Chicago – Winter 1991

My Life as Reddy Kilowatt

The new year, 1991, found me in Chicago. Not the ritzy, glitzy, Michigan Avenue Chicago, but the industrial “hog butcher for the world”, Carl Sandburg, Chicago. I had been called down from the jobsite in Wisconsin, to fill in as a second engineer during a maintenance outage at the Crawford Generating Station down on Pulaski, in the Little Havana neighborhood of Chicago’s Southside. Our offices were out in Lisle, in the Western Suburbs, and most of the field engineers working in the district lived out that way. So when I arrived from Wisconsin, I checked into the Travelodge in Naperville to be close to the office, and near to my colleagues. It was about a one hour commute to and from the plant, but honestly, there was no way I had any intention of staying close to that neighborhood.

The Chicago District office, was one of the few that could support a steady crew of 3-4 field service engineers living and working in the area. The company had some long standing service agreements with the Commonwealth Edison company, and these engineers lived off of the regular maintenance outages, and performance improvement programs at their coal fired power plants. As a newby, I was only in town for a week to fill in as a second on a project. It was as much a part of my training, as it was a chance for the company to bill my time at the exorbitant rate of $850 / day. Now, nobody has a higher opinion of me than I do, and I could never quite accept the fact that I was worth $850 / day to anybody.

The Commonwealth Edison generating plants, being located in Chicago, were staffed with Union Labor. Now, my Dad worked 35 years in the Union, and I was not an unsympathetic to Union labor, but in my 20 years of work experience around the world, I have yet to encounter a lazier bunch of craftsman. I came to quickly understand that any task performed in a ComEd plant, took 3 times as long, and required twice as many people as necessary. It’s places like this that have given Unions their reputation as inefficient barriers to progress, and profitability.

Our work as service engineers was to take the plant engineering staff, up into the boilers to inspect them for wear and tear, and highlight items for the maintenance crews to fix. The plant engineering staff was full of nice, gregarious people, or every color of the diversity rainbow, that knew absolutely nothing about the equipment they worked on. As consultants, this was what we called job security. ComEd had to bring in outside engineering help to show them how to do their job, not that they had any particular interest in learning it. It became quickly apparent, that they too would find any excuse possible to stay in their heated, relatively clean, office, rather than don a set of coveralls and go crawling around in the flyash with us.

Working the outage there, was a test in patience. Despite knowing that we were being paid a ridiculous sum to perform the work, and that our customer had little incentive to see us complete the job, we still did our best to get the job done as quickly as possible. So after a couple of Styrofoam cups of coffee, we would put on our coveralls and hard hats, take up our clipboards and flashlights and head up onto the unit.

Going into the unit required us to have a “hole watch” to stand outside the access hatch, for safety reasons. Union rules required this person to be a member of Union maintenance staff. So the next half hour usually involved us roaming the maintenance department looking to find a supervisor, who could round up one of the maintenance staff. Once we had found our conscript we would head up to the section of the boiler that we were due to inspect.

A coal fired Utility Boiler is not a hot water heater like you have in your basement. It is a 20 story tall furnace, lined with 2” steel tubes that carry water and steam. Finding your way around one requires a map, and a fairly intimate knowledge of the complex mechanical system. The boiler and auxiliary equipment is supported, and surrounded by a superstructure of steel and catwalks. It is not a place to work if you do not like heights. It is also not a place to work if you are claustrophobic, as most of the access hatches for getting into the boiler as 20” x 20”, and require you to lay down and wiggle your way inside. Once into the darkness, you are usually laying on a bed of tubes covered either in rock hard pointy slag, or fine powdery flyash. No matter how tight you zip your coveralls, it will find a way down your neck.

Having to work at the glacial pace of the ComEd staff was excruciating. More often than not, when we arrived at our destination on the 15th floor, we would discover that the access hatch had not been opened. Our Union maintenance man would then have to return back to the shop to retrieve a wrench while we waited. So after about an hour and a half of standing around, we’d finally be able to begin our work. We’d climb into the unit in a team of 3, with our trusty “hole watch” standing outside, and hopefully, poking his head in from time to time, to make sure we were OK. Then would would pull out our paint sticks, and begin inspecting the tubes looking for signs of erosion, and thinning. With the rows of tubing running into the hundred, we had to number them, and write on the walls to keep track of what we found. Problem spots would be circled and surrounded with big arrows pointing at them, and we’d make a note in our clip board. We’d usually be able to get about 2 hours of work in before we had to break for lunch. After lunch the whole process would repeat itself.

I would like to say that I thought our work mattered, but looking at the condition of the plant, and the attitude of the employees it was clear it didn’t. Only the most pressing of maintenance issues were ever addressed. Not for a lack of resource, merely for a lack of will. Whenever I worked in a ComEd plant, I took extra care to watch where I stepped. The plants in general were pretty old, and the lack of care caused them to age a lot quicker. The unit’s we were working on at the time were Unit 7 & 8. They were the only two units in operation, and they had been built in the 50’s. Unit’s 1-6 dated back to the teens and twenties, and were long since decommissioned.

In later years, I would return to Crawford for a retrofit project, where I was working second shift. If I thought that time stood still during the day shift at Crawford, the crews working the evening shift required stop motion photography to see them move. The retrofit project required us to oversee the installation of a new emissions system. It did not require inspection, or climbing through arsenic ridden flyash. Instead I just paid periodic visits to the installation crew to see how they were coming on the project, and spent the rest of the time watching the hands on the clock. Being an engineer, and someone fascinated by history, curiosity eventually got the best of me and I began asking the plant staff about Units 1-6. While they had been decommissioned years before, the units had never been dis-assembled. Because of the environmental hazard, and all of the asbestos insulation, ComEd had just placed police tape and “Keep Out” signs across the walkways leading into the old part of the plant, and left everything as it was. So after discussing it with the plant engineers, one evening we decided to break the rules, and go exploring in the old plant. We donned our coveralls, and our respirators, took up our flashlights, and crossed the yellow line.

It was an Urban Explorers heaven in there. Lots of ancient industrial equipment, covered in dust to the angle of repose. As an engineer it was fascinating to see the history of technology frozen in time. Standing there at the tail end of the century, looking at 80 year old equipment that had been in operation when Edison was still alive gave me goosebumps. We spent hours in there, like little kids, “Hey, look at this!”, “Wow, look over here!”, “So that’s how they did it back then!”. It’s amazing just how far technology came in 100 years. From the first electric generating station, running on Victorian Era technology, to computerized control rooms, and today’s power plant equipment that looks like something out of Star Trek. (In fact, if you saw the new Star Trek movie, they used a Gas Turbine Combined Cycle power plant as the backdrop for the scene where the Enterprise is under construction)

One of the things that amazed me about those old generating stations was the amount of craftsmanship that was put into everything. The tile work, and brickwork throughout the plant was designed and built as if they were public spaces like a train station. At the ComEd plants, the hand rails around the turbine halls were reported to be solid brass. As the legend goes, the plant managers in the 40’s had them painted black, so that the government would not order them removed and melted down to serve the war effort. You don’t see that type of craftsmanship in today’s world of utilitarian industrial architecture.

I worked in many of these old plants during the early 90’s. In Chicago, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and other places. The economy was beginning to pull out of the Bush One era recession, and the country’s electricity needs kept these plants running. From the late 70’s until the late 90’s there was little new power plant construction, until the era of deregulation caused a boom. As newer, more efficient, gas turbine power plants came online, these old relics would eventually begin to be decommissioned as well. Some utilities, like Exel Energy in the Twin Cities, have torn down old plants, or re-powered them by piggy backing new generating units onto the existing transmission and distribution infrastructure. And so these early 20th century coal plants are slowly disappearing, or being left behind, undisturbed, to rust away. As an engineer, and a sentimentalist, I hate to see this industrial heritage being lost in our heading rush into the “knowledge economy”. These industrial plants were the engines that drove American industry to its mid century heights. While they may be old, inefficient and no longer economically, or environmentally sound, I wish that at least a few of them could be preserved as living, breathing museums of technology. Maybe the market no longer values them, but a growing population of engineers are starting to take an interest in preserving our technological past, as a reminder of what technology can, and can’t accomplish.

After a few hours of exploration, we decided that our jobs and our lives were no longer worth risking, and we made our way carefully back into the operational side of the generating station. But I’ve come to learn that there are others out there that still take these sort of risks, and more, to explore old industrial sites. They call themselves urban explorers, and while I cannot condone what they do, I must admit that I am fascinated by the photographs that they take, and post in online forums. Foolish and crazy though they are, some of their work is stunning.

For some terrific photographs of abandoned industrial sites, check out Kendall Anderson’s excellent photoblog here.


One thought on “Chicago – Winter 1991

  1. Pingback: Go West Young Man – 1991 « 20 Prospect

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