Rogue Basin mechanic’s innovation improves oil accountability

“Paul and the entire crew have fully embraced the (oil accountability) program. They see its value and want to support it.” – Jim Buck, Rogue River Basin Project operations manager. (Corps of Engineers photo)

“Paul and the entire crew have fully embraced the (oil accountability) program. They see its value and want to support it.” – Jim Buck, Rogue River Basin Project operations manager. (Corps of Engineers photo)

By Scott Clemans, Public Affairs Office

One of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Environmental Operating Principles is being accountable for activities that may impact the environment. Keeping track of the thousands of gallons of oil used in our dams’ powerhouses is definitely a big-ticket activity in that respect.

Paul Horvath, a power plant mechanic at Portland District’s Rogue River Basin Project, came up with a simple but innovative way to do just that with the oil used to lubricate hydropower generator bearings to help powerhouse operators.

Those bearings use a lot of oil. Monitoring the levels of that oil at William L. Jess Dam to make sure the generators are operating properly and the environment is being protected can be difficult.

“Our electronics tech acquired digital sensors to monitor oil levels,” Horvath said. “I was tasked with finding out how to mount them in various sump tanks, which would have been difficult – taking the generators offline, disassembling systems, that sort of thing.”

But the digital sensors were hopefully still going to improve on the existing system – visual sight glasses that were very inaccurate and required many connecting points that were an endless source of nuisance leaks.

“Any two people would have come to different conclusions as to how much oil was in the tank after looking at those old sight glasses,” said Jim Buck, operations project manager for the Rogue River Basin Project.

Horvath did some research and found and installed an improved sight glass system that eliminated 10 of 13 contact points, which reduced the leaks and greatly improved monitoring accuracy.

He then machined the top of the new sight glasses to accept the digital probes and readouts, which now monitor the oil level inside the sight glass chambers themselves.

18 Horvath’s innovation allows powerhouse operators to check bearing oil levels visually and digitally at the same time. (Corps of Engineers photo)

18 Horvath’s innovation allows powerhouse operators to check bearing oil levels visually and digitally at the same time. (Corps of Engineers photo)

The sight glasses in turn are plumbed into the generators’ bearing oil. This allows an operator to check oil levels both visually and digitally in one reading.“Operators don’t like to be blind,” Horvath said. “They want to see their oil. Now they can see it really well – it makes checking oil during their inspections much easier.”

“For crew members, oil accountability could be another burden, something to address after they finish their regular work,” Buck said. “But Paul and the entire crew have fully embraced the program. They see its value and want to support it.”

In fact, the William L. Jess powerhouse crew supports it so much that it was his teammate, power plant electrician Richard Bebout, who suggested that Horvath’s innovation was worthy of an award, and drafted the nomination for the Corps’ Innovation of the Year Award.

“For crew members, oil accountability could be another burden, something to address after they finish their regular work,” Buck said. “But Paul and the entire crew have fully embraced the program. They see its value and want to support it.”

Horvath joined the Rogue River Basin Project in 2007 after nine years at Portland District’s John Day Lock and Dam Project, where he completed the powerhouse mechanic training program.