Outage Management with an Owner’s Engineer

Outages are critically important events for which time quite literally is money. The moment a unit comes out of service for an outage, it stops generating revenue for its owner and starts racking up expenses. The accumulated major maintenance bill over a 25-year period for a typical 7FA combustion turbine can be on the order of $100 million; a single major outage for one of these machines could cost perhaps $30 million when you include the cost for all necessary capital parts.

So put yourself in the position of the plant operator who discovered going into an outage that the parts shipped to his plant not only failed to match the inventory list, but had been condemned by the manufacturer and should never have been sent in the first place. It took days of expensive outage time to resolve the problem and get the correct parts shipped.

Or consider the operator whose plant was covered by a long-term maintenance agreement from an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), but ended up enduring three poorly managed outages each of which led to an extended forced outage.

Since 2007, I have received a steady stream of calls from plant operators who tell me stories like these and express concern not only about the quality of the parts they receive, but the qualifications of the outage crews assigned by OEMs and non-OEMs, especially if they are subject to long-term agreements.

It seems we’re experiencing something of a service bubble. Starting a decade or more ago, hundreds of gas-fired units were built and delivered to owners, many of whom signed up for maintenance agreements with the OEM, and then adopted a mindset that they could let the OEM worry about maintenance issues on the gas and steam turbines. At the same time, power plants reorganized their personnel to save money and lost many workers who had the technical skills and professional background to monitor an outage. 

Now we’ve reached a point where demand is high for outage services and where some operators find their OEMs and field service organizations falling short of expectations. In some cases, power plant operators don’t know where parts have been shipped for maintenance. In other cases, staff reductions have left them with fewer people to send to the repair shop floor to oversee component repair services. Increasingly rare is the owner who provides sufficient budgets or adequate technical resources for a plant manager to properly oversee an outage.

One strategy is to hire an owner’s engineer, someone who has the technical expertise to represent the plant’s best interest with an OEM or field service provider. The point is not to create animosity between the OEM and the owner, but to work for the success of the outage. It’s usually a good idea to bring in an owner’s engineer early in the outage planning process so the engineer can fully understand the outage’s scale and scope (see also, “Who Needs an Owner’s Engineer” in the Jan. 2011 issue of POWER).

Hiring an owner’s engineer can add an expense to your O&M budget. But that expense often is recovered by avoiding problems that can cost much more money. Be smart in hiring an owner’s engineer, and agree to work only with those who understand their role and do not try to exceed their authority, who have contract and outage experience, who understand how to deal with contractors, who have multiple outages under their belt, and who present strong references. 

The problems many operators face as a result of long-term maintenance agreements are unlikely to go away. Neither are the budget and staffing constraints imposed by owners. Prudent plant managers will consider the benefits that an owner’s engineer can offer and investigate hiring one before the next planned outage.

—Jeffrey Fassett is president of IEM Energy Consultants, and is a Board Member of the Plant Management Institute. To learn more about the Plant Management Institute, visit www.electricpowerexpo.com.