Tag Archives: Precipitator

Hot Night on the Power Plant Precipitator

Scott Hubbard and I weren’t too sure why we had been called out that night when we met at the Bowling Alley on Washington Street at two o’clock in the morning in Stillwater Oklahoma to drive out to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Something about a fire on the top of the precipitator.

I was glad that Scott was driving instead of me when I climbed into his pickup and he began the 20 mile journey up Highway 177.  I wasn’t quite awake yet from the phone call at 1:45 am telling me that there was a fire on the Unit 1 precipitator roof and they were calling Scott and I out to put it out.  I figured if there was a fire it should be put out long before the 45 minutes it takes me and Scott to arrive at the plant.

We had all been trained to fight fires this size, so it didn’t make sense why we had to go do this instead of the operators.

This is am actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

This is am actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

My head was still swimming from the lack of sleep when we arrived at the plant, and headed to the Control Room to find out more about the fire we were supposed to fight.  The Shift Supervisor explained that there was an oil fire under one of the high voltage transformers next to some high voltage cables, and the operators that were on duty didn’t feel comfortable climbing under the transformer stands to try and put it out because of high voltage cable tray that ran alongside the fire (ok, now it made sense.  Electricity was involved.  Electricians had to work on anything that had an electric cable attached even if it was a fire).

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home.  The ones we used were bigger

The operators had already brought a number of fire extinguishers appropriate to putting out an oil fire to the precipitator roof, and they had an SCBA (Self Contained Breating Apparatus) waiting there as well.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA from Google Images

Scott and I went to the Electric Shop to get a couple of pairs of asbestos gloves just in case we needed them.

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

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

When we arrived on the precipitator roof we could smell the fire smoldering right away.  The operator explained that some oil soaked insulation was on fire under the transformer stand for Transformer 1G9 and that he had tried to put it out using the extinguisher, but since the transformer oil was soaked into the bricks of insulation, it didn’t seem to do any good.

The transformer stands are about 18 inches tall, so climbing under them reminded me of the time I was sandblasting the water treatment tanks and Curtis Love turned off my air (see the post:  “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“).  This time I had a self-contained breathing apparatus, so I was in control of my own air… only there would only be about 30 minutes of air in the tank.

After assessing the situation Scott and I decided that the only way to put the fire out was to remove the blocks of insulation that were burning.  This meant that I had to lay down under the precipitator transformers and come face to face with the burning insulation and pull them out while wearing the asbestos gloves and put them in a barrel.

The plan was that we would then lower the 55 gallon barrel down to the ground and extinguish the fire by filling the barrel with water.

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

A barrel this size, only it was empty and the top was removed

The precipitator is on the outlet end of the boiler.  The boiler exhaust blows through the precipitator and the ash in the exhaust is removed using static electricity generated by the large transformers on the precipitator roof using up to 45,000 volts of electicity.  When the precipitator is on, the roof is generally a warm place to be.

When a person is laying on the insulation under a transformer, the temperature is somewhat higher as the heat is trapped in the enclosed space between two enclosures called “Coffin Houses” (how appropriate).  When the insulation is soaked with burning oil, the temperature seemed to rise significantly.  Luckily the insulation was not fiberglass as you may have in your attic, because I was wearing nothing but a tee shirt and jeans.  So, I was not subject to the itching I would have if the insulation had been fiberglass.

I had turned the air on the SCBA without using the “Postive Pressure” setting.  That meant that when I inhaled, I pulled air from the air tank, but the air didn’t apply pressure on the mask to keep out the bad air.

I did that because, this looked like it was going to be a long job and I wanted to conserve the air in the tank, and I found that on this setting I was not breathing the smoke pouring up around my face.  Otherwise I would have reached down to the valve on my belt and changed the setting to positive pressure.

I kept wondering while I was lying there with my face a few inches from the smoldering blocks of insulation why I was so calm the entire time.  The hot temperature had caused my sweat reflex to pour out the sweat so I was quickly drenched.  I would just lay my head on the insulation as I reached into the hole I was creating and pulled a glowing brick of insulation out using the asbestos gloves.

I knew I was only half awake so I kept telling myself… “Pay attention.  Work slowly.  One step at a time.  I tried to work like Granny would when she was digging Taters on the Beverly Hillbillies (see the video below):

In case you are not able to view the video above, try this link:  “Granny Digging Taters“.

It’s funny when you’re half dreaming the various things that come to mind.  I’m not sure how picking up smoldering bricks of insulation translated in my mind to Granny teaching beatniks how to pick “taters”…. but it did.

There was also something about this that reminded me of eating chocolate…. oh wait… that was probably left over from the dream I was having when the phone first rang back at the house.

For the next hour or so, I filled the barrels with the burning insulation and then lowered them down to the alleyway between Unit 1 and 2.  During this time I was still groggy from the lack of sleep and the entire process seemed like a dream to me.

I remember lying on my stomach next to the burning insulation.  Pulling the blocks out one at a time, layer by layer until I reached the precipitator roof underneath.  I placed each block of smoldering insulation in the barrel that had been lowered down by an overhead chain-fall near me.

When the barrel was about 3/4 full, we would work the chain fall over to the motorized hoist that would lower it down to the pickup truck bed 100 feet below.  When the barrel left the confines of the precipitator roof and the night air blew over the top of it, the insulation would burst into flames.  By the time the barrel landed in the back of the pickup truck the flames would be lighting up the alley way.

Scott doused the flames with a hose and an extinguisher and hauled the barrel of insulation off to a hazardous waste bin while I repeated the process with the next barrel that Scott attached to the hoist.

By the time we were through I smelled like something that crawled out of a damp fireplace.  My shirt and jeans were soaked with sweat and caked with pink insulation.  The SCBA was out of air after using it for an hour and we were ready to go home.

The operators said they would bring the empty extinguishers back to the plant and send the SCBA off to have it recharged.  We checked back in with the Shift Supervisor in the control room and told him we were heading for home.

I don’t remember which Shift Supervisor it was, though Gary Wright comes to my mind when I think about it.

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

Gary Wright is the red haird man in the front row with the big round glasses

I don’t remember which operator was helping us on the precipitator roof either.  I would usually remember those things, but like I said, I was still dreaming during this entire process.

Normally at this time, since it was close to 3:30 in the morning, we would opt to stay over and just do some odd jobs until it was time to start work because the 6 hour rule would still require us to come back to work at the regular time (see the Post: “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rule“).  Scott and I decided that we both needed a good shower and if we could catch even one hour of sleep before we had to head back out to work, that would help.

So, we climbed back into Scott’s truck and headed back to Stillwater to the bowling alley where I had left my car.  I don’t remember the drive home.  I don’t even remember taking off my shirt and jeans in the utility room where I walked in the house and placing them in the washing machine straightaway… though that’s what I did.

I know I took a shower, but all that was just part of the same dream I had been having since the phone rang earlier that night.  Usually I didn’t have trouble waking up when the phone rang in the middle of the night, but for some reason, this particular night, I never fully woke up.

Or… maybe it’s something else….  Could I have dreamed the entire thing?  Maybe I never did receive that call, and we didn’t have to go out to the plant in the middle of the night to put out a fire.  I mean… how crazy is that anyway?  Does it make any sense?

I suppose I will have to rely on Scott Hubbard to confirm that we really did fight that fire.  How about it Scott?

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

As Bill Gibson asked one time…. “Is the Fact Truer than the Fiction?”

Suppressing the Truth about Power Plant Coal Dust Collection

Some of you may be aware that an empty grain silo can explode if the dust from the grain is allowed to build up and an ignition source begins a chain reaction that causes the entire grain silo to explode like a bomb.  I haven’t heard about a grain explosion for a few years.  Maybe that is because a lot of effort is put into keeping the silo clean.  Think of how much easier it would be for a coal dust explosion.  After all… we know that coal when turned into a fine powder is highly combustible.

When you are covered in coal dust from head-to-toe day after day you seem to forget just how explosive the coal dust you are washing down can be.  Our coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was concerned after our downsizing in 1994 that by eliminating the labor crew from the roster of available Power Plant Jobs, that the operators may not be able to keep the entire coal handling system free from coal dust.

The plant had already experienced a major explosion the year before (in 1996) the “Dust Collector Task Force” was formed (See the post: “Destruction of a Power Plant God“).  It was clear that the question had been asked by those concerned, “Are there any other areas in the plant that could suddenly explode?”  Two electricians were asked to be on the Dust Collection Task Force. Jimmy Moore and myself.

Jimmie Moore

Jimmie Moore

We had a salesman of our Dust Collector come to the plant and train us on the proper maintenance of the dust collectors that were already in place. When he arrived he showed us a video that showed examples of plants that had explosions caused by coal dust.  Here is a picture I found on Google of a coal dust explosion at a power plant:

Power Plant after a coal dust explosion

Power Plant after a coal dust explosion

We heard a story about a coal plant where the explosion began at the coal yard, worked its way up the conveyor system, blew up the bowl mills and threw debris onto the main power transformer, which also blew up.  Ouch.  We thought it would be a good idea to do something about our coal dust problems.  Stopping an ounce of coal dust is worth a pound of explosives… as the saying goes.

The Instrument and Controls person on our team was Danny Cain.  He had become a Power Plant employee a year before the downsizing and had been at the plant for about four years at this point.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

When we began looking at our dust collectors, we found that the dust collectors on the dumper had been rusted out over the past 18 years since they were first put into operation.  the reason was that they were located down inside the dumper building below ground where they were constantly exposed to coal and water.  I hadn’t seen them actually running for years.  They were definitely going to have to be replaced with something.

Okay class… I know this is boring, but you have to learn it!

We had some fairly new dust collectors on the crusher tower and the coal reclaim, but they didn’t seem to be doing their job.  They used instrument air (which is clean, dehumidified air) in order to flush the coal off of some bags inside.  When they were installed, new instrument air compressors were installed in the coal yard just to handle the extra “instrument air” load for the dust collectors.  The very expensive and large dust collectors just didn’t seem to be doing anything to “collect” the dust.

Dust Collector System

Dust Collector System

You can see that the dust collector is very large.  You actually have to climb on top of them to change out the bags inside.

When the dust collector sales man came to talk to us about dust collection, in the middle of his “Proper Maintenance” speech he happened to mention something about…. “…and of course, if you don’t have the air pulse set at exactly 32 milliseconds, the dust collector isn’t going to work at all.”  “Wait!  What did he say?”  What pulse?”

He explained that Instrument air is puffed through the collector bags with exactly a 32 millisecond pulse at a predetermined interval.  If the pulse is longer or shorter, then it doesn’t work as well.  The idea is that it creates a ripple down the bag which shakes the dust free.  We had been studying our dust collectors in the coal yard, and the interval had been completely turned off and the instrument air was constantly blowing through the dust collectors.  This guy was telling us that it was just supposed to be a quick pulse.

Everyone in the room looked at each other with stunned silence.  The salesman just looked at us and said…. “It’s right there in the instruction manual….”  pointing his finger at the page.   We thought (or said)… “Instruction manual?  We have an instruction manual?”

We said,  “Class dismissed!  Let’s go to the coalyard after lunch and see about adjusting the “pulse” on the dust collectors.

In order to measure a pulse of 32 milliseconds, I needed the oscilloscope that I kept out at the precipitator control room to measure the “Back Corona” when trying to adjust the cabinets to their optimal voltage.  I ran out to the precipitator and retrieved it and brought it with me to the coal yard along with my tool bucket and my handy dandy little screwdriver in my pocket protector:

A pocket protector is a must for electricians and computer nerds who need a place to keep their small tools.

A pocket protector is a must for electricians and computer nerds who need a place to keep their small tools.

When we arrived at the crusher tower where the two long belts sent coal to the Power Plant 1/2 mile away, one of the belts was running.  coal dust was puffing around the equipment making the room hazy, which was normal.  Water hoses were kept running on the floor trying to wash at least some of the dust down the drain.  This was a typical day in the coal handling system.  Coal dust everywhere.

I opened the control cabinet for the dust collector and hooked up the oscilloscope.

I used an Analog oscilloscope like this until we were given a new Digital one where you could zoom in and do all sorts of neat things.

I used an Analog oscilloscope like this until we were given a new Digital one where you could zoom in and do all sorts of neat things.

When we arrived there was no pulsing.  The instrument air was on all the time.  So, I flipped a switch which put it in a pulse mode.  The pulse time was set up to the maximum setting of about a minute (that meant that when the pulse turned on, it stayed on for a minute).  As I was playing with the controls, three of the task force members were standing up on the walkway between the two belts watching the discharge from the dust collector (you see, after the dust collector collected the dust, it dropped it back onto the conveyor belt just up the belt from where the coal dropped onto the belt).  Nothing was coming out of the chute.

As I adjusted the setting down from one minute to one second, I had to keep changing settings on the oscilloscope to measure how long the air took to turn on and off.  When I finally had the pulse down within 1/10 of a second (which is 100 milliseconds), then I could easily measure the 32 millisecond interval that we needed.  I was beginning to think that this wasn’t going to really do anything, but I remembered that I had seen stranger things on the precipitator controls where the difference between a couple of milliseconds is like night and day.

When the pulse was down to 35 milliseconds I looked up toward the conveyor system because I heard a couple of people yelling.  They were running down the walkway as coal dust came pouring out of the dust collector chute causing a big cloud of dust to puff up.  We all ran outside and waited for the dust to settle.  We felt like cheering!

We were practically in disbelief that all we had to do was adjust the pulse of air to the right millisecond pulse and the dust collector began working.  This meant a lot more than a working dust collector.  This also meant that we needed only a fraction of the instrument air (literally about 1/20,000) than we had been using.

In other words.  The new Instrument Air Compressors at the coal yard that had been installed to help boost air pressure at the coal yard since the installation of the dust collectors were really never needed.  And all this was done by turning a screwdriver on a small potentiometer in a control cabinet.  It pays to read the manual.

a small Power Plant potentiometer like this

a small Power Plant potentiometer like this

Along with some rewiring of the controls to the dust collector system, and a redesign of the apron around the dust chutes by Randy Dailey and Tim Crain, the coal handling areas became practically dust free as long as regular preventative maintenance was performed.

Tim Crain

Tim Crain

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

That is, everywhere except for the coal dumper.  This is where the coal trains dump their coal into a hopper which is then carried on three conveyors out to the coal pile.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

You can see the conveyor going up to the building right next to the coal pile.  That is from the dumper which is the small off white building next to the fly ash silos.  The crusher tower is the tall thin building at the end of the long belts going up to the plant.

We still had a problem with the dumper.  The cost of buying new dust collectors and putting them outside where they wouldn’t be so quickly corroded by the harsh environment was “too costly”.  Jim Arnold, the maintenance Supervisor made that clear.  We had to come up with another solution.

Without a dust collector, the solution was “Dust Suppression”.  That is, instead of collecting the dust when it is stirred up, spray the coal with a chemical that keeps the dust down in the first place.  This was a good idea, except that it had to be turned off for three months during the winter months when it could freeze up.

A company called Arch Environmental Equipment came and talked to us about their dust suppression system.

Arch Environmental

Arch Environmental

They showed us something called:  The “Dust Shark”.

Dust Shark by Arch Environmental

Dust Shark by Arch Environmental

The dust shark sprayed the belt on the side with the coal and scraped the bottom side in order to make sure it was clean when it passed through.  This was the solution for the dumper.  It also worked well at other locations in the plant where you could use it to keep the area clean from coal when the coal was wet from the rain and would stick to the belt.

The task force was considered a success.  I have two side stories before I finish with this post.

The first is about Danny Cain.

Danny was a heavy smoker.  He had a young look so that he looked somewhat younger than he was. He had been born in July, 1964 (just ask the birthday phantom), so he was 33 during July 1997 when we were working on the task force, but he looked like someone still in college.  Whenever he would pull out a cigarette and put it in his mouth, he suddenly looked like he was still in High School.

I told Danny that one day.  I was always one to discourage people from smoking….  He seemed a little hurt, and I said I was just calling it like I saw it.  He was standing outside the electric shop smoking one day, so I took the air monitor that I used when I had to go in the precipitator and asked Danny if I could borrow his lit cigarette for a moment.

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

I put the butt of the cigarette up to the intake hose for the monitor about long enough for a puff and then I handed it back to him.  The monitor measures the amount of Oxygen in the air, the amount of explosive gases, the amount of Carbon Monoxide and the amount of H2S gas (Hydrogen Sulfide, an extremely toxic gas).  The monitor, as expected began beeping…

What we didn’t expect to see was that not only did the Carbon Monoxide peg out at 999 parts per million, but the H2S went out the roof as well.  In fact, everything was bad. The Percent explosive was at least 50% and the oxygen level was low.  It took about 5 minutes before the meter measured everything clean again.  Danny didn’t want to see that.

I said, “Danny?  Carbon Monoxide Poisoning!  Hello???!!!”

When we were on the Dust Collector Task Force, at one point we had to program “Programmable Logic Controllers” (or PLCs).  I had been to an Allen Bradley school a few years earlier where we had learned the basics for this.  Here is my certificate from 9 years earlier…

PLC Training Certificate

PLC Training Certificate

When Danny and I sat down to program the controller, it became clear that he expected the programming task to take a couple of weeks.  He started out by drawing some high level logic on the white board.  I said… “wait… wait…  let’s just start programming the thing.”  He told me that wasn’t the way we did things.  First we had to figure out the entire program, then we would program it.

The PLCs we were going to program were just some small ones we had bought to run the dust sharks and the dust collectors… Here’s one like it.

MicroLogix PLC like we were programming

MicroLogix PLC like we were programming

I told Danny when I program something I find that its a lot easier and quicker if we just program it as we understand the requirements and then that way we can test it as we go.  Then when we figure out what we need, we will be done.  In fact… it took us 4 hours and we were done… not two weeks.

End of the Danny Cain Side Story…. On to the second side story… much shorter….

I think it was March 2003 (the power plant men can remind me)…. a year and a half after I had left the plant, the Coal Dumper blew up.  It was the middle of the night, a coal train had finished dumping the coal about an hour earlier.  No one was in the dumper at the time and the entire dumper exploded.    The roof of the dumper, as I was told, was blown off of the building.  No injuries or deaths.  The “Dust Shark” Dust Suppression system had been turned off because it was winter.

I suppose that the insurance company ended up paying for that one.  I don’t know.  This is what happens when you say that it is too expensive to replace the dust collectors and instead you buy one of these:

Power Plant Feather Duster

Power Plant Feather Duster

From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers

Originally posted December 28, 2013:

Times were changing in 1987 when the electric company in Oklahoma decided that they needed to downsize the company in order to change with the new business environment.  I always seemed to think that the executives down at corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City knew that the old pioneers in charge of the Power Plants would be very difficult customers when it came to the new business model.

Like I said…. Times were changing.  The digital era was being introduced to the power industry.  We had already upgraded the precipitator controls to make them computerized.  Other areas of the plant were going to be next.  Especially the employees.  Of course, none of us knew that quite yet, except Bill Rivers, who was a natural visionary, and he was gone.

Side story time:

I had always been interested in computers and programming from the time I was a sophomore in High School when I had just turned 15 years old.  My friend Jesse Cheng had introduced me to one of the first programmable calculators, the HP-25.

Hewlett Packard 25

The HP-25 calculator

This was the most wonderful Christmas present I had ever received.  I literally felt myself fainting when I opened the present and found that I had been given a pair of cowboy boots, only to find an HP-25 calculator inside when I opened it up.  Ralphie had nothing on me that day.

It was much like the Christmas Story with Ralphie.  I had tried every with way to convince my parents that using a slide rule in High School was passe (pronounced “pass A”).  All the other students in my advanced chemistry class were using calculators, and I was still stuck with my dad’s old circular slide rule.  It was a pretty neat one, I’ll grant you that, but it just… well….. I could work things out on paper faster than I could use the slide rule.

The Gilson Atlas circular slide rule I used in High School

The Gilson Atlas circular slide rule I used in High School

I introduced my friend Jesse Cheng in the post “Why Do Power Plant Men Always Lose the Things They Love Most“.  He had an HP-25 calculator and had loaned it to me to take a Chemistry test.  He showed me how it used Reverse Polish Notation, which is different than a normal calculator, but more like a computer.

The calculator could be programmed with 49 steps.  Because it had a stack built right into it, and the reason it used Reversed Polish Notation, we could create all sorts of games with just those 49 steps.  The book that came with the calculator had a moon landing game.  We made more sophisticated games, like one called Battleship.

Anyway.  Because of this early exposure with actually programming something in a logical manner, I was eager to learn more about programming.  During college, my calculator was often sitting on my desk in the dorm room running a long program to help me perfect a random number generator.  Finally in my Junior year in college, my calculator was completely fried.

After I was married at the end of 1985, I began subscribing to a magazine called “Compute”.  It had actual programs in it in Basic.  I would read the programs to learn how it worked, but at that point, I didn’t own a computer, so all I could do was dream about writing programs.

It wasn’t until Thanksgiving 1987 when I went to visit my ol’ friend Jesse Cheng in Columbia, Missouri who was interning as a medical doctor that I felt a sudden need to have a computer of my own.  He had built a computer using a Heath Kit and we used it to play two computer games.  One was called Starflight:

Starflight by Electronic Arts

Starflight by Electronic Arts

The other was called F15 Strike Eagle:

F-15 Strike Eagle by Microprose

F-15 Strike Eagle by Microprose

When I returned home I was pretty eager to buy a computer.  Up until that time, every time my wife and I had gone to the mall, I always had stopped in the computer stores to look at the latest computers.  I never had really considered buying one.  But now, they had 20 megabyte hard drives!  And you could play these terrific games like Starflight and F-15 Strike Eagle.

So, one day after we had left the mall, and my wife could see the look on my face, she finally said…. “Why don’t you go and buy one?”  I asked her, “Are you sure?  Because you know what is going to happen if I get a computer.  I’ll be playing on it all the time.”  She said, “No.  I want you to go buy one.”  So we turned around and went back to the mall.

That was the start of my journey into the world of computers.

End of Side Story.

As I explained in the post “Boppin’ with Bif during the Power Plant Downsizing“, the company offered an early retirement package for everyone 55 years old and older.  They would give them full benefits to leave.  This meant that our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey, as well as the assistant plant manager, Bill Moler and the Plant Manager, Eldon Waugh were all going to retire some time in August 1987.

We had a retirement party for Leroy Godfrey out in the country at Diana Brien’s house.  A bunch of the electricians were there including Mark Meeks, who Leroy knew at the time was the one that was going to be laid off.  Mark commented about that later when he was told that he was losing his job that Leroy had sat there and smiled at him while we were at the party.  Mark knew Leroy didn’t like him, but hadn’t expected to be the one to go since everyone thought it would be Gary Wehunt, since he was the newest member in the shop.

I explained in the post, “The Passing of an Old School Power Plant Man — Leroy Godfrey” what Leroy’s management style was like.  It was very top-down, if you know what I mean.  It was like, “Because I told you so.”  No need to explain anything.  That was the world of Power Plant Management up to that point.

I think Corporate Headquarters realized that this needed to change in order for the company to compete in a world where electric companies could no longer count on the Corporation Commission to guarantee a sustainable electric rate or even a set number of customers.  The world of electric power was changing rapidly and the company needed to move on from the mentality that it could be run like a “good ol’ boys” club.

It is easier to teach young dogs new tricks than older and crankier ones.  It looked to me like this was a logical choice when looking back using hindsight.  I think the company was making a bold move.  I don’t think they really had much of a choice if they wanted to survive.

So, we had the main retirement party at the plant where people stood up and told stories about the old guys that were retiring.  Nothing much happened there except the part where Leroy Godfrey’s daughter stood up and said that we just had to work with him, while she had to live with him… see the post about Leroy above for the full story about that.

Then the following Monday.  I believe it was August 17, 1987, everyone was told to meet in the main break room for a meeting with our new management.  That was when we were introduced to our new plant manager, Ron Kilman.

I remember a certain part of the meeting very well.  Ron said something funny.  It didn’t matter exactly what he said.  I don’t even remember what it was.  Probably something self-deprecating.  I leaned over to Charles Foster, who had been my foreman for a while (on that day, it was officially Andy Tubbs).  I said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could tell jokes!”

Charles looked back at me and I raised my eyebrows and tilted my head while the corners of my mouth went down. — This was one of the signals I had learned while carpooling with Bud Schoonover when I needed to communicate with Dick Dale without saying anything out loud (see the post:  Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“.  This particular expression meant, “Maybe this won’t be such a bad thing.”

Ron Kilman remained the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma for the next 7 years.  The stories that I will post during this next year will all be at least partially from this time period.  During this time, there were some decisions that Ron made that I applauded, and others that even he would admit he wished he hadn’t made.

All in all, I think that Ron has a good heart and that those times when he did make a rash decision, it was evident that he was falling back to his “management training” and not managing from his heart.  Old School management training left a lot to be desired.

During the 7 years from 1987 to 1994, the power plant saw a lot of changes.  Some I have alluded to already.  Such as the move to computerize everything.  The other was a total change in how management works.  Or at least that was the attempt.

People were willing to step out of their regular day-to-day jobs and try new things that they thought would help the plant.  Many of these things were successful.  Some of them failed, but not so miserably as they would have if the earlier management had been around.  The employees felt as if they had more of a say in how the plant ran instead of feeling like they were just a bunch of tools running around fixing things.

I have a quote from Ron Kilman that said it all one day after a catastrophe had occurred.  It summed up his management style as opposed to his assistant manager, Ben Brandt.  I will relay the exact story later, but for now I’ll just say that when Ben Brandt saw what happened, the first thing that he said was, “Who did this?”  When Ron Kilman saw what had happened, the first thing he said was, “How can we prevent this from happening again?”

Ben’s approach was from the old school of thought.  Blame and punish the culprit.  Later when we were drastically changing the way process improvements took place, my favorite quote from Ben Brandt is, “I am the obstacle!  We aren’t going to change because I say so.”  We all had to agree.  He was definitely the obstacle.

Ron’s approach was one more like a leader.  “Let’s get the job done right.”  Sure, he is human, so the decisions weren’t always perfect, but I think in general, he was leading where other people may have been dragging.

Well…  I will say no more for now…  I look forward to writing stories about this time period during this next year.  I’m sure there are a lot of those at the plant just as eager to see how I portray the different events that took place during this time.

Comments from the original post:

  1. The Conservative Hill Billy December 28, 2013:

    HP 25? The only model older is Fred Flintstone’s bird chiseling into rock tablet!

  2. Monty Hansen March 4, 2014:

    One day, a fellow operator and I brought in our old slide rules, just to show. Not the round one like yours, but straight and mine had a leather case. A young engineer came hurrying through the control room and said, “I need a calculator – QUICK!” so I handed him my leather case & he ran out, about 30 seconds later he came back with a puzzled look on his face & said “No, I don’t need to MEASURE something, I need to CALCULATE something” We all had a hearty laugh!

Comments from the last repost:

  1. Ron Kilman December 31, 2014

    I loved the old Heath Kits. I built a 14 watt amplifier and an AM/FM receiver that I used for years (both were the tube type – pre-transistor). It was always satisfying to invest a few hours, save a few dollars, learn some new skills, and enjoy a product you couldn’t buy at a store.

  2. David Emeron January 2, 2015

    I still have my 25. It still works.

Last Days as a Power Plant Labor Crew Hand

Originally posted December 14, 2012:

I have heard the relationship between Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick referred to as the “Punch and Judy Show”. Ok. I thought. Punch and Judy. Sounds like a show from the early 50’s. Must have been a comedy. I thought that for a long time until one day I ran across a brief history of the Punch and Judy Show. It turned out that Punch and Judy was a puppet show from the time of Queen Anne of England. She was queen of England from 1702 to 1714. I could only find a painting of Queen Anne. Didn’t anyone ever think about taking her photograph?

Queen Anne of England

Queen Anne of England

Anyway, once I learned more about Punch and Judy, I realized that this was probably a better description of the Rivers – Sonny relationship than those people realized. It turns out in the first version of the Punch and Judy show, Punch actually strangles his child and beats his wife Judy to death and beats up on other people as well. I suppose that was “entertainment” back then. Now we only have things like “The Terminator”!

Punch and Judy

Punch and Judy Puppet Show

I carpooled with Bill Rivers at this particular time when I was a janitor and while I was on labor crew (except during the summer when I carpooled with my summer help buddies). Each day Bill Rivers would explain about some trick he had played on Sonny that day. The one thing that amazed Bill the most was that every day he could play a joke on Sonny, and each day, Sonny would fall for it.

This reminded me of when I was in Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri and I used to borrow a pencil from my friend Bryan Treacy each day and each day I would chew it up to the point where it was practically useless. I had to come up with different diversionary tactics each day, but somehow I was able to coax a wooden pencil from my friend. Before he would realize what he had done, I had already chewed it up from one end to the next. I liked to think that I was tricking Bryan each day, but I also thought that it was odd that Bryan would have a new pencil every time, and he probably made sure that his mom kept a full stock of pencils just for my enjoyment in eating them (I also wondered if I was getting lead poisoning from all the yellow paint I was ingesting).

Bryan Treacy today is a doctor living in Moore Oklahoma. I would like to drop by his office without seeing him some time just to see if he has any wooden pencils laying about that I could leave all chewed up. I wonder if he would realize I had been there. He might read this blog from time-to-time, so I may have just blown my cover.

I mentioned Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick because they were the first two electricians that I worked for before becoming an electrician. I worked on the precipitator while I was on the Labor Crew. See the Post:

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

I also mentioned before that I owe my decision to become a Power Plant Electrician to Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman at the time. I was a janitor and cleaning the electric shop office and lab were part of my duty. How I came to be the janitor of the electric shop is explained further in the post:

Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement

I had found the floor scrubbing machine in ill repair. Charles helped me put it back in running condition. He explained how to take care of the batteries and to keep them properly charged.

We had a Clarke Floor scrubber similar to this one

We had a Clarke Floor scrubber similar to this one

When the electric shop had an opening they tried to recruit me while I was still a janitor, but the Evil Plant Manager had a rule at the time that when you were a janitor, the only place you could go from there was onto the Labor Crew. That was when Mike Rose was hired to become a backup for Jim Stevenson that worked on the air conditioning and freeze protection. I knew about the janitor ruling so I didn’t have my hopes up. Besides, at the time I didn’t have any electrical background.

Charles asked me to take the electrical courses that were offered by the company. The company offered correspondence courses, and in about 3 weeks, I had signed up for them, read the books, and taken the tests. While I was on the labor crew I signed up for a House wiring course at the Vo-Tech. I was taking that course when I learned that Larry Burns was moving from our electric shop to go to another plant. It was then that I applied for the job as a plant electrician.

The main power transformer for Unit 1 had been destroyed by the heat wave that summer (1983) when the plant had tested it’s durability on the hottest day. The unit was offline for a couple of months while GE created a new transformer and shipped it to us.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

After the main power transformer was destroyed and it took so long to ship in a new one, it was decided that we would keep a spare on hand. That way if it went bad again, we could swap them out quickly. That is probably the best assurance that we wouldn’t lose that transformer again. We had that spare transformer sitting around for years collecting taxes. I’m sure we must have paid for it a few times over again.

During the time that the unit was offline, and we weren’t shaking boiler tubes or cutting the ash out of the economizer tubes, I was working with Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick on the precipitator. The precipitator (by the way), is what takes the smoke (ash) out of the exhaust, so you don’t see smoke coming out of the smokestacks.

Bill and Sonny were pretty well sure that I was going to be selected to fill the opening in the Electric Shop, so they were already preparing me to work on the precipitator. Of all the jobs in the electric shop, this one had more to do with electronics than any of the others. That gave “being an electrician” a whole new dimension. I was even looking forward to taking an Electronics course at the Vo-Tech in the spring.

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

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

I was getting updates from Bill and Sonny about the progress of the job opening and they were telling me about the battle that was going on between the Evil Plant Manager and the Electrical Supervisor. Eldon Waugh, the plant manager at the time wanted Charles Peavler to be chosen as the electrician. He had an electrical background, because he had wired his barn once.

The ultimate reason why the plant manager wanted Charles Peavler to be the new electrician was because I had been placed on the blacklist due to the incident that took place earlier that I had described in the post:

Take a Note Jan Said the Manager of Power Production

Thanks to Larry Riley’s performance review, and his purposeful procrastination of the Plant Manager’s request to modify my performance review, and Charles Foster’s insistence that they follow the procedures that were laid out in the new Employee Application Program (known as the EAP), the argument stopped with Charles Foster’s statement: “Let’s just take whoever has the best performance rating as it is laid out in the company policy and leave it at that.” I was chosen to fill the position for the opening in the Electric Shop.

I was actually called to Eldon Waugh’s office while I was sandblasting the Sand Filter Tank. See Post:

Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love

When I arrived in Eldon’s office I was covered from head to toe in sandblast dust. My hair was all disheveled and my shirt was soaked with sweat. Jack Ballard (the head of HR) was sitting there along with Leroy Godfrey and Charles Foster. I knew what it was about because according to Bill Rivers on the way home the day before, they had already decided that they were going to accept me for the position.

Eldon Waugh explained that I was being offered the job that I had applied for in the electric shop. I felt really humbled at the time. Even though I was expecting it, I felt surprised that it was actually happening. To me, being an electrician was like the greatest job in the world. The electricians were like an elite team of super heroes.

I had the occasion to watch the electricians while I was a janitor in their shop and many of them were like these super intelligent beings that could quickly look at a blueprint and grab their tool bucket and head out to fix the world. I was very grateful for the opportunity, and at the same time apprehensive. I wasn’t sure if I had the quality of character and intelligence to become a part of this team. This was truly a dream come true for me.

Few times in my life has this happened to me. The day I was married. The day I became a Father. The day I drove to Dell to begin my first day as a Programmer Analyst. These were all major milestones in my life. The first major milestone was the day I became an electrician. Because of the way that I am (I don’t know…. maybe it’s because I’m half Italian), I just wanted to break out in tears and hug Eldon Waugh and cry on his shoulder. Instead, I just managed to crack a small smile.

I thanked them and started to leave. Then Jack Ballard said something interesting. As I was leaving he asked, “Uh…. Do you accept the offer?” Oh. In my surprise and elation, I hadn’t said anything but “Thank You”. Jack’s expression was that it wasn’t official until it was official. So, I replied, “Yes. I accept the offer”. “Ok then,” Jack replied. And I left to go crawl back in my hole and continue sandblasting the Sand Filter tank.

My last day on the Labor Crew was on November 4, 1983. I was leaving my Labor Crew Family behind and moving onto a new life in the electric shop. This was hard for me because I really did consider most of the people on the Labor Crew as family. Fred Crocker, Ron Luckey, Jim Kanelakos, and Ronnie Banks. Curtis Love and Chuck Moreland. Doretta Funkhouser and Charles Peavler. Jody Morse and Bob Lillibridge.

Most of all, I knew I was going to miss Larry Riley. I had worked with Larry from the day I had first arrived as a summer help in 1979. Now it was November, 1983. Larry was a hero to me. I love him dearly and if I had ever had an older brother I would have liked someone with the character and strength of Larry Riley. He remains in my prayers to this day.

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

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him

The last day on the labor crew I suspected foul play. Mainly because the last day that Bill Cook was on the Labor Crew, he had asked us if we would throw Larry in the intake as a going away gift. I had worked with Bill when we were summer help together and I felt like I owed him one, so I told him I would help.

As we were driving from the Coalyard Maintenance building (the home of the labor crew) to the plant maintenance shop that day, Bill Cook, who was driving, suddenly turned toward the intake pumps and stopped the truck. By the time Larry had figured out what was going on, we had dragged Larry out of the truck and I was carrying him over to the Intake and getting ready to throw him in.

Larry had worked with me long enough to know that once I had set my mind on something, there was no turning back. He had tried to escape from my grip, but I had him where he couldn’t escape. As I climbed with him over the guard rail and headed toward the edge of the water, Larry said the only possible thing that could make me stop in my tracks. He said, “Please Kevin. Don’t do this.”

I was paralyzed. Stuck between my word with Bill Cook that I would help him throw Larry in the brink, and a plea from someone who meant the world to me. There wasn’t but one choice to make. I set Larry down. I walked back to the truck and I told Bill, “I’m sorry. I can’t do it.” I returned to my seat in the back of the crew cab. Without my help, no one else had the resolve and strength to follow through with Bill’s wish. We drove on to the Maintenance Shop.

So, on my last day on the Labor Crew, I thought that something similar might be planned for me. As soon as we left to go to work that morning, I headed up Belt 10 and 11. That is the long belt on the left side of the power Plant picture on the upper right side of this post…. Ok. I’ll post it here:

Power Plant view when looking through the wrong end of the binoculars

The long belts run from the coalyard to the plant. Oh. And this is the intake. Just across from here is where I was going to toss Larry in the lake

Once up 10 & 11 and 12 & 13, I was in the Surge bin tower. (The Surge Bin Tower is the white building you can see between the two boilers near the top that has the conveyor belt entering it from the left). From there, I roamed around looking for some coal to clean up. I figured I would stay far away from my labor crew buddies that day.

At the end of the day, I travelled back down belts 10 & 11 and headed into the office in the Coalyard Maintenance building to fill out my last timecard as a Laborer. Beginning next Monday on November 7, I would be an “Electrician.” Along with the empty feeling at the bottom of my heart was a feeling of excitement for the new adventure that awaited me.

Power Plant Pigeons Wars Continue

Originally posted November 22, 2014:  Added an addendum to the end of this story.

Power Plant Pigeons actually believe that the entire reason Power Plants were built in the first place was to provide new rent-free Pigeon roosts for Power Plant Pigeons.  Large lakes are placed alongside the Power Plant so that the pigeons can spend their days frolicking away in the immense Pigeon Bird bath supplied by the electric company.  Fields of grain are planted throughout the power plant realm in order to provide a nutritional diet to Power Plant Pigeons.  Even men with bright yellow hardhats are supplied for pigeons to fly over and target practice their Power Plant Pigeon Poop dropping skills by aiming at the bright hardhat dots below.

One Power Plant Pigeon

One Power Plant Pigeon

I wrote about the pursuit to remove Power Plant Pigeons from the Power Plant Realm two years ago when I wrote the post “Poison Pill for Power Plant Pigeons“.  In that post I explained how we had put out live traps to capture Power Plant Pigeons.  Jody Morse taught me that it was better to persuade than to try to force the pigeons into the live traps.

After I joined the electric shop, we came up with a few other ways to rid the area of pigeons.  This was more of a personal crusade, since I spent a lot of time working on the roof of the precipitator, which was a favorite haunt of Power Plant pigeons.  I had spent a lot of time with a broom sweeping up the Power Plant Pigeon leavings only to come back a few weeks later to find the entire area redecorated with artistic renditions of Salvadore Dali paintings of melting clocks.

See the resemblance?

See the resemblance?

One day when when Bill Bennett strolled into the electric shop…. well… “Strutted” is a better word to describe Bill Bennett’s type of strolling.  Bill was a skinnier version of a skinny Bill Cosby… for those of you who have not heard me mention him before….

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Anyway, Bill strutted into the electric shop carrying a box one day and brought it into the office.  He told me that he had ordered some equipment that was going to help me on the precipitator roof with the pigeons.  He pulled a smaller box out of the big box and handed it to me.  It was a highly technical piece of equipment known as a Sonic Bird Repeller:

 

Sonic Bird Repeller

Sonic Bird Repeller

Bill had bought 8 of these.  Four for each precipitator.  They were guaranteed to keep the pigeons away.  Evidently they make a high pitched noise that you can’t hear, but the pigeons can and it annoys the heck out of them.  I thanked Bill for thinking about me..  I think I was so touched by his concern that I gave him a hug…. or… maybe that was for some other reason…. it’s been a while.  This was some time around 1989.

Anyway.  I took four of the boxes and headed for the precipitator roof to try them out.  On the way there I as I was thinking about the noise that these four bird repellers were going to make, I hoped that the birds were going to be able to hear the annoying sound emanating from the little speakers over the incredibly loud noises of vibrators buzzing constantly and the 672 rappers all banging away as 20 pound slugs of metal pound their anvils in order to shake the ash from the plates inside the precipitator.

You see, the roof of the precipitator is one of the noisiest places on the Power Plant Planet next to all the steam lines pushing thousands of pounds of pressure of steam through them, or next to the large fans blowing air into and out of the boiler.  — Actually, the plant was a noisy place in general… so I just hoped that the bird repellers were going to be successful in their attempt to annoy the pigeons with their imperceptible buzzing noise, or whatever noise they made.

When I arrived on the roof, I placed the 4 sonic bird repellers in the four strategic positions on the roof in order to cover the widest area possible…. that is, toward the four corners where the four electrical plug-ins were mounted on the coffin houses.  It was thoughtful of the construction hands to have placed those four receptacles just where I wanted to plug in the four sonic bird repellers ten years later.

I tried to see if I could hear anything when I turned them on, but I didn’t hear anything.  I figured that was a good thing since I wasn’t supposed to hear anything according to the instructions.  So, at least they passed the first test.

I hoped that this wasn’t a situation where the “Emperor Has No Clothes”, except in this case “The Sonic Bird Repeller Has No Sound”.  How could I tell?  I figured I would wait around and see what happened.

They didn’t interrupt the melodic symphony of rappers and vibrators as they beat and buzzed out their rendition of Brandenburg’s Concerto #3…. well, that’s what I liked to pretend anyway, since I had to spend hours at a time listening to them as I tested and adjusted rappers and vibrators as part of my normal Precipitator Roof Maintenance program.

I thought I would hang around for a while and do some adjustments on the rapper/vibrator cabinets while the pigeons all fled the scene in order to escape the atrocious sonic repellent rhapsody emanating from those four tyrannical jukeboxes I had just placed on the roof.  Glancing over my shoulder from time to time, I kept a watch on Fred and Mabel that were perched on one of the side beams not too far one of the Sonic Sound Machines.  They seemed to be more interested in what I was doing than being annoyed by the new song in town.

I could have swore that after a half hour or so, those two pigeons had developed a new way of bobbing their heads as they hid from me.  It was normal for the pigeons to climb along the beams overhead and periodically peak over the edge to see what I was up to.  I didn’t mind too much when their little heads were peering over the side, it was only when their tails waved over the side that I became attentive.  That was always a bad sign.  They did it so nonchalantly as if they were just trying to turn around on that narrow beam so they could head back in the other direction, but I knew better.

We kept the Sonic Repellers on the roof for about eight months.  I never really noticed a decrease in the pigeon population, but I do think a few operators changed their routine hangout to some other part of the boiler.  Even Glenn Morgan stopped hanging out around the transformers where he used to go hide when he was trying to “meditate” somewhere where he wouldn’t be disturbed.

I finally figured out that even though I couldn’t hear the sonic bird repellers they would give me a headache.  I don’t normally have headaches, so when I do, I know something out of the ordinary is happening…. such as I am being poisoned by Carbon Monoxide, or Curtis Love is telling me how sorry he is that he almost killed me again, or in this case…. I am working for a long period of time in the vicinity of one of the sonic bird repellers. After I figured that out, I would turn them off when I was working around them and my headaches would cease.

I suspected that when we were not on the precipitator roof, the smarter bunch of Power Plant Pigeons probably re-calibrated the repellers so that they would cause headaches in humans, so the pesky humans would leave the pigeons in peace.  They weren’t smart enough to figure out that all I had to do was unplug them temporarily.  So their backup plan was to drop special packages on my shoulder while I was working under tail causing me to forget to plug the sonic repellers back on when I left in a hurry to go wash up.

One Power Plant Pigeon

One of the more intelligent Power Plant Pigeons

After the failed and back-fired experiment with the Sonic Bird Repellers, Bill Bennett had another course of action up his sleeve.  He had contacted someone that was known as “The Bird Lady”.  She had her own company where she would go around and persuade pigeons (and other birds) to leave their roosts using another unconventional means that was deemed “less cruel” than feeding them to the welder ET (who had moved to Muskogee anyway), and outright poisoning them (which was against company policy).

Her approach was to give them something more like “food poisoning” without killing them.  After first meeting her in Bill Bennett’s office, I followed her to her car in the parking lot.  She opened her trunk and took a bucket and filled it with grain from a larger tub.  then she took some kind of powder and poured it in the bucket.  Then she stirred the bucket of grain until the powder had worked its way throughout the grain.  She was wearing the same kind of gloves you would wear if you were doing dishes and didn’t want to get dishpan hands.

Like this except she only had two hands

Like this except she only had two hands

She explained that the powder contained her special mixture of cayenne peppers and other spices that would upset even the most hardened pigeon gizzard in the Power Plant Kingdom.  After they ate her grain, they would decide that the food around this establishment just isn’t up to code and they will fly away to find “greener pastures”.

I took her to the top of the precipitator and she poured some piles of grain not far from where I had tried the sonic bird repellers a couple of years earlier.  She didn’t want to place the grain out in the open where the regular songbirds and other flying beasties would eat it.

She came to the plant once each month for about 3 months, and that was about it.  The pigeons didn’t seem to like the grain that much, so they left it alone for the most part, except when they were in the mood for Mexican.

The third and final way that we tried Power Plant Pigeon Population Control was by the use of Pellet Guns.  Scott Hubbard and I were working on the precipitator roof during an overhaul and the pigeons were being extra pesky.  They would pick up twigs and small rocks and stuff and would drop them on our heads in an attempt to chase us away.  So, we decided to retaliate.  After all, one can only take so much abuse.

So, the next day, we brought our pellet guns from home to work with us and clandestinely carried them to the precipitator roof where we could shoot the birds that were pestering us.  I killed one with my first shot which really impressed Scott Hubbard, since I had never mentioned in all the years we carpooled together that I was a hunter (which I wasn’t).  That was just beginner’s luck.  Scott killed a few more pigeons that day, but not that many when you get down to it.

Daisy Pellet Rifle

Daisy Pellet Rifle

It didn’t take long for the pigeons to realize what we were up to, so they would just stay hidden on the beams over our heads.  This didn’t give us the opportunity to just take pot shots at them, and since we didn’t have all day to just stand around and wait for their little heads to peer over the side of a beam, and since their tails didn’t really contain any “shootable” material, we just left them alone for the most part.

So, we finally decided to do the next best thing than to try to run the pigeons off or kill them.  We decided to live with them.  I had a few discussions with some of their leaders about where they should NOT poop and I agreed that I would stop calling them names like “Poop Head” hence the names “Fred” and “Mabel”.  And after that we sort of got along a lot better.  This was a new skill I had learned after I realized that I had to do the same thing for a couple of upper management people at the plant.  If I could do it with them, certainly I could learn to get along with a group of Power Plant Pigeons.

I could end this story by saying that we lived happily ever after and maybe we did.  I will share a story about what happened once when the pigeons decided to just pack up and leave one day.  I can tell you.  The result was not pretty.  But that is a story for next year (which is only a little more than a month away).

As an addendum to this story:

Years later after I had left the Power Plant to work for Dell in Texas, one day I was while wearing one of my coveted Power Plant shirts, something happened that reminded me of the days on the Precipitator roof.  I took this opportunity to let everyone around me experience a little bit of the thrill that I used to experience on a weekly basis…

While painting the ceiling in my son’s bedroom one day, I happened to drip some white paint on my shirt in just the right spot to make it look like a pigeon had pooped on my shirt.  Recognizing right away the significance of this, I quickly changed my shirt into a white t-shirt to continue painting.

Instead of quickly rubbing the paint off of the shirt, which probably would have smeared all over and ruined the shirt, I let it dry just as it was.  For the past 8 years I have proudly worn this shirt every opportunity I have knowing that when others see me, they will automatically assume that I have been “pooped on” by a bird.

Of course, I have no reaction when I see their inquisitive expression.  I just act as if nothing is wrong, which is easy, because nothing is.  Here is a picture of the shirt with the pseudo-bird dropping:

Shirt with white paint to celebrate pigeon droppings

Shirt with white paint to celebrate pigeon droppings

Notice that I continue wearing this shirt even though the collar has become frayed over the years.  I keep expecting it to disappear one day into the box on the front doorstep that is sent off to help Disabled Vets.  Even though I would be honored to have a disabled vet wear my shirt, I think it would be more likely to end up in a rag box.

 

Power Plant Blackbirds and Smokestack Jumpers

Originally posted November 16, 2013:

Most of us have watched the Alfred Hitchcock Thriller “The Birds” at least once in their life. When I was young it used to come on TV around Thanksgiving about the same time that Wizard of Oz would rerun. What a mix of movies to watch after eating turkey in one of our Italian relative’s house in Kansas City as I was growing up. During those years of sitting passively by watching the birds gang up on the humans, it never occurred to me that some day I might take part in my own private version of “Blackbird Wars” amid the playground equipment found in a typical Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

Blackbirds in Alfred Hitchcock's "Birds"

Blackbirds in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Birds”

A tale like this is best starts out with the line, “It was a cold and windy night…” That was close. My story begins with, “It was a dark and cold winter morning…” Unit 1 was on overhaul. That meant that it was offline while we climbed inside the inner workings of the boiler, precipitator, Turbine and Generator in order to perform routine yearly maintenance. Being on overhaul also meant that we came to work earlier in the morning and we left later in the evening. Since it was in the middle of the winter, it also meant that we came to work in the dark, and we left for home in the dark…. These were dark times at the Power Plant for those of us on long shifts.

At this time in my career I was working on Unit 1 precipitator by myself. I had my own agenda on what needed to be done. Sometimes I would have contractors working with me, but for some reason, we had decided that we didn’t need them for this overhaul. Maybe because it was an extra long one and I would have plenty of time to complete my work before it was over.

I can remember grabbing my tool bucket and heading for the precipitator roof to begin my day of calibrating vibrators and checking rappers to make sure they were operating correctly. I was wearing my winter coat over my coveralls because it was cold outside. In Oklahoma, 20 degrees was pretty cold. 20 degrees in Oklahoma with 30 mile an hour winds gives you a pretty low wind chill…. which chills you to the bone.

I had a red stocking liner on my hardhat that wrapped around my forehead that kept my head warm.

A red hardhat liner like the one I was wearing

A red hardhat liner like the one I was wearing

All bundled up, I left the shop through the Turbine Room basement and headed toward the breezeway between Unit 1 and 2. I climbed the stairs up the Surge Bin Tower until I had reached the landing where you can go to either Unit 1 or 2 precipitator roofs. Using rote memory after having performed this same task every morning for the past month and a half, I turned toward Unit 1.

The Precipitator is a big box that takes the ash out of the exhaust from boiler. It drops the ash into hoppers where it is transported to the coalyard into large silos, where trucks haul it away to make concrete for roads and buildings. The precipitator roof is full of large transformers (84 of them), 168 vibrators that shake the 29568 high voltage wires in the precipitator, and 672 rappers that bang on the 7560 metal plates. The transformers are used to collect the ash using “static cling”. The rappers and vibrators are used to knock the ash into the hoppers.

The Precipitator roof is a very noisy place when all the rappers and vibrators are running. It is covered with a sheet metal roof. It wasn’t originally designed that way, but someone with foresight thought that it would be a great idea to insulate the precipitator roof. In doing so, they needed to add a roof to keep the insulation from being exposed to the weather.

It wasn’t noisy that morning as I reached the ladder and quickly tied my tool bucket to a rope hanging down from above. It was dark, and lonely and quiet. Well. There were some lights, but this morning, the light from the precipitator didn’t seem to shine much as I pulled myself up the ladder. When I reached the top I turned around and sat at the top of the ladder and began pulling my tool bucket up.

It was at that moment when I realized that something was much different than usual. I had spent a couple of years working on the precipitator roof and inside and I had become friends with each of the transformers, and I even knew the unique sounds of each of the vibrators. I could tell when a rapper wasn’t rapping correctly. There would be a slight sucking sound as the rapper was drawn up into the cylinder…. There was a slight pause, then it would drop onto an anvil that was connected to the plate rack. But this morning everything was turned off. Yet, I could feel that there was something wrong.

There was a strange hum. I was trying to place it as I grabbed each foot of rope and pulled my bucket closer. There was more than a hum… There was a weird muffled sound all around. I had a chill down my back as if I was being watched. I quickly grabbed the handle of the bucket and stood up and turned around. I was ready to spot whoever it was that was spying on me!

What I saw immediately sucked the breath out of me. The precipitator is 200 feet wide and 120 feet long. Every inch as far as I could see was black. Not just the equipment, but the air itself.

During the night a cold wave had moved into Oklahoma from the north. With it, it had brought a horde of blackbirds. Thousands upon thousands of them. They had found refuge from the cold blasting wind in the precipitator roof enclosure. Safe and warm and undisturbed….. That is, until I arrived.

It was as if the blackbirds had discovered me at the same time I had found them. They suddenly burst into a frenzy.

The Birds Movie Poster

More like The Birds Movie Poster

I stood there in wonder for a few moments watching the swirling mass of blackness obscuring what little light was given off by the 100 watt Mercury Vapor lights. As I began to move toward the walkway the flying mass of feathers parted so that the birds kept a safe distance from me. As I grabbed the rungs of the ladder, I suddenly realized why keeping an aviary at a Power Plant is not a good idea. A warm moist gooey mass squished between my fingers as I pulled myself up the ladder and onto the walkway.

I took a few steps to where a package of WypAlls was laying on the walkway and pulled out a couple of heavy duty sheets of durable wiping material:

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple: WypAlls!

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple: WypAlls!

I decided that I was going to try to chase the birds out of the shelter so I began waving a couple of rags around as I walked down the walkway. All it did was cause the birds to bunch up in corners away from me. They would circle back around behind me. So, when I reached the other end of the roof, I climbed down to one of the rapper control cabinets and powered it up.

The rappers and vibrators began their music. A medley of humming and clanking. I went to each of the 14 cabinets on the roof turning on each of them until the entire roof had risen to a symphony of buzzing and banging. Music to my ears. After wiping down a few places where I needed to work, I spent some time testing and taking notes so that I could make adjustments in the control cabinet after I had made my way around each rapper and vibrator in that area. Then I left for break.

The sun was now up and daylight was shining through the openings in the precipitator roof. When I returned from break the hoard of blackbirds had decided to continue their journey south.

There was one time when I was working as an electrician at the Power Plant where I felt close to being a bird myself. It was when I had to travel to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack to repair some equipment. I was not only at the top of the smokestack, but I was literally sitting on the edge of it and shimming my way around it.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

Why me? Well. Our A Foreman, Bill Bennett summed it up like this…. “Have Kevin do it. He likes heights.” Sure. Just like he said I liked to get dirty, so put me in a coal bin to fix a proximity switch. Or, just like he said that I liked climbing in holes in the ground, so I was assigned the job of fixing all the manhole pumps at the plant. What could I say? At some point, he was right. I couldn’t argue with him. Especially since he would call me a “scamp” with such endearment (See the post “Tales of a Tall Power Plant A Foreman“).

Well. You learn something new every day when working at a power plant, and I sure learned something that day. Quite a few things. I already knew that inside the tall concrete smoke stack was another smoke stack made out of brick. The outer stack would sway in the strong Oklahoma wind, while the brick stack inside would remain steady. On a windy day, at the very top, the stack would sway as much as six inches.

On this particular day I rode on top of the stack elevator to the top so that I could climb up onto the rim where the lightning rods were placed about 6 feet apart around the top.

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks. The boilers are half the height at 250 feet.

When the wind is blowing there is a certain amount of a difference in the electric potential at the top of the stack as there is on the ground, so you could hear a slight crackling sound around the lightning rods even though it was a clear sunny day. I was wearing a safety belt and as I stopped to work, I would clip the lanyard to the closest lightning rod knowing full well that if I decided to jump off the stack, the lightning rod would just bend and the lanyard would just slide off the end.

I was not in any mood to do any jumping that day. I was there to fix jumpers instead. You see, there is a metal cap on the top rim of the smoke stack. Actually, there is a metal rim on the top of both smoke stacks. The concrete one and the brick stack inside the concrete stack. And there was supposed to be a set of jumpers around the top of the stacks connecting the two metal caps together electrically. This way, if perchance a bolt of lightning hit the inside stack, then the electricity would be routed to the outer rim and down the large grounding cables to the ground grid 500 feet below.

As I shimmied around the top of the stack, I became aware that as far as I could see… clear to the horizon, there wasn’t anything higher than me. At first this threw me a little off balance, because I usually focused on other objects to help me keep my bearings. In this case, only the other smoke stack was as high as me. So, I focused on the rim where I was sitting and tried as hard as I could to ignore the fact that I was a tenth of a mile up in the air.

I removed the broken jumpers and replaced them with the new ones. I didn’t think these new jumpers would last long considering that as the stack swayed back and forth, it would quickly wear the jumpers in to. But, there was some regulation or something that said they had to be replaced, and so that was why I was there.

I noticed while I was working on the top of the stack that birds were flying around below me. Actually, most of them were way below me. Few birds would fly as high as the stacks, and they were usually the predatory types that liked to swoop down on unsuspecting pigeons below. It felt a little odd to be working and looking down at birds flying when it is so normal to look up to see birds. From up there, a large flock of birds like those in “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock didn’t look so intimidating. They were nothing but small dots far below.

Alfred with his own smokestack and blackbird

Alfred with his own smokestack and blackbird

Comment from original post:

  1. Ron November 16, 2013

    Great story!
    As I read this, it reminded me of the time (55 + years ago) I climbed the ladder with my “Royal Ambassador” leader into my church’s steeple. Then we pulled the “tool” up we had tied to the rope. Pigeons had chosen this location to raise their families. The inside of the steeple would become covered in pigeon poop and my help was requested to dispatch the birds (and clean up the steeple). The dispatching “tool” we used was a “Benjamin Pump” BB gun! We had a great time getting rid of the steeple poopers.

    Power plants are great places to make life-long memories. Thanks for posting yours!

    1. Grandpa Guy November 21, 2014

      Here in Rochester we understand exactly what you put up with in the roof. Every winter tens of thousands of crows make downtown their home away from the cold and owls in the countryside. Many trees have more crows in the winter than leaves in the summer. Honest. It can be spooky, and sticky, walking under trees when occupied.

      Thanks for the story.

Petty Power Plant Jokes Played on Prominent Power Plant Men

Originally posted September 13, 2013:

Of the 1,500 jokes played on Power Plant Men while I was working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I can only remember a handful of the smaller ones. There are some I’m saving for later topics. Sometimes it was the smallest jokes that spoke the loudest. Especially when great care was taken to play the joke just right.

I think it was the idea that someone thought enough of you to spend a great deal of time setting up a joke just for the one little moment that the person finally realizes that they have been played. It’s when that smile comes across their face that all that work pays off. The realization that someone else would spend so much time just to make you smile was a good indication that they really did care about you.

In the post called, “Why Stanley Elmore and Other Power Plant Questions” I told a story about when I was a janitor in the electric shop and one of the electricians Andy Tubbs had been playing jokes on me while I was cleaning the bathroom. The funniest one was when I had turned around for a moment and when I went to go grab the dust mop, the handle to the mop was missing, while the dust mop was just sitting there on the floor.

Like this only with a mop handle

Like this, except the bracket for the handle was still there.

Charles Foster, my electric foremen had told me of a time when he played a joke on a welder in the welding shop that was welding away on something. The power to the welding machine was around the corner. Charles picked up the cord for the welder and kinked it like you would kink a water hose to stop the water from flowing. When he kinked it, the welding machine stopped working.

welder

An arc welding machine like this only gray

The welder looked at the machine to find that the power was off. Then he looked over and saw that Charles was standing about 40 feet away grinning at him holding the kinked cable. About that time, Charles straightened out the cable and the welding machine turned back on. The welder spun around to find the welding machine humming away. He looked back at Charles who kinked the cable again and the welding machine again shut off.

Amazed, the welder said something like, “I didn’t know you could do that!” Charles shrugged, dropped the cable and walked off. Unbeknownst to the welder, as Charles left, he met up with the other electrician that had been opening an closing the electric disconnect where the welding machine received its power. Leaving the welder unaware.

An Electrical Disconnect like this one by Square D

An Electrical Disconnect like this one by Square D

In the electric shop there is one bathroom. It is shared by all electricians, and therefore it has a lock on the door because Diana Lucas (Brien) had to use it. But sometimes someone might not realize that it was used jointly by both male and female members of the Power Plant family, and they might not lock the door. So, on occasion, Dee would go into the bathroom only to find that it was already occupied.

Once she entered the bathroom and found that someone was in the stall. She waited around for a while and asked me to go check it out because the guy was taking quite a long time and what at first was only a minor inconvenience was becoming higher priority. So, I entered there bathroom and sure enough. The stall was closed and there was a pair of boots easily visible under the stall where someone sat taking their own sweet time.

Dee finally figured that it wasn’t worth the wait and walked across the T-G floor to the maintenance shop to the nearest women’s restroom. After a while someone else remarked that someone was in the bathroom and had been in there a long time. At that point, it became obvious that either someone had died while sitting on his thinkin’ chair, or something else was definitely amiss.

So, one of the electricians decided to see if everything was all right. That was when they peered into the stall to find that there was only a pair of boots sitting all by themselves in the stall. It turned out that O D McGaha had put them there. He locked the stall, then climbed out under the stall and left them there. — It was a pretty good joke. It had half the shop concerned about the mysterious stranger in the stall.

Soon after this episode, a new sign was placed on the bathroom door:

A Power Plant Unisex bathroom sign

A Power Plant Unisex bathroom sign

Other little jokes like that were played on individuals throughout the 20 years that I worked at the plant. One small one that is a typical example of many was when Mickey Postman drove to work one morning with a brand new motorcycle. He was really proud of the new machine. Well. Mickey’s nickname at the time was “Pup”.

Mickey had two main reasons why he was a prime target for having jokes played on him. First, he took the jokes pretty well, because he would have a definite reaction. Sometimes good. Sometimes not so. The second reason was that he was red-headed. That meant that when he realized that a joke was being played on him, his face would turn as red as his hair. Everyone witnessing this couldn’t help but smile.

Mickey had worked his way into the maintenance shop from a janitor as I had, though he missed the labor crew (I believe) because it hadn’t been dreamed up by Ray Butler yet. He and I were practically the same age. He is 7 months older than I am. So, I always felt like, “but for the grace of God go I”. No. I don’t really mean it. I care a lot for Mickey and I never personally considered him as a candidate for jokes. I guess it was because he already had a cohort of Power Plant Men willing to play that part.

So, anyway. Mickey had this shiny new motorcycle parked out in the parking lot all day, so it was inevitable that at least one of the many Power Plant Men that had been assigned to the “Play a Joke on Mickey” detail, would happen to pass by the motorcycle in the parking lot. One of them would have felt obligated to reach down and turn the gas valve off.

motorcycle gas valve

The Gas valve on a motorcycle

The word had gone out throughout the plant that the valve had been closed on Mickey’s motorcycle so that we were all to expect that about the time that Mickey hit the bridge over the discharge on the way out the gate, his motorcycle would run out of fuel and die. It’s times like this that you never forget. A simple joke. A couple hundred Power Plant men all chuckling as they drove across the discharge bridge grinning at Mickey trying to restart his brand new motorcycle that had died perfectly positioned midway across the bridge. His face beaming as red as his hair!

Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

I won’t go into the Wedding present that was given to Mickey Postman the day before his wedding. I intended this post to be only about petty or “minor” jokes. That one was a doozy. Actually. I will never post anything about it, other than to say that I wouldn’t ever say anything about how the machinist’s blue dye was applied.

Machinist's Blue Dye

Machinist’s Blue Dye

Machinist’s Blue Dye, or Layout fluid is used when honing down a surface to make sure it is flat. There are other uses for it, but that is the one I am most familiar with. I wonder how that blue color looked along with Mickey’s red face…

A example of how the blue dye shows the low spots on a flat surface

A example of how the blue dye shows the low spots on a flat surface

Here are examples of two small jokes that took a lot of preparation.

The first one involved Howard Chumbley’s chair. Howard was a foreman in the electric shop. One of the nicest Power Plant Men in all of God’s creation. He was shorter than most taller people. And he was particular about how high his chair was adjusted. Being particular about anything automatically meant that you were a prime target for a joke dealing with whatever you were particular about.

Back then (1984), the height of an office chair was adjusted by turning it upside down and spinning the wheel bracket around to screw in or out the shaft.

An old office chair that is adjusted by spinning the bracket where the wheels attach

An old office chair that is adjusted by spinning the bracket where the wheels attach

So, Charles and I would rotate the bottom of the wheels around 1/4 turn each day. That meant just moving the wheels around to one set of wheels. Not very much. Every week the bracket would only be turned about 1 time, especially given that we wouldn’t remember to do it every day.

Eventually, after 5 or 6 weeks, Howard would go to sit down in his chair and realize that it was lower than he would like it to be. So, he would turn it over on and lay the seat on his desk and spin the wheel bracket around a few times. Then test it and do it again until it was just the right height. Howard probably never thought about why every month and a half or so, his chair would be too short and he would end up turning it over and adjusting it back up.

This was a joke that Howard never knew was being played, but every time that chair went upside down, you can bet that Charles and I were grinning from ear-to-ear to have been there to watch it.

Ok. the last story has to be about Gene Day. After all. There was no one that I loved playing jokes on more than Gene Day. Actually, half of them, Gene probably never knew had been jokes. I have written two posts about playing jokes on Gene Day. One of them was just about one joke. See “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” and “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“.

So, this particular week, I noticed that Gene Day was the auxiliary operator for Unit 1 Boiler. That meant that at least once each shift he was going to walk through the Unit 1 Precipitator Control Room that housed the controls for the 84 transformers on the precipitator roof.

So, I decided, this was a perfect opportunity to play a petty joke on Gene Day. I took an Eeprom chip that was used to hold the control program for a Precipitator control cabinet, and proceeded to rewrite the program.

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the precipitator controls

I found the code in the assembly language code that sent the message to the display when there was an overcurrent trip. That is, when the cabinet trips, the little LCD display would say: “Overcurrent Trip”. I rewrote the code to say: “Gene Day Trip”. This meant finding the code string: 4F:76:65:72:63:75:72:72:65:6E:74:20:54:72:69:70 and replacing it with: 47:65:6E:65:20:44:61:79:20:54:72:69:70:20:20:20. I wrote the program for a specific cabinet in the middle of the precipitator that I could trip without causing an issue in the general operation of the precipitator.

Then I took the chip to the Precipitator Control room and replaced the control chip for that cabinet and left it running. I had seen Gene Day on his way to the Precipitator Control room the day before, so I had a pretty good idea what time he would be passing through. Because no matter how lazy Gene Day was, he was always consistent. (Gene you know I’m kidding…. right?)

Anyway. I spied Gene leaving the control room around the time I expected, so I made haste to the Precip. Control Room and with my screwdriver, after opening the cabinet, I reached down to the tripping mechanism for an overcurrent trip and I tripped the cabinet. Then leaving from the opposite direction that Gene would be arriving, I slipped out of the Precip Control Room and headed for the plant control room to see Gene’s reaction when he arrived.

About the time I was going around the corner in the breezeway toward the Unit 1 elevator, I saw that Gene had already exited the precip. area, so when I entered the T-G basement I quickly called Gene on the gray phone. Gene turned around and went back in the Precip switchgear (which was just below the control cabinets).

When Gene answered the phone I told him that I was looking at the Precipitator controls in the control room and I saw that one of the cabinets had tripped and I was wondering if he had just been out there because the error indicated something very strange. He said he had just been in there and hadn’t noticed that a cabinet had tripped.

So, I asked him if he could look again, it was 1D8. I needed to know what the cabinet display said had happened because it looked like Gene had done something to it. He told me he hadn’t touched anything, but he would go look. — of course, when went to look at it, the display showed: “Gene Day Trip”.

This is the size of the LCD Display on the Precipitator Control cabinets

This is the size of the LCD Display on the Precipitator Control cabinets

So, I was sitting at the precipitator computer for Unit 1 when Gene Day arrived in the Control room. As was typical with Gene Day, my head began to waiver and my eyes began to blur as Gene had grabbed me by the throat and was shaking me back and forth. My eyes may have been blurry, and I know that I was acting totally surprised as if I didn’t know what had happened, but you can believe that inside I was grinning ear-to-ear!

Comment from original post:

Jack Curtis September 21, 2013:

Folks will go to elaborate lengths and great effort to perform jokes like these on fellow workers while feeling put-upon and resentful at something half the trouble requested done by the boss… We are a funny species!

More comments from the last repost:

    1. mpsharmaauthor September 18, 2014

      “Folks will go to elaborate lengths and great effort to perform jokes like these on fellow workers while feeling put-upon and resentful at something half the trouble requested done by the boss… We are a funny species!” Keeps it entertaining, right? 🙂

    1. wisediscerner September 18, 2014

      I’ve been following your blog, and in the early a.m. after I’ve gotten the coffee started and my husbands lunch prepared and breakfast fixed, then I sit down to relax and I read your stories, I start laughing, sometimes really hard, and my husband looks at me like I’ve fallen off my rocker!!! What a good way to wake up in the mornings. Thank you for sharing. May God bless you today!

    2. Dan Antion September 18, 2014

      Cool stories. Workplaces should be like this. I think this is something that is lost on people these days, that you need to laugh.

    1. Ron Kilman September 18, 2014

      I love these stories!
      OK Kevin – how could you remember those lines of Eeprom code from 30 years ago?
      Also, I know somebody is playing a joke on me (like what you did to Howard Chumbley). My bathroom scales are going up about 1 pound every week. Can’t figure out who’s responsible yet 😦

        1. Plant Electrician September 18, 2014

          The code is easy to remember: “Overcurrent trip” is translated into ASCII numbers. Where a capital A is 65 and a small A is 97 and then just count up from there. So, the capital O is the ASCII number 79 which when converted to a Hexidecimal number is 4F (16 goes into 79 4 times, with 15 left over. An F represents the number 15). So, “Overcurrenct trip” becomes: 4F:76:65:72:63:75:72:72:65:6E:74:20:54:72:69:70. “Gene Day Trip” is three characters shorter than Overcurrent trip, so, I had to add extra spaces at the end, which are the three “20”s (an ASCII number of 32) on the end of 47:65:6E:65:20:44:61:79:20:54:72:69:70:20:20:20. in order to keep the addresses on the chip consistent.

          Another note is that each two digit Hexidecimal code is equal to 8 bits which is a byte. You can determine what each byte is by taking each digit of the Hex number and translating it into 4 binary digits. So… 1 is 0001, 2 is 0010, 3 is 0011, 4 is 0100, 5 is 0101, 6 is 0110, 7 is 0111, 8 is 1000, 9 is 1001, A is 1010, B is 1011, C is 1100, D is 1101, E is 1110, F is 1111

          So, the Hex number for a Capital O is 4F, and that indicates an 8 bit byte of: 01001111

          And that’s how computers interpret the world. Zeroes and One’s. Or On and Off. So, if there is voltage on the first bit it is a 1 if the voltage is missing, it is a 0.

  1. chriskeen September 18, 2014

    So funny! We used to have fun like this on the volunteer fire department. Always makes the tough stuff better when you can laugh together.

Suppressing the Truth about Power Plant Coal Dust Collection

Some of you may be aware that an empty grain silo can explode if the dust from the grain is allowed to build up and an ignition source begins a chain reaction that causes the entire grain silo to explode like a bomb.  I haven’t heard about a grain explosion for a few years.  Maybe that is because a lot of effort is put into keeping the silo clean.  Think of how much easier it would be for a coal dust explosion.  After all… we know that coal when turned into a fine powder is highly combustible.

When you are covered in coal dust from head-to-toe day after day you seem to forget just how explosive the coal dust you are washing down can be.  Our coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was concerned after our downsizing in 1994 that by eliminating the labor crew from the roster of available Power Plant Jobs, that the operators may not be able to keep the entire coal handling system free from coal dust.

The plant had already experienced a major explosion the year before (in 1996) the “Dust Collector Task Force” was formed (See the post: “Destruction of a Power Plant God“).  It was clear that the question had been asked by those concerned, “Are there any other areas in the plant that could suddenly explode?”  Two electricians were asked to be on the Dust Collection Task Force. Jimmy Moore and myself.

Jimmie Moore

Jimmie Moore

We had a salesman of our Dust Collector come to the plant and train us on the proper maintenance of the dust collectors that were already in place. When he arrived he showed us a video that showed examples of plants that had explosions caused by coal dust.  Here is a picture I found on Google of a coal dust explosion at a power plant:

Power Plant after a coal dust explosion

Power Plant after a coal dust explosion

We heard a story about a coal plant where the explosion began at the coal yard, worked its way up the conveyor system, blew up the bowl mills and threw debris onto the main power transformer, which also blew up.  Ouch.  We thought it would be a good idea to do something about our coal dust problems.  Stopping an ounce of coal dust is worth a pound of explosives… as the saying goes.

The Instrument and Controls person on our team was Danny Cain.  He had become a Power Plant employee a year before the downsizing and had been at the plant for about four years at this point.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

When we began looking at our dust collectors, we found that the dust collectors on the dumper had been rusted out over the past 18 years since they were first put into operation.  the reason was that they were located down inside the dumper building below ground where they were constantly exposed to coal and water.  I hadn’t seen them actually running for years.  They were definitely going to have to be replaced with something.

Okay class… I know this is boring, but you have to learn it!

We had some fairly new dust collectors on the crusher tower and the coal reclaim, but they didn’t seem to be doing their job.  They used instrument air (which is clean, dehumidified air) in order to flush the coal off of some bags inside.  When they were installed, new instrument air compressors were installed in the coal yard just to handle the extra “instrument air” load for the dust collectors.  The very expensive and large dust collectors just didn’t seem to be doing anything to “collect” the dust.

Dust Collector System

Dust Collector System

You can see that the dust collector is very large.  You actually have to climb on top of them to change out the bags inside.

When the dust collector sales man came to talk to us about dust collection, in the middle of his “Proper Maintenance” speech he happened to mention something about…. “…and of course, if you don’t have the air pulse set at exactly 32 milliseconds, the dust collector isn’t going to work at all.”  “Wait!  What did he say?”  What pulse?”

He explained that Instrument air is puffed through the collector bags with exactly a 32 millisecond pulse at a predetermined interval.  If the pulse is longer or shorter, then it doesn’t work as well.  The idea is that it creates a ripple down the bag which shakes the dust free.  We had been studying our dust collectors in the coal yard, and the interval had been completely turned off and the instrument air was constantly blowing through the dust collectors.  This guy was telling us that it was just supposed to be a quick pulse.

Everyone in the room looked at each other with stunned silence.  The salesman just looked at us and said…. “It’s right there in the instruction manual….”  pointing his finger at the page.   We thought (or said)… “Instruction manual?  We have an instruction manual?”

We said,  “Class dismissed!  Let’s go to the coalyard after lunch and see about adjusting the “pulse” on the dust collectors.

In order to measure a pulse of 32 milliseconds, I needed the oscilloscope that I kept out at the precipitator control room to measure the “Back Corona” when trying to adjust the cabinets to their optimal voltage.  I ran out to the precipitator and retrieved it and brought it with me to the coal yard along with my tool bucket and my handy dandy little screwdriver in my pocket protector:

A pocket protector is a must for electricians and computer nerds who need a place to keep their small tools.

A pocket protector is a must for electricians and computer nerds who need a place to keep their small tools.

When we arrived at the crusher tower where the two long belts sent coal to the Power Plant 1/2 mile away, one of the belts was running.  coal dust was puffing around the equipment making the room hazy, which was normal.  Water hoses were kept running on the floor trying to wash at least some of the dust down the drain.  This was a typical day in the coal handling system.  Coal dust everywhere.

I opened the control cabinet for the dust collector and hooked up the oscilloscope.

I used an Analog oscilloscope like this until we were given a new Digital one where you could zoom in and do all sorts of neat things.

I used an Analog oscilloscope like this until we were given a new Digital one where you could zoom in and do all sorts of neat things.

When we arrived there was no pulsing.  The instrument air was on all the time.  So, I flipped a switch which put it in a pulse mode.  The pulse time was set up to the maximum setting of about a minute (that meant that when the pulse turned on, it stayed on for a minute).  As I was playing with the controls, three of the task force members were standing up on the walkway between the two belts watching the discharge from the dust collector (you see, after the dust collector collected the dust, it dropped it back onto the conveyor belt just up the belt from where the coal dropped onto the belt).  Nothing was coming out of the chute.

As I adjusted the setting down from one minute to one second, I had to keep changing settings on the oscilloscope to measure how long the air took to turn on and off.  When I finally had the pulse down within 1/10 of a second (which is 100 milliseconds), then I could easily measure the 32 millisecond interval that we needed.  I was beginning to think that this wasn’t going to really do anything, but I remembered that I had seen stranger things on the precipitator controls where the difference between a couple of milliseconds is like night and day.

When the pulse was down to 35 milliseconds I looked up toward the conveyor system because I heard a couple of people yelling.  They were running down the walkway as coal dust came pouring out of the dust collector chute causing a big cloud of dust to puff up.  We all ran outside and waited for the dust to settle.  We felt like cheering!

We were practically in disbelief that all we had to do was adjust the pulse of air to the right millisecond pulse and the dust collector began working.  This meant a lot more than a working dust collector.  This also meant that we needed only a fraction of the instrument air (literally about 1/20,000) than we had been using.

In other words.  The new Instrument Air Compressors at the coal yard that had been installed to help boost air pressure at the coal yard since the installation of the dust collectors were really never needed.  And all this was done by turning a screwdriver on a small potentiometer in a control cabinet.  It pays to read the manual.

a small Power Plant potentiometer like this

a small Power Plant potentiometer like this

Along with some rewiring of the controls to the dust collector system, and a redesign of the apron around the dust chutes by Randy Dailey and Tim Crain, the coal handling areas became practically dust free as long as regular preventative maintenance was performed.

Tim Crain

Tim Crain

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

That is, everywhere except for the coal dumper.  This is where the coal trains dump their coal into a hopper which is then carried on three conveyors out to the coal pile.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

You can see the conveyor going up to the building right next to the coal pile.  That is from the dumper which is the small off white building next to the fly ash silos.  The crusher tower is the tall thin building at the end of the long belts going up to the plant.

We still had a problem with the dumper.  The cost of buying new dust collectors and putting them outside where they wouldn’t be so quickly corroded by the harsh environment was “too costly”.  Jim Arnold, the maintenance Supervisor made that clear.  We had to come up with another solution.

Without a dust collector, the solution was “Dust Suppression”.  That is, instead of collecting the dust when it is stirred up, spray the coal with a chemical that keeps the dust down in the first place.  This was a good idea, except that it had to be turned off for three months during the winter months when it could freeze up.

A company called Arch Environmental Equipment came and talked to us about their dust suppression system.

Arch Environmental

Arch Environmental

They showed us something called:  The “Dust Shark”.

Dust Shark by Arch Environmental

Dust Shark by Arch Environmental

The dust shark sprayed the belt on the side with the coal and scraped the bottom side in order to make sure it was clean when it passed through.  This was the solution for the dumper.  It also worked well at other locations in the plant where you could use it to keep the area clean from coal when the coal was wet from the rain and would stick to the belt.

The task force was considered a success.  I have two side stories before I finish with this post.

The first is about Danny Cain.

Danny was a heavy smoker.  He had a young look so that he looked somewhat younger than he was. He had been born in July, 1964 (just ask the birthday phantom), so he was 33 during July 1997 when we were working on the task force, but he looked like someone still in college.  Whenever he would pull out a cigarette and put it in his mouth, he suddenly looked like he was still in High School.

I told Danny that one day.  I was always one to discourage people from smoking….  He seemed a little hurt, and I said I was just calling it like I saw it.  He was standing outside the electric shop smoking one day, so I took the air monitor that I used when I had to go in the precipitator and asked Danny if I could borrow his lit cigarette for a moment.

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

I put the butt of the cigarette up to the intake hose for the monitor about long enough for a puff and then I handed it back to him.  The monitor measures the amount of Oxygen in the air, the amount of explosive gases, the amount of Carbon Monoxide and the amount of H2S gas (Hydrogen Sulfide, an extremely toxic gas).  The monitor, as expected began beeping…

What we didn’t expect to see was that not only did the Carbon Monoxide peg out at 999 parts per million, but the H2S went out the roof as well.  In fact, everything was bad. The Percent explosive was at least 50% and the oxygen level was low.  It took about 5 minutes before the meter measured everything clean again.  Danny didn’t want to see that.

I said, “Danny?  Carbon Monoxide Poisoning!  Hello???!!!”

When we were on the Dust Collector Task Force, at one point we had to program “Programmable Logic Controllers” (or PLCs).  I had been to an Allen Bradley school a few years earlier where we had learned the basics for this.  Here is my certificate from 9 years earlier…

PLC Training Certificate

PLC Training Certificate

When Danny and I sat down to program the controller, it became clear that he expected the programming task to take a couple of weeks.  He started out by drawing some high level logic on the white board.  I said… “wait… wait…  let’s just start programming the thing.”  He told me that wasn’t the way we did things.  First we had to figure out the entire program, then we would program it.

The PLCs we were going to program were just some small ones we had bought to run the dust sharks and the dust collectors… Here’s one like it.

MicroLogix PLC like we were programming

MicroLogix PLC like we were programming

I told Danny when I program something I find that its a lot easier and quicker if we just program it as we understand the requirements and then that way we can test it as we go.  Then when we figure out what we need, we will be done.  In fact… it took us 4 hours and we were done… not two weeks.

End of the Danny Cain Side Story…. On to the second side story… much shorter….

I think it was March 2003 (the power plant men can remind me)…. a year and a half after I had left the plant, the Coal Dumper blew up.  It was the middle of the night, a coal train had finished dumping the coal about an hour earlier.  No one was in the dumper at the time and the entire dumper exploded.    The roof of the dumper, as I was told, was blown off of the building.  No injuries or deaths.  The “Dust Shark” Dust Suppression system had been turned off because it was winter.

I suppose that the insurance company ended up paying for that one.  I don’t know.  This is what happens when you say that it is too expensive to replace the dust collectors and instead you buy one of these:

Power Plant Feather Duster

Power Plant Feather Duster

Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor

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 sever 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 Committee” 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.

Murrah Building before the bombing in 1995

Murrah Building before the bombing in 1995

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. I think. His replacement was killed in the bombing. Here he is Greg today as a full Colonel:

 

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

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.

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).

One of two General Policies and Procedures Binders

One of two General Policies and Procedures Binders

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.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman

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.

 

Robet B. Reich as he looked in 1994

Robet B. Reich as he looked in 1994

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…

The Siege of the Branch Davidian Compound outside Waco Texas

The Siege of the Branch Davidian Compound outside Waco Texas

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 when 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.

A copy of The Hopper Tracking Sheet

A copy of The Hopper Tracking Sheet

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.

The OSHA Man Cometh

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 all over 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 instantly 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?

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

Our Precipitator was longer than this one, but you can see the hoppers on the bottom

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

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me or Larry, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

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 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 row 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 anyway 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 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.  This meant that about 4,000 pounds of ash was pressing down from the ash above in order for it to just pull apart.

An insulator like this only 3 foot long

An electric insulator like this only 3 foot long

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 a sidekick in Cheers named Paul Willson:

Paul Willson in Cheers

Paul Willson in Cheers

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, so he wasn’t going to hear anything that I would 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.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman – Who wouldn’t want to be honest to a nice guy like this?

He asked me if I had been trained how in the OSHA Confined Space regulations.  I responded by saying that we had a class in 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.

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

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.

Page 1 of the statement I signed

Page 1 of the statement I signed

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 Jack 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 Jack’s life story by the time we were done.  Bill smiled…. just like this:

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to smile like Bill Bennett

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

  1. Ron Kilman August 23, 2014

    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.