Tag Archives: Substation

Electric Company Substation Transformer Shooter

Originally Posted February 14, 2014:

There has been reports on the news this week about someone who has been shooting transformers in PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) substations in California.  It is interesting that the national news is picking up this story now even though the FBI has been investigating similar attacks since December, and even earlier attacks against PG&E as early as last April, 2013.

These reports always catch my attention because back in the early 1990’s, the electric company where I worked in Oklahoma had their own episode when a shooter was going around shooting at substation transformers, and high voltage electric lines.  At that time it was OG&E, not PG&E that was being plagued by someone that seemed to be randomly attacking the electric grid.

Back in early 1993, the first transformer that was shot by a high powered rifle using armor piercing bullets was in the middle of Stillwater Oklahoma near the Pizza Hut on Perkins Road.  It is easy to remember the location, because it later became very significant when it came down to finding out who might be responsible.

Much like the reaction in California this week, everyone was alerted to keep a watch for anyone acting suspicious near substations and high voltage electric lines.

An Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage at something so beautiful?

A High Voltage Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage such a wonderful work of art?

I enjoy watching a TV show called Forensic Files.  It shows how important facts are collected that finally lead to a conviction of someone who has murdered someone.  It is amazing how so many clues are left behind that can be used to prove who is the guilty person.

I suppose the main point that I walk away with after watching a show like this is that criminals are generally pretty stupid.  Especially the really smart ones.  I guess it’s because if they were really smart, then they wouldn’t have turned to a life of crime in the first place.  Maybe it’s like the lazy people that work harder avoiding work than they would if they just did their job.

Of course, working at the Power Plant during  this time meant that we were all put on a kind of “high alert”.  We were extra suspicious of cars parked down side roads near our plant.  Our security guards doubled up a little on their rounds on the lookout for someone suspicious.  In a weird way it brought me back to when I was a dishwasher one summer at the Sirloin Stockade in Stillwater.

side story:

When I first moved to Stillwater in the Spring of 1978, right out of High School, I went to work as a dishwasher/busboy/cook at the local Sirloin Stockade franchise restaurant.  This is not the newer company Sirloin Stockade that is on Perkins road today.  No.  This one was on the Strip next to the Oklahoma State University campus.  It was privately owned.

One night during that summer there was a mass murder committed at a Sirloin Stockade in Oklahoma City after the restaurant had closed.  All of the employees had been forced into the freezer and they were all shot in the head.  At the time, no one knew the motive.  It could have been that the murderer (or murderers) could have been upset with Sirloin Stockades in general.

For the rest of the summer, the manager Ken Low, who also managed a hamburger joint up the street for the same owner, would leave the Sirloin Stockade when the restaurant was just closing at 9:00 to go close the other restaurant.  He would leave a young 17 year old boy in charge of closing up the restaurant and getting it ready for when it opened the next morning.  Yeah…. That was me.

I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Ken had suddenly gained a lot of confidence in my ability to handle closing the entire restaurant all by myself the same week that the Sirloin Stockade Massacre happened in Oklahoma City.  Ken was a friend of mine and I understood him well enough.

Me.  I was fearless anyway.  I always seemed to be missing that gene.  So, I just felt that if some murderer came busting in the back door, I would, of course, defend myself by using the handle of the broom I was using to sweep the floor.  Well.  I was 17.  So, of course I was invincible.

end of side story.

The same question was being asked about the person that was shooting the transformers and high voltage lines.  It seemed as if he had a grievance with the electric company.  So, when a witness had seen a man going down a remote country road in the same area where a high voltage electric line was shot, and a sketch of a possible suspect was created, they turned to the employees for help.

I wasn’t much help because I lack the imagination to take a composite drawing and extrapolate it into a person that I know.  If someone were to draw a picture of me and ask me who I thought it was, I probably wouldn’t have a clue.  I guess I lack that gene also.

Other Power Plant Men thought they knew who the drawing depicted.  It reminded them of a former employee at the Power Plant.  His name was Clyde Bateman.  When others told me that, I thought, “Yeah.  I suppose it could be him.”

Clyde had been a chemist at the plant.  He had been fired a year or two before.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing his job well.  His problem was that some days he just wouldn’t show up for work without leaving any word.  It would have been all right if he would have called the plant to let his manager, George Pepple know that he wasn’t going to be able to make it that day.   He just wouldn’t say anything until he returned.

Clyde had been given the appropriate number of warnings and was told that if he didn’t show up to work again without leaving word that he wouldn’t be in, he was going to be fired.  So, the next time that happened, he was “let go”.  No one likes that to happen, because you know that there is some underlying reason for such odd behavior, but we had to keep the plant running, and when you rely on a certain number of employees to keep it going, what can you do?

This by itself wouldn’t make one suspicious that he might turn into someone that would flip his lid and start shooting at electric company assets.  The psychological profile looked more like a Timothy McVeigh type character.  For those of you who are from other countries that read this blog, Timothy McVeigh was a “homegrown” terrorist that decided to blow up a Federal Building in the middle of Oklahoma City one day (along with a number of other accomplices, most of which have never been identified), and he needlessly killed a lot of innocent people.

I didn’t know Clyde that well, so when others suggested that it might be Clyde, I was skeptical.  Then, as the investigation went forward, I learned that Clyde was more like Timothy McVeigh than I had realized. — Well.  At the time, no one had heard of Timothy McVeigh, since that hadn’t happened yet.

Power Plant Men that knew him said that he owned some land behind our power plant and he would go out there at times and blow things up.  He like high powered rifles and all that.  I thought that might be an indication, but it still didn’t convince me.  I also liked to blow things up and I would enjoy shooting high powered rifles if I had the opportunity.  I’m sure many Power Plant Men would enjoy doing the same.

Just a typical High Powered Rifle

Just a typical High Powered Rifle

Remember.  This was back when it was still all right to play cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers.  This was before eating your Pop-Tart until it was in the shape of gun was never given a second thought.  You could even take a Cowboy doll onto a plane with a tiny 1/2 inch plastic gun in the holster without being afraid that the TSA would take it away.

Anyway.  It was later discovered that Clyde Bateman lived in a trailer park behind the Braum’s on Perkins Road in Stillwater.

Braum's is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger. It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

Braum’s is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger. It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

This was important because his trailer was only about 250 yards from the first transformer that had been shot.  Ok.  With all the other things, this finally convinced me.  They were on the right track.  I think the OSBI (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation) was on his trail and were keeping close tabs on him.  It seems like they even asked us at the plant to not try to contact him or let him know that he was a suspect.

Scott Hubbard, a True Power Plant Electrician was out inspecting the equipment in the substation one day when he noticed a hole in one of the 345KV breaker operating arm enclosures.  Scott thought it looked a lot like a bullet hole, so he alerted the control room.  The control room contacted the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department to come out and look at it.

Sure enough.  It was a bullet hole.  The OSBI recovered the bullet from inside the pipe.  Luckily where the bullet had entered, it had missed hitting anything that would have damaged the equipment.  If the shooter had been a lineman, or an electrician, or from the T&D department, he would have not shot the part that he did.  It looked like a critical part if you didn’t know better.   So, the shooter was not familiar with the equipment he was shooting.  That was clear.

Not only that, but there were much worse targets in the area that would have caused real damage.  So, luckily this was not someone who did a lot of homework.  It was interesting that the first transformer was only a block away from where Clyde lived, and the last shot was at the plant where he used to work.

The breaker was at a spot where he would have had to know to park on a dirt road a mile away and walk across a field to get the shot that he did.  All the plant employees knew that road well.  It was where the public had to go if they wanted to fish in the discharge channel where the warm water exits the condensers.  The fish like it there.

With all that said, Clyde Bateman was due in court in Ponca City on August 11, 1993.  Not for being the shooter that everyone was looking for, but for another offense.  I don’t remember exactly what it was.  He never showed up.  Clyde took his own life that morning.  After that day, there were no more shootings associated with this particular shooter.  it was understood by the employees at the plant that the matter was behind us now.  Business was back to usual.

I mentioned earlier that Clyde turned out to be more of a Timothy McVeigh type than we had originally thought.  I didn’t mean that he was that way because he liked guns, because any self respecting Power Plant Man knows that if you care about your family and want to keep them safe, that a handy firearm is the best way to stop an intruder.

Clyde was an activist.  I found this out only today when I decided to write about him.  I found a very interesting case that the U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit ruled on only two and a half months after Clyde’s death.  You see, Clyde had filed a complaint against the Federal Government alleging that the entire body of federal environmental laws were unconstitutional, because its enactment allegedly exceeded the authority granted in the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, and lacked any other source of constitutional support.  The District Court had ruled that Clyde had no standing.  So he appealed it to the US Appeals Court.

The Appeals court ruled unanimously that Clyde didn’t have any standing to bring this complaint against the Federal Government because (no… not that he was already dead) he hadn’t demonstrated that he was injured by the law.  They didn’t rule that he was wrong about his complaint, only that he didn’t have any standing to file the complaint.

So, as Paul Harvey would have said, “Now you know the rest of the story.”  If you want to read more about the Appeal Courts decision, you can find it here:  “Clyde Bateman v United States of America

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Runaway Fire Hydrant Leaves Power Plant in the Dark

Originally posted May 17, 2014:

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

A notepad like this

Power Plant Notepad

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

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

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

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

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

 

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

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

 

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

A High Voltage Insulator like this

A High Voltage Insulator like this

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

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

Ron Kilman

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

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

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

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

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

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

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

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

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

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

Telephone Grounding Panel

Telephone Grounding Panel

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

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

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

 

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode "Night Call"

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode “Night Call”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

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

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

Comments from the Original post

    1. Ron May 17, 2015

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

    1. Dan Antion May  17, 2014

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

    1. Dave Tarver May 17, 2014

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

  1. NEO May 17, 2014

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

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

 

Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with “Boring”

One of the most exhilarating moments a Power Plant Man may experience is when, while wearing a pair of high voltage gloves, they crank the handle of a High Voltage Switch closed in a substation.  The booming sound of the electricity crackling overhead and the echoing off of the hills and trees a mile away comes rumbling back!  I never could understand why the training required to be a certified substation switchman had to be the most boring class a Power Plant Man had to sit through.

An Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage at something so beautiful?

An Electric Substation. Isn’t it beautiful?

I remember when I was young, every child had their own trampoline in their bedroom.  When your mom or dad confined you to your room, you could always find entertainment by jumping on the bed.  Then throwing up the blanket and letting it fall in a way that created a big blanket bubble, then you could plop yourself down in the middle as the mushroomed bed sheet burped the air out.

Once when I was young, my dad took my brother and me to Saint Louis because he was attending a meeting.  He was in the meeting most of the day, as we stayed in the hotel room.  This was back when you didn’t have 24 hour cable TV.  The day whizzed by as my brother and I jumped around between the two beds.  Leaping as high as we could, and pouncing from one bed to the other.  When our dad arrived after a day in meetings, he didn’t find a couple of young boys staring at the walls, he found two worn out kids who had just had one of the funnest days we could remember…. being cooped up in a hotel room all day long.

Contrast that to the first time I attended Substation Switchman Certification training.

The instructor explained at the beginning of the day long class that he was required to read through the company policies and procedures on substation switching before we were allowed to take the test.  There were a number of procedures that were practically duplicates of each other, so we had to listen to the same boring documents being read to us over and over again throughout the day.  This didn’t include just the switching procedures in the switchyard.  It also included the clearance procedures required before and after the switching has occurred.

Six hours later, I thought my eyelids had grown little lead weights on the end of every eyelash (and if you have ever seen how many eyelashes I have, you would know how serious of a situation this was).

That wasn’t the worst of it.  Switchman training back then was required every two years.  Think about this.  I was an electrician for 18 years.  During that time, I had to take Switchman training 7 times!  Each time the instructor had to read the entire text of the switchman policies and procedures.  Think of the most boring lecture or sermon you ever had to sit through, then multiply it by six, and you will understand the agony we had to endure each time to receive the Certified Switchman card for our wallets.

During the summer of 1995, after we had downsized to where we only had 7 electricians at the large coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, we decided we needed to train more operators to be switchman.  After all, they had the clearance part down already, and basically did lower voltage switching in the switchgears.  It made a lot of sense.

We told the switchman trainer that we wanted to add some hands-on practical training to the course to try to make training more exciting.  Andy Tubbs, the foreman who was also an electrician and long time switchman, worked to arrange it so that we could have the operators switch out a section of the substation after they had learned the boring part of their training.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

After an entire day of sitting in a classroom.  The switchmen trainees had a real life opportunity to watch and experience switching out a real section of the substation.  They could wear the high voltage gloves and open the switches.

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

We also took switching orders and added some errors to them, and asked the students to review the orders to see if they would approve the switching before they went to the substation and to make any corrections necessary.  This is one of the steps a switchman is required to do before going out to switch.  They have to review each step of the switching and approve them.

Two years later in 1997, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City and become certified as a Switchman Trainer.  I remember going to the training center just north of Norman Oklahoma where I met our instructor, Harry McRee.  He was a trainer in his early 50’s.  He had been a safety trainer for years.

Harry McRee's Business Card

Harry McRee’s Business Card

Harry explained to us that he would like to make the switchman training more interesting, but the company’s requirements demanded that all of the documentation be read through entirely every time a person was re-certified.  Since the documentation took most of the day to read, his hands were sort of tied when it came to making the class more interesting.

To give you an idea… here is how many steps it takes just to take a clearance on a breaker in a plant…. We had to review each step of the process:

Clearance Procedures

Clearance Procedures

As a side note… In 1993, I had received a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans.  My emphasis was on Adult Education.  So, when I went back to the plant and began developing the class for our plant, I thought I should be able to come up with some way to make the class more interesting.

I also thought that if it was possible for a couple of kids to keep themselves entertained all day just with a couple of beds in a hotel room, then something should be able to be done to make this ultra-boring class, more entertaining.

Since I was the “computer person” at the plant, I decided that I would use my computer as a learning aid.  I went to our substations and took pictures of everything I could find, so I could add them to a PowerPoint Project.  PowerPoint was fairly new at the time, so I decided to dazzle the class with animated fly-ins and popups, and cool transitions.  I also consolidated the various documents so that I wasn’t repeating myself throughout the day.  I brought my computer from home and set it up in the conference room.

I also employed my daughter Elizabeth to help me.  I figured if she could teach some of the training, and the students could see that even a seven year old can learn this, then maybe they would be a little more interested.  I had recently bought a new Ball Camera for my computer.  It was a new thing to have a camera on your computer.  They weren’t really used for things like Skype back then, since you only had 28,800 baud modems, which doesn’t give you very much bandwidth.  So needless to say.  No one in the room knew what that little white ball was.

White ball computer camera

White ball computer camera

I had my daughter dress up in one of my wife’s lab coats and wear over-sized glasses to give her the look of a teacher.  Then we created a number of short film clips that gave specific instructions.  Here are a few screenshots from the short videos we made:

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

At any moment her video would come flying in and she would often say….. “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

She would also fly in and say, “Pay Attention!  This is on the test!”

There were still a couple of videos that the switchmen-in-training had to watch that were boring, especially since we had all watched them many times in our careers.  I knew that during the videos, many would be falling asleep, so, I took my ball camera with me and kept it sitting on the table while we went through the training.  No one really knew what it was.

While we were watching the first boring video, I sat looking at my computer monitor, which no one in the room could see.  What I was doing was acting like I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone when I really was.  I had the ball camera in my hand.  I was looking for anyone who was dozing off.  Then I would take a movie clip of them nodding off.  Some fighting to keep their eyes open.  Others leaning way back in their chair with their mouth hanging wide open fast asleep.

I took the movie clips and put them about 5 slides later in the next section we were going to cover.  Just when they were ready to be bored from the next section of the class, I would present a slide to them with movie clips of them sleeping during the videos and Elizabeth would slide in from the bottom of the slide and say, “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

That was the clincher.  Once they realized that I had taken movie clips of them sleeping in the class just a few minutes earlier, they were all wide awake the rest of the day.  No one dared to nod off again.  It worked great!  When the second video was playing, you can be sure that everyone in the room was wide-eyed and wide awake.

When it came to the part where they took their test, they could use any notes they had taken.  Since Elizabeth had popped in and notified them about the parts that were going to be on the test, they were all prepared.  Here is a copy of the test they took:

Switchman Training Final Exam

Switchman Training Final Exam

Isn’t it funny that back then, you regularly used your Social Security Number for things like this?  We wouldn’t think of doing that today.

Later, after the class was over, Harry McRee, the trainer that had trained me in Oklahoma City, had heard how I had made the class interesting. So, he called me and asked if he could come out to our plant and see what I had done.  When he arrived I showed him all my material and gave him a copy of the PowerPoint and videos.  I told him he was free to use them however he wanted.

Because of this, I was asked to train the Power Plant Man in some other areas including general Windows training.  When a job to be the “official” trainer opened up at the plant, I applied for it…. but that is a topic for another post.  See the post “Power Plant Train Wreck“.

Power Plant Millennium Experience

I suppose most people remember where they were New Year’s Eve at midnight on Saturday, January 1, 2000.  That is a night I will never forget.  Some people were hiding in self-made bunkers waiting for the end of the world which never came, others were celebrating at home with their families and friends.  I suppose some people went on with their lives as if nothing was different that night.  Not my family.  My wife and two children spent the night at the Power Plant waiting to see if all of the testing we had performed the last two years had covered all possible failures of the Y2K scare.

A small group of Power Plant Men had been chosen to attend a party with our families in the main conference room at the Power Plant.  All the food and drinks were supplied by the company.  Our Plant Manager, Bill Green was there.  Children were given the opportunity to rest in some other room as it reached their bedtimes.

Two years before this fateful night, the company was in full swing preparing for the Y2K computer disaster that had been foretold by those who knew that many computer systems only used two digits for the year instead of all four.  so, when the year 2000 rolled around, it would suddenly show up in the computer as 00, which didn’t compute as a year in some systems. After all, you can’t divide something by 00.  Suddenly, the time between events that just happened before midnight and those that happen just after midnight are 100 years apart in the wrong direction.

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was completed in 1979 and 1980, so, my first thought was that by that time, computers were far enough along to know better.  The Instrument and Controls Power Plant Men along with the Plant Engineers decided that the best way to check their systems was to change the clocks on the computers one at a time to just before midnight on New Year’s Eve and see what happens.

I thought that was a pretty ingenious way to go about testing the computer systems.  By changing the clock on each system one at a time to New Year’s Eve and watching it roll over to the new Millennium, you learn right away if you have a problem, and you have contained the disaster to one system at a time while you test it.  By doing this, it turned out that there was a problem with one system at the Co-Generation plant at the Continental Oil Refinery 20 miles north of the plant.

I wrote a post about the Co-Generation Plant in a previous post: “What Coal-fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery“.  When it was discovered that the computer at the Conoco Oil Refinery Power Plant would crash on New Year’s Eve, it was decided that we would just roll the clock back to 1950 (or so), and we wouldn’t have to worry about it for another 50 years.  The thought was that by that time, this computer would be replaced.

This was the original thought which caused the Y2K problem in the first place.  No one thought in the 1960’s that their computer systems would still be operating when the year 2000 came around, so they didn’t bother to use four digits for the year.  Disk space was expensive at that time, and anything that could save a few bytes was considered an improvement instead of a bug.

My wife wasn’t too pleased when I told her where we were going to spend New Year’s Eve when Y2K rolled around, but then again, where would you rather be if a worldwide disaster happened and the electricity shutdown across the country?  I would think the Power Plant would be the best place.  You could at least say, “I was in the actual Control Room at a Power Plant watching them throw the switch and light up Oklahoma City!”  Besides, we usually spent New Year’s Eve quietly at home with our kids.

Even though we were fairly certain everything had been accounted for, it was the unknown computer system sitting out there that no one had thought about that might shut everything down.  Some system in a relay house in a substation, or some terrorist attack.  So, there we sat watching the New Year roll in on a big screen TV at one end of the break room.  Children’s movies were being shown most of the evening to keep the young occupied while we waited.

I thought that Jim Arnold, the Supervisor over the Maintenance Department, wanted me in the break room at the Power Plant so that he could keep an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t going to be causing trouble that night.  Jim never really trusted me….  I suppose that was because strange things would happen when I was around.  Of course, I would never do anything that would jeopardize the operation of the Power Plant, but that didn’t stop me from keeping Jim guessing.

No.  Not really.  I was there because I had a way with computers.  I was the computer go to person at the plant, and if anything happened to any of them, I would probably be the person that could whisper it back into service.  Also, if for some reason the Generators tripped, I was a switchman that could open and close switches in the substation and start the precipitator back up and run up to the top of the boiler if the boiler elevator broke down and get it started back up.

Except for my natural affinity for computers, any of the electricians in the Power Plant could do all those other things.  I think there was just a little “prejudice” left over about me from when Bill Bennett our past A foreman used to say, “Let Kevin do it.  He doesn’t mind getting dirty”  (or…. he likes to climb the boiler, or…. he likes confined spaces, or… Kevin likes to stay up at all hours of the night working on things… I could go on… that was Bill’s response when someone asked him who should do the really grimy jobs  — of course… to some degree…. he was usually right).

I was actually a little proud to be told that I was going to have to spend New Year’s Eve at the Power Plant.  I had almost 17 years of experience as a Power Plant Electrician at that time, and I felt very comfortable working on any piece of equipment in the plant.  If it was something I had never worked on before, then I would quickly learn how it worked… As I said, all the electricians in the plant were the same way.  It was our way of life.

At 11:00 pm Central Time, we watched as the ball dropped in Time Square in New York City.  The 10 or so Power Plant Men with their families sat in anticipation waiting…. and waiting… to see if the lights went out in New York….  Of course you know now that nothing happened, but we were ready to jump into a crisis mode if there were any reports of power failures across the country.

You see…. The electric grid on the east side of the Rocky Mountains is all connected together.  If the power grid were to go down in one area, it could try dragging down the rest of the country.  If protective relays in substations across the country don’t operate flawlessly, then a blackout occurs in a larger area than just one particular area covered by one electric company.

When relays operate properly, a blackout is contained in the smallest area possible.  There was only one problem…. Breakers in substations are now controlled by remote computer systems.  If those systems began to act erratic, then the country could have a problem.  This did not happen that night.

There was a contract worker in the engineering department at our plant who was at his home in the country during this time hunkered down in a bunker waiting for the end of the world as was foretold by the minister of his church.  He had purchased a large supply of food and water and had piled them up in his shelter along with a portable generator.  He and his family waited out the end of the world that night waiting for the rapture.  He told me about that a few months later.  He was rather disappointed that the world hadn’t ended like it was supposed to.  He was so prepared for it.

After 11 pm rolled around and there was no disaster on the east coast, things lightened up a bit.  I decided to take my son and daughter on a night tour of the plant.  So, we walked over to the control room where they could look at the control panels with all of the the lights and alarms.  Here is a picture of Jim Cave and Allen Moore standing in front of the Unit 1 Control Panel:

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Then I took each of them up to the top of the Boiler where you could look out over the lake at night from a view 250 feet high.  The Power Plant becomes a magical world at night, with the rumbling sounds from the boiler, the quiet hissing of steam muffled by the night.  The lights shining through the metal structure and open grating floors.

From the top of the boiler, you could look south and see the night lights from Stillwater, Pawnee and Perry.  Looking north, you could see Ponca City and the Oil Refinery at Conoco (later Phillips).  The only structure taller than the boilers are the smoke stacks.  There was always a special quality about the plant at night that is hard to put your finger on.  A sort of silence in a world of noise.  It is like a large ship on the ocean.  In a world of its own.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

We returned to the break room 20 minutes before midnight, where our plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold tested their radios with the Control Room to make sure we were all in contact with each other.  I had carried my tool bucket up to the break room in case I needed to dash off somewhere in a hurry.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

We felt confident by this time that a disaster was not going to happen when the clock rolled over to midnight.  When the countdown happened, and the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 counted down, We cheered “Happy New Year!” and hugged one another.  I think both of my children had dozed off by this point.

Bill Green called the control room.  The word came back that everything was business as usual.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  We waited around another hour just to make sure that nothing had shutdown.  By 1:00 am on January 1, 2000, Bill Green gave us the (Bill) Green Light.  We were all free to return to our homes.

I gathered up my two children and my wife Kelly, and we drove the 25 miles back home to the comfort of our own beds.  When we went to bed early that morning after I had climbed into bed, I reached over and turned off the light on my nightstand.  When the light went out, it was because I had decided to turn it off.  Not because the world had suddenly come to an end.  A new Millennium had just begun.

Rivers and Rose in the Power Plant Palace

Originally posted January 25, 2013:

When is the appropriate time to call 911? Calling 911 in the Power Plant is when you call the Shift Supervisor to report something important. As Randy Dailey, our Safety Trainer extraordinaire, always taught us, first tap the person on the shoulder and say, “Are you all right?” Then you point your finger at someone and say, “Call 911!” That’s called “Activating the EMS” (Emergency Medical System). Besides medical emergencies, there are other reasons to call the Shift Supervisor.

I learned early on to ‘fess up when you have done something wrong.” People appreciate it when you tell them up front that you goofed. That way the problem can be dealt with directly. Dee Ball was that way. Any time he wrecked a truck, he didn’t hesitate to tell his boss. So, even as a summer help I had developed this philosophy. Never be afraid to expose your blunders. It works out better in the long run.

One example of someone not following this philosoply was Curtis Love. As I mentioned in the post Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement, Curtis didn’t want to tell anyone that he had been bitten by a brown recluse for the third time because he was afraid of losing his job.

The Oklahoma house spider -- The Brown Recluse

The Oklahoma house spider — The Brown Recluse

His philosophy came back to bite him a year and a half later when he was on the labor crew when he was the designated truck driver. I had moved on to the electric shop by this time.

A red crew cab like this only the bed of the truck was longer

A red crew cab like this only the bed of the truck was longer

He was backing up the crew cab around a corner under the Fly Ash hoppers up at the coalyard when the side of the crew cab came into contact with one of those yellow poles designed to protect the structure from rogue vehicles. Unfortunately. This created a dent in the side of the truck.

An example of yellow poles protecting an area

An example of yellow poles protecting an area

Curtis, already on probation. worried that he would be fired if he told anyone about this mishap, failed to tell Larry Riley about this incident. Larry, on the other hand, was standing in front of the Coalyard Maintenance shop (the labor crew home), and saw the entire incident. At that moment, he turned to one of the labor crew hands and said, “I hope Curtis comes over here and tells me about that.” Unfortunately, Curtis decided to act as if nothing had happened. This resulted in his termination. As much as I cared about Curtis, I must admit that the Power Plant scene was probably not the best location for his vocation.

I had seen Dee Ball do the same thing over and over again, and he always reported his accidents immediately. He was never punished for an accident, though, for a number of years, he was banned from driving a truck. You can read more about this in the post: Experiencing Maggots, Mud and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball.

One day during the summer of 1984 just after lunch, 1A PA fan tripped (PA stands for Primary Air). When this happened, number one unit had to lower it’s output from over 500 Megawatts down to around 200. The trip indicator on the 6900 volt breaker said that it had been grounded. Being grounded means that one of the three phases of the motor or cable had made a circuit with the ground (or something that was grounded). The trip circuits shut the fan down so fast that it prevents an explosion and saves the fan from being destroyed.

Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), Andy Tubbs and I were given the task of finding the ground and seeing what we could do to fix it. We unwired the motor, which was no easy task, because the motor is about the size of a large van, and about 10 times heavier.

This is about 1/2 the size of the PA fan motor

This is about 1/2 the size of the PA fan motor which is 1000 horsepower

So, we spent the rest of the day unwiring the motor (in the rain), and unwiring the cable to the motor from the breaker in the main switchgear and testing both the motor and the cable with various instruments looking for the grounded wire or coil that caused the motor to trip. We used a large “Megger” on the motor. It’s called a Megger because it measures Mega-Ohms. So, it’s technically called a Mega-Ohm meter. Ohms is a measurement of resistance in an electrical circuit. We usually use a small hand cranked megger, that is similar to an old hand crank telephone that generates a high voltage (good for shocking fish in a lake to make them rise to the surface). In the case of the hand cranked Megger, it would generate 1,000 volts.

A Hand cranked Megger made by the same company, only newer than the ones we had

A Hand cranked Megger made by the same company, only newer than the ones we had

The Megger this size would have been useless with this large motor. Instead we used one that was electric, and you ran the voltage up over 10,000 volts and watched the mega-ohms over a period of 1/2 hour or so.

For the cables, we hooked up a Hypot (or Hipot). This stands for High Potential. Potential in this case is another word for “Voltage”. It would charge up and then you pressed a button and it would send a high voltage pulse down the cable, and if there is a weak spot in the insulation,The Hypot will find it. So, we hooked a Hypot up to the cable and tried to find the grounded wire. No luck.

After spending 4 hours looking for the grounded cable or motor, we found nothing. We spent another hour and a half putting the motor and the breaker back in service. The Fan was put back into operation and we went home. As I was walking out to the car with Bill Rivers, he told me, “I knew they weren’t going to find anything wrong with that fan.” He had a big grin on his face.

At first I thought he was just making an educated guess as Rivers was apt to do on many occasions (daily). It was raining and I could see where water may have been sucked into the motor or something and had momentarily grounded the motor. Just because we didn’t find anything didn’t mean that the breaker didn’t trip for no reason.

When we were in the car and on our way to Stillwater, Oklahoma with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer, Bill explained that he knew why the motor tripped. He had been walking through the main switchgear with Mike Rose, and Mike, for no apparent reason other than curiosity, had opened up the bottom door to the breaker for 1A PA fan. He looked at it for a moment and then slammed the door shut. When he did this, the breaker tripped.

So, the ground relay happened to be the one that tripped. It might as well been an over-current or a low voltage trip. It just happened to trip the ground trip. Bill said that he told Mike that he should call the Shift Supervisor and let him know so they could restart the motor. Mike on the other hand told Bill that he was already on probation and was afraid of losing his job if he reported that he had slammed the door on the breaker and tripped the fan.

If there was ever a reason to call 911, it was then. All he had to do was tell them, “I accidentally tripped the PA fan when I bumped the breaker cabinet.” They would have told him to reset the flag, and they would have started the fan right back up. No questions asked… I’m sure of it. And they wouldn’t have lost their generating capacity for the remainder of the afternoon and we wouldn’t have spent 4 hours unwiring, testing and rewiring the motor in the rain with a plastic umbrella over our head.

Bill wasn’t about to tell on Mike. If Mike didn’t want to report it, Bill wasn’t going to say anything, and I understand that. I probably would have kept it to myself at the time if I was in Bill’s shoes (I’m just glad I wasn’t because I probably wouldn’t have been able to sleep soundly for the next year). But 30 years later, I might write about it in a Blog. Even though I wouldn’t have looked to Mike to teach me much about being an electrician (he was more of an Air Condition man anyway), I still loved the guy.

Mike died almost two years ago on May 29, 2011. He was from England and had lived in Canada for a time. He used to work on trains. Trains, even though they are diesel, are really electric. The Diesel engine really runs a generator that generates electricity that runs the train. I know that Mike was a good man at heart. He loved his family with all his heart. Here is a picture of the Limey:

Mike Rose. A fair plant electrician, but a great family man!

Mike Rose. A fair plant electrician, but a great family man!

Ok. So I know what you are thinking…. There must be a story about myself in here somewhere. Well, you would be right. First of all. I always ‘fessed up to my mistakes, as my current manager at Dell knows well (yes. I still mess up after all these years). I told my current manager the other day that CLM was my middle name. (CLM means “Career Limiting Move”). So here is my power plant “mess up” story (well one of them):

In January 1986, I returned from my Honeymoon with my new wife Kelly when I found that we had hired a new electrician. Gary Wehunt was replacing Jim Stephenson who had left the plant on February 15, 1985, which is a story all it’s own. We had just started an overhaul on Unit 1.

I remember the first Monday I spent with Gary. It was January 6, 1986 and we were working on cleaning out the exciter house on the end of the main power generator with Diana Brien (formerly Diana Lucas). We were discussing salaries and Gary was surprised to find out that I was making more than he was. Well… I had been an electrician for over 2 years and had been promoted regularly…. so I didn’t think there was anything strange about it, except that I still looked like I was only about 18 years old (even though I was 25) and Gary was about 34. I had already been promoted 4 times and my salary had gone from $7.15 to over $12 an hour.

Anyway, when that first Friday rolled around, Gary and I were assigned to Substation Inspection. Some later time I may go into the details of what “Substation Inspection” entails, but for now, let’s just stick with my “911 call.” It is enough to say that we were in the main plant substation relay house on Friday January 10, 1986 at 9:00 am. One of our jobs was to call other substations and perform a test called a “Transfer Trip and Carrier Test”. We had called Woodring Substation (Woodring is a town in Oklahoma and we had a 345 KV line going there), and I was talking to the man in the substation on the other end of the phone line.

At the same time I was showing Gary just how experienced I was at being an electrician. People had told me that you had to be a plant electrician for 5 years before you really became a “first class” electrician. Well. Here I was at 2 years, and I thought I was so good that I could do anything by now…. — Yeah… right. I told the guy on the other end of the line as I turned a switch…. Amber light… Back to Blue…. and I wrote down the value on the meter (paperwork… oh yes…. it’s that important. Like A-1 sauce).

Then I reached for the second switch. I said, “Carrier test”, then turned the switch. The lights in the relay house went out and we were in the dark. I told the guy on the other end of the line….. “Well. That’s not supposed to happen.” Then as I let go of the switch and it returned to it’s normal position, the lights turned back on. Okay……

I wrote the numbers down from the meter and said goodbye to the other faceless substation man on the other end of the line that I talked to over 100 times, but never met in person. He sounded like a nice guy. Then I headed for the gray phone. I heard the Shift Supervisor paging Leroy Godfrey (The Electrical Supervisor) on line 2 (we had 5 Gray phone lines. The Gray Phone was our PA system).

When I picked up the line I heard Leroy pick up the phone and the Shift Supervisor tell Leroy that we just lost station power in the main substation and it had switched over to Auxiliary power. I immediately jumped in and said, “Jim (for Jim Padgett, the Shift Supervisor), I did that. I was performing a Carrier test with Woodring and the moment I performed the carrier test the lights went out.” Leroy chimed in by saying, “That wouldn’t cause you to lose station power.”

Well, in my ‘inexperienced’ plant electrician way, I responded, “Well. All I know is that when I turned the switch to perform the carrier test, the lights went out, and when I let go of the switch, the lights came back on.” Leroy reiterated, “That wouldn’t cause you to lose station power.” I replied with, “I’m just saying….” and left it at that. I had done my job. They knew I was out here. They knew I had called 911 right away. I explained what I was doing…. they could take it from there.

I had hoped that I had showed Gary upfront that it doesn’t hurt to report your mistakes (even though I hadn’t made one as far as I could tell), but I was 100% sure I had done something to cause the relay house to lose power. Though, I couldn’t figure out why.

After lunch, Bill Bennett, our A foreman came down to the shop to tell me that they figured out how the substation lost station power. He said that a road grader had been grating the road down by the Otoe-Missouri reservation (which is actually called “Windmill road” I guess because there is a windmill down that road somewhere), and had hit an electric pole and knocked it over and had killed the power to the substation.

Substation Power Interrupting Road Grader

Substation Power Interrupting Road Grader

It turned out that the substation relay house was fed by a substation down that road where we have a radio tower. So, think about this. The exact time that I turned that switch in the substation, a road grater 2 1/2 miles away hits a telephone pole accidentally and knocks it to the ground and kills the power to the substation at the exact same time that I am performing a transfer-trip and Carrier test with Woodring Substation, and the time it takes to switch to auxiliary power is the exact time it took me to let go of the switch.

Don’t tell me that was by accident. I will never believe it. I think it was for the soul purpose of teaching me a useful lesson or two. First….. don’t be afraid to tell someone when you do something wrong. Second…. If you think you have control over the things that happen to you in your life… well, think again…… Third….. God watches you every moment, and if you let him, he will guide you to do the right thing when the time comes.

God bless you all.

 

COMMENTS FROM THE ORIGINAL POST:

  1. Monty Hansen January 26, 2013

    I had a similar thing happen to me, I was upgrading to shift foreman & system called to remove a tag in the switchyard & put the switch back to auto. The tag on the pistol grip was attached with a plastic zip tie & the previous operator had put it on real tight, as I was wrestling it off with my leatherman, the pliers slipped & I banged my elbow into the control panel, at that very instant there was a loud BANG as several 345 KV breakers opened simultaniously in the swithyard, I had the phone pinched between my shoulder & ear as I was wrestling with this switch & talking to the system control operator, he said a few bad words – gotta go – & hung up. The power plant lost all power & went in the black, I, of course was just sick in the pit of my stomach, after we got power restored, the plant back on etc. I called system back to see if they found the cause & fess up to causing the trip (I figured I must have caused a trip relay to close when I hit the panel) – anyway a crane at a plant down the road had got it’s boom tangled in the power line & went to ground – AT PRECISELY THE INSTANT MY ELBOW SLIPPED & HIT THE PANEL!!

    1. Plant Electrician January 26, 2013

      That’s a Great Story Monty!

  2. Ron Kilman January 26, 2013

    Some great illustrations of the truth in Proverbs 28:13 “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion”.

  3. justturnright January 28, 2013

    CLM: I can relate.

    My first boss 30 years ago once told me he was going to officially nickname me “I’m sorry” (and make me wear it for a name badge) if I said it one more time.

    Hey, there’s worse things.

  4. Roomy January 29, 2013

    I had not thought about Mike Rose in years. He was a good guy to work with, now Rivers was a different story!!!
    Sub checks, I used to love to do sub checks. I performed pilot wire & transfer trip checks for years. I hated it when they went to being done by automation.
    Thanks for bringing back old memories.

Switching in the Power Plant Substation Switchyard

Originally posted on February 9, 2013:

The phone rang Saturday morning on March 17, 1984. Since we didn’t have caller ID at that time, I had to pick up the phone to tell who was on the other end. It was my foreman Charles Foster. He said he needed to go out to the plant to do some switching in the substation and he needed someone to help him. I had been an electrician for all of 5 months and this was the first time I had been involved with switching in the substation.

When I arrived at the plant 30 minutes later, the operators in the control room were busy putting Unit 1 online. Charles Foster had brought along his son Tim Foster. Tim was about 10 years old at the time. The operators didn’t have any certified switchmen available, and so the Shift Supervisor, Jim Padgett gave the go ahead for me to go with Charles and act as the “secondary” switchman. That is, I was the one that read and re-read the instructions while Charles would actually crank the switches.

Here is a picture of a typical substation you might run across:

Parts of a Typical Substation

Parts of a Typical Substation

I found this picture on the Department of Labor website. The Main substation at the power plant was much bigger than this one. Half of the substation was the 189,000 volt substation the other half was the 345,000 volt substation. For the particular switching that we were doing that day, we were in the 189 KV end of the substation. This is where Unit 1 fed power to the world.

This was my first experience doing something in the substation other than sub inspections and Transfer Trip and Carrier tests. I was a little surprised when Charles closed one of the air break switches and there was a loud crackling sound as an arc of electricity jumped from one switch to the next. Charles told me that was nothing. Just wait until I close the main switch from the transformer on Unit 2 in the 345 KV sub up the hill.

He was right. Later when I first opened that switch, it drew an arc about 3 feet long before it broke the circuit with a loud pop. You could hear the echo of the booming arc as the sound bounced off the nearby hills…..um…. if there had been hills… It was pretty flat…. being Oklahoma and all. I suppose it was bouncing off of the Power Plant and maybe some trees off in the distance. Well. Anyway. It did echo for a while.

After my first experience in the substation, I decided that substations were one of the neatest places to be. I later became certified as a switchman (multiple times, as you had to renew your certification every 2 or 3 years). Eventually becoming a Switchman trainer. Later when I was with my girlfriend, and even after she became my wife, and we would drive by a substation, I had to be careful not to run off the road since I was usually straining my neck to get a closer look at the substation.

This would result in Kelly become agitated (jokingly of course) that I was paying more attention to the substations than her. To this day, when we pass a substation, my wife Kelly will still let out a “hmmph” when I exaggeratedly ogle a passing substation. I mean…. Can you blame me?

Don't Substations look cool?

Don’t Substations look cool?

Well. Throughout the years, Substation switching became more an more safe. When I first began switching, we would just wear High Voltage rubber gloves and maybe a face shield. Later we had to wear an Arc Flash Protective suit just in case something blew up:

An Arc Flash Protector

An Arc Flash Protector (that’s a pretty creepy looking guy in there)

One time one of the switches broke and exploded in the 345 KV substation and we found a large piece of insulator 200 yards away. This suit wasn’t going to protect you from that. It was only going to keep you from being burned if there was a flash explosion.

In the early 1990’s there was what was known as the “EMF Scare”. That was the belief that the high voltage electric lines caused Leukemia. It was true that children in cities that lived near high voltage electric lines had a higher risk of having Leukemia than the general population. It also happened that these High Voltage lines ran right down major roadways, so that these same children were breathing a lot more exhaust from the cars and trucks on the road than your average person also.

Anyway. When we worked in the substation we all knew that we were being bathed in electricity. If I took my volt meter and dropped one end to the ground and held the other end up by my head, it would peg my meter out at 1000 volts. One day in the evening when it was time to go home, Scott Hubbard and I were delayed because a fuse block had burned up in a breaker panel in the 345 KV substation.

It was drizzling at the time, so you could hear the electricity about 30 feet above our heads crackling and popping. Scott and I were standing behind the pickup truck looking for spare parts in my tool bucket and I had poured out some nuts, bolts and screws onto the bed of the truck. As we were sifting through them looking for the parts we needed, both of us were thinking that I must have had some metal shavings mixed in with the nuts and bolts. When we would move them around we kept feeling like we were being stabbed by metal shavings….. It turned out that it was just sparks jumping from the truck to our fingers.

10 years after my first encounter in a substation, while I was on the Confined Space Rescue team, we had to be out at the plant at night because some people were working in the condenser and the Confined Space Rescue team had to be on site. So, while we were there, we were doing things like cleaning up shop and stuff. Ray Eberle was working with me, and he asked me if I had ever heard about holding up a fluorescent light in a substation and having it glow.

I told him that I had, and it does glow. We went to the electric shop where I retrieved a couple of new 4 foot fluorescent lamps and we headed to the 345 KV substation around midnight.

When we arrived, we climbed out of the truck, and I demonstrated how just by holding the fluorescent tube upright, it would light up:

Holding up Flourescent tubes under high voltage lines

Holding up Flourescent tubes under high voltage lines

Ray was fascinated by this, and was noticing how the tube would light up from the point where you were holding the tube on up. As he was experimenting with this new found knowledge, there was an odd popping sound that would occur about every 5 seconds. I was standing there watching Ray in the dark. Ray finally asked me…. “Where is that popping sound coming from?” I pointed down to his shoes and said. “There are sparking jumping from you shoe down to the ground.”

Looking down at his shoe in the dark, Ray could see about an inch long spark jumping from his shoe down into the large gravel we were standing on. He was startled by this and decided that he had enough scientific lessons for one night. So, we climbed back in the truck and headed back to the plant.

Anyway. During the time that we were having this EMF scare (EMF by the way stands for Electromotive Force), there had been some movie or a 60 Minutes episode on TV about it and it was causing a stir. So, people from Corporate Headquarters were going around trying to educate us about it. One way they did this was to show us how low the levels of EMFs were in the plant.

Well. You can’t convince an electrician that we aren’t constantly being bathed in electricity when we are out in the substation, because we all knew better. This guy came around with a special EMF gun just to show us how the plant was safe… We had a meeting where the engineers agreed that we hardly had any EMFs in the plant. The highest EMFs were found in a drill that mounted horizontally using an electromagnet.

When I heard this, I became skeptical of these findings. And the horizontal drill made me even more suspicious. Not that I minded the EMFs. I found them rather refreshing. They seemed to line up all my thought bubbles in my brain so that I could think better. Kind of like “magnet therapy”.

Then a couple of weeks later my suspicions were verified. Doug Link came down to the electric shop with a guy from Oklahoma City that was going to go with me out to the Substation to measure the EMF levels. — OK. I thought…. Let’s see what happens now… Because I already knew the EMF levels in the Substation just my licking my finger and sticking it in the air…

The guy from Corporate Headquarters took out a roller with a handle much like you would have to measure long distances. Only this had a couple of probes sticking out from either side horizontally. — Now…. Horizontally is the key, and that’s why when they said the Horizontal drill had the most EMFs in the plant, I became suspicious in the first place.

You see…. EMFs have direction. The two probes on the instrument that the man was wheeling around the substation were parallel with the high voltage lines. Therefore, you wouldn’t measure EMFs between the two probes. If the probes had been turned vertically (up and down), I am sure that the voltage (and the EMFs) would have blown the circuitry in the instrument. I say that because the guy that was wheeling this thing around the substation was being very careful not to tilt it one way or the other.

My suspicions were further confirmed when we were in the relay house looking at the results from when he circled the large transformer between the 189 and the 345 subs, and there was a large spike in EMFs at one spot. When we went to look at that spot, it was at the point where the high voltage bus turned down to go into the transformer…. Just like the Horizontal drill…. The direction was across the probes. You see…. EMFs are perpendicular to the flow of electricity. Or straight down from an overhead line. I mean… duh. You had to hold the fluorescent light upright to make it glow….

Well. I thought…. What do I do? Here is a guy trying to pull the wool over our eyes to make us believe that there aren’t any EMFs out there. I felt insulted. On the other hand, I didn’t care about the EMFs. I liked the EMFs. So, after looking at Doug Link straight in the eyes with an astonished look of disbelief that this guy thought we were so gullible to believe this magic act, I decided to let it go. Let him think he relieved our worry that didn’t exist in the first place. Why ruin his day. He had to drive 70 miles back to Corporate Headquarters. Why should he go all that way back thinking that he failed in his mission? So, all I could do was smile.

Anyway. Tim Foster, the 10 year old boy that was with his father, Charles Foster the first time I went to the substation to go switching, later grew up and became an electrician himself. Not only did he become an electrician, but he became an electrician in the same electric shop where his father had worked for 30 years. He works there to this day, and I’m sure that Tim now has an occasion to go switching in the same substation where I first met him. Bathing in the same EMFs. Feeling the same thrill when you open a 345 KV air switch with a loud Pop!

Replies from Previous Post

I do think substations look cool 🙂

Holy Cow! I am learning a lot about Power Plant Stations. This was very good!😊👍

I guess there has been some progress. We have 500KV lines bringing power into northern Virginia from West Virginia. People complain they are eyesores. Of course, if we we had enough sense to generate the power locally, we would not need 500KV lines 200 miles long.

The shoe sparks seem like the most wondrous part of all this. A fluorescent tube lighting up is kind of the expected effect; shoes, that’s different.

Yeah. The shoe sparks surprised me just as much as it did Ray. I’m just glad that he didn’t go up in flames. I knew it was just a static charge, but a charred Ray would have ruined the entire evening.

Yow! And I thought getting a 400-volt shock (DC, fortunately) when I was a teenager was frightening!

Power Plant Raven Comes Home to Roost

Originally posted May 3, 2013:

Diana Lucas entered the Electric Foreman’s office one morning at the Coal-fired Power Plant almost in a rage! I didn’t understand why at first, and I also couldn’t quite tell if she was really in a rage, or if she was just excited about something, because she seemed to be both at once. Which I guess is the case when one is in a rage, but there seemed to be a tint of amusement in her rage which was the cause of my confusion.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Bill Bennett our A Foreman had come to the shop a little earlier than usual that morning and was apparently waiting for Diane’s entrance, foreseeing her reaction. Bill had hopped up out of his chair and immediately tried to explain to Diane (yeah, her name was Diana, but most called her Diane. Well, actually, most everyone called her Dee). Diana Brien (as she was later named) seemed a little more musical than Diane Brien. Maybe it is just the Italian in me that likes to put vowels on the end of names.

Anyway, Diane was saying something like, she couldn’t believe that Bill had actually hired some particular person as a contract worker for our shop. Bill responded to her by pointing out that he would be working for her this time. If she wanted, she could have this guy doing the dirtiest and rottenest (rottenest? really? Is that a real word?) jobs. This seemed to calm her down a little and the two of them walked out into the shop.

Charles Foster, one of the electrical foremen, and my closest friend turned to me and explained that Diana and some others in the shop (Ben Davis, and I think and even Andy Tubbs) had worked for this guy when they were working for Brown and Root building the plant. He was a supervisor that was disliked by most of the people that worked for him because, well, according to Diana, he was some kind of slave driver.

Ok. When I finally understood the rage emanating from the Lady ‘lectrician, I decided I would amble out into the shop to prepare for my day performing feats of electrical magic. I also figured I would take a gander at the new figure of the old man leaning against the workbench to see the center of the conflict and to stare it in the face. I figured if I had a good close look at him, I would be able to see inside his character. I already disliked him before I walked out of the office after hearing how he had treated my mentors.

I know my memory of my first encounter with Bill Boyd is not what really happened, because in my mind I have embellished it and have rewritten it in order to include thoughts that came from deep within me. So, even though I probably walked out into the shop and glanced over at this old codger standing there, picked up my tool bucket and walked out the door, I remember it quite differently….. This is how I remember that moment (the one that really didn’t happen….. well, not exactly)….

In my mind I remember walking into the shop and noticing this tall lanky older man hunched over birdlike, almost like a raven, as his nose reminded me of a beak. A cranky looking man. He looked tired. Worn out. Like it was a struggle for him to take each breath. I thought, “Ok. This raven has come home to roost. Only he doesn’t know what hornets nest he has just stepped into.”

Something like this man

Something like this man

Sure enough. Bill Boyd was given one distasteful job after another. At least, I think that was the intention. He was tasked to sweep out the main switchgear and the other switchgears around the plant. Anything that was repetitive and boring. He worked away at his tasks without complaint. Slowly and steadily.

I noticed that Bill Boyd was taking a lot of pride in his work no matter how menial the task was. He was very meticulous. A couple of years later when he came back to work for us again, he was working for me. And at that time I had him cleaning out both of the Precipitator control cabinet rooms.

Not only did he clean the rooms to where you could eat on the floor, but he also opened each of the cabinets and vacuumed them out, and changed every one of the 4 inch square filters (2 in each of the 84 cabinets in each of the two rooms — for a total of 336) filters by cutting them out of sheets of blue and white filter material using a large pair of scissors.

Air Filter material like this

Air Filter material like this

Bill Boyd liked to tell stories about different jobs he had throughout his career. He had worked in various places around the world. He had held all types of jobs. I think he helped build most of the important monuments that exist in the world today. At least that might be the impression you might have by listening to him tell his stories. I couldn’t disagree with him too much. After all, he was working at the most monumental Power Plant of all time right then. If he was lucky enough to do that, then I suspect that most of what he was saying was true.

One day just at the end of the day when it was time to leave for the day, I walked out of the electric office into the shop and headed for the door. Just as I passed Bill Boyd, he said rather forceably to Andy Tubbs, “What did you say?” Andy said something back to him, and glancing back I saw that Bill had a surprised and confused look on his face.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

So, as we were walking to the parking lot I asked Andy what he had said. Andy said that he told Bill that his stories couldn’t be true. Bill had asked him why he thought that. Andy had replied, “Because if you did all the things you say you did, you would have to be 200 years old!” I laughed at that. I thought…. well…. he probably is.

So, Now that I have introduced you to Bill Boyd, here is the more interesting parts of the story of Bill Boyd’s tenure at the Power Plant Palace. I have three small stories that I still often think about:

The first one is rather short, so I’ll start there…. I walked into the electric shop office one morning before it was time to begin my work day and sat in a chair. Bill Boyd was already there sitting across the room from me, silently meditating….. well…. he might have been mildly snoring…. I don’t remember exactly. Anyway. There was just the two of us in the room.

I suddenly noticed that there was a strange ticking sound. A very definite tick tick tick, like a pocket watch, only a little louder. I rose from my chair and looked around the room trying to figure out what was ticking…. It’s strange to think about it, because right outside the east wall (no. actually the north wall… I just always had my directions turned 90 degrees) of the office was the roaring steam pipes shooting high pressure steam into the turbines, creating the electricity that lit up the state of Oklahoma.

Even amid the roar of the steam pipes, I could hear this ticking. I approached Bill, and sure enough. Bill was ticking. Looking at his trousers, and his shirt pocket, I didn’t see anything that looked like a chain that may have a pocket watch connected.

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

The thought of a time bomb went through my head. I also had thoughts of being late for an important date, and thoughts of lunch, among other things…..

So, I returned to my seat, then I hollered out to him, “Bill!” He stirred from his sleep, um… I mean, his morning meditation…. I continued, “Bill, you are ticking!” Looking confused, he said, “What?” I replied, “You are ticking.” Bill asked, “You can hear that?” I assured him I could. He said, “Well, that’s my ticker. My pacemaker.”

Whoa. I was listening to his pacemaker from across the room! Crazy! So, after that I would hear his pacemaker all the time he was around. I guess once I had tuned into the frequency, I couldn’t get it out of my head…. I sort of had it in the back of my head that I hoped that I didn’t hear it miss a beat…. I never did… it just kept on ticking.

The next story has to do with finding a buried cable. Bill Bennett brought this specialized cable finder down to the shop one day and told us that we had to mark an underground cable that went from the main substation up to the front gate to a transformer. Someone was going to be doing some digging in the area and they wanted to make sure they didn’t cut into this cable because it was the main station power to the substation relay house.

This cable finder had one piece that you placed on the ground above where you knew the cable was buried, and then you walked along with a sensor picking up the signal from the cable.

Sorry this picture is so small, but it shows the two pieces to the cable finder

Sorry this picture is so small, but it shows the two pieces to the cable finder

I was all excited to go try out our new fangled cable finder. Unfortunately, we were trying to find a cable underneath some very high voltage lines leaving the substation, which rendered the sophisticated cable finder completely useless. There was too much electrical interference from our surroundings.

So, after trying to find the cable all day without success, and upon returning to the shop disillusioned with our new toy, Bill Boyd said, “I can help you find the cable.” As we wondered what he meant, he repeated, “I can find the cable for you.”

I don’t remember if it was Andy, or if I asked him just how he was going to do that. Bill replied, “By using a divining rod.” Huh? A divining rod? Yep. He was serious. The next day he came to work with two metal rods about 2 1/2 feet long, bent at one end so that you could hold them and they would point straight out in front of you.

So, I drove him over to the substation and Bill tried to use the divining rods to find the cable. He paced back and forth holding the rods up by his face, with his shoulders hunched over like a vulture… or was it a raven? After pacing back and forth for about 20 minutes he returned to the truck and said he couldn’t find the cable because the wind was blowing too hard.

The wind in Oklahoma generally begins blowing about 8 o’clock in the morning during the summer, and doesn’t let up until…. well… until… maybe the end of the summer, if you’re lucky. So, we went back to the shop. Bill Bennett was waiting to see if he was successful. Leroy Godfrey had bet that he would find the cable. We said it was too windy.

The next morning when we were driving to work, I looked out in the field by the substation and there was Bill Boyd all by himself walking slowly along with the two metal rods sticking straight out from his face.

When I arrived at the shop, I jumped in the truck and headed out to the field. Bill said that he found the cable. It wasn’t where we originally thought. It was about 25 yards over from there. He showed me that as he walked over a certain spot that his rods moved from being straight out, to swing out to the side. When he held the two rods farther apart, when he walked over the same spot, the rods came together. Bill said. The point where they cross is where the cable. is.

Ok. I wasn’t really buying this. I guess it must have showed on my face, or maybe I actually let out a snicker….. I’m not sure… I suppose it was the look of disbelieve, because I’m not prone to snicker, even when confronted with total insanity. So, Bill turned and handed the rods to me and said, “Try it.”

So I took the two rods in my hands:

Metal Diving rods

A similar pair of divining rods. These are a lot shorter than the ones we used. Maybe they just go off the end of the picture

I slowly walked forward with the two rods sticking out in front of me. As I approached the spot where he had indicated the cable was buried the two rods parted until they became lined up with each other. The left one pointing left, the right pointing right. No Way! I backed up, and as I did the rods came back together. I moved forward again and they went apart! I could hear the mild excited chuckling behind me.

We took a can of orange spray paint and made a mark on the ground. then we moved about 20 feet away from that mark and did it again. Sure enough… there it was again. We marked the ground every 20 feet all the way up to the main gate. And get this. It even worked where the cable was buried under the railroad tracks. I walked down the middle of the railroad track and could tell right where the cable was buried underneath it.

So, after that, I kept my own pair of divining rods in my garage. Bill explained that you could bury a new pipe under the ground and you would not be able to find it, but after something runs through it, like water or electricity or even a wad of rags, you can find it using the divining rods.

One day a few years later, my brother was visiting my house when I lived out in the country and he brought up someone who claimed to use a divining rod to find something, and I told him that I had a divining rod and you can use it to find cables and sewer lines and water pipes with it. — Of course, he had the same reaction I did, so we went out in the front yard and I told him how to hold them, and let him find out for himself. It only takes once. The result is so noticeable, it doesn’t leave any question in your mind when it happens.

Ok. The last story….

It turned out that over the years as Bill Boyd would come to the plant as a contract worker, we came to be friends. One day he invited me to his daughter’s recital at Oklahoma State University where she was playing the Cello in a chamber orchestra. I was honored to be invited by him and my wife and I joined Bill and his wife as we listened to his daughter play. One day he told me the story of when he was working in Germany in 1959 and he bought a Cornelius Ryan novel called The Longest Day. After listening to his story, he told me that he wanted me to have the book.

The next day, he showed up to work with three books. The first book was from 1959. The next one was 1966, and the third one was 1974. But you could tell they were all a set, and by the way that Bill Boyd held them, they were important to him. So I accepted his gift with thanks.

The three books Bill Boyd gave me

The three books Bill Boyd gave me

I have kept books with care since the day that I received them, as I have kept my memory of Bill Boyd. A true Power Plant Raven.

Comment from the original Post:

Ron Kilman May 4, 2013

As a summer student at the Mustang Plant in 1967 I was a skeptic about the use of divining rods. In the “Results” office one of the Instrument Technicians showed me how they could locate pipes under the floor. I can’t remember which technician showed me this (Bud Gray, Leldon Blue, Montie Adams, or Kenneth Palmer), but I tried them myself – and they worked! I’ll never forget my surprise.

Electric Company Substation Transformer Shooter

Originally Posted February 14, 2014:

There has been reports on the news this week about someone who has been shooting transformers in PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) substations in California.  It is interesting that the national news is picking up this story now even though the FBI has been investigating similar attacks since December, and even earlier attacks against PG&E as early as last April, 2013.

These reports always catch my attention because back in the early 1990’s, the electric company where I worked in Oklahoma had their own episode when a shooter was going around shooting at substation transformers, and high voltage electric lines.  At that time it was OG&E, not PG&E that was being plagued by someone that seemed to be randomly attacking the electric grid.

Back in early 1993, the first transformer that was shot by a high powered rifle using armor piercing bullets was in the middle of Stillwater Oklahoma near the Pizza Hut on Perkins Road.  It is easy to remember the location, because it later became very significant when it came down to finding out who might be responsible.

Much like the reaction in California this week, everyone was alerted to keep a watch for anyone acting suspicious near substations and high voltage electric lines.

An Electric Substation.  Who would ever want to damage at something so beautiful?

A High Voltage Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage such a wonderful work of art?

I enjoy watching a TV show called Forensic Files.  It shows how important facts are collected that finally lead to a conviction of someone who has murdered someone.  It is amazing how so many clues are left behind that can be used to prove who is the guilty person.

I suppose the main point that I walk away with after watching a show like this is that criminals are generally pretty stupid.  Especially the really smart ones.  I guess it’s because if they were really smart, then they wouldn’t have turned to a life of crime in the first place.  Maybe it’s like the lazy people that work harder avoiding work than they would if they just did their job.

Of course, working at the Power Plant during  this time meant that we were all put on a kind of “high alert”.  We were extra suspicious of cars parked down side roads near our plant.  Our security guards doubled up a little on their rounds on the lookout for someone suspicious.  In a weird way it brought me back to when I was a dishwasher one summer at the Sirloin Stockade in Stillwater.

When I first moved to Stillwater in the Spring of 1978, right out of High School, I went to work as a dishwasher/busboy/cook at the local Sirloin Stockade franchise restaurant.  This is not the newer company Sirloin Stockade that is on Perkins road today.  No.  This one was on the Strip next to the Oklahoma State University campus.  It was privately owned.

One night during that summer there was a mass murder committed at a Sirloin Stockade in Oklahoma City after the restaurant had closed.  All of the employees had been forced into the freezer and they were all shot in the head.  At the time, no one knew the motive.  It could have been that the murderer (or murderers) could have been upset with Sirloin Stockades in general.

For the rest of the summer, the manager Ken Low, who also managed a hamburger joint up the street for the same owner, would leave the Sirloin Stockade when the restaurant was just closing at 9:00 to go close the other restaurant.  He would leave a young 17 year old boy in charge of closing up the restaurant and getting it ready for when it opened the next morning.  Yeah…. That was me.

I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Ken had suddenly gained a lot of confidence in my ability to handle closing the entire restaurant all by myself the same week that the Sirloin Stockade Massacre happened in Oklahoma City.  Ken was a friend of mine and I understood him well enough.

Me.  I was fearless anyway.  I always seemed to be missing that gene.  So, I just felt that if some murderer came busting in the back door, I would, of course, defend myself by using the handle of the broom I was using to sweep the floor.  Well.  I was 17.  So, of course I was invincible.

The same question was being asked about the person that was shooting the transformers and high voltage lines.  It seemed as if he had a grievance with the electric company.  So, when a witness had seen a man going down a remote country road in the same area where a high voltage electric line was shot, and a sketch of a possible suspect was created, they turned to the employees for help.

I wasn’t much help because I lack the imagination to take a composite drawing and extrapolate it into a person that I know.  If someone were to draw a picture of me and ask me who I thought it was, I probably wouldn’t have a clue.  I guess I lack that gene also.

Other Power Plant Men thought they knew who the drawing depicted.  It reminded them of a former employee at the Power Plant.  His name was Clyde Bateman.  When others told me that, I thought, “Yeah.  I suppose it could be him.”

Clyde had been a chemist at the plant.  He had been fired a year or two before.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing his job well.  His problem was that some days he just wouldn’t show up for work without leaving any word.  It would have been all right if he would have called the plant to let his manager, George Pepple know that he wasn’t going to be able to make it that day.   He just wouldn’t say anything until he returned.

Clyde had been given the appropriate number of warnings and was told that if he didn’t show up to work again without leaving word that he wouldn’t be in, he was going to be fired.  So, the next time that happened, he was “let go”.  No one likes that to happen, because you know that there is some underlying reason for such odd behavior, but we had to keep the plant running, and when you rely on a certain number of employees to keep it going, what can you do?

This by itself wouldn’t make one suspicious that he might turn into someone that would flip his lid and start shooting at electric company assets.  The psychological profile looked more like a Timothy McVeigh type character.  For those of you who are from other countries that read this blog, Timothy McVeigh was a “homegrown” terrorist that decided to blow up a Federal Building in the middle of Oklahoma City one day (along with a number of other accomplices, some of which have never been identified), and he needlessly killed a lot of innocent people.

I didn’t know Clyde that well, so when others suggested that it might be Clyde, I was skeptical.  Then, as the investigation went forward, I learned that Clyde was more like Timothy McVeigh than I had realized. — Well.  At the time, no one had heard of Timothy McVeigh, since that hadn’t happened yet.

Power Plant Men that knew him said that he owned some land behind our power plant and he would go out there at times and blow things up.  He like high powered rifles and all that.  I thought that might be an indication, but it still didn’t convince me.  I also liked to blow things up and I would enjoy shooting high powered rifles if I had the opportunity.  I’m sure many Power Plant Men would enjoy doing the same.

Just a typical High Powered Rifle

Just a typical High Powered Rifle

Remember.  This was back when it was still all right to play cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers.  This was before eating your Pop-Tart until it was in the shape of gun was never given a second thought.  You could even take a Cowboy doll onto a plane with a tiny 1/2 inch plastic gun in the holster without being afraid that the TSA would take it away.

Anyway.  It was later discovered that Clyde Bateman lived in a trailer park behind the Braum’s on Perkins Road in Stillwater.

Braum's is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger.  It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

Braum’s is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger. It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

This was important because his trailer was only about 250 yards from the first transformer that had been shot.  Ok.  With all the other things, this finally convinced me.  They were on the right track.  I think the OSBI (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation) was on his trail and were keeping close tabs on him.  It seems like they even asked us at the plant to not try to contact him or let him know that he was a suspect.

Scott Hubbard, a True Power Plant Electrician was out inspecting the equipment in the substation one day when he noticed a hole in one of the 345KV breaker operating arm enclosures.  Scott thought it looked a lot like a bullet hole, so he alerted the control room.  The control room contacted the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department to come out and look at it.

Sure enough.  It was a bullet hole.  The OSBI recovered the bullet from inside the pipe.  Luckily where the bullet had entered, it had missed hitting anything that would have damaged the equipment.  If the shooter had been a lineman, or an electrician, or from the T&D department, he would have not shot the part that he did.  It looked like a critical part if you didn’t know better.   So, the shooter was not familiar with the equipment he was shooting.  That was clear.

Not only that, but there were much worse targets in the area that would have caused real damage.  So, luckily this was not someone who did a lot of homework.  It was interesting that the first transformer was only a block away from where Clyde lived, and the last shot was at the plant where he used to work.

The breaker was at a spot where he would have had to know to park on a dirt road a mile away and walk across a field to get the shot that he did.  All the plant employees knew that road well.  It was where the public had to go if they wanted to fish in the discharge channel where the warm water exits the condensers.  The fish like it there.

With all that said, Clyde Bateman was due in court in Ponca City on August 11, 1993.  Not for being the shooter that everyone was looking for, but for another offense.  I don’t remember exactly what it was.  He never showed up.  Clyde took his own life that morning.  After that day, there were no more shootings associated with this particular shooter.  it was understood by the employees at the plant that the matter was behind us now.  Business was back to usual.

I mentioned earlier that Clyde turned out to be more of a Timothy McVeigh type than we had originally thought.  I didn’t mean that he was that way because he liked guns, because any self respecting Power Plant Man knows that if you care about your family and want to keep them safe, that a handy firearm is the best way to stop an intruder.

Clyde was an activist.  I found this out only today when I decided to write about him.  I found a very interesting case that the U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit ruled on only two and a half months after Clyde’s death.  You see, Clyde had filed a complaint against the Federal Government alleging that the entire body of federal environmental laws were unconstitutional, because its enactment allegedly exceeded the authority granted in the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, and lacked any other source of constitutional support.  The District Court had ruled that Clyde had no standing.  So he appealed it to the US Appeals Court.

The Appeals court ruled unanimously that Clyde didn’t have any standing to bring this complaint against the Federal Government because (no… not that he was already dead) he hadn’t demonstrated that he was injured by the law.  They didn’t rule that he was wrong about his complaint, only that he didn’t have any standing to file the complaint.

So, as Paul Harvey would have said, “Now you know the rest of the story.”  If you want to read more about the Appeal Courts decision, you can find it here:  “Clyde Bateman v United States of America

Runaway Fire Hydrant Leaves Power Plant in the Dark

Originally posted May 17, 2014:

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

A notepad like this

Power Plant Notepad

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

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

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

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

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

 

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

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

 

An example of  part of an Auxiliary Substation

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

A High Voltage Insulator like this

A High Voltage Insulator like this

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

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

Ron Kilman

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

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

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

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

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

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

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

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

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

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

Telephone Grounding Panel

Telephone Grounding Panel

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

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

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

 

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode "Night Call"

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode “Night Call”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

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

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

Comments from the Original post

    1. Ron May 17, 2015

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

    1. Dan Antion May  17, 2014

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

    1. Dave Tarver May 17, 2014

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

  1. NEO May 17, 2014

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

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

 

Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with “Boring”

One of the most exhilarating moments a Power Plant Man may experience is when, while wearing a pair of high voltage gloves, they crank the handle of a High Voltage Switch closed in a substation.  The booming sound of the electricity crackling overhead and the echoing off of the hills and trees a mile away comes rumbling back!  I never could understand why the training required to be a certified substation switchman had to be the most boring class a Power Plant Man had to sit through.

An Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage at something so beautiful?

An Electric Substation. Isn’t it beautiful?

I remember when I was a young, every child had their own trampoline in their bedroom.  When your mom or dad confined you to your room, you could always find entertainment by jumping on the bed.  Then throwing up the blanket and letting it fall in a way that created a big blanket bubble, then you could plop yourself down in the middle as the mushroomed bed sheet burped the air out.

Once when I was young, my dad took my brother and I to Saint Louis because he was attending a meeting.  He was in the meeting most of the day, as we stayed in the hotel room.  This was back when you didn’t have 24 hour cable TV.  The day whizzed by as my brother and I jumped around between the two beds.  Leaping as high as we could, and pouncing from one bed to the other.  When our dad arrived after a day in meetings, he didn’t find a couple of young boys staring at the walls, he found two worn out kids who had just had one of the funnest days we could remember…. being cooped up in a hotel room all day long.

Contrast that to the first time I attended Substation Switchman Certification training.

The instructor explained at the beginning of the day long class that he was required to read through the company policies and procedures on substation switching before we were allowed to take the test.  There were a number of procedures that were practically duplicates of each other, so we had to listen to the same boring documents being read to us over and over again throughout the day.  This didn’t include just the switching procedures in the switchyard.  It also included the clearance procedures required before and after the switching has occurred.

Six hours later, I thought my eyelids had grown little lead weights on the end of every eyelash (and if you have ever seen how many eyelashes I have, you would know how serious of a situation this was).

That wasn’t the worst of it.  Switchman training back then was required every two years.  Think about this.  I was an electrician for 18 years.  During that time, I had to take Switchman training 7 times!  Each time the instructor had to read the entire text of the switchman policies and procedures.  Think of the most boring lecture or sermon you ever had to sit through, then multiply it by six, and you will understand the agony we had to endure each time to receive the Certified Switchman card for our wallets.

During the summer of 1995, after we had downsized to where we only had 7 electricians at the large coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, we decided we needed to train more operators to be switchman.  After all, they had the clearance part down already, and basically did lower voltage switching in the switchgears.  It made a lot of sense.

We told the switchman trainer that we wanted to add some hands-on practical training to the course to try to make training more exciting.  Andy Tubbs, the foreman who was also an electrician and long time switchman, worked to arrange it so that we could have the operators switch out a section of the substation after they had learned the boring part of their training.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

After an entire day of sitting in a classroom.  The switchmen trainees had a real life opportunity to watch and experience switching out a real section of the substation.  They could wear the high voltage gloves and open the switches.

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

We also took switching orders and added some errors to them, and asked the students to review the orders to see if they would approve the switching before they went to the substation and to make any corrections necessary.  This is one of the steps a switchman is required to do before going out to switch.  They have to review each step of the switching and approve them.

Two years later in 1997, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City and become certified as a Switchman Trainer.  I remember going to the training center just north of Norman Oklahoma where I met our instructor, Harry McRee.  He was a trainer in his early 50’s.  He had been a safety trainer for years.

Harry McRee's Business Card

Harry McRee’s Business Card

Harry explained to us that he would like to make the switchman training more interesting, but the company’s requirements demanded that all of the documentation be read through entirely every time a person was re-certified.  Since the documentation took most of the day to read, his hands were sort of tied when it came to making the class more interesting.

To give you an idea… here is how many steps it takes just to take a clearance on a breaker in a plant…. We had to review each step of the process:

Clearance Procedures

Clearance Procedures

As a side note… In 1993, I had received a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans.  My emphasis was on Adult Education.  So, when I went back to the plant and began developing the class for our plant, I thought I should be able to come up with some way to make the class more interesting.

I also thought that if it was possible for a couple of kids to keep themselves entertained all day just with a couple of beds in a hotel room, then something should be able to be done to make this ultra-boring class, more entertaining.

Since I was the “computer person” at the plant, I decided that I would use my computer as a learning aid.  I went to our substations and took pictures of everything I could find, so I could add them to a PowerPoint Project.  PowerPoint was fairly new at the time, so I decided to dazzle the class with animated fly-ins and popups, and cool transitions.  I also consolidated the various documents so that I wasn’t repeating myself throughout the day.  I brought my computer from home and set it up in the conference room.

I also employed my daughter Elizabeth to help me.  I figured if she could teach some of the training, and the students could see that even a seven year old can learn this, then maybe they would be a little more interested.  I had recently bought a new Ball Camera for my computer.  It was a new thing to have a camera on your computer.  They weren’t really used for things like Skype back then, since you only had 28,800 baud modems, which doesn’t give you very much bandwidth.  So needless to say.  No one in the room knew what that little white ball was.

White ball computer camera

White ball computer camera

I had my daughter dress up in one of my wife’s lab coats and wear over-sized glasses to give her the look of a teacher.  Then we created a number of short film clips that gave specific instructions.  Here are a few screenshots from the short videos we made:

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

At any moment her video would come flying in and she would often say….. “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

She would also fly in and say, “Pay Attention!  This is on the test!”

There were still a couple of videos that the switchmen-in-training had to watch that were boring, especially since we had all watched them many times in our careers.  I knew that during the videos, many would be falling asleep, so, I took my ball camera with me and kept it sitting on the table while we went through the training.  No one really knew what it was.

While we were watching the first boring video, I sat looking at my computer monitor, which no one in the room could see.  What I was doing was acting like I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone when I really was.  I had the ball camera in my hand.  I was looking for anyone who was dozing off.  Then I would take a movie clip of them nodding off.  Some fighting to keep their eyes open.  Others leaning way back in their chair with their mouth hanging wide open fast asleep.

I took the movie clips and put them about 5 slides later in the next section we were going to cover.  Just when they were ready to be bored from the next section of the class, I would present a slide to them with movie clips of them sleeping during the videos and Elizabeth would slide in from the bottom of the slide and say, “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

That was the clincher.  Once they realized that I had taken movie clips of them sleeping in the class just a few minutes earlier, they were all wide awake the rest of the day.  No one dared to nod off again.  It worked great!  When the second video was playing, you can be sure that everyone in the room was wide-eyed and wide awake.

When it came to the part where they took their test, they could use any notes they had taken.  Since Elizabeth had popped in and notified them about the parts that were going to be on the test, they were all prepared.  Here is a copy of the test they took:

Switchman Training Final Exam

Switchman Training Final Exam

Isn’t it funny that back then, you regularly used your Social Security Number for things like this?  We wouldn’t think of doing that today.

Later, after the class was over, Harry McRee, the trainer that had trained me in Oklahoma City, had heard how I had made the class interesting. So, he called me and asked if he could come out to our plant and see what I had done.  When he arrived I showed him all my material and gave him a copy of the PowerPoint and videos.  I told him he was free to use them however he wanted.

Because of this, I was asked to train the Power Plant Man in some other areas including general Windows training.  When a job to be the “official” trainer opened up at the plant, I applied for it…. but that is a topic for another post.