Tag Archives: Switchgear

Learnin’ ’bout ‘lectricity with Andy Tubbs

Originally posted January 18, 2013:

The day I became an electrician at the coal-fired power plant, I suddenly became an expert in electricity. I think it was on Tuesday, just one day after joining the electric shop that I was walking through the welding shop when someone stopped me and asked me how they would wire their living room with different light switches at different corners and make it work correctly. As if I had been an electrician for years. Luckily I was just finishing a house wiring course at the Indian Meridian Vo-Tech in Stillwater, Oklahoma and they had us figure out problems just like those.

Within the first week, George Alley brought a ceiling fan to the shop that he had picked up somewhere and was wondering if we could get it to work. My foreman Charles Foster thought it would be a good small project for me to work on to help me learn about electrical circuits.

After all, this ceiling fan could go slow, medium and fast, and it could go forward or reverse. Only at the moment, all it would do was sit there and hum when you hooked up the power. — So that was my first “unofficial” project, since the main goal was to make George happy so that he would help us out when we needed something special from the mechanics.

When I was a janitor, I had observed the electricians preparing to go to work in the morning, and often, one of them would go to the print cabinets at one end of the shop and pull out a blueprint and lay it across the work table and study it for a while. Then they would either put it back or fold it and put it in their tool bucket and head out the door to go do a job. Now, it was my turn.

Andy Tubbs was one of the two people that played the best jokes on me when I was a janitor. Larry Burns was the other person, and he was the person I was replacing as he had moved to another plant. Andy was the one that had taken the handle off of my push broom the moment I had my back turned so that when I turned around to grab my broom, only the broom head was on the floor, while the broom handle was across the counter by the lab, and Andy was across the other side of the room trying to act like he wasn’t paying attention, but with an expression like he had just played a darn good joke. — I actually had to go back into the bathroom I was cleaning so that I could laugh out loud. I was really impressed by Andy’s ability to play a good joke.

While I’m on the subject, shortly after I became an electrician, I was sitting in the electric shop office talking to Charles when he stopped and said, “Wait…. Listen….” We paused, waiting for something…. A few seconds later, the sound of a hoot owl came over the PA system (what we called the “Gray Phone”). Charles said, It’s an interesting coincidence that the only time the perfect sound of a hoot owl comes over the Gray Phone is when Andy Tubbs is riding in an elevator by himself or with a close friend.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

I had been sent with Andy Tubbs and Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), to go to the coal yard and figure out why some circuit for the train gate was not working. Andy had pulled out the blueprints and was studying them. I came up alongside him and looked at all the blue lines running here and there with circles with letters and numbers, and what I recognized as open and closed switches….

Here is a simple electric circuit drawn in the style of many of the electric blueprint drawings

Here is a simple electric circuit drawn in the style of many of the electric blueprint drawings

Andy stopped and gave me a momentary lecture on the nature of electricity. It was so perfectly summed up, that for years whenever I thought about the nature of electricity, I always began with remembering what Andy told me. He said this:

“Think of electricity like water in a hose. Voltage is the water pressure. Amperage is the amount of water going through the hose. You can have the nozzle on the end of the hose shut off so that no water is coming out and then you have no amperage, but you will still have the pressure as long as it is turned on at the source so you will still have voltage.”

“In these diagrams, you just have to figure out how the water is going to get from one side to the other. These circles are things like relays or lights or motors. When the electricity makes it through them, they turn on as long as the electricity can make it all the way to the other side.”

That was it! That was my lesson in ‘lectricity. All I needed to know. The blueprints were big puzzles. I loved working puzzles. You just had to figure out how you were going to get something to run, and that meant that certain relays had to pickup to close switches that might pick up other relays to close other switches. I found that most of the electricians in the shop were good at working all sorts of puzzles.

Andy went to the cabinet and grabbed one of the Simpson multimeters and a handset for a telephone that had red and black wires wrapped around it.

A telephone handset that looked like this, only it had a battery taped to it, and two leads coming out the bottom

A telephone handset that looked like this, only it had a battery taped to it, and two leads coming out the bottom

I was puzzled by this at first. I thought I would just wait to see what we did with it instead of ask what it was for. We grabbed our tool buckets (which also doubled as a stool and tripled as a trash can as needed), and put them in the substation truck. The other truck was being manned by the designated electrician truck driver for that week. We needed a truck that we could drive around in without having to hold up the truck driver.

We drove to the coalyard and went into the dumper switchgear. Andy and Diane opened up a large junction box that was full of terminal blocks with wires going every which way in an orderly fashion. They located a couple of wires, and Andy unwrapped the wires from the handset while Diane removed the screws holding the wires to the terminal block. Then Andy clipped one wire from the telephone handset to each of the two wires and handed me the phone.

Diane told me that they were going to drive down toward the train gate where the railroad tracks come into the plant and try to find these wires on the other end. So, what they needed me to do was to talk on the phone so when they find my voice, they will know that they have the right wires. Diane said, “Just say anything.” Then they left the switchgear and I could hear them drive away in the truck.

Well. This was my opportunity to just talk to no one for a while without interruption. How many times do you get to do that in one day? Probably only when you are on the way to work and back again if you aren’t carpooling with anyone. Or you’re sittin’ on your “thinkin’ chair” in a single occupant restroom. So, I just kicked into Ramblin’ Ann mode and let myself go. I believe my monologue went something like this:

“The other day I was walking through a field, and who should I run across, but my old friend Fred. I said, ‘Well, Hi Fred, how is it going?’ and Fred told me that he was doing just fine, but that he had lost his cow and was wondering if I could help him look for it. I told him I couldn’t right now because I was helping some people find a wire at the moment, and if I became distracted, we might not only lose the cow, but we might lose the wires as well, so I better just keep on talking so that my friends on the other end can find the wires they are looking for. After that I went to the store and I picked up three cans of peas. I thought about getting four cans of peas but settled on three and brought them to the checkout counter, and while I was waiting in line I noticed that the little boy in front of me with his mom was looking at me as if he wanted to have one of my cans of peas, so I quickly made it clear to him that I was buying these cans of peas for myself by sliding them further away from him and glaring at him. Luckily the boy wasn’t persistent otherwise I would have broken down and given him a can of peas because he was looking kind of hungry and I was feeling sorry for him, though, I didn’t want him to know how I was feeling, so I put on a grim expression….”

Needless to say… My monologue went on for another 15 minutes. Yes… .15 minutes. I had expected Andy and Diane to have returned earlier, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to find the other end of the wires, so I just kept on ramblin’ to the best of my ability. It’s like what it says in the Bible. If we wrote down everything I said, it would have filled many volumes. Being a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann came in handy that day. For more about Ramblin’ Ann, you can read the following post:

Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space With A Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

When Andy and Diane returned they said that they had found the wires right away, but that they had sat there for a while just listening to me ramble. They said I was cracking them up. They also mentioned that they thought I was completely crazy. Well. I was glad that they found the wires and that my rambling abilities had come in handy.

Five months after I had joined the electric shop, Andy and I were sent to Oklahoma City to learn about a new kind of electric troubleshooting. It was called “Digital Electronics”. I had just finished my electronics class at the Vo-Tech, and so I was eager to put it into practice. Andy and I went to a two day seminar where we learned to troubleshoot what was basically a PC motherboard of 1984. We used a special tool called a digital probe and learned how the processor worked with the memory chips and the bios. It wasn’t like a motherboard is today. It was simple.

A simple Motherboard like this

A simple Motherboard like this

It was just designed for the class so that we could use the digital probe to follow the different leads from the chips as the electric pulses turned on and off.

We were using digital probes similar to this

We were using digital probes similar to this

At the time I was thinking that this was a waste of time. I had been learning all about troubleshooting electronic circuits from Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick. I couldn’t see how this was going to be useful. I didn’t know that within a couple of years, most of our electronic circuits in the precipitator controls were all going to be replaced with digital controls, and this was exactly what I was going to need to know.

So, Andy and I spent two days learning all the basics of how new computers were going to be working. This was the same year that Michael Dell was beginning his new computer company further down I-35 in Austin Texas. Who would have thought that 18 years later I would be working for Dell. But that’s another lifetime away…

Comments from the original post:

Ron Kilman January 19, 2013:

Early in my career at the Seminole Plant I learned when someone paged you on the gray phone, you should always check the earpiece of the phone before you put it on your ear – it might be full of clear silicone calk (or worse). Also, at the end of the day when you reach to pick up your lunch box, you should pick it up gently. Someone could have slipped a full bottle of mercury (like 20 pounds) in it. This prevents you from pulling the handle off your lunch box or hearing it crash to the floor, smashing everything in its path. It’s amazing what Power Plant Men are capable of doing.

  1. Plant Electrician January 19, 2013:

    We used hand lotion in the electric shop for the gray phone trick. I remember Andy catching an unsuspecting operator in the main switchgear more than once.

    1. Ron Kilman January 20, 2013:

      Hand lotion is much nicer than silicone caulk!

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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 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 force-ably 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 (189,000 volts) 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 I usually just act as if it is normal.  I suppose that’s because I had grown up with an Italian Mother. 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 was talking about 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 (or maybe it was his great-great-granddaughter.  I never could tell exactly how old Bill was) 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.

Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules

Originally posted May 2, 2014:

Last week I mentioned in the post “Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes” that Jim Padgett called me at 2:15 am one morning to tell me that the coal dumper was broken and he needed for me to come out to the plant to work on it.  You may have wondered why a plant electrician living in North Central Oklahoma would answer the phone in the middle of the night when it most certainly meant that they would have to crawl out of bed and go to work to fix something that was broken.  Why not just roll over and pretend that the phone never rang?

You see… I knew when the phone rang that it was the power plant, because in the 20 years that I worked at the plant, just about every time the phone rang after midnight it meant that I would have to get dressed, and drive 30 miles to the plant to work on something that was most likely going to be in a dusty dirty place.  You could always count on the coal train dumper switchgear being covered with coal dust.  That was the usual point of failure past the “witching hour”.

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

I suppose I could say there were two reasons why a Power Plant Man would answer the phone.  One was that they were just all around nice guys and they wanted to help out any chance they could.  The other reason was because of the pay.

Even though working at the power plant was perhaps one of the best jobs in the neighborhood (being the only job in the neighborhood, since the plant ground consisted of its own neighborhood out in the middle of nowhere), that didn’t mean that the pay was especially lucrative.  That is, if a Power Plant Man had to rely on their base pay alone it would be difficult.  So, in order to help the Brave Men and Women of Power Plant Fame pay their bills, many opportunities were provided for working overtime.

Think about this.  What if, when I answered the call to save the day (uh… I mean the night) and spent 35 minutes driving out to the plant only to fix the problem in fifteen minutes?  Then I would spend another 35 minutes driving back home with my clothes all full of coal dust, only to be paid a measly 15 minutes of over time?  Even at double time, that would only be 30 minutes of pay.  That would hardly cover the gas and the laundry soap.

Early in the life of this particular plant, it became apparent that something had to be done to motivate the heroic masters of Power Plant Maintenance to make the long lonely drive down Highway 177 at the wee hours of the morning.  So, certain methods were devised to coax the restful souls to the phones when they rang.  Once they answered the phone, then sheer guilt was enough to drag them out of the sack.  It was that moment when the phone first began to ring, before the reasoning part of the brain kicked in and the more base reflexes such as those that were out to make an extra buck reacted instinctively that needed to be targeted.

So “Black Time” was introduced to the plant.  Black time had probably been around long before the plant came into existence, but it came in handy when someone had to be called out in the middle of the night.  Black time was the time that a person would be paid even though they didn’t actually work during that time.  So, when a Power Plant Man was called out in the middle of the night, they would be guaranteed at least two hours of overtime even though they may only work for 15 minutes.

This would help defray the cost of gas and time for driving both ways to and from the plant.  Anything from 7:30 pm to 7:00 am  was paid as double-time.  That is two times the normal base salary.  So, two hours at double time came out to four hours of pay, or as much pay as someone would make for half of a day at work.  That was some incentive for disturbing a Power Plant Man from their pleasant dreams of adventuring through the Power Plant Kingdom where the rule was always “Might For Right”. — Well, at least that’s what I was dreaming some of the time when the phone rang.

If Black Time wasn’t enough, it was taken a step further when the six hour rule was introduced.  The Six Hour Rule was added fairly early on in the life of the Power Plant and went through a few variations when I was working at the plant.  When it was first introduced, it came across as if someone downtown had made the decision that when someone is disturbed from their sleep during certain hours of their sleep cycle, it directly impacted their safety.  Hence the Six Hour Rule was born.

Originally it worked like this….  The hours of midnight to 6:00 am were considered the prime sleeping hours for Heroic Power Plant Men.  During this time, it was deemed that all Power Plant Men should be tucked in their beds dreaming of ways to work safely during the following day.  Whenever this time period was disturbed, then the Electric Company should provide the loyal Power Plant Man for answering the call of duty during a time of early morning emergency by giving him back the same number of hours in black time so that he could go home and continue his all-important dreams and regeneration.

 

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

So, if I had been called out at one o’clock in the morning to work on something, and it took me two hours to fix it, then I could come into work two hours later in the morning.  The first two hours of my regular work day would be payed as “Black Time”.  — Makes sense… right?  Two hours of work…. Come in two hours late in the morning…. black time…  Easy to calculate.

This provided a pretty good incentive for going out to work in the middle of the night.  First, you would get at least 2 hours of double time.  Second, you would be able to make up for lost sleep by coming in late in the morning without having to lose any pay.  You could also come in at the regular time and leave early in the afternoon if you wanted.

Well… That lasted for a few years, then the rules for the 6 hour rule began to change.  Originally, even if the job was only 15 minutes, the least amount of black time that you would get was 2 hours.  After all, it was an hour of driving for the large majority of the Power Plant Men that lived in a civilized village of more than 50 people.  Later, the Six Hour Rule was changed so that only the actual time worked would count for the six hour rule.

This meant that if I drove all the way out to the plant to work on something that only took 15 minutes, then I could only come in 15 minutes late then next morning, even though I had spent at least an hour and 45 minutes away from my dreams of serving nobly in the Power Plant Palace.  In that case the six hour rule didn’t apply anymore.  I figured that someone who was short-sighted had come up with that idea.  I’ll explain why in a few minutes.

The next phase of the Six Hour Rule came a few years after that…  It was decided that after a person had been called out at night to fight the good fight, as soon as they left the plant, the six hour rule would start counting down.  Let me explain this in a little more detail….

Say, I were called out to work in the middle of the night, and I worked from 1:00 am to 3:00 am (two hours).  Then I left to go home at three.  The hours start counting down so that by 5:00 am, the time I had spent at the plant were no longer valid, and I was expected to show up at work at the regular time. 8:00 am.  Okay.   So, in more and more cases (it would seem), the six hour rule would be made meaningless.

So, with this rule in place, if I was called out at midnight, and worked until 4:00 am, for a total of 4 hours, then by 8:00 am when I was supposed to be back at work all of the four hours would have ticked off and I would have no black time.  I would have to show up at 8:00 am.  See how that was supposed to basically take the six hour rule and make a joke out of  it?  (Or so, someone thought).

As most attempts at being underhanded without actually just coming out and telling us that it was decided that the Honorable Power Plant Men no longer needed their six hours of prime sleeping time to work safely the next day, the opposite effect was the result.  Kind of like raising the minimum wage to help the workers, when you put more people out of work.

When the six hour rule was changed to count down from the time you left the plant, was when I made the most money from the six hour rule.  I racked up loads of black time from this change as well as most Power Plant Men that were called out before Morning Prayers (Lauds).  Here is how and why:

Suppose the phone rings and it is 1 o’clock in the morning.  You decide to answer it and get called out to work on something that takes 15 minutes.  You finish the job some time around 2:15 am (because, after all, you had to drive all the way out to the plant).  What should you do now?  If you go back home and go to bed, then because of the way the 6 hour rule worked, you would certainly have to come back to work at 8 o’clock.  — hmm…  You will still have collected 2 hours of double time.  That’s something.

24 hour clock

24 hour clock

Look at the alternatives.  What if you went to the shop and worked on some other tasks while you were already there?  For Power Plant Maintenance Men, there is always something that needs to be fixed.  You may even ask the Shift Supervisor, “While I’m here, is there anything else you want me to work on?”  Shift Supervisors just love having their own personal maintenance man in the middle of the night eager to help.  There is always something they could find that needs fixing.

So, instead of turning around and going home, invariably, after the 15 minute job was over, I would end up doing other jobs for the Shift Supervisor until morning.  Well, once 6:00 am rolled around, it was really too late to drive home and then wait an hour and drive back.  So, I would just stay until 8.

Now look what happened!  Instead of 2 hours of double time, I worked from 2:00 to 8:00 with all but the last hour at double time, the last hour at time and a half.  That comes to 11 1/2 hours of my base salary.  Compare that to the 4 hours I would have received for 2 hours of double time.

But here is the best part.  8:00 rolls around.  We have our morning meeting.  Since I worked for 4 hours of the special 6 hours from midnight to 6, I get to leave at noon and get paid black time for the rest of the day.

What fun!  Every time the six hour rule was reigned in to reduce black time it produced more black time.  And how was that safer?  The final tweaks to the 6 hour rule before it was basically abolished a few years later came during the fall of 1991.  I’m not saying that this alone was the reason, but in 1992, the Power Plant had the highest Accident Rate since 1983.  Somewhere around 23 accidents.  Given that in 1983, we had 50% more employees, 1991 had a much higher accident rate.

The number of call-outs in the early hours of the morning were not as common as I may have made them out to be.  So, I don’t mean to claim that the change in the six hour rule was ever the cause of even one additional accident.  I studied all the accidents that happened that year, and even though some of them were the result of fatigue, it was usually because they had worked an extra long shift – over 12 hours, and were injured because they were tired.  Not because they were affected by the six hour rule.  The question was never asked if the person had been called out the night before.

Even though (as far as we know, because we never asked the question) the six hour rule changes didn’t directly cause any particular accident that year, it was a symptom of an overarching problem.  A certain apathy toward safety had crept into the plant.  The previous years, we had an excellent safety record.  One of our best years was in 1987.  I believe we had only 3 accidents that entire year.  None of them serious.

I will discuss Safety in various other posts, so I won’t belabor the point now.  The point I wanted to make from this post was that by focusing on the bottom line, or some other performance metric without putting your most important asset first (The Power Plant Man), almost always guarantees the opposite results.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron May 3, 2014

    Another great story. I hadn’t thought of the “6 hour rule” for years. I really appreciated the true power plant workers who would answer the call. If I could do it all over again I think I would have gone to a Vo-Tech school and learned a skill (like machinist). The “6 hour rule” never applied to management. I never received any overtime, ever (start-ups, overhauls, routine emergencies, etc.). And we were responsible for getting those people to come to the plant who didn’t want to. I can show you a hole in the wall at the Seminole Plant today made by a mad operator that I “forced” to work (1982) when he didn’t want to. When he left my office he threw the door open so hard it hit the stop in the floor and flexed until the door knob mashed a hole in the wall. Then he told me “I’m not through with you yet.” He later transferred to Sooner – as a promotion. Oh the joys of management.

    I’m grateful today for the people who still answer the call and keep our power on!

  2. Jonathan Caswell May 3, 2014

    THAT’S HOW THEY WORK IT HERE FOR MAINTENANCE CALL-INS. TOO BAD THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN FOR SECURITY—ALTHO’ I WILL GET OVERTIME HOURS FOR COVERING THIS SHIFT.

Early Morning Power Plant Wake Up Call

Originally posted May 30, 2014:

Unlike the story I told a few weeks ago about Jim Padgett, this is not a story about being called to work in the middle of the night by a true Power Plant Man (See post: “Making A Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes“) or even like the story that explained the “Power Plant Black Time and the Six Hour Rule“. No. This is a quick story about a sobering slap in the face I encountered when walking into the electric shop one morning at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

I think this must have been when I was on someone’s short list for a “Power Plant Joke”, or maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention a month earlier when Bill Bennett may have informed me that this morning was coming. Either way, I was totally taken off guard when I entered the shop that morning with Scott Hubbard, my Carpooling buddy.

The first indication that something was up was that there were three contract hands standing there dressed in their worn clothing indicating that they had been hired to do some kind of “manual” activity. Yep. Worn jeans with holes. Shirts slightly ripped. One guy missing the sleeves on his shirt. I think one of them had accidentally taken a shower before he showed up.  He may have mixed up his Mondays and Saturdays and woke up grumpy on Saturday and took a shower on Monday.

None of the contract hands had thought about shaving for the past week or so. So, they definitely looked out of place in the shop usually occupied by professional Power Plant Electricians, who liked to keep themselves clean and generally followed good hygiene practices.

My first thought was, “Hmm…. Looks like there is some dirty job someone has to do in the shop today. I wonder what it is.” I walked into the electric shop to wait until 8:00 to come around. Bill Bennett was leaning against one of the desks talking to Charles Foster. I asked Bill, “What’s up with the Contractors?”

Bill replied, “They are here to help you.” “What am I going to be doing?” I asked curiously. “You know. Pulling wire from the Vital Service Panel to the Telephone Room in the main office.” “Oh. That.” I replied trying to remember if I could recall ever being told that I was supposed to be inheriting this particular job.

The last time I had felt like this was when I was in High School and our American History teacher told us that the semester class projects were due tomorrow and he continued to explain that we would be presenting the projects in alphabetical order. “Which means that Kevin Breazile. You will be going first.”

Side Story Time:

Class Project? Oh No! I had forgotten all about it! I was supposed to write a paper about the Roadway system in the United States, including how we were preparing to go to the Metric System.” (Like that ever happened… This was in 1976).

So, after school I went straight home and told my mom that I needed to go to the Public Library to prepare for a class project that needed to be done tomorrow. At the library I quickly grabbed a bunch of facts out of encyclopedias. I made up a few statistics about how many miles of roads there were in the United States.

Then once I was back at home, I thought about the roads in the U.S. Well, there were dirt roads, gravel roads, asphalt roads, and roads made of concrete. So. I filled a jar with dirt. One with some rocks I found out in the street. I found a piece of asphalt that had worked itself loose at the intersection by my house. I also found a chunk of concrete under our deck in the backyard where we had busted up our patio once to pour a new one…. These were my props for my presentation.

I remembered that on the way from Kansas City To Columbia Missouri along Highway 70, there was a sign that said, 100 Miles or 160 Kilometers to Columbia. There was also one just outside Saint Louis going to Columbia that said the same thing. So, I added that to my presentation. This met the requirement of how the roadways were moving to the metric system.

When the presentation began, I began handing the jars to someone in the front row to pass around the class….. Yeah. A jar of dirt. A jar of rocks, and a piece of asphalt and the chunk of concrete. I remember our teacher, Mr. Wright grabbed the chunk of Concrete when I gave it to the guy in the front row and looking it over, then pointing to a spot on it and saying, “I can see the skid marks here where I almost hit you!”

Anyway. I ended the presentation by taking the chunk of concrete after it had been passed around the class and holding it up and saying that if we continued to create roads at the same pace that we have over the last 60 years, by the year 2076 the world will look like this…. And I held up the chunk of concrete. — Of course.. I had totally made that statistic up out of thin air. — I got an A+ for that project which was worth 1/3 of our grade for the semester.

End of side story.

So, here I was again, fourteen years later, and I was being told that I had a crew of guys standing out in the shop waiting for directions on how to pull cable from the Logic room just below the control room, across the T-G building and into the middle of the Office building on the top floor. Even though the Office was on the 3rd floor, it was equivalent to the 6th floor of an office building.

From experience, I knew that the cable would have to be pulled from the logic room down to the cable spreading room below the main Switchgear, through two manholes, then up through conduit to the office area above the break room kitchen and over to the Telephone room.

I had done nothing to prepare for this. I hadn’t looked through the blueprints to find the best route. I hadn’t even seen the large spool of wire on the pallet in the Main Switchgear waiting to be used. I hadn’t even prepared myself by looking confident like I knew what I was doing….

Bill walked out the door leaving me in the office with Charles. I wasn’t sure if Charles could tell that I was completely blind-sided by this job or not. But he did give me a quick “leg up”. He said, “Seems to me that there is already power going from the VSP (for Vital Services Panel) to the Telephone room.”

Well. I already knew that I was really lucky. Especially when I asked Saint Anthony to help me find a solution to a problem. So, I quickly glanced over in the corner where Saint Anthony liked to lean against the wall while he waited for me to come to my senses and have some faith. In my mind I could see Anthony shrug like, “sounds like you might give it a try.”

St. Anthony of Padua

St. Anthony of Padua

So, I walked… no… I strolled out into the shop like I belonged there….. — Oh… yeah. I did. But at that particular moment I didn’t feel like it, so I thought maybe if I walked like I felt like I did, it would help me feel that way.

I asked Scott Hubbard if he could help me check to see if we had power in the Telephone Room from the Vital Services Panel. He said he would be glad to help (this was Scott’s usual response. — A True Power Plant Man Response).

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

I asked him to go the Telephone room while I went to the Vital Service Panel for Unit 1 in the Logic Room. Scott took his handy Dandy Voltage Checking Tool and headed off toward the Office area.

 

Electric Voltage Tester

Electric Voltage Tester

I headed for the Logic Room with a pair of Fuse Pullers:

 

Bussman Fuse Pullers

Bussman Fuse Pullers

The Vital Service Panel is mounted on the wall next to the UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). I opened it and read the labels inside of the cover. After scanning the list of locations that were fed from this panel I found one that could have been the one circuit I was looking for.

It was cryptically labelled in pencil “Telephone Room”. Hmmm…. I wonder if this is it… My mind had quick as a snap decrypted this entry and came up with “Telephone room”. — That sure sounds like this would provide power to the Telephone room. Let’s just hope that it is labelled correctly.

I waited until Scott called me on the gray phone to tell me that he was in place by the Telephone room. He had checked all of the receptacles (plug ins) in the room, and they all had power on them.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

I told him that I would remove the fuse to the circuit that looked like it provided power to the telephone room, so in about 15 seconds, he could check to see if any of the receptacles was dead. So, we did just that. I removed the fuse….. — My first thought was…. Good. I didn’t trip the unit. I would have known that right away. — You never know… pulling a fuse out of a panel labelled “Vital Services Panel” kind of leaves you to believe that the stuff in this panel is really really important.

A small fuse block like this.

A smaller fuse block than one in the VSP

I went back to the gray phone and waited for Scott to get back on the phone. About 15 more seconds and Scott returned. He told me that the power had turned off on one of the receptacles on the wall. I told him I was going to put the fuse back in and head up to the telephone room so that he could show me where it was.

Literally 20 minutes after I had been jolted awake by the revelation that I was supposed to lead a crew of contractors on a wire pull that I had not prepared for, I had found out that the wire was already there. No wire pull was necessary.

Scott showed me where the receptacle was, and we walked back to the electric shop. Bill Bennett was standing in the shop wondering where I had disappeared to (oops. ended the sentence with a preposition. I should know better than that. I should have said, “….where I went.”). I was still wondering in the back of my head if I had just completely forgot that Bill had ever told me about this, or maybe he had forgotten to mention it in the first place, or he had not told me on purpose just to see how I would react to the sudden revelation that I had a semi-difficult job with no time to prepare for it.

I waited for Bill to follow me into the electric shop office. Which he did. Standing there with as straight of a face as I could muster, I looked at Bill as he asked me when I was going to start pulling the wire. The Contractors are just standing around doing nothing.

I said, “The job is already done. The wire has already been pulled.” “What do you mean? It’s still in the switchgear on the pallet.” Bill responded. I shrugged and said, “We don’t need to pull wire from the Vital Services Panel. There is already a circuit from that panel to the telephone room.” I looked over at Charles and smiled. Charles smiled back. Bill said something like, “Oh… Then I wonder what we are going to do with these contractors. We have them for three days.” Then he left the office.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

I thought that somehow Charles knew something about my being “setup for some kind of failure” and had this up his sleeve all along so that it would backfire. — Just my luck. With three of my best friends standing there, how could I fail…. Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and Saint Anthony.

We had the contractors sweep out switchgears for the next 3 days.

Comment from the original Post

  1. inavukic June 1, 2014

    St Anthony of Padua never fails us if we believe in him, he has never let me down 🙂 Enjoyed your post

Black Ops Raid Power Plant — Power Plant Men Ignore Attackers

I don’t know if they called them “Black Ops” in 1994, but when the control room operator David Evans answered the phone that day in October, I don’t think he ever expected to have the person on the other end of the line tell him that a military special forces unit was going to stage a mock raid on the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma  some time that night.  I’m sure Jack Maloy, the shift supervisor, was equally surprised when David told him about the phone call.  I heard later that Jack was pretty upset to find out that a military force was going to be attacking our plant in the middle of the night without his permission!

 

David Evans waits for Jim Padgett to get a cup of coffee -- Thanks Jim Cave for the picture

David Evans waits for Jim Padgett to get a cup of coffee — Thanks Jim Cave for the photo

The first we heard about the call was when Jasper Christensen called a meeting of the entire maintenance department on the spur of the moment in the main break room.  He told us about the phone call.  He said we didn’t have any more information than that.  Though the maintenance department shouldn’t be working that night, Jasper said that just in case we were called out for something, we should know that a group of commandos were going to be performing some sort of mock raid on our plant.  If we encountered any soldiers sneaking around the plant in the middle of the night in full military gear, not to be alarmed.  Just go on doing what you’re doing and don’t bother them.

Pay no attention to the man behind the mask

Pay no attention to the man behind the mask.  Photo from Call of Duty

Now that it is 21 years later (well, almost) the truth can finally come out….  Isn’t that how it goes?  When we are sworn to secrecy, isn’t it 21 years before we can finally speak out?  (That’s what Shadow Warriors always told me).  I don’t remember us taking an oath or anything, but that’s the way it is with Power Plant Men.  They just assume that if the military is staging a mock raid on our plant, it is a matter of national security.  It seemed as if our plant sort of matched the layout of a power plant somewhere in Central America where the real raid was going to take place.

The main difference between our Power Plant and the one in Honduras, or wherever it was, is that our plant had recently gone through a downsizing.  So, our operators at night now had to perform the duties that had before been done by the labor crew.  They had to do coal cleanup throughout the conveyor system.

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

This meant that if one of our auxiliary operators happened to run across someone dressed in the outfit above, they would have naturally handed him either a water hose or a shovel and pointed to the nearest conveyor and said something like, “I’ll start on this end, and you can start over there.”  After all.  He would already be wearing his respirator.

That day on the way home, Scott Hubbard and I discussed the significance of such a raid on our Power Plant.  A year and a half earlier, Janet Reno had really messed up the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas when it burned down and burned everyone to death including women and children.  So, it would be good to go into a situation like this more prepared.

I had often thought about the steps that could covertly be taken to single-handed destroy the power plant without using any kind of explosives.  Those who understood how all the systems worked together could do it if they really wanted to.  Of course, that was just how I might occupy my mind when I was doing a repetitive job, like sweeping out the main switchgear.  What better place for those thoughts to drift into your mind.

A picture of a clean switchgear. Picture 6 rows of switchgear like this

A picture of a clean switchgear. Picture 6 rows of switchgear like this

Actually, now that I think about it, instead of sending in the Special Forces, just send in a few Plant Operators, Electricians and Instrument and Controls guys and they could totally destroy the plant in a matter of hours if that was their intent.  The same thing could be said about putting a few incompetent people in upper management even if it isn’t their intent, only it takes longer than a couple of hours to destroy the plant in that case.

The next morning when we arrived at the plant, our foreman Alan Kramer told us the stories about the raid that happened the night before.  This is what I can remember about it (if any Power Plant Men want to correct me, or add some more stories, please do in the comments below).

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

First he said that it appeared as if the commandos had landed in some kind of stealth helicopter out on the north side of the intake because later when the power plant men had investigated the site they could see where two wheels on the helicopter had left an impression in the mud.  Dan Landes had been keeping a lookout from the top of the Unit 1 boiler, and he thought for a moment that he saw the flash of a red light…. which… thinking about it now, could have been one of those laser sites taking aim at him and mock assassinating him by shooting him in the eye from about 1/2 mile.  You know how good American Snipers can be (my plug for the new movie).  Good thing he was wearing his auto-tinting safety glasses.

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

That’s Dan Landes in the second row with the Gray Shirt – Otherwise known as Deputy Dan

We also heard that one of the operators, Maybe Charles Peavler (Charles is standing next to Dan wearing the pink shirt and carrying something in his lower lip) had stepped out of the office elevator on the ground floor only to come face-to-face with a soldier.  When the soldier was seen by the operator, he just turned around and walked out of the door… he evidently was considered a casualty if he was seen by anyone.  Either that, or he had to go do coal cleanup the rest of the night.

I think it was Jeff Meyers (front row, left in the picture above) who told us later that the Special Ops forces had left a present for the operators on the Turbine-Generator Room floor.  Tracked across the clean shiny red T-G floor were muddy boot prints leading from the Unit 1 boiler entrance to the door to the control room.  The tracks ended at the control room door.

 

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

The Red T-G floor is always kept clean.  The control room entrance is under the grating where this picture was taken. – Thanks Jim Cave for the picture

The tracks were extra muddy as if someone had intentionally wanted us to see that someone had walked right up to the control room door.  The tracks did not lead away from the door.  They just ended right there.

So, we did have proof that the commandos had actually visited our plant that night, only because one of the operators had come face-to-face with one in the main lobby.  If that hadn’t happened, then they would have come and gone and we would have been none-the-wiser… other than wondering about the strange muddy footprints and the impression left in the mud by the stealth helicopter.

Stealth Helicopter

Stealth Helicopter

I suppose it was easy for the Power Plant operators to ignore the commandos since for the most part, they never saw them coming or going.  The Power Plant Men were happy to play their part in the mock raid.  Of all that has been asked of these Power Plant Men over the years, this was one of the more “unique” events.  How many Power Plant Men across the country can say that they took part in a Special Ops Commando Raid on their Power Plant?

All I can say is that the commandos sure picked a great bunch of Power Plant Men and Women to attack.  We were all honored (even those of us who were at home in bed asleep at the time) to be able to help out the military any way we could.

Pain in the Neck Muskogee Power Plant Relay Testing

Don’t let the title fool you.  I love testing Power Plant Protective Relays.  There is a sense of satisfaction when you have successfully cleaned, calibrated and tested a relay that is going to protect the equipment you have to work on every day.  With that said, I was hit with such an unbelievable situation when testing Muskogee Relays in 1995 that I was left with a serious pain in the neck.

On August 14, 2003 the electric power in the Northeast United States and Canada went out.  The Blackout lasted long enough to be a major annoyance for those in the that region of the United States.

Map of the power blackout in 2003

Map of the power blackout in 2003

When I heard about how the blackout had moved across the region, I immediately knew what had happened.  I was quickly reminded of the following story.  I told my wife Kelly, “I know exactly why such a large area lost power!  They hadn’t done proper preventative maintenance on the Protective Relays in the substations!  Just like….”  Well…. I’ll tell you that part now:

I have mentioned in a couple of earlier posts that something always seemed a little “off” at the Muskogee Power Plant.  I had decided early on that while working there I would stick to drinking sodas instead of water.  See the post:  “Something’s In the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“.  Even with that knowledge, I was still shocked at what I found while testing relays at the plant.

This story really begins one Sunday at Muskogee when one of the Auxiliary Operators was making his rounds inspecting equipment.  He was driving his truck around the south edge of the Unit 6 parking lot on the service road.  He glanced over at a pump next to the road, and at first, he thought he was just seeing things.  After stopping the truck and backing up for a second glance, he was sure he wasn’t dreaming.  It’s just that what he was seeing seemed so strange, he wasn’t sure what was happening.

The operator could see what appeared to be silver paint chips popping off of the large pump motor in all directions.  After closer examination, he figured out that the motor was burning up.  It was still running, but it had become so hot that the paint was literally burning off of the motor.

Horizontal pump

Like this Horizontal pump only much bigger and painted silver

A motor like this would get hot if the bearings shell out.  Before the motor is destroyed, the protective relays on the breaker in the 4,000 Volt switchgear shuts the motor off.  In this case, the relay hadn’t tripped the motor, so, it had become extremely hot and could have eventually exploded if left running.  The operator shut the motor down and wrote a work order for the electricians.

Doyle Fullen was the foreman in the electric shop that received the work order.  When he looked into what had happened, he realized that the protective relay had not been inspected for a couple of years for this motor.

I couldn’t find a picture of Doyle.  In his youth he reminds me of a very smart Daryl in Walking Dead:

Norman Reedus from Walking Dead

Norman Reedus from Walking Dead

In fact, since before the downsizing in 1994, none of the Protective Relays at the plant had been inspected.  The person that had been inspecting the relays for many years had moved to another job or retired in 1994.  This was just a warning shot across the bow that could have had major consequences.

No one at Muskogee had been trained to test Protective Relays since the downsizing, so they reached out to our plant in North Central Oklahoma for help.  That was when I was told that I was going to be going to Muskogee during the next overhaul (outage).  I had been formally trained to inspect, clean, calibrate and test Protective Relays with two of my Power Plant Heroes, Ben Davis and Sonny Kendrick years earlier.  See the post:  “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“.

My Protective Relay Maintenance course book

My Protective Relay Maintenance course book

Without going into too much detail about the actual tests we performed as I don’t want to make this a long rambling post (like… well…. like most of my posts…..I can already tell this is going to be a long one), I will just say that I took our antiquated relay tester down to Muskogee to inspect their relays and teach another electrician Charles Lay, how to perform those tests in the future.  Muskogee had a similar Relay Test Set.  These were really outdated, but they did everything we needed, and it helped you understand exactly what was going on when you don’t have a newfangled Relay Test Set.

AVO Multi-Amp SR-76 Relay Test Set

AVO Multi-Amp SR-76 Relay Test Set

You need to periodically test both mechanical and electronic protective relays.  In the electronic relays the components change their properties slightly over time, changing the time it takes to trip a breaker under a given circumstance (we’re talking about milliseconds).  In the mechanical relays (which I have always found to be more reliable), they sit inside a black box all the time, heating up and cooling as the equipment is used.  Over time, the varnish on the copper coils evaporates and settles on all the components.  This becomes sticky so that the relay won’t operate at the point where it should.

A panel of Protective Relays

A panel of Protective Relays

In the picture above, the black boxes on the top, middle and right are mechanical relays.  This means that something actually has to turn or pick up in order to trip the equipment.  The electronic relays may have a couple of small relays, but for the most part, they are made up of transistors, resistors, capacitors and diodes.

So, with all that said, let me start the real story…. gee…. It’s about time…

So, here I am sitting in the electric shop lab just off of the Unit 6 T-G floor.  We set up all the equipment and had taken a couple of OverCurrent relays out of some high voltage breakers in the switchgear.  I told Charles that before you actually start testing the relays, you need to have the test documents from the previous test and we also needed the instruction manuals for each of the relays because the manuals will have the diagrams that you use to determine the exact time that the relays should trip for each of the tests.  So, we went up to the print room to find the old tests and manuals.  Since they weren’t well organized, we just grabbed the entire folder where all the relays tests were kept since Unit 6 had been in operation.

When we began testing the relays at first I thought that the relay test set wasn’t working correctly.  Here I was trying to impress my new friend, Charles Lay, a 63 year old highly religious fundamental Christian that I knew what I was doing, and I couldn’t even make a relay trip.  I was trying to find the “As Found” tripping level.  That is, before you clean up the relay.  Just like you found it.  Only, it wouldn’t trip.

It turned out that the relay was stuck from the varnish as I explained above.  It appeared as if the relay hadn’t been tested or even operated for years.  The paperwork showed that it had been tested three years earlier.  Protective Relays should be tested at least every two years, but I wouldn’t have thought that the relay would be in such a bad condition in just three years.  It had been sitting in a sealed container to keep out dust.  But it was what it was.

I told Charles that in order to find the “As Found” point where the relay would trip, we would need to crank up the test set as high as needed to find when it actually did trip.  It turned out that the relay which should have instantaneously tripped somewhere around 150 amps wouldn’t have tripped until the motor was pulling over 4,000 amps.  I could tell right away why the Auxiliary Operator found that motor burning up without tripping.  The protective relays were stuck.

As it turned out… almost all of the 125 or so relays were in the same condition.  We cleaned them all up and made them operational.

There is an overcurrent relay for the main bus on each section of a main switchgear.

A picture of a clean switchgear. Picture 6 rows of switchgear like this

A picture of a clean switchgear. Picture 6 rows of switchgear like this

When I tested the “As Found” instantaneous trip for the main bus relay, I found that it was so high that the Unit 6 Main Turbine Generator would have melted down before the protective relay would have tripped the power to that one section of switchgear.  The entire electric bus would have been nothing but molten metal by that time.

As I tested each of these relays, I kept shaking my head in disbelief.  But that wasn’t the worst of it.  The mystery as to why these relays were all glued shut by varnish was finally solved, and that reason was even more unbelievable.

Here is what I found…..  The first thing you do when you are going to test a relay is that you fill out a form that includes all the relay information, such as, what it is for, what are the settings on the relay, and what are the levels of tests that you are going to perform on it.  You also include a range of milliseconds that are acceptable for the relay for each of the tests.  Normally, you just copy what was used in the previous test, because you need to include the time it took for the Previous “As Left” test on your form.  That is why we needed the forms from the previous test.

So, I had copied the information from the previous test form and began testing the relay (one of the first overcurrent relays we tested)…  Again… I was a 34 year old teacher trying to impress my 63 year old student.  So, I was showing him how you mechanically adjust the relay in order for it to trip within the acceptable range.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t adjust the relay so that it would even be close to the desired range for the longer time trip times…. like the 2 second to 25 second range.  It wasn’t even close to the range that was on the form from the last test.

The form from the last test showed that the relay was in the right range for all the levels of test.  When I tested it, like I said, it wasn’t even close.  So, I went to the diagram in the instruction manual for this type of relay.  The diagram looks similar to this one used for thermal overloads:

Thermal Overload Tripping curves

Thermal Overload Tripping curves

See all those red lines?  Well, when you setup a relay, you have a dial where you set the range depending on the needs for the type of motor you are trying to trip. Each red line represents each setting on the dial.  Most of the relays were set on the same number, so we would be using the same red line on the diagram to figure out at different currents how long it should take for a relay to trip….

Here is the clincher….The time range that was written on the previous form wasn’t for the correct relay setting.  The person that tested the relay had accidentally looked at the wrong red line.  — That in itself is understandable, since it could be easy to get on the wrong line… The only thing is that as soon as you test the relay, you would know that something is wrong, because the relay wouldn’t trip in that range, just like I had found.

I double and triple checked everything to make sure we were looking at the same thing.  The previous form indicated the same settings on the relay as now, yet, the time ranges were for a different line! — Ok.  I know.  I have bored you to tears with all this stuff about time curves and overcurrent trips… so I will just tell you what this means…

This meant that when the person completed the forms the last time, they didn’t test the relays at all.  They just filled out the paperwork.  They put in random values that were in the acceptable range and sat around in the air conditioned lab during the entire overhaul smoking his pipe. — Actually, I don’t remember if he smoked a pipe or not.  He was the Electrical Specialist for the plant.  I remembered seeing him sitting in the lab with a relay hooked up to the test set throughout the entire overhaul when I had been there during previous overhauls, but I realized finally that he never tested the relays.  He didn’t even go so far as try to operate them.

I went back through the records to when the plant was first “checked out”.  Doyle Fullen had done the check out on the relays and the test after that.  Doyle had written the correct values from the manual on his forms.  I could see where he had actually performed the tests on the relays and was getting the same values I was finding when I tested the relays, so I was certain that I wasn’t overlooking anything.

As I tested each of the relays, I kept shaking my head in disbelief.  It was so unbelievable.  How could someone do such a thing?  Someone could have been killed because a protective relay wasn’t working correctly.  This was serious stuff.

One day while Charles and I were working away on the relays, Jack Coffman, the Superintendent of all the Power Plants came walking through the lab.  He asked us how we were doing.  I swiveled around in my chair to face him and I said, “Pretty good, except for this pain in my neck” as I rubbed the back of my neck.

Jack stopped and asked me what happened.  I told him that I had been shaking my head in disbelief for the last two weeks, and it gave me a pain in the neck.  Of course, I knew this would get his attention, so he asked, “Why?”  I went through all the details of what I had found.

I showed him how since the time that Doyle Fullen last tested the relays more than 10 years earlier, these relays hadn’t been tested at all.  I showed him how the main bus relays were so bad that it would take over 100,000 amps to have tripped the 7100 KV switchgear bus or 710 Megawatts!  More power than the entire generator could generate.  It was only rated at about 550 Megawatts at the most.

Jack stood there looking off into space for a few seconds, and then walked out the door…. I thought I saw him shaking his head as he left.  Maybe he was just looking both ways for safety reasons, but to me, it looked like a shake of disbelief.  I wonder if I had given him the same pain in the neck.

That is really the end of the relay story, but I do want to say a few words about Charles Lay.  He was a hard working electrician that was nearing retirement.  People would come around to hear us discussing religion.  I am Catholic, and he went to a Fundamental Christian Church.  We would debate the differences between our beliefs and just Christian beliefs in general.  We respected each other during our time together, even though he was sure I am going to hell when I die.

People would come in just to hear our discussion for a while as we were cleaning and calibrating the relays.  One day Charles asked me if I could help him figure out how much he was going to receive from his retirement from the electric company.  He had only been working there for three years.  Retirement at that time was determined by your years of service.  So, three years didn’t give him too much.

When I calculated his amount, he was upset.  He said, “Am I going to have to work until I die?”  I said, “Well, there’s always your 401k and Social Security.”  He replied that he can’t live on Social Security.  I said, “Well, there’s your 401k.”  He asked, “What’s that?” (oh.  not a good sign).

I explained that it was a retirement plan where you are able to put money in taxed deferred until you take it out when you retire.  He said, “Oh.  I never put anything in something like that.”  My heart just sank as I looked in his eyes.  He had suddenly realized that he wasn’t going to receive a retirement like those around him who had spent 35 years working in the Power Plant.

When I left the plant after teaching Charles Lay how to test the relays, that was the last time I ever saw him.  I don’t know what became of Charles.  I figure he would be 83 years old today.  I wonder if he finally retired when he reached the 80 points for your age and years of service.  He would have never reached enough years of service to receive a decent amount of retirement from the Electric Company since he didn’t start working there until he was 60 years old.  That is, unless he’s still working there now.

As I said earlier in this post, Charles Lay was a very good worker.  He always struck me as the “Hardworking type”.  I often think about the time we spent together, especially when I hear about a power blackout somewhere.  — A word of caution to Power Companies…. keep your protective relays in proper working condition.  Don’t slack off on the Preventative Maintenance.  — I guess that’s true for all of us… isn’t it?  Don’t slack off on Preventative Maintenance in all aspects of your life.

Added note:  On 7/6/2019, 3 weeks after re-posting this story, look what happened:  Con Edison says cause of NYC blackout was substation’s faulty relay protection system

Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement

Originally posted July 27, 2012:

There were two distinct times in my life at the Power Plant Kingdom where I went Head-to-Head (or tête-à-tête as they say in France) with a horde of spiders.  The second time I fought side-by-side with my trusty friend Scott Hubbard, that I knew wouldn’t desert me when things went from bad-to-worse (for some reason I find myself using a lot of hyphens-to-day).  The first battle, however, I had to face alone, armed only with a push broom and a shovel.

It all started a few months after I became a janitor at the power plant (in 1982).  I had received my Psychology degree at the University of Missouri and I was well on my way to becoming a certified “sanitation engineer” (as my Grandmother corrected me after I told her I was a janitor).

It actually came in handy having a Psychology degree.  Power Plant men would sometimes approach me when I was working by myself to stop and have a conversation that usually started like this:  “So, someone told me you are a Psychiatrist.”  I would correct them and tell them that I am a janitor and I only have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology which makes me a properly trained janitor able to sweep the floor in confidence knowing that “I’m OK, and You’re OK.” (which was a joke lost on everyone at the plant except for Jim Kanelakos, who was also a janitor with a Masters in Psychology).

Then they would usually want to talk about problems they were having.  I would lean on my broom and listen.  Nodding my head slightly to show I was listening.  After a while the person would finish and thank me for listening and go on back to work.

The most important thing I learned while obtaining a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology was that Psychology is an art, not a science.  Though certain scientific methods are used in many areas, especially in Behavioral Psychology.  Being an art, means that the person must possess the talent for being a Psychologist.  This is as important as being properly trained.  So I never assumed the role of a real Psychologist, I rather tried my best to just be a friend.  I found that worked well.

As I mentioned, James Kanelakos was also a janitor at the Power Plant.  Which meant that between the 5 janitors and our leader Pat Braden, two of us not only had degrees, but both of them were in Psychology (with James having the Masters degree, and I as his pupil with the Bachelors).

Before I proceed with my battle with the spiders, I should mention a little about the dynamics of our Janitorial crew.

James Kanelakos was obviously Greek.  With a name like Kanelakos, it was rather obvious.  He looked the part also, with a graying moustache that made him look like a Greek sailor.  He never was a “True Power Plant Man” and he would be glad to hear me say that.  Instead he was a person that at the time acted as if he was biding his time at the plant waiting for something else to happen.

This picture reminds me of Jim Kanelakos.  I found it at Mobleyshoots.com

Though he never mentioned it, I know that he was also part Irish, and every now and then I would see the Irish come out.  He was a family man, and in that sense he reminded me of my own father (who was also part Irish).  He was only 35 years old at the time, but he acted as if he had lived longer.  He smoked a pipe like my father did.  As far as I know, he always remained married to his wife Sandy, and together they raised two children, a daughter and a son.  That was where his heart really was.

He made no secret that his family came before anything else.  Not that he would say it straight out to your face, but you could tell it in the way he interacted with others.  Like I said, Jim was there “biding his time”, changing his career at a time when he needed something… else.  Maybe to strengthen his priorities.  He said once that he left the office to go work outside.

Then there was Doris Voss.  She was an unlikely site to see in the Power Plant Palace (especially later when she became an operator).  She was a “Church-going Fundamentalist” who made it clear to me that Catholics, such as myself, were doomed to hell for various reasons.  I always enjoyed our… um… discussions.

I thought it was quite appropriate during Christmas when the janitors drew names from Jim’s Greek Sailor’s hat and I drew Doris’s name to give her a very nice leather-bound Catholic Version of the Family Bible.  I later heard her talking to Curtis Love about it in the kitchen.  He was telling her that she shouldn’t read it and she told him that it looked pretty much the same as hers and she didn’t see anything wrong with it.  Needless-to-say, I was rarely condemned to a regular Catholic’s fate after that.

A Bible like this with a Tassel hanging out of the bottom

Curtis Love, as I explained in the post called “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“, was very gullible.  It was easy to play a joke on Curtis.  Too easy.  He didn’t take them well, because he would rather believe what you were joking about before believing that you were joking at all.  Because of this, it never occurred to me to play a joke on Curtis.  Some how, though, it is hard to explain, Curtis reminded me of Tweedledee.  Or was it Tweedledum?

I think he reminded me more of the guy on the right… or maybe the left.

Then there was Ronnie Banks.  I talked about Ronnie Banks before in the post where Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost.  He was like a likable young bear standing up on his hind legs.  You could joke around with him and he was fun to be around.  He acted like he enjoyed your company.  Interestingly though, none of the people on our team would ever be classified as “True Power Plant Men”.  We were more like an odd assortment of Misfits.

Pat Braden was our lead Janitor.  He was by far the nicest person one could ever work for.  He constantly had a smile on his face.  He smiled when he talked, he smiled when he walked, and he especially smiled when he stood up from a chair and became dizzy from his blood pressure medicine.  He had a daughter at home that he really loved.  He reminded me of the goodhearted Red Skelton.

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

Now back to the Spider Wars and the bugs in the basement.

When I first became a janitor, I was assigned to clean the Control room and to sweep half of the turbine room floor and the Control room elevator landings and stairs.  I always enjoyed being a janitor.  I first became a janitor when I was 15 years old Sophomore in High School working the night shift (from 11pm to 6am) at a Hilton Inn in Columbia, Missouri.

To me it was a dream job.  Sure, I couldn’t keep my own room cleaned, but put a push broom in my hand and pay me $2.50 an hour and I could clean all night.  When I began as a janitor at the power plant, I was making $5.15 an hour.  Double what I was making at the hotel cleaning the kitchen, the restaurant and the bar in the wee hours of the morning.

Anyway.  I went to work cleaning the control room like there was no tomorrow.  I would shampoo the carpet once each week.  I would clean on the top and the back of the Alarm Panel.  I know I made Ted Holdge (Supervisor of Operations) real nervous once when I laid a vacuum cleaner on the top of the Main Electric Panel (That’s what I call it.  it was the Control panel where you synced up the unit when it was coming online) and I started vacuuming the top of it.  He actually jumped out of his chair in the Shift Supervisor’s office and stood there and watched me closely.  It obviously had never been cleaned before.  I was trying to get rid of a strange odor in the control room that eventually, I found out was years of burned coffee in the coffee maker in the break room.  I even had to scrub the walls in the kitchen to remove the odor from the entire control room.

Anyway.  I was getting to know the Control Room operators, and I was thinking that maybe someday when I had progressed past janitor and labor crew that one day I may become an operator also.

One day Pat Braden came to me and told me that I was going to have to move down to be the janitor of the Electric Shop.  There were many reasons.  The first was that Curtis wanted to be an operator and he thought that if he worked around them that they would get to know him and would want him to join their ranks and he had more seniority than I did, so he had first pick.  The second reason was that for some reason, since Curtis had been the janitor of the Electric Shop he had been bitten twice by a brown recluse spider, which had invaded the janitor closet downstairs.  If he were to be bitten again, he might lose his job for being unsafe.

I didn’t mind.  Cleaning the Electric shop meant that I also was able to clean the Engineers Shack and the Brown and Root Building next to it.  I also decided that the main switchgear which was where the Janitor closet was located needed to be kept clean to cut down on the onslaught of the poisonous brown recluse spiders (which in Oklahoma is a regular house spider).

The Oklahoma house spider — The Brown Recluse.  Otherwise known at the “Fiddleback”

My first day as a Janitor in the Electric Shop as soon as I opened the door to the janitor closet, I could see why Curtis had been bitten by a Brown Recluse (not twice, but three times — the last time he didn’t tell Pat.  He showed me, but just went straight to the doctor for the required shots to counteract the poison.  Not wanting to lose his job).  The janitor closet was full of them.  They were all over the little 4 foot by 6 foot closet.

Thus began the first war on spiders at the coal fired power plant.  The closet was also being used to store Freon and other air conditioning equipment used by Jim Stevenson the Air Conditioning expert in the Electric Shop.  I decided then and there to move all the equipment out of the closet.  The spiders were practicing “Duck and Cover” drills all over this equipment so it had to go.

My main weapon against the spiders were my boots.  When I spied a spider, I stomped on it quickly.  I asked Pat Braden to order a case of insecticide to help me combat the spiders.  The next day he pulled a two-wheeler up to the closet with two cases and said, “Here is your order sir!” (picture Red Skelton saying that).

I had cleaned the shelves, the cabinet and the floor of the janitor closet, and there was no place for spiders to hide in there anymore.  Each morning when I arrived, there was always more spiders there.  3 or 4 at least waiting for me in the closet.  All Brown Recluse.

I surveyed the combat zone and realized that spiders were all over the main switchgear.  So I decided I was going to sweep the switchgear regularly and kill every spider I saw to wipe them out for good.

A picture of a clean switchgear. Picture 6 rows of switchgear like this

So I laid down floor sweep (cedar chips with red oil) to keep the dust down, and began at one corner and worked my way across the switchgear sweeping and killing spiders.  I kept a body count.  I taped a paper in the janitor closet to keep track of my daily kill.  My first day I killed over 200 spiders.

I thought surely in a short time, I will have wiped out the spider population.  After sweeping the switchgear I laid down a blanket of Insecticide (equivalent to Agent Orange in Vietnam).  If I could kill any bugs that are around, the spiders would leave.  The insecticide didn’t kill the spiders.  they would just duck under the switchgear and then come out an hour later to be standing where I left them before.  So I kept stomping them out.

Every day, my body count was around 25 to 30 spiders and this number wasn’t going down.  That was when I discovered the Cable Spreader room…  I had been involved in mere child’s play before I walked down some steps at the tail end of the switchgear and opened one of the two doors at the bottom.

I cannot describe to you exactly what I saw, because nothing I say can put into words what was there.  I guess the best thing I can say is:  Armageddon.

There were two rooms.  One on each side at the bottom of some concrete steps.  They are called Cable Spreader rooms and are directly beneath the switchgear.  One side was unit one, the other was unit 2.  They are large rooms with cable trays lining the walls and across the room at regular intervals.  The floor was damp, and it was black, and it was alive.  There was a small path through the room where the operator would pass through “the gauntlet” once each shift as they muttered prayers that they not be eaten alive by the black oozing mass of bugs spiders and an occasional snake.

The can of bug spray in my hand seemed completely useless.  I knew what I had to do.  These two rooms and the cable tunnels that ran from there underneath the T-G building were the source of my daily trouncing of the meager few spiders that decided to explore the world above to see what was happening in the switchgear.  The real battle was down here in the trenches.  Each room was full of thousands of spiders.

I started with a large box of Plastic Contractor bags, a box of floor sweep, a shovel and a push broom.  I attacked the room the same way I used to clean my own bedroom at home when I was growing up.  I started in one corner and fanned out.  Not letting anything past me.  always keeping a clear supply line back to the steps that led up to freedom and fresh air up above.

At first I just took a large scoop shovel and scooped up the black mass of crawling and dead bugs and dumped them in a bag, until I had enough space to sweep the dust into a pile.  Then I attacked it again.  Occasionally a small snake would appear upset that I had invaded his space, and into the bag it would go.  Everything went in the bags.  The snakes, the bugs, the spiders and the grime.  There was actually a constant battle taking place down there that I was interrupting.  it was bug eat bug, spider eat bug and snake eat bugs and spiders wars.  Everything went in the bags.

I carefully hauled the bags out to the dumpster and out they went.  It took an entire day to clean one room.  Then the next day when I went back I completely cleaned it again.  This time paying more attention to making it livable.  I wanted these two rooms to be so clean that people could go down into these cool damp rooms in the hot summer and have a picnic down there and feel safe.  —  No one ever did though, but such is the life of a cable spreader room.  Years later Tom Gibson setup a sort of a greenhouse down there.

After that, each day I made my rounds of the switchgear, the cable spreader rooms and the cable tunnels killing any spider that showed it’s legs.  After the main battle in the two rooms and tunnels was over of countless spiders and bugs, I recorded about 230 spiders the next day by making my rounds.  The next day that dropped to around 150.  then 80, then 50 and on down.  Finally, when I was down to 3 or 4 spiders each day, I felt like the war was over and a weekly sweeping and daily walk-through would suffice to keep the switchgear safe.  This left the small janitor closet virtually free of spiders from that point.

The interesting twist of the entire battle against the spiders was that the electricians had seen my skills at “Battle Sweeping” and some of them had become impressed.  They told me that I didn’t have to sweep their shop and the main switchgear because they took turns doing it.  I still felt that as the janitor, with my battle hardened push broom, by paying a little more attention to detail would do a slightly better job.

The electricians didn’t really volunteer to clean the shop.  Whoever was the truck driver for that week was supposed to clean the shop at least one time during the week.  At $5.15 an hour, I was more of a volunteer than someone that was hired to do this chore, and I enjoyed it.  So, eventually, Charles Foster (An Electrical Foreman) popped the question to me one day…. He didn’t get down on one knee when he asked me, but either way, he asked me if I would think about becoming an Electrician.

That was something I hadn’t even considered until that moment.  The Electricians to me were the elite squad of Power Plant Maintenance.  Like the Results guys, but with a wider range of skills it seemed.  But that is a story for another time.

Since I originally posted this, I have written the post about the second war with spiders with Scott Hubbard by my side.  So, if this post wasn’t enough for you… read this one:  “Power Plant Spider Wars II The Phantom Menace“.  For a more tame story about spiders try this one:  “Power Plant Spider in the Eye“.

Comments from the previous post:

  1. standninthefire July 28, 2014

    I (a science major in college) always had a running debate with my psychology friends that psychology wasn’t really science. Granted, I only said that to get into an debate about the subject but I think you’re spot on when you say that psychology has an “art” component to it. It’s a combination of both but I think that the better psychologists are the ones who master the art.

  2. mpsharmaauthor July 29, 2014

    I didn’t think I would ever voluntarily read about spiders, but I have been proven wrong. Thank you for reminding me to never say never 🙂

  3. Jonathan Caswell July 29, 2014

    SPIDERS, BUGS AND BASEMENTS…OH MY!!!!

  4. Jim  July 29, 2014

    This has been some of the most enjoyable reading I’ve done for a looooong time 🙂

  5. sacredhandscoven October 21, 2014

    OMGosh, my skin is STILL crawling and I don’t think it will stop for a few decades! Your story reminds me of that scene in the Indiana Jones second movie where the girl had to reach into the bugs and pull the lever to save Indy’s life. If it had been me, he’d a been a goner! If anything has more than 4 legs it needs to stay away from me! I cannot imagine going through that cleaning job.

  6. Willow River January 28, 2015

    Good Lord, this is like reading a horror novel! I swear, if I had been anywhere near that sort of situation, you’d find me huddled up in some corner far away trying not to scream while I cry. This story only strengthens my belief that spiders are, to put it lightly, PURE EVIL!!! You, sir, are a very, very brave soul, and I salute you. From way over here, away from the spiders.

  7. iltorero February 7, 2015

    Curtis was bitten by Brown Recluse twice? They inflict some of the grossest wounds I’ve ever seen. We’ve got them in Maine, but they’re rare.

 

Learnin’ ’bout ‘lectricity with Andy Tubbs

Originally posted January 18, 2013:

The day I became an electrician at the coal-fired power plant, I suddenly became an expert in electricity. I think it was on Tuesday, just one day after joining the electric shop that I was walking through the welding shop when someone stopped me and asked me how they would wire their living room with different light switches at different corners and make it work correctly. As if I had been an electrician for years. Luckily I was just finishing a house wiring course at the Indian Meridian Vo-Tech in Stillwater, Oklahoma and they had us figure out problems just like those.

Within the first week, George Alley brought a ceiling fan to the shop that he had picked up somewhere and was wondering if we could get it to work. My foreman Charles Foster thought it would be a good small project for me to work on to help me learn about electrical circuits.

After all, this ceiling fan could go slow, medium and fast, and it could go forward or reverse. Only at the moment, all it would do was sit there and hum when you hooked up the power. — So that was my first “unofficial” project, since the main goal was to make George happy so that he would help us out when we needed something special from the mechanics.

When I was a janitor, I had observed the electricians preparing to go to work in the morning, and often, one of them would go to the print cabinets at one end of the shop and pull out a blueprint and lay it across the work table and study it for a while. Then they would either put it back or fold it and put it in their tool bucket and head out the door to go do a job. Now, it was my turn.

Andy Tubbs was one of the two people that played the best jokes on me when I was a janitor. Larry Burns was the other person, and he was the person I was replacing as he had moved to another plant. Andy was the one that had taken the handle off of my push broom the moment I had my back turned so that when I turned around to grab my broom, only the broom head was on the floor, while the broom handle was across the counter by the lab, and Andy was across the other side of the room trying to act like he wasn’t paying attention, but with an expression like he had just played a darn good joke. — I actually had to go back into the bathroom I was cleaning so that I could laugh out loud. I was really impressed by Andy’s ability to play a good joke.

While I’m on the subject, shortly after I became an electrician, I was sitting in the electric shop office talking to Charles when he stopped and said, “Wait…. Listen….” We paused, waiting for something…. A few seconds later, the sound of a hoot owl came over the PA system (what we called the “Gray Phone”). Charles said, It’s an interesting coincidence that the only time the perfect sound of a hoot owl comes over the Gray Phone is when Andy Tubbs is riding in an elevator by himself or with a close friend.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

I had been sent with Andy Tubbs and Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), to go to the coal yard and figure out why some circuit for the train gate was not working. Andy had pulled out the blueprints and was studying them. I came up alongside him and looked at all the blue lines running here and there with circles with letters and numbers, and what I recognized as open and closed switches….

Here is a simple electric circuit drawn in the style of many of the electric blueprint drawings

Here is a simple electric circuit drawn in the style of many of the electric blueprint drawings

Andy stopped and gave me a momentary lecture on the nature of electricity. It was so perfectly summed up, that for years whenever I thought about the nature of electricity, I always began with remembering what Andy told me. He said this:

“Think of electricity like water in a hose. Voltage is the water pressure. Amperage is the amount of water going through the hose. You can have the nozzle on the end of the hose shut off so that no water is coming out and then you have no amperage, but you will still have the pressure as long as it is turned on at the source so you will still have voltage.”

“In these diagrams, you just have to figure out how the water is going to get from one side to the other. These circles are things like relays or lights or motors. When the electricity makes it through them, they turn on as long as the electricity can make it all the way to the other side.”

That was it! That was my lesson in ‘lectricity. All I needed to know. The blueprints were big puzzles. I loved working puzzles. You just had to figure out how you were going to get something to run, and that meant that certain relays had to pickup to close switches that might pick up other relays to close other switches. I found that most of the electricians in the shop were good at working all sorts of puzzles.

Andy went to the cabinet and grabbed one of the Simpson multimeters and a handset for a telephone that had red and black wires wrapped around it.

A telephone handset that looked like this, only it had a battery taped to it, and two leads coming out the bottom

A telephone handset that looked like this, only it had a battery taped to it, and two leads coming out the bottom

I was puzzled by this at first. I thought I would just wait to see what we did with it instead of ask what it was for. We grabbed our tool buckets (which also doubled as a stool and tripled as a trash can as needed), and put them in the substation truck. The other truck was being manned by the designated electrician truck driver for that week. We needed a truck that we could drive around in without having to hold up the truck driver.

We drove to the coalyard and went into the dumper switchgear. Andy and Diane opened up a large junction box that was full of terminal blocks with wires going every which way in an orderly fashion. They located a couple of wires, and Andy unwrapped the wires from the handset while Diane removed the screws holding the wires to the terminal block. Then Andy clipped one wire from the telephone handset to each of the two wires and handed me the phone.

Diane told me that they were going to drive down toward the train gate where the railroad tracks come into the plant and try to find these wires on the other end. So, what they needed me to do was to talk on the phone so when they find my voice, they will know that they have the right wires. Diane said, “Just say anything.” Then they left the switchgear and I could hear them drive away in the truck.

Well. This was my opportunity to just talk to no one for a while without interruption. How many times do you get to do that in one day? Probably only when you are on the way to work and back again if you aren’t carpooling with anyone. Or you’re sittin’ on your “thinkin’ chair” in a single occupant restroom. So, I just kicked into Ramblin’ Ann mode and let myself go. I believe my monologue went something like this:

“The other day I was walking through a field, and who should I run across, but my old friend Fred. I said, ‘Well, Hi Fred, how is it going?’ and Fred told me that he was doing just fine, but that he had lost his cow and was wondering if I could help him look for it. I told him I couldn’t right now because I was helping some people find a wire at the moment, and if I became distracted, we might not only lose the cow, but we might lose the wires as well, so I better just keep on talking so that my friends on the other end can find the wires they are looking for. After that I went to the store and I picked up three cans of peas. I thought about getting four cans of peas but settled on three and brought them to the checkout counter, and while I was waiting in line I noticed that the little boy in front of me with his mom was looking at me as if he wanted to have one of my cans of peas, so I quickly made it clear to him that I was buying these cans of peas for myself by sliding them further away from him and glaring at him. Luckily the boy wasn’t persistent otherwise I would have broken down and given him a can of peas because he was looking kind of hungry and I was feeling sorry for him, though, I didn’t want him to know how I was feeling, so I put on a grim expression….”

Needless to say… My monologue went on for another 15 minutes. Yes… .15 minutes. I had expected Andy and Diane to have returned earlier, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to find the other end of the wires, so I just kept on ramblin’ to the best of my ability. It’s like what it says in the Bible. If we wrote down everything I said, it would have filled many volumes. Being a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann came in handy that day. For more about Ramblin’ Ann, you can read the following post:

Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space With A Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

When Andy and Diane returned they said that they had found the wires right away, but that they had sat there for a while just listening to me ramble. They said I was cracking them up. They also mentioned that they thought I was completely crazy. Well. I was glad that they found the wires and that my rambling abilities had come in handy.

Five months after I had joined the electric shop, Andy and I were sent to Oklahoma City to learn about a new kind of electric troubleshooting. It was called “Digital Electronics”. I had just finished my electronics class at the Vo-Tech, and so I was eager to put it into practice. Andy and I went to a two day seminar where we learned to troubleshoot what was basically a PC motherboard of 1984. We used a special tool called a digital probe and learned how the processor worked with the memory chips and the bios. It wasn’t like a motherboard is today. It was simple.

A simple Motherboard like this

A simple Motherboard like this

It was just designed for the class so that we could use the digital probe to follow the different leads from the chips as the electric pulses turned on and off.

We were using digital probes similar to this

We were using digital probes similar to this

At the time I was thinking that this was a waste of time. I had been learning all about troubleshooting electronic circuits from Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick. I couldn’t see how this was going to be useful. I didn’t know that within a couple of years, most of our electronic circuits in the precipitator controls were all going to be replaced with digital controls, and this was exactly what I was going to need to know.

So, Andy and I spent two days learning all the basics of how new computers were going to be working. This was the same year that Michael Dell was beginning his new computer company further down I-35 in Austin Texas. Who would have thought that 18 years later I would be working for Dell. But that’s another lifetime away…

Comments from the original post:

Ron Kilman January 19, 2013:

Early in my career at the Seminole Plant I learned when someone paged you on the gray phone, you should always check the earpiece of the phone before you put it on your ear – it might be full of clear silicone calk (or worse). Also, at the end of the day when you reach to pick up your lunch box, you should pick it up gently. Someone could have slipped a full bottle of mercury (like 20 pounds) in it. This prevents you from pulling the handle off your lunch box or hearing it crash to the floor, smashing everything in its path. It’s amazing what Power Plant Men are capable of doing.

  1. Plant Electrician January 19, 2013:

    We used hand lotion in the electric shop for the gray phone trick. I remember Andy catching an unsuspecting operator in the main switchgear more than once.

    1. Ron Kilman January 20, 2013:

      Hand lotion is much nicer than silicone caulk!

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.

Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules

Originally posted May 2, 2014:

Last week I mentioned in the post “Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes” that Jim Padgett called me at 2:15 am one morning to tell me that the coal dumper was broken and he needed for me to come out to the plant to work on it.  You may have wondered why a plant electrician living in North Central Oklahoma would answer the phone in the middle of the night when it most certainly meant that they would have to crawl out of bed and go to work to fix something that was broken.  Why not just roll over and pretend that the phone never rang?

You see… I knew when the phone rang that it was the power plant, because in the 20 years that I worked at the plant, just about every time the phone rang after midnight it meant that I would have to get dressed, and drive 30 miles to the plant to work on something that was most likely going to be in a dusty dirty place.  You could always count on the coal train dumper switchgear being covered with coal dust.  That was the usual point of failure past the “witching hour”.

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

I suppose I could say there were two reasons why a Power Plant Man would answer the phone.  One was that they were just all around nice guys and they wanted to help out any chance they could.  The other reason was because of the pay.

Even though working at the power plant was perhaps one of the best jobs in the neighborhood (being the only job in the neighborhood, since the plant ground consisted of its own neighborhood out in the middle of nowhere), that didn’t mean that the pay was especially lucrative.  That is, if a Power Plant Man had to rely on their base pay alone.  So, in order to help the Brave Men and Women of Power Plant Fame pay their bills, many opportunities were provided for working overtime.

Think about this.  What if, when I answered the call to save the day (uh… I mean the night) and spent 35 minutes driving out to the plant only to fix the problem in fifteen minutes?  Then I would spend another 35 minutes driving back home with my clothes all full of coal dust, only to be paid a measly 15 minutes of over time?  Even at double time, that would only be 30 minutes of pay.  That would hardly cover the gas and the laundry soap.

Early in the life of this particular plant, it became apparent that something had to be done to motivate the heroic masters of Power Plant Maintenance to make the long lonely drive down Highway 177 at the wee hours of the morning.  So, certain methods were devised to coax the restful souls to the phones when they rang.  Once they answered the phone, then sheer guilt was enough to drag them out of the sack.  It was that moment when the phone first began to ring, before the reasoning part of the brain kicked in and the more base reflexes such as those that were out to make an extra buck reacted instinctively that needed to be targeted.

So “Black Time” was introduced to the plant.  Black time had probably been around long before the plant came into existence, but it came in handy when someone had to be called out in the middle of the night.  Black time was the time that a person would be paid even though they didn’t actually work during that time.  So, when a Power Plant Man was called out in the middle of the night, they would be guaranteed at least two hours of overtime even though they may only work for 15 minutes.

This would help defray the cost of gas and time for driving both ways to and from the plant.  Anything from 7:30 pm to 7:00 am  was paid as double-time.  That is two times the normal base salary.  So, two hours at double time came out to four hours of pay, or as much pay as someone would make for half of a day at work.  That was some incentive for disturbing a Power Plant Man from their pleasant dreams of adventuring through the Power Plant Kingdom where the rule was always “Might For Right”. — Well, at least that’s what I was dreaming some of the time when the phone rang.

If Black Time wasn’t enough, it was taken a step further when the six hour rule was introduced.  The Six Hour Rule was added fairly early on in the life of the Power Plant and went through a few variations when I was working at the plant.  When it was first introduced, it came across as if someone downtown had made the decision that when someone is disturbed from their sleep during certain hours of their sleep cycle, it directly impacted their safety.  Hence the Six Hour Rule was born.

Originally it worked like this….  The hours of midnight to 6:00 am were considered the prime sleeping hours for Heroic Power Plant Men.  During this time, it was deemed that all Power Plant Men should be tucked in their beds dreaming of ways to work safely during the following day.  Whenever this time period was disturbed, then the Electric Company should provide the loyal Power Plant Man for answering the call of duty during a time of early morning emergency by giving him back the same number of hours in black time so that he could go home and continue his all-important dreams and regeneration.

 

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

So, if I had been called out at one o’clock in the morning to work on something, and it took me two hours to fix it, then I could come into work two hours later in the morning.  The first two hours of my regular work day would be payed as “Black Time”.  — Makes sense… right?  Two hours of work…. Come in two hours late in the morning…. black time…  Easy to calculate.

This provided a pretty good incentive for going out to work in the middle of the night.  First, you would get at least 2 hours of double time.  Second, you would be able to make up for lost sleep by coming in late in the morning without having to lose any pay.  You could also come in at the regular time and leave early in the afternoon if you wanted.

Well… That lasted for a few years, then the rules for the 6 hour rule began to change.  Originally, even if the job was only 15 minutes, the least amount of black time that you would get was 2 hours.  After all, it was an hour of driving for the large majority of the Power Plant Men that lived in a civilized village of more than 50 people.  Later, the Six Hour Rule was changed so that only the actual time worked would count for the six hour rule.

This meant that if I drove all the way out to the plant to work on something that only took 15 minutes, then I could only come in 15 minutes late then next morning, even though I had spent at least an hour and 45 minutes away from my dreams of serving nobly in the Power Plant Palace.  In that case the six hour rule didn’t apply anymore.  I figured that someone who was short-sighted had come up with that idea.  I’ll explain why in a few minutes.

The next phase of the Six Hour Rule came a few years after that…  It was decided that after a person had been called out at night to fight the good fight, as soon as they left the plant, the six hour rule would start counting down.  Let me explain this in a little more detail….

Say, I were called out to work in the middle of the night, and I worked from 1:00 am to 3:00 am (two hours).  Then I left to go home at three.  The hours start counting down so that by 5:00 am, the time I had spent at the plant were no longer valid, and I was expected to show up at work at the regular time. 8:00 am.  Okay.   So, in more and more cases (it would seem), the six hour rule would be made meaningless.

So, with this rule in place, if I was called out at midnight, and worked until 4:00 am, for a total of 4 hours, then by 8:00 am when I was supposed to be back at work all of the four hours would have ticked off and I would have no black time.  I would have to show up at 8:00 am.  See how that was supposed to basically take the six hour rule and make a joke out of  it?  (Or so, someone thought).

As most attempts at being underhanded without actually just coming out and telling us that it was decided that the Honorable Power Plant Men no longer needed their six hours of prime sleeping time to work safely the next day, the opposite effect was the result.  Kind of like raising the minimum wage to help the workers, when you put more people out of work.

When the six hour rule was changed to count down from the time you left the plant, was when I made the most money from the six hour rule.  I racked up loads of black time from this change as well as most Power Plant Men that were called out before Morning Prayers (Lauds).  Here is how and why:

Suppose the phone rings and it is 1 o’clock in the morning.  You decide to answer it and get called out to work on something that takes 15 minutes.  You finish the job some time around 2:15 am (because, after all, you had to drive all the way out to the plant).  What should you do now?  If you go back home and go to bed, then because of the way the 6 hour rule worked, you would certainly have to come back to work at 8 o’clock.  — hmm…  You will still have collected 2 hours of double time.  That’s something.

24 hour clock

24 hour clock

Look at the alternatives.  What if you went to the shop and worked on some other tasks while you were already there?  For Power Plant Maintenance Men, there is always something that needs to be fixed.  You may even ask the Shift Supervisor, “While I’m here, is there anything else you want me to work on?”  Shift Supervisors just love having their own personal maintenance man in the middle of the night eager to help.  There is always something they could find that needs fixing.

So, instead of turning around and going home, invariably, after the 15 minute job was over, I would end up doing other jobs for the Shift Supervisor until morning.  Well, once 6:00 am rolled around, it was really too late to drive home and then wait an hour and drive back.  So, I would just stay until 8.

Now look what happened!  Instead of 2 hours of double time, I worked from 2:00 to 8:00 with all but the last hour at double time, the last hour at time and a half.  That comes to 11 1/2 hours of my base salary.  Compare that to the 4 hours I would have received for 2 hours of double time.

But here is the best part.  8:00 rolls around.  We have our morning meeting.  Since I worked for 4 hours of the special 6 hours from midnight to 6, I get to leave at noon and get paid black time for the rest of the day.

What fun!  Every time the six hour rule was reigned in to reduce black time it produced more black time.  And how was that safer?  The final tweaks to the 6 hour rule before it was basically abolished a few years later came during the fall of 1991.  I’m not saying that this alone was the reason, but in 1992, the Power Plant had the highest Accident Rate since 1983.  Somewhere around 23 accidents.  Given that in 1983, we had 50% more employees, 1991 had a much higher accident rate.

The number of call-outs in the early hours of the morning were not as common as I may have made them out to be.  So, I don’t mean to claim that the change in the six hour rule was ever the cause of even one additional accident.  I studied all the accidents that happened that year, and even though some of them were the result of fatigue, it was usually because they had worked an extra long shift – over 12 hours, and were injured because they were tired.  Not because they were affected by the six hour rule.  The question was never asked if the person had been called out the night before.

Even though (as far as we know, because we never asked the question) the six hour rule changes didn’t directly cause any particular accident that year, it was a symptom of an overarching problem.  A certain apathy toward safety had crept into the plant.  The previous years, we had an excellent safety record.  One of our best years was in 1987.  I believe we had only 3 accidents that entire year.  None of them serious.

I will discuss Safety in various other posts, so I won’t belabor the point now.  The point I wanted to make from this post was that by focusing on the bottom line, or some other performance metric without putting your most important asset first (The Power Plant Man), almost always guarantees the opposite results.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron May 3, 2014

    Another great story. I hadn’t thought of the “6 hour rule” for years. I really appreciated the true power plant workers who would answer the call. If I could do it all over again I think I would have gone to a Vo-Tech school and learned a skill (like machinist). The “6 hour rule” never applied to management. I never received any overtime, ever (start-ups, overhauls, routine emergencies, etc.). And we were responsible for getting those people to come to the plant who didn’t want to. I can show you a hole in the wall at the Seminole Plant today made by a mad operator that I “forced” to work (1982) when he didn’t want to. When he left my office he threw the door open so hard it hit the stop in the floor and flexed until the door knob mashed a hole in the wall. Then he told me “I’m not through with you yet.” He later transferred to Sooner – as a promotion. Oh the joys of management.

    I’m grateful today for the people who still answer the call and keep our power on!

  2. Jonathan Caswell May 3, 2014

    THAT’S HOW THEY WORK IT HERE FOR MAINTENANCE CALL-INS. TOO BAD THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN FOR SECURITY—ALTHO’ I WILL GET OVERTIME HOURS FOR COVERING THIS SHIFT.