Icemen Get Dirty: Power plant operations are electrifying Part II

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Janine Thibault
  • 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Editor's Note: Icemen Get Dirty is a series that takes an inside look at what it takes to be employed in various work environments. This is the second part of the series.

In a narrow corridor, several workers wearing raincoats push a small plastic bullet through more than 1,000 small pipes. Using high-pressure water, they clean built up residue from the lake water.

The crew finds many items caught within the pipes, including rocks, fish and mud. The task takes all day to complete, and even with the raincoats most are soaking wet and covered in mud.

It is all part of the rigors of power plant maintenance as workers from different jobs help to keep a very important system working.

While early humans were able to live without today's comforts, the needs of Airmen and technical capabilities of Eielson within Interior Alaska's environment demand more than a small fire to keep this community going.

Electricity keeps Eielson running - a resource that can be traced back to the Central Heat and Power Plant, where workers perform dirty and sometimes extremely dangerous jobs to give the base one of its most important resources.

When turning on a computer, plugging in a car or turning up the heat in a home, it may not be customary to pay homage to the men and women of the power plant. But in reality, Eielson's capability depends on these individuals.

"I like to think of the power plant as the heart of the base," said Master Sgt. Dion Warner, boiler plant helper. "The harder [the base] works, the harder [the power plant] pumps, and you have to be ready to respond."

Boiler plant operators, also known as firemen, hold the responsibility for everything on the level they are assigned to. They ensure coal is always available to feed into the burners, steam loads and oxygen levels are maintained, and provide everything else needed to keep the fires burning.

"Physically, I guarantee it is the toughest job on base," assured Warner. "The days go by and you stay in shape. On a good day, I work a hard four hours. On a bad day, it's 12 hours of sweat."

In addition to the mechanical upkeep, the coal itself can also present a challenge in the form of clinkers -- balled up coal that can block vents.

When coal is not burning well, large concrete-like clinkers form and have to fit through the small vent requiring the ash puller to use a jack-hammer to break up the pieces.
Luckily, today's quality of coal is better than in the past.

"But it can turn on you in a heartbeat," said Warner. "Every morning when I get into my truck to go to work and wonder how the day's going to go, the first thing I do is look at the temperature, and think, 'It could be a good day'."The base needs power to launch aircraft and provide comfort for service members and their families.

As a boiler operator, Ken Calkins, worked up the ranks from a boiler plant helper. He has worked all over the plant, putting valves on and taking them off, managing feed water and making sure everything in the plant operates correctly. He must remain fluent in the mechanics of the power plant, including everything from how the plant works and how to troubleshoot any issues, to water systems and steam flow. They do a lot of running around, as there are more than 800 valves they must service.

"Honestly, this is one of the most important jobs on the base," said Calkins. "Without power or heat there'd be no one here and that's pretty astonishing."

According to Calkins, the first couple months working at the power plant is overwhelming and there is a lot of weight on your shoulders. But with more experience on the job, the more comfortable it gets.

"One of the hardest things about the job is when things go wrong and you're trying to figure out why," said Calkins. "Then vents and alarms start going off and it's still unclear why and all of a sudden everything stops. That's difficult, but you have to keep a cool head and not get in a hurry; just take it one at a time until you figure out what's going on and why it's stopped."

In a work environment where it is imperative that every step is completed to allow operations to continue, things can get hectic. Individuals work together to help each other.

"We have the responsibility to fix anything out there in the power plant that breaks down," said Steve Brown, power plant boiler mechanic. "There are things you can't improvise on, but as far as fixing things, it's always something new."

Every day is different for the power plant workers and everyday brings a challenge.
"Electricity's taken for granted, until it goes away," said Warner.

No matter how miniscule the task performed, whether it's personal or mission related, the power supplied to the base every day is due primarily to power plant workers. Their continued 24 hour operations in the dirtiest of jobs keep coal burning and generators running to make life comfortable for everyone at Eielson.