Tag Archives: Precipitator

Power Plant Paradox of Front to Back and Back to Front

Originally posted February 8, 2014:

After the downsizing in 1987 some new engineers were assigned to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  I wasn’t used to an engineer actually pausing to listen to what I was saying.  I remember the first time I said something sort of out of the ordinary and Doug Link stopped and asked me why I thought that.  The usual response was to roll their eyes as if I was some dumb electrician that almost knew how to lace my boots correctly… Ok… Lacing your boots isn’t as easy as it looks…. especially when you put them on in the dark in the morning before you leave the house.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

Now, before you think “Front to Back and Back to Front” has to do with lacing up my boots, you are mistaken.

Back to Doug Link.  I was surprised when  he actually stopped and asked me to explain myself.  I know I had said something that had sounded a little bombastic, but what I believed to be true anyway.  So, I sat down and explained it to him.  It was something that ran contrary to what a person might think was logical.  Once I explained it to him, he said he understood what I meant. — Wow.  What kind of new engineers are they breeding out there (I thought).  Well he did go to Missouri University at the same time I did, we just didn’t know each other at the time.

Doug Link

Doug Link

Another engineer that showed up at the plant was Toby O’Brien.  Even the maintenance department recognized right away that Toby would listen to you.  Not only would he listen to the crazy rantings of an electrician like me, but he would also ask advice from mechanics!  And…  (now brace yourself for this) Welders!  I believe that if he could corner a janitor, he probably would have listened to them as well…. because… well… I was just a janitor pretending to be an electrician, and he listened to me all the time.

So, what does this all have to do with “Front to Back and Back to Front”?  Well.  Almost nothing.  Except that these new engineers knew about a secret that we were all keeping from George Bohn, another engineer that I talked about in the post “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer”  In that post we had kept from George that the computer had an extra drive partitioned on the hard drive for a while.  In this post, I will talk about a much more significant secret (at least in George’s eyes).

With the reorganization Terry Blevins worked on one precipitator and I worked on the other.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

For those of you who don’t know, the precipitator is what takes the “smoke” out of the exhaust from the boiler so that it can be collected in hoppers and sent up to the coalyard to silos where trucks would come and haul it away to make highways.

Fly Ash Hoppers

Fly Ash Hoppers underneath the precipitator

The electric Supervisor Tom Gibson thought that a little competition would be good between the two teams to see who could make their precipitator work the best.   Only it didn’t work out that way.  Terry had one way of doing things and I had a completely opposite way of approaching a problem.  Terry would study a problem.  Analyze it, and do everything he could to understand what was going on.  Then he would go out and make a major change.  I on the other hand would make incremental small changes and observe the effects.  Then work toward what seemed to work best.

Between the two of us approaching a problem from completely different points of view, we were able to come up with solutions that apart I don’t think either of us would have ever thought about.  So, we became a team instead.

Now for the boring part of the story.  I am going to explain Back to Front…..   With the new digital controls, we could set up the controls so that each of the 84 precipitator transformers could be backed down one KV (kilovolt) at a time in order from the front cabinets to the back ones.  Then it would start from the front again backing the power on the cabinets down slightly each time.  — I know this is boring.   The front of the precipitator is where the exhaust enters the precipitator.  The back is where the exhaust leaves the precipitator.

The cabinets would do this until the amount of ash going out of the smoke stack hit a certain limit that was 1/4 of the legal limit (the legal limit was 20% opacity.  So, we controlled the cabinets to keep the opacity at 5%).  Opacity is the amount of light that is blocked by the ash coming out of the smokestack.

Well, if the opacity went too high (say 6.5%) the back cabinets would start powering all the way back up, and it would work its way toward the front of the precipitator until the opacity went down below the set limit. — sound good?  Well… after running this way for a while we realized that this wasn’t so good.

What ended up happening was that the front cabinets which normally collected 90% of the ash were always powered down and the back cabinets were powered up, because they would power up each time the opacity would spike.  So the ash collection was shifted from the front to the back.  This meant that if there was a puff of ash going out of the stack, it probably came from the back of the precipitator and there wasn’t anything that could be done to stop it.

We asked George if we could reverse the Front to Back powering down of the cabinets so that it went from Back to Front.  That way the back of the precipitator would be powered down most of the time and the front would be powered up.  This would keep the back half of the precipitator clean and if there was a need to power them up because of some disturbance in the boiler, the back of the precipitator would be in good shape to handle the extra ash.

George, however, insisted that since the EPA had tested the precipitator with the new controls when they were setup to go from front to back, we couldn’t risk changing it, or the EPA could come back and make us put scrubbers on the plant.  We were grandfathered into not needing scrubbers and we didn’t want to go through that mess and cost that would have raised electric rates for everyone.

This was frustrating because we could easily see that every hour or so we would be sending big puffs out of the smokestack on the account of the inherent flaw of backing the cabinets down using a Front to back method.  Even though we knew the engineers would blow their top if they found out, we called the EPA one day and asked them about it.  The EPA said they didn’t care as long as the precipitator wasn’t physically being altered and we were adjusting the controls to maximize operations.

So, one day when I was in the Precipitator Control Room, I walked over the main processor unit in the middle of the room where the seven sections of 12 cabinets each plugged in.  I took the A row cable and swapped it with G.  I took B and swapped it with F, C and swapped it with E.  D I just left it where it was since it was in the middle.

Then I walked to each Cabinet in a section and swapped the eeprom chip from cabinet 1 and put it in 12.  And from cabinet 2 and put it in 11, and so on.  Without leaving the precipitator control room, I had just changed the order of the cabinets backing down from “Front to Back” to “Back to Front”.  As far as the control room was concerned, nothing changed (unless you looked closely at the voltages on the cabinets on the computer.  The front cabinets usually were around 30kv while the back were closer to 45kv).

So, now that the cabinets were backing down from back to front, everything worked a lot smoother.  No more hourly puffs and wild power swings as cabinets were released.  As long as George didn’t know, he was happy.  The precipitator suddenly was working very well.  So well in fact that one winter while the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator was using only 70 Kilowatts of power and the opacity was well below the 5% threshold.

The space heaters in the precipitator control room were using over 120 kilowatts of power.  More than the entire precipitator.  This is important because normally the precipitator used more power than any other piece of equipment in the plant.  It was not unusual before we had the back down working for one precipitator to use 3 Megawatts of power.  That is 3,000 Kilowatts.

Then one day in 1992 an electric Intern (who later became a full time engineer) came in the precipitator control room with George Bohn while we were calibrating the cabinets one at a time.  George began explaining to Steve Wilson how the precipitator controls worked.  We were in the front section (G row).  George introduced Steve to us and started explaining to him about the back down and how it worked.

Steve Wilson

Steve Wilson

Just then, the cabinet that he was showing him powered up. — oops.  This was a front row cabinet and in George’s mind, they should be the last to power up.  He looked around and could see that the cabinets in F row were still powered down.  I thought, “The jig is up.”  George said, “That’s not right!  That shouldn’t happen!”  (Ok George.  We’ve only been doing this for 3 years and you are just now noticing?).

So, I asked him what the problem was (knowing full well).  He explained that the cabinet in G row had just powered up.  — You could tell when a cabinet was powered down because a certain light in the lower left corner of the display would be on.  I looked at the cabinet and the Primary current limit light was lit.  Obviously not in the back down mode.

So, I said this, “George, this cabinet still is in the back down mode.  You just can’t tell because it is also hitting the primary current limit and both lights won’t light up at the same time.”  — Geez… I thought…. would he believe this hair brain explanation?  George nodded.  Then he went on to explain to Steve what I just said to him as if it was something he knew all the time (even though I sort of just made it up).

A short time after Steve and George left, I found Steve and explained to him that we really do power down the precipitator from back to front instead of front to back, because front to back doesn’t work, and I explained to him why it works better and why we don’t tell George Bohn.  Steve was another sensible engineer that knew how to listen and learn.  I enjoyed the little time I spent working with him.

Well…. The efficiency of the precipitators caught the attention of EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute), and they wanted to come and study our precipitator controls.  Not only the back down feature we were using but also a pulse capability that Environmental Controls had that allowed you to power off for so many electric pulses and then power on again.

So, when the EPRI scientists showed up to test our precipitators for a couple of weeks trying the different modes of operation, I knew that it was important for them to really understand how we were operating the precipitators.  So, after George had taken them to the computers in the control room and explained the back to front back down mode.

I took them aside one at a time and explained to them that even though the computer looked like it was backing down from front to back, it was really backing down from back to front.  I explained to them why we had to do it that way, and I also explained to them why we didn’t let George know about it.  They all seemed to understand, and for the next two weeks no one from EPRI let the cat out of the bag.

To this day I don’t think George knew that we had swapped the direction of the back down from “front to back” to “Back to front”.  At least not until he reads this post.


Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron February 8, 2014:

    Now I know why George came into my office one day and begged me to have you committed!

    Great story!

    1. Plant Electrician February 8, 2014:

      Yeah. That’s one of the reasons. 🙂

  2. Monty Hansen April 2, 2014:

    I really appreciate how you describe the two methods of problem solving, and how together you could come up with solutions that neither one of you may have thought of.

    1. Plant Electrician April 2, 2014:

      Thanks for your comment Monty. It was annoying at first. I kept wanting Terry to see my point of view. Then I started seeing the benefit of taking both approaches.


Power Plant Pilfering and Being Peeved with Peavler

Originally posted April 5, 2014:

Today, work ended in a strange way.  I was working away at Dell when I had a call with a business partner to go over some configuration of our timekeeping application.  When I joined the call, the person on the other end of the line, who usually sounded like a normal woman with a slightly Hispanic accent sounded more like an insect alien with a very nervous tic.

I tried several quick remedies on my computer to resolve the audio issues I was experiencing.  You see, at Dell, when we use the telephone, we are actually using our computer with a headset attached.  After shutting down a few processes that I knew were not necessary in the hope of clearing up our communication, I thought that maybe rebooting my computer would be the simple solution.  That was the lesson I had learned back at the gas-powered power plant in Harrah Oklahona in 1985.

Ellis Rook had told me back then that he didn’t mess with trying to figure out why the phone system wasn’t working.  Whenever there was a problem, he preferred to just reload the program from disk, which took about a half an hour.  No worries that all the phones in the plant would be down for a half an hour as the Rolm Phone computer was rebooting.  So, I rebooted my system, since restarting the communication program didn’t work.

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

When my computer rebooted and I attempted to log in, when the screen would go blank just before the moment when you would expect the wallpaper to show up, my computer would indicate that it was logging me off and then would shutdown only to restart again….  Drats!  …and I had this important call with my coworker that I was sure had not really changed into the alien that had been talking to me moments before.

I tried this a couple more times, and each time the computer would shutdown and restart.  So, I swiveled around in my chair and turned to my current manager who was sitting across the bullpen cube from me and I said, “My computer has crashed.”  It just keep restarting.  She replied, “Go take it down to the computer clinic and have them fix it.  They are great!  They will fix you up right away.

Like this only bigger to fit seven docking stations

Our bullpen cube is like this only bigger to fit seven docking stations.  adding an extra seat in the back and one extra on each side

On a side note, I just want to add that my current manager at Dell has been the absolute most influential manager I have ever met next to Charles Foster.  She has perfected the art of “Expanding her bubble”.  Charles taught me this technique many years ago.

So, on a side note of a side note, let me just tell you what my former foreman Charles Foster at the Power Plant did once.  He ordered some equipment for everyone in the electric shop which ran into a few “extra” dollars.  When he was called on the carpet to explain why he thought he had the authority to make this purchase, he explained it this way:

“When I went to ‘manager training’ they told me that during your career you will have times where it will be necessary to perform activities that you are not sure you are able to perform, so you should go ahead and try them.  If you get your hand slapped, you just pull back and don’t do that again.’  This is called ‘Expanding your bubble’.  I was just  expanding my bubble.”  He said Ben Brandt, the assistant plant manager, looked at him with a blank stare for a moment, and then told him that he was free to go.  Evidently, according to the listening devices that we had hidden in his office, Ben turned to Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor, and said, “That’s a pretty good explanation.”

I bring this encounter up, because my current manager, Ali Levin, of whom I also have the greatest respect, just recently had an opportunity to expand her bubble.  She was so successful that those around her that know what she has accomplished just stare in awe at her.  I predict that within the next decade this young lady will have become the CIO (Chief Information Officer) of a Fortune 500 company (mark my word).

So, what does this all have to do with Charles Peavler and Power Plant Pilfering?  Well.  The final verdict from the super technicians down in our computer repair lab, said that since it was Friday afternoon, I wouldn’t be able to have my computer back in working order until Monday morning.  Which meant that I would have to go all weekend without being able to log in and perform feats of magic on my laptop.

Ok.  I was resigned to go home early and wait patiently until Monday morning when I could begin popping up various applications and flipping between them and the multiple Instant Message windows talking to various business customers throughout the day as I performed the satisfying dance of my day-to-day job.  So.  I left work early.

This evening as I sat down to create a post about Power Plant Men and my previous life working as an electrician at a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahama, the sudden loss of my computer flashed me back to a time when someone that was working with me experienced a similar loss.  Instead of a laptop.  This electrician had lost a set of “Jumpers”.


Electric Jumpers

Electric Jumpers

Ok.  These jumpers don’t look like much, I know.  But jumpers are almost as important to a plant electrician as a laptop is to an IT developer at Dell.  That is, you just can’t get your work done without it.

So, it was either Donald Relf or Bob Eno who was working with me on Friday, March 29, 1993.  During overhaul, we had been calibrating precipitator control cabinets all day.  Much like today, April 5, 2014 when my computer died.  At the end of the day as we were packing up our equipment Bob or Donald, I don’t remember, saw me leave my tool bucket next to the old typewriter stand that we were using as a portable workbench.  He asked me if it was safe to leave our tool buckets there over the weekend.

I assured him that the coal-fired plant in North Central Oklahoma hired only “top-notch” Power Plant Men.  His tools would be perfectly safe sitting out in the Precipitator control room over the weekend.  I was so confident because I had always left my tools where I was working in the precipitator during overhaul and I had never had anything stolen.  If anything, someone may have left me a present of chocolate behind only because they knew that I always did favors for chocolate.

You can imagine my surprise when we returned to the Precipitator Control Room on Unit 1 on Monday morning only to find that Bob (or Donald) had their jumpers missing from their tool bucket.  We each used 5 gallon buckets to carry our tools.  Mine had been untouched.  No extra chocolate that day, but no unsavory fingerprints were detected.

A black tool bucket like this

I had a black tool bucket like this

As it turned out, we relied on Bob’s (or Donald’s) jumpers to do our job, so we actually had to return to the electric shop and create a new set of jumpers for him.  I felt so ashamed.  After all, I had so proudly explained that only those with the greatest integrity worked at our plant, and he didn’t have to worry about leaving his tools, and here I was having to cover for his losses.  This was the only time in the 20 years I worked at the Power Plant where someone had stolen something from a tool bucket when they weren’t purposely playing a joke on me.

When I found time that day, I went to the control room and asked the Shift Supervisor if he could tell me who worked as the Unit 1 auxiliary operator over the weekend.  I knew that this would narrow the culprit down to three people.  He looked through his logs and said that Darrell Low, Charles Peavler and Jim Kanelakos had Unit 1 over the weekend.

Knowing how the shifts worked, I knew that each of these people had walked through the Unit 1 precipitator exactly 3 times over the weekend, before we returned on Monday morning. I also knew that no one else would have ventured to stroll through the Precipitator control room who was working over the weekend on overhaul.  I knew this because of all the hundreds of hours I had already spent in this control room over the weekend, only one operator per shift ever visited.  It was usually my reminder to take a break and go to the bathroom and buy something from a vending machine before returning.

I studied this list.  Hmmm….. Darrell Low….  A person with impeccable character.  Would love to play a good joke when given the change, but honest as the day is long.  Jim Kanelakos…. Devious at times, but personally a very good friend.  A person so dear to me that I him kept personally in my daily prayers.  Charles Peavler… well… by the title of this post…. you already know the rest of the story.

I eliminated Darrell immediately since I knew his character and I would trust him with my life (which I actually would at times when he would place clearances for me).  I suspected Peavler right off, but I thought I would make sure that Jim Kanelakos wasn’t just playing a joke on me first.  So, I approached him and asked him if he had taken a pair of jumpers from a tool bucket in the Precipitator control room over the weekend.

At first Jim looked at me with a hurt feeling that I thought might be a perfect expression if he was playing a joke on me.  He was holding the look of sorrow and hurt that I would actually accuse him vaguely of stealing a pair of jumpers from a tool bucket.  When I pressed him on the issue.  The hurt look changed to a look of resolve and he said directly, “No.  I didn’t take them.”

I knew immediately that he was telling me the truth.  Jim and I had worked together with Charles Peavler on the labor crew together.  We actually used to analyse his behavior as sort of a joke, and kind of a refresher of our Psychology background.  Jim Kanelakos had earned a Masters Of Arts in Psychology, while I had a bachelors in the same field.  So, we used to have fun joking around together about the unusual behavior of Peavler.

Charles Peavler looked like the Sergeant on Gomer Pyle.  Except that he had chewed tobacco so long that his lower lip was permanently curled so that he looked like Popeye.  I say that because they had the same lower jaw and the same amount of hair on his head:


Popeye or is it Charles Peavler

Once I was certain that Charles Peavler had taken the Jumpers from Bob’s (or Donald’s – I’m relying on one of you telling me which one) tool bucket, I approached him with the attitude that I already knew it was him.  I came up to him in the Control room and said, “Charles!  You know that pair of jumpers that you took from that tool bucket over the weekend?  I need those back!”

I  explained to him that I had told the visiting electrician that it was safe to leave his tools there because no one would touch his stuff.  So, I felt personally responsible to get the jumpers back.  Charles immediately denied that he had taken the jumpers.  He said that he didn’t know what I was talking about.  I told him that I had checked, and he was the only person over the weekend that would have taken them.  So, I needed them back.  He continued to deny that he had taken them.

As the overhaul was lasting a few weeks longer, I continually approached Charles in the middle of the control room where the Control Room operators were within earshot asking him to give the jumpers back to me.  I would tell him how I need them so that we could continue our work.  Also I would explain each time that the reputation of our Power Plant was at stake.

Finally one day he said, “Well.  I don’t have them here.  I took them home.” — That was a great relief to me.  I had been continually accusing him day after day of taking those jumpers.  I was finally glad to find out I hadn’t been accusing someone falsely, which was always a vague thought in the back of my mind.  The moment he told me he had taken the jumpers home, I jumped on him (not literally – though the thought occurred to me).  I said, “I need those jumpers back!”

It took about a week.  Each day whether he was on the day shift or the night shift or the evening shift, since we were on overhaul working a lot of overtime, he was not able to escape me.  I would go up to him and ask him, “Did you bring those jumpers today? ”  Each time in the middle of the control room, quite loudly.

Finally, about a week after he admitted having the jumpers when I asked him about it in the middle of the control room, he went into the locker room and soon returned with the pair of jumpers and handed them to me.  I quickly returned them to Bob (or Donald), and apologized profusely for the inconvenience.  I didn’t tell him exactly what had happened to the jumpers, only that I had finally tracked them down.

I guess, he didn’t know that I knew him so well.  So well in fact that to this day, I have kept Charles Peavler also in my prayers every day.  When he lost his mother in on April 1, 2000 (fourteen years this week), I felt his loss also.  He left the plant on July 29, 1994 during the last (and the worst) downsizing the Power Plant ever experienced.  To this day, though I was peeved with Peavler back then, I still care for him deeply.  I don’t think he was a “True Power Plant Man”, but neither was Jim Kanelakos or myself.

Some day Charles will meet our maker.  When he does, he will be able to say,  “Yeah.  I did steal a pair of jumpers once.  But I ended up by giving them back.”  I clearly remember the look of relief that day when Charles placed those jumpers in my hand.  It was if a heavy burden had been lifted.  Actually, by that time I had decided that it was as important for Charles to give back those jumpers as it was for Bob (or Donald) to get them back.  Something had compelled him to lift that pair of jumpers, I think it was an opportunity for him to face reality.  I thought that he was having a “Come to Jesus” moment when he confessed.

I often wondered what Charles’ mother Opal Peavler would have thought of Charles.  I suppose she finally found out.  I suspect that by the time she found out, that Charles had mended his ways.  After all, he was on his way when we had danced this dance in the middle of the control room that week in 1992.  He did finally admit that he had stolen something.  I’m sure he thought at the time that an electrician could easily make a new pair of first class jumpers.  We wouldn’t care that someone had come along and taken one measly pair of jumpers.

Actually, if Charles had ever come to the electric shop and asked any electrician for a pair of jumpers, any one of the electricians would have been glad to whip up a pair as if by magic.  I think it was just that one moment when he was alone with a tool bucket staring at him and a  perfectly prepared pair of jumpers were gleaming up at him that in a moment of weakness, he decided he could pilfer this pair without anyone knowing.

To tell you the truth.  I was very proud of Charles Peavler the day he placed those jumpers in my hand.  Geez.  I didn’t realize until after I finished this post that I have a picture of Peavler:

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

Charles Peavler is the one standing on the left with the Pink shirt.



Vertan or Sand and Making an Enemy of a Power Plant Man

Originally Posted April 18, 2014:

When I was an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma I inherited working on the Precipitators from Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist in the electric shop. One time after I had been struggling with the performance of the precipitator trying to lower the emissions of Fly Ash going out of the smoke stacks, I encountered a very odd situation.

One morning as I was walking out to the precipitator as I passed the Unit 1 boiler I noticed that a couple of tanker trailers were sitting outside the bottom ash area. Hoses had been attached to one of them and were running up the side of the boiler. What looked like a pump was running. I didn’t have a clue what was in the tanker. I figured it was just some routine thing that power plants did every so often to make things more interesting. You wouldn’t believe how many times Power Plant Men would come up with new and interesting things just to keep me in awe. (Of course, I am easily amazed).

A Tank Trailer like this

A Tank Trailer like this

Anyway, I didn’t really pay much attention to the tanker on the way to the precipitator. I just walked around the tankers that were there and entered the precipitator switchgear and up the stairs to the Precipitator control room where 84 control cabinets were waiting for my attention. On the way into the switchgear I had glanced up at the smoke stacks and noticed that the exhaust from the boiler was looking pretty good.

As I walked passed the control cabinets that controlled the back of the precipitator, I was surprised to find that they were powered up all the way and there wasn’t any sparking happening. Well. I thought. Maybe they are at low load and not much is happening inside the precipitator this morning.

As I walked between the two rows of cabinets toward the cabinets that controlled the transformers near the intake of the precipitator, my surprise turned into astonishment. I had never seen the front cabinets powered up to such a high level with no sparking. Everything was 180 degrees from the way I had left the cabinets the evening before when I was struggling to adjust the power to lower the emissions.

After going through each of the cabinets adjusting the power levels higher only to find that I was able to easily increase the performance even further, I returned to the electric shop for break. When I arrived in the electric shop office I told Charles that something very strange had happened this morning and I’m trying to figure it out, because all of the sudden the precipitator was operating at maximum efficiency.

After break I walked back out to the precipitator control room past the tanker trailers and found that everything was still running smoothly. “My work is done” I thought. I decided to go to the top of the precipitator and start working on fixing malfunctioning vibrators for the rest of the day.

I worked on the precipitator roof until noon, and then went back to the shop for lunch. I sat with Charles as we talked about movies we had seen. Charles was telling me about how the song for Ghostbusters had been on the radio. When the song said,

If there’s something strange
in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call?


Who Ya Gonna Call?

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Charles’ son Tim (not having seen the movie) thought that instead of saying “Ghostbusters” they were saying “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!” Besides being exceptionally cute, it was also an honor for Charles for him to hear Tim sing, “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!”

After lunch was over I went back out to the precipitator control room to check on the cabinets one more time. To my surprise when I walked through the row of cabinets, they were sparking again as they had been the day before! Not quite as bad, but bad enough that I had to go through the cabinets and adjust them back down almost to the levels where I had them before.

It took longer to adjust the cabinets down than it did to raise them in the morning. When break time came along, I was too engrossed in adjusting the cabinets to notice, so I continued working through break. It must have taken me close to three hours. At that time I was still using a small screwdriver on some potentiometers inside each of the cabinets to make the adjustments.

About the time I finished, all the sudden something happened. The cabinets began acting the way I had seen them in the morning! All the sparking stopped and the cabinets began powering up to the highest point they could go based on where I had set them. Ok. Now I needed to find out what was going on!

I walked out of the precipitator and headed for the Control Room. I walked past the tanker trailers and noticed that the pump was running again. I hadn’t thought about it, but when I had walked by them a few hours earlier they had been turned off. This was curious. I figured that it was more than a coincidence.

Pat Quiring was the Unit 1 Control Room operator when I arrived. I asked him what has been going on with Unit 1. I explained to him that when I arrived in the morning I found the precipitator running smoothly, then later it wasn’t, and just a few minutes ago, something happened again and there it was. Pat said two things were going on that day.

One thing was that we had been burning a pile of sand that had been soaked with oil. They had been mixing it with the coal at the coalyard and blowing it into the boiler with the pulverized coal in order to dispose of the hazardous waste. Hmm.. This was a possibility. I couldn’t see how the sand would make a difference, but maybe the mixture of the chemicals in the oil had something to do with it.

Then I asked him. “What about those tankers on the side of the boiler? Why are they there?” Pat said that we were also burning Vertan. Well, not “burning” exactly. We were destroying it in the boiler, because it was chemical waste that needed to be disposed and it is easily destroyed into it’s chemical components in the heat of the boiler.

“Vertan? What’s Vertan?” I asked Pat. He said it was some chemical used to clean boiler tubes. These tankers had been sent to our plant from another plant that had just had the boiler tubes cleaned, and we were just burning it off to get rid of it. They had a schedule they were using to burn the Vertan. They couldn’t just get rid of it all at once because it caused a buildup in the economizer that caused the airflow to be affected through the tail end of the boiler.

So, I wondered, maybe this has to do with airflow. Diverting the airflow to different parts of the precipitator could definitely affect things. The cabinets out in the middle of the precipitator definitely had different electrical properties than those out on the edge.

I suddenly realized that this was 1988 and the Internet was not readily available to the typical user, and the World Wide Web still had a few years before it was widely going to be used. Frustrated that I couldn’t just go “Google” something for another ten years, I did the next best thing that I could do. I decided to pay a visit to our Power Plant Doctor! I wrote about Doctor George Pepple in the post “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. He was the head Power Plant Chemist.

I went to the Chemistry Lab and found George working away on some diabolical experiment. No. Not really, he was probably just testing some water samples. When Dr. Pepple was working on any kind of chemical test, he did it with such mastery and grace that it always reminded me of a mad scientist.

I asked George about Vertan. He explained to me that it was a chemical that was mixed in water and pumped through the boiler tubes to clean out calcium buildup and the like. I mentioned to him that I thought it may be affecting the operation of the precipitator and I was curious to know more about it.

Professor Pepple then explained to me that Vertan was called TetraAmmonia EDTA. EDTA? Yeah, he said, “Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid”. He said this just like my Animal Learning Professor, Dr. Anger used to say “Scopalamine” (See the Post “Poison Pill for Power Plant Pigeons“).

I wrote down this information and I continued monitoring the progress of the precipitator throughout the rest of the week. Each time the pumps were running on the Vertan trailers, the precipitator operated as if it was new and completely clean. Each time the pumps turned off, the precipitator reverted back to the regular mode of operation, only it would be a little better each time. By the time all the Vertan had been destroyed in the boiler, the precipitator was running very well on it’s own.

Over the weekend I went to the University Library at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and Looked up TetraAmmonia EDTA. Not much had been written about it. I was able to find an article about it in a Journal. It had the chemical composition.

Vertan or TetraAmmonia EDTA

Vertan or TetraAmmonia EDTA

A few years later when the Internet became available I was able to find a better model of the Vertan molecule:

Vertan or TetraAmmonia EDTA chemical model

Vertan or TetraAmmonia EDTA chemical model

I mentioned that at the same time that the Vertan was being burned in the boiler, we were also blowing contaminated sand into the boiler in order to burn off oil that had soaked into the sand. At one point, I had to go work on the head end of the number 10 long belt to find a 480 volt ground in a circuit. When I arrived, I could see where the oil from the sand had caused the coal to cake up on the belt and cause a big mess where the conveyor dumped the coal onto the belt 12.

There didn’t seem to be any correlation between the times that sand was being burned. The process for burning the sand lasted a lot longer than burning off the Vertan. By the time that the sand was burned off, the precipitator was humming away operating at near maximum efficiency. So, it seemed as if the sand didn’t have anything to do with the increase in performance.

I was convinced that burning Vertan in the boiler was more convincing. If not Vertan, then just injecting water could have been a factor. Since the Vertan was in water and they were pumping large amounts of water into the fireball in order to destroy the Vertan. Maybe the increase in Humidity had something to do with the improvement.

A couple of years later when the “We’ve Got The Power” Program was underway (See the Post, “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“). Terry Blevins and I were investigating the idea that Vertan could be used to improve the performance of the precipitator. We found that Ammonia Injection was used to treat Precipitators.

This is done by injecting ammonia into the intake of the precipitator to treat it when it was performing poorly. This reinforced our idea that Vertan was the main reason that the precipitator had responded favorably during that time since Vertan broke down into Ammonia at high temperatures. Even then, we didn’t exclude the possibility that the increase of humidity may have also played a role.

Another team had the idea that injecting sand into the intake of the precipitator would improve the performance of the precipitator by sandblasting the ash off of the plates. They had seen this happen when sand had been burned earlier. I had rejected this idea as being viable. I knew that the velocity of the airflow in the precipitator was no faster than 4 miles an hour. Hardly fast enough to keep grains of sand airborne.

It was worth a try though, and the other team pursued the idea and ran a test by injecting the sand. It definitely wouldn’t hurt anything to try. The idea was rejected by the Steering Committee (Ron Kilman), based on my input, even though something extraordinary happened during the test. When this happened, I became the instant enemy of the team leader.

I will cover this dilemma in a later post (possibly next week). For now I will just leave you with the knowledge that because I had chosen Vertan over Sand, I had definitely made an enemy of a True Power Plant Man.

Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes

Originally posted April 25, 2014:

Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood.  I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend.  Sometimes I was downright selfish.  Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate.  Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way.  I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.

Mark Schlemper with his Mother.  Two very good people.

My favorite picture of Mark Schlemper with his Mother

I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.

Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“.  At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  I explained this program in the post:  “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“.  With all that said, here is the story:

I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator.  The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.

My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance.  I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.

I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler.  The precipitator is after the air preheater where it is labelled “Flue gas”

When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment.  Who knows.  Maybe something unexpected would happen.  — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.

On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator.  When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room.  She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.

At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going.  One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up.  Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack.  Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.

I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets.  After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1A10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer.  It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts.  The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates.  Cabinet 1A10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.

When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off.  I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet.  The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it.  So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.

I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator.  When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer.  The fuse had obviously failed.  Interesting timing.  Coincidence?  I thought it was.  The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the writing was pink instead of blue

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the print was orange instead of blue

I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves).  Then I powered the cabinet back on.


High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1A10.  The opacity had returned to normal.  I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.

When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened.  Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment.  So, he asked me what I thought about it.

First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas.  So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.

I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack.  I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse.  I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time.  After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.

I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it.  On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post.  To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.

The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett.  He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment.  Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:

Dining Room Table received as an award from the "We've Got The Power" program

Dining Room Table received as an award from the “We’ve Got The Power” program

It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy.  The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me.  Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”

When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why.  If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way.  It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important.  So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend.  This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.

I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him.  It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing.  Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away.  It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt.  I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.

Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club.  I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop.  Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases.  For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.

Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business.  I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim.  That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.

I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well.  Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years.  I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.

Here is what happened:

The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000.  I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night.  It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem.  Who else would be up on in the middle of the night?  The night shift of course.

When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.”  I replied, “No.  That’s okay.  What’s up?”  Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water.  I said, “Ok.  I’ll be right out.”

I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper.  She already knew of course.  I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up.  Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.

It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived.  I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room.  Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown.  I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.

Power Plants at night take on magical properties.  It’s hard to explain.  Lights shining from the 25 story boilers, noises from steam pipes.  Hums from motors and transformers.  Night Hawks screeching.

When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted.  Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep.  — Actually, I may have done just that.  It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.

When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office.  I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure.  Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually.  I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression.  He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it.  I replied, “Well.  That happens.” (No.  Not the other thing that happens).  I told him I was going to go home.  It was about 3:40 by that time.

Jim wished me a good night, and smiling with gratitude, thanked me again for coming  out.  As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace.  That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends.  This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).

When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house.  I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning.  I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.

That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City.  When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack.  That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.


Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim.  Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace.  In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had that morning into my mind so that I would never forget it.

To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally (which still happens occasionally), I am determined that they will become one of my best friends.  I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”).  I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett.  Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.

I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it.  It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:

Note:  If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link:  Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel


Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion April 26, 2014

    I’m glad that you were able to work through a tough situation and reach the point of friendship. although, it does make the loss harder to accept.

  2. Jack Curtis May 6, 2014

    Your story would have been a matter of course for my grandparents and immediately understood and admired by my parents. I suspect that telling it to today’s children might draw blank stares …

    Midwestern values likely still include such behaviors, at least for a reasonable number of people. I doubt many folk on the coasts would identify with it. We have lost a lot and have yet to learn the price of that, seems to me.

Doing Dew Point Tests and Lowering Expectations

Originally posted May 9, 2014:

There were times when I was working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I wondered if there was anything that we couldn’t do. Surrounded by True Power Plant Men I found that when we were facing a seemingly impossible task, a Power Plant Man would come up with an extremely creative solution to the problem. One such example was during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I talked about this program in an early post called “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” so I won’t go into detail here about the program itself. I will just say that we broke out into teams to find creative ways to operate more efficiently, and to cut costs.

I was a team leader of our team, and looking back I must have had two criteria in mind when I picked the team members that would be on my team. The first would have been that they were True Power Plant Men (and woman) with a higher than average intelligence. The second criteria would have been that they were friends of mine. I say this, because everyone on my team fit the bill.

During out team meetings, Terry Blevins would often say some bombastic statement that the average person may be inclined to dismiss immediately as being absurd. I say that because I remember more than once thinking that what Terry had just said wouldn’t amount to much. As it turned out, our biggest money saving ideas were those truly bombastic statements that Terry was making. One such idea had to do with the heaters on the precipitators that kept the hoppers and the insulators on the roof too hot to collect moisture.

The Precipitator is a very large box that takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack (how many times have I made that statement in the last two years?). Anyway, the exhaust from the boiler after the coal has been turned to ash in the fireball in the boiler contains a large amount of moisture. The last thing you want to happen is for the temperature of the flue gas to fall below the dew point. When that happens, moisture collects on the structure in a form of… well… of Acid Rain. Basically eating away the precipitator and the duct work from the inside.

Somewhere along the line, it had been determined that the dewpoint of the flue gas was not higher than 250 degrees. So, as long as the structure was at least 250 degrees, no moisture would be collected. Four heaters were mounted on each of the 84 hoppers (on each of the two precipitators) and heaters were mounted on the roof around each of the insulators that held up the wire racks on both ends.

When Terry walked into the office to attend one of our first “We’ve Got The Power” team meetings, he said, I think we could save a lot of money if we did something about the heaters on the precipitator. — He may remember being greeted with blank stares (at least from me). Um. Ok. Heaters on the precipitator. I knew they were everywhere, but I never gave them much thought.

I think Terry could tell right away that I hadn’t taken his idea seriously. I don’t know. Maybe he was bothered by the sound of my eyeballs rolling around in circles as if someone has conked me on the head. So, he explained his idea further. He pointed out that the roof heaters on just one of the precipitators used about 211 kilowatt-hours and the hopper heaters used about 345 kilowatt-hours. Together it more than half a Megawatt of power. — This definitely caught our attention. That meant that between both of the Precipitators (since we had two boilers at our plant), we could possibly save over a Megawatt of electricity every hour we could shut down the heaters.

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

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

After discussing all the aspects of the idea, we decided that in order for the idea to have any merit, we had to know if the dew point really was around 250 degrees, or was it possibly a lot lower. 250 degrees seemed high to begin with since the boiling point of water is 212 degrees. If lower, then we could have a workable idea. Originally, I wanted to tackle the task of finding the dew point. So, I went about it in a Science Experiment sort of way.

I figured that if we were able to lower the temperature of the flue gas to a known temperature below the dewpoint, and by knowing the volume of the gas, and the amount of liquid we could condense out of it, we could determine (possibly) the dew point. So, I brought my Graham Condenser to work, and Scott Hubbard and I went up to the 250 foot landing on the smoke stack with the intent of sucking a known amount of exhaust from the smoke stack while the unit was at full load.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

We would run it through the condenser while running cool water through it to lower the temperature.

The Exact Graham Condenser used in our experiment Spring 1990

The Exact Graham Condenser used in our experiment Spring 1990 (and that’s my hairy hand in this selfie)

I could measure the output of the vacuum pump by filling up an inverted Erlemeyer flask with water and then letting the flue gas displace the water. — I always loved doing experiments like this in the 9th grade science glass with Mr. Godfrey our Physical Science Teacher (Donna Westhoff, who may sometimes read this blog was in my class and sat right behind me).

An Erlenmeyer Flask (from Google Images, not from my Chemistry Lab)

An Erlenmeyer Flask (from Google Images, not from my Chemistry Lab)

Ok. Side Story, since I mentioned Donna Westhoff from the 9th grade 1974-75 school year.

I knew that Donna’s father was a fire fighter, because one day during a special outing when we were with a group of bicycling Junior High School students and a teacher, we stopped at Donna Westhoff’s house to get a drink of water. On the walls in her house were different types of fire fighting treasures. Donna explained that her father was a fire fighter… That was the Spring of 1975 in Columbia, Missouri

Fast forward 16 years later (1991) at the Power Plant in the middle of nowhere in North Central Oklahoma. Just about a year after the story I’m telling now…. I left the logic room and went to catch the elevator to the Control room. When the doors opened, Tony Mena was in there with a bunch of college age students giving them a tour of the plant. I entered the elevator and turned around to face the door as it closed.

As I was standing there, I suddenly became aware that the person standing next to me was staring right at me. So, I turned to see who it was. Standing next to me was someone that looked very familiar wearing a big grin as if she knew who I was. I recognized her, and while my mind was going through filing cabinets of memories trying to index this particular person, I asked her, “Don’t I know you?” She shook her head and said, “I’m Donna Westhoff!”

A High School picture of Donna Westhoff  who is on the Lower Left

A High School picture of Donna Westhoff who is on the Lower Left

As the elevator door opened and we stepped out, Donna and I began talking about what we were both doing there. She was surprised to find that I had become an electrician at a power plant instead of some kind of scientist in a lab somewhere. Donna was going to school in Stillwater where one of the best Fire Fighting Schools in the country is found. Following in her father’s footsteps, I thought. After a while I could tell that Tony was getting a little perturbed that the wisdom he was imparting about the fire protection system on the Turbine Generator wasn’t being absorbed by Donna, so I cut our conversation short. It turned out that a very good friend of hers lived just two houses from where we lived, and her friend’s mother was my landlord. Peggy Pickens.

Ok. End of the side story, and another example of how I occasionally run into friends from my childhood in the most unexpected places (see the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“).

So. Scott Hubbard and I tried using the Graham Condenser and the Erlenmeyer Flask, but we quickly found out that this wasn’t big enough, to capture a large enough quantity. So, we increased the size of the condenser by winding a garden hose around inside of a water bucket and filling it with ice. Then we captured all the water that condensed in the hose.

A 5 gallon water bucket we used as our condenser with a garden hose and ice

A 5 gallon water bucket we used as our condenser with a garden hose and ice

When it finally came down to it. Even though it was fun trying to do this experiment halfway up the 500 foot smoke stack, I never was able to figure out how to calculate the dew point given the data I had collected.

That’s when we decided to look at dew point sensors in the parts catalogs. If we could stick a probe down into the precipitator and measure the dew point directly in the flue gas, that would be best. After looking at a few in the catalog, Terry Blevins said he thought he could make one. So, he went to work.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

The next day he came in with an inch and a half conduit with hoses hanging out the back and a homemade sensor on the other end. I won’t go into detail how the sensor was built because some day Terry may want to patent this thing because, as it turned out, it was so sensitive that it could detect my breathe from about a foot away. If I breathed out of my mouth toward the sensor, it would detect the moisture in my breath. This was perfect!

We went to work on the roof of the precipitator sticking the probe down into different sections of the precipitator. It not only measured the moisture, it also had thermocouples on it that we used to accurately measure the temperature of the sensor as we varied the temperature by blowing cold air through the conduit using the same ice bucket and hose from before.

I could go into a lot of detail about how we performed our experiments, but it would only excite me and bore you. So, let me just say that we came up with two very important results. First of all, at full load when the humidity outside was at 100% the dew point was around 150 degrees! A full 100 degrees below what the plant had originally assumed. This was very important, because a lot of energy was spent trying to keep the flue gas above 250 degrees, and just by lowering it down to 210 degrees, still a safe amount above the dew point, that extra energy could be used to create electricity.

The second thing that we discovered was that the middle sections of the precipitator was a lot cooler inside than the outer fields. We realized that this was caused by the air preheater coils that rotated between the flue gas and the Primary Air intake duct. This took the last amount of heat safely possible from the exhaust and transferred it to the air going into the boiler so that it was already hot when it was used to burn the coal. Because of the way the air preheater coils rotated, the part of the duct toward the middle of the precipitator was a lot cooler than the air on the outside.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler. See the Air Preheater? Flue Gas on one side and ambient air on the other

Lower temperatures in the precipitator increased the performance, so we decided that if we could mix the air around as it was going into the precipitator so that the outer edges were cooler, then it would increase the overall performance. One suggestion was to put a mobile home in the duct work because in Oklahoma it was a known fact that mobile homes attracted tornadoes and it would probably cause a tornadic reaction that would mix up the flue gases. — We just couldn’t figure out how to convince management to put a mobile home in the duct between the economizer and the precipitator.

Thanks to Terry’s handy dandy Dew Point Sensor, we were able to prove that the hopper and roof heaters could be lowered to where we set the thermostat at 180 degrees. At that setting the heaters that used to always run at 250 degrees would remain off anytime the ambient temperature was above 45 degrees. In Oklahoma, that is most of the year. This turned out to save over $350,000 per year in energy savings at a cost of about 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Not to mention the unknown savings from being able to lower the flue gas temperature by 40 degrees.

Runaway Fire Hydrant Leaves Power Plant in the Dark

Originally posted May 17, 2014:

Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.

A notepad like this

Power Plant Notepad

One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.

The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.

Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.

Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.

I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.


Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.


An example of  part of an Auxiliary Substation

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.

Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.

When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.

When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.

Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.


From the movie "The China Syndrome" where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

From the movie “The China Syndrome” where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait)  See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.

With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.

While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.

A High Voltage Insulator like this

A High Voltage Insulator like this

Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.

By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman is the one on the left in the plaid shirt

The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.

The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.

So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”

So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.

Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….

George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.

Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.

This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.

You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).

Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.

Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….

Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.

I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.

Telephone Grounding Panel

Telephone Grounding Panel

In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.

Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.

Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.


Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode "Night Call"

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode “Night Call”

I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.

It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.

He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?

The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.

When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.

That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…

I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.


Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.

Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.

Comments from the Original post

    1. Ron May 17, 2015

      That was an exciting day! Another great story. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Dan Antion May  17, 2014

      I like the mix of storytelling and information sharing you deliver here. Thanks again

    1. Dave Tarver May 17, 2014

      Aug 8, 2011 I lost all reserve in and lost both units in 2 separate storms and A1 would not start for a few minutes and A2 was leaking antifreeze terribly not a scratch and back online in 34 hours both units and no one ever asked me one question even with a Safety Dept not one question asked of me the SS on duty. Not many men on the planet have ever experienced an uncontrolled total plant outage- you would of thought a learning opportunity would of took place. Feb 2011 worst winter temps in years 50 Units or more tripped in Texas let alone the trusty units of Redbud and McClain were fighting Sooner rolled right along with storm warnings for two weeks ahead – the ICS still went to Detroit for just tours of other facilities once again the fall guy Tarver McArthur stood alone. I had authored a Freeze Protection Plan for the plant and that seemed to save the day and explain to the regulatory bodies how we were online and everyone else in Texas was off and enjoying rolling blackouts in a terrible winter weather situation not to mention our powers that be were all stranded in Detroit and very few people could get to the plant without getting stuck trying to get there as well – but a few health heart issues later I am still here to tell about it all you would think folks would want to take advantage of someone that had went through the fire and Ice but thats ok I want them someday distant to get all the credit they deserve when the trumpets sound as that is truly what matters most. DT

  1. NEO May 17, 2014

    Great story, and yes, you took exactly the proper lesson from it, and it is too bad that many of our bosses haven’t learned it.

    And yup, I’ve buried a lot of electrocuted squirrels over the years.


Power Plant Law of the Hog

Power Plant Men learned about the “Law of the Hog” the first day they were introduced to the new “Quality Process”. I recently wrote a post about how the Power Plant Men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma were trained to use various tools to help them formulate ideas quality improvement ideas at the plant in June, 1993. See the post “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. Even though we were hearing about the “Law of the Hog” for the first time, I recognized it right away. I had seen it in action the previous November 3, 1992.

What better way to convince a room full of skeptical Power Plant Men that the Quality Process is about improving the conditions at the plant than by first telling them what they already know in such a way that from then on they believe you really do know what you’re talking about. — I know. That was a confusing sentence, so let me explain. The instructor told us the story about “The Law of the Hog”.

This evidently was a story that had been going around since the late 70’s. It had to do with a saw mill in Oregon. This is the story the instructor told us…

A group of quality consultants, or… I think they called themselves Leadership consultants back then were visiting the saw mill because they evidently needed some help. While the consultants were learning about how the plant operated, they talked with the workers one-on-one and asked them how things were really done at the mill. That’s when the workers told the consultant about “The Hog”.

The Hog is a grinder that takes scrap wood and grinds it up into sawdust. The consultants had asked them how they worked with supervisors when they were “lacking” in leadership skills. (I would say “evidently” again here, but I’ve already used that word three times. And the last time was just now while explaining that I would like to use that word again, but… — I’ll have to think of another word…. let’s see… oh. I know…. Apparently…). Anyway, apparently, that was when they told the consultants about The Hog that lived in the shack off to one side of the main mill.

So, what happens is that when their supervisor uses a heavy hand to try to whip the workers into shape, the Hog is used for more than just chewing up scraps. When the workers were treated with disrespect, then “The Law of the Hog” went into effect. What happened then was that the workers would throw perfectly good pieces of wood into the Hog where it would be turned to dust (saw dust that is). Since the supervisors were measured on their productivity which took a beating when good wood would be destroyed (Yeah. I couldn’t help using the words Wood and Would together… And then using “Words”, “Wood” and “Would” all together while explaining my obsession). So, the workers would pay the supervisor back each time he displayed inferior leadership skills.

A byproduct of bad leadership

A byproduct of bad leadership

Oh yeah. The Power Plant Men knew all about that. The guys at Muskogee, however, didn’t use such indirect methods. They had one Assistant Plant Manager (I won’t tell you his name but I think his initials were Morehouse. well. Something House anyway), that treated his men with a little more than disrespect, and was surprised one night when the front door to his house was blown off the hinges. He was quickly reassigned to Oklahoma City. But then I have always said that something is in the water in Muskogee. See the post “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“.

When the Quality instructor was telling us the story about the “Law of the Hog” a few examples immediately entered my head. Well, one was the Six Hour Rule. I mentioned this in an earlier post where there was a complicated rule about how an employee could collect “black time” and double time when they were called out at night. As management tried to manipulate the rule to the detriment of the employee, the opposite effect actually happened. After trying to skimp on paying the double time the employee was accustomed to, that was the time when I made the most money from that rule. See the post “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules“.

This leads us to a dark and stormy day at the Power Plant…. November 3, 1992. The story actually begins the day before. Unit 2 had been offline for a “more than” minor overhaul (I believe it was a six week overhaul instead of the usual 4 weeks). I was the acting foreman for the crew that was working on the precipitator. Terry Blevins normally was in charge of the Unit 2 Precipitator, but for this overhaul, Scott Hubbard and I were assigned to make all the necessary precipitator repairs. The main reason was that new rapper controls were being installed, and Scott had a lot of experience doing this since he had installed them on Unit 1 already.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

At that time, Scott and I were like twin brothers. Whatever he was doing… I had to be there to help. Scott would work on the roof of the precipitator generally, while I worked inside. We had been given some operators to help us along with a few contract workers to do the “grunt” work. That is, when you would ask them to do something, they would usually reply with a low moaning grunty sort of sound (I just made up that word…. grunty. It seemed to fit).

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway just in case any “Non-Precipitator Gurus” are reading this)…. in order to install the new digital rapper controls, a lot of wire had to be pulled and laid down on terminal blocks from some rapper cabinets to other cabinets across the precipitator. When I say a lot, I mean somewhere over 10 miles of wire. 15 feet at at time. — I was sure glad Scott was doing that while I was strolling away inside the precipitator quietly looking for plates out of alignment and broken wires dressed in my space suit. For a better understanding of what a precipitator does, see the post “Moon Walk in A Power Plant Precipitator“.

I was not inside the precipitator on November 3, 1992, however, I had already finished up inside the precipitator by that time and I was working on the roof in cabinet 2G1 (on the southeast corner) on that day. We had the radio on and I was sitting on my bucket listening to Rush Limbaugh throwing a fit (as he has been known to do from time-to-time). None of our help was doing any work that day. The “Law of the Hog” had come into play and a day of rest had been declared by the helpers.

I was working away laying down the wires on the terminal blocks inside the rapper cabinet while the rest of the crew (minus Scott Hubbard who was on the far side of the precipitator roof working in another cabinet) was sitting around dangling their feet from the walkway near my cabinet. Merl Wright and Jim Kanelakos (two operators) were there along with three contract help. During that day I spent a lot of time running back and forth between the office area and the precipitator roof.

Here is what happened:

On November 2, 1992, just before every one left for the day, the word came down that in the morning everyone was supposed to report to work at the usual 7:00 time. We were scheduled to work until 7:00 in the evening. A full 12 hour day, except for the 30 minutes for lunch (and three breaks). The reason we had to be told to show up at seven o’clock in the morning was because November 3rd was election day.

It was the normal practice to let the Power Plant Men vote before they came to work in the morning. We were being told that we were not supposed to vote in the morning and that we could leave early in the evening to go vote instead of voting in the morning. We were told in no uncertain terms that if we went to vote in the morning, then the amount of time we were late getting to work would be the amount of time we would have to leave at the end of a normal working day.

Let me try to explain what this meant, because on the surface, it looks fairly reasonable. Since the polls closed at seven in the evening when we would be leaving work, we could leave as early as we wanted in the evening to go vote in order to arrive in time before the polls closed. There were two things fundamentally wrong with this solution from a Power Plant Man point of view, though from a Plant Manager point of view, it looked quite reasonable.

The first problem was that this was the election between George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton (Now you know why Rush Limbaugh was throwing a fit). A very large turnout was expected, and a majority of the workers wanted to make sure and go to the polls to vote that day. With that said, it would be hard to determine what would be a good time to leave the plant to go vote in order to stand in line and cast a vote before the polls closed. Up to that time, polls had not been kept open later than their designated closing time, except to let people who were already waiting in line by the time the closing bell rang.

The second problem and the main problem was this….. Suppose a person did go vote in the morning…. It was a typical practice for the company to cover that person’s time and pay what was called “Black Time” while they went to vote in the morning. In this case, the plant manager was telling us that we basically couldn’t go vote in the morning without being “punished”. If the person waited and voted in the evening, they would lose their overtime which directly affects the bottom line on the home front.

Here is how the punishment would be administered…. If a person went to vote in the morning and was an hour late, and came in, say at eight o’clock instead of seven. Then they would have to leave when they had completed a regular eight hour day. That is, they would not receive any overtime that day.

Well. this didn’t effect me, because I had already early voted a couple of weeks earlier. I think Scott did too, when we realized we were going to be on overhaul working 12 hour days. Scott Hubbard and I carpooled together, so we were always careful to coordinate our efforts.

So, guess what happened…. Yeah. You guessed it…. especially if you knew Jim Kanelakos. He knew an “injustice” when he saw it, and so, he wasn’t going to let this one slide. He made sure to go vote the first thing in the morning, just like he had ever since he was old enough to vote. He arrived at the plant around 9 o’clock.

When he arrived on the Precipitator roof he told me that he had voted that morning and that the line at the polls where he voted was down the block 15 minutes before they opened. He said he didn’t care what anyone said, he was going to work until 7:00 that evening. He said, “Just let anyone try to send me home early,” with a big grin on his face and his pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth…. Oh. Let me remind you what Jim looked like:

This picture reminds me of Jim Kanelakos

This picture reminds me of Jim Kanelakos

This is a picture I found a few years ago on Google Images. It looked like Jim, so I copied it. Since then I have received a picture of the crew Jim was working on, so you can see an actual photo:


Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Well… When Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor came around asking if anyone had arrived late that morning, as acting foreman, what could I say? I told him that Jim Kanelakos had come in two hours late. Tom told me to send Jim home at 4:30. He would get his black time for voting early, but he would not receive any overtime for the day. I told Tom I would tell Jim. I also told him that Jim had already said that he was going to stay until 7:00 and expected to receive the normal pay that he would have received if he had worked the entire day.

This sent Tom into a rage. He wanted Jim taken off our crew and sent back to Operations right then and there. He said that he disobeyed orders and if it was up to him, he would fire him. I told Tom that we had a ton of work to do and that we needed everyone we could have until the overhaul was over. If we sent Jim back to Operations for the remainder of the overhaul, we might not be able to finish our work. We were working on a very tight schedule as it was.

I told Jim that Tom had told me to tell him to go home at 4:30 in the afternoon. Jim just laughed. He said he was going to go home at his regular time…. 7:00 pm. I said, “Ok. I am just telling you what Tom said. I’m going to have to tell him your reply.” Jim, who was my friend, said, “I know. Do what you have to do.”

I went back to the electric shop and when I walked in the shop Denise Anson, the receptionist paged me on the Gray Phone. She said I had a call. I told her to send it to the electric shop office. I was surprised when I answered the phone and Charles Campbell was on the other end of the line. News travels fast…. He was an attorney in Stillwater. He had heard that there was something going on at the plant that might have something to do with vote tampering.

I told him in detail what I knew about Jim Kanelakos and how he had went to vote in the morning after being told that he had to wait until the evening to vote, or he would be docked pay by missing out on scheduled overtime. I knew that Charles Campbell, unlike some attorneys, was an upstanding citizen in the community and was in no way an ambulance chaser, but when he heard this, I could immediately hear the eagerness in his voice. I had the impression by his remarks that if this panned out the right (I mean “the wrong”) way, he might be able to retire early. We ended the conversation by him saying, “Let me know if you hear about anyone that doesn’t get to vote that wanted to because they left work too late.” He was in total disbelief that the plant had made that policy.

Well, I found Tom Gibson in his office and I told him what Jim had replied to me. Tom became even more furious. (I only saw him this mad or his ears this red one other time… but that is another story). He repeated that he was going to try to have Jim fired for being insubordinate. This seemed to me to be unlike Tom who was always a very reasonable person. I don’t think it was anything personal against Jim, I think there was just something about someone who blatantly (in his mind) had ignored a policy that had been clearly given to him the evening before.

I ended up in the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office. Ron, who took ultimate responsibility for the decision to tell the employees to not vote in the morning listened to Tom tell him what he thought about the whole thing. I had been in Ron’s office not too long before this incident to tell him that someone had been hacking through our phone system and it surprised me that Ron wanted to find a way to resolve the issue without raising a ruckus or harming anyone, even the perpetrator. See the post “Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Telephone Interloper“. When Ron was questioning me about the issue about what to do with Jim, I could tell that Ron really wanted to resolve this issue with as little conflict as possible.

I told Ron that I had talked to my attorney in Stillwater about what was happening and that he was very anxious to find out if anyone either lost any money because they voted early, or they were not able to vote at the end of the day. Ron said, “Well. We made this decision yesterday afternoon without really thinking it through. When the idea was suggested, it sounded like a good plan at the time. Then today I went and checked to see what we have done in the past, and we have always let people go vote in the morning.” Ron’s final decision was to let Jim continue working until seven o’clock and receive the proper black time for voting in the morning. I let Jim know.

Everything would have been all right except for one thing….. The Law of the Hog. You see, I had spent considerable time going back and forth throughout the day between the precipitator roof and the office area discussing this topic with both parties involved. The entire precipitator crew with the exception of Scott Hubbard, did absolutely no work the entire day. They kept waiting to see what was going to happen. We were now one day behind schedule.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron Kilman June 28, 2014

    I remember you were always a good mediator!

  2. Dave Tarver June 28, 2014

    I knew Jim well, and after his service to our country in Vietnam, no one or entity was going to stop him from voting, at whatever time he chose to vote, and all the years i worked with and knew Jim , he never missed an election and pointed out to me once that when I did not vote, how he had fought and served for our right to vote and that I should never miss again, one time I was real sick and a single guy Jim shows up prepares me some hot chicken soup.  Jim was all about justice and expected intelligence and light in all things and was a truth seeker.  He had his faults.  Who doesn’t?  But he was a good friend to me.

What’s That Strange Power Plant Smell?

Originally posted July 18, 2014

Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle?” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”

Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.

One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.


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

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

I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.

As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.

I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew the dust off of myself with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.

Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.

As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.

After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.

I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”

He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.

One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.

I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moonwalk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.

It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.

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

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

I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.

I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.

Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:


Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard.  It had a cotton looking filter on the top

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.

Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.

I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.

So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.

When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.

I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.

George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.

Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.

Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire.  He called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.

When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I left the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.

Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….

There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.

I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.

I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.

But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.

Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

Originally posted August 16, 2014.

I knew that we had our work cut out for us when Unit 1 was taken offline for a major overhaul on February 19, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had learned to expect the unexpected. I just never suspected this to happen. As acting foreman, I had a crew that consisted of a few of our own electricians, as well as a number of contract workers. I was also coordinating efforts between Brown & Root contractors that were going to be doing some major work inside the Precipitator (that takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler) during the 12 weeks we were going to be offline and a Vacuum Truck Company that was going to vacuum ash out of the hoppers where the ash is collected and blown through pipes to the coal yard to be trucked away to make concrete.

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

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long. You can see the hoppers at the bottom

When I inspected the precipitator during the first week, I had found numerous hoppers that had filled up with ash. One in particular hopper was so full that the ash had built up between the plates over 5 feet above the top of the hopper. Because of this, I had to coordinate with hoppers that were available for the Brown and Root contractors to begin building scaffolding, and those hoppers the vacuum truck needed to vacuum out first.

I had learned to deal with full hoppers the first time I entered the precipitator back when I was on the Labor Crew in 1983. Since that day, I had understood the potential dangers lying in wait. Especially with hoppers full of ash. See the Post “Angel of Death Passes By the Precipitator Door“.

The crew I was directly managing was on the Precipitator roof working on vibrators, insulators, transformers and rappers. I worked inside the precipitator aligning plates, and removing broken wires and cleaning insulators. The vacuum truck company vacuumed out the full hoppers by attaching a vacuum hose from a large vacuum truck to clean out pipes at the bottom of the hoppers. The Brown and Root crew climbed into the hoppers through an access door near the bottom of the hopper and constructed scaffolding in order to work at the top of the hoppers immediately below the plates.

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

This operation had been going on for 3 days and had seemed to be going smoothly. The Brown and Root crews and the vacuum truck crews were working shifts 24 hours a day. I would come in the morning and see the progress that had been made during the night. We kept a sheet taped to a beam in the hopper area that the vacuum truck would update when they had finished a hopper, and the Brown and Root crew indicated where they had finished building their scaffold.

On Thursday March 3, 1994, just after lunch, instead of making my way out to the precipitator to continue my work, I went up to the office area to meet in the conference room with the Safety Task Force. I was the leader of the task force, and we were meeting with upper management to work out some issues that I outlined in last week’s post. See “Taking Power Plant Safety To Task“. As you may have noticed, the last two weekly posts are a continuation of a long story.

Our meeting began shortly after 12:30 and we were discussing ways in which the Safety Task Force could work in a more cooperative way with the Maintenance Supervisor, Ken Scott. I felt that we were making good progress. We seemed to have come up with a few solutions, and we were just working out the details.

At 1:10 pm, the Electric A Foreman knocked on the door and opened it. He explained that there had been an accident at the precipitator in one of the hoppers and he thought that I might have been in the hopper at the time. He was checking to see if I was in the meeting. Once he was assured that I was all right, he left (presumably to tell the rest of my crew that I was not involved in the accident).

At this point, my head started to spin. What could have happened? None of my crew would have been in the hoppers. Maybe someone fell off of a scaffold and hurt themselves. I know I had locked out all of the electricity to the precipitator and grounded the circuits that have up to 45,000 volts of electricity when charged up, so, I’m pretty sure no one would have been electrocuted. Bill’s voice seemed real shaky when he entered the room, and when he saw me he was very relieved.

When working in a Power Plant, the Power Plant Men and Women become like a real family. Everyone cares about each other. Bill Bennett in some ways was like a father to me. In other ways, he was like an older brother. The nearest picture I have of Bill is a picture of Bill Cosby, as they looked similar:

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett just after he has called me a “Scamp”

I don’t know how long I was staring off into space counting my crew and thinking about what each of them would be doing. I was sure they were all on the roof. I knew that if a Brown & Root hand had been hurt that their own Safety Coordinator would be taking care of their injury. The thought of someone being hurt in a hopper sent flashbacks of the day I nearly dived off into the hopper full of ash ten and a half years earlier.

After about 5 minutes, Bill Bennett came back to the conference room, where we were still trying to focus on the task at hand. I don’t remember if we were doing any more good or not since I wasn’t paying any attention. Bill said that he needed for me to leave the meeting because they needed me out at the precipitator. Someone had been engulfed in fly ash!

Then I realized that the first time Bill had come to the room to check on me, he had mentioned that. I think I had blocked that from my mind. He had said that someone had been engulfed in ash, and they couldn’t tell if it was me or someone else. That was why he was so shaken up. Bill had thought that I may have died, or at least been seriously injured. The pain he was feeling before he saw me sitting in the room, alive and well, flooded my thoughts.

I quickly stood up and left the room. Bill and I quickly made our way to the precipitator. He said that Life Flight was on the way. One of the vacuum truck workers had climbed into the hopper to get the last bits of ash out of the hopper when a large amount of ash had broken loose above him and immediately engulfed him in the hopper.

When that happened there was a large boom and a cloud of ash came pouring out from the side of the precipitator. Scott Hubbard, who would have been my twin brother if I had been able to pick my own twin brother (though I never had a real twin brother)… heard the boom on the roof and when he looked down and saw the cloud of ash, immediately thought that I may have been hurt. I suppose he had called Bill Bennett on the radio and told him.

As we arrived at the precipitator, a young man was being carried out on a stretcher. A Life Flight from Oklahoma City was on it’s way, and landed just a few minutes later. I looked at the man all covered with ash. I could see how someone may have mistaken him for me. He was dressed like I was. A white t-shirt and jeans. He was unconscious.

Without going into detail as to the cause of the accident, as that will be in a later post, let me tell you about the heroic Power Plant Men and their actions before I had arrived on the scene…

James Vickers, a 26 year old vacuum truck worker, had climbed in the hopper carrying a shovel. He had a hole watch standing out the door keeping an eye on him. They had sucked out the hopper from the outside pipes and had banged on the walls in order to knock down any ash build up on the sides until they figured they had cleaned out the hopper.

James had opened the door to the hopper, and maybe because he saw some buildup on the hopper walls, he decided to climb in the hopper in order to knock it down with the shovel. While he was doing this, a large amount of ash that had bridged up in the plates above was knocked free all at once and immediately filled up the hopper probably more than half full.

James was crammed down into the throat of the hopper, which at the bottom is only about 8 inches in diameter with a plate across the middle about 2 feet above the throat of the hopper. He was immediately knocked unconscious by the impact.

The person assigned to be the hole watch was standing at the door to the hopper and when the ash fell down, he was knocked back about 6 or 7 feet when the ash came pouring out of the door. Panicking, He ran to the edge of the walkway yelling for help. Luckily, he was not also knocked unconscious, or this would pretty much have been the end of the story.

Men came running. Especially a couple of Power Plant Men working in the area. I wish I could remember who they were. When I try to think of the most heroic Power Plant Men I knew at the plant at the time, the list is about a long as my arm, so it is hard to narrow it down.

The Power Plant Men began to frantically dig the ash out of the hopper to uncover James Vickers. When they reached his head, they immediately cleared his face to where they could perform Mouth-to-Mouth resuscitation. They began breathing for James as soon as they could, and continued mouth-to-mouth as they dug out more of the ash.

As they dug the ash out, they were using their hardhats for shovels. When they tried to move James, they found that he had been crammed down into the bottom of the hopper to where he was trapped in the throat of the hopper. Heroically they continued without hesitation to breath for James, while simultaneously working to free him from the hopper. The shovel had been wedged into the bottom of the hopper with him.

Almost immediately after the accident happened, the control room became aware that someone had been engulfed in a hopper, they called Life Flight in Oklahoma City. A helicopter was immediately dispatched. By the time James was safely removed from the hopper, placed on a stretcher and carried out to the adjacent field, the Life Flight Helicopter was landing to take him to the Baptist Medical Center. I would say the helicopter was on the ground a total of about 3 or so minutes before it was took off again.

Bill and I inspected the hopper where the accident had taken place. On the ground below under the grating was a pile of ash, just like I had experienced years before when I almost bailed off into the hopper to look for my flashlight. I was suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of sorrow.

I was sorry for James Vickers, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was sorry for Bill Bennett who thought for a while that I had died in that hopper. I remembered hanging by one finger in a hopper only two rows down from this one, ten years ago with my life hanging by a thread, and I just wanted to cry.

So, I gave Bill a big hug as if I was hugging my own father and just started to cry. The whole thing was just so sad.

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….

On the roof of the Baptist Medical Center, a Triage unit had been setup waiting for the helicopter to arrive with James. Hazardous Waste protective suits were being worn by the people that were going to begin treating James. They had heard that he had been engulfed in hazardous chemicals which consisted of: Silica, Aluminum Oxide, Hexavalent Chromium, arsenic and other unsavory and hard to pronounce chemicals. The Life Flight People on the helicopter had to be scrubbed down by the Hazmat team as soon as they exited the helicopter to clean off the hazardous Fly Ash. The news reporters were all standing by reporting the incident.

Yes. The same fly ash that I went swimming in every day during the overhaul. The same fly ash that I tracked through the Utility Room floor when I came home at night. The same fly ash used to create highways all across the country. It’s true it has some carcinogenic material in it. I’m sure I have my share of Silica in my lungs today, since it doesn’t ever really clear out of there.

Besides the psychological trauma of a near-death experience, Jame Vickers was fairly unharmed considering what he went through. He came out of the ordeal with an eye infection. Randy Dailey pointed out that this was because the Safety Coordinator from Brown & Root had opened his eyes to check if he was alive when he was laying on the stretcher, and had let ash get in his eyes. Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t have developed an eye infection.

When I arrived at home that evening I explained to my wife what had happened. She had heard something on the news about it, but hadn’t realized they were talking about our plant since the person was in Oklahoma City when the reporters were talking about it.

All I can say is… Some Safety Meetings in the past have been pretty boring, but nothing made me want to improve my Safety Attitude like the Safety Meeting we had that afternoon. I’m glad that I had to experience that only once in my career as a Plant Electrician.


Comments from the original post

    1. Dan Antion August 16, 2014

      Too close.


    1. Ron Kilman August 16, 2014

      I remember when this happened. I know some prayers went up for James.

      They had to “decontaminate” the helicopter too. It was always amusing for me to see a hazmat worker strain at a “gnat” removing every molecule of fly ash, then take his respirator and suit off and light up his “camel” cigarette!


    1. Garfield Hug August 16, 2014

      Thankfully glad you made it to safety *blessings*

    1. Donna Westhoff Collins August 16, 2014

      Hope you don’t mind I posted on my Innovative Safety Solutions facebook page along with a link back to the blog. Good article!

    1. Anna Waldherr August 17, 2014

      What a harrowing account! Clearly, those of us not in the industry have no idea of its dangers.

    1. T. Foster August 19, 2014

      I remember hearing about that on the news that day. Also that Dad told us how strange it seemed that they were wearing the haz mat suits to deal with flyash.

    1. createthinklive September 14, 2014

      Work at the power plant sounds sexy: vibrators, insulators and rappers

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 on it one day where we went over our new confined space requirements.  That consisted of reading the company policy.  I knew that I needed to have a hole watch, and I needed to check the air before I went into a confined space.

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 Jerry didn’t know Shorthand.

Bill asked me how the interview went.  I said it went fine.  He said that Ron and Ben Brandt had been worried about me because the interview had lasted so long.  Bill said he told them, “Don’t worry about Kevin.  He probably has this guy wrapped around his little finger.  He’s probably using his ‘psychology’ on him”  I always loved Bill with all my heart.  He knew me too well.  I told Bill that I knew OSHA Jerry’s life story by the time we were done.  Bill smiled…. just like this:

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.