I’m working under the 500kv lines. Atop a mountain looking over the mainland this time. Above the city of Coquitlam. I can look across the way and imagine the outline of the water treatment plant I was working on a few months back. Mostly I just see the mountains of trees yonder, with a clear cut shaved up convenient valleys and ridges, a scar the mountains whether coldly so these high voltage power lines can connect to the electrical grid all over the province and beyond. That’s if I peer beyond the chain link fencing, topped with barbed wire. The prison I find myself in, of wage slavery.
As site first aid attendant, I am privledged with carrying the key to let everyone on and off site, a cell phone, and walky talky. I must drop what I am doing to go let so and so in, or clean and bandage some doods small cut. I have been lucky, I remind myself, no big first aid emergency’s yet. Having a tender heart, I know the trauma of dealing with someone else’s misfortune would certainly break me. I feel a special responsibility and importance in my position, and try my best to perform as expected.
Trying to focus on the task at hand, I am installing some lights out in the yard. We’ve pulled to every pole located in front of an LCC panel box a cable of #12/2 cab tire to power a 347 v light.
We are attaching the actual light fixture 8 ft up on the pole. The height is measured, the box is strapped down. Then we run some empty flexible conduit up the pole and pull the #12/2 inside it up into the fixture to be spliced in. There are eight fixtures in total to install and splice. The yard, as it is built on a mountain, is not on level ground. It is slanted down towards the west. Thus, all the poles and the footings the poles are installed atop of in the west side of the yard are higher off the ground, so that all the aluminum buss up in the air is still level with each other. We start on the downhill end. Circuit breaker number eight. It’s me and Charlene, the other apprentice who also happens to be female. (I am working with another female apprentice! This I am stoked on.)
We also have with us Trevor, the Utility Company’s safety watch. He is required to watch us, ensuring our safety, in that we do not come within 16 feet of our Limits Of Approach (LOA). He is an overpaid babysitter, baby sitting adults that would never purposefully hurt themselves, but sometimes make deadly mistakes. It’s better to have an extra set of eyes, the company has decided, to prevent any sort of injury. I am slightly jealous of his position, as I and every other electrician perform a similar role as him for much of our careers, only we have been expected to work as well. He is required simply to watch us work. I am also not jealous at all, as he seems very bored.
Because we are standing on top of the cement footings, and reaching up, we encroach into our allotted 20 feet of LOA. So with the safety watcher there, as per LOA rules, we are allowed to get as close as 16 feet, but no closer. I think our arms come within 18 feet of the live buss way up there in the sky. (Or so out laser measuring device tells us.) Thus, we reach away, waving our arms around much closer than we should ever be towards the inductive air gap separating us from doom. Fatalism aside, let’s be real. This all makes me feel rebellious and badass. Check me out I’m working in a sub, the HV yard, NBD. It’s a neat job, one that I never dreamed of experiencing.
We finish number eight’s light, then work our way over to number seven, then number six, then number five, then number four… When we get to number three, something changes. The ground is closer to the high voltage lines up on this side of the yard, and there is more induction over here. Charlene and Trevor are getting small but biting static shocks from the induction when they touch the steel poles around us, and it is impossible to complete our task of installing these lights on the poles without receiving constant shocks. Strangely, however, when I touch the pole, I receive no shock.
‘How come you guys are getting shocked and I’m not?’
I ponder out loud to the others.
‘Are my gloves insulating me more?’
I remove my glove and touch the pole, still no shock. I look over at Charlene, and notice she has the same gloves on. She takes her glove off and touches the same pole as me.
She screams, giving me a dirty look, as though I had somehow tricked her. We then take a thin piece of cable, wrap it around the ground cable that is permanently fixed to the footing and pole, tied into the ground grid that spreads all over the underground of the station, and tape the other end to the pole up a foot beyond where we are working. This grounds out the pole and reduced the induction. Now the shock is lessened for them, as the induction voltage has an easier path to ground on the copper cable, than through their bodies.
We start working again, but we are still wondering why the smallest person among us (me) was not getting a shock and the bigger people were. They both had 20 pounds on me. Generally, it is said that higher mass will give a higher resistance. Water content in a mass would also change a body’s conductivity, as water is highly conductive. Perhaps I had a lower water content in my body that day. My friend Willow would say: ‘ it’s because you are so grounded as a person’. Hahaha.
We take a moment to investigate further. The utility guy goes to his van and pulls out a multi-meter. We first measure the voltage in the air: it reads 2 volts! Then we measure the resistance between our hands. Trevor gets 1000 ohms. Charlene also gets 1000 ohms. For some reason, I read 10 000 ohms. So strange. We are in disbelief, even though it explains why I received no shock and they did. To be certain, however, we measure again. We get the same readings.
‘I guess you are a born electrician then!’ says Trevor, scoffing.
‘Yeah, it’s hard to shock me these days.’ I retort.
‘You must not be working as hard as us, and thus sweating less, so have less moisture on your skin making you less conductive’ he theorizes.
‘So you’re working up a sweat are ya? Watching us work all day long! Hahaha yeah right!’ Charlene spits out laughingly.
‘Welly, maybe I need to drink more water. Must be dehydrated. Shall we call the Mystery Machine crew to solve this one Scooby?!’ I say.
Charlene gets serious for a moment, and for a second I wonder if she is considering my question. But then she turns to me and asks:
‘Have you ever heard of spontaneous combustion?’
‘Yes, I went to a presentation on it one time actually.’
(FTW AKA Fuck The World Collegiate, Winnipeg MB circa 2007, a gathering of seemingly random people drawing random topics out of a hat and doing a researched presentation on it for everyone else in the room).
Charlene continues her train of thought, ignoring my segway into my past.
‘Hey, maybe we’re going to combust spontaneously! You were saying you’ve been eating mostly bread lately? That’s a high carb diet. Bread diet makes for low levels of acetone in your body. High carbs, low acetone. Maybe Tyler and I are eating regular carb diets, giving us more acetone than you. D’uh guys! Acetone is super flammable! The static in the air from the induction might randomly ignite the acetone in our bodies! Voila, human spontaneous combustion. And probably all that bread your eating is absorbing all your body’s water too. This would explain why your little penner body can have more resistance than me and safety watcher guy.’
‘yeah, either that or you’re cells are still drunk off all that boozing u been doin’!’
The joys of working with super nerds. I return a huge grin to Charlene and I know she is only half teasing.
‘If you guys burn down in front of me, can you try to not make me a huge mess to clean up at least?’
‘Is this for real? Hahaha! I’m gonna google search this right now!’
Trevor gets out his phone as he sits down, and pops some pistachio nuts in his mouth.
‘DOOD! Time to stop eating so many pistachio nuts, they’re known to spontaneously combust!’ Charlene teases Trevor.
Trevor is looking down at his phone.
‘Well according to my research, you both should know, since you talk so much shit, that piles of manure have been known to spontaneously combust!’ Trevor chuckles at us.
We have a good laugh at this idea and then divert the conversation in a morose direction of ways to die on a construction site. The reality is, electricity’s a mystery. The more I work with it and learn in school, the more I realize, it’s all just a bunch of theories. We still have yet to solve the mystery of why I was highly resistant that day.