Field Service Profile
Title: Senior Engineering Consultant
With Neundorfer Since: 2007 (40 years in air pollution controls)
Hometown: Vinton, Ohio
Residence: Kearney, Missouri
Home Life: Married 45 years, two grown sons, six grandkids, one dog (a Sheltie named Susie)
Hobbies: Maintaining 1970 Oldsmobile muscle car, participating in drag races with 1966 Chevy Nova
For Jim Parsons, the most rewarding part of his work in the air pollution control industry is collaborating with people to successfully understand priorities and troubleshoot customer problems.
"The key to troubleshooting is listening," he says. "Not just listening, but listening to everybody and filtering or deciphering what's actually going on. Often, the real issue is not what you're told before you get to a plant, or even once you get there. The key is to just keep looking until you find a person who is knowledgeable about the equipment, really cares and has no hidden agenda. For this person, solving a problem is not about money or power or being right; it's about making things better."
Most of the time, this approach works well, but sometimes it backfires.
"A few times, I've been set up because I told them what they didn't want to hear," Jim recalls "Sometimes the truth is not what they want."
Those experiences don't deter Jim, though. Looking back on his formative experiences during childhood and high school, it's possible to see how his ethic and approach to life took shape.
Jim was born in Charleston, West Virginia. His father’s family was from Gallipolis, Ohio. Jim's dad ran a business there until he sold it, became a sales engineer, and moved his family to Selma, Alabama in the mid-1950s—prior to the Selma to Montgomery marches.
Being white people from the North and living in the South during that tumultuous time made a lifelong impression on Jim. His dad worked closely with black people there, and because he treated them with respect they allowed him and his family into a lot of their culture.
Jim's parents divorced when he was 13, and he moved around a lot after that: Ohio, West Virginia, Utah (where his dad lived and worked). He ended up going to 13 different schools before he graduated high school in Winfield, West Virginia.
At most schools, the protocol for a new student was to raise their hand and be introduced. Jim's first day of junior high in Salt Lake City, Utah was somewhat different, though.
"The teacher asked me to come to the front of the room and say something for the class," Jim remembers. "Having just moved from Alabama 'I said, 'What do y'all want me to say?' in a heavy Southern accent. I quickly became the freak show; people stopped me in the hall and asked me to talk. They wanted to hear me because it was a novelty. Right then, I decided to lose my accent."
Jim continues: "After that, I learned little tricks to fit in by asking people questions. Everyone likes to talk about themselves if given the opportunity. The goal was always to assimilate as fast as I could."
After graduating high school, Jim worked at a garage in Gallipolis for a short while. His dad had construction work available out west, though, so in December 1964 Jim drove nonstop to Utah. He broke down twice—once in Green River/Rock Springs, Wyoming and once in Nebraska—and had to make repairs to his old car on the side of the road in sub-zero temperatures.
By the next spring, he had enrolled in the University of Utah. But, when his dad sold a big fast-track construction project in Idaho, Jim left school and went along. In Idaho he met his future wife, Linda. She'd just graduated from high school, and her dad was the superintendent of the town's railroad mechanical department. That connection helped him get a job on the Union Pacific railroad when construction slowed down. Jim and Linda were married in 1965 and soon after he got drafted and opted to join the Navy.
In Vietnam, Jim was in the engineering department on a Navy station ship, anchored in different locations on the Saigon River.
"We became a floating dock for gun boats running up and down the river," he says. "They patrolled the rivers and deltas. We got shot at almost every day, but nothing like the guys in the jungles or the rice paddies."
Jim ended up overseeing two functions: fuel oil for the ship's boilers, and drinking water purification. He advanced quickly through the ranks, and when his tour of duty was complete they tried unsuccessfully to get him to reenlist. With a son on the way, however, that was not an option.
After Vietnam, back in the States, Jim was owed a job at the railroad; according to requirements for veterans, they could not turn him away. But, there was no work in the small Idaho town where he'd been before, and no apprenticeship positions open, so instead he was sent to Pocatello working as a passenger car coach cleaner.
Jim decided to go to college using his VA benefits, and earned an engineering degree from Idaho State University. After graduation, Jim and Linda moved to Seattle, where he went to work at the newly formed Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency (PSAPCA). He was hired into the field testing and engineering enforcement group. Nixon was in office and the Clean Air Act had just been initiated.
"The Pacific Northwest and California were really the pioneers of air pollution control regulation," Jim explains. "Los Angeles had the first air pollution control agency in the U.S. The next one that formed was in Seattle. The Northwest was so pristine, and they didn't want it to turn into L.A."
Jim worked at PSAPCA for about five years before moving on to Air Pollution Systems, a research and development company. There, he started out as a test engineer, before moving up the ranks to project engineer and then project manager.
"We developed some new technology that ended up being adapted by the Electric Power Research Institute, which was helping utilities get a leg up on the new and upcoming environmental regulations."
As project manager, Jim was selected to oversee demonstrations of new technology at an EPRI test facility. The facility was located at Colorado Public Service's Arapaho power plant in Denver (now a part of Xcel Energy).
The technology being tested was a high intensity ionizer, initially used as a precharger for electrostatic precipitators. Jim spent two years at the Arapaho facility working for Air Pollution Systems as a project manager. Then, Kaiser Engineers, which operated the facility for EPRI, hired him as engineering site manager.
While at Arapaho, Jim was exposed to all the emerging air pollution control technologies, including baghouses, SCRs and scrubbers. He also met Marlin Anderson, who was a test manager for Southern Research Institute. The two became good friends and later went into business together.
Then, inspired by problems power plants were having with reverse gas baghouses, Jim and another guy who worked at Arapaho decided to strike out on their own, forming an engineering construction company, Energy Repair and Service. They teamed up with another engineer to develop sonic horn technology for supplemental baghouse cleaning energy.
In 1985, Jim teamed up with Marlin Anderson to form APCO Services, an air pollution control troubleshooting and consulting company specializing in baghouses, electrostatic precipitators, and flow modeling.
Jim and Marlin decided to run APCO out of their respective home offices. That worked okay until the flow modeling side of the business took off, and more space was needed. To fill that need, they bought a vacant, 2,450 square foot building down the road from Marlin's house in Hopkinsville. Until the business was acquired by Neundorfer in 2007, that building served as official headquarters for APCO Services. Jim remained in Missouri and continued to work out of his home, as he does today.
When he's not crawling around power plants helping improve the performance of air pollution control equipment, Jim's favorite activity is racing his 1966 Chevy Nova (bought new when he was 19 years old) and tinkering with his 1970 Oldsmobile muscle car.
"I do most of my own mechanical work," Jim says. "I have a shop that's heated and air conditioned, where I keep my cars, parts, tools and also do filter bag testing for Neundorfer. I can go out there and get lost for hours, like Linda working in her garden or someone reading. That's what I do to relax."
In Your Own Words...
"My dad was driving a race car at a race in Wellston, Ohio. I was sitting with my mother in the grandstands. He had a bad accident. Someone came up to my mother and told her he'd been killed. As it turns out, he hadn't; he'd just been injured very severely. I was probably 3 or 4 years old."
Most Memorable Safety Experience
"I was project managing a full-scale pilot test for the high intensity ionizer technology, at Tennessee Valley Authority's Shawnee power plant in Kentucky. One night I was there working late, after everyone else left, doing air load testing. The equipment was segregated into three sections, with three T/R sets. To stabilize the masts, all three sections were tied together at the bottom with insulating anti-sway rods. One of the sections was sparking on really low spark-over, and I was trying to figure out why.
I decided to go up into the high voltage compartment of another section, and look down over and down to see if I could find the problem. I thought the section I was in was separated from the one that was energized. I had my head down close to the supposedly not-energized bus bar. All of a sudden, I could feel my hair standing on end. I brushed it back. This happened two or three times. I remember thinking, 'It can't be this section, because I know it's turned off.'
As I got closer to the bus bar, my ear lobe started to tingle. I was probably an inch or less away from being electrocuted. Then, the section that was not energized started sparking. I was still in denial, but I climbed out. Then, I figured out what was happening: the insulator anti-sway rods were conducting electricity, powering both bus sections."
Most Interesting Field Service Experience
"Marlin and I were solicited to do some volunteer work in the Mideast, as part of a U.S. Advanced Industrial Development (USAID) initiative. On one trip to the region, I was at a cement plant in Egypt, looking into performance of a finish mill baghouse.
At a cement plant, the finish mill baghouse is what collects the material that comes out of the kiln: a mixture of limestone, rock, coal and iron, crushed into powder, fired at 2,700oF, and run through ball mills that grinds it to the fineness of face powder. This is what's sold in bags as cement, and is mixed with rock and water to make concrete. The baghouse is collecting the finished goods.
But at this plant, some of the baghouse compartments had no bags in them, and in the others the bags were shredded. I went to the plant manager and asked what was going on. He told me, 'Mr. Parsons, you don't understand what we do here; what our job is.' Naively, I said, 'Isn't your job to make cement?' He answered, 'No, our number one job is to put people to work.'"