor is good or bad…. In reality…. you cut the leads off of a bad transistor so that the person working on the circuit board knows that this is a bad transistor and doesn’t use it again by accident.  This was electronics 101.

When Bill told me this story, he literally had tears in his eyes. This was because being part of the Instrument and Controls team was part of his dream.  His family and the entire rest of his life was decided the day he was told that he was not going to be a part of a team that he believed was his true lot in life.

I remember his exact words as he sat there in the lab alone and told me this story.  He said, “… and Monty didn’t know… He didn’t know that you cut the leads….  that is standard procedure….”  In Bill’s giggly way, he was crying out loud as he told me this.

From that point on….I knew that the decisions Bill made in his life were driven by that one decision to exclude him from this team.  Unlike many of us that could say to ourselves…. “That is their loss”…. Bill kept this pain in his heart each day…. Every decision from that day further was effected by this event.

I calculated it out one day that I spent 414 hours driving back and forth from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the plant and back each day with Bill Rivers (along with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer and occasionally others that needed a ride),  and over that time,  I became very close to Bill, even to the point of tutoring his son in Algebra (see post:   How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?).

I say this because I know about the pain that inflicted Bill River by a rash decision based on the hearsay of someone that held a grudge.   I know how his entire life was changed and how it ended for Bill Rivers as a power plant employee.  I know that every decision by Bill after this date was made in response to this one decision.  Anyone who experienced Bill after 1983 knows what I am talking about.

I realized that today my own decisions in life help spell out my future.  How some little remark may be misinterpreted, or even properly so.  I realize as I write this post that how I accept or reject these events in my life, determines the future of my family.  After seeing how every event in Bill’s life after that day at the power company was determined by his experience was to his detriment, I am determined not to let the same thing happened to me…..

That is why I have taken on the philosophy in my life that no matter how my actions are misinterpreted, I am determined to remain true to myself.  I know what I mean, and I mean what I say, and I say what I mean, and an Elephant is Faithful 100 %.

From Horton Hatches an Egg

From Horton Hatches an Egg by Dr. Seuss

Comment from the Original Post:

  1. Ron Kilman April 21, 2013

    It’s amazing how many decisions are made based on incorrect / incomplete information (at all levels).

Power Plant Manhole Mania — Repost

Originally posted February 1, 2013:

It is vitally important that a manhole cover be round. By just being square or even oval, it could mean death to some unsuspecting electrician. You see, only a perfectly round manhole cover will never be able to fall down into a manhole. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t fit a bigger circle through a smaller circle. An oval or square cover could fall through the hole when turned just right but not a round one. A typical cast iron manhole can weigh up to 500 pounds.

Here is a manhole cover turned upside down.  Because of the way it is shaped, when you push the cover over the hole, it falls right into place.

Here is a manhole cover turned upside down. Because of the way it is shaped, when you push the cover over the hole, it falls right into place.

Not long after becoming an electrician, and shortly after the Rivers and the Rose story that I mentioned last week, we had a cable really go to ground between the main plant and the coalyard. The cable that went to ground was called a 500 MCM cable. What this means is that 500,000 circles of 1 mil (or one milli-inch) in diameter can be put in a circle that is 500 MCM in diameter. A typical 500 MCM cable is good for a 400 amp load at 6900 volts.

500 MCM cable.  Over 2 inches in diameter.

500 MCM cable. Over 2 inches in diameter.

For large industrial circuits, 3 phases of electricity are used instead of just one like you have in your house. With three phases of electricity, you have a constant amount of power being applied to the entire circuit at all times. With a one phase circuit, you have zero power 120 times every second. So with any “decent” power circuit, you have 3 phases of electricity.

When you add up the voltage of all three phases at one time, you always equal zero because you have the same amount of positive volts with negative volts at any given time.  So, you will find that you always have a constant voltage between all three phases at any given time.

When you add up the difference betweenvoltages of all three phases at one time, you always equal zero because you have the same amount of positive volts with negative volts at any given time. So, you will find that you always have a constant voltage between all three phases at any time.

The cable that went to ground was the coalyard station power cable. Not only were there three phases of power, but for each phase there were two 500 MCM cables. That means that this circuit was good for 800 amps of power at 6,900 volts. Giving you a capacity of 5.5 Megawatts (or 5 million, 500 thousand watts) of power. These cables were so big that a typical industrial Wire cable chart doesn’t even go this high:

500 MCM cable is also known as 5/0 cable (pronounced 5 aught)

500 MCM cable is also known as 5/0 cable (pronounced 5 aught). The 445 amps for the 4/0 cable are for only 50 volts. We had 6900 volts.

In a Coal-fired power plant, you have a redundant system for everything. So, the coalyard wasn’t completely in the dark. It had just swapped over to the redundant circuit. — This always amused me. In my English and Poetry classes in College I would have points taken off for being “redundant”, but in the power plant this was necessary to keep the plant running at all times.

As I said 15 years later, when I was training operators and electricians to be certified substation switchmen, “I know this is boring, but you have to learn it…” (but that is another story).

So, to make a rather boring lecture shorter, I will skip the part about how we had a hypot from the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department brought in so big that it had to come in a van. They attached it to the cables to find where the short to ground was located. I’ll skip the part about how it was decided to replace the faulty cables going to the coalyard 1/2 mile away. I’ll also skip the part about how Charles Foster was able to finagle the use of Stanley Elmore’s precious blue Mitsubishi mini-tractor to try to pull the cables from one manhole to the next (the first time anyone outside the garage was able to operate his most beloved tractor…..).

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

Oh, and I’ll skip the part about how 1000 feet of this cable cost about $10,000 and we had six cable to replace for a cost of about $320,000 just for the cable… I’ll also skip the part about how this little tractor was too small to pull the cables through the manholes from manhole to manhole up to the coalyard, so we sent in for the big guns from the T&D department to use their equipment that pulled the cables through the manholes as easy as pulling the wool over Gene Day’s eyes while playing a joke on him. (Don’t get me wrong…. I know in his heart, Gene Day really appreciated a good joke. Gene Day is one of the best men I have ever been able to call “Friend” — which I would do shortly after playing a joke on him, after I returned to consciousness).

Anyway, after this episode was all over it was decided that something needed to be done about how all the manholes from the plant to the coalyard were always full of water. You see, the manholes were easily deeper than the lake level so water naturally leaked into them. Each of them had a pump in them that was supposed to keep them dry, but somewhere along the line, in the 5 years the plant had been in operation, each manhole pump had failed at one time or other… When pumping out the first manhole, it took days, because as you pumped out that first manhole, water would run from one manhole to the other as you actually ended up pumping out all the manholes down to the point where the cables went from one manhole to the other.

So, none other than the “newbie” was appointed as the keeper of the Manhole pumps. Yep. That would be me. So, for the next few months I spent almost all my times pumping out manholes and repairing all the pumps that had been submerged in water for years. This was my first real job.

This was my real introduction to becoming a real plant electrician (You can see how I really like using the word “real”). The most common job of an electrician was to take a motor that had failed or was scheduled to be overhauled and repair it and put it back in place to continue on it’s “tour of duty”. It’s amazing how you can take a motor that has failed, and you can “rebuild” it and put it back in operation. — This has come in handy at home as the cooling fan motor on the air conditioner unit on your house goes out every few years. I have yet to call an air conditioner man to my current house where I have lived for 11 1/2 years.

I remember that Charles Foster had told me that “paperwork” was very important when it came to motors. A history had to be kept. Certain steps had to be performed before, during and after repairing a motor. It had to be meggared properly (see the post from last week to learn more about meggars: Rivers and a Rose of the Power Plant Palace).

So, I asked Ben Davis if he could show me what I needed to do to fix a motor. His immediate indignant response was, “What? You don’t know how to fix a motor?” My response was, “No, I don’t know. Would you show me?” Ben, who up to that point had presented himself with displeasure at my presence in the shop, suddenly smiled and said, “Sure! Let me show you what you need to do!”

Ben showed me all the steps you go through to repair and “document” a motor repair in great detail. I was glad that I had found that Ben was just putting on a front of disgust at my presence in the Electric shop only to show me at the “proper” time that I had been “misjudging” him as being a grumpy person when he wasn’t really….

I had figured, before this time, that Ben really had a kind heart because I figured that if Diane Lucas and Andy Tubbs, who I both admired greatly considered Ben as a good friend, then he must really be a good guy underneath, even though he was keeping this hidden from me.

I knew the moment he smiled at my response when I told him I really didn’t know anything, that Ben had a kind heart. He couldn’t hide it any longer. If I had asked the same thing to OD McGaha, one of the other B Foremen in the shop, for instance, he would have told me to go to hell. But not Ben.

I have more to tell you about Ben, but I’ll save that for a later post. For now, I’ll just say that though Ben may not have known it during the time I spent as an electrician, he has always been close to my heart. I have always had Ben and his family in my daily prayers from the day that he smiled at me and explained to me how to repair a motor.

So, how does a lone newbie electrician pull a 500 pound lid off of a manhole by himself? Well. He uses a Manhole cover puller of course.

A Manhole cover puller

A Manhole cover puller

Ok. Our manhole cover puller wasn’t blue like this, but it had a similar shape. With a simple tool like this a 500 pound manhole cover could be popped out of the hole and dragged away. So, I used this tool as my one man crew (myself) went from manhole to manhole, where I pumped each out and lowered a ladder into each hole and disconnecting the drenched motor and brought it back to the shop where I dried it out (using the hot box in the shop that doubled as a heater for lunches), and repaired it and re-installed it.

We had all the manholes in the plant identified. I painted the numbers on each lid with orange paint. It was while I was working in the manholes 15 feet below ground that I appreciated the round manhole. I knew that as long as that manhole cover was round, it couldn’t accidentally be knocked into the hole only to crush me to death below.

Other things were of concern in the manholes where I worked… For instance, many of these holes had been underwater for at least a couple of years, and the entire manhole was covered with a kind of slime. there were also high voltage cables that had splices in some of the manholes, and I remember Gene Roget telling me that he had seen sparks flying off of some of them when they were hipoting the cables looking for the ground. The dank smell of the manholes made you think that there were probably some kind of “swamp gases” in there.

Nevertheless, when I grew weary of dragging the heavy shellacked wooden ladder from hole to hole, I devised a way to climb down into the manholes using the drain pipe from the motor. This was before OSHA had implemented all the confined spaces rules in 1994 that would have prevented me from entering a manhole alone. I was improvising and taking a risk of falling and hurting myself each time I entered a manhole.

I ran into one of the reasons for not leaving a person in a manhole alone one time when I was working in a manhole near the intake house and another crew drove up and parked their truck near the hole I was working in. I remember that while I was working there, I suddenly became nauseous. Not sure why, I climbed out of the hole.

The truck that had been left idling nearby had been emitting toxic fumes that had looked for the lowest place they could settle, and that happened to be in the manhole where I was working. After that, I always kept an ear out for any motor vehicles nearby when I was in a manhole.

Ten years later, in 1994, OHSA added some new laws to the books that made it mandatory to have a “hole watch” stand outside a hole watching you while you worked in a manhole. You even had to have a safety harness tied to a safety hoist so that if you passed out while in a manhole the hole watch could pull you out without having to enter the hole.

This is a special hoist designed to lift a person out of a confined space without seriously injuring someone that is caught on obstacles.

This is a special hoist designed to lift a person out of a confined space without seriously injuring someone that is caught on obstacles.

Needless to say. I got my feet wet as an electrician popping in and out of manholes like the gopher in the arcade that you try to bop on the head.

One interesting story that happened during this time happened when Blake Tucker, who had been a summer help with me in the garage, and then later became a summer help in the electric shop, was sitting with me while we were going to fix a pump in manhole 215 (I believe this is the number of the manhole next to the intake where the fly ash pipes go over the intake).

The hole was full of water, and the pump had naturally tripped the breaker….. For some reason I decided to go into the intake switchgear and reset the 120 volt breaker to the pump in the Distribution Panel. When I did. I returned to the hole where Blake was waiting for me. I reached down into the hole with my foot and I kicked the drain pipe that rose from the pump and made a 90 degree turn up close to the entrance.

When I kicked the pipe, the motor actually began running. We could see it 15 feet below us in the clear water running. It was an open face motor, meaning that it wasn’t sealed and made to be a submersible pump, yet it was running under water. A year later we decided that it made more sense to replace all the open motors with submersible pumps.

vertical pump with an open motor on top

vertical pump with an open motor on top

Submersible Pump made to sit in the water without the water leaking into the motor.  -- That's the idea anyway.

Blake Tucker and I watched for 1/2 hour as the pump sucked out the water from the manhole. When the level of the water reached the top of the motor, the outboard fan that had been slowly rotating all of the sudden kicked into high gear and we could see that the pump had been running at full speed all along.

This fascinated me. I figured the water must have been pure enough not to be too conductive (pure water is a natural insulator…. oddly enough). We could easily see this pump through 15 feet of water, so it must have been pretty clean. That was the only time I have ever seen an open motor happily running submersed in water… It is not something you see every day….. for instance…. It is not every day that you see a janitor with a Psychology major acting like an electrician sitting beside a manhole staring down into the darkness in a power plant either. But there you are…

Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant

Resistance is Futile!  You may have heard that before.  Especially if you are a Star Trek Fan.  If not, then you know that there is always some form of resistance wherever you are.

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that "Resistance is Futile"

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that “Resistance is Futile”  Like that is ever going to happen

I learned a lot about resistance when I first joined the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1984.  I was assigned to work with Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers on the Precipitator during overhauls and when I wasn’t working on the manhole pumps and there wasn’t any other emergencies going on.  Actually, from 1984 on, on, the Precipitator for the next 17 years I continued to work on the precipitator… (if I had only known my fate….).

Not only did I learn a lot about resistance, I also learned about capacitance, reactance, transformers, rectifiers, power supplies, diodes, transistors, op amps, and pots (also known as potentiometers).  Bill Rivers was the brains of the outfit.  Sonny was the Electric Specialist banished to the Precipitator by Leroy Godfrey (See Singing Along with Sonny Kendrick).  Bill thought up the ideas and Sonny went to work to implement them.  I just jumped in where I was needed.

The Precipitator is the large box between the boiler and the smokestack (maybe you can see this in the Power plant picture).  The purpose of the electrostatic precipitator is to take the smoke (or fly ash) out of the exhaust before it went out of the smokestack.  The controls for the Precipitator were all electronic at that time.  That meant that there were circuit boards full of resistors, capacitors, transistors, operational amplifiers, diodes and potentiometers.  These circuit boards controlled the way the power was distributed throughout the precipitator wires and plates through high powered transformers, and how the rappers and vibrators operated that dropped the collected ash into the hoppers.

Bill had me take an electronics course at the Indian Meridian Vo-tech so I would know the basics.  Then he taught me all the shortcuts.  I had to be able to look at a resistor and tell right away what the value of resistance it was.  Resistors are color-coded and you had to learn what each of the colors represented…

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

I was expected to know this by sight.  Bill would test me.  There was a mnemonic device that I was taught to remember what each color represented, but it is not appropriate to repeat it, so I won’t.  It is enough to say that the colors go like this:  Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, Gray, White (I will never forget this my entire life).  These represent the numbers zero through 9.   Here is a full explanation of how to read a resistor….. just in case you are curious, or you are such a boring person that you really need some material to bring up when you are at a party and don’t know what to say:

This is how the color codes work

This is how the color codes work for resistors works

I found that having just the correct amount of resistance was very important.  Too much or too less, and everything stops working.

Isn’t it that way with management also?  If the management is too resistant to change, then things come to a halt.  If they have too little resistance, they lose control of the situation.  Depending on the circuit (or managerial decision) and what you are trying to do, it helps to have a manager that has a variable resistance to meet the needs of each situation.   Resistance to change is always a balancing act.

During the first two years I was an electrician, the main control panels that controlled the operation of the precipitators were electronic.  We spent a lot of time in the lab troubleshooting electric circuits looking for blown (or bad) parts that needed to be replaced.  Then we would solder new components on the circuit boards and then put them back in operation.  I learned how to be an electronics junky.  I became addicted to fixing electronic circuit boards.  It was like a game to me.

Later, the precipitator controls were changed to digital controls.  That is, they were more like little computers controlling the precipitator. Instead of a bunch of circuit boards dumbly, but cleverly, doing their job, (how many commas can I use in one sentence?), little brains were added that made decisions and reacted to conditions in a much more dynamic way.

What was interesting was that one day Bill Rivers was describing how technology was going to be in the future.  He said that some day, we will be able to sit in the lab and look on a computer and see what all the controls in the precipitator were doing (this was 1984).  If something isn’t working right, we could just reach over, type a few keys on the computer and adjust the controls.  Drink our sweetened tea (a necessary staple in Oklahoma at the time), and then wait for the next crisis…. Then he would giggle at the look of disbelief on my face.

When he was telling me this, I was thinking in my head…. Well, that would be nice, but this sounds more like a pipe dream to me than reality.  What does an older guy with six kids from a tool and die company in Columbia Missouri (where I grew up, by chance) know about the future of anything….. well…. anything…uh… new age….  If that is what you might call it…  I found out you just don’t really know when you are sitting in front of a true “visionary” with tremendous insight.

Bill Rivers had this incredible knack for telling the future.  In 1984 he was predicting computer controls in the control room where you ran the entire plant from a computer on a desk instead of using the “Big Board”.

I love this picture!

I love this picture! It makes me feel at home!  This was not our plant, but is a Power Plant control room

He said you would be able to call someone on a phone you kept in your pocket or your watch like Dick Tracey.

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

I don’t know what journals Bill was reading or if he just dreamed all this stuff up in his head, or maybe he was a Star Trek Fan that believed that if you can dream it up you can do it.  I do know that he picked up on subtle queues and made great inferences from them that seemed astronomically unlikely.  However, I have to admit that he caught me off guard a number of times with predictions that definitely came true.

I will talk about this more in a future post, but for now I will say that we did upgrade the precipitator to where you could sit in the control room and monitor and adjust the precipitator controls (all 84 on each unit), and even each of the rappers (672 rappers) and vibrators (168 vibrators) on the roof of each precipitator.  With one key on the computer I could send a plume of ash out of the smokestack that looked like the unit had just tripped, and a moment later, clean it up again.  This meant that I could send smoke signals to the Osage Indian tribe 20 miles north up the Arkansas (pronounced “Are Kansas”) river, telling them that the Pow Wow would begin at sunset.

Today, I understand that the “Big Board” at the plant is just a large junction box and the plant is controlled almost (if not) completely by computers sitting on the desk.  Before I left the plant in 2001, this was being transitioned slowly to computer controls.  I have another story to tell some day about this, and how an operator named Jim Cave, a Power Plant Genius and true Power Plant Man of the highest integrity, was snubbed by upper management for speeding this technology along.  — Another example of Power Plant Resistance….

But for now…. back to my electronic days… before I began re-programming the Eeprom chips in the precipitator controls….

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the precipitator controls which I had a very “personal” relationship with…

Bill Rivers confided with me one day that when the new Instrument and Controls department had been formed from the “Results” department that his dream had been to become a part of this team.  It meant the world to him.  It was where he believed he belonged.  It was one of his major goals in life.

There used to be two electrical specialists in the Power Plant.  Sonny Kendrick was not always the only one.  The other specialist was chosen to go to the Instrument and Controls shop. Bill Rivers wanted to move there also.  He definitely had the experience and the knowledge to be a superb instrument and controls person.  But Bill had this one problem.

He loved to joke around.  He loved to pull strings and push buttons.  I have mentioned in a previous posts that Bill would play a new joke on Sonny Kendrick every single day.  As I have unfortunately found out in my own life… this tends to make them…. well….. it tends to make enemies out of those who have a chip on their shoulder.  Those people who naturally feel inadequate in their abilities or their position in life.  To go one step further…. anyone who feels “unloved”….. these people definitely do not like being joked with.  They seem to never forgive you.  My greatest regret in life is joking around with these individuals.

So, when it came time to choose who would be a part of the new Instrument and Controls shop, Bill Rivers was turned down.  It was explained to him that the reason he was not given the job was because he cut off the leads of a resistor when he replaced them.  — I’m not kidding.  Bill Rivers had the habit of cutting off the leads of each resistor, transistor, diode or capacitor that he replaced…. this is why Monty Adams turned down his request for joining the “elite” Instrument and Controls shop (as he told Bill to his face).

Someone had told the Instrument and Controls Supervisor Monty Adams that Bill Rivers cut the leads off of transistors and resistors when he replaced them so that you couldn’t test them to see if they were all right.  Implying that he didn’t want you to know whether he had replaced the transistor or resistor by mistake.

Bill Rivers took several transistors, cut the leads off of each of them and handed them to me and asked me to test them to see if they was still good or if they were bad.  I took out my voltmeter, set it to ohms, and proceeded to test them as Bill Rivers had taught me.  I told him…. this transistor is good….. this one is bad….

You see…. there is no way to cut the leads off of a transistor in such a way to make it impossible to tell if a transistor is good or bad…. In reality…. you cut the leads off of a bad transistor so that the person working on the circuit board knows that this is a bad transistor and doesn’t use it again by accident.  This was electronics 101.

When Bill told me this story, he literally had tears in his eyes. This was because being part of the Instrument and Controls team was part of his dream.  His family and the entire rest of his life was decided the day he was told that he was not going to be a part of a team that he believed was his true lot in life.

I remember his exact words as he sat there in the lab alone and told me this story.  He said, “… and Monty didn’t know… He didn’t know that you cut the leads….  that is standard procedure….”  In Bill’s giggly way, he was crying out loud as he told me this.

From that point on….I knew that the decisions Bill made in his life were driven by that one decision to exclude him from this team.  Unlike many of us that could say to ourselves…. “That is their loss”…. Bill kept this pain in his heart each day…. Every decision from that day further was effected by this event.

I calculated it out one day that I spent 414 hours driving back and forth from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the plant and back each day with Bill Rivers (along with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer and occasionally others that needed a ride),  and over that time,  I became very close to Bill, even to the point of tutoring his son in Algebra (see post:   How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?).

I say this because I know about the pain that inflicted Bill River by a rash decision based on the hearsay of someone that held a grudge.   I know how his entire life was changed and how it ended for Bill Rivers as a power plant employee.  I know that every decision by Bill after this date was made in response to this one decision.  Anyone who experienced Bill after 1983 knows what I am talking about.

I realized that today my own decisions in life help spell out my future.  How some little remark may be misinterpreted, or even properly so.  I realize as I write this post that how I accept or reject these events in my life, determines the future of my family.  After seeing how every event in Bill’s life after that day at the power company was determined by his experience was to his detriment, I am determined not to let the same thing happened to me…..

That is why I have taken on the philosophy in my life that no matter how my actions are misinterpreted, I am determined to remain true to myself.  I know what I mean, and I mean what I say, and I say what I mean, and an Elephant is Faithful 100 %.

From Horton Hatches an Egg

From Horton Hatches an Egg by Dr. Seuss

Power Plant Manhole Mania

It is vitally important that a manhole cover be round.  By just being square or even oval, it could mean death to some unsuspecting electrician.  You see, only a perfectly round manhole cover will never be able to fall down into a manhole.  No matter how hard you try, you just can’t fit a bigger circle through a smaller circle.  An oval or square cover could fall through the hole when turned just right but not a round one.  A typical cast iron manhole can weigh up to 500 pounds.

Here is a manhole cover turned upside down.  Because of the way it is shaped, when you push the cover over the hole, it falls right into place.

Here is a manhole cover turned upside down. Because of the way it is shaped, when you push the cover over the hole, it falls right into place.

Not long after becoming an electrician, and shortly after the Rivers and the Rose story that I mentioned last week, we had a cable really go to ground between the main plant and the coalyard.  The cable that went to ground was called a 500 MCM cable.  What this means is that 500,000 circles of 1 mil (or one milli-inch) in diameter can be put in a circle that is 500 MCM in diameter.  A typical 500 MCM cable is good for a 400 amp load at 6900 volts.

500 MCM cable.  Over 2 inches in diameter.

500 MCM cable. Over 2 inches in diameter.

For large industrial circuits, 3 phases of electricity are used instead of just one like you have in your house.  With three phases of electricity, you have a constant amount of power being applied to the entire circuit at all times.  With a one phase circuit, you have zero power 120 times every second.  So with any “decent” power circuit, you have 3 phases of electricity.

When you add up the voltage of all three phases at one time, you always equal zero because you have the same amount of positive volts with negative volts at any given time.  So, you will find that you always have a constant voltage between all three phases at any given time.

When you add up the difference betweenvoltages of all three phases at one time, you always equal zero because you have the same amount of positive volts with negative volts at any given time. So, you will find that you always have a constant voltage between all three phases at any time.

The cable that went to ground was the coalyard station power cable.  Not only were there three phases of power, but for each phase there were two 500 MCM cables.  That means that this circuit was good for 800 amps of power at 6,900 volts.  Giving you a capacity of  5.5 Megawatts (or 5 million, 500 thousand watts) of power.  These cables were so big that a typical industrial Wire cable chart doesn’t even go this high:

500 MCM cable is also known as 5/0 cable (pronounced 5 aught)

500 MCM cable is also known as 5/0 cable (pronounced 5 aught).  The 445 amps for the 4/0 cable are for only 50 volts.  We had 6900 volts.

In a Coal-fired power plant, you have a redundant system for everything.  So, the coalyard wasn’t completely in the dark.  It had just swapped over to the redundant circuit.  — This always amused me.  In my English and Poetry classes in College I would have points taken off for being “redundant”, but in the power plant this was necessary to keep the plant running at all times.

As I said 15 years later, when I was training operators and electricians to be certified substation switchmen, “I know this is boring, but you have to learn it…” (but that is another story).

So, to make a rather boring lecture shorter, I will skip the part about how we had a hypot from the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department brought in so big that it had to come in a van.  They attached it to the cables to find where the short to ground was located.  I’ll skip the part about how it was decided to replace the faulty cables going to the coalyard 1/2 mile away.  I’ll also skip the part about how Charles Foster was able to finagle the use of Stanley Elmore’s precious blue Mitsubishi mini-tractor to try to pull the cables from one manhole to the next (the first time anyone outside the garage was able to operate his most beloved tractor…..).

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

Oh, and I’ll skip the part about how 1000 feet of this cable cost about $10,000 and we had six cable to replace for a cost of about $320,000 just for the cable…  I’ll also skip the part about how this little tractor was too small to pull the cables through the manholes from manhole to manhole up to the coalyard, so we sent in for the big guns from the T&D department to use their equipment that pulled the cables through the manholes as easy as pulling the wool over Gene Day’s eyes while playing a joke on him.  (Don’t get me wrong…. I know in his heart, Gene Day really appreciated a good joke.  Gene Day is one of the best men I have ever been able to call “Friend”).

Anyway, after this episode was all over it was decided that something needed to be done about how all the manholes from the plant to the coalyard were always full of water.  You see, the manholes were easily deeper than the lake level so water naturally leaked into them.  Each of them had a pump in them that was supposed to keep them dry, but somewhere along the line, in the 5 years the plant had been in operation, each manhole pump had failed at one time or other…  When pumping out the first manhole, it took days, because as you pumped out that first manhole, water would run from one manhole to the other as you actually ended up pumping out all the manholes down to the point where the cables went from one manhole to the other.

So, none other than the “newbie” was appointed as the keeper of the Manhole pumps.  Yep.  That would be me.  So, for the next few months I spent almost all my times pumping out  manholes and repairing all the pumps that had been submerged in water for years.  This was my first real job.

This was my real introduction to becoming a real plant electrician (You can see how I really like using the word “real”).  The most common job of an electrician was to take a motor that had failed or was scheduled to be overhauled and repair it and put it back in place to continue on it’s “tour of duty”.  It’s amazing how you can take a motor that has failed, and you can “rebuild” it and put it back in operation. —  This has come in handy at home as the cooling fan motor on the air conditioner unit on your house goes out every few years.  I have yet to call an air conditioner man to my current house where I have lived for 11 1/2 years.

I remember that Charles Foster had told me that “paperwork” was very important when it came to motors.  A history had to be kept.  Certain steps had to be performed before, during and after repairing a motor.  It had to be meggared properly (see the post from last week to learn more about meggars: Rivers and a Rose of the Power Plant Palace).

So, I asked Ben Davis if he could show me what I needed to do to fix a motor.  His immediate indignant response was, “What?  You don’t know how to fix a motor?”  My response was, “No, I don’t know.  Would you show me?”  Ben, who up to that point had presented himself with displeasure at my presence in the shop, suddenly smiled and said, “Sure!  Let me show you what you need to do!”

Ben showed me all the steps you go through to repair and “document” a motor repair in great detail.  I was glad that I had found that Ben was just putting on a front of disgust at my presence in the Electric shop only to show me at the “proper” time that I had been “misjudging” him as being a grumpy person when he wasn’t really….

I had figured, before this time, that Ben really had a kind heart because I figured that if Diane Lucas and Andy Tubbs, who I both admired greatly considered Ben as a good friend, then he must really be a good guy underneath, even though he was keeping this hidden from me.

I knew the moment he smiled at my response when I told him I really didn’t know anything, that Ben had a kind heart.   He couldn’t hide it any longer.  If I had asked the same thing to OD McGaha, one of the other B Foremen in the shop, for instance, he would have told me to go to hell.  But not Ben.

I have more to tell you about Ben, but I’ll save that for a later post.  For now, I’ll just say that though Ben may not have known it during the time I spent as an electrician, he has always been close to my heart.  I have always had Ben and his family in my daily prayers from the day that he smiled at me and explained to me how to repair a motor.

So, how does a lone newbie electrician pull a 500 pound lid off of a manhole by himself?  Well.  He uses a Manhole cover puller of course.

A Manhole cover puller

A Manhole cover puller

Ok.  Our manhole cover puller wasn’t blue like this, but it had a similar shape.  With a simple tool like this a 500 pound manhole cover could be popped out of the hole and dragged away.  So, I used this tool as my one man crew (myself) went from manhole to manhole, where I pumped each out and lowered a ladder into each hole and disconnecting the drenched motor and brought it back to the shop where I dried it out (using the hot box in the shop that doubled as a heater for lunches), and repaired it and re-installed it.

We had all the manholes in the plant identified.    I painted the numbers on each lid with orange paint.  It was while I was working in the manholes 15 feet below ground that I appreciated the round manhole.  I knew that as long as that manhole cover was round, it couldn’t accidentally be knocked into the hole only to crush me to death below.

Other things were of concern in the manholes where I worked… For instance, many of these holes had been underwater for at least a couple of years, and the entire manhole was covered with a kind of slime.  there were also high voltage cables that had splices in some of the manholes, and I remember Gene Roget telling me that he had seen sparks flying off of some of them when they were hipoting the cables looking for the ground.  The dank smell of the manholes made you think that there were probably some kind of “swamp gases” in there.

Nevertheless, when I grew weary of dragging the heavy shellacked wooden ladder from hole to hole, I devised a way to climb down into the manholes using the drain pipe from the motor.   This was before OSHA had implemented all the confined spaces rules in 1994 that would have prevented me from entering a manhole alone.  I was improvising and taking a risk of falling and hurting myself each time I entered a manhole.

I ran into one of the reasons for not leaving a person in a manhole alone one time when I was working in a manhole near the intake house and another crew drove up and parked their truck near the hole I was working in.  I remember that while I was working there, I suddenly became nauseous.  Not sure why, I climbed out of the hole.

The truck that had been left idling nearby had been emitting toxic fumes that had looked for the lowest place they could settle, and that happened to be in the manhole where I was working.  After that, I always kept an ear out for any motor vehicles nearby when I was in a manhole.

Ten years later, in 1994, OHSA added some new laws to the books that made it mandatory to have a “hole watch” stand outside a hole watching you while you worked in a manhole.  You even had to have a safety harness tied to a safety hoist so that if you passed out while in a manhole the hole watch could pull you out without having to enter the hole.

This is a special hoist designed to lift a person out of a confined space without seriously injuring someone that is caught on obstacles.

This is a special hoist designed to lift a person out of a confined space without seriously injuring someone that is caught on obstacles.

Needless to say.  I got my feet wet as an electrician popping in and out of manholes like the gopher in the arcade that you try to bop on the head.

One interesting story that happened during this time happened when Blake Tucker, who had been a summer help with me in the garage, and then later became a summer help in the electric shop, was sitting with me while we were going to fix a pump in manhole 215 (I believe this is the number of the manhole next to the intake where the fly ash pipes go over the intake).

The hole was full of water, and the pump had naturally tripped the breaker…..  For some reason I decided to go into the intake switchgear and reset the 120 volt breaker to the pump in the Distribution Panel.  When I did.  I returned to the hole where Blake was waiting for me.  I reached down into the hole with my foot and I kicked the drain pipe that rose from the pump and made a 90 degree turn up close to the entrance.

When I kicked the pipe, the motor actually began running.  We could see it 15 feet below us in the clear water running.  It was an open face motor, meaning that it wasn’t sealed and made to be a submersible pump, yet it was running under water.   A year later we decided that it made more sense to replace all the open motors with submersible pumps.

 

vertical pump with an open motor on top

vertical pump with an open motor on top

Submersible Pump made to sit in the water without the water leaking into the motor.  -- That's the idea anyway.

Submersible Pump made to sit in the water without the water leaking into the motor. — That’s the idea anyway.

Blake Tucker and I watched for 1/2 hour as the pump sucked out the water from the manhole.  When the level of the water reached the top of the motor, the outboard fan that had been slowly rotating all of the sudden kicked into high gear and we could see that the pump had been running at full speed all along.

This fascinated me.  I figured the water must have been pure enough not to be too conductive (pure water is a natural insulator…. oddly enough).  We could easily see this pump through 15 feet of water, so it must have been pretty clean.  That was the only time I have ever seen an open motor happily running submersed in water…  It is not something you see every day….. for instance…. It is not every day that you see a janitor with a  Psychology major acting like an electrician sitting beside a manhole staring down into the darkness in a power plant either.  But there you are…