About Me

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Tracie Skarbo was motivated to write by her father, who was her biggest supporter. “He was always behind me, rallying me on with my writing. I would always see him with a book in hand. He gave me a great appreciation for the written word, and the power and responsibility that writers have to shape those who read their words. He also taught me to respect nature and to value the beauty within it; my reflections on my environment are just an extension of this.” Skarbo was raised on Vancouver Island and is working on her next two books.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Interview with Steve Karpicz: Have you ever wondered about the guys and gals who keep our power on? Come and get an inside look!

Could you tell us a little about what you do for a living Steve?  How long have you been working in this field?

Transmission line reflected in pond
I started with the company in September of 2000 in the call center as my way of getting my foot in the door and eventually transferring to a field job. That opportunity eventually came, and on April 2002 I transferred to my current position. I work in Substation Operations and Maintenance, which means I work primarily in electrical substations. If you live in a rural area, then you’ve probably seen those big electrical yards out in a field somewhere. That’s what I work in. In Boston most of what we do is either underground or indoor, so we tend to blend in with all the other utility workers.
Transmission line bushing and cable
What kind of training do you need for such a venture?

The training is layered, involving two different aspects. First is the electrical operations side, which involves controlling the flow of electricity along the power lines, and second is the mechanical side, which involves everything else, from how to repair equipment, wiring, battery work, plumbing, pretty much anything you can think of. Substations are a lot more involved than just containing power lines. You’ve got relays to monitor and protect the lines, circuit breakers which come in various shapes and sizes (the bigger breakers are about the size of a small compact car), fire protection systems which involve either water or CO2, excavation for underground work...the list is endless. It takes two years to complete the mechanical training and a year for the electrical operations side, culminating with an oral exam at the end which you must pass in order to be qualified by the company to operate the equipment on your own. In addition to that, we have continuous on the job training for new equipment as well as refresher training for things you may not have done in a while. In the classroom you can only cover so much material. It’s really the field experience where you learn, and that’s always an ongoing process.
What is the scariest thing you have had to face on the job?
Harborwalk, Boston
I’ve had electrical equipment explode in front of me twice, both energized at 14,000 volts. Once there was enough of a warning that I was able to run to safety before it exploded, and the other time it was so unexpected and I was so new (and therefore naive) about what could happen that there wasn’t even enough time to be afraid. It wasn’t until much later on when I had more experience and time to reflect on what happened that I started playing around with the variables of the situation. What if I was standing a little to the left? What if I was the one who threw the switch when the explosion occurred? What if, what if, what if. It’s a question that haunts me now.
What do you find the most challenging about your job?
 Intersection of Kingston and Bedford St
One of the most challenging things is battling complacency. Like any other job, the routine of doing the same task over and over again builds a sense of familiarity. Muscle memory, paint-by-numbers, could do this with my eyes closed sort of routine. But in this business that’s the one thing you have to avoid. You go to open a circuit breaker not paying attention and oops, you’re at the wrong location and you just dumped the Back Bay or the Prudential Building. Or the State House, or air traffic control for the northeast. Or worse, you’ve operated something that wasn’t safe to do so and now you’ve blown something up or injured somebody. I’m certainly not alone in this either. Having been a union steward for a while, I’ve heard my share of stories and sat in on plenty of hearings where the one thing that went wrong was that the person doing the job wasn’t paying attention. Despite all the obvious reasons to do so, staying focused is a constant battle.

Equipment from one of the original substations built in 1903.
I have seen some of the photos that you have taken of old machinery that was used. Is this a hobby of yours?

Photography’s definitely a hobby, which fits in nicely with my fascination with history. The utility I work for dates back to the 1900s. In fact, there’s still equipment in service from that time, back when (as cliché as this sounds) things were built to last. We have equipment on our system designed and built by Thomas Edison. Some of our older equipment has ended up in the Smithsonian. We have substations that are decades old, and an archive with all sorts of historical artifacts. I can go to a substation and look in the station log from 1918 and see what time the street lights were turned on and who did it. Not to mention the insider’s view I’m provided by working here, that glimpse into the inner workings of how things get done. It seems almost offensive not to take pictures of some of this stuff, to document in my own sense how things were and how they’ve changed. It’s not just the historical aspect either. The artistic side of me is constantly drawn to the lines and curves of power lines. The gentle rise and fall of cables strung from pole to pole. I’ve developed a whole sense of aesthetic beauty around what I do, and that’s part of what I try and capture with pictures.

Top of radio tower, Sudbury
I have also seen some of the photos of you up in the high towers looking out as you were doing repairs. Can you tell us a little about that and did you ever have troubles with heights?

The best I can remember I felt a little dizzy the first time I went up on an aerial lift. It was a surreal moment, partly due to dealing with the fear for the first time, and partly because of the excitement of the experience. It didn’t take long until I got used to the heights, until the first time it got a little breezy. That was a harder adjustment to make, but in the end you learn to trust your safety harness and all the other equipment you use. It also helps that we can refuse to do a job should we deem it unsafe for any reason. Safety is taken very seriously, and no one is ever forced to do anything they’re not comfortable with. That being said, the only fear I really have going up in the air is that I’ll drop my camera.

You work with a source of power that could kill you with any wrong step, or if any of the people around you miss-step, how do you deal with that? Is the fear something you just put at the back of your mind or do you just find a way to deal with it?
I’ve come to the conclusion that I have at the very least a preoccupation with death, bordering on mild obsession. Thinking about it comes and goes in spurts, and I’ve written about it ad nauseam, or at least that’s how it feels to me. Yet I still return to the subject of death and work over and over. That’s part of how I deal with it. As for when it comes time to work on electrical equipment, I’ve developed a routine around it. First, I’ll usually spend some time thinking about what could go wrong and how to handle it (example: if something catches on fire: where’s the nearest exit?). Next is making sure I have what I need to do the job, including any tools and / or safety equipment. Then when it comes time to operate the equipment, like crank open a set of disconnects energized at 115K volts, it’s a combination of staying focused on the job, paying attention to what’s happening, and faith, which for me would include belief that both the equipment will work as it’s intended and that everything will turn out all right.
Rooftop sunset, Ave de Lafayette

Do you have special suits that you wear on the towers and in the helicopters?

Unfortunately my department doesn’t deal with the helicopter aspect, so I don’t get to wear one of those fancy mesh suits needed to work on the high lines, but as far as the towers are concerned, we don’t need any special protective equipment. Tower work in our department requires that any line be both de-energized and grounded, so the only safety equipment required is your fall protection, although some guys do prefer using rubber gloves when going hands-on as well.

If you could change any aspect facing you on the job what would it be?

The same thing that almost every job in the world has to deal with: office politics and bureaucracy.

Do you see evidence that we are going to need to cut back on our use of energy or be "in the dark" so to speak?

I think the evidence is pretty clear that changes need to be made in all aspects: how much we use, how we use it, how we deliver it, and most importantly, how we produce it. There are three basic things you need to generate electricity: a magnet, a conductor, and relative motion (i.e. some way of moving the magnet over the conductor to propel the electrons). Using fossil fuels to generate electricity has several drawbacks, all of which are well-known at this stage of the game. Fortunately, interest in renewable energy is on the rise. Solar panels are increasing in popularity, and some people are even able to sell excess solar power back to their utilities. Same goes for wind turbines. There’s also great advances in battery technology which look very promising. These types of advances on the individual level will also alleviate the other big issue - our infrastructure. The only way to keep up with current demand is to modify the existing infrastructure (aka the band-aid approach) as opposed to completely starting from scratch, which when you consider the age of our infrastructure would actually make more sense. There’s no conceivable way it could be done at this point. Despite recent federal funding into infrastructure upgrades it’s like trying to fill in the Grand Canyon with a shovel and pail. We’re too far behind. Would reducing our energy consumption help? Of course, and new advances along that front are being made. But we also need to be innovative with respect to our infrastructure in order to be able to keep up with current demand as well as plan for long-term projected use. The combination of dwindling resources as well as infrastructure is really a two-headed monster.

Thanks so much Steve, for taking the time out and giving us a behind-the-scenes look as an electrical utility Operator.  I have learnt a lot from your candid answers. 

For our readers, please check back with us in the coming weeks as Steve and I will be tackling another post about his time working through Hurricane Sandy, and the devestation she left. 

*** All photographs provided by Steve Karpicz.



  1. Great shots, a nice perk to be able to get them. Sounds like quite the process sometimes too, but yeah mundane just about any job can be, that is surely known by me.

    1. Thanks Pat! Steve is a wonderful photographer! Thanks for coming by...will be over your way soon!

  2. i love the first two and last two captures

    1. Kamana! What a wonderful surprise! Great to see you here.. :)

  3. enjoyable read...learned a lot here about who keeps the juice flowing. great interview! Nice pictures too.

  4. its got to be pretty intimidating working with that much power...and knowing one false move could kill you....wow as well to see them blow up in front of you...humbling...really cool pictures....the old machines are really fascinating to me....