Tag Archives: Motor

Making Power Plant Friends with Motor Alignment

I know I’m getting old when I pick up a small piece of paper and I am suddenly taken back 17 years to the day I pulled the small page from the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. Notepad sitting on the desk in the Electric Shop office.  It was the day that I was finally able to come to the aid of a noble Power Plant Man that the plant generally referred to as “Stick”.

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary McCain, or Stick, is a tall thin Power Plant Man (sort of like a stick) known for his intellect and knowledge of “Machine Language”.  In this case, “Machine Language” refers to the ability to understand how machines work, not how to talk directly to computers using zeroes and ones.

Gary had just walked into the Electric Shop office at the power plant in North Central Oklahoma as lunch was ending.  He was carrying a textbook, which seemed odd right off the bat.  He explained that some of the machinists and mechanics had been sent to motor alignment school and they had been given this textbook in case they wanted to refer back to the material that was covered in the class.

Gary sat down next to me and set the book on the desk opening it to the page he had bookmarked (Yeah.  We used to use books made out of paper, and we put pieces of paper between pages to bookmark the pages we wanted to remember…  Bookmarking wasn’t something new with Internet browsers).

Gary (am I going to start all my paragraphs with the word “Gary”?  Maybe the next paragraph, I’ll just say “That tall guy”) pointed to a formula on the page and asked me if it was possible to use the computer to make calculations that will help him align motors using this formula.

I told that tall guy (Gary) that we could use a program called “Excel” (from Microsoft) that could be used to solve problems just like that.  So, I grabbed the small sheet of paper off of the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. notepad and wrote down the variables for the formula on one side, and the four formulas on the back side.  Here is what I wrote:

Variables for the Motor Alignment formulas

Variables for the Motor Alignment formulas

Oh yeah.  I think I ripped off the corner of the paper to use as a bookmark because I didn’t like the one Gary was using.  It was too small.

Motor Alignment Formulas (or is it Formulae?)

Motor Alignment Formulas (or is it Formulae?)

I guess at this point I should stop and tell you what is meant by “motor alignment” and why machinists and mechanics are interested in this in the first place.

The alignment that is done with a motor is performed when you are putting a pump back in place or some other equipment like a gear box or fan shaft or… well… a lot of things.  You have to make sure that the shaft on the motor is perfectly aligned with the pump otherwise it will quickly tear something up when you turn it on.

motor coupled to a compressor

motor coupled to a compressor

This picture shows how the motor is aligned up with the compressor so that the red coupling lines up perfectly.  Once it is aligned the coupling can be bolted together to connect the motor to the pump.

Notice that the motor has bolts to mount it to the skid in the front and the back on both sides, as well as the pump.  These are called “Feet”.  Usually when you put the pump and the motor back in place, they don’t line up perfectly, so thin pieces of brass called “shims” are used to raise the various feet just the right amount so that the shaft on the motor and shaft on the pump are looking right at each other.

A special piece of equipment is used to check the alignment.  It is called a “Dial Caliper” and it is mounted to the coupling on the motor and the pump with a magnet and it tests the alignment as it is rotated around.

A mounted dial caliper used to measure the alignment of the motor

A mounted dial caliper used to measure the alignment of the motor

I’m sorry if I’m boring those of you who don’t immediately see the beauty of Motor Alignment.  Try pretending that the dial caliper is something invented by ancient aliens if you need to make this part of the post more interesting (actually, who needs ancient aliens when you have machinists?).

Gary told me that the company was looking into buying laser guided motor alignment machines for only $30,000 a piece.  They would probably buy three of them that could be used between the four main plants.  He said that he didn’t think we needed them if we could use these formulas to calculate exactly how to align the motors.  This would save the company around $90,000 and at the same time show the mechanics the “joy of math”!

So, I made some notes on another page which simplified, (or maybe complicated) the formulas further.  Then I sat down at the computer and began putting them into Excel.  The idea was to have the person doing the motor alignment take some notes, then go to the computer and enter them into the Excel sheet and it would tell them right away how many shims to put under any of the 8 feet (four on the motor and four on the pump).

Here are the notes I made:

Notes made to calculate the motor alignment

Notes made to calculate the motor alignment

If you are Jesse Cheng (or some other old time calculator geek), you can see what I was doing with my notes.  I was thinking of the next steps… which I’ll explain below…. (oh… ok… I’ll tell you… this is the code that you would use if you were creating a program for a Casio calculator).

After creating the spreadsheet, Gary headed out the door to go start aligning a motor using our newfangled motor alignment method.  A little while later he came back into the shop and pulling out his handy dandy notepad he read off the notes he had taken while he put the values into Excel…  When he was finished, he wrote down the results and headed back out the door to add the proper shims to the motor and the pump.

A notepad like this

Handy Dandy Power Plant Notepad

We had to tweak the program a little to work out the bugs, but after a couple of tries it worked very well and Gary was pleased.  Only, there was one problem with this method…  Over the next couple of weeks, Gary would come bursting into the electric shop office interrupting me and Charles Foster while we were having a deep discussion about the virtues of banana peppers on ham sandwiches.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

So, I suggested to Gary that we could use a calculator to do the same thing that we were doing with the spreadsheet.  That way he wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to the computer.  Instead, he could just stand there at the motor and enter the information and have it display the answers that he was seeking.

Right off the bat (hmm… the second time I have used that “cliche”…. I need to read more often), Gary didn’t understand how a calculator could do this.  So, I explained to him that some calculators are programmable and I can write a program on the calculator that would do just that.  I said, “Let me show you”….. After all, I had grown up in Missouri (the Show Me State)…  So, I took my calculator off of the top of the filing cabinet and placed it on the table.

My Sharp Calculator with the Thermal printer connecting to a tape recorder

My Sharp Calculator with the Thermal printer connecting to a tape recorder

I used the thermal printer to connect the calculator to the tape recorder to store my programs, so I didn’t have to enter them manually after I entered them once.

I took my notes and wrote the following program and entered it into the calculator.

The short quick version of the calculator program

The short quick version of the calculator program

I gave the calculator to Gary and showed him how to run the program and sent him to try it out for himself.  He was very excited about this and offered some suggestions to make the program easier to use.

A few days later Gary caught me walking across the maintenance shop and showed me a catalog with various calculators for sale.  He said he wanted to buy some calculators for the shop so that every person that had been trained to align motors had a calculator with a program on it.  I showed him a Casio calculator that would work for about $70.  So, he ordered a better one.

A Casio CFX-9850G

Gary ordered the Casio CFX-9850G

Even though the language for programming it was different than the Sharp calculator, it didn’t take long for me to write a program for it that did the same thing since I had sort of already written it by that time.  After Gary proved to his foreman that the calculator worked, he ordered several more and when they arrived he asked me if I could program them as well.

It took almost a half hour just to type the program into each calculator, so I bought a small pigtail that connected two calculators together.  This allowed me to copy the program from one calculator to another one.  So, when Gary arrived one day with a box of over 20 calculators for the rest of the plants, it took me longer to open the packages than it did to copy the program from one calculator to the next.

The pigtail I used to connect the calculators

The pigtail I used to connect the calculators

Since the calculator was a graphic calculator, I thought about improving the program by drawing a little picture of a motor shaft and a pump shaft and showing how they were out of alignment after the information was entered, but I never took the time to do that as I was on to another computer project by that time (which I will write about later).

So, think about this.  The company was willing to buy $90,000 worth of laser-guided motor alignment equipment to do something that machinists and mechanics already knew how to do.  The specialized equipment would work, and it might have been faster I suppose.  With the aid of a programmable calculator, however, a mechanic can stand at the motor, takes a few measurements and come up with the same results probably just as fast as the laser-guided motor alignment gizmo could do it.

Either way, the mechanic still had to install the same number of shims under the same feet whether they used the calculator and the dial caliper or the laser beam.  The 26 or so calculators that were purchased for the four plants came up to less than $2,000, which is a savings of $88,000.  I don’t think the laser would have saved that much time.  It still had to be carried over to the motor and plugged in and mounted on the motor.  My guess is that as soon as the laser was dropped on the floor accidentally, it would have been broken anyway.

The best part of this little project was that I was able to help out a True Power Plant Man Gary McCain, that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to help much before.  Gary didn’t need much help as he is one of those Power Plant Men that people seek out when they need advice. So, when he came to me and asked for help with the computer, I was more than glad to do what I could to help him.

Sometimes it is a little difficult for my wife to understand why I keep scraps of paper laying around that have meaningless scribbles on them.  One might be a doodle that some friend of mine created one day while talking on the phone.  Another might be a fortune from a cookie that I opened when I was eating lunch with a coworker.  Today the piece of paper I picked up happened to have a mathematical formula written on the back.

I think my son understands now that when I seem to be picking up trash off of the table and a tear comes to my eye, it isn’t because I have just picked up something rotten, but because I have just been transported back in time to place where I am with some people that I love.  It doesn’t stop him from saying, “Dad?  It’s just a piece of paper.  Geez!”  Well… I know I’m getting old… but that scrap of paper is poetry to me.

What Coal-Fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery

Power Plant Men working for a large Coal-Fired Power Plant have the kind of culture where Cleanliness is next to “Leroy Godfrey-ness”.  If you knew Leroy Godfrey, then you would know that he was a perfectionist in a lot of ways.  Or… Well, he expected the Plant Electricians to be anyway.  A few years after becoming an electrician, there was some work being done by Ben Davis, one of our best electricians, at the Conoco (Continental) Oil Refinery twenty miles north of the plant in Ponca City.

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery in Ponca City

Being a low level Electrician Apprentice, I was not included in whatever was happening at the Refinery.  I didn’t work at the refinery for many years.  When I finally did go to Conoco, I wished I hadn’t.

What was happening?  A Co-Generation plant was being built there.  It is called a “Co-Generation” plant because it serves two purposes.  Waste gas from the refinery is used to fire the boiler that produces the steam to turn the turbine.  Any steam left over is sent over to the refinery to supplement their own needs.  The electricity is used by the refinery and any left over electricity is sold by the Electric Company for a profit.  So, in a sense, it is a “Co-Existence”.

For the most part, Power Plant Men were looking for opportunities to get in a company truck and leave the plant grounds to work on something outside the confines of the plant where they work every day, week in and week out.  Trips to the river pumps or the parks on our lake were always nice, because you would see wildlife along the way.  You could look out over the Arkansas River in the morning as the sun was rising and feel the cool breeze and smell the pastures nearby.

Trips to Enid to our small peaking units were fun too, because we were able to work on some different equipment out in a quiet substation where mud daubers were the only sound until the units came online.  The drive to Enid was nice because the 45 mile trip across the countryside is pleasant and the traffic is very light.  You can go for miles without seeing another car.

After only a couple of visits to the Conoco Oil Refinery, I never looked forward to the 20 minute drive from the plant when we had to work on the Co-Generation Plant co-owned by our company and the Oil Refinery.  There were a few things about the refinery that bothered me about working there.  One annoying factor was the hideous smell.

I had lived in Ponca City for three years and the sour odor that poured out of the Oil Refinery to the south of our house generally blew right up our street.  One winter morning I remember stepping out of our rental house into the dark on my way to work, and the exhaust from the oil refinery must have been blowing directly down the street to our house where I lived because when I took a breath I gagged immediately and was at the point of vomiting on the front lawn.

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma in 1986-89 with about 600 sq. ft. of living space

A side note…

My wife and I lived in this tiny house shortly after we were married.  Kelly was an RN (nurse) at the local hospital working the night shift while I was an electrician at the Power Plant during the day.  I had the philosophy that if we started by living in a dump and saved our money, then as we gradually worked our way up to a bigger house, we would feel as if life was getting better, and we never had to worry about money, since we always lived well below our means.

I figured that if we lived far below our means, our means would keep growing.  Living just below your means meant always staying in the same economic spot (how many sentences can I put the words “means” and “meant” right next to each other?).  The quality of Life doesn’t get much better.  When living well below your means, life continues to get better even if your job stays the same your entire life.  I had figured that I was going to be a plant electrician until the day I retired, so, this was my way of planning ahead.

My wife endured living in this tiny house one block away from the railroad tracks traveled by the coal trains on their way to our plant (which shook our house as they passed) for three years before we moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma where we lived with more than twice the square feet and no smell from the oil refinery.

end of side note…

I started out by saying that the culture at our Power Plant was that Cleanliness was very important.  I suppose this was true at the Oil Refinery as well, only, it seemed that even though the clutter was all picked up, there was something “inherently” dirty about the oil refinery.  I’m not sure how to describe it, but you just felt like you didn’t want to touch anything because it was going to leave some sort of dirty film on you.  It was….. grimy (one could say… oily… well… it was an oil refinery).

Our Power Plant is in North Central Oklahoma, and during the summer going for an entire month with over 100 degree weather every day was not uncommon.  There are parts of the plant where you had to work some times where the temperature reached 160 degrees.  Of course, you can’t stay in that environment very long, and those areas are generally not the areas of choice when choosing which job to work on next.

One hot summer day in 1996, Charles Foster and I had to go to the oil refinery to our Co-Generation plant to fix an Air Conditioner Condenser Fan Motor.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

This isn’t like one of those fans on the side of your house in the box that you know as your “air conditioner” that blows hot air out when the air conditioner in your house is running, though it performs the same task, only on a much bigger scale.

A large air conditioner about the size of the one that Mike Rose worked on

No.  Even bigger than this air conditioner

When you entered the oil refinery you had to wear a long blue cloak or coat called “Nomex” (pronounced “No Mex”).

A Blue Nomex Coat

A Blue Nomex Coat  which can be worn by Mexicans.  That rumor is just not true.

The reason for wearing this heavy “woolen” coat was to help save your life in case you happened to be around the next time (next time?) something exploded, blasting flames in your direction.  — Yeah…. comforting huh?  Knowing that this flame retardant coat was going to keep you from being burned alive when something exploded in the refinery.  Oh joy.

Everyone in the refinery was wearing these blue coats.  It was a requirement before you could drive your pickup through the security gate.

Once inside the gate, Charles and I checked our clearances to make sure it was safe to work on unwiring the motor that was mounted under the air conditioner coils.  Another fan was running that was turning a large fan blade blowing hot air down next to us.  We had brought our own fans to blow cooler air on us while we worked on the motor.  This particular motor weighed about 400 lbs, to give you an idea of the size of motor we were repairing.

A motor much like this one

A motor much like this one only mounted vertically

Charles and I had brought a temperature gun to check how hot everything was when we were working.

An Infrared Thermometer

An Infrared Thermometer

When we checked the temperature, we found that the area where we had to stand was 160 degrees.  The motor itself was even hotter than that.  We had to wear leather gloves just to work on it without burning our hands.  Asbestos gloves would have rendered us useless because they make you feel like you are wearing “Hulk Hands” where your fingers are about 2 inches wide.

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

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

See what I mean?

Hulk Hands

Hulk Hands

The air was too hot to breathe except for quick shallow breaths.  Even though we had a fan blowing directly on us, we took turns approaching the motor, turning some bolts a couple of times, and then quickly moving out of the area to where we could be in the cooler 105 degree temperature.

There is nothing like a mild irritation (such as working in extreme heat) to motivate you to hurry up a job.  Charles and I worked diligently to remove the motor and then lowered it down with a platform hand lift that we kept in the shop.

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used only ours had a hydraulic lift on it.  This one has a hand crank.

This fan motor was on the roof of a building, so once we had removed the motor from where it was mounted, we still had to lower it down to the back of the truck which was backed up to the side of the building.  Once in the truck, we brought it back to the plant where we could work on it.

When you first went to work in the oil refinery you had to take a specially designed safety course when you are issued your Nomex coat.  During that class, you are told that if you hear the sirens go off, that generally means that there are some toxic gases being released accidentally in the plant, you are supposed to take action quickly.

The funniest (or not so funniest) instructions was that when the sirens go off, you are supposed to run in the opposite direction away from the sirens.  Which sort of reminds me of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when they had to run away from the viscous fighting rabbit. Yelling “Run Away!  Run Away!”  Great safety evacuation plan.  — Plan of action:  “Run!!!”

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

The toxic gas that everyone was worried about is called Hydrogen Sulfide or H2S.  This is the gas that smells like rotten eggs.  The only problem is that when there is more than the minimal amount of H2S in the air, you can’t smell it anymore because it quickly deadens your sense of smell.

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Another fun reason to not want to go work in the Oil Refinery.

Anyway, Charles and I safely reversed the process to return the motor to its rightful place mounted on the bottom of the coils on the roof.

A few times I had to go to work at the Co-Generation plant because something was broken (like the fan motor), but most of the time that we went to the plant was to do our quarterly battery inspections.  For more information about battery inspections, you can read this post: “Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance“.

I have told you all the reasons why I didn’t enjoy working at the Oil Refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  There were reasons why I did enjoy it.  I suppose if you have been reading my posts, you will know the most obvious answer to that question (oh.  I guess I didn’t really ask a question… but if I had…).  The only redeeming factor with working at the Co-Generation plant at the oil refinery was being able to work with the best Power Plant Men and Women in the country.

I have given you an example above when I worked with Charles Foster.  I also worked with Scott Hubbard and Diana Brien.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Both of them top class electricians and First Class Friends.  Just to be able to work side-by-side with such terrific people made me forget about the poison gases.  I didn’t mind the heat.  I even forgot I was wearing the heavy suffocating Nomex Coat.  What’s a little grime when your friend tells you about their day?  About what they are planning for the weekend?  Or the rest of their life?

Actually, I think that’s what made everything about working both at the Oil Refinery and the Power Plant itself the most enjoyable job I can imagine.  Sure.  We had a culture of “cleanliness” at the plant but I think it was the culture of “friendliness” that really made all the difference.  It was also the most painful part the day I finally left the Power Plant to adventure out to find the rest of the world in 2001.

Life and Death on the Power Plant Lake

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 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.

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

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him

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.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

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 and 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 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:

Sergeant Carter

George Dunagan

Or does he look more like Glenn Ford?

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.

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:

  1. Monty Hansen November 3, 2014

    Your story about George brought back warm memories of my own plant chemist, from long ago. “Chet Malewski”, a brilliant man in his own field, very kind, with a love of teaching and I was happy to soak up any knowledge he was willing to pass on. I took Chet fishing once & we spent the day in my boat. I find it amazing how much our powerplant lives have paralelled. Chet resembled Albert Einstein in appearance.

What Coal-Fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery

Power Plant Men working for a large Coal-Fired Power Plant have the kind of culture where Cleanliness is next to “Leroy Godfrey-ness”.  If you knew Leroy Godfrey, then you would know that he was a perfectionist in a lot of ways.  Or… Well, he expected the Plant Electricians to be anyway.  A few years after becoming an electrician, there was some work being done by Ben Davis, one of our best electricians, at the Conoco (Continental) Oil Refinery twenty miles north of the plant in Ponca City.

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery in Ponca City

Being a low level Electrician Apprentice, I was not included in whatever was happening at the Refinery.  I didn’t work at the refinery for many years.  When I finally did go to Conoco, I wished I hadn’t.

What was happening?  A Co-Generation plant was being built there.  It is called a “Co-Generation” plant because it serves two purposes.  Waste gas from the refinery is used to fire the boiler that produces the steam to turn the turbine.  Any steam left over is sent over to the refinery to supplement their own needs.  The electricity is used by the refinery and any left over electricity is sold by the Electric Company for a profit.  So, in a sense, it is a “Co-Existence”.

For the most part, Power Plant Men were looking for opportunities to get in a company truck and leave the plant grounds to work on something outside the confines of the plant where they work every day, week in and week out.  Trips to the river pumps or the parks on our lake were always nice, because you would see wildlife along the way.  You could look out over the Arkansas River in the morning as the sun was rising and feel the cool breeze and smell the pastures nearby.

Trips to Enid to our small peaking units were fun too, because we were able to work on some different equipment out in a quiet substation where mud daubers were the only sound until the units came online.  The drive to Enid was nice because the 45 mile trip across the countryside is pleasant and the traffic is very light.  You can go for miles without seeing another car.

After only a couple of visits to the Conoco Oil Refinery, I never looked forward to the 20 minute drive from the plant when we had to work on the Co-Generation Plant co-owned by our company and the Oil Refinery.  There were a few things about the refinery that bothered me about working there.  One annoying factor was the hideous smell.

I had lived in Ponca City for three years and the sour odor that poured out of the Oil Refinery to the south of our house generally blew right up our street.  One winter morning I remember stepping out of our rental house into the dark on my way to work, and the exhaust from the oil refinery must have been blowing directly down the street to our house where I lived because when I took a breath I gagged immediately and was at the point of vomiting on the front lawn.

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma in 1986-89 with about 600 sq. ft. of living space

A side note…

My wife and I lived in this tiny house shortly after we were married.  Kelly was an RN (nurse) at the local hospital working the night shift while I was an electrician at the Power Plant during the day.  I had the philosophy that if we started by living in a dump and saved our money, then as we gradually worked our way up to a bigger house, we would feel as if life was getting better, and we never had to worry about money, since we always lived well below our means.

I figured that if we lived far below our means, our means would keep growing.  Living just below your means meant always staying in the same economic spot (how many sentences can put the words “means” and “meant” right next to each other?).  The quality of Life doesn’t get much better.  When living well below your means, life continues to get better even if your job stays the same your entire life.  I had figured that I was going to be a plant electrician until the day I retired, so, this was my way of planning ahead.

My wife endured living in this tiny house one block away from the railroad tracks traveled by the coal trains on their way to our plant (which shook our house as they passed) for three years before we moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma where we lived with more than twice the square feet and no smell from the oil refinery.

end of side note…

I started out by saying that the culture at our Power Plant was that Cleanliness was very important.  I suppose this was true at the Oil Refinery as well, only, it seemed that even though the clutter was all picked up, there was something “inherently” dirty about the oil refinery.  I’m not sure how to describe it, but you just felt like you didn’t want to touch anything because it was going to leave some sort of dirty film on you.  It was….. grimy.

Our Power Plant is in North Central Oklahoma, and during the summer going for an entire month with over 100 degree weather every day was not uncommon.  There are parts of the plant where you had to work some times where the temperature reached 160 degrees.  Of course, you can’t stay in that environment very long, and those areas are generally not the areas of choice when choosing which job to work on next.

One hot summer day in 1996, Charles Foster and I had to go to the oil refinery to our Co-Generation plant there to fix an Air Conditioner Condenser Fan Motor.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

This isn’t like one of those fans on the side of your house in the box that you know as your “air conditioner” that blows hot air out when the air conditioner in your house is running, though it performs the same task, only on a much bigger scale.

A large air conditioner about the size of the one that Mike Rose worked on

No.  Even bigger than this air conditioner

When you entered the oil refinery you had to wear a long blue cloak or coat called “Nomex”.

A Blue Nomex Coat

A Blue Nomex Coat  which can be worn by Mexicans.  That rumor is just not true.

The reason for wearing this heavy “woolen” coat was to help save your life in case you happened to be around the next time (next time?) something exploded, blasting flames in your direction.  — Yeah…. comforting huh?  Knowing that this flame retardant coat was going to keep you from being burned alive when something exploded in the refinery.  Oh joy.

Everyone in the refinery was wearing these blue coats.  It was a requirement before you could drive your pickup through the security gate.

Once inside the gate, Charles and I checked our clearances to make sure it was safe to work on unwiring the motor that was mounted under the air conditioner coils.  Another fan was running that was turning a large fan blade blowing hot air down next to us.  We had brought our own fans to blow cooler air on us while we worked on the motor.  This particular motor weighed about 400 lbs, to give you an idea of the size of motor we were repairing.

A motor much like this one

A motor much like this one only mounted vertically

Charles and I had brought a temperature gun to check how hot everything was when we were working.

An Infrared Thermometer

An Infrared Thermometer

When we checked the temperature, we found that the area where we had to stand was 160 degrees.  The motor itself was even hotter than that.  We had to wear leather gloves just to work on it without burning our hands.  Asbestos gloves would have rendered us useless because they make you feel like you are wearing “Hulk Hands” where your fingers are about 2 inches wide.

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

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

See what I mean?

Hulk Hands

Hulk Hands

The air was too hot to breathe except for quick shallow breaths.  Even though we had a fan blowing directly on us, we took turns approaching the motor, turning some bolts a couple of times, and then quickly moving out of the area to where we could be in the cooler 105 degree temperature.

There is nothing like a mild irritation (such as working in extreme heat) to motivate you to hurry up a job.  Charles and I worked diligently to remove the motor and then lowering it down with a platform hand lift that we kept in the shop.

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used only ours had a hydraulic lift on it.

This fan motor was on the roof of a building, so once we had removed the motor from where it was mounted, we still had to lower it down to the back of the truck which was backed up to the side of the building.  Once in the truck, we brought it back to the plant where we could work on it.

When you first went to work in the oil refinery you have to take a specially designed safety course when you are issued your Nomex coat.  During that class, you are told that if you hear the sirens go off, that generally means that there are some toxic gases being released accidentally in the plant, you are supposed to take action quickly.

The funniest (or not so funniest) instructions was that when the sirens go off, you are supposed to run in the opposite direction away from the sirens.  Which sort of reminds me of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when they had to run away from the viscous fighting rabbit. Yelling “Run Away!  Run Away!”  Great safety evacuation plan.

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

The toxic gas that everyone was worried about is called Hydrogen Sulfide or H2S.  This is the gas that smells like rotten eggs.  The only problem is that when there is more than the minimal amount of H2S in the air, you can’t smell it anymore because it quickly deadens your sense of smell.

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Another fun reason to not want to go work in the Oil Refinery.

Anyway, Charles and I safely reversed the process to return the motor to its rightful place mounted on the bottom of the coils on the roof.

A few times I had to go to work at the Co-Generation plant because something was broken (like the fan motor), but most of the time that we went to the plant was to do our quarterly battery inspections.  For more information about battery inspections, you can read this post: “Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance“.

I have told you all the reasons why I didn’t enjoy working at the Oil Refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  There were reasons why I did enjoy it.  I suppose if you have been reading my posts, you will know the most obvious answer to that question (oh.  I guess I didn’t really ask a question… but if I had…).  The only redeeming factor with working at the Co-Generation plant at the oil refinery was being able to work with the best Power Plant Men and Women in the country.

I have given you an example above when I worked with Charles Foster.  I also worked with Scott Hubbard and Diana Brien.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Both of them top class electricians and First Class Friends.  Just to be able to work side-by-side with such terrific people made me forget about the poison gases.  I didn’t mind the heat.  I even forgot I was wearing the heavy suffocating Nomex Coat.  What’s a little grime when your friend tells you about their day?  About what they are planning for the weekend?  Or the rest of their life?

Actually, I think that’s what made everything about working both at the Oil Refinery and the Power Plant itself the most enjoyable job I can imagine.  Sure.  We had a culture of “cleanliness” at the plant.  I think it was the “friendliness” that really made all the difference.  It was also the most painful part the day I finally left the Power Plant to adventure out to find the rest of the world in 2001.

Not a Fan of French Power Plant Fan Filters

Originally posted August 2, 2013:

I had only been an electrician a couple of months before I heard about Power Plant Louvers. My first thought was that this was a mispronunciation of the word “Louvre”. I remembered how Marland McDaniel would pronounce the word “Italian”. He pronounced it “It-lee-un”. The first time he said that I asked him what he had said, and he said, “So, You’re an It Lee Un Huh? An It-Lee-Un from It-Lee. Meaning “An Italian from Italy”.

So, when I heard the word Louver, I immediately said to myself “ok. They are probably trying to say the word “Louvre” (pronounced “Loove” which rhymes with “move”). Why shouldn’t they be trying to say the name of the most famous museum in the world. After all. When Sonny Karcher wanted to say there were a lot of things, he would say that there were “boo-coos” of them, When I asked him what “Boo-coos” meant he explained that it was French for “A lot”. Then I understood that he was mispronouncing the word “Beau-coup” (pronounced: “Bo Coo”). I suspected that everyone knew about the Louvre in Paris, France. I had first visited the Louvre in 1974 when I was 13 with my father on our way from Rome to Liverpool which I mentioned in the post “Power Plant Snitch“.

The Louvre in Paris France.  The home of the Mona Lisa and the Venus De-Milo.

The Louvre in Paris France. The home of the Mona Lisa and the Venus De-Milo.

It didn’t surprise me that they may have named a motor after the Louvre (as we were told to go replace a Louver Motor when we were doing filters). I half expected it. I figured it was somewhere up in the Tripper Gallery which is where the coal feeds into the coal silos above the bowl mills. I explained about the Tripper Gallery in the post “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“. I have expected to see painting lining the walls when I first entered the Tripper Gallery.

So. I mentioned that we were supposed to replace a Louver Motor while we were “Doing Filters”. As a new electrician (which in my head an electrician was a vision of “elitism” going about the plant fixing electric circuits and running conduit and pulling wire), I soon learned from my foreman Charles Foster that as an electrician we were responsible for anything that had a wire going to it. That meant… well. Just about anything, one way or another. From water fountains, to elevators, to air filters.

Air Filters? Really? Not that I minded changing out air filters. It was just the connection to being an electrician that was confusing me. Ok. I could understand the filters that were on motors. Since motors were something we worked on all the time. It was the air handling filters that I was having a trouble connecting. Needless to say. within a few months my expectations of what an “electrician” meant was much more down to earth.

Even though we were the “elite” group of magical maintenance men (and woman), we were also the team that was looked to for all sorts of other tasks that was too involved for the labor crew, and too vague to fit under Mechanical Maintenance, because somewhere, there was a wire attached. God forbid if a labor crew hand was electrocuted while changing out a bank of paper air filters. — Ok. It’s not like me to complain… — or maybe in my old age, it is becoming more common… I’m not sure.

So. In most houses there are two types of filters. There is what I would call a “Paper Filter”, and there is a “Metal Filter”. The paper filter is found in the air conditioner intake. You probably don’t change it out as often as you should, but you know what I’m talking about. The metal filter is probably over your stove in your oven vent. — Oh…. You didn’t think about that one? Better go clean it then….

The Power Plant is the same. There are both paper filters and metal filters, and things we would call “Bag Filters”. — Oh.. yes. and coffee filters… but I’m not going to talk about Coffee filters in this post other than to say that, “yes. We did have coffee filters also.”

Power Plant Coffee Maker Coffee Filter

Power Plant Coffee Maker Coffee Filter

Ok. A short side story… The person that was appointed to drive the truck was responsible for making sure the coffee maker was ready to go by break time. Only, when I was the designated truck driver I told everyone that I was not going to make the coffee. My reason was that I don’t drink coffee, and I wouldn’t know how to make a good cup of coffee and they could be sure that if I made it, it was going to be as thick as syrup. — The rest of the Electric shop agreed that it would not be a good idea for me to make their coffee, so either Andy or Dee made the coffee when I was on Truck Driver Duty. — End of side story.

So, when we were placed on Filter Duty… That meant that we went around the plant and changed out filters for air handlers, and we cleaned and coated the metal filters that were used on motors. This task took about a week. “A week?” you say? Yep. I don’t remember the exact numbers, though at one point in my career I had counted everyone of the them just to amuse my self… but just one air handler for the main switchgear had about 50 large paper filters and if I remember correctly had another 50 bag filters behind them.

Industrial Paper Air Handling Unit Filter

Industrial Paper Air Handling Unit Filter. They kind of look like Modern Art I suppose

Here is the bag filters that usually were attached to the back side of the paper filters:

Industrial Air Handler Bag Filter

Industrial Air Handler Bag Filter. Except ours weren’t pink and they weren’t on a beach.

First we had to remove the old filters that were often crawling with various kinds of flying insects that had been stuck to the filters since they flew too close and were sucked onto the filter. Then we installed the new filters in their place on a wall made of a large metal frame designed specifically for these filters. I think the reason they have a picture of the beach with this bag filter is because usually when you are trying to fit the bag filter into the basket you often thought that you would rather be at the beach than doing this task.

So. In the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were a set of very large motors that spun the large fans that blew air into the boiler and that blew the exhaust up the smoke stack. Each of these motors (and we have two of each kind), had a set of large metal filters on them. You had to remove a large panel bolted to the side of the motors to remove the filters. — The motors were almost always running when this was being done. After all. We can’t stop lighting Oklahoma City just because it’s time to clean the motor filters on the fans on the boilers….

The metal filters reminded me of the filters over the stove when i was a cook at Sirloin Stockade. We would have to take them out each night and run them through the dishwasher after all the dishes had been washed after closing. Then the dishwasher was put in a self-cleaning mode to clean out all the gunk from the filters.

Galvanized, Stainless Steel Framed Air Filter used in large motors.  This is a about 2 feet by 2 feet square.

Galvanized, Stainless Steel Framed Air Filter used in large motors. ours is a about 2-1/2 feet by 2 feet in the largest motors.

Then we had pump motors around the plant and down at the river that had smaller versions of these metal filters. Each of these metal filters were taken to the shop where we used a high pressure washer (one that would take the paint off of your car), and we would disintegrate the bugs that were stuck to these filters using the high pressure washer until the filters were cleaned. Then after letting them dry, we would coat them with a “filter coat” that would collect dust so that we wouldn’t have to wait too long before they were dirty again.

Well. There were some that didn’t like using the filter coat. Especially if they thought they might have to be cleaning the same filters themselves the next time. This happened when we decided to split the Filter Duty up between teams once. We decided that one team was going to be responsible for Unit 1 and the other team was going to be responsible for Unit 2, and we split up the air filters so that they were pretty evenly divided.

When we did this, an incredible thing happened. Each time we had to clean our filters, they were really dirty. Half the time the other team cleaned their filters they were not very dirty. It was obvious what was happening…. someone wasn’t using the filter coat. We all knew that it was “Ain’t My Mota” (translated “not my motor) Michael Rose. There was nothing anyone could really do about it. His foreman tried and tried to reform him, but there was really only one cure.

Talking about “Ain’t My Mota” Michael reminds me of one guy that was on our crew, Gary Wehunt. It wasn’t that he cut corners. It’s just that he always wanted to do the easiest jobs first and work his way up to the worse jobs. I was the other way around. I always wanted to get the tough jobs over with right away, and then cruise on down to the easier jobs.

So, when I was working with Dee (Diana Brien) cleaning motor filters, we would start with the bowl mill motors and then work our way over to the big fan motors. Then we would end up down at the river cleaning the river pump motor filters. When I was working with Gary, he always wanted to go straight to the river pumps. I always had the feeling that he thought that there might be a chance that by the time the Bowl Mill motors (which were always caked with Coal Dust) he would be called off to go work on an air conditioner instead. To each their own.

So. What is a Louver? I guess I forgot to mention that. A Louver is the metal flap that opens to let the air in. When the air handler is off, the louver closes. Before it starts up, the Louver opens so the air can pass through the filters. It is like a set of blinds on a window. The Louver Motor opens and closes the Louvers:

Large Metal Louvers for an Industrial Air Handler

Large Metal Louvers for an Industrial Air Handler

Today I am not able to change out the filter for my air conditioner in my house without having a flashback to the time I spent replacing filters at the plant covered with dirt, coal dust, fly ash and bugs. I had reminded myself often early on after I joined the electric shop as an electrician what Charles Foster had told me when i was still a janitor.

In my new job I sit in a clean office area with people sitting all around typing away on their computers or talking to one another. But out of the corner of my ear I can hear the noise every so often up in the ceiling above the false ceiling of the air handler louvers adjusting the air flow as the climate control detects that more air is needed in another area.

My coworkers may think I’m sort of strange (for a lot of reasons, but one of them may be) because as I’m working away on the computer apparently oblivious to what is going on around me, I may suddenly break out in a big smile. Why? They may wonder. Because I can hear that louver slowly changing position. They sound like they are pneumatically controlled, but there is no mistaking the distinct low grind of the flaps as they slowly change. So, without stopping what I’m doing, a grin may appear on my face.

Charles had come up to me when I was a janitor while I was working on the floor scrubber in the main switchgear and asked me if I would think about becoming an electrician. He said that a lot of being an electrician was cleaning things. He had noticed that I took a lot of pride in the way I cleaned and that he thought I would make a good electrician.

I did enjoy being a Janitor and having someone encourage me to become an electrician was all I needed to pursue the honorable trade of “Electrician”. It didn’t take me long once I joined the shop to learn that Charles wasn’t stretching the truth when he said that a lot of what an electrician does is clean things.

I spent 18 years as an electrician at the Power Plant before moving on. Throughout that time, my wife never knew what to expect when I came home from work. My clothes could be just as clean as when I left in the morning, or (most likely), they would be covered with Soot or Coal Dust from the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. One thing she could usually count on when I walked in the door was that I would have a smile on my face for having the privilege to spend a day at work with such a great group of Power Plant Heroes.

Sky Climbing in the Dark with Power Plant Boiler Rats

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.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

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).

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

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:

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Or even a normal rat like this:

Normal looking rat

Normal looking rat

No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:

rat from kootation

rat picture taken from kootation.com

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.

A sky climber

A sky climber

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:

  1. A.D. Everard August 3, 2014

    You tell a wonderful story and keep the reader spellbound. I love this sort of inside information!
    Coming to your blog has given me the same rush of excitement I get when I’m researching something and find a gem! Now I want to write about boiler rats! 🙂

Making Power Plant Friends with Motor Alignment

I know I’m getting old when I pick up a small piece of paper and I am suddenly taken back 17 years to the day I pulled the small page from the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. Notepad sitting on the desk in the Electric Shop office.  It was the day that I was finally able to come to the aid of a noble Power Plant Man that the plant generally referred to as “Stick”.

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary McCain, or Stick, is a tall thin Power Plant Man (sort of like a stick) known for his intellect and knowledge of “Machine Language”.  In this case, “Machine Language” refers to the ability to understand how machines work, not how to talk directly to computers using zeroes and ones.

Gary had just walked into the Electric Shop office at the power plant in North Central Oklahoma as lunch was ending.  He was carrying a textbook, which seemed odd right off the bat.  He explained that some of the machinists and mechanics had been sent to motor alignment school and they had been given this textbook in case they wanted to refer back to the material that was covered in the class.

Gary sat down next to me and set the book on the desk opening it to the page he had bookmarked (Yeah.  We used to use books made out of paper, and we put pieces of paper between pages to bookmark the pages we wanted to remember…  Bookmarking wasn’t something new with Internet browsers).

Gary (am I going to start all my paragraphs with the word “Gary”?  Maybe the next paragraph, I’ll just say “That tall guy”) pointed to a formula on the page and asked me if it was possible to use the computer to make calculations that will help him align motors using this formula.

I told that tall guy (Gary) that we could use a program called “Excel” (from Microsoft) that could be used to solve problems just like that.  So, I grabbed the small sheet of paper off of the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. notepad and wrote down the variables for the formula on one side, and the four formulas on the back side.  Here is what I wrote:

Variables for the Motor Alignment formulas

Variables for the Motor Alignment formulas

Oh yeah.  I think I ripped off the corner of the paper to use as a bookmark because I didn’t like the one Gary was using.  It was too small.

Motor Alignment Formulas (or is it Formulae?)

Motor Alignment Formulas (or is it Formulae?)

I guess at this point I should stop and tell you what is meant by “motor alignment” and why machinists and mechanics are interested in this in the first place.

The alignment that is done with a motor is performed when you are putting a pump back in place or some other equipment like a gear box or fan shaft or… well… a lot of things.  You have to make sure that the shaft on the motor is perfectly aligned with the pump otherwise it will quickly tear something up when you turn it on.

motor coupled to a compressor

motor coupled to a compressor

This picture shows how the motor is aligned up with the compressor so that the red coupling lines up perfectly.  Once it is aligned the coupling can be bolted together to connect the motor to the pump.

Notice that the motor has bolts to mount it to the skid in the front and the back on both sides, as well as the pump.  These are called “Feet”.  Usually when you put the pump and the motor back in place, they don’t line up perfectly, so thin pieces of brass called “shims” are used to raise the various feet just the right amount so that the shaft on the motor and shaft on the pump are looking right at each other.

A special piece of equipment is used to check the alignment.  It is called a “Dial Caliper” and it is mounted to the coupling on the motor and the pump with a magnet and it tests the alignment as it is rotated around.

A mounted dial caliper used to measure the alignment of the motor

A mounted dial caliper used to measure the alignment of the motor

I’m sorry if I’m boring those of you who don’t immediately see the beauty of Motor Alignment.  Try pretending that the dial caliper is something invented by ancient aliens if you need to make this part of the post more interesting (actually, who needs ancient aliens when you have machinists?).

Gary told me that the company was looking into buying laser guided motor alignment machines for only $30,000 a piece.  They would probably buy three of them that could be used between the four main plants.  He said that he didn’t think we needed them if we could use these formulas to calculate exactly how to align the motors.  This would save the company around $90,000 and at the same time show the mechanics the “joy of math”!

So, I made some notes on another page which simplified, (or maybe complicated) the formulas further.  Then I sat down at the computer and began putting them into Excel.  The idea was to have the person doing the motor alignment take some notes, then go to the computer and enter them into the Excel sheet and it would tell them right away how many shims to put under any of the 8 feet (four on the motor and four on the pump).

Here are the notes I made:

Notes made to calculate the motor alignment

Notes made to calculate the motor alignment

If you are Jesse Cheng (or some other old time calculator geek), you can see what I was doing with my notes.  I was thinking of the next steps… which I’ll explain below…. (oh… ok… I’ll tell you… this is the code that you would use if you were creating a program for a Casio calculator).

After creating the spreadsheet, Gary headed out the door to go start aligning a motor using our newfangled motor alignment method.  A little while later he came back into the shop and pulling out his handy dandy notepad he read off the notes he had taken while he put the values into Excel…  When he was finished, he wrote down the results and headed back out the door to add the proper shims to the motor and the pump.

A notepad like this

Handy Dandy Power Plant Notepad

We had to tweak the program a little to work out the bugs, but after a couple of tries it worked very well and Gary was pleased.  Only, there was one problem with this method…  Over the next couple of weeks, Gary would come bursting into the electric shop office interrupting me and Charles Foster while we were having a deep discussion about the virtues of banana peppers on ham sandwiches.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

So, I suggested to Gary that we could use a calculator to do the same thing that we were doing with the spreadsheet.  That way he wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to the computer.  Instead, he could just stand there at the motor and enter the information and have it display the answers that he was seeking.

Right off the bat (hmm… the second time I have used that “cliche”…. I need to read more often), Gary didn’t understand how a calculator could do this.  So, I explained to him that some calculators are programmable and I can write a program on the calculator that would do just that.  I said, “Let me show you”….. After all, I had grown up in Missouri (the Show Me State)…  So, I took my calculator off of the top of the filing cabinet and placed it on the table.

My Sharp Calculator with the Thermal printer connecting to a tape recorder

My Sharp Calculator with the Thermal printer connecting to a tape recorder

I used the thermal printer to connect the calculator to the tape recorder to store my programs, so I didn’t have to enter them manually after I entered them once.

I took my notes and wrote the following program and entered it into the calculator.

The short quick version of the calculator program

The short quick version of the calculator program

I gave the calculator to Gary and showed him how to run the program and sent him to try it out for himself.  He was very excited about this and offered some suggestions to make the program easier to use.

A few days later Gary caught me walking across the maintenance shop and showed me a catalog with various calculators for sale.  He said he wanted to buy some calculators for the shop so that every person that had been trained to align motors had a calculator with a program on it.  I showed him a Casio calculator that would work for about $70.  So, he ordered a better one.

A Casio CFX-9850G

Gary ordered the Casio CFX-9850G

Even though the language for programming it was different than the Sharp calculator, it didn’t take long for me to write a program for it that did the same thing since I had sort of already written it by that time.  After Gary proved to his foreman that the calculator worked, he ordered several more and when they arrived he asked me if I could program them as well.

It took almost a half hour just to type the program into each calculator, so I bought a small pigtail that connected two calculators together.  This allowed me to copy the program from one calculator to another one.  So, when Gary arrived one day with a box of over 20 calculators for the rest of the plants, it took me longer to open the packages than it did to copy the program from one calculator to the next.

The pigtail I used to connect the calculators

The pigtail I used to connect the calculators

Since the calculator was a graphic calculator, I thought about improving the program by drawing a little picture of a motor shaft and a pump shaft and showing how they were out of alignment after the information was entered, but I never took the time to do that as I was on to another computer project by that time (which I will write about later).

So, think about this.  The company was willing to buy $90,000 worth of laser-guided motor alignment equipment to do something that machinists and mechanics already knew how to do.  The specialized equipment would work, and it might have been faster I suppose.  With the aid of a programmable calculator, however, a mechanic can stand at the motor, takes a few measurements and come up with the same results probably just as fast as the laser-guided motor alignment gizmo could do it.

Either way, the mechanic still had to install the same number of shims under the same feet whether they used the calculator and the dial caliper or the laser beam.  The 26 or so calculators that were purchased for the four plants came up to less than $2,000, which is a savings of $88,000.  I don’t think the laser would have saved that much time.  It still had to be carried over to the motor and plugged in and mounted on the motor.  My guess is that as soon as the laser was dropped on the floor accidentally, it would have been broken anyway.

The best part of this little project was that I was able to help out a True Power Plant Man Gary McCain, that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to help much before.  Gary didn’t need much help as he is one of those Power Plant Men that people seek out when they need advice. So, when he came to me and asked for help with the computer, I was more than glad to do what I could to help him.

Sometimes it is a little difficult for my wife to understand why I keep scraps of paper laying around that have meaningless scribbles on them.  One might be a doodle that some friend of mine created one day while talking on the phone.  Another might be a fortune from a cookie that I opened when I was eating lunch with a coworker.  Today the piece of paper I picked up happened to have a mathematical formula written on the back.

I think my son understands now that when I seem to be picking up trash off of the table and a tear comes to my eye, it isn’t because I have just picked up something rotten, but because I have just been transported back in time to place where I am with some people that I love.  It doesn’t stop him from saying, “Dad?  It’s just a piece of paper.  Geez!”  Well… I know I’m getting old… but that scrap of paper is poetry to me.

A Slap in the Face at a Gas-fired Power Plant

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.

A Power Plant Tilapia

A Power Plant Tilapia

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.

An example of an old GE open-faced motor

An example of an old GE open-faced motor

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.

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

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.

A typical strobe light

A typical strobe light

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 pamplet 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 A 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.

Bill was lifting the top round part off of the ground so that he could work under it.

Bill was lifting the top round part off of the ground so that he could work under it.

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 is a 3 ton chain-fall.  The one we were using was more than 10 times bigger

This is a 3 ton chain-fall. The one we were using was more than 10 times bigger

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 is the exact size and type of air compressor

This is the exact size and type of air compressor

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.

An air powered grinder.  Only the one we used was much bigger

An air powered grinder. Only the one we used was much bigger

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 flew 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 went to the tool room and checked out a new pair of safety glasses:

The first safety glasses we had didn't have side shields

The first safety glasses we had at the time

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:

  1. Ron Kilman June 22, 2013:

    Great story! The manager at HLS was Hatley (with a “t”). Larry and I were good friends. He had flown airplanes some (as had I) so we swapped piloting adventures, some of which were actually true. Larry was a good guy.

Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant

Originally Posted on April 12, 2013:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

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

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

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

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Power Plant Rags To Riches

Originally posted on March 9, 2013:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andy Griffith in this picture reminds me of Howard Chumbley

Andy Griffith in this picture reminds me of Howard Chumbley

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

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

The chief on the Chief Rag Boxes

The chief on the Chief Rag Boxes