A day in the life of Station Operator Zachary Wager

man in hard hat in power plant
Zachary Wager, Dry Fork Station station operator.

Working in the energy industry was not initially on Zachary Wager’s radar, despite his father working at Dry Fork Station in Gillette, Wyoming. Some good advice, however, directed Wager’s path to a career that fit him, and just happens to be at the same facility as his dad.

“I was at a point in college where I didn’t know what I wanted to do and my dad gave some good fatherly wisdom,” Wager says. “He brought up the idea of possibly being an operator. I grew up watching my dad fix things as a mechanic, but he thought maybe I would want to maintain things, which is what operators really do – they maintain, watch over, and get to control the equipment. I did my research and was 100% on board.”

In one year, Wager swiftly earned an associate’s degree online from Bismarck (North Dakota) State College in power plant technology. He then began working as a student intern at Dakota Gasification Company in the spring of 2014. In December of that same year, he was hired on full time at Dry Fork Station. Since starting at the plant, Wager has moved up into a few different roles and now works as a station operator. The plant is close to where Wager calls home in the Black Hills, South Dakota, area.

On a daily basis, Wager looks at the boiler, where the main combustion of the coal takes place, and at all of the equipment that goes with it. He describes how an operator’s worst enemy is complacency. “When there’s something out of order in an operator’s area, you can pick it out. It might have the slightest different tune from the shift before, or even the round before,” Wager says. “I’ve learned it’s important to trust your eyes, ears, smell, and touch, because that might alert you to an issue that is not being picked up yet on the control system.”

Wager’s skills were put to the test on Feb. 13 around 2 a.m. when buildup within the boiler, known as slag, fell, plugging up the bottom ash system. The timing was unfortunate, as this was during the same week as the unprecedented energy emergency that impacted Basin Electric’s membership and much of the midsection of the United States.

That particular night, Wager had been keeping an eye on a specific area of buildup by looking through an inspection port, which is a 3-4-inch opening. Because the boiler is so hot, Wager had to look into the boiler through a shield. From what he could see, the piece of slag did not appear to grow in size or move, and when the boiler is heated up, slag typically stays in place.

Twice during each of Wager’s shifts, he opens the bottom ash doors, which are the separating factor between everything above in the boiler and the ash removal system down below. The doors protect a conveyor belt that transfers the ash. When Wager went to open the doors for the second time on Feb. 13, the hydraulically driven doors opened but would not close. “What happened was these massive chunks of slag had dropped down onto the belt. We can only see such a small portion of the buildup through the inspection port, but we found out there was a lot more than we were originally aware of,” he says.

From there it was all hands on deck to try to keep the plant online. “I knew I had to open up a bottom ash port to try to break up as much ash as I could access,” Wager says. “I moved the belt for the next two-and-a-half hours and as the small ash fed out, the large pieces started dropping down. It came to a point where the large ash was the only thing left on the belt. It became a matter of whether it would fit through the opening. You’re moving big pieces of slag through a small opening in comparison and it is a very hard thing to try to accomplish, but you have to try your best. Finally, I thought the slag was going to pass and I was getting pretty excited, but then all of a sudden I got a call from my control board operator that the belt had tripped.” Eventually the plant had to come offline in order to resolve the issue by unplugging the bottom ash system.

It is in challenging situations like this when operators are needed the most and it is clear Wager does not take his job responsibilities lightly.

“I’m such a small component in comparison to the whole picture, but if I can do my part to keep the plant reliable and the power generating, especially when things are in dire need of attention, then I’m helping make a difference,” Wager says. “An operator is a key component at the starting point of power generation and I understand how crucial it is for the grid and for our members to have a reliable source of energy.”

Wager’s passion for his job and the pride he takes in working at Dry Fork Station is apparent. “Our plant is one big office. I’ve really enjoyed working here. It’s one of the best places you can possibly work,” Wager says.

It seems things have come full circle from the time when his dad recommended he look into becoming an operator. “I would have never guessed I would get to work with my father, but like this morning, I saw him when I was coming off my night shift and was able to greet him. It’s fun talking back and forth about operations and maintenance with him. We both learn a lot from each other,” Wager says.

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