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The Way We Were

The other day, I was talking with my friend Bill Rose, who works in communications with ABB, on the coverage of a concrete polymer cutout field installation.

The other day, I was talking with my friend Bill Rose, who works in communications with ABB, on the coverage of a concrete polymer cutout field installation. The word “cutout” sparked something in my memory that I proceeded to share with Bill about my first week at the Forest Park test lab.

My new boss, Wayne White, took me to the outdoor test site and warned me, “Rick, stand right here on this rubber blanket and don't move! You'll be fine.”

I followed that dictate to the letter as I had no clue as to what was going on anyway. We were testing cutouts, but we also accidently ended up testing a recloser, burning it to a crisp. I saw a lot of arcs and spits and smoke and heard a lot of bangs and booms and crackles, and then nothing. I thought everything had gone according to Wayne's spectacular plan. Not so. When the recloser failed, we tripped the breaker back at the substation and that took out the power line that fed the general headquarters facility. Not good. That was the end of Wayne's outdoor testing. Even today, though, if I shut my eyes, my mind can still see the bottom of the substation fence glowing red from stray fault currents.

Bill responded to hearing this peculiar bit of my early history, stating: “Rick, I'm trying to picture you as a young utility worker. Sounds like you were having as much fun on your first week as you are now. You ought to write a personal perspective piece showing how the industry has changed since you first started your career.” So I decided to take up Bill on his suggestion.

I might have perjured myself a little to get that test job as Wayne had made it clear, “I only want stick-shift co-ops.” And I assured him, “Not a problem.” But, I was really an “automatic” kid. I feared I would be found out, but “lurched” at the chance to teach myself the fine art of stick-shifting when Wayne went out of town on business for a week. I thought my goose was cooked the next Monday when Wayne discovered the truck clutch burned out. Fortunately for me, he didn't link his newest hire to the truck's condition. He turned his pickup into the garage for repair, leaving me to fulfill my testing destiny.

I joined the power company in the early 1970s in the heyday of 7% load growth. We had power plants going in and transmission lines going up, and that new “plastic” cable was providing underground service to new subdivisions. Those were glorious days, and back then, the power company was family. We even referred to Georgia Power as “Uncle George.”

If you were young and curious, there were always opportunities to learn. I had a real desire to get field experience and soon found myself decked out with a hardhat and steel-toed boots, riding in a line truck with the winch truck operator and doing grunt work. I discovered that the line crew spoke a more colorful language than the one I was taught by the nuns at my St. Joseph Catholic grade and high schools.

My first field lesson was to keep your head down when a lineman on the pole yelled, “Headache.” It wasn't because a dropped tool or bolt was about to land on your head, but because the lineman was letting loose a stream of chewing tobacco and using your hardhat for target practice.

I also discovered that I was an easy mark. We were rolling up copper wire we had taken down from a temporary service feeding a brick factory. A hippie line worker (he had to wear a wig on the job site to keep his hair out of the way) had me roll the scrap wire over next to a dirt road. When I asked, “Why don't I just throw it on the back of the line truck,” he said, “It will be easier if we pick it up later.” The next day I noticed the wire was gone. I had become an unwitting accomplice to copper theft.

We had only rudimentary measuring instruments back then. For example, an analog Simpson 260 voltmeter was our mainstay, and we made temperature measurements with millivolt potentiometers, and we took data by hand using our wrist watches to measure elapsed time. Our first computer was this slick Hewlett Packard 9820 with 1800 bytes of memory.

So what differences do I see between today and those early days? A lot remains the same. Electrons still travel down conductors and transformers still transform. We still have assets to maintain and customers to satisfy. And people who believe in delivering quality service are still drawn to the power industry. But our information technology systems are now so complex that initiatives must be tackled as a team. And utilities now work much more closely with their suppliers.

As an engineer, I still want all the latest gadgets. I can't wait to see more apps developed for utility engineers. EPRI is working on an app right now that can sense whether a line is energized. And I am all for podcasts and webcasts. Facebook and YouTube are welcome additions. I've yet to succumb to Twitter. But print and online, I am good with both.

I am fine with the good old days and I'm fine with the good “new days,” too. That said, I have one bone to pick with utilities today. They call too many darn meetings, and they create too much darn paperwork. How's an engineer to get anything done? There is nothing like meetings and paperwork to have me yearning for the way we were.

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