MARSHALLTOWN - When we talk about electricity, it’s usually because the power is out. It is also a product made and distributed here in Eastern Iowa. Maintaining it is as important as making it. We’re taking you behind the scenes for a charged up look at how crews keep the lights on and the gas flowing to your home.
I laced up work boots, donned the safety gear, and tried my hand at using an auger, climbing a power pole, and even taking in the view from nearly 60 feet in the air. Alliant Energy’s training facility in Marshalltown trains apprentices for anywhere from 1 to 4 years. Alliant says it must continue to attract top level talent into line, gas, engineering and power plant positions, as it deals with an aging workforce. This is a career-track that many begin at a technical college with a one or two year program.
In my few hours of learning I can say this -- It takes a lot of power to power Eastern Iowa. And the workers have one key goal: “Protect life and property and protect ourselves. We’ve got steps we have to follow to make these repairs,” said Keith Jones, a Gas mechanic welder training coordinator. His tips for helping me to put out a natural gas fire? “Aim, squeeze, and sweep.”
Galen Dayton is an Alliant Energy Line Mechanic with decades of experience. He knows—you respect the electricity. “Voltage depending on the system most common is probably about 7,200 volts, “ said Dayton. That also proves true with gas. “If you ever see a natural gas fire and its burning with nothing around it, it’s controlled. That’s the way we like it,” said Jones.
Working around electricity and gas requires extensive personal protective equipment. Sometimes, workers admit, it can be challenging to work through. “You have that on, your bibs, or if it’s raining, you’ve got your rain suit,” said Brandon Koele, an Alliant Energy Line Mechanic. “You wear your bibs, and your coat, throw that on… it’s just awkward.”
Imagine wearing that gear and working in 40 mile per hour winds, 60 feet in the air; that’s a regular occurrence for workers who spend their day not at a desk, but in a boom working on high voltage power lines. Trainers told TV-9 there’s typically only one thing that brings a worker down from work in a boom: lightning.
It seems there are plenty of people lining up to do this dangerous work. Dave Etler trains Alliant energy gas mechanics at the training site in Marshalltown. “Right now we’re on our highest numbers,” he said. The trainers credit variety in the job with the influx in trainees. “We do welding, we do everything, so there’s always a different aspect,” said Jones. “Whether they choose the electric or the gas side. There’s always interest, it’s always something new. We get a lot of ambitious people coming in.”
Ambitious workers like Casey Unruh, who isn’t afraid to do his work from several stories up. He says it’s a career, but it’s also a mindset. “Calm mental state. Make sure you don’t make any mistakes,” said Unruh.
As for my career as a utility worker, I think I’ll stick to my day job.
Alliant Energy says as a general note, if there’s a power outage you shouldn’t assume they know about it. Calling your utility to let them know about it can help to narrow down outages, and ultimately get the power back on faster.
If you’re interested in a career as a utility worker, you can find Alliant’s Open positions at alliantenergy.com/careers.