Tag Archives: tool bucket

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

If you have been following my posts for very long, you may have the idea that I just like to write posts about spiders.  After writing two posts about Spider Wars (see posts:  “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement” and “Power Plant Spider Wars II – The Phantom Menace“), another post about spiders just seems like a bit much.  Even though there is a spider in this story, another appropriate title could be something like “Another night in the Life of a Power Plant Electrician”.  Without further ado, here is the story.

Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma calling.  I don’t remember a time when the Shift Supervisor on the other end of the phone wasn’t very polite.  They knew they were waking someone from their sleep to ask them to drive 30 miles out to the plant in the wee hours of the morning.

The Shift Supervisor, whether it was Joe Gallahar, Jim Padgett, Jack Maloy, or Gary Wright, they would all start out with something like, “Hey, sorry to wake you buddy…”.  After such an apologetic introduction, how could you be upset that your sleep had just been interrupted?  Then they would proceed to tell you why they needed your assistance.  For me, it was usually because the coal dumper had stopped working while a train was dumping their coal.  This meant that 110 cars tied to three or four engines was sitting idle unable to move.

Each car on the train would be dumped one at a time as it was pulled through the rotary dumper.  The process was automated so that the operator in the control room watching out of the window only had to push one switch to dump each car.

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

The train would move forward to the next car automatically as a large arm on a machine called a Positioner would come down on the coupling between the cars and pull the entire train forward to the next car.

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

There were so many moving parts involved in positioning the car in place and rolling it over to dump the coal, that it was common for something to go wrong.  When that happened the entire process would come to a halt and the train would just have to sit there until someone came to fix it.  That was usually an electrician since the dumper and the positioner was all controlled by relays much like the elevator controls, only more complicated.

This particular night, Joe Gallahar had called me.  It seemed that there was an intermittent problem with the dumper that didn’t seem to make much sense and they couldn’t figure out why it was acting so strange.  One of the train cars had actually been damaged as the positioner arm would start coming up from the coupling to the point where the holding arm on the other end of the dumper had come up, then the positioner arm began going back down, causing the train to move on it’s own only to have the arm on the positioner scrape the side of the train car as it rolled backward uncontrolled.

Though it was less frequent, it was not so strange to have a train damaged by erratic dumper controls.  I have seen the side of a train car smashed in by the positioner arm when it decided to inappropriately come down.  This night, the problem was acting like that.  So, instead of damaging the train further, they decided to call me out to have a look at it.

I always had the philosophy when being called out in the middle of the night to be just as polite back to the Shift Supervisor when I answered the phone.  I had a Marketing professor at Oklahoma State University named Dr. Lee Manzer, who explained this one day.

Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —

Dr. Manzer told a story in class one day about how he was travelling home one day from a long and difficult trip where everything had gone wrong.  It was very late at night when he arrived at his house (which, incidentally was just down the street from my parent’s house), he was really beat.  He went into his bedroom and began preparing for bed.

About the time he was taking off his tie, his wife rolled over in bed and welcomed him home.  Then she said, “Oh, by the way.  I forgot to buy milk (or maybe it was ice cream).  Do you think you could run down to the store and buy some?”

Dr. Manzer explained his decision making process at that point like this:  “I could either go on a rant and tell my wife what a long and tiring day I had just had and now you are asking me to go buy milk? , and then I would go get the milk.  Or I could say, ‘Of course Dear.  I would be glad to go buy some milk.’  Either way, I was going to go buy the milk.  So, I could do it one of two ways.  I could complain about it or I could be positive.  I could either score points or lose them…. hmm…. Let’s see…. what did I do?  I said, ‘Of course Dear.'”

— End of the side story about Dr. Lee Manzer who by the way was a terrific Marketing Professor.  I understand he still teaches to this day.

So, when Joe Gallahar called me that night, and explained that the dumper was acting all erratic, Instead of saying “Yes Dear.”  as that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I told him, “No problem.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.”  My wife Kelly knew who was on the other end of the phone when she heard my answer.  She had heard it many times before.  I usually only had to say one word after hanging up the phone, “Dumper”, and she knew what that meant.

A Power Plant Electrician’s spouse knows that this is part of the job.  As I pulled on the jeans that I had laid out before I went to bed, Kelly would usually say something in her sleep like, “Be careful”.  I would give her a hug and tell her I’ll be back in a while, even though, sometimes I would be gone for two days working on the precipitator during a start up or some major catastrophe.  Usually, it was just a couple of hours before I came crawling back in bed.

This particular night I drove to work in silence with the window open so that the cool air would keep me awake.  Normally I had the radio on some rock station so that I would be singing along (in my terribly off-key singing voice) in order to stay awake.  Sometimes I would just take the 25 minutes of silence to just think.

My thought that night was that it was nice to be wanted.  There is some comfort in knowing that the Shift Supervisor could call me with enough confidence to know that I would be able to come out on my own and fix a problem that was costing the company a large amount of money each hour the dumper was offline.  Some might think that I would be annoyed to be wakened in the middle of the night to go fix something at the plant.  That night, as most nights I was feeling honored.

That wasn’t always the case, and I’ll soon write a post about another call out in the middle of the night where Scott Hubbard and I wondered exactly why they called us… but that’s another story.

When I arrived at the plant, I rolled my car up to the speaker at the front gate and said, “Hello” with an arrogant English accent.  I don’t know why, but I always liked doing that.  I think it was Billy Epperson who answered back.  I told him I was here to work on the dumper.  He thanked me and opened the gate and I drove the 1/2 mile down the hill to the plant parking lot.  As I went over the hill, in the moonlight I could see the train up at the coal yard looking like a long silver snake.

I walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a truck key off of the hook and drove around to the electric shop to pick up my hard hat and tool bucket.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

I took the long way around to the coal yard since the train blocked the shortest route.  We had a tunnel on the west end of the coal yard that went under the tracks for just this occasion.

When I arrived at the dumper, Stanley Robbins explained that he had tried troubleshooting this problem himself, but he couldn’t find anything that would explain the strange behavior.  Since the last downsizing, we were all able to sort of mix our skills so that an operator could do simple electric tasks if they felt comfortable with it.  Stanley knew enough to fix your normal minor dumper issues.  This one was a little different.

Since I had been an electrician for the past 15 years at this point, I felt pretty confident that I would quickly find the problem and be heading back home soon.  So, I walked into the dumper switchgear where the dumper controls are found.  I asked Stanley to go turn on the power to the dumper so that I could watch the relays.  When the power was on, I began tracing the circuits looking for the point of failure.

The problem was intermittent, and when Stanley started the dumper back up, everything seemed to be working just fine.  Stanley explained that this was why they couldn’t use the dumper because they couldn’t be sure when it was going to malfunction.  They had even uncoupled the train and pulled it apart right where the positioner arm was so that I could see what was happening.

Using radios (walkie talkies), I asked Stanley to move the positioner arm up and down while I checked it.  He lowered it and raised it back up without any problem.  When he began lowering it the second time, it suddenly stopped halfway down.  Watching the controls, I could see that it indicated that it had come all the way down.  It would be this case that would tell the holding arm on the far side of the dumper to go back up, which is what happened when the train rolled back earlier that night.

Then the relays rattled like they were picking up and dropping out rapidly.  Then the problem cleared up again.  Somehow the positioner arm had thought it had come down on the car clamps when it was still up in the air.  That was not likely to happen because when something fails it usually doesn’t see what it’s supposed to see, not the other way around.  It doesn’t usually see something that isn’t there.

So, I had Stanley lower the positioner arm down so that it was level with the ground, so that I could check the connections to the electric eye that was on the positioner clamp that detected the train car clamp when it came down.  I couldn’t find any lose connections or anything that would explain it.

So I told Stanley that I was going to look up from under the car clamp to look at the electric eye.  So, I asked him to kill the power to the positioner so that it wouldn’t move while I was doing that and crush me like a bug.  Kneeling on the train track, I took my flashlight and looked up at the electric eye from under the car clamp, and this is what I saw:

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

This spider had built a spider web in front of the electric eye on the positioner and was sitting right in the middle causing the positioner to think it was down on the car clamp when it wasn’t.  Stanley was watching me from the window of the dumper control room when he saw me stand up quickly and look up at him with a big grin on my face.  I gave him a thumbs up.

You know the phrase, “Everyone has 10 minutes of fame….”  It indicates that some time in most people’s lives they are famous for a brief moment.  It may or may not define the rest of their life.  Well.  This was that spiders claim to fame.  This one spider had successfully stranded a coal train with 110 cars of coal.  A train crew, a coal yard operator, and one lone electrician that had traveled 30 miles to watch it act out it’s drama of catching gnats on it’s web being constantly watched by one large electric eye.

I did not drive home in silence that early morning.  I laughed out loud all the way home.  I still laugh to myself to this day when I think about this night.  Phrases like, “Isn’t life wonderful” comes to my mind.  Or “Even Spiders desire attention every now and then.”  Could there have been a better malfunction than to have a spider dancing in front of an electric eye out in the plains of Oklahoma saying, “Look at me!  Look at me!”  and by golly.  Someone did!  I’m just glad it was me.

Advertisements

Power Plant Invisible Diesel Oil Spill Drill

Many times in my life I have been in both the right place at the right time and avoided the wrong place at the wrong time.  I have attributed this to either a very persistent Guardian Angel, or the sheer luck of someone who usually walks around in a mist more as an observer than a commander. Either way, it has made for an interesting life.

One spring day in 1996 I had a job to perform at the Intake pumps (Condenser Water Pumps).  These are the pumps that pump lake water through the condensers just below the Turbine Generators at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Each pump can pump 189,000 gallons per minute.  This particular day I had to work on the overhead crane at the intake because it wasn’t working correctly.

It was a perfectly cool sunny morning, so I decided instead of finding a truck or a four wheeler I was going to just walk the quarter of a mile to the intake.

Honda Four Wheeler

Power Plant Honda Four Wheeler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and headed for the intake.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

Just as I left the maintenance shop, I could glance to the right and see the sand filter building next to the water treatment plant directly across the road.  This was where I had worked with Ed Shiever 13 years earlier when I had rambled on for days testing his sanity.  See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“.  This was also where I had my first brush with death at the hands of Curtis Love.  See the post “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“.

Just beyond the water treatment plant are the large fields of grass where 16 years earlier I had learned my lesson about listening from Ken Conrad.  See the post “When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays to Listen“.  When I first came to work at the plant years earlier, this large field was nothing but dirt.  On this day, the fields were green from the spring rain.

The intake was just across the field.  It was a perfect day for a walk, and I did need the exercise.

The Intake is just to the right of this picture across the canal

The Intake pumps are just to the right of this picture across the canal

The picture of the plant above shows how the intake is across a field from the main plant.  On the very far left in the picture you can see the edge of a large tank.

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

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

In this picture you can see the four pumps at the bottom of the picture.  You can also see why people who live around the plant love their beautiful countryside.  In the distance you can see glimpses of the Arkansas River.  The lake was formed by pumping water from the river up hill.  The Intake overhead crane is just above the white truck parked at the intake.  That was my destination this particular morning.

As I walked down the road toward the intake a company truck drove by rather slow.  It was being driven by someone from Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I recognized Julia Bevers sitting in the passenger seat.  She was in the Safety Department.  Toby O’Brien may have been in the truck as well.  They slowed down enough to have a good look at me.

I waved at them and they waved back.  They had curious grins on their faces.  With years of Power Plant Jokes under my belt, I recognized that grin as one indicating that something was up.  So, as I continued walking, I watched them closely.  They turned left at the road across from the large Number 2 Diesel Oil Tanks.  Each tank could hold up to one million gallons of oil, though, we never kept that much oil in them.

This is an overhead view of the plant

This is a Google Maps overhead view of the plant

In the picture above you can see two white round circles just right of the center of the picture.  These are the oil tanks.  The long line running from the coalyard to the plant is called 10 and 11 conveyors.  They carry the coal from the crusher to the plant.  The truck from Oklahoma City turned left on the road from the right side of the plant by the tanks.  I was about halfway up this road when they drove by.

After they turned the corner, they parked their truck under the conveyor.  You can see this area clearly in the first picture of the plant above taken from across the intake.  All three occupants climbed out of the truck and walked into the field.  They were all looking around as if they knew something was out there and were trying to find it.

My curiosity was definitely stirred by now, so as I walked by their truck, without saying anything, I gave Julia a funny look.  She looked at the other two as if she should say something.  Finally one of them said, “There has been an oil spill right here in this field.  A Diesel oil truck spilled a bunch of oil here and it’s going to be flowing into that drain over there and if it does, it’s going to end up in the lake.”

I could see that obviously there was no oil in the field.  Now that I think about it, the third person may have been Chris McAlister.  He had worked on the labor crew at our plant before the downsizing.  He was given a job in the safety department and had been assigned to track hazardous materials for the company.

Julia said that this is a drill for the Hazwoper team at the plant.  In a few minutes they are going to sound the alarm that an oil spill has taken place, and they are going to see how long it takes for the Hazwoper team to arrive and alleviate the problem.  Julia grinned again, because she knew that I was a member of the hazwoper team.

The word Hazwoper is an acronym that stands for “Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Rescue”.  Our team was the “ER” in HAZWOPER.  We were the Emergency Rescue team.  Julia told me to just go about doing what I’m doing.  In a few minutes they would sound the alarm.

I walked over to the Intake Switchgear.  This is the little building next to the road at the very bottom of the picture above taken from the smoke stack.  This was my first stop when checking out the overhead crane.  Since the crane wasn’t working, I wanted to make sure that the power to the crane was turned on before assuming that there was a more complicated problem.  You would be surprised sometimes.  Those are best problems to solve.  Just close the breaker and the problem is solved.

Instead of checking the breaker to the crane, I was more interested in the Gray Phone on the wall by the door.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

This was our PA system.  You could page someone on it and wherever you were in the plant, you could usually find the nearest gray phone and immediately be in touch with the person you were trying to find.  At this point, we all carried radios, so we rarely needed to use the gray phones.

We kept the Gray Phones around for safety reasons.  There were some places where the radios didn’t work well.  At this moment, I didn’t want to talk on the radio where anyone could listen. — well, they could on the gray phone, but only if they went to one and picked it up and turned to the same channel.

I paged George Pepple, our head Chemist and the Doctor that did the Jig in the puddle of acid 17 years earlier in the Water Treatment plant.  See the Post “A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“.  Doctor George was also the leader of the Hazwoper team.

When George answered the phone, I told him about the oil spill drill that was about to happen.  Julia had told me to go about doing what I was doing, but she hadn’t told me not to tell anyone, so…  I did.  I explained to him that the Hazwoper team was about to be called to respond to an oil spill by the intake.  We will need some oil absorbing floats to put around the pipe where the drain in the field empties into the intake.  We also needed something to block the drain so that the oil won’t go down the drain in the first place.

George understood and I left him to it.  A few minutes later, a call came over the radio that the Hazwoper team was required at the intake to respond to a Diesel Oil Spill.  It’s interesting, but even though I was anticipating the call, when it came over the radio, a lump of excitement went up in my throat.  I become emotional over the silliest things some times.

I left my tool bucket in the switchgear, and took only my radio as I jogged back to the three people standing in the field.  About the same time that I arrived, Dr. George pulled up with a truckload of Hazwoper Heroes.  They piled out of the back of the truck and began spreading out oil booms to catch the oil before it went down the drain.  A couple headed for the intake, but the Safety team said that wouldn’t be necessary.  I can remember Ray Eberle, Randy Dailey and Brent Kautzman being there.  There were others.  They can leave a comment below to remind me.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

The final result of the Hazwoper Oil Spill Drill was that our Plant Hazwoper team was able to respond to the oil spill in four minutes.  Much faster than any other plant.  Of course, this was partly because I happened to be in the right place at the right time.  The Safety Team said that was perfectly all right.  The drill was setup so it took place during the normal operation of the plant, and I just happened to be working nearby that day.

I know this isn’t what you were waiting to hear.  I know that you are sitting at the edge of your seat wondering if I’m ever going to tell you what was wrong with the overhead crane.  Well.  It wasn’t as simple as turning the power back on.  Actually, when it came down to it.  We didn’t even have a wiring diagram or a schematic of how the overhead crane worked.

an overhead crane. The gray panels on the far side is where the controls were found

an overhead crane. The gray panels on the far side is where the controls were found

So, I took a bunch of notes in my 3 x 5 handy dandy pocket-sized Sparco Notepad:

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

After I made my way back to the plant, I went pulled out a ruler, and a blueprint stencil

Electric Symbol Stencil

Electric Symbol Stencil

and I drew the following wiring diagram for the Crane Hoist Controls:

Intake Crane control Circuit

Intake Crane control Circuit

After troubleshooting the controls with Charles Foster, it turned out that the problem was in the push button controls.  A button was malfunctioning and needed to be fixed.

Push button controls for the Overhead crane

Push button controls for the Overhead crane

Anyway, not long after the Hazwoper Spill Test, our Confined Space Rescue team was also tested.  We received a call that someone was down in the Truck scales and had passed out.  The Confined Space Rescue team was called to rescue them.

This consisted of taking our equipment bags with us and arriving at the truck scales to rescue a person that had climbed down inside and had passed out.  When we arrived, we found that this was only a drill.  The Safety department from Oklahoma City was testing our Confined Space Rescue team to see how long it took us to respond.

I could point out in the overhead picture of the plant exactly where the truck scales are, but it would take a long time.  Let me just say that they are in the upper left part of the picture where that road looks like it widens at the corner where that smaller road branches off to the upper left.

Our response time?  Four minutes and 30 seconds.  And this time, we didn’t know this one was coming.

About being in the right place at the right time…. I was in the right place when I first became a summer help at the plant.  I was in the right place when Charles Foster asked me if I would think about becoming an electrician.  I was in the right place when I was on Labor Crew and the electricians had a opening in their shop.  But most of all, I was in the right place in history to be able to spend 20 years of my life with such a great bunch of Power Plant Men and Women at the best power plant in the country.

Power Plant Millennium Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

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

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

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

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

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

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

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

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

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

If you have been following my posts for very long, you may have the idea that I just like to write posts about spiders.  After writing two posts about Spider Wars (see posts:  “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement” and “Power Plant Spider Wars II – The Phantom Menace“), another post about spiders just seems like a bit much.  Even though there is a spider in this story, another appropriate title could be something like “Another night in the Life of a Power Plant Electrician”.  Without further ado, here is the story.

Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma calling.  I don’t remember a time when the Shift Supervisor on the other end of the phone wasn’t very polite.  They knew they were waking someone from their sleep to ask them to drive 30 miles out to the plant in the wee hours of the morning.

The Shift Supervisor, whether it was Joe Gallahar, Jim Padgett, Jack Maloy, or Gary Wright, they would all start out with something like, “Hey, sorry to wake you buddy…”.  After such an apologetic introduction, how could you be upset that your sleep had just been interrupted?  Then they would proceed to tell you why they needed your assistance.  For me, it was usually because the coal dumper had stopped working while a train was dumping their coal.  This meant that 110 cars tied to three or four engines was sitting idle unable to move.

Each car on the train would be dumped one at a time as it was pulled through the rotary dumper.  The process was automated so that the operator in the control room watching out of the window only had to push one switch to dump each car.

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

The train would move forward to the next car automatically as a large arm on a machine called a Positioner would come down on the coupling between the cars and pull the entire train forward to the next car.

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner  It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

There were so many moving parts involved in positioning the car in place and rolling it over to dump the coal, that it was common for something to go wrong.  When that happened the entire process would come to a halt and the train would just have to sit there until someone came to fix it.  That was usually an electrician since the dumper and the positioner was all controlled by relays much like the elevator controls, only more complicated.

This particular night, Joe Gallahar had called me.  It seemed that there was an intermittent problem with the dumper that didn’t seem to make much sense and they couldn’t figure out why it was acting so strange.  One of the train cars had actually been damaged as the positioner arm would start coming up from the coupling to the point where the holding arm on the other end of the dumper had come up, then the positioner arm began going back down, causing the train to move on it’s own only to have the arm on the positioner scrape the side of the train car as it rolled backward uncontrolled.

Though it was less frequent, it was not so strange to have a train damaged by erratic dumper controls.  I have seen the side of a train car smashed in by the positioner arm when it decided to inappropriately come down.  This night, the problem was acting like that.  So, instead of damaging the train further, they decided to call me out to have a look at it.

I always had the philosophy when being called out in the middle of the night to be just as polite back to the Shift Supervisor when I answered the phone.  I had a Marketing professor at Oklahoma State University named Dr. Lee Manzer, who explained this one day.

Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —

Dr. Manzer told a story in class one day about how he was travelling home one day from a long and difficult trip where everything had gone wrong.  It was very late at night when he arrived at his house (which, incidentally was just down the street from my parent’s house), he was really beat.  He went into his bedroom and began preparing for bed.

About the time he was taking off his tie, his wife rolled over in bed and welcomed him home.  Then she said, “Oh, by the way.  I forgot to buy milk (or maybe it was ice cream).  Do you think you could run down to the store and buy some?”

Dr. Manzer explained his decision making process at that point like this:  “I could either go on a rant and tell my wife what a long and tiring day I had just had and now you are asking me to go buy milk? , and then I would go get the milk.  Or I could say, ‘Of course Dear.  I would be glad to go buy some milk.’  Either way, I was going to go buy the milk.  So, I could do it one of two ways.  I could complain about it or I could be positive.  I could either score points or lose them…. hmm…. Let’s see…. what did I do?  I said, ‘Of course Dear.'”

— End of the side story about Dr. Lee Manzer who by the way was a terrific Marketing Professor.  I understand he still teaches to this day.

So, when Joe Gallahar called me that night, and explained that the dumper was acting all erratic, Instead of saying “Yes Dear.”  as that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I told him, “No problem.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.”  My wife Kelly knew who was on the other end of the phone when she heard my answer.  She had heard it many times before.  I usually only had to say one word after hanging up the phone, “Dumper”, and she knew what that meant.

A Power Plant Electrician’s spouse knows that this is part of the job.  As I pulled on the jeans that I had laid out before I went to bed, Kelly would usually say something in her sleep like, “Be careful”.  I would give her a hug and tell her I’ll be back in a while, even though, sometimes I would be gone for two days working on the precipitator during a start up or some major catastrophe.  Usually, it was just a couple of hours before I came crawling back in bed.

This particular night I drove to work in silence with the window open so that the cool air would keep me awake.  Normally I had the radio on some rock station so that I would be singing along (in my terribly off-key singing voice) in order to stay awake.  Sometimes I would just take the 25 minutes of silence to just think.

My thought that night was that it was nice to be wanted.  There is some comfort in knowing that the Shift Supervisor could call me with enough confidence to know that I would be able to come out on my own and fix a problem that was costing the company a large amount of money each hour the dumper was offline.  Some might think that I would be annoyed to be wakened in the middle of the night to go fix something at the plant.  That night, as most nights I was feeling honored.

That wasn’t always the case, and I’ll soon write a post about another call out in the middle of the night where Scott Hubbard and I wondered exactly why they called us… but that’s another story.

When I arrived at the plant, I rolled my car up to the speaker at the front gate and said, “Hello” with an arrogant English accent.  I don’t know why, but I always liked doing that.  I think it was Billy Epperson who answered back.  I told him I was here to work on the dumper.  He thanked me and opened the gate and I drove the 1/2 mile down the hill to the plant parking lot.  As I went over the hill, in the moonlight I could see the train up at the coal yard looking like a long silver snake.

I walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a truck key off of the hook and drove around to the electric shop to pick up my hard hat and tool bucket.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

I took the long way around to the coal yard since the train blocked the shortest route.  We had a tunnel on the west end of the coal yard that went under the tracks for just this occasion.

When I arrived at the dumper, Stanley Robbins explained that he had tried troubleshooting this problem himself, but he couldn’t find anything that would explain the strange behavior.  Since the last downsizing, we were all able to sort of mix our skills so that an operator could do simple electric tasks if they felt comfortable with it.  Stanley knew enough to fix your normal minor dumper issues.  This one was a little different.

Since I had been an electrician for the past 15 years at this point, I felt pretty confident that I would quickly find the problem and be heading back home soon.  So, I walked into the dumper switchgear where the dumper controls are found.  I asked Stanley to go turn on the power to the dumper so that I could watch the relays.  When the power was on, I began tracing the circuits looking for the point of failure.

The problem was intermittent, and when Stanley started the dumper back up, everything seemed to be working just fine.  Stanley explained that this was why they couldn’t use the dumper because they couldn’t be sure when it was going to malfunction.  They had even uncoupled the train and pulled it apart right where the positioner arm was so that I could see what was happening.

Using radios (walkie talkies), I asked Stanley to move the positioner arm up and down while I checked it.  He lowered it and raised it back up without any problem.  When he began lowering it the second time, it suddenly stopped halfway down.  Watching the controls, I could see that it indicated that it had come all the way down.  It would be this case that would tell the holding arm on the far side of the dumper to go back up, which is what happened when the train rolled back earlier that night.

Then the relays rattled like they were picking up and dropping out rapidly.  Then the problem cleared up again.  Somehow the positioner arm had thought it had come down on the car clamps when it was still up in the air.  That was not likely to happen because when something fails it usually doesn’t see what it’s supposed to see, not the other way around.  It doesn’t usually see something that isn’t there.

So, I had Stanley lower the positioner arm down so that it was level with the ground, so that I could check the connections to the electric eye that was on the positioner clamp that detected the train car clamp when it came down.  I couldn’t find any lose connections or anything that would explain it.

So I told Stanley that I was going to look up from under the car clamp to look at the electric eye.  So, I asked him to kill the power to the positioner so that it wouldn’t move while I was doing that and crush me like a bug.  Kneeling on the train track, I took my flashlight and looked up at the electric eye from under the car clamp, and this is what I saw:

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

This spider had built a spider web in front of the electric eye on the positioner and was sitting right in the middle causing the positioner to think it was down on the car clamp when it wasn’t.  Stanley was watching me from the window of the dumper control room when he saw me stand up quickly and look up at him with a big grin on my face.  I gave him a thumbs up.

You know the phrase, “Everyone has 10 minutes of fame….”  It indicates that some time in most people’s lives they are famous for a brief moment.  It may or may not define the rest of their life.  Well.  This was that spiders claim to fame.  This one spider had successfully stranded a coal train with 110 cars of coal.  A train crew, a coal yard operator, and one lone electrician that had traveled 30 miles to watch it act out it’s drama of catching gnats on it’s web being constantly watched by one large electric eye.

I did not drive home in silence that early morning.  I laughed out loud all the way home.  I still laugh to myself to this day when I think about this night.  Phrases like, “Isn’t life wonderful” comes to my mind.  Or “Even Spiders desire attention every now and then.”  Could there have been a better malfunction than to have a spider dancing in front of an electric eye out in the plains of Oklahoma saying, “Look at me!  Look at me!”  and by golly.  Someone did!  I’m just glad it was me.

Power Plant Invisible Diesel Oil Spill Drill

Many times in my life I have been in both the right place at the right time and avoided the wrong place at the wrong time.  I have attributed this to either a very persistent Guardian Angel, or the sheer luck of someone who usually walks around in a mist more as an observer than a commander. Either way, it has made for an interesting life.

One spring day in 1996 I had a job to do at the Intake pumps (Condenser Water Pumps).  These are the pumps that pump lake water through the condensers just below the Turbine Generators at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Each pump can pump 189,000 gallons per minute.  This particular day I had to work on the overhead crane at the intake because it wasn’t working correctly.

It was a perfectly cool sunny morning, so I decided instead of finding a truck or a four wheeler I was going to just walk the quarter of a mile to the intake.

Honda Four Wheeler

Power Plant Honda Four Wheeler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and headed for the intake.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

Just as I left the maintenance shop, I could glance to the right and see the sand filter building next to the water treatment plant directly across the road.  This was where I had worked with Ed Shiever 13 years earlier when I had rambled on for days testing his sanity.  See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“.  This was also where I had my first brush with death at the hands of Curtis Love.  See the post “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“.

Just beyond the water treatment plant are the large fields of grass where 16 years earlier I had learned my lesson about listening from Ken Conrad.  See the post “When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays to Listen“.  When I first came to work at the plant years earlier, this large field was nothing but dirt.  On this day, the fields were green from the spring rain.

The intake was just across the field.  It was a perfect day for a walk, and I did need the exercise.

The Intake is just to the right of this picture across the canal

The Intake pumps are just to the right of this picture across the canal

The picture of the plant above shows how the intake is across a field from the main plant.  On the very far left in the picture you can see the edge of a large tank.

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

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

In this picture you can see the four pumps at the bottom of the picture.  You can also see why people who live around the plant love their beautiful countryside.  In the distance you can see glimpses of the Arkansas River.  The lake was formed by pumping water from the river up hill.  The Intake overhead crane is just above the white truck parked at the intake.  That was my destination this particular morning.

As I walked down the road toward the intake a company truck drove by rather slow.  It was being driven by someone from Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I recognized Julia Bevers sitting in the passenger seat.  She was in the Safety Department.  Toby O’Brien may have been in the truck as well.  They slowed down enough to have a good look at me.

I waved at them and they waved back.  They had curious grins on their faces.  With years of Power Plant Jokes under my belt, I recognized that grin as one indicating that something was up.  So, as I continued walking, I watched them closely.  They turned left at the road across from the large Number 2 Diesel Oil Tanks.  Each tank could hold up to one million gallons of oil, though, we never kept that much oil in them.

This is an overhead view of the plant

This is a Google Maps overhead view of the plant

In the picture above you can see two white round circles just right of the center of the picture.  These are the oil tanks.  The long line running from the coalyard to the plant is called 10 and 11 conveyors.  They carry the coal from the crusher to the plant.  The truck from Oklahoma City turned left on the road from the right side of the plant by the tanks.  I was about halfway up this road when they drove by.

After they turned the corner, they parked their truck under the conveyor.  You can see this area clearly in the first picture of the plant above taken from across the intake.  All three occupants climbed out of the truck and walked into the field.  They were all looking around as if they knew something was out there and were trying to find it.

My curiosity was definitely stirred by now, so as I walked by their truck, without saying anything, I gave Julia a funny look.  She looked at the other two as if she should say something.  Finally one of them said, “There has been an oil spill right here in this field.  A Diesel oil truck spilled a bunch of oil here and it’s going to be flowing into that drain over there and if it does, it’s going to end up in the lake.”

I could see that obviously there was no oil in the field.  Now that I think about it, the third person may have been Chris McAlister.  He had worked on the labor crew at our plant before the downsizing.  He was given a job in the safety department and had been assigned to track hazard materials for the company.

Julia said that this is a drill for the Hazwoper team at the plant.  In a few minutes they are going to sound the alarm that an oil spill has taken place, and they are going to see how long it takes for the Hazwoper team to arrive and alleviate the problem.  Julia grinned again, because she knew that I was a member of the hazwoper team.

The word Hazwoper is an acronym that stands for “Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Rescue”.  Our team was the “ER” in HAZWOPER.  We were the Emergency Rescue team.  Julia told me to just go about doing what I’m doing.  In a few minutes they would sound the alarm.

I walked over to the Intake Switchgear.  This is the little building next to the road at the very bottom of the picture above taken from the smoke stack.  This was my first stop when checking out the overhead crane.  Since the crane wasn’t working, I wanted to make sure that the power to the crane was turned on before assuming that there was a more complicated problem.  You would be surprised sometimes.  Those are best problems to solve.  Just close the breaker and the problem is solved.

Instead of checking the breaker to the crane, I was more interested in the Gray Phone on the wall by the door.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

This was our PA system.  You could page someone on it and wherever you were in the plant, you could usually find the nearest gray phone and immediately be in touch with the person you were trying to find.  At this point, we all carried radios, so we rarely needed to use the gray phones.

We kept the Gray Phones around for safety reasons.  There were some places where the radios didn’t work well.  At this moment, I didn’t want to talk on the radio where anyone could listen. — well, they could on the gray phone, but only if they went to one and picked it up and turned to the same channel.

I paged George Pepple, our head Chemist and the Doctor that did the Jig in the puddle of acid 17 years earlier in the Water Treatment plant.  See the Post “A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“.  Doctor George was also the leader of the Hazwoper team.

When George answered the phone, I told him about the oil spill drill that was about to happen.  Julia had told me to go about doing what I was doing, but she hadn’t told me not to tell anyone, so…  I did.  I explained to him that the Hazwoper team was about to be called to respond to an oil spill by the intake.  We will need some oil absorbing floats to put around the pipe where the drain in the field empties into the intake.  We also needed something to block the drain so that the oil won’t go down the drain in the first place.

George understood and I left him to it.  A few minutes later, a call came over the radio that the Hazwoper team was required at the intake to respond to a Diesel Oil Spill.  It’s interesting, but even though I was anticipating the call, when it came over the radio, a lump of excitement went up in my throat.  I become emotional over the silliest things some times.

I left my tool bucket in the switchgear, and took only my radio as I jogged back to the three people standing in the field.  About the same time that I arrived, Dr. George pulled up with a truckload of Hazwoper Heroes.  They piled out of the back of the truck and began spreading out oil booms to catch the oil before it went down the drain.  A couple headed for the intake, but the Safety team said that wouldn’t be necessary.  I can remember Ray Eberle, Randy Dailey and Brent Kautzman being there.  There were others.  They can leave a comment below to remind me.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

The final result of the Hazwoper Oil Spill Drill was that our Plant Hazwoper team was able to respond to the oil spill in four minutes.  Much faster than any other plant.  Of course, this was partly because I happened to be in the right place at the right time.  The Safety Team said that was perfectly all right.  The drill was setup so it took place during the normal operation of the plant, and I just happened to be working nearby that day.

I know this isn’t what you were waiting to hear.  I know that you are sitting at the edge of your seat wondering if I’m ever going to tell you what was wrong with the overhead crane.  Well.  It wasn’t as simple as turning the power back on.  Actually, when it came down to it.  We didn’t even have a wiring diagram or a schematic of how the overhead crane worked.

an overhead crane. The gray panels on the far side is where the controls were found

an overhead crane. The gray panels on the far side is where the controls were found

So, I took a bunch of notes in my 3 x 5 handy dandy pocket-sized Sparco Notepad:

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

After I made my way back to the plant, I went pulled out a ruler, and a blueprint stencil

Electric Symbol Stencil

Electric Symbol Stencil

and I drew the following wiring diagram for the Crane Hoist Controls:

Intake Crane control Circuit

Intake Crane control Circuit

After troubleshooting the controls with Charles Foster, it turned out that the problem was in the push button controls.  A button was malfunctioning and needed to be fixed.

Push button controls for the Overhead crane

Push button controls for the Overhead crane

Anyway, not long after the Hazwoper Spill Test, our Confined Space Rescue team was also tested.  We received a call that someone was down in the Truck scales and had passed out.  The Confined Space Rescue team was called to rescue them.

This consisted of taking our equipment bags with us and arriving at the truck scales to rescue a person that had climbed down inside and had passed out.  When we arrived, we found that this was only a drill.  The Safety department from Oklahoma City was testing our Confined Space Rescue team to see how long it took us to respond.

I could point out in the overhead picture of the plant exactly where the truck scales are, but it would take a long time.  Let me just say that they are in the upper left part of the picture where that road looks like it widens at the corner where that smaller road branches off to the upper left.

Our response time?  Four minutes and 30 seconds.  And this time, we didn’t know this one was coming.

About being in the right place at the right time…. I was in the right place when I first became a summer help at the plant.  I was in the right place when Charles Foster asked me if I would think about becoming an electrician.  I was in the right place when I was on Labor Crew and the electricians had a opening in their shop.  But most of all, I was in the right place in history to be able to spend 20 years of my life with such a great bunch of Power Plant Men and Women at the best power plant in the country.

Power Plant Millennium Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

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

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

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

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

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

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

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

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

Power Plant Millennium Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

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

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

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

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

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

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

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

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

Power Plant Invisible Diesel Oil Spill Drill

Many times in my life I have been in both the right place at the right time and avoided the wrong place at the wrong time.  I have attributed this to either a very persistent Guardian Angel, or the sheer luck of someone who usually walks around in a mist more as an observer than a commander. Either way, it has made for an interesting life.

One spring day in 1996 I had a job to do at the Intake pumps (Condenser Water Pumps).  These are the pumps that pump lake water through the condensers just below the Turbine Generators at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Each pump can pump 189,000 gallons per minute.  This particular day I had to work on the overhead crane at the intake because it wasn’t working correctly.

It was a perfectly cool sunny morning, so I decided instead of finding a truck or a four wheeler I was going to just walk the quarter of a mile to the intake.

Honda Four Wheeler

Power Plant Honda Four Wheeler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and headed for the intake.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

Just as I left the maintenance shop, I could glance to the right and see the sand filter building next to the water treatment plant directly across the road.  This was where I had worked with Ed Shiever 13 years earlier when I had rambled on for days testing his sanity.  See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“.  This was also where I had my first brush with death at the hands of Curtis Love.  See the post “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“.

Just beyond the water treatment plant are the large fields of grass where 16 years earlier I had learned my lesson about listening from Ken Conrad.  See the post “When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays to Listen“.  When I first came to work at the plant years earlier, this large field was nothing but dirt.  On this day, the fields were green from the spring rain.

The intake was just across the field.  It was a perfect day for a walk, and I did need the exercise.

The Intake is just to the right of this picture across the canal

The Intake pumps are just to the right of this picture across the canal

The picture of the plant above shows how the intake is across a field from the main plant.  On the very far left in the picture you can see the edge of a large tank.

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

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

In this picture you can see the four pumps at the bottom of the picture.  You can also see why people who live around the plant love their beautiful countryside.  In the distance you can see glimpses of the Arkansas River.  The lake was formed by pumping water from the river up hill.  The Intake overhead crane is just above the white truck parked at the intake.  That was my destination this particular morning.

As I walked down the road toward the intake a company truck drove by rather slow.  It was being driven by someone from Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I recognized Julia Bevers sitting in the passenger seat.  She was in the Safety Department.  Toby O’Brien may have been in the truck as well.  They slowed down enough to have a good look at me.

I waved at them and they waved back.  They had curious grins on their faces.  With years of Power Plant Jokes under my belt, I recognized that grin as one indicating that something was up.  So, as I continued walking, I watched them closely.  They turned left at the road across from the large Number 2 Diesel Oil Tanks.  Each tank could hold up to one million gallons of oil, though, we never kept that much oil in them.

This is an overhead view of the plant

This is a Google Maps overhead view of the plant

In the picture above you can see two white round circles just right of the center of the picture.  These are the oil tanks.  The long line running from the coalyard to the plant is called 10 and 11 conveyors.  They carry the coal from the crusher to the plant.  The truck from Oklahoma City turned left on the road from the right side of the plant by the tanks.  I was about halfway up this road when they drove by.

After they turned the corner, they parked their truck under the conveyor.  You can see this area clearly in the first picture of the plant above taken from across the intake.  All three occupants climbed out of the truck and walked into the field.  They were all looking around as if they knew something was out there and were trying to find it.

My curiosity was definitely stirred by now, so as I walked by their truck, without saying anything, I gave Julia a funny look.  She looked at the other two as if she should say something.  Finally one of them said, “There has been an oil spill right here in this field.  A Diesel oil truck spilled a bunch of oil here and it’s going to be flowing into that drain over there and if it does, it’s going to end up in the lake.”

I could see that obviously there was no oil in the field.  Now that I think about it, the third person may have been Chris McAlister.  He had worked on the labor crew at our plant before the downsizing.  He was given a job in the safety department and had been assigned to track hazard materials for the company.

Julia said that this is a drill for the Hazwoper team at the plant.  In a few minutes they are going to sound the alarm that an oil spill has taken place, and they are going to see how long it takes for the Hazwoper team to arrive and alleviate the problem.  Julia grinned again, because she knew that I was a member of the hazwoper team.

The word Hazwoper is an acronym that stands for “Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Rescue”.  Our team was the “ER” in HAZWOPER.  We were the Emergency Rescue team.  Julia told me to just go about doing what I’m doing.  In a few minutes they would sound the alarm.

I walked over to the Intake Switchgear.  This is the little building next to the road at the very bottom of the picture above taken from the smoke stack.  This was my first stop when checking out the overhead crane.  Since the crane wasn’t working, I wanted to make sure that the power to the crane was turned on before assuming that there was a more complicated problem.  You would be surprised sometimes.  Those are best problems to solve.  Just close the breaker and the problem is solved.

Instead of checking the breaker to the crane, I was more interested in the Gray Phone on the wall by the door.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

This was our PA system.  You could page someone on it and wherever you were in the plant, you could usually find the nearest gray phone and immediately be in touch with the person you were trying to find.  At this point, we all carried radios, so we rarely needed to use the gray phones.

We kept the Gray Phones around for safety reasons.  There were some places where the radios didn’t work well.  At this moment, I didn’t want to talk on the radio where anyone could listen. — well, they could on the gray phone, but only if they went to one and picked it up and turned to the same channel.

I paged George Pepple, our head Chemist and the Doctor that did the Jig in the puddle of acid 17 years earlier in the Water Treatment plant.  See the Post “A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“.  Doctor George was also the leader of the Hazwoper team.

When George answered the phone, I told him about the oil spill drill that was about to happen.  Julia had told me to go about doing what I was doing, but she hadn’t told me not to tell anyone, so…  I did.  I explained to him that the Hazwoper team was about to be called to respond to an oil spill by the intake.  We will need some oil absorbing floats to put around the pipe where the drain in the field empties into the intake.  We also needed something to block the drain so that the oil won’t go down the drain in the first place.

George understood and I left him to it.  A few minutes later, a call came over the radio that the Hazwoper team was required at the intake to respond to a Diesel Oil Spill.  It’s interesting, but even though I was anticipating the call, when it came over the radio, a lump of excitement went up in my throat.  I become emotional over the silliest things some times.

I left my tool bucket in the switchgear, and took only my radio as I jogged back to the three people standing in the field.  About the same time that I arrived, Dr. George pulled up with a truckload of Hazwoper Heroes.  They piled out of the back of the truck and began spreading out oil booms to catch the oil before it went down the drain.  A couple headed for the intake, but the Safety team said that wouldn’t be necessary.  I can remember Ray Eberle, Randy Dailey and Brent Kautzman being there.  There were others.  They can leave a comment below to remind me.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

The final result of the Hazwoper Oil Spill Drill was that our Plant Hazwoper team was able to respond to the oil spill in four minutes.  Much faster than any other plant.  Of course, this was partly because I happened to be in the right place at the right time.  The Safety Team said that was perfectly all right.  The drill was setup so it took place during the normal operation of the plant, and I just happened to be working nearby that day.

I know this isn’t what you were waiting to hear.  I know that you are sitting at the edge of your seat wondering if I’m ever going to tell you what was wrong with the overhead crane.  Well.  It wasn’t as simple as turning the power back on.  Actually, when it came down to it.  We didn’t even have a wiring diagram or a schematic of how the overhead crane worked.

an overhead crane. The gray panels on the far side is where the controls were found

an overhead crane. The gray panels on the far side is where the controls were found

So, I took a bunch of notes in my 3 x 5 handy dandy pocket-sized Sparco Notepad:

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

After I made my way back to the plant, I went pulled out a ruler, and a blueprint stencil

Electric Symbol Stencil

Electric Symbol Stencil

and I drew the following wiring diagram for the Crane Hoist Controls:

Intake Crane control Circuit

Intake Crane control Circuit

After troubleshooting the controls with Charles Foster, it turned out that the problem was in the push button controls.  A button was malfunctioning and needed to be fixed.

Push button controls for the Overhead crane

Push button controls for the Overhead crane

Anyway, not long after the Hazwoper Spill Test, our Confined Space Rescue team was also tested.  We received a call that someone was down in the Truck scales and had passed out.  The Confined Space Rescue team was called to rescue them.

This consisted of taking our equipment bags with us and arriving at the truck scales to rescue a person that had climbed down inside and had passed out.  When we arrived, we found that this was only a drill.  The Safety department from Oklahoma City was testing our Confined Space Rescue team to see how long it took us to respond.

I could point out in the overhead picture of the plant exactly where the truck scales are, but it would take a long time.  Let me just say that they are in the upper left part of the picture where that road looks like it widens at the corner where that smaller road branches off to the upper left.

Our response time?  Four minutes and 30 seconds.  And this time, we didn’t know this one was coming.

About being in the right place at the right time…. I was in the right place when I first became a summer help at the plant.  I was in the right place when Charles Foster asked me if I would think about becoming an electrician.  I was in the right place when I was on Labor Crew and the electricians had a opening in their shop.  But most of all, I was in the right place in history to be able to spend 20 years of my life with such a great bunch of Power Plant Men and Women at the best power plant in the country.

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

If you have been following my posts for very long, you may have the idea that I just like to write posts about spiders.  After writing two posts about Spider Wars (see posts:  “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement” and “Power Plant Spider Wars II – The Phantom Menace“), another post about spiders just seems like a bit much.  Even though there is a spider in this story, another appropriate title could be something like “Another night in the Life of a Power Plant Electrician”.  Without further ado, here is the story.

Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma calling.  I don’t remember a time when the Shift Supervisor on the other end of the phone wasn’t very polite.  They knew they were waking someone from their sleep to ask them to drive 30 miles out to the plant in the wee hours of the morning.

The Shift Supervisor, whether it was Joe Gallahar, Jim Padgett, Jack Maloy, or Gary Wright, they would all start out with something like, “Hey, sorry to wake you buddy…”.  After such an apologetic introduction, how could you be upset that your sleep had just been interrupted?  Then they would proceed to tell you why they needed your assistance.  For me, it was usually because the coal dumper had stopped working while a train was dumping their coal.  This meant that 110 cars tied to three or four engines was sitting idle unable to move.

Each car on the train would be dumped one at a time as it was pulled through the rotary dumper.  The process was automated so that the operator in the control room watching out of the window only had to push one switch to dump each car.

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

The train would move forward to the next car automatically as a large arm on a machine called a Positioner would come down on the coupling between the cars and pull the entire train forward to the next car.

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner  It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

There were so many moving parts involved in positioning the car in place and rolling it over to dump the coal, that it was common for something to go wrong.  When that happened the entire process would come to a halt and the train would just have to sit there until someone came to fix it.  That was usually an electrician since the dumper and the positioner was all controlled by relays much like the elevator controls, only more complicated.

This particular night, Joe Gallahar had called me.  It seemed that there was an intermittent problem with the dumper that didn’t seem to make much sense and they couldn’t figure out why it was acting so strange.  One of the train cars had actually been damaged as the positioner arm would start coming up from the coupling to the point where the holding arm on the other end of the dumper had come up, then the positioner arm began going back down, causing the train to move on it’s own only to have the arm on the positioner scrape the side of the train car as it rolled backward uncontrolled.

Though it was less frequent, it was not so strange to have a train damaged by erratic dumper controls.  I have seen the side of a train car smashed in by the positioner arm when it decided to inappropriately come down.  This night, the problem was acting like that.  So, instead of damaging the train further, they decided to call me out to have a look at it.

I always had the philosophy when being called out in the middle of the night to be just as polite back to the Shift Supervisor when I answered the phone.  I had a Marketing professor at Oklahoma State University named Dr. Lee Manzer, who explained this one day.

Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —

Dr. Manzer told a story in class one day about how he was travelling home one day from a long and difficult trip where everything had gone wrong.  It was very late at night when he arrived at his house (which, incidentally was just down the street from my parent’s house), he was really beat.  He went into his bedroom and began preparing for bed.

About the time he was taking off his tie, his wife rolled over in bed and welcomed him home.  Then she said, “Oh, by the way.  I forgot to buy milk (or maybe it was ice cream).  Do you think you could run down to the store and buy some?”

Dr. Manzer explained his decision making process at that point like this:  “I could either go on a rant and tell my wife what a long and tiring day I had just had and now you are asking me to go buy milk? , and then I would go get the milk.  Or I could say, ‘Of course Dear.  I would be glad to go buy some milk.’  Either way, I was going to go buy the milk.  So, I could do it one of two ways.  I could complain about it or I could be positive.  I could either score points or lose them…. hmm…. Let’s see…. what did I do?  I said, ‘Of course Dear.'”

— End of the side story about Dr. Lee Manzer who by the way was a terrific Marketing Professor.  I understand he still teaches to this day.

So, when Joe Gallahar called me that night, and explained that the dumper was acting all erratic, Instead of saying “Yes Dear.”  as that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I told him, “No problem.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.”  My wife Kelly knew who was on the other end of the phone when she heard my answer.  She had heard it many times before.  I usually only had to say one word after hanging up the phone, “Dumper”, and she knew what that meant.

A Power Plant Electrician’s spouse knows that this is part of the job.  As I pulled on the jeans that I had laid out before I went to bed, Kelly would usually say something in her sleep like, “Be careful”.  I would give her a hug and tell her I’ll be back in a while, even though, sometimes I would be gone for two days working on the precipitator during a start up or some major catastrophe.  Usually, it was just a couple of hours before I came crawling back in bed.

This particular night I drove to work in silence with the window open so that the cool air would keep me awake.  Normally I had the radio on some rock station so that I would be singing along (in my terribly off-key singing voice) in order to stay awake.  Sometimes I would just take the 25 minutes of silence to just think.

My thought that night was that it was nice to be wanted.  There is some comfort in knowing that the Shift Supervisor could call me with enough confidence to know that I would be able to come out on my own and fix a problem that was costing the company a large amount of money each hour the dumper was offline.  Some might think that I would be annoyed to be wakened in the middle of the night to go fix something at the plant.  That night, as most nights I was feeling honored.

That wasn’t always the case, and I’ll soon write a post about another call out in the middle of the night where Scott Hubbard and I wondered exactly why they called us… but that’s another story.

When I arrived at the plant, I rolled my car up to the speaker at the front gate and said, “Hello” with an arrogant English accent.  I don’t know why, but I always liked doing that.  I think it was Billy Epperson who answered back.  I told him I was here to work on the dumper.  He thanked me and opened the gate and I drove the 1/2 mile down the hill to the plant parking lot.  As I went over hill, in the moonlight I could see the train up at the coal yard looking like a long silver snake.

I walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a truck key off of the hook and drove around to the electric shop to pick up my hard hat and tool bucket.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

I took the long way around to the coal yard since the train blocked the shortest route.  We had a tunnel on the west end of the coal yard that went under the tracks for just this occasion.

When I arrived at the dumper, Stanley Robbins explained that he had tried troubleshooting this problem himself, but he couldn’t find anything that would explain the strange behavior.  Since the last downsizing, we were all able to sort of mix our skills so that an operator could do simple electric tasks if they felt comfortable with it.  Stanley knew enough to fix your normal minor dumper issues.  This one was a little different.

Since I had been an electrician for the past 15 years at this point, I felt pretty confident that I would quickly find the problem and be heading back home soon.  So, I walked into the dumper switchgear where the dumper controls are found.  I asked Stanley to go turn on the power to the dumper so that I could watch the relays.  When the power was on, I began tracing the circuits looking for the point of failure.

The problem was intermittent, and when Stanley started the dumper back up, everything seemed to be working just fine.  Stanley explained that this was why they couldn’t use the dumper because they couldn’t be sure when it was going to malfunction.  They had even uncoupled the train and pulled it apart right where the positioner arm was so that I could see what was happening.

Using radios (walkie talkies), I asked Stanley to move the positioner arm up and down while I checked it.  He lowered it and raised it back up without any problem.  When he began lowering it the second time, it suddenly stopped halfway down.  Watching the controls, I could see that it indicated that it had come all the way down.  It would be this case that would tell the holding arm on the far side of the dumper to go back up, which is what happened when the train rolled back earlier that night.

Then the relays rattled like they were picking up and dropping out rapidly.  Then the problem cleared up again.  Somehow the positioner arm had thought it had come down on the car clamps when it was still up in the air.  That was not likely to happen because when something fails it usually doesn’t see what it’s supposed to see, not the other way around.  It doesn’t usually see something that isn’t there.

So, I had Stanley lower the positioner arm down so that it was level with the ground, so that I could check the connections to the electric eye that was on the positioner clamp that detected the train car clamp when it came down.  I couldn’t find any lose connections or anything that would explain it.

So I told Stanley that I was going to look up from under the car clamp to look at the electric eye.  So, I asked him to kill the power to the positioner so that it wouldn’t move while I was doing that and crush me like a bug.  Kneeling on the train track, I took my flashlight and looked up at the electric eye from under the car clamp, and this is what I saw:

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

This spider had built a spider web in front of the electric eye on the positioner and was sitting right in the middle causing the positioner to think it was down on the car clamp when it wasn’t.  Stanley was watching me from the window of the dumper control room when he saw me stand up quickly and look up at him with a big grin on my face.  I gave him a thumbs up.

You know the phrase, “Everyone has 10 minutes of fame….”  It indicates that some time in most people’s lives they are famous for a brief moment.  It may or may not define the rest of their life.  Well.  This was that spiders claim to fame.  This one spider had successfully stranded a coal train with 110 cars of coal.  A train crew, a coal yard operator, and one lone electrician that had traveled 30 miles to watch it act out it’s drama of catching gnats on it’s web being constantly watched by one large electric eye.

I did not drive home in silence that early morning.  I laughed out loud all the way home.  I still laugh to myself to this day when I think about this night.  Phrases like, “Isn’t life wonderful” comes to my mind.  Or “Even Spiders desire attention every now and then.”  Could there have been a better malfunction than to have a spider dancing in front of an electric eye out in the plains of Oklahoma saying, “Look at me!  Look at me!”  and by golly.  Someone did!  I’m just glad it was me.