Tag Archives: smoke stack

When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays to Listen

Originally Posted:  May 4, 2012.  I added some comments from the original post at the end of this post:

I wrote an earlier post about days some people would have liked to take back.  There was one day that I would like to take back.  It was the day Ken Conrad was teaching me how to setup and operate the two large water cannons that we used to irrigate the plant grounds.  During my second summer as a summer help (1980), when I had about 6 weeks left of the summer, I was asked to take over the watering of the plant grounds because Ken Conrad was needed to do other jobs and this was taking too much of his time.

The first summer I worked as a summer help, whenever it rained, by the time you had walked from the Engineer’s Shack parking lot to the Welding Shop entrance, you felt like someone 10 feet tall.  Because the entire distance would turn into a pool of red mud and as you took each step, you grew taller and taller as the mud stuck to your feet.  Just before you entered the maintenance shop, you could scrape your feet on a Boot Scraper  to whittle you down to size so that you would fit through the doorway.

 The entire main plant grounds would be nothing but mud because there wasn’t any grass.  It had all been scraped or trampled away while building the plant and now we were trying to grow grass in places where only weeds had dared to trod before.  When trucks drove into the maintenance garage, they dropped mud all over the floor.  It was the summer help’s job the first summer to sweep up the shop twice each week.  If it had been raining, I usually started with a shovel scraping up piles of mud.  So, I recognized the importance of quickly growing grass.

The day that Ken Conrad was explaining to me how to setup and operate the water cannons, I was only half paying attention.  “I got it.  Roll out the plastic fiber fire hose, unhook the water cannon from the tractor, let out the cable.  turn it on the fire hydrant… Done….”  That was all I heard.  What Ken was saying to me was a lot different.  it had to do with all the warnings about doing it the correct way.  I think in my mind I wasn’t listening because I was thinking that it really wasn’t all that difficult.

Water Cannon similar to ours only ours had another spool on it that held the fire hose

So, here is what happened the next morning when I went to setup the first water cannon to water the field just north of the water treatment plant up to the Million Gallon #2 Diesel Oil Tanks berms.  I thought… ok… Step one:  roll out the hose…  Hmmm… hook it up to the fire hydrant, and then just pull the water gun forward with the tractor and it should unroll the hose….

Well.  my first mistake was that I hadn’t disengaged the spool so that it would turn freely, so when I pulled the tractor forward, off popped the connector on the end of the hose attached to the fire hydrant.  That’s when I remembered Ken telling me not to forget to disengage the spool before letting out the hose.  That’s ok.  Ken showed me how to fix that.

I beat on it with a hammer to knock out the clamp and put it back on the end of the hose after I had cut off a piece with my pocket knife to have a clean end.  Disengaged the spool, and tried it again… Nope.  Pulled the end off again…  I was letting it out too fast.  That’s when I remembered Ken Conrad telling me not to let the hose out too fast or it would pull the end off.  I repaired the connector on the hose again.

After finally laying the hose out and hooking it up to the water cannon, I disconnected the water cannon from the tractor and hooked up the hose and began pulling the steel cable out of the cable spool by pulling the tractor forward.  Well, at first the water cannon wanted to follow me because you had to disengage that spool also, (as Ken had showed me).

So I thought I could just drag the water cannon back around to where it started, but that wasn’t a good idea because I ended up pulling off the connector on the fire hose again, only on the other end than before.  Anyway, after repairing the hose at least three times and getting everything in position twice, I was finally ready to turn on the water.

That was when things turned from bad to worse.  The first thing I did was turned on the fire hydrant using a large wrench where the water pressure instantly blew the hose out of the connector and water poured out into a big mud  puddle by the time I could turn it off.  then I remembered that Ken had told me to remember to make sure the screw valve was closed when you turned on the fire hydrant or else you will blow the end off of the hose….

So, I repaired the hose again, and reconnected it (standing in mud now).  Closed the screw-type valve and turned on the fire hydrant.  Then I opened the screw-type valve and the end of the hose blew off again…  Then I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me to make sure I open the valve very slowly otherwise I would blow the connector off of the hose.  So I repaired the hose again and hooked everything up (while standing in a bigger mud puddle) and tried it again.

I opened the valve slowly and the water cannon began shooting water out as I opened the valve up further and further… until a hole blew out in the middle of the hose shooting water all over the tractor.  So I turned off the water again as I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me not to open the valve very far or it would start to blow out holes in the hose.  I went and patched the hole the way that Ken Conrad has showed me and went back to try it again… walking through mud over to the fire hydrant, where there was an increasingly larger puddle.

I remember that it was around lunch time when I was standing in the middle of that field covered with mud  standing in what looked like a mud hole that pigs would just love, trying to repair a hole in the hose for the 3rd or 4th time that it dawned on me how different my morning would have been if I had only paid more attention to Ken when he was explaining everything to me the day before.

I skipped lunch that day. Finally around 1 o’clock the water cannon was on and it was shooting water out about 40 yards in either direction.  I spent that entire day making one mistake after the other.  I was beat by the time to go home.

Like this only without the grass

After sleeping on it I was determined not to let the experience from the day before intimidate me.  I had learned from my mistakes and was ready to tackle the job of watering the mud in hopes that the sprigs of grass would somehow survive the 100 degree heat.  As a matter of fact, the rest of the next 6 weeks the temperature was over 100 degrees every day.  This was Oklahoma.

When I first took over for Ken, the watering was being done in three shifts.  I watered during the day, the other summer help watered in the evening and a fairly new guy named Ron Hunt watered during the late night shift (not the Ron Hunt of Power Plant Man Fame, but a guy that eventually moved to the plant in Midwest City and became an operator).  After two weeks, they did away with the night shift and I was put on 7 – 12s.  that is 7 days a week, 12 hour days.

I didn’t own a car so, I had to catch a ride with someone in the morning in order to be at the plant by 6am.  Then I had to catch a ride back to Stillwater in the evening when I left at 6:30pm each day of the week.  The Operators and the security guards worked out good for this.  I would ride to work in the morning with whichever operator was kind enough to pick me up at the corner of Washington and Lakeview (where I had walked from my parent’s house) and whichever security guard that was going that way in the evening.

I found out after a few days on this job that Colonel Sneed whose office was in the Engineer’s Shack was in charge of this job.  So he would drive by and see how things were going.  After a while I had a routine of where I would put the water cannons and where I would lay the Irrigation pipes.  He seemed to be well pleased and even said that I could go to work for him when I was done with this job.

I told him that I was going to go back to school in a few weeks and he said that he would be waiting for me the next summer.  Only Colonel Sneed, who was an older man with silver hair wasn’t there when I returned the next summer.  He had either retired or died, or both.  I never was sure which.  I did learn a few years later that he had died, but I didn’t know when.

Besides the first day on that job, the only other memorable day I had was on a Sunday when there wasn’t anyone in the maintenance shop, I remember parking the yellow Cushman cart out in the shade of 10 and 11 belts (That is the big long belt that you see in the power plant picture on the right side of this post) where I could see both water cannons and the irrigation pipes.

I was watching dirt devils dance across the coal pile.  This was one of those days when the wind is just right to make dirt devils, and there was one after the other travelling from east to west across the coal pile.

A Dust Devil

The Security guard was on his way back from checking the dam when he stopped along the road, got out of his jeep and sat on the hood and watched them for 5 or 10 minutes.  For those of you who might not know, a dirt devil looks like a miniature tornado in training as it kicks up the dirt from the ground.  These dirt devils were actually “coal devils” and they were black.  They were lined up one after the other blowing across the the huge black pile of coal.  You can see the size of the coal pile from this Google Image:

This is an overhead view of the plant

This is an overhead view of the plant

Then as the security guard on the hill and I were watching the coal pile, this long black finger came flying up from the coal pile reaching higher and higher into the sky twirling itself into one huge coal devil!  It traveled toward me from the coalyard and across the intake coming straight toward where I was.  It ended up going directly between the two smoke stacks which are each 500 feet tall.  This coal devil was easily twice the size of the smoke stacks.  Tall and Black.  After it went between the smoke stacks it just faded like dust devils do and it was gone.

Picture a dust devil this size but pure black

As the monstrous black coal devil was coming toward the plant, the security guard had jumped in his jeep and headed down to where I was parked.  He was all excited and asked me if I had seen how big that was.  We talked about the dust devils for a few minutes, then he left and I went back to watching the water cannons and irrigation pipes.

I had to wonder if that big coal devil had been created just for our benefit.  It seemed at the time that God had been entertaining us that Sunday by sending small dust devils across the coal pile, and just as they do in Fireworks shows, he had ended this one with the big grand Finale by sending the monster-sized coal devil down directly between the smoke stacks.

Some times you just know when you have been blessed by a unique experience.  We didn’t have cameras on cell phones in those days, and I’m not too quick with a camera anyway, but at least the guard and I were able to share that moment.

I began this post by explaining why it is important to listen to a Power Plant Man when he speaks and ended it with the dust devil story.  How are these two things related?  As I pointed out, I felt as if I had been given a special gift that day.  Especially the minute it took for the monster coal devil to travel almost 1/2 mile from the coal yard through the smoke stacks.

It may be that one moment when a Power Plant Man speaks that he exposes his hidden wisdom.  If you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss it.  I did Ken Conrad an injustice the day he explained how to run the irrigation equipment and it cost me a day of pure frustration, but the real marvel was that as I made each mistake I could remember Ken telling me about that.

Ken had given me a full tutorial of the job I was about to do.  How many people would do that?  If I had only been listening, I would have heard Ken telling me much more than how to do the job.  I would have seen clearly how Ken cared enough about me to spend all the time it took to thoroughly teach me what he knew.

That is the way it is with True Power Plant Men.  Ken could have said, “roll out the hose, pull out the cable,, turn the water on … and good luck…”, but he didn’t.  he went through every detail of how to make my job easier.  I may have felt blessed when the monster coal devil flew between the stacks, but it was that day a couple of weeks earlier when Ken had taken the time and showed his concern that I had really been blessed.

I didn’t recognize it at the time.  But as time goes by and you grow older, the importance of simple moments in your life come to light.  My regret is that I didn’t realize it in time to say “Thank You Ken.”  If I could take back that day, I would not only listen, I would appreciate that someone else was giving me their time for my sake.  If I had done that.  I’m sure I would have ended the day by saying, “Thank you Ken.”

  1. Comments from the original post:

    1. susanhull May 5, 2012

    Ken reminds me of my dad, who, though not a power plant man per se (he was an electrical engineer, that’s pretty close,right?), would give us way more details than we thought we needed. And now I see myself doing it to my grandson (age 11), who is likely to roll his eyes and say, “I already know that!”, when I know darn well he doesn’t. Then I try to resist doing the “I told you so” dance when he finds out he doesn’t already know that. Unfortunately, he does not resist doing the dance when we find out that he did, in fact, already know it!

  2. zensouth May 5, 2012

    I like your blog because the stories are always substantial. It takes a while to take in all the flavor of it, like sampling a fine meal or a rich pastry. I do dislike the visual theme, but I think it forces me to concentrate on the content of the story.

    1. Plant Electrician May 5, 2012

      Thanks Zen, I understand your feelings. A coal-fired power plant is hardly a normal setting. It was built way out in the country because no one really wants one in their backyard. It was the place I called home for many years. I know that when I left I took with me silicon-based ash, a couple of pounds of coal dust and asbestos particles in my lungs. I will not be surprised the day the doctor tells me that I have mesothelioma. I realized after I left, that it wasn’t the place, it was the people that were so dear to me that I called “home”.

  3. jackcurtis May 13, 2012

    I’ve served time with similar folk, people who had more time for a kid learning a job than the kid had for them. Two things stuck besides an entirely different evaluation of those people over time…first one was the old (now): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” And the other was, remembering the old guys who had patience with you along the way, it’s always like remembering your parents and you pay it forward…(and I still think you have a book in you)

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After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests

Originally posted March 22, 2013:

I have found that elevators have a way of equalizing personal differences when there are just two of you alone in an elevator. It is one of the few places in a Power Plant where no one is watching or listening (usually) to what is said between two parties. Once the doors open, it is difficult to convince others what has happened because there is only one other witness. Depending on your position, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Soon after I became an electrician I was introduced to “Elevator Maintenance”. The Power Plant has 7 elevators. One that goes to the main office area. One that goes to the Control Room. Two for the boilers. Two for the Smoke Stacks and one that takes you to the top of the Fly Ash Hoppers in the coal yard.

The office and boiler elevators were made by Montgomery. These each had to be inspected regularly to keep them running safely. If not, then the plant ran the risk of having people stuck in the elevators for a period of time, which is never a good situation.

There were times when people were stuck in the plant elevators. I may devote an entire post to that subject at some time. Today I’m more interested in the people that inspect the elevators and the effects that elevator inspections had on them.

I didn’t think about it for a long time, but one day when I was walking by a person that I worked with at Dell, Jeremy Tupa, stopped and said, “I still get chills thinking about what you used to do at the Power Plant.” I didn’t know what he was referring to until he reminded me. He said, “When you had to drop test the elevators.” It took me a while, but I finally remembered when I had told Jeremy about drop testing the stack elevator.

Our team at Dell had gone to Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio for the day. Jeremy and I were sitting next to each other on a ride called “The Scream”. It would raise you up and then you would free-fall down and then it would quickly jerk you back up again and drop you again. That’s when I told him this wasn’t scary to me, because it was just like drop testing a stack elevator.

Scream at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio

Scream at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio

Oh yeah. I guess to some people that must seem kind of scary. To the people that actually perform that activity, they do things to their mind to convince themselves that everything is safe. Well. Besides that, when following all the safety precautions, it really is a safe activity (see. I’m still doing it).

When drop testing an elevator, you load the elevator with more weight than what the elevator is designed to carry. Usually by bringing a few pallets of sandblasting sand by forklift to the elevator and then piling them in the elevator until you have reached the desired weight for a drop test.

A clean Elevator Shaft

A clean Elevator Shaft. The plant elevator shaft was always full of coal dust and just dirt.

Once the elevator is weighed down, you climb on top of the elevator and manually operate the elevator using the inspection controls until you have raised it up a couple of floors. Then someone up in the penthouse releases the brake so that the elevator free falls.

Once the elevator obtains a certain speed, a tripping device located in the penthouse rolls over and locks, that causes a locking device on the elevator to engage, which sets the “dogs”. The dogs are clamps that dig into the railing that the elevator uses as sort of a track to go up and down without shaking back and forth.

Once the tripping mechanism in the penthouse is operated. it cuts the power to the elevator. Once the dogs are set, there is a loud bang and the elevator isn’t going anywhere. It comes to an instant stop.

Performing a drop test in an elevator shaft seems rather routine, and it is more trouble resetting everything and filing the track smooth again where the dogs dug in creating a notch, than it is to actually perform the drop test.

The Smoke Stack elevators are a lot more fun.

The smoke stack elevators are these Swedish made three man elevators made by a company named Alimak. They operate like a roller coaster does when it is cranking its way up the first hill. The weight limit for these elevators is much lower obviously, since they only hold 3 people.

I could usually load a few large anchors and maybe an Engineer or two in the stack elevator and run it up 50 feet or so and perform the drop test. In order to perform a drop test on a stack elevator (notice how I use the word “perform” as if this was a work of art…. well… in a way it was), you had to disengage a governor first. The governor would prevent a free-falling stack elevator from just flying to the bottom by engaging a secondary brake when the governor sensed that the elevator was moving too fast.

After installing the special governator (like Arnold Schwarzenegger) to keep the governor from engaging, using a large screwdriver or small prybar (meaning that the large screwdriver also functions as a small prybar), the brake is released allowing the elevator to free fall to the ground or well, until the elevator sensed it was moving way too fast and locked up.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

Did I mention that these activities are performed while standing on top of the stack elevator? Yeah. Right out in the open. The entire elevator inspection was done standing on top of the elevator. That was how you inspected the railing and tight checked all the bolts all the way up and down the 500 foot stack elevator rail.

A large Allen Wrench with a permanent cheater bar was used to tight check the rail bolts.

Large Allen Wrench

Large Allen Wrench without a cheater bar

One time before I was an electrician, when Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien) was pulling down on an allen bolt with the cheater bar, Jerry Day, who was with her, pressed the button to lower the elevator down to the next bolt and left Diana hanging in mid-air 100’s of feet above the ground!

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

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

Needless to say, the experience of hanging onto a large Allen wrench stuck in a bolt 100’s of feet up a smoke stack, left Diana a little scarred (no I spelled that right). Diana is a tough Power Plant Woman of the highest degree and I used to perform the elevator inspections with her. She would go up the smoke stack on the top of the elevator, but I generally did the tight check on the bolts and let her run the buttons.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

This is all just a teaser to the real story behind this post…

In the fall of 1984 Ben Davis and I went to Muskogee on a major overhaul. While I was there, part of the time I lived in a trailer with a guy from Horseshoe Lake named Steve Trammell. To this day, (and Steve does read these posts) we have always referred to each other as “roomie”.

While at Muskogee Ben and I worked out of the electric shop located next to the main switchgear for Unit 6. The Muskogee electricians we worked around were, John Manning, the B Foreman, Jay Harris, Richard Moravek, David Stewart and Tiny.

Tiny would be the one standing in the back

Tiny would be the one standing in the back

All of the electricians Ben and I worked with were great Power Plant Men, and I will write a post later about our experience there. For now, I am just going to focus on one person. David Stewart. Why? Because he inspected the stack elevators at Muskogee, like I did at Sooner Plant.

I don’t know exactly how the conversation was started because I walked into it in the middle when I entered the Electric foreman’s office to eat my lunch. David was semi-arguing with the rest of the he-men in the room. The argument centered around this: David Stewart was convinced that if you were in an elevator and everything failed and it was falling to the ground, if you jumped up as hard as you could at the last moment, you would be all right.

I will pause here while you re-read the last sentence………..

While you are thinking this thought over, watch the following Pink Panther video from 1968 called, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Pink on YouTube. Especially from 4 minutes and 15 seconds to 30 seconds into the film:

At first I thought that this was an ingenious joke that David was playing on everyone in the office because everyone was falling for it (I had actually used this technique before in my own jokes.  This is the joke where you act like you’re really stupid while everyone tries to convince you of something obvious, only to end by grinning with a look like: “Gotcha”). They were all trying to explain to David why it was impossible to jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and you would be all right. The more I listened, the more I came to realize that David was convinced that this was so.

I took David aside and tried to explain to him that according to the law of gravity and acceleration that you would be falling too fast to be able to jump high enough to make any difference to your falling fate. I presented him with the formula for acceleration and showed him that if you even fell from about 50 feet, you would be crushed.

final velocity = Square root of the initial velocity squared plus 2 times acceleration times distance. With Gravity having an acceleration of 9.81 meters per second and 50 feet being just over 15 meters…

I showed him that his final velocity would be about 17 meters per second, which is equivalent to about 38 miles an hour straight into the ground. From only a 50 foot fall. It didn’t phase him. He was so certain it would work. — I understood. This was his way of coping with doing a drop test on the stack elevator. His mind had convinced him that all he had to do was jump up in the case that the elevator safeties failed.

Fast Forward 5 months. It was in April of 1985 when a man from the Swedish Elevator company would come around and do our yearly stack elevator inspection. During this inspection he told me that we needed to remove the top gear rail from the railing.

The reason was that on a stack in Minnesota, when all the safeties had failed on an elevator, it didn’t stop going up. It went all the way to the top and off the top of the railing and fell to it’s doom. By removing the top gear section, the elevator wouldn’t be able to go high enough to go over the top of the railing.

Anyway, while we were inspecting the elevator I asked him if he would be going to the Muskogee power plant after ours, and he said he would. He knew David Stewart and would most likely be working with him on the Muskogee Stack Elevators.

So, I told him the story that David really believed that he had convinced himself that he could jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and he would survive. So I convinced the elevator inspector to tell everyone about how they need to remove the top gear section, but that it doesn’t really matter, because it is a proven fact that all you have to do is jump up in the elevator at the last moment and you will be all right.

Fast Forward another year. It was now April 1986…. The elevator inspector and I were up on the stack elevators tight checking all the bolts when I remembered about David. So I asked him, “Hey, did you ever do anything with David and jumping up in the elevator?”

He responded with, “Yeah I did! And until the moment that I had said anything I thought you were playing a joke on me, but here is what happened…. We were all sitting in the electric shop office eating lunch and I told them just like you said. When I got to the part where you could just jump up in the elevator and you would be all right, David jumped out of his chair and yelled ‘See!!! I told you!!!’ It was only then that I believed your story. Everyone in the room broke out in a roar of laughter.” — As much as I love David Stewart, I was glad that the joke was performed with perfect precision.

Now for the clincher…. — Oh. You thought that was it? So, let me explain to you one thing about drop testing the stack elevator… The elevator doesn’t go up and down like regular elevators with cables and rails and rollers. It uses one gear on a central rail that has notches to fit the gear.

The stack elevator had a rail with notches like this only it was a lot stronger

The stack elevator had a rail with notches like this only it was a lot stronger

The gear is heavy duty as well as the rail. You can count on it not breaking. The gear was on a shaft that was tied to the braking mechanism, the governor and the motor through a gearbox. The ultimate clincher is this… The gear… The only thing holding the entire elevator up and the only thing tied to any kind of a brake had one pin in it that kept it from rotating on the shaft. One pin. In mechanical terms, this is called a Key:

A hardened steel Key used to keep a gear or coupling from rotating on a motor shaft

A hardened steel Key used to keep a gear or coupling from rotating on a motor shaft

Everything else on the stack elevator can fail and the elevator will not fall, but if this pin were to fail…. the elevator would free fall to the ground. Thinking back, I must have explained this to Jeremy Tupa, my coworker at Dell back in 2004 when we worked together. It made such an impact on him that I would drop test an elevator that was completely held up by only this one pin. This is the weakest link in the chain.

I know that every now and then I wake up either from a claustrophobic fit because Curtis Love just shut my air off (see the Post: Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love) or while I’m taking a flying leap off of the stack elevator. If only I could have the confidence that David had. If only I could believe that jumping up at the last moment would save me.

Actually, I can picture jumping up and a hand reaching down to grab me and pulling me up… only it pulls me on up to heaven. That’s when I’ll know the truth. David was right. Just jump up as hard as you can. Jump and know that you will be safe. God will catch you.

Comment from the original post:

  1. Monty Hansen June 27, 2014

    I got stuck in the plant elevator once, I was playing – jumping up and down in it, and enjoying it bounce – until it came to a crunching halt between floors – about 8 stories up. And of course I had to do this stunt on THANKSGIVING day when there were no electricians at the plant to save me! The plant was an hour drive from town. The supervisor had to call out an electrician. he said the overspeed brakes had tripped AND the slack cable switch. How embarrassing! I never move in an elevator now.

    Another time my supervisor got stuck in the plant elevator at about 5 in the morning, I was the senior guy on shift and upgradable to foreman, so I upgraded while he was stuck, but since it was so close to time for electricians to start coming on shift, there was no use calling one out. I had a Time off request for 3 hours of floating holiday waiting for him when he came out! It was winter and cold and he was up about level 8 also. Fortunately he had a big heavy coat and was dressed for the occasion.

 

Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline.  The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators.  This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust.  The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”.  The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust.  When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air (or 99.999%).

Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop.  These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator.  I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post:  Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant.  It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years.  You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant.  I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.

When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it.  He likes to get dirty.”  At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop.  Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning…  Now those words took on their full meaning.

I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning.  Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post:  Singin’ Along with Sonny Kendrick).  I was his chance to be lifted from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey.  I had accepted that.  I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.

So, here I was…  One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post:  Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door).  Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers.  I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit.  Just a rain suit.

A man wearing a half faced respirator -- not me... just an image I found on Google Images

A man wearing a half faced respirator — not me… just an image I found on Google Images

Not a lot of protection….

I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul.  I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string.  I had  a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world.  It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon.  We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point.  We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.

Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart.  He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above.  At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me.  Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip.  There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.

Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip.  Then even lower.  About 10 feet above us.  A third clip.  — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“),  then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….”  A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.

Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate.  Every clip must be in their place.  Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so.  Ok.  I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 clips per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and  7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…

Bill explained….. Clean each insulator.  there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers.  there were 84 hoppers,   Great.  Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks….  Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof.  two on each section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension hosue on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a clip or broken.  Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force.  That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below.  Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each.  There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers.  In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.

Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates.  In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly.  There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers.   This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul.  Oh.  And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.

So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units).  Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators.  Some of my closest friends were precipitator components.  Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.

We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me.  I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment.  I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.

Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in the boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas….  I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”.  I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash.  I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby…  Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it.  He apologized.  He explained that he meant it with affection.

At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it.  The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter.  That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs.  Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.

I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu.  This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so.  I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth.  I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.

I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator.  So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters.  They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles.  I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.

To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell.  The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors.  Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals….  Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.

You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate.  Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.

I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post:  A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff.  He said it had some kind of  a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….

He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell.  You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.

There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name).  She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical.  Unfortunately, we never found out what it was.  In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces.  This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.

I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of  an electron microscope.  I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one.  I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.

So, I just continued wearing the organic filters.  This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms.  Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator.  When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands.  They knew everything I did.

One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job.  One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma.  They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had.  They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.

Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be.  I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously.  No.  I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it.  I loved it.   I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.

I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator.  I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them.  Coaxing them.  Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job.  If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”.  Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7.  But they were each my friends in their own way.

You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?”  I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me.  I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.

I have my own understanding of who I should be.  My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is.  I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again….  What was I going to do?  Give up?  How could I do that to a friend?  I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma.  That isn’t going to change who I am.”

Today I am called an IT Business Analyst.  I work for Dell  Computers.  It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world.  I see the same pattern.  When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job.  You become invaluable.  Almost unreplaceable.  People look to you for answers.  They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business.  I am glad to be able to serve them.

Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?”  Arnold replied, “Oh.  nothing anyone wants.”  (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators.  No.  I wouldn’t do that.  Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.

Scott Hubbard

Charles Foster

Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good.  His son, Tim Foster has taken his place.  One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator.  I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim….  I know Scott understands….

Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them….  Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness.   Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly…  Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good…  next row….

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.

The Power Plant Smokestack Third Rail is the Lifesaver

Originally posted November 29, 2014:

It was quite a site at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to see a 400 pound man climbing up the ladder to the 250 foot level (halfway) of the smokestack only to climb halfway down again on the track the elevator used to go up and down the smokestack. I was on labor crew then and I remember thinking, I’m sure glad that’s not me.

A small tour of people from Oklahoma City had come to the plant and one of the engineers was showing them around. I think Allen Gould may remember who it was. I’m not saying it was Allen, I’m just thinking that he was around at that time.

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

I think that day the wind was blowing rather hard and when the elevator was descending (going down) the stack, the power cable somehow blew over into the path of the elevator and it was caught under the roller which brought the elevator to an abrupt halt. Unfortunately. in this instance, trying to free fall the elevator manually to bring it down wouldn’t work since when the brakes were released, the elevator wouldn’t move because it was really stuck right where it was.

A person that worked for the Alimak elevator company was called in from Wichita Kansas 100 miles to the north of the Power plant, which meant that it took almost 2 hours for the person to arrive at the plant. When he did, he turned out to be the largest elevator repairman I had ever seen. He had to climb up 250 feet up a ladder to the landing, then back down again about 100 feet to the elevator to rescue the people from the elevator.

I first found out about it when someone pointed out the large figure of a man about halfway up to the first landing on the smokestack ladder. He had stopped for a rest and was leaning back on his lanyard that was attached to the ladder. When we arrived in the maintenance shop, Marlin McDaniel explained the situation to us. I think it took well over three hours for this man to take each person out of the hatch in the top of the elevator, then climb with them up the elevator track to the landing, and then take them down the ladder 250 feet to the ground. I think one of them was a lady, and two were men.

The stack elevator is a small box with a capacity to carry 3 people or a weight of 900 pounds. It is crowded enough with only two people in it, but three is always a crowd (as the saying goes, “Two’s company, Three’s a crowd”). That phrase definitely is true with the stack elevator.

 

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

At the time, I didn’t realize that one day I would be an electrician that took care of the smoke stack elevators. Actually, I never gave it a thought about what sort of equipment electricians repaired or maintained. It turned out that electricians worked on anything that had electric power going to it. That’s pretty much anything mechanical.

Electricians would work on the motors while the mechanics would work on the pumps, fans and valves attached to the end of the motors. When it came to the stack elevators, it was generally left up to the electricians to do the majority of the work. We inspected the elevators each month, and when they broke down, we were called to repair them.

When the boiler elevators broke down, it seemed as if I was the person of choice to ask to climb the boiler to the roof to fix it. The elevator controls were located on the top of the boiler, so I would usually end up climbing the stairs to the top cleaning door contacts on the way up. It happens that the boilers are 250 feet tall. So, the middle landing on the stack elevator is about the same height as the boiler as you can see in the picture above.

Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, would always add when he was telling me to go fix the elevator…. “You like climbing all those stairs anyway.” What could I say? “Sure Bill! I’ll go see what I can do.”

I think in the back of my mind I knew the day was coming when I was going to have to climb the stack elevator ladder to rescue someone. I had already climbed it a few times to fix some conduit that had come loose that ran up the smokestack next to the ladder, so I knew what it was like to go straight up a 500 foot ladder to the top of the smokestack. Luckily when my turn came around for a rescue, I only had to go halfway up. There were 4 people stuck on the smokestack.

Unlike the large elevator repairman from Wichita, I didn’t have to climb down the elevator track to reach the elevator. It had malfunctioned right at the 250 foot level when the group was ready to come back down from their semi-lofty visit of one of the Power Plant Smokestacks. My only task was to climb up, fix the elevator and bring the group safely to the ground.

I grabbed some tools from my tool bucket that I thought would be useful. A couple of different size screwdrivers (one large one and one small), my multimeter, fuse pullers, and three wrenches, (7/16, 1/2 and 9/16 inch). I put them in a bag that looked like a feed bag for a horse. It had a rope with a hook on it.

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

I figured I didn’t want to take anything I didn’t need, so I didn’t put all 40 pounds of tools from my tool bucket into the bag. Just those things I thought I might need. I had my handy dandy little crescent wrench in my pocket and my baby screwdriver in my pocket protector on my tee shirt.

4 inch crescent wrench

4 inch crescent wrench

I took a safety belt off of the coat rack by the door in the electric shop and put it on. I figured I could hook the tool bag to one of the rings while I was climbing the ladder up the smokestack. With only the safety belt and the fairly lightweight tool bag, I headed out to the Unit 2 smokestack. Oh yeah. I was carrying one other nifty device as well.

when I arrived, Doug Link was standing at the bottom with some other people. Doug explained that George Bohn and some other engineers from the City (meaning Oklahoma City) were trying to come down, but the elevator wasn’t working. Luckily they had carried a two-way radio with them when they went up (which was a regular safety precaution since smoke signals would largely go unnoticed coming from a smokestack).

I understand from watching movies that when you climb onto the tracks in a subway in New York City or some other large town with a subway, that you are supposed to avoid the “Third Rail”. After Doug Link had explained to me the problem, the first thing I did was to grab the third rail on the ladder that ran up the smoke stack.

Doug Link

Doug Link

You see. Running right up the middle of the ladder is an extra rail. This is what keeps you alive while you climb a very high ladder. Think about it. If you were to try to climb a ladder 250 or 500 feet straight up, what’s going to happen to you? Your arms and legs are going to start getting wobbly. You are going to become short of breath, and your head is going to start to swim some either from hyperventilating or the lack of oxygen… I haven’t figured out which yet.

Anyway, at some point, something is going to stop working. Your fingers are going to miss their grip on the next rung or your work boot is going to slip off of the rung and you will fall. If there is nothing to stop you, then you are going all the way to the ground.

That is why the third rail is added to the ladder. It is there so that you can tie your safety belt to it. It keeps you from falling when you slip, and it also allows you to take a rest when you need it without the worry that if some part of your body momentarily malfunctions, you won’t fall to your death.

A ladder with a safety belt rail

A ladder with a safety belt rail

Here is an example of a ladder with a device similar to the one we had on our stack ladders. I took the nifty device I had brought with me and hooked it into the third rail of the ladder and clipped the tool bag to the other metal loop on my safety belt (this was before we had safety harnesses). Then I began my trek to the landing.

As I ascended (went up) the ladder I told myself that this was no higher than climbing the stairs on the boiler to go to the elevator penthouse to fix the boiler elevators. I do that all the time. This should not be so hard. Just as I would help myself climb the stairs, I could use my hands to pull myself up the ladder distributing the work between my arms and legs as needed so that when one set was becoming too tired, I would have the other set do more of the work (arms and legs I mean).

I told myself it would probably be best if I didn’t stop until I arrived at the 250 foot landing, because I thought that if I did stop for a rest, my legs would get all wobbly. As long as I kept climbing, they didn’t have time for that nonsense. So, I huffed and puffed, and kept focusing on each rung of the ladder as I climbed.

When I reached the 250 foot landing, I swung my tool bag over onto the grating and unclipped my belt from the third rail and sat down with my feet still dangling off the edge of the grating where the ladder came through and rested for a few moments.

George Bohn and the other castaways were around the other side of the stack. They had not realized I had arrived yet. After I caught my breath, I climbed up to the top of the elevator and opened the control panel to see why the elevator was not working. I switched it to manual, and tried to operate it from the top of the elevator, but it didn’t budge.

I used my multimeter to check the circuits and quickly found that one of the fuses had blown out. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a spare fuse with me, and there wasn’t one in the control box, so there wasn’t much I could do to fix the elevator controls at this point.

I hollered for George and he came around the walkway to the elevator. I explained to him that the fuse to the controls was blown and that I could either climb all the way back down the ladder to the ground to get one, or, I could manually “drop” the elevator down with them in it to the ground. The lady with them didn’t care much for that idea.

I explained that I regularly drop test the elevator and I would be able to let the brake loose long enough for the elevator to go down a couple of feet at a time. After doing that about 125 times, we would be safely on the ground. That seemed to satisfy them, so they entered the elevator and closed the door, while I remained on the top of the elevator.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

I took my large screwdriver out of the tool bag and pried it between the motor and a latch on the brake. This way, I just had to pull out on the screwdriver to release the brake on the elevator until it began to free-fall toward the ground. I turned my head to look up at the elevator track so I could make sure I didn’t let the elevator drop too far. If I did, then my heroic attempt to rescue my elevator hostages would quickly turn from an “atta-boy” into an “Uh-Oh!”

You see, if I let the elevator drop more than 3 feet (or so), then the safeties on the elevator (known as “dogs”) would set. This would bring the elevator to an abrupt halt. It was designed to stop a falling elevator by instantly locking the elevator to the tracks.

If the dogs were to be set on the stack elevator, the only way to release them is to take the cover off of a gear box and start manually cranking the elevator up about 3 feet until the dogs reset. This was a slow process that usually took about 30 minutes, and if I didn’t go up far enough to actually reset the dogs, as soon as we continued going back down, the dogs would set again and I would have to repeat the process.

So, like the tortoise, I decided that slow and steady wins the race. I was not going to drop the elevator more than a foot and a half each time. We would take our time going down.

The first time I released the brakes and the elevator began to free-fall, I heard the lady below me in the elevator let out a loud gasp. I know the guys were gasping as well, they just had to be more quiet about it. I know I was gasping each time on the top of the elevator and I had done this probably 20 times before when we did the elevator drop tests (See the post “After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests“).

After about 10 minutes the elevator was safely back on the ground and so were the engineers. Doug Link came up to me and said with an excited voice, “It took you only 4 minutes and 23 seconds to climb up the ladder! That’s incredible! I timed you!” I said, “That’s about right. One second per foot.”

I went back to the shop and found three fuses for the one that had blown on the elevator. I climbed back on the elevator and opened the control box and replaced the bad one. Then I placed the other two in the control box. I figured this way, if this fuse were to blow again, then at least the electrician could just replace it, and not have to manually ride the elevator to the ground again.

I tested the elevator by riding it up and down the stack a few times and everything worked just fine. I figured that this must have just happened because George Bohn was trying to show off to some cute engineer. That’s just George’s luck. To find out more adventures with George, you can read this post: “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer“.

Last Days as a Power Plant Labor Crew Hand

Originally posted December 14, 2012:

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

Queen Anne of England

Queen Anne of England

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

Punch and Judy

Punch and Judy Puppet Show

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

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

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

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

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

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

Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement

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

We had a Clarke Floor scrubber similar to this one

We had a Clarke Floor scrubber similar to this one

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

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

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

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a Note Jan Said the Manager of Power Production

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

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

Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power Plant Smokestack Third Rail is the Lifesaver

Originally posted November 29, 2014:

It was quite a site at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to see a 400 pound man climbing up the ladder to the 250 foot level (halfway) of the smokestack only to climb halfway down again on the track the elevator used to go up and down the smokestack. I was on labor crew then and I remember thinking, I’m sure glad that’s not me.

A small tour of people from Oklahoma City had come to the plant and one of the engineers was showing them around. I think Allen Gould may remember who it was. I’m not saying it was Allen, I’m just thinking that he was around at that time.

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

I think that day the wind was blowing rather hard and when the elevator was descending (going down) the stack, the power cable somehow blew over into the path of the elevator and it was caught under the roller which brought the elevator to an abrupt halt. Unfortunately. in this instance, trying to free fall the elevator manually to bring it down wouldn’t work since when the brakes were released, the elevator would move because it was really stuck right where it was.

A person that worked for the Alimak elevator company was called in from Wichita Kansas 100 miles to the north of the Power plant, which meant that it took almost 2 hours for the person to arrive at the plant. When he did, he turned out to be the largest elevator repairman I had ever seen. He had to climb up 250 feet up a ladder to the landing, then back down again about 100 feet to the elevator to rescue the people from the elevator.

I first found out about it when someone pointed out the large figure of a man about halfway up to the first landing on the smokestack ladder. He had stopped for a rest and was leaning back on his lanyard that was attached to the ladder. When we arrived in the maintenance shop, Marlin McDaniel explained the situation to us. I think it took well over three hours for this man to take each person out of the hatch in the top of the elevator, then climb with them up the elevator track to the landing, and then take them down the ladder 250 feet to the ground. I think one of them was a lady, and two were men.

The stack elevator is a small box with a capacity to carry 3 people or a weight of 900 pounds. It is crowded enough with only two people in it, but three is always a crowd (as the saying goes, “Two’s company, Three’s a crowd”). That phrase definitely is true with the stack elevator.

 

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

At the time, I didn’t realize that one day I would be an electrician that took care of the smoke stack elevators. Actually, I never gave it a thought about what sort of equipment electricians repaired or maintained. It turned out that electricians worked on anything that had electric power going to it. That’s pretty much anything mechanical.

Electricians would work on the motors while the mechanics would work on the pumps, fans and valves attached to the end of the motors. When it came to the stack elevators, it was generally left up to the electricians to do the majority of the work. We inspected the elevators each month, and when they broke down, we were called to repair them.

When the boiler elevators broke down, it seemed as if I was the person of choice to ask to climb the boiler to the roof to fix it. The elevator controls were located on the top of the boiler, so I would usually end up climbing the stairs to the top cleaning door contacts on the way up. It happens that the boilers are 250 feet tall. So, the middle landing on the stack elevator is about the same height as the boiler as you can see in the picture above.

Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, would always add when he was telling me to go fix the elevator…. “You like climbing all those stairs anyway.” What could I say? “Sure Bill! I’ll go see what I can do.”

I think in the back of my mind I knew the day was coming when I was going to have to climb the stack elevator ladder to rescue someone. I had already climbed it a few times to fix some conduit that had come loose that ran up the smokestack next to the ladder, so I knew what it was like to go straight up a 500 foot ladder to the top of the smokestack. Luckily when my turn came around for a rescue, I only had to go halfway up. There were 4 people stuck on the smokestack.

Unlike the large elevator repairman from Wichita, I didn’t have to climb down the elevator track to reach the elevator. It had malfunctioned right at the 250 foot level when the group was ready to come back down from their semi-lofty visit of one of the Power Plant Smokestacks. My only task was to climb up, fix the elevator and bring the group safely to the ground.

I grabbed some tools from my tool bucket that I thought would be useful. A couple of different size screwdrivers (one large one and one small), my multimeter, fuse pullers, and three wrenches, (7/16, 1/2 and 9/16 inch). I put them in a bag that looked like a feed bag for a horse. It had a rope with a hook on it.

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

I figured I didn’t want to take anything I didn’t need, so I didn’t put all 40 pounds of tools from my tool bucket into the bag. Just those things I thought I might need. I had my handy dandy little crescent wrench in my pocket and my baby screwdriver in my pocket protector on my tee shirt.

4 inch crescent wrench

4 inch crescent wrench

I took a safety belt off of the coat rack by the door in the electric shop and put it on. I figured I could hook the tool bag to one of the rings while I was climbing the ladder up the smokestack. With only the safety belt and the fairly lightweight tool bag, I headed out to the Unit 2 smokestack. Oh yeah. I was carrying one other nifty device as well.

when I arrived, Doug Link was standing at the bottom with some other people. Doug explained that George Bohn and some other engineers from the City (meaning Oklahoma City) were trying to come down, but the elevator wasn’t working. Luckily they had carried a two-way radio with them when they went up (which was a regular safety precaution since smoke signals would largely go unnoticed coming from a smokestack).

I understand from watching movies that when you climb onto the tracks in a subway in New York City or some other large town with a subway, that you are supposed to avoid the “Third Rail”. After Doug Link had explained to me the problem, the first thing I did was to grab the third rail on the ladder that ran up the smoke stack.

Doug Link

Doug Link

You see. Running right up the middle of the ladder is an extra rail. This is what keeps you alive while you climb a very high ladder. Think about it. If you were to try to climb a ladder 250 or 500 feet straight up, what’s going to happen to you? Your arms and legs are going to start getting wobbly. You are going to become short of breath, and your head is going to start to swim some either from hyperventilating or the lack of oxygen… I haven’t figured out which yet.

Anyway, at some point, something is going to stop working. Your fingers are going to miss their grip on the next rung or your work boot is going to slip off of the rung and you will fall. If there is nothing to stop you, then you are going all the way to the ground.

That is why the third rail is added to the ladder. It is there so that you can tie your safety belt to it. It keeps you from falling when you slip, and it also allows you to take a rest when you need it without the worry that if some part of your body momentarily malfunctions, you won’t fall to your death.

A ladder with a safety belt rail

A ladder with a safety belt rail

Here is an example of a ladder with a device similar to the one we had on our stack ladders. I took the nifty device I had brought with me and hooked it into the third rail of the ladder and clipped the tool bag to the other metal loop on my safety belt (this was before we had safety harnesses). Then I began my trek to the landing.

As I ascended (went up) the ladder I told myself that this was no higher than climbing the stairs on the boiler to go to the elevator penthouse to fix the boiler elevators. I do that all the time. This should not be so hard. Just as I would help myself climb the stairs, I could use my hands to pull myself up the ladder distributing the work between my arms and legs as needed so that when one set was becoming too tired, I would have the other set do more of the work (arms and legs I mean).

I told myself it would probably be best if I didn’t stop until I arrived at the 250 foot landing, because I thought that if I did stop for a rest, my legs would get all wobbly. As long as I kept climbing, they didn’t have time for that nonsense. So, I huffed and puffed, and kept focusing on each rung of the ladder as I climbed.

When I reached the 250 foot landing, I swung my tool bag over onto the grating and unclipped my belt from the third rail and sat down with my feet still dangling off the edge of the grating where the ladder came through and rested for a few moments.

George Bohn and the other castaways were around the other side of the stack. They had not realized I had arrived yet. After I caught my breath, I climbed up to the top of the elevator and opened the control panel to see why the elevator was not working. I switched it to manual, and tried to operate it from the top of the elevator, but it didn’t budge.

I used my multimeter to check the circuits and quickly found that one of the fuses had blown out. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a spare fuse with me, and there wasn’t one in the control box, so there wasn’t much I could do to fix the elevator controls at this point.

I hollered for George and he came around the walkway to the elevator. I explained to him that the fuse to the controls was blown and that I could either climb all the way back down the ladder to the ground to get one, or, I could manually “drop” the elevator down with them in it to the ground. The lady with them didn’t care much for that idea.

I explained that I regularly drop test the elevator and I would be able to let the brake loose long enough for the elevator to go down a couple of feet at a time. After doing that about 125 times, we would be safely on the ground. That seemed to satisfy them, so they entered the elevator and closed the door, while I remained on the top of the elevator.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

I took my large screwdriver out of the tool bag and pried it between the motor and a latch on the brake. This way, I just had to pull out on the screwdriver to release the brake on the elevator until it began to free-fall toward the ground. I turned my head to look up at the elevator track so I could make sure I didn’t let the elevator drop too far. If I did, then my heroic attempt to rescue my elevator hostages would quickly turn from an “atta-boy” into an “Uh-Oh!”

You see, if I let the elevator drop more than 3 feet (or so), then the safeties on the elevator (known as “dogs”) would set. This would bring the elevator to an abrupt halt. It was designed to stop a falling elevator by instantly locking the elevator to the tracks.

If the dogs were to be set on the stack elevator, the only way to release them is to take the cover off of a gear box and start manually cranking the elevator up about 3 feet until the dogs reset. This was a slow process that usually took about 30 minutes, and if I didn’t go up far enough to actually reset the dogs, as soon as we continued going back down, the dogs would set again and I would have to repeat the process.

So, like the tortoise, I decided that slow and steady wins the race. I was not going to drop the elevator more than a foot and a half each time. We would take our time going down.

The first time I released the brakes and the elevator began to free-fall, I heard the lady below me in the elevator let out a loud gasp. I know the guys were gasping as well, they just had to be more quiet about it. I know I was gasping each time on the top of the elevator and I had done this probably 20 times before when we did the elevator drop tests (See the post “After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests“).

After about 10 minutes the elevator was safely back on the ground and so were the engineers. Doug Link came up to me and said with an excited voice, “It took you only 4 minutes and 23 seconds to climb up the ladder! That’s incredible! I timed you!” I said, “That’s about right. One second per foot.”

I went back to the shop and found three fuses for the one that had blown on the elevator. I climbed back on the elevator and opened the control box and replaced the bad one. Then I placed the other two in the control box. I figured this way, if this fuse were to blow again, then at least the electrician could just replace it, and not have to manually ride the elevator to the ground again.

I tested the elevator by riding it up and down the stack a few times and everything worked just fine. I figured that this must have just happened because George Bohn was trying to show off to some cute engineer. That’s just George’s luck. To find out more adventures with George, you can read this post: “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer“.

Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline.  The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators.  This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust.  The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”.  The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust.  When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air.

Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop.  These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator.  I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post:  Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant.  It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years.  You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant.  I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.

When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it.  He likes to get dirty.”  At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop.  Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning…  Now those words took on their full meaning.

I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning.  Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post:  Singin’ Along with Sonny Kendrick).  I was his chance to be from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey.  I had accepted that.  I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.

So, here I was…  One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post:  Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door).  Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers.  I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit.  Just a rain suit.

A man wearing a half faced respirator -- not me... just an image I found on Google Images

A man wearing a half faced respirator — not me… just an image I found on Google Images

Not a lot of protection….

I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul.  I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string.  I had  a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world.  It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon.  We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point.  We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.

Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart.  He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above.  At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me.  Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip.  There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.

Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip.  Then even lower.  About 10 feet above us.  A third clip.  — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“),  then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….”  A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.

Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate.  Every clip must be in their place.  Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so.  Ok.  I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 plates per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and  7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…

Bill explained….. Clean each insulator.  there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers.  there were 84 hoppers,   Great.  Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks….  Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof.  two on section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension hosue on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a ciip or broken.  Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force.  That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below.  Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each.  There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers.  In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.

Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates.  In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly.  There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers.   This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul.  Oh.  And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.

So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units).  Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators.  Some of my closest friends were precipitator components.  Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.

We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me.  I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment.  I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.

Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas….  I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”.  I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash.  I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby…  Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it.  He apologized.  He explained that he meant it with affection.

At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it.  The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter.  That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs.  Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.

I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu.  This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so.  I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth.  I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.

I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator.  So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters.  They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles.  I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.

To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell.  The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors.  Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals….  Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.

You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate.  Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.

I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post:  A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff.  He said it had some kind of  a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….

He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell.  You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.

There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name).  She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical.  Unfortunately, we never found out what it was.  In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces.  This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.

I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of  an electron microscope.  I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one.  I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.

So, I just continued wearing the organic filters.  This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms.  Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator.  When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands.  They knew everything I did.

One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job.  One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma.  They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had.  They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.

Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be.  I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously.  No.  I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it.  I loved it.   I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.

I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator.  I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them.  Coaxing them.  Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job.  If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”.  Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7.  But they were each my friends in their own way.

You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?”  I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me.  I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.

I have my own understanding of who I should be.  My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is.  I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again….  What was I going to do?  Give up?  How could I do that to a friend?  I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma.  That isn’t going to change who I am.”

Today I am called an IT Business Analyst.  I work for Dell  Computers.  It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world.  I see the same pattern.  When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job.  You become invaluable.  Almost unreplaceable.  People look to you for answers.  They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business.  I am glad to be able to serve them.

Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?”  Arnold replied, “Oh.  nothing anyone wants.”  (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators.  No.  I wouldn’t do that.  Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.

Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good.  His son, Tim Foster has taken his place.  One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator.  I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim….  I know Scott understands….

Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them….  Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness.   Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly…  Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good…  next row….

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.