Originally posted on August 18, 2012:
I have just finished watching the movie “Godfather II” with my son. Toward the end of the movie Fredo Corleone and Al are going fishing. There is a scene where the motor boat in the boat house is lowered down into the water. I have seen one boat house like this before where the boat is hoisted out of the water in the boat house so that it can be stored dry while hovering a few feet over the water. The Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked as a summer help had a very similar boat house.
The Power Plant had a boat house because each month during the summer months the chemist had to go to various locations in the lake to take the temperature and a water sample. He would take the water samples back to the chemist lab where they could be analyzed. Each bottle was carefully labeled indicating where in the lake the sample was taken. In order to take the samples out in the middle of the lake…. A motor boat was required. Thus the need for the boat house.
The second summer as a Summer Help (before the boathouse was built) I was asked to go along on this journey with George Dunagan, a new chemist at the time. Larry Riley usually manned the motor, as it was known that the motor for the boat had a tendency to cut out and die at random times and the best person that could be counted on to fix a stranded boat out in the middle of the lake was Larry Riley. I know I always felt safe.
I have seen Larry dismantle part of the motor out in the middle of the lake, clean a fuel filter and put the thing back together again with a minimum number of tools at his disposal. I would sit patiently as the boat rocked back and forth with the waves (Oklahoma winds usually kept a steady flow of waves) waiting for Larry to repair the motor. I didn’t have any fear of missing lunch because Larry was in the boat. So, I would just sit and watch the ducks and other birds fly by or look into the water to see what I could see.
Larry would pull something out of the motor and say, “Well, look at that! No wonder this thing died.” Right on queue. A few minutes later and he would start the boat up again and off we would go speeding across the lake.
During the time I was a summer help, there were various tragic events that took place. One man committed suicide by drowning at the park while his sister and wife waited on the shore to tell whoever was first to arrive. Summer Helps were there, but I was on an errand to Oklahoma City at the time and only heard about it when I returned. He had wrapped himself up in some brush. Evidently, he was in some kind of legal trouble at the time and was expected to show up to serve jail time the following Monday.
Another tragedy which was very sad was when a man was swimming with his son on his shoulders out to the dock that was placed out in the water so that swimmers could swim out to it, when he had a heart attack while his daughter was waiting for them on the shore. When the summer help arrived, the daughter told them that her father and brother just went under the water and never came up. One of the Summer Help, David Foster jumped in and found them both drowned. It was a traumatic experience for him, which I’m sure lives on in his memory to this day. Both the father (which appeared to have had a heart attack) and his son had drowned.
Another man was fishing where the river pumps discharged into the lake. This was a popular place to fish at a certain part of the day. A large man had waded out into the water, and at some point fell over. He could not swim (maybe because he had too much to drink) and was also drowned.
These tragic events were a constant reminder that water sports of all kinds have their dangers. Following Safety rules is very important. I believe that two of those 4 people would have not drowned if they had on a life preserver.
Another more humorous tragedy (depending on how you look at it) occurred not far from the boat ramp at the park located closer to Hwy 177. The story as I heard it was that this stubborn farmer who had become rich when they found oil on his land (and I won’t mention his name, because I don’t remember it. Heck. I can’t even remember his initials, if you can believe that), had bought his first boat. Not knowing much about boating, he wanted to make sure he was well equipped, so he attached the biggest motor he could buy to it.
He lowered it into water at the boat ramp at the park, and turned it around so that it pointed out into the lake. Then he opened it up to full throttle. The nose of the boat proceeded to point straight up in the air, and the boat sank motor first. The man swam over to the shore. Climbed in his truck and drove away. Leaving the boat on the floor of the lake. Now… I figure that someone must have seen this happen, because I’m sure that the person didn’t go around telling everyone that he met what he had done… — That is, until he had a few beers in him… maybe.
I would like to tell you some more about George Dunagan, the chemist that went with us to take the water samples. He looked like the type of person that would make a good Sergeant in the Army. A solid facial structure, and a buzz haircut reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on the Gomer Pyle TV show. Here is a picture of Sergeant Carter and George Dunagan when he was younger:
George was in his mid-40s when I first met him. He was 4 months older than my father. He went about his business as a man that enjoyed his job. Occasionally, something might get under his craw, and he would let you know about it, but you always knew that he was the type of person that was looking out for you, even when you thought you didn’t need it.
I considered George a True Power Plant Chemist. He was a genius in his own field. When I was young and I worked around George, I felt like he was passionate about his job and that he wanted to teach it to others. He would explain to me what the different chemical processes in the Water Treatment were doing. He would take any opportunity to explain things in detail. Some people would think that he was kind of grumpy sometimes, and sometimes they would be right. He cared passionately about things that involved “right” and “wrong”. When he saw something that he considered wrong, he rarely sat still.
I considered George to be a passionate teacher that loved to see others learn. I made it a point to stop and nod my head like I was really listening when he was telling me something because I could see the joy in his face that knowledge was being bestowed upon someone.
As he took the water samples in the lake, he explained to me why he was doing what he was doing. How the EPA required these for so many years to show that the lake was able to cool the power plant steam back to water without disturbing the wildlife that inhabited the lake (that the electric company had created).
At that particular time, they were still taking a baseline of how the water was with just one unit running. Later when both units are running they would see how it held up by comparing the year before when no unit was running, then this year with one, and next year with two units.
I listened intently. Not so much because the topic interested me. I wouldn’t tell George that I was struggling to pay attention because the particulars about how he had to label each sample and put them in order in the box were not as interesting as things that came to my own imagination. I imagined things like… “Wouldn’t it be neat if you could breathe under water?” Or, “If the boat tipped over, and we were in the middle of the lake, would I stay with the boat or try to swim to the shore….” “Was that my stomach rumbling? Am I getting hungry already?” I would put my own imagination aside.
I listened intently, mainly because I could see that George would brighten up to find such an attentive pupil in the boat. I was grinning inside real big to watch George with such a satisfied look. I suppose inside as George was explaining the world of water temperature and bacteria growth, I was thinking, “I wonder if George used to be a Sergeant in the Army.” “Does he teach his own children the same way he does me?”. “I wonder what George did before he came here. Was he a chemist somewhere else?”
At the beginning of this year I began writing this Power plant Man Blog because I felt a great need to capture on paper (well. Virtual paper anyway), some stories about the people I was blessed to work with at the Power Plant. Sonny Karcher, who I considered a good friend had died a couple of months earlier. I needed to write about these men, because if I didn’t, I feared these stories would be lost to the world. These are too great of men to just fade away into history without something being left behind to record at least some memorable events in their lives. 16 days after I wrote my first post this year (on January 18, 2012), George Dunagan died in the Ponca City Medical Center.
One thing I was not surprised to learn about George was that he used to be a teacher. He had a Master Degree in Education and had taught at the Chilocco Indian School for 11 years before going to work at the power plant. This explained why he seemed to go into the “Teacher” mode when he was explaining something.
I also learned that he was in the U.S. Navy where he enlisted in 1954. This didn’t surprise me either. As I mentioned above, George reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on Gomer Pyle, and not in the humorous way, but in the way he carried himself like someone in the military. George Dunagan reached the rank of Master Sergeant in the Army Reserves where he retired in 1994, two years after retiring from the Power Plant life.
The movie Godfather II seemed to be about how one man struggled to build a secure home for his family and fellow countrymen through any means necessary, and about how his son destroyed his own family to the point where he was left completely alone with his family destroyed at the end.
Power Plant Men had their own struggles at home. They were not immune to family strife any more than anyone else. The nature of their work gave them a great sense of dignity and feeling of accomplishment. This sense of dignity helps relieve some stress in the family unit. To realize every day that the work that you perform directly impacts the lives of everyone that receives the electricity being produced at the Power Plant.
When something goes wrong and a base unit trips suddenly, the lights flicker in every school room, every store and every house of 2 million people reminding us that this fragile system is so stable because of the due diligence of True Power Plant Men with the sense to care as much as George Dunagan a True Power Plant Chemist.
Comment from previous repost:
Originally posted January 25, 2013:
When is the appropriate time to call 911? Calling 911 in the Power Plant is when you call the Shift Supervisor to report something important. As Randy Dailey, our Safety Trainer extraordinaire, always taught us, first tap the person on the shoulder and say, “Are you all right?” Then you point your finger at someone and say, “Call 911!” That’s called “Activating the EMS” (Emergency Medical System). Besides medical emergencies, there are other reasons to call the Shift Supervisor.
I learned early on to ‘fess up when you have done something wrong.” People appreciate it when you tell them up front that you goofed. That way the problem can be dealt with directly. Dee Ball was that way. Any time he wrecked a truck, he didn’t hesitate to tell his boss. So, even as a summer help I had developed this philosophy. Never be afraid to expose your blunders. It works out better in the long run.
One example of someone not following this philosophy was Curtis Love. As I mentioned in the post Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement, Curtis didn’t want to tell anyone that he had been bitten by a brown recluse for the third time because he was afraid of losing his job.
His philosophy came back to bite him a year and a half later when he was on the labor crew when he was the designated truck driver. I had moved on to the electric shop by this time.
He was backing up the crew cab around a corner under the Fly Ash hoppers up at the coalyard when the side of the crew cab came into contact with one of those yellow poles designed to protect the structure from rogue vehicles. Unfortunately. This created a dent in the side of the truck.
Curtis, already on probation. worried that he would be fired if he told anyone about this mishap, failed to tell Larry Riley about this incident. Larry, on the other hand, was standing in front of the Coalyard Maintenance shop (the labor crew home), and saw the entire incident. At that moment, he turned to one of the labor crew hands and said, “I hope Curtis comes over here and tells me about that.” Unfortunately, Curtis decided to act as if nothing had happened. This resulted in his termination. As much as I cared about Curtis, I must admit that the Power Plant scene was probably not the best location for his vocation.
I had seen Dee Ball do the same thing over and over again, and he always reported his accidents immediately. He was never punished for an accident, though, for a number of years, he was banned from driving a truck. You can read more about this in the post: Experiencing Maggots, Mud and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball.
One day during the summer of 1984 just after lunch, 1A PA fan tripped (PA stands for Primary Air). When this happened, number one unit had to lower it’s output from over 500 Megawatts down to around 200. The trip indicator on the 6900 volt breaker said that it had been grounded. Being grounded means that one of the three phases of the motor or cable had made a circuit with the ground (or something that was grounded). The trip circuits shut the fan down so fast that it prevents an explosion and saves the fan from being destroyed.
Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), Andy Tubbs and I were given the task of finding the ground and seeing what we could do to fix it. We unwired the motor, which was no easy task, because the motor is about the size of a large van, and about 10 times heavier.
So, we spent the rest of the day unwiring the motor (in the rain), and unwiring the cable to the motor from the breaker in the main switchgear and testing both the motor and the cable with various instruments looking for the grounded wire or coil that caused the motor to trip. We used a large “Megger” on the motor. It’s called a Megger because it measures Mega-Ohms. So, it’s technically called a Mega-Ohm meter. Ohms is a measurement of resistance in an electrical circuit. We usually use a small hand cranked megger, that is similar to an old hand crank telephone that generates a high voltage (good for shocking fish in a lake to make them rise to the surface). In the case of the hand cranked Megger, it would generate 1,000 volts.
The Megger this size would have been useless with this large motor. Instead we used one that was electric, and you ran the voltage up over 10,000 volts and watched the mega-ohms over a period of 1/2 hour or so.
For the cables, we hooked up a Hypot (or Hipot). This stands for High Potential. Potential in this case is another word for “Voltage”. It would charge up and then you pressed a button and it would send a high voltage pulse down the cable, and if there is a weak spot in the insulation,The Hypot will find it. So, we hooked a Hypot up to the cable and tried to find the grounded wire. No luck.
After spending 4 hours looking for the grounded cable or motor, we found nothing. We spent another hour and a half putting the motor and the breaker back in service. The Fan was put back into operation and we went home. As I was walking out to the car with Bill Rivers, he told me, “I knew they weren’t going to find anything wrong with that fan.” He had a big grin on his face.
At first I thought he was just making an educated guess as Rivers was apt to do on many occasions (daily). It was raining and I could see where water may have been sucked into the motor or something and had momentarily grounded the motor. Just because we didn’t find anything didn’t mean that the breaker didn’t trip for no reason.
When we were in the car and on our way to Stillwater, Oklahoma with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer, Bill explained that he knew why the motor tripped. He had been walking through the main switchgear with Mike Rose, and Mike, for no apparent reason other than curiosity, had opened up the bottom door to the breaker for 1A PA fan. He looked at it for a moment and then slammed the door shut. When he did this, the breaker tripped.
So, the ground relay happened to be the one that tripped. It might as well been an over-current or a low voltage trip. It just happened to trip the ground trip. Bill said that he told Mike that he should call the Shift Supervisor and let him know so they could restart the motor. Mike on the other hand told Bill that he was already on probation and was afraid of losing his job if he reported that he had slammed the door on the breaker and tripped the fan.
If there was ever a reason to call 911, it was then. All he had to do was tell them, “I accidentally tripped the PA fan when I bumped the breaker cabinet.” They would have told him to reset the flag, and they would have started the fan right back up. No questions asked… I’m sure of it. And they wouldn’t have lost their generating capacity for the remainder of the afternoon and we wouldn’t have spent 4 hours unwiring, testing and rewiring the motor in the rain with a plastic umbrella over our head.
Bill wasn’t about to tell on Mike. If Mike didn’t want to report it, Bill wasn’t going to say anything, and I understand that. I probably would have kept it to myself at the time if I was in Bill’s shoes (I’m just glad I wasn’t because I probably wouldn’t have been able to sleep soundly for the next year). But 30 years later, I might write about it in a Blog. Even though I wouldn’t have looked to Mike to teach me much about being an electrician (he was more of an Air Condition man anyway), I still loved the guy.
Mike died almost two years ago on May 29, 2011. He was from England and had lived in Canada for a time. He used to work on trains. Trains, even though they are diesel, are really electric. The Diesel engine really runs a generator that generates electricity that runs the train. I know that Mike was a good man at heart. He loved his family with all his heart. Here is a picture of the Limey:
Ok. So I know what you are thinking…. There must be a story about myself in here somewhere. Well, you would be right. First of all. I always ‘fessed up to my mistakes, as my current manager at Dell knows well (yes. I still mess up after all these years). I told my current manager the other day that CLM was my middle name. (CLM means “Career Limiting Move”). So here is my power plant “mess up” story (well one of them):
In January 1986, I returned from my Honeymoon with my new wife Kelly when I found that we had hired a new electrician. Gary Wehunt was replacing Jim Stephenson who had left the plant on February 15, 1985, which is a story all it’s own. We had just started an overhaul on Unit 1.
I remember the first Monday I spent with Gary. It was January 6, 1986 and we were working on cleaning out the exciter house on the end of the main power generator with Diana Brien (formerly Diana Lucas). We were discussing salaries and Gary was surprised to find out that I was making more than he was. Well… I had been an electrician for over 2 years and had been promoted regularly…. so I didn’t think there was anything strange about it, except that I still looked like I was only about 18 years old (even though I was 25) and Gary was about 34. I had already been promoted 4 times and my salary had gone from $7.15 to over $12 an hour.
Anyway, when that first Wednesday rolled around, Since Gary and I were assigned to Substation Inspection that week, (Some later time I may go into the details of what “Substation Inspection” entails), but for now, let’s just stick with my “911 call.” It is enough to say that we were in the main plant substation relay house on Wdnesday January 8, 1986 at 9:00 am. One of our jobs was to call other substations and perform a test called a “Transfer Trip and Carrier Test”. We had called Woodring Substation (Woodring is a town in Oklahoma and we had a 345 KV line going there), and I was talking to the man in the substation on the other end of the phone line.
At the same time I was showing Gary just how experienced I was at being an electrician. People had told me that you had to be a plant electrician for 5 years before you really became a “first class” electrician. Well. Here I was at 2 years, and I thought I was so good that I could do anything by now…. — Yeah… right. I told the guy on the other end of the line as I turned a switch…. Amber light… Back to Blue…. and I wrote down the value on the meter (paperwork… oh yes…. it’s that important. Like A-1 sauce).
Then I reached for the second switch. I said, “Carrier test”, then turned the switch. The lights in the relay house went out and we were in the dark. I told the guy on the other end of the line….. “Well. That’s not supposed to happen.” Then as I let go of the switch and it returned to it’s normal position, the lights turned back on. Okay……
I wrote the numbers down from the meter and said goodbye to the other faceless substation man on the other end of the line that I talked to over 100 times, but never met in person. He sounded like a nice guy. Then I headed for the gray phone. I heard the Shift Supervisor paging Leroy Godfrey (The Electrical Supervisor) on line 2 (we had 5 Gray phone lines. The Gray Phone was our PA system).
When I picked up the line I heard Leroy pick up the phone and the Shift Supervisor tell Leroy that we just lost station power in the main substation and it had switched over to Auxiliary power. I immediately jumped in and said, “Jim (for Jim Padgett, the Shift Supervisor), I did that. I was performing a Carrier test with Woodring and the moment I performed the carrier test the lights went out.” Leroy chimed in by saying, “That wouldn’t cause you to lose station power.”
Well, in my ‘inexperienced’ plant electrician way, I responded, “Well. All I know is that when I turned the switch to perform the carrier test, the lights went out, and when I let go of the switch, the lights came back on.” Leroy reiterated, “That wouldn’t cause you to lose station power.” I replied with, “I’m just saying….” and left it at that. I had done my job. They knew I was out here. They knew I had called 911 right away. I explained what I was doing…. they could take it from there.
I had hoped that I had showed Gary upfront that it doesn’t hurt to report your mistakes (even though I hadn’t made one as far as I could tell), but I was 100% sure I had done something to cause the relay house to lose power. Though, I couldn’t figure out why.
After lunch, Bill Bennett, our A foreman came down to the shop to tell me that they figured out how the substation lost station power. He said that a road grader had been grating the road down by the Otoe-Missouri reservation (which is actually called “Windmill road” I guess because there is a windmill down that road somewhere), and had hit an electric pole and knocked it over and had killed the power to the substation.
It turned out that the substation relay house was fed by a substation down that road where we have a radio tower. So, think about this. The exact time that I turned that switch in the substation, a road grater 2 1/2 miles away hits a telephone pole accidentally and knocks it to the ground and kills the power to the substation at the exact same time that I am performing a transfer-trip and Carrier test with Woodring Substation, and the time it takes to switch to auxiliary power is the exact time it took me to let go of the switch.
Don’t tell me that was by accident. I will never believe it. I think it was for the soul purpose of teaching me a useful lesson or two. First….. don’t be afraid to tell someone when you do something wrong. Second…. If you think you have control over the things that happen to you in your life… well, think again…… Third….. God watches you every moment, and if you let him, he will guide you to do the right thing when the time comes. Oh, and Fourth: “Doesn’t God have a great sense of humor?”
God bless you all.
COMMENTS FROM THE ORIGINAL POST:
Monty Hansen January 26, 2013
I had a similar thing happen to me, I was upgrading to shift foreman & system called to remove a tag in the switchyard & put the switch back to auto. The tag on the pistol grip was attached with a plastic zip tie & the previous operator had put it on real tight, as I was wrestling it off with my leatherman, the pliers slipped & I banged my elbow into the control panel, at that very instant there was a loud BANG as several 345 KV breakers opened simultaneously in the switchyard, I had the phone pinched between my shoulder & ear as I was wrestling with this switch & talking to the system control operator, he said a few bad words – gotta go – & hung up. The power plant lost all power & went in the black, I, of course was just sick in the pit of my stomach, after we got power restored, the plant back on etc. I called system back to see if they found the cause & fess up to causing the trip (I figured I must have caused a trip relay to close when I hit the panel) – anyway a crane at a plant down the road had got it’s boom tangled in the power line & went to ground – AT PRECISELY THE INSTANT MY ELBOW SLIPPED & HIT THE PANEL!!
Plant Electrician January 26, 2013
That’s a Great Story Monty!
Ron Kilman January 26, 2013
Some great illustrations of the truth in Proverbs 28:13 “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion”.
justturnright January 28, 2013
CLM: I can relate.
My first boss 30 years ago once told me he was going to officially nickname me “I’m sorry” (and make me wear it for a name badge) if I said it one more time.
Hey, there’s worse things.
Roomy January 29, 2013
I had not thought about Mike Rose in years. He was a good guy to work with, now Rivers was a different story!!!
Sub checks, I used to love to do sub checks. I performed pilot wire & transfer trip checks for years. I hated it when they went to being done by automation.
Thanks for bringing back old memories.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 many times 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…..).
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 18 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. There is a certain art to this which I describe in detail in this post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Originally Posted on February 15, 2013:
My first job, where I wasn’t working for myself, was when I was 14 years old and I became a dishwasher in a German Restaurant called Rhinelanders in Columbia Missouri. It felt good feeding dishes through the dishwasher, and scrubbing pots and pans because I knew that in the scheme of things I was helping to feed the customers the best German food in a 60 mile radius. Later when I went to work for the Hilton Inn as a dishwasher, I was serving a lot more people as they would host banquets with 100’s of people at one time. After that I went to work for Sirloin Stockade as a dishwasher, busboy and finally a cook. The number of people that would go through that restaurant in one day dwarfed the number of people we would serve at the Hilton Inn.
Nothing prepared me for the massive amount of people whose lives are touched each day by a Power Plant Electrician! Or any Power Plant employee for that matter. Our plant alone could turn the lights on for over one million people in their homes, offices and factories. As a summer help mowing grass and cleaning up the park each week removing dirty diapers and rotting fish innards it never really had the impact that becoming an electrician did.
Part of the routine as an electrician was to do preventative maintenance on equipment to keep things in good working order. We performed substation inspections, emergency backup battery checks. We changed brushes on the generator exciter, performed elevator inspections and checked cathodic protection to make sure it was operational. At certain times of the year we would check out the plant freeze protection to make sure the pipes weren’t going to freeze come winter. I also worked on maintaining the precipitator equipment. All of these things were needed to keep the plant running smoothly, but, though they were each fun in their own way, they didn’t have the impact on me that fixing something that was broken did. (ok. two paragraphs ending in the word “did”… what does that tell you?).
I used to love getting a Maintenance Order that said that something was broken and we needed to go fix it. It may have been a motor that had a bad bearing, or a cooling system that had shutdown, or the Dumper that dumped the coal trains had quit working. One of my “speci-alities” (I know. I misspelled that on purpose), was working on elevators. — I will save my elevator stories for later.
When I was working on something that was broken, I could see more clearly how my job was related to keeping the lights on throughout the area of Oklahoma where our company served the public. Depending on what you were working on, one wrong slip of the screwdriver and “pow”, I could make the lights blink for 3 million people. I will talk more about certain events that happened throughout the years that I worked at the plant where things that happened at the plant were felt throughout our electric grid.
Sometimes even as far away as Chicago and Tennessee. There was a “club” for people that shut a unit down. It was called the “500 Club”. It meant that you tripped the unit when it was generating 500 or more Megawatts of power. I can say that “luckily”, I never was a member of that club.
Ok, so a broken elevator doesn’t directly impact the operation of the plant, but it was, during more than one occasion, a life threatening situation considering that a few times the elevator would pick the most opportune time to stall between 200 and 225 feet up the elevator shaft full of elderly visitors that were touring our flagship Power Plant on their way back down from experiencing the great view of the lake from the top of the boiler. (I know. My college English Professor would have a heyday with that run-on sentence). — actually, that sentence was so long, I think I’ll make it the only sentence in the entire paragraph, — well, except for my comments about it….
Charles Foster, my foreman and best friend, took me up to the top of the boiler soon after I became an electrician and showed me the “Elevator Penthouse”. I know. “Elevator Penthouse”… Sounds like a nice place…. Well. It wasn’t bad after you swept out the dead moths, beetles and crickets that had accumulated since the last Elevator Inspection. It was a noisy room on the top of the elevator shaft where the elevator motor buzzed as it pulled the elevator up and let it down. Stopping on floors where someone had pushed a button.
I told you earlier that my elevator stories will be in a later post, so for this story, I’ll just say that Charles set me down on my tool bucket (which doubled as my portable stool and tripled as my portable trash can), in front of a panel of about 100 relays all picking up and dropping out as the elevator made its way up and down. He told me to study the blueprints that hung on the side of the panel and watch the relays until I understood how it all worked.
So, one afternoon, I sat there for about 4 hours doing nothing but watching relays light up and drop out. On the other side of that panel were the main relays. There were relays there we called “Christmas Tree” relays because they looked like a fir tree. I made some notes on a piece of paper about the sequence that the relays would pick up and drop out that I kept in my wallet.
I used those notes years later (in 2000) when I was writing task lists in SAP (our Enterprise Resource Planning computer system) on how to troubleshoot the elevator controls. Anyway, that was how I learned all about how elevator logic works. You know what? It is just like writing a computer program using computer code. It is basically a set of instructions with rules built-in, only it was done with relays.
Well. Back to helping humanity…. So, usually when we were working on something that was broken there was an operator somewhere that was waiting for the equipment to be repaired so that they could go on with their job. Sometimes the Shift Supervisor would be calling us asking us periodically when we were going to be done because they were running low on coal in the silos and were going to have to lower the load on the units if we didn’t hurry up. It was times like that when you fixed the kill switch on the side of the 10 or 11 conveyor that supply the coal to the plant from the coalyard that you really understood just where you stood with your fellow man.
I am writing about this not because I want to pat myself on the back. Though I often did feel really proud as I returned to the truck with my tool bucket after coming down from a conveyor after fixing something. I would feel like taking a bow, though I was often by myself in situations like that when I wasn’t with my “bucket buddy”. At least the Shift Supervisor and the control room operators were very grateful when you would fix something critical to keeping the plant operating at full steam (and I mean that literally…. The electricity is made by the steam from the boiler that turned the turbine that spun the generator).
No. I am writing about this because it would hit home to me at times like these how much each of us depend on each other. We all know about how important it is to have a police force keeping order and having fire fighters and paramedics on standby to rush to protect families in time of distress. People in jobs like those are as obvious as the soldiers that protect our nation.
I think the majority of us have a much bigger impact on the rest of society than we realize. I think the Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with never gave it much thought. Like the person washing dishes in a restaurant, they didn’t look at themselves as heroes. But they are (I know… Sentence fragment). Each day they moved through an environment where a boiler ghost could reach out and grab them. They distinctively know that they are standing next to a dragon that could wake up at any moment and blast them from the face of the earth, but they don’t let it deter them from the immediate job at hand.
When the boilers were being brought on line for the first time in 1979 and 1980, when you walked through the boiler area, you carried a household straw broom with you that you waved in front of you like someone knocking spider webs out of the way (I called it searching for the boiler ghost). It was explained to me at the time that this was done to detect if there was steam leaking from the pipes. If steam was leaking from some of the pipes, you wouldn’t be able to see it, but if you stepped into the flow of the steam, it could cut you in half before you even realized there was something wrong. When the steam hit the broom, it would knock the broom to the side, and you would know the leak was there. Kind of like the canary in the mine.
I remember one day when everyone was told to leave Unit 1 boiler because during an emergency, the entire boiler was at risk of melting to the ground. If not for the quick action of brave Power Plant Men, this was avoided and the lights in the hospitals in Oklahoma City and the rest of Central Oklahoma didn’t blink once. The dragon had awakened, but was quickly subdued and put back in its place.
I entitled this post “Serving Mankind Power Plant Style”, but isn’t that what we all do? If we aren’t serving Mankind, then why are we here? Today I have a very different job. I work at Dell Inc., the computer company. Our company creates computers for people around the world. We create and sell a computer about once every 2 seconds. At the electric company we had about 3,000 people that served 3 million. At Dell, we provide high quality computers for a price that allows even lower income families to enter the computer age. Computers allow families to connect with each other and expand their lives in ways that were not even conceived of a few years ago.
Even though I spend my days serving my internal customers at Dell, I know that in the big scheme of things along with over 100,000 other employees, I am helping to impact the lives of over a billion people worldwide! I wouldn’t be able to do much if down the road the brave men and women at a Power Plant weren’t keeping the lights on. It is kind of like the idea of “Pay it Forward.”
So, the bottom line of this post is… All life is precious. Whatever we do in this life, in one way or other, impacts the rest of us. We go through life thinking that we live in a much smaller bubble than we really do. The real bubble that we live in is this planet and just like every cell in our body is in some way supported by the other cells, it is that way with us. Don’t discount what you do in life. It may seem insignificant, but the smile you give to someone today will be “paid forward” and will impact every one of us.
Comments from the Original Post:
Far too few understand this, very well said, my friend.
Ron Kilman February 16, 2013
I remember one time at the Seminole Plant when we had a steam leak on a Unit 2 throttle valve. You could hear it (over the roar of the turbine room) but you couldn’t see it (superheated steam is invisible). Martin Louthan and Ralph McDermott found the leak with a “red rag” on the end of a broomstick.
Life is precious, or it’s just another commodity, right? And that’s right down the center of the Left/Right divide…
Abortion debates sit astride that divide; healthcare is now crossing it as government undertakes how much to spend on various age groups.
Another side of it provided the sense of responsibility that led Power Plant Men to sacrifice and risk when those were needed. At one time, those attitudes would have been taken for granted, normal and to be expected… something that comes clear in all the Power Plant stories.
Comments from the Previous Repost:
February 20, 2014
Originally posted on March 9, 2013:
There is one item that all Oklahoma power plant men carry with them almost every day. Whether they are electricians working on a motor, a mechanic pulling a pump, or an operator making his rounds. All of them carry and use this one item. It is so important that, without it, it would be difficult for the maintenance shop to function properly.
This item of course is a rag from the Chief Wiping Cloth Rag Box:
As an electrician, I used rags all the time. Whether I was working on a breaker, doing battery inspection, elevator maintenance or just looking for a clean place to sit my back side, I had to have a rag from the box of Chief Wiping Cloths. Chief Wiping Cloths come from the Oklahoma Waste & Wiping Rag Company in Oklahoma City.
When I was on the labor crew, I was dirty all the time. I was doing coal clean-up, digging ditches, pouring concrete, shoveling bottom ash and wading through fly ash. I had little reason to stay clean or to clean things. My life was full of dirt and grime. I was always dirty, so much so that when I went into the electric shop in 1983 and Bill Bennett was talking to Charles Foster about who should repair the Manhole pump motors, Bill told Charles, “Let Kevin do it. He enjoys getting dirty.”
I didn’t argue with Bill, because, well…. what was the point. But as an electrician, I not only had desired to have a cleaner job, but I also wished to fulfill Jerry Mitchell’s prophesy that “When I become as good as him, I will be able to remain clean even in the face of “Coal Dust and Fly Ash” (See the post A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint). The boxes of rags were my opportunity.
So, when I left to go on a job, I would always grab at least a couple of rags from the box and put them in my tool bucket and at least one hanging out of my back pocket. That way, if I needed to plop down on the ground to unwire a motor too low to sit on my bucket, I could sit on a rag on the coal dust covered ground instead. This helped my goal of remaining as clean as possible.
It’s funny that years later I should miss the boxes of rags that I used to use to do my job. There was more to it than just the rags I used to wipe my hands, battery posts, greasy bearings, breaker parts and my nose. You see, these rags were made from recycled clothes. Yes. They were sterilized for our use, but these were from recycled clothes.
Actually, the Oklahoma Waste and Wiping Rag Company, founded in 1940, was one of the largest purchasers of donated clothing in the country. That meant that many of the rags we used in the rag box were actually worn by someone. Sure, a lot of the rags came from defective clothing from factories, but some of the rags had been clothes actually worn by a person.
As odd as it may sound, while I was grabbing rags from the rag box, I was thinking (at times… it wasn’t like it was an obsession with me), that these rags may have been worn by someone for years before ending up covered with bearing grease by my hand and tossed into a proper Fire protection trash can.
So, anyway….. Thinking about how these rags were possibly once worn by people throughout the United States, I felt that some of the rags had a specific connection to some unknown person somewhere. So, I would actually go through the rag box looking for pieces of rags that I felt had been worn by someone before. You know (or maybe you don’t), rags that had an aura around them like someone had once had a “personal relationship” with them.
I would take these rags and I would “pseudo-dress up” in them. So, if it was a rag made out of a pair of pants, I would tuck it in my belt and I would carry it that way until I needed it. In a weird way (and I know… you are thinking a “really weird” way), I would feel connected to the person that had worn this piece of clothing in the past. I felt as if I was honoring their piece of cloth just one last time before I stained it with coal dust, fly ash, or snot, just one last time.
And in my even weirder way, I would sort of pray for that person, whoever they may be. I would even, kind of, thank them for the use of their old clothes (I know, I stretched the English Language in those last two sentences to meet my unusual need).
I have a picture in my mind of myself standing on the platform of the 6A Forced Draft Fan at Muskogee in the fall of 1984 (one year after becoming an electrician), dressing myself up in pieces of clothing from the rag box, all giddy because I had found enough pieces to make an entire outfit made of half male and half female clothing. Ben Davis, who was on overhaul at Muskogee with me from our plant is shaking his head in disbelief that he had to work with such a goof. Not exactly sure who he has been assigned to work with… — I actually felt sorry for Ben. I knew I was a normal person. The trouble was… I was the only person that knew it (For an explanation about where that phrase originated, see the post “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“).
Levity is healthy. And at times when stress is at its greatest, levity is a way back to sanity. Just today I was invited to a conference call to discuss something that I was working on, and when I was done, I stayed on the line even though I was no longer needed. As I listened, one person on the other end was remarking about how he enjoyed his team so much because they were able to crack up and reduce the stress by being humorous.
A friend of mine, and fellow teammate Don McClure who had invited me to the call was coming up with one “one-liner” after the other. They were “spot-on” and very funny (as he usually is — ok. He’s going to correct me on the “usually” part). But he said one thing that hit home with me. He said that he had been in the Hot-seat so long that he had to put on a pair of Asbestos underwear.
This, of course, made me immediately think of the asbestos gloves we used to wear in the electric shop before Asbestos had been formerly outlawed. We had an old pair of asbestos gloves from Osage Plant ( to find out more about the Osage Plant read about it in the post Pioneers Of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace).
Along with the rags in the rag box, when I used to put on the asbestos gloves I used to think of Howard Chumbley (who died on August 4, 1998 at the age of 70), at the age of 24 working at the Osage Plant, before his hair turned to gray and then to white, wearing these same gloves while he pulled a bearing off of a heater and slapped it onto a motor shaft.
It gave a special meaning to motor repair. Even though Howard retired from plant life in 1985, for years I could put on his old pair of asbestos gloves and feel like I was stepping into his young shoes. I would think… If only I could be a true “Power Plant Man” like Howard…. I love Howard with all my heart, and today, I have never met a better human being than him.
Note that in the picture of Howard’s gravestone it says that he was an EM3 in the Navy. This is an “Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class”. There is no way I was ever going to measure up to Howard. He was a hero to his country and a man of great integrity and humility. If I had saved up all the nice things I had done in my life and done them all on one day, I may have slightly resembled Howard on a regular day. Just like Jim Waller that I had discussed in my last post… Only Men of the greatest integrity measure up to be “True Power Plant Men”.
This made changing the bearings on a motor almost a sacred event to me. I don’t know if the other electricians felt what I felt, but there was something about placing those gloves on my hands that seemed to transform me for a moment into someone noble. I never mentioned it to them (which was odd, because I was usually in the habit of telling them every little crazy thought that entered my head).
I remember at break time one day Margie Belongia (who was a plant janitor at the time) telling me in 1981 when I was a summer help, that she wanted to go to hell because that was where all of her friends would be. I asked her at the time how she was so certain that being in hell guaranteed that she would be able to be with her friends, and she was taken aback by my question. “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I be with my friend?” — I responded, “Suppose in hell you are alone. With no one but yourself.” I think I unnerved her by my response. She said that she had never considered that. She had counted on being with her friends. They had all decided that was the way it was going to be.
At any rate. I kept her thought in my mind. I hope every day that someday I will be able to walk up behind Howard Chumbley (not in hell of course, the other place) and just stand there and listen to him tell stories about when he worked at the old Osage Plant, and how he used to be up to his elbows in oil that contained PCBs and never thought twice about it. Or how he played a harmless joke on someone dear to him, and he would laugh….
Howard was my foreman for only about 5 months before he retired. I remember sitting in the electric shop office for a year and a half during lunch listening to him tell his stories. He would grin like Andy Griffith and laugh in such a genuine way that you knew that his heart was as pure as his manners.
To this day I know that I have never been richer than I was when I was able to sit in the shop and listen to Howard Chumbley pass on his life experience to us. Even years later when I was able to slip on the pair of Asbestos Gloves worn by him years earlier I could feel that I was following in his footsteps. Just the thought of that would make me proud to be an Electrician in a Power Plant.
I used to imagine that the Chief on the Chief rag boxes knew the history of all the pieces of rags in the box. When I moved to Texas in 2001, I used some sturdy Chief rag boxes when I was packing to leave. They are sturdy boxes. Just this past year, we threw away the last Chief rag box that contained Christmas decorations in exchange for plastic tubs. Even though it seems like a little thing. I miss seeing the Chief on those boxes of rags.
Originally Posted on April 12, 2013:
I witnessed a fast approaching Wall Cloud coming south from Tulsa when I was on overhaul at the Muskogee Oklahoma Coal-fired Power Plant the fall 1984. I stood outside of the Unit 6 electric shop looking north watching the darkness approaching at an alarming rate. As it approached I could see debris flying up from the highway a half mile away telling me that we were in for one heck of a wind.
I suppose I was mesmerized because all I did was stand there and stare at it. Maybe I thought, “At least if this blows me away, I can spend my last moments staring down a tornado. I watched as the wind hit the precipitator and stirred up the piles of ash under it and blew it away as if someone was blowing out a birthday candle.
The wall cloud rolled right over the top of me looking like a big steamroller wheel. At the same time the wind hit me knocking me back. I couldn’t breathe because of the dust and I took two steps to the electric shop door and dodged inside. The walls rattled as the wind buffeted the building. All I could think of was, “Cool!”
We found out a few minutes later that 4 miles south of us by the Fort Howard Paper plant a tornado dropped out of the cloud and touched down.
That was only one of many exciting moments at the Muskogee Power Plant. Last week I talked about how there must have been something in the water there that made people think and act a little differently than they otherwise would (See Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant). I said that because of the “interesting” way people thought and acted in Muskogee. This is the story about the day I think I drank some of the water by mistake.
Each morning when I was waiting for the work to start in the electric shop, two electricians, Jay Harris and Richard Moravek had a ritual that they performed before heading off to work on the precipitators for the day. One of them would hum a note, then together they would sing a short jingle that went like this: “Nestles makes the very best…….. Chooooocolate!!!” Richard would whistle as he sang, just like the Nestle’s Rabbit– Every morning without fail.
Both Richard and Jay were soldiers. Jay was a young soldier that knew my brother from the Marine Reserves. He would train with him in the TOW Anti-Tank unit somewhere around Broken Arrow. Richard…. Well… Richard was a Vietnam Veteran that had seen a lot of combat.
Richard had a metal plate in his forehead. He could tap it and you could hear it tink. “Tink, Tink, Tink.” He was a forward observer in Vietnam. They usually had a life expectancy of a couple of weeks. Richard had survived. He was attached to a group of Rangers.
Richard explained to me one time that he used to use a big M60 machine gun like Sylvester Stallone used in the movie Rambo. Only, he couldn’t shoot two of them at a time, and he couldn’t walk forward with it either like Rambo. He could only walk backward because the machine gun would knock you down.
I know that Richard suffered from the effects of Agent Orange and was fighting the cancer it caused at one point in his life. He died in November 6, 2007. He left behind a son named Richard that has commented to me that his dad was “A Great Man.”
If I keep talking about the people that I met while I was at Muskogee, I will never get to the story that I want to tell, because heroes seemed to be all over the place. Another electrician was Ellis Moore, who was in Vietnam while he was in the Army. He was still Shell Shocked from his experience there.
He told me stories about how his unit would be patrolling through the woods, and they would hear some gunfire, and they would just all put their backs to each other and would shoot blindly in all directions.
They were frightened and figured that was the only way they were going to stay alive. Ellis had an odd look on his face when he told me this story. One that told me that he had seen things that were too horrible to bring back into his mind.
This leads me to my story…. It began on a Friday afternoon about 2pm. I was working with Ben Davis, a fellow electrician from our plant in North Central Oklahoma.
I enjoyed working with Ben Davis during the overhaul. Ben was one of the most calm and normal person you could find. He was probably the most sane person in the electric shop. He didn’t care what other people thought about him. When he told you what he thought, you could count on it being the truth.
When I was dressing up in rags, (See the post From Power Plant Rags to Riches), Ben just looked a little concerned that I may have lost my sanity, but that didn’t keep him from treating me with the respect and dignity that I wasn’t even maintaining for myself.
We were working on 6A Forced Draft Fan and we made a measurement with the large Meggar indicating that the insulation might be a little weak somewhere in the motor.
We weren’t sure what the acceptable level of deviation was from the norm, so we decided that we would find Don Spears and ask him. Don was the Electrical Supervisor at Muskogee at the time. He was the splittin’ image of Oklahoma University’s Football Coach Barry Switzer’s bigger brother.
Ben and I talked to John Manning, the Electrical B Foreman, and he agreed that we should talk to Don, and would let him know that we were looking for him when he returned from a meeting he was attending.
We waited around in the Unit 6 electric shop until around 3 o’clock. At 3 o’clock on Friday, we liked to bug out early to head home to our families. At lunch I would go to the trailer down by the river and pack up my stuff in my car and then park it outside the electric shop so that when 3 o’clock rolled around, we could dodge out the door and head for home.
Only this time, we were waiting around for Don to show up. We finally decided…. What the heck…. We can talk to him on Monday. We bolted out the door, and Ben and I headed back toward Stillwater at breakneck speed.
Come Monday morning, I pulled up to the electric shop parking lot, and who do you think was standing there just waiting for me? Yep. Don Spears. With his hands on his hips, and his big Football Coach stance trying his darnedest to look just like Barry Switzer telling his team at half time that they were going to have to do better than that.
I happened to pull up to the shop about the same time that Ben did. Don Spears immediately lit into us. He said, “You left early on Friday didn’t you!!!” I said, “What? Surely not!”
Don replied that he came looking for us around 3:30 and we were no where to be found. He paged us but we didn’t answer. I responded by telling him that we must have been out working on a motor and couldn’t hear him because it was too noisy.
Of course, Don wasn’t going to buy that. He said this Friday he wanted to us to meet him in his office at 4:00. He was going to make sure we didn’t leave early. Ben and I assured him that we would be there.
So, next Friday at lunch Don came down to the shop and said….. “Remember. I want to see you in my office at 4:00 sharp. We both told him that we would be there, come rain or shine.
3 o’clock rolled around and we headed for home… I don’t think I stopped laughing until I was in Tulsa. It is always fun to play an on-going joke with someone. Especially when that someone could pulverize you with one simple punch.
So, you can imagine what I saw when I arrived at the Unit 6 Electric Shop next Monday Morning….
Yep. That was Don. He was standing there with his feet spread apart just like Paul Bunyan. His hands were on his hips and he looked rather mad. He said, “You Did it Again!!! You left early!”
I said, “What do you mean we left early?” He said, “You didn’t come to my office at 4:00!” “Oh, ” I said, “I can’t believe we forgot! Sorry! It must have slipped our mind.”
I know. I was being rotten, but this was just too much fun.
So, here comes next Friday. Same routine. At lunch I drove down to the trailer down by the river (the Arkansas River) and packed up my stuff and parked my car outside the Unit 6 Electric Shop expecting to leave out of there around 3 o’clock
Around 2:30 in the afternoon, Ben and I were working on something in the shop getting ready to clean up and head on home. Don Spears was sitting in the electric shop office in a chair right inside the door where he could look out and watch our every move.
As 3 o’clock rolled by, there was Don Spears with his face plastered to the window in the door not taking his eyes off of us, with a big grin on his face. Ben said something like “it looks like he has us this time.”
So, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands…. I walked in the office and sat down right on Don Spear’s lap. He looked at me totally surprised. I put my arms around his neck and I looked him straight in the eyes…..
Don sat there stunned. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t speak. With the most sincere expression I could muster up, while looking in his eyes as dreamily as I could, I said, “You are just the cutest thing. I can’t hardly STAND it!” (Imagine saying that to Barry Switzer’s bigger brother). Then I stood up and sort of danced out into the shop.
I turned my head just enough to see Don darting out the back door to the office in the other direction. I turned to Ben and said, “Let’s go!” Out we went, and we were on our way home.
Come next Monday morning….. Ok…. I figured…. here it comes…. I drove up to the electric shop parking lot and there was Barry…. I mean Don… smoking a cigarette pacing back and forth in front of the electric shop door. What? No hands on his hips?
As I approached him he said, “I know what you’re up to!” I said in a calm voice with as straight of a face that I could muster… “What do you mean?” He said, “I talked to Bill Bennett (the A Foreman at our plant). He told me that you are just using ‘Psychology’ on me” (by the way, I do have a degree in Psychology).
I replied, “I am? What do you mean?” He said, “You know what I mean.” I looked confused as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. He continued, “Bill told me all about you.” I said something like, “Bill is a great guy.” Then I walked into the shop.
The next Friday…. Don was no where to be seen. The remainder of the overhaul, Don was keeping his distance. I don’t think we caught sight of him the next 4 weeks. It seemed that I had finally spooked him. From that point on, he decided that he didn’t care so much if we bugged out early.
Originally posted June 21, 2013:
Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Thanks to my high school math teacher Robert Burns, I have always admired Archimedes. I remember the day he was talking about him in class, and he was explaining how Archimedes had sat down in the bathtub and when the water overflowed, and he suddenly realized how to calculate the volume of the king’s crown, he jumped out of the tub and ran down the street in his birthday suit yelling “Eureka! Eureka!” Meaning… I have found it! I have found it! I especially remember Mr. Burn’s eyes tearing up as he told this story. To Mr. Burns, mathematics was an adventure. He instilled this love into me.
So, how does a discussion about Archimedes tie into a story about a Gas-fired Power Plant in central Oklahoma? Well it does, or it did, on December 19, 1985.
The day began with my drive from Oklahoma City, where I was staying, to Harrah, Oklahoma where I was on overhaul at a power plant called Horseshoe Lake Plant. The lake must have been named Horseshoe Lake for the obvious reason that it was shaped like a Horseshoe as it wrapped around the north part of the plant.
I suppose this lake was originally used to cool the condenser water once the steam had been used to turn the turbine, but it was much too small to be used by the units that were in operation when I was at the plant. Instead it was a Fish farm where Tilapia were raised.
I wrote about working at this plant on this overhaul in an earlier post called “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“. This morning when I arrived, I figured I would be working in the shop repairing more of the older open-faced motors with their sleeve bearing and cambric insulation. It started out that way.
One time during the morning, Ellis Rook, the electrical Supervisor came up to me and started talking to me about the ROLM phone computer. He knew I had experience working on the Phone system. I had been trained by the best even before I had gone to Muskogee to take a class. Bill Rivers at our plant had taught me how to make “moves and changes” and how to troubleshoot the entire plant’s phone system without ever leaving the lab.
Anyway. Ellis Rook told me about the problem they were having with the phone system that day. He told me what had been done to try to fix the problem. I was thinking of a few things I would try (even though I was still more of a Rookie than Ellis Rook — ok. I couldn’t resist that one). I had been an electrician in training for just over 2 years, which still made me a rookie.
I originally thought Ellis had approached me for ideas on how to fix the problem, so I was formulating some answers in my mind while he was going on… then he said, “What I do every time to fix any problem is just reboot the computer.” — ok. He wasn’t seeking advice. He was seeking approval. So, I looked at him with as blank of a stare I could and just nodded and replied, “Well, that usually does it.” — Nevermind that it took about 25 minutes for one of these old ROLM computers to reboot and during that time all communication with the outside world was cut-off.
This was when I remembered a story that Bob Kennedy had told me about Ellis Rook.
One day, he took another electrician with him to inspect the exciter collector rings on one of the units. The exciter is connected to one end of the generator usually (though if I’m not mistaken, the exciter house was off to one side), and it spins at 3600 rpm. It is not coincidental that this is 60 cycles per second, which is how fast the electricity alternates between positive and negative in your house. This is exactly why the electricity alternates that fast. Because that is how fast the turbine-generator is spinning.
Anyway, Ellis had taken a strobe light with him to go inspect the collector rings on the exciter because there was some indication that a fuse had blown on one of the collectors. Using the strobe light, you could set it to blink at 3600 times per minute and the collector rings spinning at 3600 rpm would appear to stand still.
By slowly adjusting the rate that the strobe light was flashing, you could rotate the shaft slowly and inspect it just as if it was standing still, even though in reality it was still spinning at 3600 rpms (the same speed as the lawn mower in the post: “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“).
After examining the shaft for a bit, they located the blown fuse. When the fuse blew, a little indicator would stick out so it could easily be seen. Ellis Rook slowly rotated the shaft around until the fuse was in a good position and then stopped the shaft from rotating by setting the strobe light to the exact same rate that the shaft was rotating.
Then Ellis said something that would go down in the Annals of History at Horseshoe Lake. He told the electrician to change out the fuse. — Ok. Stop and think about this for a minute. The room where the collector rings are is normally dark, so all they can see is this turbine shaft in front of them and it looked like it was standing still. Forget the roar of the spinning turbine and just chalk it up to a loud fan running.
Luckily the electrician wasn’t lulled into a false sense of security and didn’t put his hand forward to remove the fuse. That would have easily have been the last thing he would have ever done (as a live human being). — There has to be a good murder mystery plot involving a strobe light. I’m sure one of the great writers at WordPress can come up with one. I can think of a couple myself.
Anyway, when Ellis Rook told me how he fixed the telephone computer problems by rebooting the computer, this story flashed through my mind for about 3 seconds. I think I put my hands in my back pocket just for safe keeping.
Anyway. I ate lunch in the electric shop office with my ol’ “Roomie” Steven Trammell, (We have called each other roomie from the time we were in Muskogee on overhaul in 1984. See the post about Muskogee in the link above. To this day, we call each other roomie, as we have kept in touch throughout the years). While I was sitting there arguing with Art Hammond about something (See the post: “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“) I was reading an instruction manual about some electronic sensor that could tell you the percentage open a series of valves all in one little box.
Reggie Deloney had been working with the engineer on this valve detecting device for the past 4 weeks, and couldn’t get it to work. The engineer asked me if I would look at it to see if I could figure out what was wrong with it, because it wasn’t working at all…. It would work every now and then, but then it would stop.
When I read the manual I noticed that there was a “common” in the circuitry and that Reggie and the engineer had assumed that the common was the same as the “ground”. This usually isn’t true in electronic circuits as it is in regular electrical wiring. So, I stood up from where I was lounging back reading the pamphlet and lifted the common wire up so that it wasn’t touching the metal cart, and suddenly the valve indicator worked.
When Reggie returned from lunch, I excitedly told him what I had found. He looked a little astonished, so I showed him. He had only spent the last 4 weeks working on this. So, I went into the shop and worked on another motor.
Later I walked into the office figuring that Reggie had told the good news to the engineer. He was sitting there with the engineer scratching their heads still trying to figure out why the instrument still wasn’t working. So, I picked up the wire so it wasn’t touching the cart, and said. “See? Works.” Reggie with a very irritated voice said, “Yes! You figured it out!” He looked at me with a look that said, “Get out of here!” So, I left.
Art, who was listening said, “I don’t think Reggie is ready to figure it out yet.” Then I got it. Oh. I see… It is nice and cool and clean in the office. The engineer wasn’t going to figure it out on his own…. Just a week or so left of overhaul….
About that time, Bob Kennedy, my acting Foreman told me to go with Bill Thomas and help him out. Bill was from our plant and was a welder. He was working out of our shop to help us out with any mechanical needs we had from welding to uncoupling pumps and fans and realigning motors and any other stuff. Now… I know that Bill Thomas had a nickname. But I usually called people by their real names, so I only remember him as Bill Thomas. Maybe a Power Plant Man reading this post will remind me of Bill’s nickname.
This is where Archimedes comes into the story.
So, Bill Thomas had been working on a cooling water fan structure all morning single-handed lifting it up. It weighed somewhere between 50 to 75 tons. um… yes…. I think that is about it… about 100,000 pounds. yet, Bill using nothing but the muscles in his arms and back had been lifting this monstrosity off of the ground. Like Archimedes who lifted an entire ship out of the water once using a lever.
You see. With True Power Plant Men, you really don’t ever hear that something “can’t” be done. Bill had to work under this large round hunk of metal, so he had to pick it up. After spending two hours lifting it with only his two arms spinning a huge chain-fall, he had managed to lift the structure 2 inches from the ground. — well. No one said anything about tossing it in the air… just lifting it off the ground. He still had about 22 inches more to go.
This was where I came in. Did I tell you this plant was old? Well it was. They didn’t have a lot of electricity in this building we were in, and there wasn’t an electric hoist, so Bill had to pull a chain that went around a pulley that turned a shaft to a gearbox that would slowly (real slowly) lift something huge. So, the Power Plant Men from this plant had created a “tool” to make this job faster.
Bill had pulled an air compressor over to the building and had hooked the air hose up to the special tool.
This was going to make his job much faster. There was only once catch. He needed an extra weight. I was the extra weight that he needed.
You see. The special tool was an air powered grinder.
And it was mounted to a piece of plywood. the grinding wheel had been replaced with a pulley. The idea was to stand on the plywood and step on the lever that operated the grinder so that it would spin the pulley. The chain for the chain-fall would fit through the pulley assembly.
Bill had asked the person that gave him this special tool what happens when the chain snags. They said, that’s when you need the extra weight. They explained to Bill that when two people are standing on the plywood, they will be able to overpower the grinder so that it can’t pull itself out from under them. If there isn’t enough weight on the plywood, then if the chain snags, the special tool will slide across the floor and attempt to climb up to the top of the chain-fall until someone lets off of the lever that operates the grinder.
So. I was the extra weight. Not that I was all that big at the time.
Anyway. The next thing I knew, I was standing on the plywood, and Bill was operating the large grinder with his foot and we were lifting the large cylinder off of the ground. Before long we had it at least a foot up. Bill had put some stops under the cylinder in case we had to set it down for some reason, it wouldn’t have to go all the way to the ground.
That’s when it hit me…. No. I didn’t suddenly remember that I hadn’t had any chocolate for lunch (though, that would have been a tragedy). No. That is when as I was watching the chain spin through the pulley at breakneck speed, the chain suddenly went taut. As the chain became snagged in the chain-fall, the chain whipped up, and before I could perceive what had happened I found myself lifted off of the ground and being thrown backward.
The chain had flown back and slapped me across the face, sending my hardhat flying and shattering my safety glasses. I ended up on my back about 5 feet from where I had been standing. Bill rushed to my side to check if I was all right. I checked myself out and decided that I was going to be all right.
I told him I needed to go get another pair of safety glasses from the tool room. he looked at my eyes and said. “Boy. That is really going to be a shiner tomorrow.” Evidently, I was developing a black eye. I was thinking… “Great! And I’m getting married in two days. I can just see my wedding pictures.” (I can see myself trying to explain to my children in the future that – “No. Your mother didn’t sock me in the eye during the wedding”).
I went to the tool room and checked out a new pair of safety glasses:
When I returned to the electric shop, Bill Thomas and Arthur were there. Everyone was saying the same thing. “Boy! That is sure going to be a shiner tomorrow.”
A little while later, Ellis Rook came in the shop and said that Larry Hatley (the plant manager) wanted to talk to me. So, I followed Ellis to the Plant Manager’s office. Larry asked me if I was ok. He wanted to know if I needed medical attention. I assured him that I was all right. My safety glasses had protected me. They had been destroyed in the process, but I was just fine. I think as I left I heard Larry say under his breath, “boy… that is going to be a shiner tomorrow.”
Well. The next day (December 20, 1985) when I showed up at work (my last day there for overhaul before leaving to be married the following day), everyone came around to look at my eye. There wasn’t anything to see really. Any swelling had gone down over the night, and my face was back to it’s regular… um…. tolerable self.
The people I worked with the fall of 1985 at Horseshoe Power Plant treated me like family while I was there. That was the way it was when you worked with True Power Plant Men. I cherish their memory.
Comment from original post:
Originally Posted July 26, 2013:
I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.
This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.
As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.
At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.
Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.
David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.
During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).
So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.
This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.
Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:
Or even a normal rat like this:
No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:
Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….
Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.
If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.
You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.
So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.
Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.
There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.
There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.
We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.
By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.
I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.
I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.
I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”
That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.
I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.
There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.
I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.
Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.
Comment from previous post:
Don’t let the title fool you. I love testing Power Plant Protective Relays. There is a sense of satisfaction when you have successfully cleaned, calibrated and tested a relay that is going to protect the equipment you have to work on every day. With that said, I was hit with such an unbelievable situation when testing Muskogee Relays in 1995 that I was left with a serious pain in the neck.
On August 14, 2003 the electric power in the Northeast United States and Canada went out. The Blackout lasted long enough to be a major annoyance for those in the that region of the United States.
When I heard about how the blackout had moved across the region, I immediately knew what had happened. I was quickly reminded of the following story. I told my wife Kelly, “I know exactly why such a large area lost power! They hadn’t done proper preventative maintenance on the Protective Relays in the substations! Just like….” Well…. I’ll tell you that part now:
I have mentioned in a couple of earlier posts that something always seemed a little “off” at the Muskogee Power Plant. I had decided early on that while working there I would stick to drinking sodas instead of water. See the post: “Something’s In the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“. Even with that knowledge, I was still shocked at what I found while testing relays at the plant.
This story really begins one Sunday at Muskogee when one of the Auxiliary Operators was making his rounds inspecting equipment. He was driving his truck around the south edge of the Unit 6 parking lot on the service road. He glanced over at a pump next to the road, and at first, he thought he was just seeing things. After stopping the truck and backing up for a second glance, he was sure he wasn’t dreaming. It’s just that what he was seeing seemed so strange, he wasn’t sure what was happening.
The operator could see what appeared to be silver paint chips popping off of the large pump motor in all directions. After closer examination, he figured out that the motor was burning up. It was still running, but it had become so hot that the paint was literally burning off of the motor.
A motor like this would get hot if the bearings shell out. Before the motor is destroyed, the protective relays on the breaker in the 4,000 Volt switchgear shuts the motor off. In this case, the relay hadn’t tripped the motor, so, it had become extremely hot and could have eventually exploded if left running. The operator shut the motor down and wrote a work order for the electricians.
Doyle Fullen was the foreman in the electric shop that received the work order. When he looked into what had happened, he realized that the protective relay had not been inspected for a couple of years for this motor.
I couldn’t find a picture of Doyle. In his youth he reminds me of a very smart Daryl in Walking Dead:
In fact, since before the downsizing in 1994, none of the Protective Relays at the plant had been inspected. The person that had been inspecting the relays for many years had moved to another job or retired in 1994. This was just a warning shot across the bow that could have had major consequences.
No one at Muskogee had been trained to test Protective Relays since the downsizing, so they reached out to our plant in North Central Oklahoma for help. That was when I was told that I was going to be going to Muskogee during the next overhaul (outage). I had been formally trained to inspect, clean, calibrate and test Protective Relays with two of my Power Plant Heroes, Ben Davis and Sonny Kendrick years earlier. See the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“.
Without going into too much detail about the actual tests we performed as I don’t want to make this a long rambling post (like… well…. like most of my posts…..I can already tell this is going to be a long one), I will just say that I took our antiquated relay tester down to Muskogee to inspect their relays and teach another electrician Charles Lay, how to perform those tests in the future. Muskogee had a similar Relay Test Set. These were really outdated, but they did everything we needed, and it helped you understand exactly what was going on when you don’t have a newfangled Relay Test Set.
You need to periodically test both mechanical and electronic protective relays. In the electronic relays the components change their properties slightly over time, changing the time it takes to trip a breaker under a given circumstance (we’re talking about milliseconds). In the mechanical relays (which I have always found to be more reliable), they sit inside a black box all the time, heating up and cooling as the equipment is used. Over time, the varnish on the copper coils evaporates and settles on all the components. This becomes sticky so that the relay won’t operate at the point where it should.
In the picture above, the black boxes on the top, middle and right are mechanical relays. This means that something actually has to turn or pick up in order to trip the equipment. The electronic relays may have a couple of small relays, but for the most part, they are made up of transistors, resistors, capacitors and diodes.
So, with all that said, let me start the real story…. gee…. It’s about time…
So, here I am sitting in the electric shop lab just off of the Unit 6 T-G floor. We set up all the equipment and had taken a couple of OverCurrent relays out of some high voltage breakers in the switchgear. I told Charles that before you actually start testing the relays, you need to have the test documents from the previous test and we also needed the instruction manuals for each of the relays because the manuals will have the diagrams that you use to determine the exact time that the relays should trip for each of the tests. So, we went up to the print room to find the old tests and manuals. Since they weren’t well organized, we just grabbed the entire folder where all the relays tests were kept since Unit 6 had been in operation.
When we began testing the relays at first I thought that the relay test set wasn’t working correctly. Here I was trying to impress my new friend, Charles Lay, a 63 year old highly religious fundamental Christian that I knew what I was doing, and I couldn’t even make a relay trip. I was trying to find the “As Found” tripping level. That is, before you clean up the relay. Just like you found it. Only, it wouldn’t trip.
It turned out that the relay was stuck from the varnish as I explained above. It appeared as if the relay hadn’t been tested or even operated for years. The paperwork showed that it had been tested three years earlier. Protective Relays should be tested at least every two years, but I wouldn’t have thought that the relay would be in such a bad condition in just three years. It had been sitting in a sealed container to keep out dust. But it was what it was.
I told Charles that in order to find the “As Found” point where the relay would trip, we would need to crank up the test set as high as needed to find when it actually did trip. It turned out that the relay which should have instantaneously tripped somewhere around 150 amps wouldn’t have tripped until the motor was pulling over 4,000 amps. I could tell right away why the Auxiliary Operator found that motor burning up without tripping. The protective relays were stuck.
As it turned out… almost all of the 125 or so relays were in the same condition. We cleaned them all up and made them operational.
There is an overcurrent relay for the main bus on each section of a main switchgear.
When I tested the “As Found” instantaneous trip for the main bus relay, I found that it was so high that the Unit 6 Main Turbine Generator would have melted down before the protective relay would have tripped the power to that one section of switchgear. The entire electric bus would have been nothing but molten metal by that time.
As I tested each of these relays, I kept shaking my head in disbelief. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The mystery as to why these relays were all glued shut by varnish was finally solved, and that reason was even more unbelievable.
Here is what I found….. The first thing you do when you are going to test a relay is that you fill out a form that includes all the relay information, such as, what it is for, what are the settings on the relay, and what are the levels of tests that you are going to perform on it. You also include a range of milliseconds that are acceptable for the relay for each of the tests. Normally, you just copy what was used in the previous test, because you need to include the time it took for the Previous “As Left” test on your form. That is why we needed the forms from the previous test.
So, I had copied the information from the previous test form and began testing the relay (one of the first overcurrent relays we tested)… Again… I was a 34 year old teacher trying to impress my 63 year old student. So, I was showing him how you mechanically adjust the relay in order for it to trip within the acceptable range. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t adjust the relay so that it would even be close to the desired range for the longer time trip times…. like the 2 second to 25 second range. It wasn’t even close to the range that was on the form from the last test.
The form from the last test showed that the relay was in the right range for all the levels of test. When I tested it, like I said, it wasn’t even close. So, I went to the diagram in the instruction manual for this type of relay. The diagram looks similar to this one used for thermal overloads:
See all those red lines? Well, when you setup a relay, you have a dial where you set the range depending on the needs for the type of motor you are trying to trip. Each red line represents each setting on the dial. Most of the relays were set on the same number, so we would be using the same red line on the diagram to figure out at different currents how long it should take for a relay to trip….
Here is the clincher….The time range that was written on the previous form wasn’t for the correct relay setting. The person that tested the relay had accidentally looked at the wrong red line. — That in itself is understandable, since it could be easy to get on the wrong line… The only thing is that as soon as you test the relay, you would know that something is wrong, because the relay wouldn’t trip in that range, just like I had found.
I double and triple checked everything to make sure we were looking at the same thing. The previous form indicated the same settings on the relay as now, yet, the time ranges were for a different line! — Ok. I know. I have bored you to tears with all this stuff about time curves and overcurrent trips… so I will just tell you what this means…
This meant that when the person completed the forms the last time, they didn’t test the relays at all. They just filled out the paperwork. They put in random values that were in the acceptable range and sat around in the air conditioned lab during the entire overhaul smoking his pipe. — Actually, I don’t remember if he smoked a pipe or not. He was the Electrical Specialist for the plant. I remembered seeing him sitting in the lab with a relay hooked up to the test set throughout the entire overhaul when I had been there during previous overhauls, but I realized finally that he never tested the relays. He didn’t even go so far as try to operate them.
I went back through the records to when the plant was first “checked out”. Doyle Fullen had done the check out on the relays and the test after that. Doyle had written the correct values from the manual on his forms. I could see where he had actually performed the tests on the relays and was getting the same values I was finding when I tested the relays, so I was certain that I wasn’t overlooking anything.
As I tested each of the relays, I kept shaking my head in disbelief. It was so unbelievable. How could someone do such a thing? Someone could have been killed because a protective relay wasn’t working correctly. This was serious stuff.
One day while Charles and I were working away on the relays, Jack Coffman, the Superintendent of all the Power Plants came walking through the lab. He asked us how we were doing. I swiveled around in my chair to face him and I said, “Pretty good, except for this pain in my neck” as I rubbed the back of my neck.
Jack stopped and asked me what happened. I told him that I had been shaking my head in disbelief for the last two weeks, and it gave me a pain in the neck. Of course, I knew this would get his attention, so he asked, “Why?” I went through all the details of what I had found.
I showed him how since the time that Doyle Fullen last tested the relays more than 10 years earlier, these relays hadn’t been tested at all. I showed him how the main bus relays were so bad that it would take over 100,000 amps to have tripped the 7100 KV switchgear bus or 710 Megawatts! More power than the entire generator could generate. It was only rated at about 550 Megawatts at the most.
Jack stood there looking off into space for a few seconds, and then walked out the door…. I thought I saw him shaking his head as he left. Maybe he was just looking both ways for safety reasons, but to me, it looked like a shake of disbelief. I wonder if I had given him the same pain in the neck.
That is really the end of the relay story, but I do want to say a few words about Charles Lay. He was a hard working electrician that was nearing retirement. People would come around to hear us discussing religion. I am Catholic, and he went to a Fundamental Christian Church. We would debate the differences between our beliefs and just Christian beliefs in general. We respected each other during our time together, even though he was sure I am going to hell when I die.
People would come in just to hear our discussion for a while as we were cleaning and calibrating the relays. One day Charles asked me if I could help him figure out how much he was going to receive from his retirement from the electric company. He had only been working there for three years. Retirement at that time was determined by your years of service. So, three years didn’t give him too much.
When I calculated his amount, he was upset. He said, “Am I going to have to work until I die?” I said, “Well, there’s always your 401k and Social Security.” He replied that he can’t live on Social Security. I said, “Well, there’s your 401k.” He asked, “What’s that?” (oh. not a good sign).
I explained that it was a retirement plan where you are able to put money in taxed deferred until you take it out when you retire. He said, “Oh. I never put anything in something like that.” My heart just sank as I looked in his eyes. He had suddenly realized that he wasn’t going to receive a retirement like those around him who had spent 35 years working in the Power Plant.
When I left the plant after teaching Charles Lay how to test the relays, that was the last time I ever saw him. I don’t know what became of Charles. I figure he would be 83 years old today. I wonder if he finally retired when he reached the 80 points for your age and years of service. He would have never reached enough years of service to receive a decent amount of retirement from the Electric Company since he didn’t start working there until he was 60 years old. That is, unless he’s still working there now.
As I said earlier in this post, Charles Lay was a very good worker. He always struck me as the “Hardworking type”. I often think about the time we spent together, especially when I hear about a power blackout somewhere. — A word of caution to Power Companies…. keep your protective relays in proper working condition. Don’t slack off on the Preventative Maintenance. — I guess that’s true for all of us… isn’t it? Don’t slack off on Preventative Maintenance in all aspects of your life.
Added note: On 7/6/2019, 3 weeks after re-posting this story, look what happened: Con Edison says cause of NYC blackout was substation’s faulty relay protection system