Friday, July 8, 2011

The 48 Hour Power Plant Job

I write training modules for power plants around the country – from home.  I am just completing my first work order, which consists of six modules with six documents each (system description, system operating procedure, job performance measure, facilitator’s guide, system questions, and in-process control sheet) for Unit 8 of the El Paso Electric Company Rio Grande Power Plant.  I get paid only when a module is finished so the more efficiently I work, the more profitable the job.

For this first assignment, I planned a two day visit to the plant.  Two days to get all the photographs and documents I would need to complete the entire assignment.  I have to pay all my own expenses, including travel and hotels, so two days seemed like the minimum I could get away with to get everything I needed with the least possible expense.  I would have to fly to El Paso the night before so I could have a full first day at the plant, then fly out late the next afternoon.

I took a Canon PowerShot SX130IS digital camera.  That model is well suited for power plant work.  It has a very good zoom lens, can be operated one-handed (for those times you need to hang onto a railing or ladder with the other), and it uses AA batteries.  AA batteries are good because they are cheap, I can buy them anywhere, and it is easy to carry enough for a whole day of shooting.  I do not want to be out in the middle of nowhere with a fancy lithium battery that could run out of juice on you and require half a day to recharge.

With an eight gigabyte memory card, I can take all the photos I want without running out of space.  For this job, I took over 750 high-resolution photographs.

I also took my MacBook Pro, a hard hat and steel-toed boots.

The first day I had someone from the plant give me a tour of the whole unit I was working on.  We covered every piece of equipment from the ground to the roof, climbing on top of the vertical deaerator, hiking out to the cooling towers, and getting close and personal with the boiler furnace.  El Paso was over 100 degrees that day, but after examining the burners, it felt like a cool breeze when we stepped outside into the noon sunshine.  I didn’t take any photos the first day, just took it all in.

That afternoon I spent with a copier, making copies of all the engineering drawings and manuals I could get my hands on.

The second day, I went into the plant by myself, retracing the route my guide and I took the day before.  I photographed everything I could possibly need.  In the weeks since then, I have gone through those photos dozens of times and it is amazing how many things I got shots of, more or less by accident, that ended up saving me later.

I spent the whole morning in the unit going through some areas several times, always looking for new details.  After lunch, I walked back out, reshot some areas, got shots in the control room, and made sure I had photos of all the remote control panels and data plates I could find.

By the time I was ready to fly back home, I had my laptop case crammed with drawings and documents.  My previous power plant experience was on site.  I could go out into the plant anytime I wanted for the whole time I worked on the project.  Having to fit all the research into two days was a valuable exercise in the discipline and organization.  I prefer having free access to the equipment I am writing about, but this has been a great learning experience.  What I learned on this assignment will help me be better prepared for the next one.