A report from the other end of the steam line.

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Posted by MikeH on August 09, 2001 at 19:30:31:

A little over a month ago I was transferred from my 25 year job as a boiler operator into the pipefitter shop next door. The boiler operations at the Air Force base where I work was contracted out to a private company. (Actually, I'm still operating the plant on weekends for the contractor, for a total work week of 64 hour, but that's another story.) The pipefitters take care of the steam system on the base.

Well, I've been on my new job as a pipefitter for one month last week. My assessment of pipefitting thus far is, people actually do this for a living!? It is hot, dirty, and dangerous work, but does have its good points. The past couple weeks we've been doing annual maintenance in the steam pits, underground tombs crammed with steam lines, traps, and other fittings. Between the heat above ground and the sweltering heat radiating off the steam lines it's about 150 degrees down there, so a guy (and no woman would be dumb enough to do this work) can only stay down for a few minutes at a time. Many pits contain dead rats, drawn in during the winter by the heat but unable to escape. I counted 15 little corpses in one pit out in a field. Smelled REAL nice! And every pit--virtually every one--contains a yellow jacket nest on the manhole. I guess they enjoy the heat early in the springtime. We all get stung. Many pits also house black widows, and twice over the past three years a fitter has gotten bite. One guy ended up in the hospital from a spider bite.

Worse is the danger of a steam burst. My partner warned me, "For godsake don't stress the pipes when you remove the steam trap. These rusty fittings are sixty years old and are ready to go anytime. If they do, you'll be cooked before you ever make it to the ladder." The slightest brush against any of the 350 degree lines leaves an instant burn, and I've got plenty of scars so far.

In each pit one guy goes down while the other stays above. The downstairs one removes the steam trap and hands it up to his coworker, then replaces the check valve and does whatever other work needs to be done, such as lubing the expansion joints. The upstairs guy rebuilds the hot trap while baking under the sun. Takes about half an hour, then on to the next pit where they trade places.

So far we've done about 40 pits, and have around another 120 to go.

Other tasks so far have included repairing blown flanges, repacking valves in impossible to reach places, and pumping pits that have filled with condensate water from leaking return lines. I think we pumped five pits over the past week. This weekend is summer shutdown, when the plant comes down for annual maintenance on systems that cannot be worked on hot. We'll be working overtime 10 hours saturday and sunday.

On the good side, no one on base much messes with the fitters, and they are pretty much left to do as they want, pretty much following their own rules. If anyone in the other shops says anything, they are told "go work with the pipefitters for a day." They do, and then they shut up. I've noticed that a lot of pipefitters tend to drink a great deal. Figures. No sober man would do this sort of work.

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