Originally posted July 19, 2013:
In another profession being put on light duty may mean that you don’t have to work as hard as everyone else. When an electrician is put on light duty it means something else entirely. I think I calculated the number of lights and it was well over 10,000 light bulbs in the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma. Ideally you would think that every one of the lights should be in good working order.
Electricians don’t call a light bulb a light. The light is the fixture. The bulb is called a “lamp”. So, for the rest of this post I’ll call the light bulbs “lamps”.
You may think that it’s pretty straight forward to go change out lights (oh. I mean… lamps), but it’s not. You see, it isn’t like in your house where you have the regular light bulbs everywhere with just different shapes and wattage. Sure, there were different Watts for the different lamps, but for a good number of the lights, they varied by voltage as well.
Not only that, but these lamps were different types of lights. Most of which are not incandescent (well… now that the government has seen fit to force the lighting industry to stop making incandescent lamps altogether, I guess it wouldn’t seem odd to the younger folks).
In the office areas and places like the main switchgear 4 foot fluorescent lamps were used. Each 4 foot fluorescent lamp is 40 watts. Just because it is 40 watts, it doesn’t mean that the voltage is low. It can take up to 650 volts to start up a fluorescent lamp. A Fluorescent lamp actually has a gas in it that causes a coating on the glass to glow when a current flows across the gas.
Besides the typical fluorescent lamps, the majority of the rest of the lamps in the plant were various sizes of Mercury Vapor lamps. (now replaced with Sodium Vapor).
Before you become all twisted about using Mercury Vapor to light up a power plant because of the environmental impact, I think I should point out that even though a fluorescent lamp is filled with an inert gas like argon, it is mixed with Mercury vapor as well, and the phosphorous coating on the glass has mercury in it also.
So, if you have fluorescent lamps in your house…. Well, there you go. And you know those lamps that are used to replace your old incandescent light bulbs….. Yep… and they have other kinds of hazardous metals as well. I suppose it is good for the environment to take those hazardous materials out of the earth and put them in lamps in your houses. Isn’t that improving the environment?
The thing about using Fluorescent lamps and Mercury Vapors and Sodium Vapor lamps is that they all use different voltages. So, in order for them to start up and stay running, the voltages have to change from the start up voltage to the operating voltage. Each lamp has it’s own transformer designed just for that one type of lamp. It is placed in the light fixture for the lamp.
If the light glows blue, then it is mercury vapor. If it is orange then it is a sodium light. Your street lights are the same way. Well. Now there is also Halogen lamps which shine white.
Besides these different type lamps, we also had some super special lights. We have the flashing lights on the smoke stack and the red blinking light on the top of the radio tower. The lights that flash on the smoke stacks are really flashbulbs.
Our smoke stacks are 500 feet tall with beacons at the 250 foot level and the 500 foot level. Not only did you have to change out the bulb, but you often had to change out the large capacitors and the circuit boards that had been fried by a passing lightning storm.
You may have heard that with the older style Television sets that had a picture tube (before the flat screen TVs came around), that you could electrocute yourself by taking the cover off the back of the TV and working on it, even though you unplugged the set from the wall before you started. A few movies used this in the plot. Robert T. Ironside even used it once in an episode during the first season.
Well. The Stack lights are like that. When we opened up the light fixture to work on the flash tube or the circuits inside the first thing you did was take a metal rod with a wooden handle and a wire attached with a clip on the end and clipped the wire to the handrail. Then turning your head the other way, you placed the metal rod across each of the large capacitors in the box. Invariably, one of the capacitors would let out a loud pop (or should I spell that “pow!”) that would echo across the lake…. oh, and leave your ears ringing.
Once the voltage was discharged from all the capacitors, you knew it was safe to go to work fixing the light. The lights had a day and a night mode, and the difference was how many times the flash tube flashed when it discharged. What I mean to say is that it wasn’t just one flash. It is really a series of flashes closely timed to look like one flash. The number of flashes and the timing between the flashes determine how bright the flash is.
At night the flash was much dimmer because it didn’t need to be so bright. When it was stuck in the day mode at night the farmers for a 30 mile radius would be calling saying they can’t sleep because every 6 seconds their bedroom would light up as the smoke stack lights would blink.
I thought I would just put that picture in there so you could see how pretty the plant looked from across the lake at sunset. To me it looked like a big ship on the horizon.
I mentioned above that there was a radio tower that had a light on it that needed to be changed when it burned out. The actual lamp looked a lot like a regular incandescent bulb in your house, but it was different. It was designed just for this job. It didn’t burn out very often. Ok. I can see your look of disbelief, so here is a picture of one:
Yeah, looks just like something in your house. Doesn’t it?
Anyway. I changed out the light at the top of our radio tower which is only about 200 feet tall. It looked like the following picture:
I had to climb to the top of this tower to replace the red flashing light. I was by myself when I did it. Bill Bennett handed me the bulb that had been specially ordered and asked me if I would do it. If not, they could call Oklahoma City and have the line crew come down and change it. I told him I could do it. The tower wasn’t that tall, and I had shimmied around the top of the smoke stack before at 500 feet with only a slight urge to panic.
I changed the lamp out without incident. I know that some people have a much more interesting job changing these lights out than I had. Our radio tower was only 200 feet tall. Here is a video of someone that had to climb a tower 1768 feet high. You can see the beacon when they reach the top of this radio tower:
if your browser doesn’t play the video from the picture try this link: “Climbing a 1768 foot tower“.
Ok. That is crazy! Wouldn’t dropping someone from a helicopter onto the tower using a safety line be safer?
My last story about being on light duty at a power plant is about when Ted Riddle and I were working at the gas-fired power plant near Mustang, Oklahoma. I talked about the time that Ted and I worked at this plant in the post “Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark”
While we were there after they found out that we were electric conduit running fools, they gave us all sorts of jobs running conduit all over the plant. One job they showed us was in an area that was dark. All the lights were out in this area. The foreman explained where the light bulbs were kept. They were just the regular incandescent lights like the normal lights you would have in your house.
Well… Ted and I had both been put on Light Duty at our plant, and we knew that when we went to change out one light, we were supposed to change out all the lights that were out. So, Ted and I each grabbed a box and a ladder and headed up to the boiler enclosure to change lights.
After lunch, the foreman came running up to us yelling, “What did you do? You used up all of the light bulbs!” Well. Yes. We had used up the lights, but now when you go up on the boiler you can see where you are going. The foreman then explained to us that this little plant didn’t have the same kind of budget that the new big plants had. They couldn’t afford to just go around replacing all the lights whenever they burned out. They only put in a light when someone has to work in that area. We had lit the entire place up like a Christmas tree.
Ok. Take a note Jan… Don’t replace all the lights if they are incandescent.
Ok (again), that wasn’t quite the last story. Let me tell you some more about replacing Fluorescent lamps in our Coal-fired power plant. When we were placed on Light Duty, we would grab a couple of boxes of 30 lamps from the pallet in the main switchgear and go to work.
In the main switchgear the lights were up high, so we used a 10 foot ladder with a stand on the top of it (No. I don’t mean like a Deer stand…. geez… Power Plant men…. always thinkin’ ’bout huntin’). Actually it is called a Platform ladder:
I didn’t like using this wobbly ladder when I was by myself. besides being wobbly, the thing weighed a ton. So, I would take a smaller ladder and put it on top of the breaker cabinets and climb on top of them. The only problem here was that I couldn’t get directly under the lights, so I would end up reaching out to one side to change a light while I was standing on a ladder on top of a seven foot cabinet. Not a pretty sight if someone safety minded walked in.
I felt safer doing this than standing way up in the air on a 10 foot wobbly platform ladder. I always had the feeling that if I sneezed, the ladder would topple over. The rule of thumb was to keep your belt buckle within the rungs on the ladder.
When we were done changing out fluorescent lamps, we usually had a stack of boxes of burned out lamps. We couldn’t just throw them in the dumpster because they were a safety hazard as they were. We had to break each bulb. We found that we could take a box of 4 foot fluorescent lamps and back the truck over it and it would let out a low but loud boom that sounded like a cannon going off.
The ingenious electricians invented a bulb busting barrel where you slid one 4 foot bulb into a tube and then lifted a handle quickly, and it would explode the lamp in the safe confines of the metal barrel. The end of the lamp may at times come shooting out the end of the tube, so you never wanted to be standing to that side of the barrel. I would show you a picture of one, but I’ve never found another one like it.
So, if you were into breaking glass, this was the best part of being placed on Light Duty. After a hard day of changing out lamps all over the plant, you could stand around in front of the electric shop and slide the lamps down a tube like mortar shell and pull the rod and…. Boom! A puff of Mercury Vapor released into the atmosphere a small cloud of dust…. repeat.
Comment from original post:
Originally Posted July 26, 2013:
I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.
This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.
As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.
At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.
Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.
David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.
During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).
So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.
This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.
Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:
Or even a normal rat like this:
No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:
Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….
Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.
If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.
You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.
So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.
Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.
There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.
There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.
We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.
By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.
I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.
I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.
I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”
That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.
I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.
There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.
I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.
Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.
Comment from previous post:
Originally posted October 25, 2015.
It was no secret at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was Catholic. When I was a summer help and working on the labor crew, I wore a large crucifix under my tee shirt. I had worn the crucifix since I was 13 years old.
When I joined the electric shop I had to take it off. Electricians should not wear any kind of metal jewelry for the obvious reason that if it were to come into contact with a “hot” circuit, the effect would be the same as if I wrapped the live electric wire around my neck. In other words… I could easily have been electrocuted.
In place of the crucifix, I wore a Scapular instead. Wearing a cord around my neck was unsafe enough, but it didn’t take much for the cord to break away from the piece of cloth on either end.
So, as I said, most everyone at the plant knew that I was Catholic. It was common for someone to see the cloth with the picture on it sticking out the back of my tee shirt and ask me, “What is that around your neck with the postage stamp on it?” I usually hesitated to answer the question because I understood that living in Oklahoma where there was only a 5% Catholic population, the Catholic Church was greatly misunderstood and I really didn’t want to enter a lengthy discussion about why Catholics do what they do.
Diana Brien (my bucket buddy) helped me out one day when someone asked me why I wore the scapular, and I was hesitating trying to decide if they wanted a short answer or a long one, when Diana broke in and said, “It’s a Catholic thing.” I quickly agreed. “Yeah. It’s a Catholic thing. It reminds me to be good. I need all the reminders I can get. Sort of like ‘Catholic Protection’.”
Before I discuss what a Power Plant Catholic has to do with checking Cathodic Protection, let me just add that though I wasn’t the only Catholic at the plant, I was sort of the “Token” Catholic. Which meant, when someone wanted a straight answer about what the Catholic Church believes about any subject, I was the person that they turned to for answers.
Living in the midst of the Bible Belt, Monday mornings is when most of the questions would be asked. Preachers from various religions would occasionally say something during their Church service about Catholics and their “strange” beliefs. So, the next day, some would come to me to hear the other side of the story.
I will list a few questions…. “Why do Catholics say, ‘Hell Mary’?” “Is it true that the Pope has 666 on his Tiara?” “Is it true that Catholics are not able to say the entire ‘Our Father’?” “Are Catholics really against abortion because they need newborn babies to sacrifice in the basement of their Church?” “Is it true that Catholics can’t say for sure that they are going to heaven?” Aren’t Catholics cannibals by believing they are eating the real Body and Blood of Jesus?” “Don’t Catholics believe that they can do anything wrong they want because they know that they can just go to confession and have it forgiven?”
These are all actual questions I was asked when I was an electrician at the power plant. I understood why the Power Plant Men were asking me the questions, and I respectfully answered them. I would rather they felt comfortable asking me these questions than just going around thinking that I was some kind of barbaric pagan behind my back.
By feeling free to talk to me about being Catholic, I knew that I was respected by the Power Plant Men even though I was from a religion that they viewed as far from their own. There was one day when this became obvious to me.
I was on the second landing on Unit 2 boiler just about to enter the boiler enclosure when Floyd Coburn walked out. He was nicknamed “Coal Burner” partly because he was black, and partly because he worked in the coal yard for a long time, but mostly because his last name was Coburn which sounds a lot like Coal Burner. Someone figured that out one day, and called him that, and it stuck. When Floyd came out of the enclosure he stopped me. He tapped me on the arm and signaled for me to follow him.
We stepped out of the walkway a short distance and he held out his fist in front of me. Floyd was built like a wrestler. Actually, he was State Champion of the 148 lb weight class for 4A High Schools in Oklahoma in 1972 and 1973. This meant a lot because in Oklahoma, Wrestling was an important sport. He also had earned an associates degree at Rogers State College in Claremore.
Not once did I ever hear Floyd Coburn brag about his accomplishments, or even mention them. I suspect that few people if any knew much about Floyd’s background because as much fun as he was to work with, he was very humble, as are most True Power Plant Men.
Floyd was grinning at me as if he was about to show me a trick or a joke or something. Then he opened his fist. In the middle of his palm he held a small crucifix. The size of one on a typical rosary.
When I saw the cross I looked up at Floyd and he was grinning ear-to-ear. I gave him a puzzled looked. Then he told me. “I found Jesus! I just wanted you to know. I know you would understand.”
I felt very privileged that Floyd felt like sharing his experience with me. I thanked him for letting me know. I patted him on the shoulder and we went on our way.
Throughout the years after that, Floyd would set me down every now and then and share how he was expanding his faith with Jesus. He finally became a minister and re-opened a Church in Ponca City where his family used to worship when he was a boy. Floyd was the Pastor of the Broken Heart Ministers Church.
I always felt blessed that he came to me to tell me about his journey. The last time I talked with Floyd Coburn was around Christmas, 2005. I had dropped in at the plant to say hello while I was visiting Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Floyd wanted to talk to me about the progress he was making as Pastor of the Church in Ponca City. He explained the troubles he was having and asked for my prayers. He felt as if the devil was fighting against him. I assured him I have always kept him in my prayers.
One day around the end of October 2006, I felt compelled to write to the plant about a Power Plant Man David Hankins, who had died after my first summer as a summer help in 1979. I have always remembered him on November 1, All Saints Day, because I know that he’s in heaven as he had a tremendous heart.
I hadn’t written to the plant for some time. When I did, I received a couple of e-mails back telling me that Floyd Coburn had died on August 25 during his son’s birthday party. He died of a sudden heart attack.
Though I felt very sorrowful for Floyd’s family because of the circumstance surrounding his death, I felt a great relief for Floyd. I know he had a great desire to be united with Jesus Christ.
So. Now that I discussed some of my experience as a Catholic at the Power Plant, let me tell you about Cathodic Protection (that is not a misspelling of ‘Catholic Protection’).
Have you ever noticed on a car battery how one post is more shiny, than the other post? Especially after it has been in your car for a while. It’s not real noticeable so you may not have realized it. The shiny post is the Cathode or Positive post. Well. Cathodic Protection is just that.
You see the main ingredient besides Power Plant Men at a Power Plant is Iron. The boilers are almost entirely made from the stuff. There are underground and above ground pipes running all over the place. Well. You can paint most of the iron that is above the ground to keep it from rusting, but it doesn’t work very well when you bury the pipes and structure in the dirt.
So, how do you protect your investment? The answer is by using Cathodic Protection. There is a grounding grid made of copper wires buried in the dirt that ties to all the metal objects around the plant grounds. This not only helps absorb things like lightening strikes, but it also allows for the seemingly miraculous anti-rust system known as “Cathodic Protection”.
This is how Cathodic Protection works… You bury a large piece of metal in the dirt and you tie a negative DC (direct current) power source to it. Then you tie the positive power to the grounding grid. By creating a positive charge on the boiler structure and the piping you inhibit rusting, while you enhance the corrosion on the large piece of buried metal with the negative charge.
A nifty trick if you ask me. The only thing about using cathodic protection is that you have to keep an eye on it because the large piece of buried metal will eventually need to be replaced, or the charge will need to be adjusted as it decays in order to protect all the other metal in the plant.
The Power Plant doesn’t just have one source for cathodic protection. There are numerous boxes placed around the plant that protected a specific set of equipment and buildings. So, when it came time to do Cathodic Protection checks, we would go to each station and take readings. If there were anomalies in the readings then someone would be alerted, and tap settings may be adjusted. In extreme cases, the large piece of metal would need to be replaced with a new one…. Though I never saw that happen.
Once I understood the concept of how Cathodic Protection worked I came to the conclusion that what Catholic Protection was doing for me, Cathodic Protection was doing for the Power Plant. It was helping to prevent corrosion.
If you don’t keep a close watch on how well your Cathodic Protection is doing, then you won’t realize when it needs to be re-calibrated. I have found the same thing applies with how well I am doing as a person. Sometimes I find I need to do a little adjustment to keep myself in line…
When checking a Cathodic Protection rectifier, when you use your multimeter to check the voltages, you have to put your leads and usually your hands into a container of transformer oil. This is somewhat messy and unpleasant. But we realize that it is something that just has to be done. We may wear latex disposable gloves to help keep our hands from soaking in the oil, but inevitably, I would end up dripping some on my jeans.
It’s the same way when trying to adjust myself to be a better person. It seems a little unpleasant at first, but you know it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s swallowing your pride. Sometimes it’s admitting that you are wrong. Sometimes it is just getting off your duff and stop being so lazy.
This is why I always felt so honored working with such True Power Plant Men. They were the ones that, even though they struggled in their individual lives like the rest of us, they always kept their mind on what was right and used that as a guide to make the right decisions.
Originally posted February 8, 2014:
After the downsizing in 1987 some new engineers were assigned to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I wasn’t used to an engineer actually pausing to listen to what I was saying. I remember the first time I said something sort of out of the ordinary and Doug Link stopped and asked me why I thought that. The usual response was to roll their eyes as if I was some dumb electrician that almost knew how to lace my boots correctly… Ok… Lacing your boots isn’t as easy as it looks…. especially when you put them on in the dark in the morning before you leave the house.
Now, before you think “Front to Back and Back to Front” has to do with lacing up my boots, you are mistaken.
Back to Doug Link. I was surprised when he actually stopped and asked me to explain myself. I know I had said something that had sounded a little bombastic, but what I believed to be true anyway. So, I sat down and explained it to him. It was something that ran contrary to what a person might think was logical. Once I explained it to him, he said he understood what I meant. — Wow. What kind of new engineers are they breeding out there (I thought). Well he did go to Missouri University at the same time I did, we just didn’t know each other at the time.
Another engineer that showed up at the plant was Toby O’Brien. Even the maintenance department recognized right away that Toby would listen to you. Not only would he listen to the crazy rantings of an electrician like me, but he would also ask advice from mechanics! And… (now brace yourself for this) Welders! I believe that if he could corner a janitor, he probably would have listened to them as well…. because… well… I was just a janitor pretending to be an electrician, and he listened to me all the time.
So, what does this all have to do with “Front to Back and Back to Front”? Well. Almost nothing. Except that these new engineers knew about a secret that we were all keeping from George Bohn, another engineer that I talked about in the post “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer” In that post we had kept from George that the computer had an extra drive partitioned on the hard drive for a while. In this post, I will talk about a much more significant secret (at least in George’s eyes).
With the reorganization Terry Blevins worked on one precipitator and I worked on the other.
For those of you who don’t know, the precipitator is what takes the “smoke” out of the exhaust from the boiler so that it can be collected in hoppers and sent up to the coalyard to silos where trucks would come and haul it away to make highways.
The electric Supervisor Tom Gibson thought that a little competition would be good between the two teams to see who could make their precipitator work the best. Only it didn’t work out that way. Terry had one way of doing things and I had a completely opposite way of approaching a problem. Terry would study a problem. Analyze it, and do everything he could to understand what was going on. Then he would go out and make a major change. I on the other hand would make incremental small changes and observe the effects. Then work toward what seemed to work best.
Between the two of us approaching a problem from completely different points of view, we were able to come up with solutions that apart I don’t think either of us would have ever thought about. So, we became a team instead.
Now for the boring part of the story. I am going to explain Back to Front….. With the new digital controls, we could set up the controls so that each of the 84 precipitator transformers could be backed down one KV (kilovolt) at a time in order from the front cabinets to the back ones. Then it would start from the front again backing the power on the cabinets down slightly each time. — I know this is boring. The front of the precipitator is where the exhaust enters the precipitator. The back is where the exhaust leaves the precipitator.
The cabinets would do this until the amount of ash going out of the smoke stack hit a certain limit that was 1/4 of the legal limit (the legal limit was 20% opacity. So, we controlled the cabinets to keep the opacity at 5%). Opacity is the amount of light that is blocked by the ash coming out of the smokestack.
Well, if the opacity went too high (say 6.5%) the back cabinets would start powering all the way back up, and it would work its way toward the front of the precipitator from the back until the opacity went down below the set limit. — sound good? Well… after running this way for a while we realized that this wasn’t so good.
What ended up happening was that the front cabinets which normally collected 90% of the ash were always powered down and the back cabinets were powered up, because they would power up each time the opacity would spike. So the ash collection was shifted from the front to the back. This meant that if there was a puff of ash going out of the stack, it probably came from the back of the precipitator and there wasn’t anything that could be done to stop it.
We asked George if we could reverse the Front to Back powering down of the cabinets so that it went from Back to Front. That way the back of the precipitator would be powered down most of the time and the front would be powered up. This would keep the back half of the precipitator clean and if there was a need to power them up because of some disturbance in the boiler, the back of the precipitator would be in good shape to handle the extra ash.
George, however, insisted that since the EPA had tested the precipitator with the new controls when they were setup to go from front to back, we couldn’t risk changing it, or the EPA could come back and make us put scrubbers on the plant. We were grandfathered into not needing scrubbers and we didn’t want to go through that mess and cost that would have raised electric rates for everyone.
This was frustrating because we could easily see that every hour or so we would be sending big puffs out of the smokestack on the account of the inherent flaw of backing the cabinets down using a Front to back method. Even though we knew the engineers would blow their top if they found out, we called the EPA one day and asked them about it. The EPA said they didn’t care as long as the precipitator wasn’t physically being altered and we were adjusting the controls to maximize operations.
So, one day when I was in the Precipitator Control Room, I walked over the main processor unit in the middle of the room where the seven sections of 12 cabinets each plugged in. I took the A row cable and swapped it with G. I took B and swapped it with F, C and swapped it with E. D I just left it where it was since it was in the middle.
Then I walked to each Cabinet in a section and swapped the eeprom chip from cabinet 1 and put it in 12. And from cabinet 2 and put it in 11, and so on. Without leaving the precipitator control room, I had just changed the order of the cabinets backing down from “Front to Back” to “Back to Front”. As far as the control room was concerned, nothing changed (unless you looked closely at the voltages on the cabinets on the computer. The front cabinets usually were around 30kv while the back were closer to 45kv).
So, now that the cabinets were backing down from back to front, everything worked a lot smoother. No more hourly puffs and wild power swings as cabinets were released. As long as George didn’t know, he was happy. The precipitator suddenly was working very well. So well in fact that one winter while the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator was using only 70 Kilowatts of power and the opacity was well below the 5% threshold.
The space heaters in the precipitator control room were using over 120 kilowatts of power. More than the entire precipitator. This is important because normally the precipitator used more power than any other piece of equipment in the plant. It was not unusual before we had the back down working for one precipitator to use 3 Megawatts of power. That is 3,000 Kilowatts.
Then one day in 1992 an electrical engineer Intern (who later became a full time engineer) came in the precipitator control room with George Bohn while we were calibrating the cabinets one at a time. George began explaining to Steve Wilson how the precipitator controls worked. We were in the front section (G row). George introduced Steve to us and started explaining to him about the back down and how it worked.
Just then, the cabinet that he was showing him powered up. — oops. This was a front row cabinet and in George’s mind, they should be the last to power up. He looked around and could see that the cabinets in F row were still powered down. I thought, “The jig is up.” George said, “That’s not right! That shouldn’t happen!” (Ok George. We’ve only been doing this for 3 years and you are just now noticing?).
So, I asked him what the problem was (knowing full well). He explained that the cabinet in G row had just powered up. — You could tell when a cabinet was powered down because a certain light in the lower left corner of the display would be on. I looked at the cabinet and the Primary current limit light was lit. Obviously not in the back down mode.
So, I said this, “George, this cabinet still is in the back down mode. You just can’t tell because it is also hitting the primary current limit and both lights won’t light up at the same time.” — Geez… I thought…. would he believe this hair brain explanation? George nodded. Then he went on to explain to Steve what I just said to him as if it was something he knew all the time (even though I sort of just made it up).
A short time after Steve and George left, I found Steve and explained to him that we really do power down the precipitator from back to front instead of front to back, because front to back doesn’t work, and I explained to him why it works better and why we don’t tell George Bohn. Steve was another sensible engineer that knew how to listen and learn. I enjoyed the little time I spent working with him.
Well…. The efficiency of the precipitators caught the attention of EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute), and they wanted to come and study our precipitator controls. Not only the back down feature we were using but also a pulse capability that Environmental Controls had that allowed you to power off for so many electric pulses and then power on again.
So, when the EPRI scientists showed up to test our precipitators for a couple of weeks trying the different modes of operation, I knew that it was important for them to really understand how we were operating the precipitators. So, after George had taken them to the computers in the control room and explained the back to front back down mode. I took them aside one at a time and explained to them that even though the computer looked like it was backing down from front to back, it was really backing down from back to front.
I explained to them why we had to do it that way, and I also explained to them why we didn’t let George know about it. They all seemed to understand, and for the next two weeks no one from EPRI let the cat out of the bag.
To this day I don’t think George knew that we had swapped the direction of the back down from “front to back” to “Back to front”. At least not until he reads this post.
Comments from the original post:
Originally Posted February 14, 2014:
There has been reports on the news this week about someone who has been shooting transformers in PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) substations in California. It is interesting that the national news is picking up this story now even though the FBI has been investigating similar attacks since December, and even earlier attacks against PG&E as early as last April, 2013.
These reports always catch my attention because back in the early 1990’s, the electric company where I worked in Oklahoma had their own episode when a shooter was going around shooting at substation transformers, and high voltage electric lines. At that time it was OG&E, not PG&E that was being plagued by someone that seemed to be randomly attacking the electric grid.
Back in early 1993, the first transformer that was shot by a high powered rifle using armor piercing bullets was in the middle of Stillwater Oklahoma near the Pizza Hut on Perkins Road. It is easy to remember the location, because it later became very significant when it came down to finding out who might be responsible.
Much like the reaction in California this week, everyone was alerted to keep a watch for anyone acting suspicious near substations and high voltage electric lines.
I enjoy watching a TV show called Forensic Files. It shows how important facts are collected that finally lead to a conviction of someone who has murdered someone. It is amazing how so many clues are left behind that can be used to prove who is the guilty person.
I suppose the main point that I walk away with after watching a show like this is that criminals are generally pretty stupid. Especially the really smart ones. I guess it’s because if they were really smart, then they wouldn’t have turned to a life of crime in the first place. Maybe it’s like the lazy people that work harder avoiding work than they would if they just did their job.
Of course, working at the Power Plant during this time meant that we were all put on a kind of “high alert”. We were extra suspicious of cars parked down side roads near our plant. Our security guards doubled up a little on their rounds on the lookout for someone suspicious. In a weird way it brought me back to when I was a dishwasher one summer at the Sirloin Stockade in Stillwater.
When I first moved to Stillwater in the Spring of 1978, right out of High School, I went to work as a dishwasher/busboy/cook at the local Sirloin Stockade franchise restaurant. This is not the newer company Sirloin Stockade that is on Perkins road today. No. This one was on the Strip next to the Oklahoma State University campus. It was privately owned.
One night during that summer there was a mass murder committed at a Sirloin Stockade in Oklahoma City after the restaurant had closed. All of the employees had been forced into the freezer and they were all shot in the head. At the time, no one knew the motive. It could have been that the murderer (or murderers) could have been upset with Sirloin Stockades in general.
For the rest of the summer, the manager Ken Low, who also managed a hamburger joint up the street for the same owner, would leave the Sirloin Stockade when the restaurant was just closing at 9:00 to go close the other restaurant. He would leave a young 17 year old boy in charge of closing up the restaurant and getting it ready for when it opened the next morning. Yeah…. That was me.
I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Ken had suddenly gained a lot of confidence in my ability to handle closing the entire restaurant all by myself the same week that the Sirloin Stockade Massacre happened in Oklahoma City. Ken was a friend of mine and I understood him well enough.
Me. I was fearless anyway. I always seemed to be missing that gene. So, I just felt that if some murderer came busting in the back door, I would, of course, defend myself by using the handle of the broom I was using to sweep the floor. Well. I was 17. So, of course I was invincible.
end of side story.
The same question was being asked about the person that was shooting the transformers and high voltage lines. It seemed as if he had a grievance with the electric company. So, when a witness had seen a man going down a remote country road in the same area where a high voltage electric line was shot, and a sketch of a possible suspect was created, they turned to the employees for help.
I wasn’t much help because I lack the imagination to take a composite drawing and extrapolate it into a person that I know. If someone were to draw a picture of me and ask me who I thought it was, I probably wouldn’t have a clue. I guess I lack that gene also.
Other Power Plant Men thought they knew who the drawing depicted. It reminded them of a former employee at the Power Plant. His name was Clyde Bateman. When others told me that, I thought, “Yeah. I suppose it could be him.”
Clyde had been a chemist at the plant. He had been fired a year or two before. It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing his job well. His problem was that some days he just wouldn’t show up for work without leaving any word. It would have been all right if he would have called the plant to let his manager, George Pepple know that he wasn’t going to be able to make it that day. He just wouldn’t say anything until he returned.
Clyde had been given the appropriate number of warnings and was told that if he didn’t show up to work again without leaving word that he wouldn’t be in, he was going to be fired. So, the next time that happened, he was “let go”. No one likes that to happen, because you know that there is some underlying reason for such odd behavior, but we had to keep the plant running, and when you rely on a certain number of employees to keep it going, what can you do?
This by itself wouldn’t make one suspicious that he might turn into someone that would flip his lid and start shooting at electric company assets. The psychological profile looked more like a Timothy McVeigh type character. For those of you who are from other countries that read this blog, Timothy McVeigh was a “homegrown” terrorist that decided to blow up a Federal Building in the middle of Oklahoma City one day (along with a number of other accomplices, most of which have never been identified), and he needlessly killed a lot of innocent people.
I didn’t know Clyde that well, so when others suggested that it might be Clyde, I was skeptical. Then, as the investigation went forward, I learned that Clyde was more like Timothy McVeigh than I had realized. — Well. At the time, no one had heard of Timothy McVeigh, since that hadn’t happened yet.
Power Plant Men that knew him said that he owned some land behind our power plant and he would go out there at times and blow things up. He like high powered rifles and all that. I thought that might be an indication, but it still didn’t convince me. I also liked to blow things up and I would enjoy shooting high powered rifles if I had the opportunity. I’m sure many Power Plant Men would enjoy doing the same.
Remember. This was back when it was still all right to play cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers. This was before eating your Pop-Tart until it was in the shape of gun was never given a second thought. You could even take a Cowboy doll onto a plane with a tiny 1/2 inch plastic gun in the holster without being afraid that the TSA would take it away.
Anyway. It was later discovered that Clyde Bateman lived in a trailer park behind the Braum’s on Perkins Road in Stillwater.
This was important because his trailer was only about 250 yards from the first transformer that had been shot. Ok. With all the other things, this finally convinced me. They were on the right track. I think the OSBI (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation) was on his trail and were keeping close tabs on him. It seems like they even asked us at the plant to not try to contact him or let him know that he was a suspect.
Scott Hubbard, a True Power Plant Electrician was out inspecting the equipment in the substation one day when he noticed a hole in one of the 345KV breaker operating arm enclosures. Scott thought it looked a lot like a bullet hole, so he alerted the control room. The control room contacted the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department to come out and look at it.
Sure enough. It was a bullet hole. The OSBI recovered the bullet from inside the pipe. Luckily where the bullet had entered, it had missed hitting anything that would have damaged the equipment. If the shooter had been a lineman, or an electrician, or from the T&D department, he would have not shot the part that he did. It looked like a critical part if you didn’t know better. So, the shooter was not familiar with the equipment he was shooting. That was clear.
Not only that, but there were much worse targets in the area that would have caused real damage. So, luckily this was not someone who did a lot of homework. It was interesting that the first transformer was only a block away from where Clyde lived, and the last shot was at the plant where he used to work.
The breaker was at a spot where he would have had to know to park on a dirt road a mile away and walk across a field to get the shot that he did. All the plant employees knew that road well. It was where the public had to go if they wanted to fish in the discharge channel where the warm water exits the condensers. The fish like it there.
With all that said, Clyde Bateman was due in court in Ponca City on August 11, 1993. Not for being the shooter that everyone was looking for, but for another offense. I don’t remember exactly what it was. He never showed up. Clyde took his own life that morning. After that day, there were no more shootings associated with this particular shooter. it was understood by the employees at the plant that the matter was behind us now. Business was back to usual.
I mentioned earlier that Clyde turned out to be more of a Timothy McVeigh type than we had originally thought. I didn’t mean that he was that way because he liked guns, because any self respecting Power Plant Man knows that if you care about your family and want to keep them safe, that a handy firearm is the best way to stop an intruder.
Clyde was an activist. I found this out only today when I decided to write about him. I found a very interesting case that the U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit ruled on only two and a half months after Clyde’s death. You see, Clyde had filed a complaint against the Federal Government alleging that the entire body of federal environmental laws were unconstitutional, because its enactment allegedly exceeded the authority granted in the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, and lacked any other source of constitutional support. The District Court had ruled that Clyde had no standing. So he appealed it to the US Appeals Court.
The Appeals court ruled unanimously that Clyde didn’t have any standing to bring this complaint against the Federal Government because (no… not that he was already dead) he hadn’t demonstrated that he was injured by the law. They didn’t rule that he was wrong about his complaint, only that he didn’t have any standing to file the complaint.
So, as Paul Harvey would have said, “Now you know the rest of the story.” If you want to read more about the Appeal Courts decision, you can find it here: “Clyde Bateman v United States of America“
Originally posted May 17, 2014:
Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.
One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.
The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.
Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.
Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.
I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.
When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.
I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.
Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.
When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.
When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.
Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.
I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait) See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.
With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.
While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.
Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.
By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.
The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.
The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.
So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.
As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”
So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.
Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….
George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.
Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.
The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.
This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.
You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).
Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.
Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.
This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….
Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.
I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….
In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.
In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.
Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.
Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.
I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.
It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.
He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?
The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.
When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.
That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…
I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.
Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.
Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.
Comments from the Original post
Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend. It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened. We have a natural tendency to worship something. It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water. I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed. August 5, 1996.
The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant. It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer. Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance. The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual. It must have been a cloudy morning.
We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant. It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant. We weren’t really sure what we had seen. It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.
There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual. there was a guard or an operator standing out there. He waved us through the gate. about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot. It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.
The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks. They seemed to be pulling away just about that time. Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor. The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky. I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.
We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away. We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT). The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.
Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year. That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive. Our job was to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.
Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:
The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT. Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control. He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded. The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest. This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).
At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine. The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames. The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above. The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete. The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor melting the roof as if it was butter. The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.
The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator. This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on. The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should. As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone. It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.
Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight. The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools. Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator. The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.
Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights). Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.
By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down. Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.
As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion. I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before. There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode. I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.
The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River. One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong. I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.
When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once. The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris. I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine. It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.
The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it. I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff. I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.
We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation. The soot didn’t just wash off. Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room. The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.
We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner. This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again. All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.
The thought was too overwhelming. I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe. Are clothes were now black. We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators
literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.
We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!” I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot. Then he explained. “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project. You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”
Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world? Well. I am. I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.
Here is a post about how lucky I am: Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck.
Now for the hard part of the story to write about:
So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test? What happened to cause the explosion?
The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage. The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.
Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target. A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time. No one really understands some of the things he works on. Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion. I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion instead of the person responsible. The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:
You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion. Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners. I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions. You see, I haven’t completely decided.
There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover. The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof. I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy. You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.
The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered. That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump. When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.
It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged. It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling. In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage. The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.
I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me. The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth. This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place. You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.
The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation. Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.
Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage. It was ruled as “equipment failure”. Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.
I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong. I know that. That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant. A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity. Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.
That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone. To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then. My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.
On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen. It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred. It gave me a little of my faith back in the system. When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.
All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator. I just exaggerated that part a bit. But let me ask this question… Who in this story did? Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”? Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important? That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.
The question is never, “Is there a God?” The real question is “Which God do you worship?”
Scott Hubbard and I weren’t too sure why we had been called out that night when we met at the Bowling Alley on Washington Street at two o’clock in the morning in Stillwater Oklahoma to drive out to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. Something about a fire on the top of the precipitator.
I was glad that Scott was driving instead of me when I climbed into his pickup and he began the 20 mile journey up Highway 177. I wasn’t quite awake yet from the phone call at 1:45 am telling me that there was a fire on the Unit 1 precipitator roof and they were calling Scott and I out to put it out. I figured if there was a fire it should be put out long before the 45 minutes it takes me and Scott to arrive at the plant.
We had all been trained to fight fires this size, so it didn’t make sense why we had to go do this instead of the operators.
My head was still swimming from the lack of sleep when we arrived at the plant, and headed to the Control Room to find out more about the fire we were supposed to fight. The Shift Supervisor explained that there was an oil fire under one of the high voltage transformers next to some high voltage cables, and the operators that were on duty didn’t feel comfortable climbing under the transformer stands to try and put it out because of high voltage cable tray that ran alongside the fire (ok, now it made sense. Electricity was involved. Electricians had to work on anything that had an electric cable attached even if it was a fire).
The operators had already brought a number of fire extinguishers appropriate to putting out an oil fire to the precipitator roof, and they had an SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) waiting there as well.
Scott and I went to the Electric Shop to get a couple of pairs of asbestos gloves just in case we needed them.
When we arrived on the precipitator roof we could smell the fire smoldering right away. The operator explained that some oil soaked insulation was on fire under the transformer stand for Transformer 1G9 and that he had tried to put it out using the extinguisher, but since the transformer oil was soaked into the bricks of insulation, it didn’t seem to do any good.
The transformer stands are about 18 inches tall, so climbing under them reminded me of the time I was sandblasting the water treatment tanks and Curtis Love turned off my air (see the post: “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“). This time I had a self-contained breathing apparatus, so I was in control of my own air… only there would only be about 30 minutes of air in the tank.
After assessing the situation Scott and I decided that the only way to put the fire out was to remove the blocks of insulation that were burning. This meant that I had to lay down under the precipitator transformers and come face to face with the burning insulation and pull them out while wearing the asbestos gloves and put them in a barrel.
The plan was that we would then lower the 55 gallon barrel down to the ground and extinguish the fire by filling the barrel with water.
The precipitator is on the outlet end of the boiler. The boiler exhaust blows through the precipitator and the ash in the exhaust is removed using static electricity generated by the large transformers on the precipitator roof using up to 45,000 volts of electricity. When the precipitator is on, the roof is generally a warm place to be.
When a person is laying on the insulation under a transformer, the temperature is somewhat higher as the heat is trapped in the enclosed space between two enclosures called “Coffin Houses” (how appropriate). When the insulation is soaked with burning oil, the temperature seemed to rise significantly. Luckily the insulation was not fiberglass as you may have in your attic, because I was wearing nothing but a tee shirt and jeans. So, I was not subject to the itching I would have if the insulation had been fiberglass.
I had turned the air on the SCBA without using the “Positive Pressure” setting. That meant that when I inhaled, I pulled air from the air tank, but the air didn’t apply pressure on the mask to keep out the bad air.
I did that because, this looked like it was going to be a long job and I wanted to conserve the air in the tank, and I found that on this setting I was not breathing the smoke pouring up around my face. Otherwise I would have reached down to the valve on my belt and changed the setting to positive pressure.
I kept wondering while I was lying there with my face a few inches from the smoldering blocks of insulation why I was so calm the entire time. The hot temperature had caused my sweat reflex to pour out the sweat so I was quickly drenched. I would just lay my head on the insulation as I reached into the hole I was creating and pulled a glowing brick of insulation out using the asbestos gloves.
I knew I was only half awake so I kept telling myself… “Pay attention. Work slowly. One step at a time. I tried to work like Granny would when she was digging Taters on the Beverly Hillbillies (see the video below):
In case you are not able to view the video above, try this link: “Granny Digging Taters“.
It’s funny when you’re half dreaming the various things that come to mind. I’m not sure how picking up smoldering bricks of insulation translated in my mind to Granny teaching beatniks how to pick “taters”…. but it did.
There was also something about this that reminded me of eating chocolate…. oh wait… that was probably left over from the dream I was having when the phone first rang back at the house.
For the next hour or so, I filled the barrels with the burning insulation and then lowered them down to the alleyway between Unit 1 and 2. During this time I was still groggy from the lack of sleep and the entire process seemed like a dream to me.
I remember lying on my stomach next to the burning insulation. Pulling the blocks out one at a time, layer by layer until I reached the precipitator roof underneath. I placed each block of smoldering insulation in the barrel that had been lowered down by an overhead chain-fall near me.
When the barrel was about 3/4 full, we would work the chain fall over to the motorized hoist that would lower it down to the pickup truck bed 100 feet below. When the barrel left the confines of the precipitator roof and the night air blew over the top of it, the insulation would burst into flames. By the time the barrel landed in the back of the pickup truck the flames would be lighting up the alley way.
Scott doused the flames with a hose and an extinguisher and hauled the barrel of insulation off to a hazardous waste bin while I repeated the process with the next barrel that Scott attached to the hoist.
By the time we were through I smelled like something that crawled out of a damp fireplace. My shirt and jeans were soaked with sweat and caked with pink insulation. The SCBA was out of air after using it for an hour and we were ready to go home.
The operators said they would bring the empty extinguishers back to the plant and send the SCBA off to have it recharged. We checked back in with the Shift Supervisor in the control room and told him we were heading for home.
I don’t remember which Shift Supervisor it was, though Gary Wright comes to my mind when I think about it.
I don’t remember which operator was helping us on the precipitator roof either. I would usually remember those things, but like I said, I was still dreaming during this entire process.
Normally at this time, since it was close to 3:30 in the morning, we would opt to stay over and just do some odd jobs until it was time to start work because the 6 hour rule would still require us to come back to work at the regular time (see the Post: “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rule“). Scott and I decided that we both needed a good shower and if we could catch even one hour of sleep before we had to head back out to work, that would help.
So, we climbed back into Scott’s truck and headed back to Stillwater to the bowling alley where I had left my car. I don’t remember the drive home. I don’t even remember taking off my shirt and jeans in the utility room where I walked in the house and placing them in the washing machine straightaway… though that’s what I did.
I know I took a shower, but all that was just part of the same dream I had been having since the phone rang earlier that night. Usually I didn’t have trouble waking up when the phone rang in the middle of the night, but for some reason, this particular night, I never fully woke up.
Or… maybe it’s something else…. Could I have dreamed the entire thing? Maybe I never did receive that call, and we didn’t have to go out to the plant in the middle of the night to put out a fire. I mean… how crazy is that anyway? Does it make any sense?
I suppose I will have to rely on Scott Hubbard to confirm that we really did fight that fire. How about it Scott?
As Bill Gibson asked one time…. “Is the Fact Truer than the Fiction?”
Some of you may be aware that an empty grain silo can explode if the dust from the grain is allowed to build up and an ignition source begins a chain reaction that causes the entire grain silo to explode like a bomb. I haven’t heard about a grain explosion for a few years. Maybe that is because a lot of effort is put into keeping the silo clean. Think of how much easier it would be for a coal dust explosion. After all… we know that coal when turned into a fine powder is highly combustible.
When you are covered in coal dust from head-to-toe day after day you seem to forget just how explosive the coal dust you are washing down can be. Our coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was concerned after our downsizing in 1994 that by eliminating the labor crew from the roster of available Power Plant Jobs, that the operators may not be able to keep the entire coal handling system free from coal dust.
The plant had already experienced a major explosion the year before (in 1996) the “Dust Collector Task Force” was formed (See the post: “Destruction of a Power Plant God“). It was clear that the question had been asked by those concerned, “Are there any other areas in the plant that could suddenly explode?” Two electricians were asked to be on the Dust Collection Task Force. Jimmy Moore and myself.
We had a salesman of our brand of Dust Collectors come to the plant and train us on the proper maintenance of the dust collectors that were already in place. When he arrived he showed us a video that showed examples of plants that had explosions caused by coal dust. Here is a picture I found on Google of a coal dust explosion at a power plant:
We heard a story about a coal plant where the explosion began at the coal yard, worked its way up the conveyor system, blew up the bowl mills and threw debris onto the main power transformer, which also blew up. Ouch. We thought it would be a good idea to do something about our coal dust problems. Stopping an ounce of coal dust is worth a pound of explosives… as the saying goes.
The Instrument and Controls person on our team was Danny Cain. He had become a Power Plant employee a year before the downsizing and had been at the plant for about four years at this point.
When we began looking at our dust collectors, we found that the dust collectors on the dumper had been rusted out over the past 18 years since they were first put into operation. the reason was that they were located down inside the dumper building below ground where they were constantly exposed to coal and water. I hadn’t seen them actually running for years. They were definitely going to have to be replaced with something.
Okay class… I know this is boring, but you have to learn it!
We had some fairly new dust collectors on the crusher tower and the coal reclaim, but they didn’t seem to be doing their job. They used instrument air (which is clean, dehumidified air) in order to flush the coal off of some bags inside. When they were installed, new instrument air compressors were installed in the coal yard just to handle the extra “instrument air” load for the dust collectors. The very expensive and large dust collectors just didn’t seem to be doing anything to “collect” the dust.
You can see that the dust collector is very large. You actually have to climb on top of them to change out the bags inside.
When the dust collector sales man came to talk to us about dust collection, in the middle of his “Proper Maintenance” speech he happened to mention something about…. “…and of course, if you don’t have the air pulse set at exactly 32 milliseconds, the dust collector isn’t going to work at all.” “Wait! What did he say?” What pulse?”
He explained that Instrument air is puffed through the collector bags with exactly a 32 millisecond pulse at a predetermined interval. If the pulse is longer or shorter, then it doesn’t work as well. The idea is that it creates a ripple down the bag which shakes the dust free. We had been studying our dust collectors in the coal yard, and the interval had been completely turned off and the instrument air was constantly blowing through the dust collectors. This guy was telling us that it was just supposed to be a quick pulse.
Everyone in the room looked at each other with stunned silence. The salesman just looked at us and said…. “It’s right there in the instruction manual….” pointing his finger at the page. We thought (or said)… “Instruction manual? We have an instruction manual?”
We said, “Class dismissed! Let’s go to the coalyard after lunch and see about adjusting the “pulse” on the dust collectors.
In order to measure a pulse of 32 milliseconds, I needed the oscilloscope that I kept out at the precipitator control room to measure the “Back Corona” when trying to adjust the cabinets to their optimal voltage. I ran out to the precipitator and retrieved it and brought it with me to the coal yard along with my tool bucket and my handy dandy little screwdriver in my pocket protector:
When we arrived at the crusher tower where the two long belts sent coal to the Power Plant 1/2 mile away, one of the belts was running. coal dust was puffing around the equipment making the room hazy, which was normal. Water hoses were kept running on the floor trying to wash at least some of the dust down the drain. This was a typical day in the coal handling system. Coal dust everywhere.
I opened the control cabinet for the dust collector and hooked up the oscilloscope.
When we arrived there was no pulsing. The instrument air was on all the time. So, I flipped a switch which put it in a pulse mode. The pulse time was set up to the maximum setting of about a minute (that meant that when the pulse turned on, it stayed on for a minute). As I was playing with the controls, three of the task force members were standing up on the walkway between the two belts watching the discharge from the dust collector (you see, after the dust collector collected the dust, it dropped it back onto the conveyor belt just up the belt from where the coal dropped onto the belt). Nothing was coming out of the chute.
As I adjusted the setting down from one minute to one second, I had to keep changing settings on the oscilloscope to measure how long the air took to turn on and off. When I finally had the pulse down within 1/10 of a second (which is 100 milliseconds), then I could easily measure the 32 millisecond interval that we needed. I was beginning to think that this wasn’t going to really do anything, but I remembered that I had seen stranger things on the precipitator controls where the difference between a couple of milliseconds is like night and day.
When the pulse was down to 35 milliseconds I looked up toward the conveyor system because I heard a couple of people yelling. They were running down the walkway as coal dust came pouring out of the dust collector chute causing a big cloud of dust to puff up. We all ran outside and waited for the dust to settle. We felt like cheering!
We were practically in disbelief that all we had to do was adjust the pulse of air to the right millisecond pulse and the dust collector began working. This meant a lot more than a working dust collector. This also meant that we needed only a fraction of the instrument air (literally about 1/20,000) than we had been using.
In other words. The new Instrument Air Compressors at the coal yard that had been installed to help boost air pressure at the coal yard since the installation of the dust collectors were really never needed. And all this was done by turning a screwdriver on a small potentiometer in a control cabinet. It pays to read the manual.
Along with some rewiring of the controls to the dust collector system, and a redesign of the apron around the dust chutes by Randy Dailey and Tim Crain, the coal handling areas became practically dust free as long as regular preventative maintenance was performed.
That is, everywhere except for the coal dumper. This is where the coal trains dump their coal into a hopper which is then carried on three conveyors out to the coal pile.
You can see the conveyor going up to the building right next to the coal pile. That is from the dumper which is the small off white building next to the fly ash silos. The crusher tower is the tall thin building at the end of the long belts going up to the plant.
We still had a problem with the dumper. The cost of buying new dust collectors and putting them outside where they wouldn’t be so quickly corroded by the harsh environment was “too costly”. Jim Arnold, the maintenance Supervisor made that clear. We had to come up with another solution.
Without a dust collector, the solution was “Dust Suppression”. That is, instead of collecting the dust when it is stirred up, spray the coal with a chemical that keeps the dust down in the first place. This was a good idea, except that it had to be turned off for three months during the winter months when it could freeze up.
A company called Arch Environmental Equipment came and talked to us about their dust suppression system.
They showed us something called: The “Dust Shark”.
The dust shark sprayed the belt on the side with the coal and scraped the bottom side in order to make sure it was clean when it passed through. This was the solution for the dumper. It also worked well at other locations in the plant where you could use it to keep the area clean from coal when the coal was wet from the rain and would stick to the belt.
The task force was considered a success. I have two side stories before I finish with this post.
The first is about Danny Cain.
Danny was a heavy smoker. He had a young look so that he looked somewhat younger than he was. He had been born in July, 1964 (just ask the birthday phantom), so he was 33 during July 1997 when we were working on the task force, but he looked like someone still in college. Whenever he would pull out a cigarette and put it in his mouth, he suddenly looked like he was still in High School.
I told Danny that one day. I was always one to discourage people from smoking…. He seemed a little hurt, and I said I was just calling it like I saw it. He was standing outside the electric shop smoking one day, so I took the air monitor that I used when I had to go in the precipitator and asked Danny if I could borrow his lit cigarette for a moment.
I put the butt of the cigarette up to the intake hose for the monitor about long enough for a puff and then I handed it back to him. The monitor measures the amount of Oxygen in the air, the amount of explosive gases, the amount of Carbon Monoxide and the amount of H2S gas (Hydrogen Sulfide, an extremely toxic gas). The monitor, as expected began beeping…
What we didn’t expect to see was that not only did the Carbon Monoxide peg out at 999 parts per million, but the H2S went out the roof as well. In fact, everything was bad. The Percent explosive was at least 50% and the oxygen level was low. It took about 5 minutes before the meter measured everything clean again. Danny didn’t want to see that.
I said, “Danny? Carbon Monoxide Poisoning! Hello???!!!”
When we were on the Dust Collector Task Force, at one point we had to program “Programmable Logic Controllers” (or PLCs). I had been to an Allen Bradley school a few years earlier where we had learned the basics for this. Here is my certificate from 9 years earlier…
When Danny and I sat down to program the controller, it became clear that he expected the programming task to take a couple of weeks. He started out by drawing some high level logic on the white board. I said… “wait… wait… let’s just start programming the thing.” He told me that wasn’t the way we did things. First we had to figure out the entire program, then we would program it.
The PLCs we were going to program were just some small ones we had bought to run the dust sharks and the dust collectors… Here’s one like it.
I told Danny when I program something I find that its a lot easier and quicker if we just program it as we understand the requirements and then that way we can test it as we go. Then when we figure out what we need, we will be done. In fact… it took us 4 hours and we were done… not two weeks.
End of the Danny Cain Side Story…. On to the second side story… much shorter….
I think it was March 2003 (the power plant men can remind me)…. a year and a half after I had left the plant, the Coal Dumper blew up. It was the middle of the night, a coal train had finished dumping the coal about an hour earlier. No one was in the dumper at the time and the entire dumper exploded. The roof of the dumper, as I was told, was blown off of the building. No injuries or deaths. The “Dust Shark” Dust Suppression system had been turned off because it was winter.
I suppose that the insurance company ended up paying for that one. I don’t know. This is what happens when you say that it is too expensive to replace the dust collectors and instead you buy one of these:
Originally published on May 25, 2012:
Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime during September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced.
While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.
Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.
Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.
The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to keep the wires straight, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.
The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.
I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.
I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper. I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time.
I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.
I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.
Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.
After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.
So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.
All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper. I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.
Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”
Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.
It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.
While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened.
I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my finger). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.
Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.
I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!