Power Plant Paradox of Front to Back and Back to Front
The 58th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally posted February 8, 2014:
After the downsizing in 1987 some new engineers were assigned to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I wasn’t used to an engineer actually pausing to listen to what I was saying. I remember the first time I said something sort of out of the ordinary and Doug Link stopped and asked me why I thought that. The usual response was to roll their eyes as if I was some dumb electrician that almost knew how to lace my boots correctly… Ok… Lacing your boots isn’t as easy as it looks…. especially when you put them on in the dark in the morning before you leave the house.
Now, before you think “Front to Back and Back to Front” has to do with lacing up my boots, you are mistaken.
Back to Doug Link. I was surprised when he actually stopped and asked me to explain myself. I know I had said something that had sounded a little bombastic, but what I believed to be true anyway. So, I sat down and explained it to him. It was something that ran contrary to what a person might think was logical. Once I explained it to him, he said he understood what I meant. — Wow. What kind of new engineers are they breeding out there (I thought). Well he did go to Missouri University at the same time I did, we just didn’t know each other at the time.
Another engineer that showed up at the plant was Toby O’Brien. Even the maintenance department recognized right away that Toby would listen to you. Not only would he listen to the crazy rantings of an electrician like me, but he would also ask advice from mechanics! And… (now brace yourself for this) Welders! I believe that if he could corner a janitor, he probably would have listened to them as well…. because… well… I was just a janitor pretending to be an electrician, and he listened to me all the time.
So, what does this all have to do with “Front to Back and Back to Front”? Well. Almost nothing. Except that these new engineers knew about a secret that we were all keeping from George Bohn, another engineer that I talked about in the post “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer” In that post we had kept from George that the computer had an extra drive partitioned on the hard drive for a while. In this post, I will talk about a much more significant secret (at least in George’s eyes).
With the reorganization Terry Blevins worked on one precipitator and I worked on the other.
For those of you who don’t know, the precipitator is what takes the “smoke” out of the exhaust from the boiler so that it can be collected in hoppers and sent up to the coalyard to silos where trucks would come and haul it away to make highways.
The electric Supervisor Tom Gibson thought that a little competition would be good between the two teams to see who could make their precipitator work the best. Only it didn’t work out that way. Terry had one way of doing things and I had a completely opposite way of approaching a problem. Terry would study a problem. Analyze it, and do everything he could to understand what was going on. Then he would go out and make a major change. I on the other hand would make incremental small changes and observe the effects. Then work toward what seemed to work best.
Between the two of us approaching a problem from completely different points of view, we were able to come up with solutions that apart I don’t think either of us would have ever thought about. So, we became a team instead.
Now for the boring part of the story. I am going to explain Back to Front….. With the new digital controls, we could set up the controls so that each of the 84 precipitator transformers could be backed down one KV (kilovolt or 1,000 volts) at a time in order from the front cabinets to the back ones. Then it would start from the front again backing the power on the cabinets down slightly each time. — I know this is boring. The front of the precipitator is where the exhaust enters the precipitator. The back is where the exhaust leaves the precipitator.
The cabinets would do this until the amount of ash going out of the smoke stack hit a certain limit that was 1/4 of the legal limit (the legal limit was 20% opacity. So, we controlled the cabinets to keep the opacity at 5%). Opacity is the amount of light that is blocked by the ash coming out of the smokestack.
Well, if the opacity went too high (say 6.5%) the back cabinets would start powering all the way back up, and it would work its way toward the front of the precipitator from the back until the opacity went down below the set limit. — sound good? Well… after running this way for a while we realized that this wasn’t so good.
What ended up happening was that the front cabinets which normally collected 90% of the ash were always powered down and the back cabinets were powered up, because they would power up each time the opacity would spike. So the ash collection was shifted from the front of the precipitator to the back. This meant that if there was a puff of ash going out of the stack, it probably came from the back of the precipitator and there wasn’t anything that could be done to stop it.
We asked George if we could reverse the Front to Back powering down of the cabinets so that it went from Back to Front. That way the back of the precipitator would be powered down most of the time (where all the wasted power was) and the front would be powered up. This would keep the back half of the precipitator clean and if there was a need to power them up because of some disturbance in the boiler, the back of the precipitator would be clean and in good shape to handle the extra ash.
George, however, insisted that since the EPA had tested the precipitator with the new controls when they were setup to go from front to back, we couldn’t risk changing it, or the EPA could come back and make us put scrubbers on the plant. We were grandfathered into not needing scrubbers and we didn’t want to go through that mess and cost that would have raised electric rates for everyone.
This was frustrating because we could easily see that every hour or so we would be sending big puffs out of the smokestack on the account of the inherent flaw of backing the cabinets down using a Front to back method. Even though we knew the engineers would blow their top if they found out, we called the EPA one day and asked them about it. The EPA said they didn’t care as long as the precipitator wasn’t physically being altered and we were adjusting the controls to maximize operations.
So, one day when I was in the Precipitator Control Room, I walked over the main processor unit in the middle of the room where the seven sections of 12 cabinets each plugged in. I took the A row cable and swapped it with G. I took B and swapped it with F, C and swapped it with E. D I just left it where it was since it was in the middle.
Then I walked to each Cabinet in a section and swapped the eeprom chip from cabinet 1 and put it in 12. And from cabinet 2 and put it in 11, and so on. Without leaving the precipitator control room, I had just changed the order of the cabinets backing down from “Front to Back” to “Back to Front”. As far as the control room was concerned, nothing changed (unless you looked closely at the voltages on the cabinets on the computer. The front cabinets usually were around 30kv while the back were closer to 45kv).
So, now that the cabinets were backing down from back to front, everything worked a lot smoother. No more hourly puffs and wild power swings as cabinets were released. As long as George didn’t know, he was happy. The precipitator suddenly was working very well. So well in fact that one winter while the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator was using only 70 Kilowatts of power and the opacity was well below the 5% threshold.
The space heaters in the precipitator control room were using over 120 kilowatts of power. More than the entire precipitator. This is important because normally the precipitator used more power than any other piece of equipment in the plant. It was not unusual before we had the back down working for one precipitator to use 3 Megawatts of power. That is 3,000 Kilowatts. And we had two precipitators!
Then one day in 1992 an electrical engineer Intern (who later became a full time engineer) came in the precipitator control room with George Bohn while we were calibrating the cabinets one at a time. George began explaining to Steve Wilson how the precipitator controls worked. We were in the front section (G row). George introduced Steve to us and started explaining to him about the back down and how it worked.
Just then, the cabinet that he was showing him powered up. — oops. This was a front row cabinet and in George’s mind, they should be the last to power up. He looked around and could see that the cabinets in F row were still powered down. I thought, “The jig is up.” George said, “That’s not right! That shouldn’t happen!” (Ok George. We’ve only been doing this for 3 years and you are just now noticing?).
So, I asked him what the problem was (knowing full well). He explained that the cabinet in G row had just powered up. — You could tell when a cabinet was powered down because a certain light in the lower left corner of the display would be on. I looked at the cabinet and the Primary current limit light was lit. Obviously not in the back down mode.
So, I said this, “George, this cabinet still is in the back down mode. You just can’t tell because it is also hitting the primary current limit and both lights won’t light up at the same time.” — Geez… I thought…. would he believe this hair brain explanation? George nodded. Then he went on to explain to Steve what I just said to him as if it was something he knew all the time (even though I sort of just made it up).
A short time after Steve and George left, I found Steve and explained to him that we really do power down the precipitator from back to front instead of front to back, because front to back doesn’t work, and I explained to him why it works better and why we don’t tell George Bohn. Steve was another sensible engineer that knew how to listen and learn. I enjoyed the little time I spent working with him.
Well…. The efficiency of the precipitators caught the attention of EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute), and they wanted to come and study our precipitator controls. Not only the back down feature we were using but also a pulse capability that Environmental Controls had that allowed you to power off for so many electric pulses and then power on again.
So, when the EPRI scientists showed up to test our precipitators for a couple of weeks trying the different modes of operation, I knew that it was important for them to really understand how we were operating the precipitators. So, after George had taken them to the computers in the control room and explained the back to front back down mode, I took them aside one at a time and explained to them that even though the computer looked like it was backing down from front to back, it was really backing down from back to front.
I explained to them why we had to do it that way, and I also explained to them why we didn’t let George know about it and that the EPA was fine with it. They all seemed to understand, and for the next two weeks no one from EPRI let the cat out of the bag.
To this day I don’t think George knew that we had swapped the direction of the back down from “front to back” to “Back to front”. At least not until he reads this post.
Comments from the original post:
Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator
The 35th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally Posted May 25, 2013;
Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline. The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators. This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust. The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”. The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust. When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air (or 99.999%).
Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop. These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator. I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post: Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant. It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years. You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant. I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.
When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it. He likes to get dirty.” At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop. Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning… Now those words took on their full meaning.
I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning. Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post: Singing’ Along with Sonny Kendrick). I was Sonny’s chance to be lifted from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey. I had accepted that. I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.
So, here I was… One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post: Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door). Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers. I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit. Just a rain suit.
Not a lot of protection….
I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul. I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string. I had a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.
So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world. It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon. We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point. We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.
Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart. He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above. At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me. Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip. There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.
Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip. Then even lower. About 10 feet above us. A third clip. — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When Power Plant Man Talk, It pays to Listen“), then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….” A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn (See the post “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with Boring“).
Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate. Every clip must be in their place. Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so. Ok. I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 clips per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and 7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…
Bill explained….. Clean each insulator. there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place. There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers. there were 84 hoppers, Great. Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks…. Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof. two on each section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension house on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.
Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a clip or broken. Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.
Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force. That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below. Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each. There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers. In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.
Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates.
In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly. There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers. This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul. Oh. And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.
So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units). Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator.
For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators. Some of my closest friends were precipitator components. Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.
We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me. I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment. I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.
Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in the boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas…. I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home….
Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”. I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash. I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby… Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it. He apologized. He explained that he meant it with affection.
At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it. The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter. That meant that they would infiltrate your HEPA filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs. Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.
I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu. This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so. I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth. I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.
I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator. So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters. They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles. I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.
To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell. The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors. Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals…. Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.
You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate. Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.
I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post: A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff. He said it had some kind of a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….
He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell. You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.
There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name). She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical. Unfortunately, we never found out what it was. In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces. This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.
I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of an electron microscope. I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one. I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.
So, I just continued wearing the organic filters. This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms. Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator. When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands. They knew everything I did.
One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job. One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma.
They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had. They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.
Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be. I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously. No. I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it. I loved it. I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.
I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator. I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them. Coaxing them. Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job.
If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”. Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7. But they were each my friends in their own way.
You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?” I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me. I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.
I have my own understanding of who I should be. My wife may call it “stubbornness” (or “Rotten”), and that may be what it is. I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again…. What was I going to do? Give up? How could I do that to a friend? I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma. That isn’t going to change who I am.”
Today I am called an IT Business Analyst. I work for Dell Computers (now I work for General Motors). It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world. I see the same pattern. When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job. You become invaluable. Almost irreplaceable. People look to you for answers. They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business. I am glad to be able to serve them.
Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?” Arnold replied, “Oh. nothing anyone wants.” (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators. No. I wouldn’t do that. Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.
Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good. His son, Tim Foster has taken his place. One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator. I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim…. I know Scott understands….
Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them…. Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness. Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly… Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good… next row….
Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor
Favorites Post #72
Originally posted August 30, 2014.
When a death or a near death occurs at a workplace due to an accident, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) will investigate what happened. There are two reasons for this. If they find that the company has been negligent in following the safety regulations set down in CFR 1910, then they are fined (if the negligence is severe enough). OSHA also investigates the accident to see if changes are needed to regulations in order to protect employees due to new unsafe workplace conditions that are not currently covered under CFR 1910.
Because of the tragedy that happened at our plant that I outlined in the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” and after I had met with the OSHA man (Gerald Young) to give him my deposition as discussed in the post last week: “The OSHA Man Cometh“, the plant manager, the assistant plant manager, and I were summoned to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City at 10 o’clock on Monday April 18, 1994.
On a side note:
The Department of Labor office in Oklahoma City is just a couple of blocks from the Murrah Federal Building that was bombed exactly one year and one day after our visit on April 19, 1995. Not that there was any connection.
I mentioned this because I went to the Murrah building later that day after the meeting with OSHA to meet my brother for lunch. He was working there in the Marine Recruiting office at the time. I think he was a Major then. He changed jobs in June 1994 and moved to Washington D.C.. His replacement was killed in the bombing. Here he is Greg today as a full Marine Colonel:
End of Side Note:
I was asked by Ron Kilman our plant manager to show up at 9:00 am on Monday in the building south of our main corporate headquarters where we rented office space to meet with the guys from our own Safety Department because they were required to attend the OSHA meeting with us. The Department of Labor building was just across the parking lot and across the street from this building, so we planned to walk from there.
I drove myself because Ron said he had other meetings to attend in Oklahoma City after this meeting was over and he wouldn’t be driving back to the plant. That was why I arranged to have lunch with my brother. I figured that word had gone out from Tom Gibson that I talk a lot during long trips, and he just wanted some peace and quiet that morning.
When we met with the Corporate Safety Department Jack Cox told us how we should act during the meeting with OSHA. He didn’t tell us to do anything wrong, like withhold information. He just told us to answer all the questions as truthfully as we could. Don’t offer any information that isn’t directly asked by OSHA. Don’t argue with them if you disagree.
From what I understood from the conversation, we were supposed to be polite, truthful and don’t waste their time going down a rat hole with specifics. I was told that I shouldn’t have to say anything and I should be quiet unless I was asked a specific question. The Safety department would answer all the questions and make any statements that need to be made. I was assured by them that I had nothing to be worried about. I only needed to tell the truth if asked anything.
If you know my personality, I always want to throw in my 2 cents, even when I know it is wasted on the audience. But I took this seriously. We were going to be fined by OSHA for 10 different violations relating to the accident that occurred at the plant. I was there because I was directly in charge of the work that was being done when the accident occurred. It was my deposition that was used to determine about half of the violations.
After we had been briefed on how we should behave during the meeting, as a group we walked from the corporate building over to the Department Of Labor building. One of the safety guys was carrying a few binders. I think one was the company’s Policies and Procedures book (We called it the GP&P).
Upon entering the building we went to the 3rd floor where we were asked to wait in a room until OSHA was ready for the meeting. The room had a long table down the middle. As usual, I picked a seat about halfway down on one side. I remember Ron Kilman sitting across from me and about 2 seats down.
We waited and we waited….. 10:00 came and went, and no one came. We quietly discussed whether this was to make us more nervous by keeping us waiting. Then someone came to the door and apologized. They said that Robert B. Reich, the U.S. Secretary of Labor was in the office that day and that had thrown off everyone’s schedule.
This was quite a coincidence, and we wondered if Robert B. Reich (it seems like you need to put the B in his name in order to say it right) would be attending our meeting. That would sort of throw a whole new importance of me keeping my mouth shut to make sure I wasn’t putting my foot in it.
It seemed as if Mr. Reich had shown up unexpectedly. Or at least on short notice. Almost as if it was a surprise visit to check up on the place. He didn’t end up coming to our meeting. Now that I think about it. This was one day shy of being one year to the date that the Branch Davidians had burned themselves alive in Waco, which was one year and one day before the Murrah Building Bombing three blocks away from where we were sitting that morning. Aren’t coincidences interesting? Just saying…
More about why Robert B. Reich was there further below.
Around 10:30 four or five OSHA lawyers (I assume they were lawyers, they talked like they were), came in the room along with the Jerry that had interviewed me a few weeks earlier. They apologized again for being late due to the arrival of their “supreme” boss. They sort of sat at one end of the room and the people from our company was more on the other end. Jerry, the OSHA man, sat next to me in the middle.
I was saying a mantra to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…. don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen.
The meeting began by the Lady at the end of the table reading off the violations to us. I don’t remember all 10. I remember the most important violations. They mainly centered around the new Confined Space section of 1910. It was 1910.146 that dealt with confined spaces and it had gone into affect April 1, 1993, almost one year before the accident happened. Generally, OSHA gives companies about a year to comply to the new regulations, which kind of put us right on the edge since the accident at our plant had occurred on March 3, 1994.
Because of this, some of the violations were quickly removed. That lowered the number down to 6 violations right away. That was good. No one from our company had said a word yet, and already the OSHA lawyers seemed to be on our side. Then they read off a violation that said that our company had not implemented the required Confined Space Program as outlined in CFR 1910.146.
This was when our Safety Department leader, Jack Cox. said that we would like to contest that violation, because here is the company policy manual that shows that we implemented the Confined Space Program before the end of the year.
One of the OSHA lawyers responded by saying that we had not fully implemented it because we had not trained the employees how to follow the policy. When he made that statement, Ron Kilman contested it.
He had a stack of papers that showed that each of the employees at the plant had taken the training and had signed a paper saying they had read the policy. Not only that, but the person that was hurt was not a company employee, they were an outside vendor who was hired by the company to vacuum out the hoppers.
The OSHA man said that just because they took the course did not mean that they were properly trained. Ron asked how do you know they weren’t properly trained. The OSHA man replied, “Because they didn’t follow all the rules. If they had, no one would have been hurt.” — What do you say to that? You can tell we weren’t properly trained because someone was hurt? I suppose that the OSHA rules were written in such a way that if you followed them to the letter, no matter what kind of mechanical failure happens, no one will be hurt. I could see the frustration on Ron’s face.
I was a little amused by Ron’s statement though because Jack Cox had told us to just let them answer all the questions and the first seemingly absurd thing the OSHA man had said, Ron had addressed. — I smiled and said to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…”
One of the violations was that we didn’t have a Confined Space Rescue Team. That was true, we didn’t. There was something in the regulations that said, if a rescue team could arrive in a reasonable time from somewhere else, we didn’t have to have our own rescue team…. Well, we lived 20 miles from the nearest fire station equipped with a Confined Space Rescue team. So, there was that…. That was a legitimate violation.
The next violation was that we didn’t have a rescue plan for every confined space in the plant and each confined space was not clearly marked with a Confined Space sign. This was a legitimate violation.
The next violation was that we hadn’t coordinated efforts between different work groups working in confined spaces together. This was clearly stated in the regulations…. — Oh oh. that was me… I think I was mid-mantra when I heard that one. I had just said to myself… “…anything….just keep….” when I heard this violation. I stopped muttering to myself and immediately forgot that I was supposed to keep quiet.
I said, “But wait a minute. We did coordinate between the three groups that were working in the confined spaces. I was coordinating that. I had posted a sheet on a beam in the middle of the hopper area where the accident occurred where the Brown and Root contractors, and the vacuum truck contractors knew what hoppers were still full and which were safe to enter.
I kept the sheet updated each day and so did the vacuum truck workers. They indicated when they had finished vacuuming out a hopper, and I would inspect it from above. When I deemed it safe, the Brown and Root contractors could enter the space. The accident occurred because one of the vacuum truck workers entered the confined space while still cleaning it out and before I had inspected it to make sure it was safe.”
Jerry (the OSHA man that had interviewed me turned and said, “Oh. I didn’t know that. Do you still have that piece of paper?” — Incredibly, I did. About a week after all the vacuuming had finished and all the hoppers were safe, I was walking through the hopper area under the precipitator where I found the paper with the duct tape still on it laying on the grating. Without realizing the importance, I picked it up and brought it back to the janitor closet behind the electric shop that we now used as a “Precipitator Fly Ash Cleanup Room”. I had laid it on a shelf there. The lawyers said, “Send us the original sheet and we will drop this violation.
Here is a copy of the piece of paper. The big black splotch at the top is what duct tape looks like when you make a copy of it.
Well, that worked out good. I had stepped out of line by opening my mouth before I had been asked a question, but everything worked out all right.
The final verdict was that we had four violations. We had to re-train our employees on Confined Spaces. We had to create a Confined Space Rescue Team. We had to put the correct signs on all of the confined spaces and we had to develop rescue plans for all of the confined spaces on the plant grounds. If we did that by August 1, 1994, the four remaining violations which amounted to a $40,000 fine would all be dropped. So, we had our work cut out for us. This not only impacted our plant, but all the Power Plants. The meeting was adjourned.
I already told you what I did after the meeting (I went and ate lunch with my brother). But I haven’t mentioned yet why Robert B. Reich had made a surprise visit to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City on April 18.
As it turned out, that morning, Labor Secretary Reich had come to Oklahoma City to hand deliver a $7.5 million fine to Dayton Tire Company. This was due to an accident that had resulted in a man, Bob L. Jullian, being crushed by a piece of machinery in the tire plant. He died a week and a half later at the age of 53.
Robert B. Reich had become so angry when he had studied the case on Friday that he wanted to hand deliver the citation himself the following Monday. That is how we ended up in the building at the same time on Monday, April 18, 1994. We resolved our dispute with OSHA on a congenial note and the citations were dropped on August 1. Dayton, however, was still fighting the conviction 18 years later, eventually paying around a $2 million penalty.
Now you know the rest of the story. Well, almost. Like I said, we had a lot of work to do in the next three and a half months.
Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis
Favorites Post #67
Originally posted January 24, 2014:
Reorganizations naturally shuffle things around. People are generally resistant to change and don’t like to find that their routine has been changed without having their input on how to make things better. When the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma went through a downsizing and reorganization in the latter part of 1987, my job changed slightly. Personally, I was grateful for the changes.
Before the reorganization, I had inherited both the precipitators (the large boxes at a power plant that take the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler). This meant that every overhaul, I knew what I was doing. I was working on and in the precipitator. This was generally a dirty and thankless job.
After the reorganization, however, Terry Blevins was assigned to work on the Unit 2 precipitator, while I worked on Unit 1. I will go into this in more detail later, but for this post, I’ll just point out that this meant that when Unit 2 was on an overhaul (that means the unit is taken offline for one to three months in order to fix and repair things that can only be done while it is offline) I wasn’t automatically assigned to the precipitator. So, I could work on other things.
Before the reorganization, Sonny Kendrick had the title “Electric Specialist”. After the reorganization we no longer had a specialist. I’m not sure exactly why. I know that at Muskogee, they still had a specialist in the electric shop. — I will talk about him next year (the specialist at Muskogee). Anyway, I know that Sonny, at the time, was not too happy about his change in job title. I don’t blame him. I would be too. — As you can see by the picture below, he eventually learned to be happy again:
One of the things that the Electric Specialist did during overhauls was test tripping relays. Now that we no longer had a specialist, that was left up to whomever…. The first electricians, besides Sonny, that were assigned to relay testing was Ben Davis and myself. I had started doing it on my own and after about a week, Ben Davis was assigned to help me out.
We were on a major overhaul on Unit 2 and it had been decided that we were not only going to test the regular super-high voltage breaker relays, we were also going to test all the 480 volt switchgear relays for Unit 2, as well as the intake and coalyard switchgears. I seem to remember making it to the river pump switchgear. Once we started, there was no stopping us.
When I first was told to test the relays, Bill Bennett (our A foreman) told me to have Sonny tell me how to do them. So, I walked into the lab and told Sonny that Bill had told me to ask him to help me learn how to test the protective relays on the switchgear. Sonny, not looking too happy, grabbed a small stack of manuals, walked out into the main switchgear with me, and said, “Here is the relay test set. Here are the manuals that tell you how to hook up the test set and test them.” He turned and walked away…. I was sort of hoping for a more intimate lesson…
I knew the reason Sonny was so upset. Later I learned why he would be as upset as he was to not be able to test the protective relays. It was because when you test, clean and adjust protective relays you have an immediate rush of satisfaction that you have just done something very important. Let me just say quickly (because in another post I will expound upon this), a protective relay is what keeps motors from blowing up. It is what prevents blackouts from happening across the nation. Without properly calibrated protective relays, a power company is just asking for a disaster (or… well….. their insurance company is, because they are the ones that usually end up paying for the damage — which I will also talk about in a later post).
I thought the relay test set that Sonny showed me was the neatest thing I had seen so far in the electric shop. There were two boxes that hooked together with an umbilical cord. They had dials, switches, connectors, meters and a digital readout down to the millisecond. That is, you can read the time to trip a relay down to the one thousandth of a second.
I only wish that I had a bigger picture of this relay test set so that you could admire it as much as I did. Even today it gives me goosebumps! Ok. I can imagine those relay technicians that read this blog are looking at this and thinking…. “What kind of piece of junk is this?” Hey (as Mark Fielder used to say), this was my “baby” (only he was referring to the precipitator).
So, back to the story at hand…
Even though I was having a heck of a fun time trying to figure out how to perform these relay tests by reading these manuals about the different kinds of relays, I was glad when Ben Davis was assigned to work with me. I don’t know if he had worked on relays before, but he seemed to know just what to do to hook up the test set and make things easier.
The best suggestion that Ben had right off the bat was that we should be listening to the radio while we were working. This might have been a preventative measure after the first couple of days to prevent the same situation from occurring that happened to Ed Shiever when he and I were trapped inside a confined space for a couple of weeks (See the post: “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“). Either way, it was a great idea.
You wouldn’t think that inside a switchgear 20 miles from the nearest town with a radio station, that we would have any reception on a little transistor radio, but we were able to manage. It seemed that we had to be a little creative at times with the antenna in certain locations, but, like I said. We managed.
My perception of Ben Davis up to this point was that he was a “Good-ol’ boy”. That is, a country music type Oklahoman that had grown up in Shidler, Oklahoma where the major attraction in the town was the High School. To my surprise, I quickly found out that he was a connoisseur of Rock and Roll.
It wasn’t until I was in college before I realized that the easy listening station I had been listening to on our family radio at home while I was growing up was playing rock and roll songs using an orchestra with violins and clarinets instead of electric guitars. I learned from my dorm mates all about groups like Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles (yeah… can you believe it? I mean. I knew “Hey Jude”, “Let it Be” and a few others, but most of the Beatles I thought were instrumentals normally played on violins with a man waving a wand) and many others. When I found out about “Rock and Roll”, I had to go out and buy dozens of 8-track tapes, as fast as I could find them.
So, here was Ben Davis. Even better than the “Good Ol’ Boy” that I already thought he was. And he loved classical rock and roll. I can only say that the next month and a half while we tested relays all over the plant, were one of the best times I have ever spent in my life! He knew all the 60’s and 70’s rock and roll bands.
As each song would come on the radio, we would guess (well, I was guessing most of the time…. most of the time Ben already knew), what the name of the song was and the name of the band. So, not only were we doing one of the most satisfying jobs at a power plant, but I was also have a lot of fun with Ben listening to the radio! Who would have thought it? No wonder Sonny was upset he wasn’t testing relays this overhaul.
I could go on about all the different bands and their backgrounds that I learned from Ben during that overhaul, but (unlike me), you probably already know all that stuff. It never ceases to amaze me how many holes I have in my education until one is staring at me in the face.
This reminds me of a side story, and I apologize if I have told this before…. I don’t think I have….
After the Reorganization, and after I moved to Stillwater from Ponca City, Scott Hubbard (and Toby O’Brien) and I began carpooling. One morning as we were listening to NPR, Scott Hubbard mentioned something about a “cur”. I asked him, “What’s a cur?” Well, he had the exact same reaction when 11 years earlier I had asked my friends in college at Oklahoma University, Tim Flowers and Kirby Davis, “What’s an orgasm?” — See how little holes in your education can make a big impact?
Just so you don’t get caught in the same predicament… A “Cur” is a mongrel dog. Scott Hubbard couldn’t believe that someone that read the dictionary for fun wouldn’t know what a “cur” was. What the heck? I didn’t grow up in Oklahoma! I checked and the Dictionary in the electric shop didn’t include the word “Cur” — end of side story… which really isn’t a side story, since it was about a Power Plant Man — Scott Hubbard. He probably knew what a “cur” was before he could walk. — I know I haven’t told that story before! I would have remembered that.
I’m not going to go on about all the fun that I had with Ben Davis testing protective relays. I enjoy my memories, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear all about how much I looked up to this Power Plant Hero. The only thing I will add is that the time I spent with Ben during that overhaul has been etched into my memory as one of the most enjoyable times of my life. So, I’ll go onto the next step in our Protective Relay story….
A few years later, in 1993, Sonny Kendrick and Ben Davis and I were sent to “Advanced Protective Relay Maintenance” training in Dallas, Texas. I remember this time so well, I remember the address where we were went. It was at 4271 Bronze Way, Dallas, Texas. It was hosted by the same company that made that wonderful test set I pictured above. The AVO Multi-Amp Corporation.
I brought my wife Kelly and my three year old daughter Elizabeth with me. They stayed at the hotel during the day and played in the swimming pool, while I went to class.
The classes lasted four days, Monday through Thursday. That was where I learned that even though I thought our relay test set was the coolest piece of equipment in the electric shop, it turned out to be archaic by “Protective Relay Maintenance” standards. Not that it didn’t do the job…. So, in order to train us properly, they let us use our own old test set during the training so that we could see how to properly test really advanced relays such as Distant Relays, Syncro-verifier relays, Negative Sequence Relays,directional distance relays and Pilot Wire relays. — These are relays that are found in a large substation that trips high voltage lines that run long distances across the country. — I can tell you’re jealous. — Well.. I imagine it anyway. Knowing what I know now.
So, why drag you all the way to Dallas for this story? There’s a reason.
time for a second side story:
You see. Tim Flowers, whom I mentioned above, knew not too long after he met me that I have the knack of running into people that I know (or should have known in this case), would love this story. You see, I met Tim and Kirby at Oklahoma University and they drove with me to Columbia Missouri in 1979 (along with my brother Greg) when I went to register for classes at Missouri University when I decided to go back to school in my home town.
When we arrived in the town, we were hungry after driving for 8 hours straight from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Columbia, Missouri… so we stopped at Godfather’s Pizza. As we walked in, there was a girl and a guy standing at the counter ordering a pizza. The pretty girl (Pamela Ramsey) with long red hair turned and saw me. She immediately came toward me saying “Kevin Breazile!!!! You owe Me!!! Slightly shocked and pleased, I said, “What for?” She reminded me that I never gave her the pictures that were taken during the Senior Prom. You see. I had taken her to the Senior Prom.
Later I explained that this happens to me a lot. I meet people that I know in the oddest places (even though this wasn’t so odd, since I had grown up in Columbia). It was just that this was the first person we had seen since we entered town. From that point on, Tim (who later worked as a summer help at the power plant) expected that everywhere we went we would run into someone I knew….
End of the second side story. I’m sorry that this is making the post a little longer than usual. I know you have to get back to work….
So, back to the relay training course in 1993 that Ben Davis, Sonny Kendrick and I were taking in Dallas…. On Wednesday night during the training there was a dinner held in a small banquet room in the hotel. Well… of course I had to take my wife and my daughter. So here we were sitting around this table at dinner with the rest of the class of about 10 other non-Sooner Plant employees….
I decided to talk to the guy next to me. He said something back and my wife Kelly asked him, “Where in New Jersey are you from?” She had picked up on a New Jersey accent. He said, Well.. I work in the east for a company called Ebasco, but I’m really from the Midwest. (oh. That was my territory). So I asked a follow-up question. “Where in the Midwest are you from?” He said, “From Missouri.” — Oh. I thought. This is interesting. So was I.
I asked a follow-up question. “Where in Missouri are you from?” He answered…. “Columbia, Missouri.” (What? Where I had grown up?)…. So, I asked a second follow-up Question…. “What High School did you go to?” With a curious look the man answered….. “Rockbridge High School…” (Man!!! the same one as me!!!)…. The third follow-up question….. “What year did you graduate?” Now, looking really suspicious… he said, “1978”. Trying to contain my excitement… I replied….. “Oh… so, you graduated from Rockbridge High School the same year I did….”
What are the odds? There were 254 students in our graduating class. This guy who currently lived somewhere in the east is sitting next to me at a dinner of about 10 people attending Advanced Protective Relay Training in Dallas, Texas where neither of us are from, and we both graduated from the same school back in Columbia, Missouri 15 years earlier! His name is Randy Loesing. He was working for a company called Ebasco at the time. He said, “I thought I recognized you! I just wasn’t sure.” I didn’t recognize him at all until I went back home and looked in my yearbook.
It turned out that he kept in touch with two of my oldest friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper and Brent Stewart. So we talked about them. What an incredible coincidence. Like I may have mentioned before. It happens to me all the time. It turns out that an old friend of mine from the 3rd grade in Columbia, Missouri that I used to go to his house when we were stamp collectors and had a stamp collecting club, lives 5 miles south of me today in Round Rock Texas (He’s in Pflugerville).
Russell Somers lives in the same direction and just about the same number of miles as when we were kids. Not only that, but he worked at Dell while I was working at Dell (though I didn’t know it at the time). He has an older daughter and a younger son, just like me only younger. The same is true for another 3rd grade friend that I graduated from Rockbridge Highschool and the University of Missouri with, Caryn Lile (now Caryn Iber) who lives in Wisconsin. She has a daughter and a son the same age as my kids. She was living in Tulsa when I was living in Stillwater, Oklahoma. — Like I said… happens to me all the time.
Tim Flowers realized this odd phenomenon in college. I had told him earlier that my father told me that if I was ever stranded somewhere that I could look up the local Veterinarian and tell him that I was the son of Dr. James Edward Breazile, and they would help me. So, when we were hiking in the mountains in Colorado and we met a man walking along a trail in the middle of nowhere above Estes Park near the Great Divide, when I told him who I was, he gave us a curious look…. then divulged his most intimate secrets of his life and where he had stashed his most values possessions, Tim told me later. “I really thought he was going to know who you were when he gave us that funny look.” I replied. “I think he did..”
I again apologize for the length of this post. It is rare that I ramble on this long. I can thank Ramblin’ Ann for the ability to Ramble so well. I can thank Ben Davis for recognizing a rambling situation and replacing it with a rock and roll learning opportunity. As I said earlier. One of the most enjoyable times I have spent in my entire life is the time I spent with Ben Davis testing Protective Relays! Bless you Ben and I pray for you, your wife, your son and your daughter on the way to work each morning.
Today when I hear any of the hundreds of rock and roll songs come on the radio that we listened to that month and a half, I can see us testing the relays, looking off into space saying, “Rolling Stones?” “No. Steve Miller Band?” Really? I thought Browneyed Girl was sung by the Rolling Stone! It turned out that the version that we listened to was from the creator of the song, Van Morrison. Who would have thought that he would sound so much like Mick Jagger. I can see Ben saying… I see what you mean… it kind of sounds like Mick Jagger.
As an add on to this story…
I now work at General Motors in Austin Texas. My best friend in High School was a guy named Jesse Cheng (I have mentioned him in other posts, especially in reference to the phrase “Jesse! Come get your Chili!). He was two years older than me, and throughout the years we would lose track of each other and then reconnect. He went to Yale to become an Engineer, then to the University of Missouri to become a Medical Doctor, then to Harvard to earn a Masters in Public Health and Epidemiology.
It turns out that we both now work at General Motors where he works in Arlington Texas as a Medical Director and I work in IT in Austin. We can IM (Instant Message) each other whenever we want, and we talk now at least once every week.
Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door
Favorites Post #58
Originally published on May 25, 2012:
Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime during September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced.
While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.
Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.
Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.
The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to keep the wires straight, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.
The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.
I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.
I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper (read that again…. one index finger was holding me up). I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time.
I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.
I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.
Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of warm fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.
After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash in the hopper to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.
So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.
All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was completely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper.
I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.
Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”
Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.
It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.
While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened.
I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my finger). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.
Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.
I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!
Comments from previous repost:
I’m glad you chose to “give up” on going after a flashlight! There is a Proverb that says “There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof is the way death.” Sounds like you found one of those “ways”. To choose to find your flashlight and lose your life would be the ultimate bad choice. God, give us the wisdom to choose the way of life.
Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer
Favorites Post #46
Originally posted on January 11, 2014:
Up front, I would like to clarify the title so that those who are quickly perusing articles looking for something salacious won’t have to read too far before they realize this isn’t what they are seeking. The word “Boner” in this headline refers to a “joke” played on a Plant Engineer by the name of George Bohn at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. When I was a boy we had a joke book called the “Omnibus Book of Boners”. Most of my life I never thought about the word “Boner” as having another meaning. Which, after this joke was played might have explained the expression on George’s face.
In an earlier Post “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” I explained that when playing a Power Plant joke, the longer it takes to play a simple joke, the better the effect. I think the reason for this is that when the person realizes that a joke has been played on them by a fellow Power Plant Man and even though it was simple, the person went through the effort over a long period of time, just to make you smile for a moment. Then you know that this person must truly be a good friend. Who else would waste countless hours on someone over days, weeks, or even months, just to make someone smile once?
Well…. Bohn’s Boner lasted for over six months! Yeah. Six months, at least.
I saw the opportunity arise one day after we had received a new hard drive for precipitator computer for Unit 2. We had the computers for a couple of years after we went to digital controls in the precipitator before the hard drive crashed. This happened to be a project that George Bohn had managed. He was the project manager and had overseen the installation of the precipitator controls, which included the two precipitator computers in the control room. One for each unit. They sat around behind the big control panel that you see when you watch an older movie about a Power Plant Control Room, like the China Syndrome.
Anyway, each of the computers had 30 Megabyte hard drives. Yeah. You heard that right! 30 Megabytes. That’s not a typo. Not Gigabytes… nope. Megabytes. Just this morning at Dell, I received an e-mail with a file attached that was over 30 Megabytes in size (Thanks Norma). I’m talking about an IBM AT computer:
Well, the Unit 2 precipitator computer was used to monitor all of the 84 control cabinets in the Precipitator control room. It indicated how much voltage and amperage were on each cabinet, as well as the spark rate, and the setting on each cabinet. It was really a great step up. I’m sure today you can probably do that from your phone while you are sitting in a movie theater just before they tell you to silence your “Cell Phone Now” and stop texting your neighbor. Back then, it was amazing.
All the operator had to do was go over to the computer, pull up the screen (this was before Windows, but the program was running by default), and type the keyboard command to tell it to print and “voila”, it would print out all that information. The operator could look at it to see if there was a problem, and if not, he just saved it with all the other reports he was supposed to create during his shift.
Believe it or not. Before this time, the operator actually walked up to all of the 84 cabinets on each unit and looking at meters on the cabinet wrote down the voltage and amperage of each cabinet on a form. You can imagine how much happier they were to be able to print it all out in the control room. Hours and hours saved each week.
So, when the 30 Megabyte hard drive crashed George Bohn ordered a new hard drive from the IT department in Oklahoma City. A couple of weeks later, we received the new hard drive from the city. George gave it to me and asked me to install it in the computer.
When I installed the hard drive, I found that it had already been formatted. All I had to do was install the program and we were good to go. I backed up the program from the Unit 1 computer and copied it onto the new hard drive using a floppy disk. Yeah. Programs were a lot smaller then. A 360 Kilobyte floppy disk was all that was needed to hold the entire Precipitator program.
I noticed right away that instead of being the 30 Megabytes we had expected, there was only 20 Megabytes on the drive. That was all right with me. 20 Megabytes would be enough so that we didn’t have to back anything up very often.
As I was installing the program and testing it, and going through the code figuring out how to change Unit 1 to Unit 2, I had an idea…. At the command prompt, I typed “D:” and hit enter. You know what I was checking, right? D colon, and enter…..
sure enough. there was a D drive on this hard drive. Another 20 Megabytes were on this partition. You see. This was actually a 40 Megabyte hard drive that had been partitioned as two 20 megabyte drives.
It was at this point that I thought I would play a little joke on George. I figured he would come and look at this computer and at first he would find that the new hard drive was only a 20 Megabyte drive instead of the 30 Megabyte drive that he had ordered. I also figured that like me, he would think about it for a minute and then check to see if there was an extra partition and would find the extra drive.
So I thought I would leave him a little present. I went to D Drive and at the command prompt (gee… the only thing you had was a command prompt. You didn’t even call it a command prompt then. You called it a DOS prompt) that looked like this: D:> I typed – “label d: Bohns Boner” For all you older DOS people, you know what this did, right? It labeled the D drive volume name “Bohns Boner”. At the time I think we were on DOS 4.0 or something close to that. The volume length was limited to 11 characters and Bohns Boner took exactly 11 characters. The label couldn’t be longer than that.
Now, all I had to do was call up George Bohn, tell him I had installed the hard drive in the precipitator computer and it was up and running and go to the electric shop and wait for him to come down with a smile on his face over the name of the second drive on the computer. So I did. I told Charles Foster and Terry Blevins what I had done.
After the reorganization, Tom Gibson, our Electric Supervisor had decided that Terry Blevins would maintain the precipitator on Unit 2, and I would maintain Unit 1, which was great for me, because I was no longer working on both of them by myself. So, Charles and I were waiting for George to arrive in the electric shop office. It didn’t take long.
George came in the office and said, “Did you see that they only gave us a 20 Megabyte hard drive instead of a 30 Megabyte drive. (Oh. So, he hadn’t found the second partition). I replied, “Yeah. I noticed that.” George was a little perturbed that he didn’t get what he ordered. He said he was going to contact them and have them send us a 30 Megabyte drive. We had paid for it. I told him that he should. Especially since we had paid for it (keeping a straight concerned look on my face).
Anyway, a couple of weeks went by and there was no new hard drive, and George hadn’t said anything more about it. I thought he might have eventually found the second drive, but then he would say something like “I can’t believe they didn’t send us the right hard drive” and I would know that he still hadn’t figured it out.
One day the operators came to me and pulled me aside and asked me if there was some way when they were on the night shift if they could use the precipitator computer to create documents. At this time PCs were pretty sparse. The only good computers in the control room were these two precipitator computers and the Shift Supervisor’s office. the Precipitator computers just sat there monitoring the precipitator all the time, even when no one cared. The control room operators had been told not to use the precipitator computers for anything except looking at the precipitator controls.
The plant had purchased so many licenses to use Word Perfect, a word processor that was the “in thing” before Windows and Word came around. So, I installed Word Perfect for them on the extra drive on the Unit 2 precipitator computer. That is, Bohns Boner. I explained to them that they could only use it when George Bohn was not around, because he didn’t know the drive existed and I wanted him to find it himself someday.
Everyone agreed. All the Control Room operators that were at all interested in creating documents, like Jim Cave and Dave Tarver and others, knew about Bohns Boner, and knew that it was a secret.
The Control room had a laser printer installed next to the Shift Supervisor’s office so they could print out Clearances and have them look nice. They had some new Clearance system they installed, and this came with it. So, the next question was… Is there a way we can print our documents out using the Laser Printer instead of the clunky Dot Matrix printer tied to the Precipitator computer?
I ordered a 50 foot Printer cable (I paid for it out of my own pocket) and kept it coiled up under the small desk where the precipitator computer sat and explained that they could just disconnect the dot matrix printer on the back of the computer and plug the other end into the Laser Printer and they could print out nice neat looking documents. But… They had to do it at night or when they were sure that George Bohn was not around because he still didn’t know the extra drive existed. Everyone agreed. They would have to string the printer cable across the Control Room floor to reach the laser printer.
Like I said earlier. this went on for well over 6 months. It seemed like almost a year. Then one day, George Bohn came down to the Electric Shop office while Charles and I were sitting there for lunch. He said that he had asked Oklahoma City about the hard drive again, and they had insisted that they had sent the correct hard drive to our plant. Then we could see a light go on in his head. He said, “Do you suppose that they partitioned the disk into two drives?” (Bingo! He had figured it out). I said, “Could be.”
Charles and I sat there and looked at him while we ate our lunch. The cherry tomatoes Charles had given me tasted especially good with my ham and cheese sandwich that day. I knew that we were finally only minutes away from the end of the joke we had been playing on George for the past so many months. George leaned back in the chair with his thin long legs stretched out and his hands behind his head. I could tell he was thinking about it.
Then he rose from his chair and headed out the door. Charles and I smiled at each other. We both waited. A few minutes later George came back in the office. He had found Bohns Boner. You see. When you went to a drive back then on the command prompt, the first thing you would see was the volume name. So as soon as he typed the D colon and enter, it would have said “Bohns Boner”.
George sat down in a chair. He didn’t say anything. He just sat there with a straight face as if he didn’t know what to think. I thought…. well, he is an Engineer. Maybe he doesn’t know what to do when Power Plant Men play jokes on them. He looked like he couldn’t decide whether to be upset or glad that we had an even bigger hard drive than he ordered. I don’t know if he ever figured out that the longer the joke takes, the more we liked him.
I guess George felt foolish that it took him so long to find that extra drive. I suppose he might have thought he knew me well enough that if there had been an extra drive on the computer, when he first mentioned it, I would have told him that it was partitioned into two drives, so he didn’t give it a second thought. I guess he didn’t know me as well as he thought.
Anyway, after that, he never said anything about the operators using the computer for other uses than monitoring the precipitator, which was always a problem before. George never mentioned the hard drive again. I don’t remember now if I later changed the volume name on the drive. It seemed like not long after the computers were upgraded from the IBM AT to something like a XT 286.
Oh. I had another joke I played on George. The other one lasted for years, and he never figured it. I will write about that one later. That one wasn’t so much of a joke as it was out of necessity. I won’t say anymore about it now. You’ll have to wait at least another week or two (See the post Power Plant Paradox of Front to Back and Back to Front).
The OSHA Man Cometh
Favorites Post #17 (posted in no particular order)
originally post 8/23/2014
I suppose when you are a Plant Manager, the last person you want to see at your Power Plant doorstep is the OSHA Man! That’s exactly what happened on Thursday, March 10, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. He was not paying a social call. He was there to conduct an investigation. One in which I was heavily involved.
In my post from last week, “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” I described a near death accident where a contract worker was engulfed in fly ash in a precipitator hopper. The accident was on all channels on the 5 o’clock news in Oklahoma City. The press was there when the Life Flight helicopter arrived at the hospital where they interviewed the flight crew. The OSHA office in the Federal building a few blocks from the Electric Company’s Corporate Headquarters had quickly assigned someone to the case. Armed with all the authority he needed, he began a full investigation of the accident.
The day before Gerald Young, (the OSHA Man) arrived, I had done some investigation myself into the accident. I was trying to figure out exactly what had happened. Why had someone who thought that he had emptied out a hopper so much so that he climbed inside, had suddenly become engulfed in ash? Where did this large volume of ash come from, and why did it decide to suddenly break loose and fill the hopper at the particular moment when James Vickers had decided to climb into the hopper?
Larry Kuennan, the lead engineer had asked me to show him the hopper from the inside of the Precipitator, so he could have an idea of what took place. I told him he needed to put on a fly ash suit and a full face respirator in order to go into the precipitator. After we were all suited up, I took him on a tour of the inside. A sight few people have had the chance to experience. I could write an entire post just about the experience…. Oh…. maybe I already have. See “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator”
The hopper we needed to investigate was not at the edge, so, we had to squeeze our way around a few beams in order to see the hopper where the accident took place. When we arrived, I explained that when I had first inspected the precipitator, I had found that the ash had piled up five foot above the bottom of the plates because the feeder wasn’t feeding properly.
So, I had figured that when they were vacuuming out the hopper, the ash that was lodged between the plates (that were 9 inches apart) must have still been there when James climbed into the hopper. Something had caused the ash to give way all at once.
Larry and I climbed down between the hoppers where we could see the bottle racks underneath the plates. The bottles are 30 pound cast iron anchors in the shape of the old style milk bottles. They are used to keep the tension on the wires, which are the electrodes that are normally charged with up to 45,000 volts of electricity when the precipitator is online.
When we sat down to look at the four bottle racks, I noticed right away that one rack of bottles was about a foot and a half lower than the rest of the bottle racks. This didn’t make sense to me at first. I couldn’t think of any way that 176 wires and bottles would be lower than the rest of the wires in the hopper. It was a paradox that took a while to soak in.
When we left, Larry Kuennen made a statement I will never forget. He said, “Until now, I thought that Plant Electricians did nothing but twist wires together. I never thought they worked on things like this.” I replied, “We work on anything that has a wire connected to it. That includes almost everything in the plant.” He replied, “Well, I have a new appreciation for Plant Electricians.”
It wasn’t until I returned to the electric shop and heard Scott Hubbard’s recount of the accident (again). Scott and his crew was working on the roof of the precipitator when the accident happened. He said that when the accident happened he heard a loud bang. Sort of like an explosion.
I told him what I had found inside the precipitator. This could only mean one thing…. An electric insulator on the roof of the precipitator that held up the wires on that bottle rack had broken. When that happened, it fell the foot and half causing all the ash that had been lodged between the plates to be immediately jolted loose, engulfing James Vickers who had just climbed in the hopper below.
After lunch, Scott went up on the roof and opened the portal on the tension house that housed the insulator that held up that row of wires. Sure enough. The three foot by 3 inch diameter ceramic insulator had broken. Something that had never happened at the plant up to that point. A tremendous load must have been put on this insulator, or it must have been defective in order to just break. These insulators are designed to hold up to 10,000 pounds of weight. the weight of the bottles and wires altogether weighed about 6,000 pounds add another 1000 pounds for the beam attached to the insulators on the top of the plates. This meant that at least 3,000 pounds of ash was pressing down from the ash above in order for it to just pull apart.
There was only one person that the OSHA man Jerry wanted to speak to when he arrived at the plant (other than to arrange things). That was me. I was the acting foreman in charge of the operations in, on and below the precipitator when the accident happened. I was also just a regular hourly employee, not so “beholden” to the company that I would participate in any kind of “cover-up”.
The first thing OSHA Jerry wanted to see was the inside of the precipitator. So, I procured a respirator for him, and we climbed up to the landing where one enters the precipitator through side doors. The first thing he did when he arrived at the door was take out a measuring tape to measure the height of the door.
I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but a new set of OSHA regulations had a new set of Confined Space regulations 1910.146 that dealt specifically with confined spaces. It had gone into effect on April 15, 1993. Here we were almost a year later. I had always treated the precipitator as a confined space, so I had always checked the air quality before I entered it.
So, I asked OSHA Jerry why he measured the size of the door. He said, he was checking if the entrance was “restricted” or “limited”. This was the requirement of a Confined space as stated in OSHA regulation 1910.146. I asked him how small does an entrance have to be to be restricted? He said, “Well. That’s not clearly defined. We could enter the precipitator by bending over and stepping in.
That was the first time I thought that maybe the precipitator itself may not really fit into the strict definition of a confined space. The hoppers do for sure, but does the precipitator? Hmm…. I wondered…. I still do come to think of it. The hoppers were definitely confined spaces by definition… “any space with converging walls, such as a hopper…..”
Oh. I forgot to describe OSHA Jerry. He reminded me a little of the guy who was a sidekick in Cheers named Paul Willson:
Actually, he looked so much like him that I thought of him right away.
When we were done inspecting the precipitator, we returned to the front office where we went to Tom Gibson’s (our Electric Supervisor) office. He closed the door and locked it. And he began to interview me by explaining that anything that was said in this room would be held in confidence. He explained that I could speak freely and that the Electric Company could do nothing to me for telling him the truth.
I thought… Ok…. um…. I have always been known for speaking my mind (maybe a little too much), so he wasn’t going to hear anything that I wouldn’t personally tell the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman to his face. Just ask Ron. I’m sure he would agree that I was pretty open about anything that popped into my mind.
He asked me if I had been trained about the OSHA Confined Space regulations. I responded by saying that we had a class on it one day where we went over our new confined space requirements. That consisted of reading the company policy. I knew that I needed to have a hole watch, and I needed to check the air before I went into a confined space.
We checked to make sure there was 20.9% oxygen, that there was less than 10 parts per million Carbon Monoxide, less than 5 parts per million H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide) and that there was less than 5% explosive vapors. OSHA Jack wrote everything down.
Actually, while I was talking, Jerry asked me to pause often because he was writing everything I said word-for-word on a yellow notepad what I was saying.
While we were talking, I asked him a few questions also. I asked Jack how he decided to work for OSHA. Where he had come from (Kansas. Wichita, I think). How long he had been working for OSHA. Did he enjoy his job….. At times, I could get him to digress and tell me a story about his life.
As we continued with our interview over this grave accident that almost resulted in the loss of someone’s life, I was busy making a new friend. By the time he had asked me everything he needed to know, I knew all about how he had grown up in Kansas, and how he had gone from job-to-job until he had ended up in front of me… interviewing me.
When we had finished the interview, he explained to me that this was an official document that contained all the answers to the questions he had asked me. He said that this would be private and that the Electric Company would not be able to ever see what I said unless I wanted them to see it. I asked him if I could show it to them. He said he would give me a copy of it, and I could do whatever I wanted with it. He asked me to sign it. I did.
I took Jerry to the copy machine in the front office where he made copies for me. When he handed them to me, I shook his hand. I told him I enjoyed talking to him. I also told him that I wished him well. I showed him to the elevator, and he left the plant. I made a copy of the papers that I had signed and went directly to the plant manager Ron Kilman’s office and gave him a copy of the document I had signed.
Ron asked me how it went. I told him that it went fine. Here is everything we talked about. I had nothing to hide. It did amaze me that OSHA Jack thought I might want to “spill the beans” about something as if we were treated like peons where the King had total rule. — I guess he didn’t know that Eldon Waugh had retired in 1987.
From there, I went to Bill Bennett’s office. Bill Bennett was our A Foreman. His office was across the hall from Tom Gibson’s office where I had been interviewed for the previous 3 hours. — Yeah. 3 hours. OSHA Jerry didn’t know Shorthand.
Bill asked me how the interview went. I said it went fine. He said that Ron and Ben Brandt had been worried about me because the interview had lasted so long. Bill said he told them, “Don’t worry about Kevin. He probably has this guy wrapped around his little finger. He’s probably using his ‘psychology’ on him”
I always loved Bill with all my heart. He knew me too well. I told Bill that I knew OSHA Jerry’s life story by the time we were done. Bill smiled…. just like this:
I smiled back at Bill. I returned to the Electric Shop to continue with Unit 1 Overhaul. After all. That was my “real” job. I put on my fly ash suit, my full face respirator, and my rubber boots and returned to the innards of the precipitator to continue where I had left off. I had a lot to think about as I scanned the Precipitator plates and wires in the dark with my flashlight safely strapped around my neck.
Comment from the original post
Great story! And good job interviewing OSHA Jack.
When the OSHA (EPA, OFCCP, EEOC, etc.) Man cometh, whatever was scheduled for that day (week, etc.) was suspended and you do whatever he/she wants. Cost to implement changes was not a factor and permanent effects on plant efficiency or employee morale were of little importance either. At 67 (with increasing arthritis) I’m reminded of OSHA’s “help” every time I have to use both hands to start my recip saw (one to pull the trigger and the other to push the “safety” switch), or when I have to re-start my lawnmower every time I empty the grass bag.
Comment from a repost
ESPs are nasty places to have to hang out. We had a guy who was severely burned by flowing ash from a bottom hopper–due to this and some other unrelated health complications which occurred during his absence, he was never able to return to work. For some reason he thought the hopper was empty but it wasn’t and when he opened the door, the ash poured out like water and severely burned his legs. Your story reminded me of the incident. I can’t imagine the impact of being nearly completely engulfed in hot ash. It is a miracle that the man survived.
Sky Climbing in the Dark with Power Plant Boiler Rats
Favorites Post #15 (posted in no particular order)
Originally Posted July 26, 2013:
I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was… well…. surreal.
This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.
As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.
At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.
Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.
David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.
During those times I knew that something was taking place in the “superheat” section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).
So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.
This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.
Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:
Or even a normal rat like this:
No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:
Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….
Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.
If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.
You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool. The nearest thing I had to a badge was the pocket protector in the vest pocket on my t-shirt.
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 multi-meter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connector 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:
Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting
Favorites Post #14 (posted in no particular order)
Originally posted August 16, 2014.
I knew that we had our work cut out for us when Unit 1 was taken offline for a major overhaul on February 19, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had learned to expect the unexpected. I just never suspected this to happen. As acting foreman, I had a crew that consisted of a few of our own electricians, as well as a number of contract workers. I was also coordinating efforts between Brown & Root contractors that were going to be doing some major work inside the Precipitator (that takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler) during the 12 weeks we were going to be offline and a Vacuum Truck Company that was going to vacuum ash out of the hoppers where the ash is collected and blown through pipes to the coal yard to be trucked away to make concrete.
When I inspected the precipitator during the first week, I had found numerous hoppers that had filled up with ash. One hopper in particular was so full that the ash had built up between the plates over 5 feet above the top of the hopper. Because of this, I had to coordinate with Brown and Root contractors which hoppers to begin building scaffolding, and those hoppers the vacuum truck needed to vacuum out first.
I had learned to deal with full hoppers the first time I entered the precipitator back when I was on the Labor Crew in 1983. Since that day, I had understood the potential dangers lying in wait. Especially with hoppers full of ash. See the Post “Angel of Death Passes By the Precipitator Door“.
The crew I was directly managing was on the Precipitator roof working on vibrators, insulators, transformers and rappers. I worked inside the precipitator aligning plates, and removing broken wires and cleaning insulators. The vacuum truck company vacuumed out the full hoppers by attaching a vacuum hose from a large vacuum truck to clean out pipes at the bottom of the hoppers. The Brown and Root crew climbed into the hoppers through an access door near the bottom of the hopper and constructed scaffolding in order to work at the top of the hoppers immediately below the plates.
This operation had been going on for 3 days and had seemed to be going smoothly. The Brown and Root crews and the vacuum truck crews were working shifts 24 hours a day. I would come in the morning and see the progress that had been made during the night. We kept a sheet taped to a beam in the hopper area that the vacuum truck would update when they had finished a hopper, and the Brown and Root crew indicated where they had finished building their scaffold.
On Thursday March 3, 1994, just after lunch, instead of making my way out to the precipitator to continue my work, I went up to the office area to meet in the conference room with the Safety Task Force. I was the leader of the task force, and we were meeting with upper management to work out some issues that I outlined in last week’s post. See “Taking Power Plant Safety To Task“. As you may have noticed, the last two weekly posts are a continuation of a long story.
Our meeting began shortly after 12:30 and we were discussing ways in which the Safety Task Force could work in a more cooperative way with the Maintenance Supervisor, Ken Scott. I felt that we were making good progress. We seemed to have come up with a few solutions, and we were just working out the details.
At 1:10 pm, the Electric A Foreman knocked on the door and opened it. He explained that there had been an accident at the precipitator in one of the hoppers and he thought that I might have been in the hopper at the time. He was checking to see if I was in the meeting. Once he was assured that I was all right, he left (presumably to tell the rest of my crew that I was not involved in the accident).
At this point, my head started to spin. What could have happened? None of my crew would have been in the hoppers. Maybe someone fell off of a scaffold and hurt themselves. I know I had locked out all of the electricity to the precipitator and grounded the circuits that have up to 45,000 volts of electricity when charged up, so, I’m pretty sure no one would have been electrocuted. Bill’s voice seemed real shaky when he entered the room, and when he saw me he was very relieved.
When working in a Power Plant, the Power Plant Men and Women become like a real family. Everyone cares about each other. Bill Bennett in some ways was like a father to me. In other ways, he was like an older brother. The nearest picture I have of Bill is a picture of Bill Cosby, as they looked similar:
I don’t know how long I was staring off into space counting my crew and thinking about what each of them would be doing. I was sure they were all on the roof. I knew that if a Brown & Root hand had been hurt that their own Safety Coordinator would be taking care of their injury. The thought of someone being hurt in a hopper sent flashbacks of the day I nearly dived off into the hopper full of ash ten and a half years earlier.
After about 5 minutes, Bill Bennett came back to the conference room, where we were still trying to focus on the task at hand. I don’t remember if we were doing any more good or not since I wasn’t paying any attention. Bill said that he needed for me to leave the meeting because they needed me out at the precipitator. Someone had been engulfed in fly ash!
Then I realized that the first time Bill had come to the room to check on me, he had mentioned that. I think I had blocked that from my mind. He had said that someone had been engulfed in ash, and they couldn’t tell if it was me or someone else. That was why he was so shaken up. Bill had thought that I may have died, or at least been seriously injured. The pain he was feeling before he saw me sitting in the room, alive and well, flooded my thoughts.
I quickly stood up and left the room. Bill and I quickly made our way to the precipitator. He said that Life Flight was on the way. One of the vacuum truck workers had climbed into the hopper to get the last bits of ash out of the hopper when a large amount of ash had broken loose above him and immediately engulfed him in the hopper.
When that happened there was a large boom and a cloud of ash came pouring out from the side of the precipitator. Scott Hubbard, who would have been my twin brother if I had been able to pick my own twin brother (though I never had a real twin brother)… heard the boom on the roof and when he looked down and saw the cloud of ash, immediately thought that I may have been hurt. I suppose he had called Bill Bennett on the radio and told him.
As we arrived at the precipitator, a young man was being carried out on a stretcher. A Life Flight from Oklahoma City was on it’s way, and landed just a few minutes later. I looked at the man all covered with ash. I could see how someone may have mistaken him for me. He was dressed like I was. A white t-shirt and jeans. He was unconscious.
Without going into detail as to the cause of the accident, as that will be in a later post, let me tell you about the heroic Power Plant Men and their actions before I had arrived on the scene…
James Vickers, a 26 year old vacuum truck worker, had climbed in the hopper carrying a shovel. He had a hole watch standing out the door keeping an eye on him. They had sucked out the hopper from the outside pipes and had banged on the walls in order to knock down any ash build up on the sides until they figured they had cleaned out the hopper.
James had opened the door to the hopper, and maybe because he saw some buildup on the hopper walls, he decided to climb in the hopper in order to knock it down with the shovel. While he was doing this, a large amount of ash that had bridged up in the plates above was knocked free all at once and immediately filled up the hopper probably more than half full.
James was crammed down into the throat of the hopper, which at the bottom is only about 8 inches in diameter with a plate across the middle about 2 feet above the throat of the hopper. He was immediately knocked unconscious by the impact.
The person assigned to be the hole watch was standing at the door to the hopper and when the ash fell down, he was knocked back about 6 or 7 feet when the ash came pouring out of the door. Panicking, He ran to the edge of the walkway yelling for help. Luckily, he was not also knocked unconscious, or this would pretty much have been the end of the story.
Men came running. Especially a couple of Power Plant Men working in the area. I wish I could remember who they were. When I try to think of the most heroic Power Plant Men I knew at the plant at the time, the list is about a long as my arm, so it is hard to narrow it down.
The Power Plant Men began to frantically dig the ash out of the hopper to uncover James Vickers. When they reached his head, they immediately cleared his face to where they could perform Mouth-to-Mouth resuscitation. They began breathing for James as soon as they could, and continued mouth-to-mouth as they dug out more of the ash.
As they dug the ash out, they were using their hardhats for shovels. When they tried to move James, they found that he had been crammed down into the bottom of the hopper to where he was trapped in the throat of the hopper. Heroically they continued without hesitation to breath for James, while simultaneously working to free him from the hopper. The shovel had been wedged into the bottom of the hopper with him.
Almost immediately after the accident happened, the control room became aware that someone had been engulfed in a hopper, they called Life Flight in Oklahoma City. A helicopter was immediately dispatched. By the time James was safely removed from the hopper, placed on a stretcher and carried out to the adjacent field, the Life Flight Helicopter was landing to take him to the Baptist Medical Center. I would say the helicopter was on the ground a total of about 3 or so minutes before it was took off again.
Bill and I inspected the hopper where the accident had taken place. On the ground below under the grating was a pile of ash, just like I had experienced years before when I almost bailed off into the hopper to look for my flashlight. I was suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of sorrow.
I was sorry for James Vickers, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was sorry for Bill Bennett who thought for a while that I had died in that hopper. I remembered hanging by one finger in a hopper only two rows down from this one, ten years ago with my life hanging by a thread, and I just wanted to cry.
So, I gave Bill a big hug as if I was hugging my own father and just started to cry. The whole thing was just so sad.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….
On the roof of the Baptist Medical Center, a Triage unit had been setup waiting for the helicopter to arrive with James. Hazardous Waste protective suits were being worn by the people that were going to begin treating James. They had heard that he had been engulfed in hazardous chemicals which consisted of: Silica, Aluminum Oxide, Hexavalent Chromium, arsenic and other unsavory and hard to pronounce chemicals. The Life Flight People on the helicopter had to be scrubbed down by the Hazmat team as soon as they exited the helicopter to clean off the hazardous Fly Ash. The news reporters were all standing by reporting the incident.
Yes. The same fly ash that I went swimming in every day during the overhaul. The same fly ash that I tracked through the Utility Room floor when I came home at night. The same fly ash used to create highways all across the country. It’s true it has some carcinogenic material in it. I’m sure I have my share of Silica in my lungs today, since it doesn’t ever really clear out of there.
Besides the psychological trauma of a near-death experience, Jame Vickers was fairly unharmed considering what he went through. He came out of the ordeal with an eye infection. Randy Dailey pointed out that this was because the Safety Coordinator from Brown & Root had opened his eyes to check if he was alive when he was laying on the stretcher, and had let ash get in his eyes. Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t have developed an eye infection.
When I arrived at home that evening I explained to my wife what had happened. She had heard something on the news about it, but hadn’t realized they were talking about our plant since the person was in Oklahoma City when the reporters were talking about it.
All I can say is… Some Safety Meetings in the past have been pretty boring, but nothing made me want to improve my Safety Attitude like the Safety Meeting we had that afternoon. I’m glad that I had to experience that only once in my career as a Plant Electrician.
Comments from the original post
I remember when this happened. I know some prayers went up for James.
They had to “decontaminate” the helicopter too. It was always amusing for me to see a hazmat worker strain at a “gnat” removing every molecule of fly ash, then take his respirator and suit off and light up his “camel” cigarette!
Hope you don’t mind I posted on my Innovative Safety Solutions facebook page along with a link back to the blog. Good article!
I remember hearing about that on the news that day. Also that Dad told us how strange it seemed that they were wearing the haz mat suits to deal with flyash.
Now I know why George came into my office one day and begged me to have you committed!
Yeah. That’s one of the reasons. 🙂
I really appreciate how you describe the two methods of problem solving, and how together you could come up with solutions that neither one of you may have thought of.
Thanks for your comment Monty. It was annoying at first. I kept wanting Terry to see my point of view. Then I started seeing the benefit of taking both approaches.