Power Plant Basics: The Turbine

Progress is slower than I hoped, but here’s the next installment.




Power Plant Basics: The Steam Cycle

This is a better place to start than condensate and feed.

For some reason I don’t understand I get the nerves about posting these, so I’m telling myself that they are all rough drafts and I as I get better at the software and pacing I’ll come back and do a better version.

That being said the learning cycle has to be closed for any significant improvement to be made.  This means a product must be finished, and then examined for what parts of it are good and what parts are weak, and how the strong parts were executed, and how the weak parts can be improved.

*This is why all great architects do their great work so late in life:  The learning cycle is often 10 years from first concept to finished product to incorporate feedback.

One of the things necessary for this to work is time to become less attached to the product.  Another important ingredient is feedback (and the creator being receptive to that feedback while knowing when to ignore it and stick to the vision).

So here it is.


My intended audience is junior power plant operators who have been around valves and pumps and equipment before, but lack a big picture of how the parts are supposed to fit together.


Dead Pigeons

You reach a certain point in your carreer where you have developed some specialized knowledge and skills, you’ve developed the respect of your coworkers, where you’re paid $25, $30, $35/hr and you no longer expecte to be asked to clean up dead pigeons.

The email went out telling me the plant manager had asked for exactly that… and I was too emabarassed to order my guys to do it.  I put it off.

When I came back in on night shifts I went to the feeder deck to clean dead pigeons.  I knew I had seen them there and I figured this was the place in the boiler building most likely to have been visited by the brass… Someone else had already done it.  Since I already had my gloves and trashbag I proceded to walk higher up the structure.  It wasn’t long before I started finding them.  Over the next few night shifts I removed the remains of 25 pigeons.

Then I stood in front of my guys and I told them all this.  And I explained that management is not going to hire a contractor to come and clean up all the pigeon corpses.  And even if they did, what makes me think I’m fundamentally better than that guy.

What it really comes down to is ownership.  If the dead pigeons were at your house you wouldn’t ignore them.  You’d get rid of them.  By stepping over them here you are saying that you don’t care about this place.  That you don’t take pride in your work.  And some of the messes around here aren’t as benign as pigeons, or flyash, or coal dust.  Some of the messes were left by someone else who works here and doesn’t take sufficient pride in their job… trust me no matter how long you ignore it, they will NEVER come back and clean it up.  It will eventually fall onto someone who cares to clean it up.

Let’s all choose to be that someone.

Promotions and Cellulose Avionics

I’ve long had a conflicted view of leadership.  On the one hand I’m completely confident making decisions. I know I’m as smart as anybody, and I do a better job than most people of listening to the evidence and making unbiased decisions.  On the other hand I don’t like telling people what to do.  I don’t like conflict.  I don’t like being bossy.  I like being liked.  On the gripping hand I don’t really want to do the same job for the next 20 years, and it’s hard to change jobs from where I am without either a pay cut or the word “supervisor” attached to your job description.

So after applying for the Shift supervisor position once and having it disappear and re-appear under someone other than me, I went back to my comfortable job confident that eventually the job would open up again and be mine… I just didn’t expect things to move quite so quickly.

I showed up to work and was told that my supervisor was switching to a different crew, and that I would be moving up from Control Room Operator to shift sup.  My first official act was to counter-mand the night’s shift assignment left by my so recent boss to put our shift’s (albiet very junior) CRO on the board and move the guy on OT to cover me onto the floor.  This projected my confidence in the guy I had trained, and kept a familiar voice on the radio for my crew… And it felt right.

The next set of shifts came and for the most part things ran themselves on momentum.  Most shifts the guys do their rounds and work their list and who’s in charge doesn’t impact them… My second real act as leader was to schedule a paper-airplane contest.  This put my personality on the crew for the first time.  This showed them that we are allowed to have fun… And importantly, this let me throw a paper-airplane of the 17th floor of the boiler which I’d been tempted to do for around 6 years now.

“Like I care”

There’s this guy who cleans the offices where I work.  He’s in his early 20’s, and I think of him as “the Cleaning Kid,” which is a sure sign I’m getting old.  The Kid comes in at night, and there’s pretty much nobody monitoring him, but he works hard anyway and I like him for that.  He has his routine down and hits all the areas pretty quickly, then he picks some corner that’s hiding some dirt and spends about 10minutes working on that thankless and sisyphustic task before calling it a night.  Somebody in management came to the control room and decided that the area behind my computer monitors was a disgusting breeding ground for dust bunnies (which it was) and complained to the cleaning company.  I used to clean behind there about once every 2 weeks when I was on night shift, but when the vacuum cleaner disappeared I felt that I was excused from that duty.

A day or 2 later an old guy who worked for (owned?) the cleaning company came by.  He craned his neck around behind my horseshoe of 20 monitors and tsked.  He asked me what I thought of the cleaning service.  And I said I liked it fine, and if anybody wasn’t satisfied with it, it was because they hadn’t made their expectations clear.  That Kid works.

Months go by and then one night the Kid made some comment wondering whether people thought he did a good job.  I recounted that his boss had come up here after somebody complained about my horseshoe, but I told him “if anybody wasn’t satisfied with it, it was because they hadn’t made their expectations clear.  That Kid works.”

“Wow.  Thanks man.” The Kid replied.  “Unless you’re just saying that to make me feel good.”

“Yeah, like I care about your feelings enough to lie to you.”

In the hush that followed I see that Daniel is shaking with silent laughter.

“Did that come out too harsh?” I ask innocently.

“Yes.  A bit harsh, Shad.”

I didn’t apologize to the Kid for the burn, and it took me days to realize why I reacted the way I did.  In his desire to milk the compliment for greater assurances he implied I was a liar.  I pride myself on my honesty.

I told my insightful wife this story and she said “that’s why everyone is always so stunned when you get rough.  You start out smiling and giving compliments and then out of nowhere you hit ‘em with a “Yeah, like I care about your feelings.”  If I was an asshole as the baseline the mean things that I say would roll right off of people.  Instead I start out all friendly.  It’s like my left hand is a sock-puppet that distracts them before the right-cross.

This is now officially dubbed “the sock-puppet combo.”

End the dryspell

I’m writing to break a dryspell.  I’m publishing before I get up from the desk.  Be it for potty-break, or for screaming child.  This message will go out.

When I started this blog I never really tried to set myself up on a schedule.  When you work rotating shifts “regular” means something different to you than it does to everyone else… even other people at your work who have been on shift in the past don’t really get it.  I had a conversation one Tuesday morning with the mechanical supervisor at work, we were scrambling to Lock out an atomizer and swap it with the spare so they could perform their scheduled maintenance.  All this should’ve been done on night shift, and he said to me “You’d think they’d figure out by now that we need one every tuesday morning.”  And I replied, “Monday night-shift only comes once a month.”  He worked this same shift for a couple of years, on days for a couple of years and he can no longer grok it.

Too short?  I don’t have anything else to say about shiftwork right now.  Should I publish and start over?

not the best person for this particular task

The other day when I was coming onto a night shift the operations manager asked me to look into ordering new chairs for the control room. Right now there’s 3 chairs, and one of them doesn’t match the other 2 at all, and it doesn’t have arms. One of the other 2 has bad hydraulics and sinks down over the course of 30 minutes until the dest hits you high on the chest. This doesn’t bother me particularly… If there weren’t chairs at all, and just 5 gallon buckets I’d bring in some foam and duct tape and be content. I get directions like “something nice, but not rediculously expensive. Look it up and email me the link, preferably on quill.com since we already have an account.” I say I’ll do it, because that’s what the military programmed me to do when told to do something. Then I procrastinated. This isn’t the kind of procrastination where you watch TV, or play video games. This is the kind of procrastination where you’re doing the laundry to avoid calling the insurance company to argue about a bill. Yes it’s technically productive, but there’s definitely an element of work avoidance involved.

Eventually I admitted I was avoiding the task and made an attempt. I went to the website and starting searching through office chairs. I spent an hour scrolling through page after page, looking at similar chairs and wondering what they felt like. Realizing the $150 chair didn’t look that different than the $700 chair, I felt helpless. Here’s the email I wrote:

office chairs

This one is for B crew CRO, 'cause it's not all about me.I'd totally use this at work if they'd let me

“Everybody has to learn sometime”

A while back I was trying to help Alaric make a ginger bread house.  He mixed up the icing and put it in the bag with the plastic nozzle, and cut off the tip.  I was then trying to use the icing as cement for the walls with little success.  Eventually I broke a wall, at which point I explained to Alaric that I did not have the skills to build his ginger bread house and he would have to wait for his talented mother to have time to do it.  We cemented the broken piece together and double bagged the icing with a wet papertowel and put it all away.

see how the walls are angled?  very tricky construction problem

a ginger bread house

Several days later my lovely wife was building the gingerbread house and taking pot shots at me when Alaric said “that’s OK.  Everybody has to learn sometime.”  I don’t think these are my words, so it’s probably someone from school, but I agree wholeheartedly.  He’s learned a valuable lesson about the incremental view of intelligence.  Lacking knowledge or ability doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, just get on with the business of learning it.  After the house was built, he requested my help decorating it because he was worried that my witty wife’s japes might have hurt my feelings.

I Love that boy.

Yesterday we’re riding in the car, and I’m complaining about one of my co-workers… (must tread carefully here as my real life identity is not secret at all).  After a short and viscous rant which gave no identifiable details as to who the person was…

  • My son asked “why you mad?”
  • And I calmly said “because he doesn’t deserve to work where I work and make the kind of money we make.”
  • “Papa, everybody has to learn sometime.”
  • “True, but he’s had plenty of time to learn.  He either can’t do it, or he’s too lazy to do it.”
  • “Oh”
  • “If he worked hard and tried to learn everyday I might get frustrated with him, but I wouldn’t get mad.”

Am I wrong?



What do you need to do everyday?

Work. Sleep. Eat.  Basic hygiene.

That’s it really.  When we get outside of that we get outside of the concept of “need.”  But honestly there are other things we need to feel ok.  To be normal and stable.  I don’t need them everyday, but how long can I go without them before I start to lose it?
I need to surf the internet for an un-interrupted hour.  I need to sit on the couch next to my lovely wife.  I need to read a book to my boy.  I need to pick up Joule and spin around to make my girl laugh.  I need to do some laundry.  I need to re-stock the fridge.  I need to exercise.  I need to socialize.

I’ve worked 12hr shifts for most of 4 years now.  It’s really not that big a deal.  You can’t get everything done on a work day that you probably would if you worked for the “normal” 8 hours, but that’s balanced out by working fewer days.  You settle for meeting fewer of your needs, and for only getting 6 hrs of sleep for 4 nights in a row.  Then you get caught up on your days off.

Well I’ve just gone through an outage and let me say that this pattern is unsustainable over longer periods.  From the time I go to sleep at 11PM to the time I get home from work at 6:30PM  uses up 19 +1/2hrs of my day.  The outage required shifts to double up, and the hours spent at work were more intense than usual.  Couple that with how the shifts happened to hit when we started and ended the outage and me having to cover for C-crew CRO rolling out of that and I end up working 29 of 32 days before I get 2 days off in a row.  Today is day 24 of this marathon.  The outage is over and I’m on “normal” night shifts.  I’ve missed 2 birthday parties, the pinkpalace crafts fair, and taking my zombie ballerina toddler to the haunted house.  I’m going to miss another birthday party for my nephew and will have worked all night before my sons birthday party, and then will be going back onto day shift the very next day.  I’m going to go 5 weeks without tutoring my sister in-law in physics.

And my precious wife is spread just as thin as I am.  She doesn’t get a break from the childcare unless I have time off to give it to her, and the (at most)2 hrs aday I’m giving her now is not sufficient to restore her.  It’s just enough to delay the collapse.

We’re all running around with red diamonds over our heads like angry little sims.

red diamond of misery

red diamond of misery

I can’t remember where  I put anything.  I can’t plan a meal.  If I can’t do it on automatic it doesn’t get done.  Oh sure, my paycheck is almost double what it would normally be, but I’m pretty sure I crossed the money/happiness threshold before overtimageddon.

When I was in the navy there were times when I was worked like a dog.  Times when we were preparing for an underway, or drilling and cleaning and training  to prepare for ORSE.  The hours were even more demanding.  The down time consisted of an hour I should’ve been sleeping spent reading in my rack.  Your rack barely has enough room to roll over in and I often woke with one of my arms asleep.  But in a lot of ways it was easier.  You didn’t have to think about food, and they guy the few guys that were worried about dishes weren’t worried about much else.  Your wife and kid might as well have been on a different planet.  There was a sense of purpose.  A sense that we were all in this together.  And on the worst days you’d sit around and fantasize about how good it would be to be a civilian, where you could tell your boss to go fuck himself and there was no threat of captains mast hanging over your head.

It seemed so logical that if an employer was forced to pay you time and a half (instead of owning you by the month), they would hesitate to ask you to work more than 40hrs/week.  And sometimes that seems true.  Other times it’s a farce that makes me weep with weakness.

From an economics standpoint the answer is obvious.  They value my contributions at more than 150% of my normal wage.  Clearly I should renegotiate.  However my ability to demand more money is limited by the availability of alternate jobs at similar wages.  There’s no teeth to my negotiation unless I’m willing/able to walk out if my demands aren’t met.