Who’s doing coal plant maintenance?

This maintenance staffing study is the third in a series of plant staffing benchmarking studies published in POWER. The first, in the September 2004 issue, was on plant operator staffing; the second, in July/August 2006, examined engineering staffing. Taken as a whole, the three surveys provide extraordinary insight into the staffing of most coal-fired power plants. Such unique information is not available elsewhere in the industry at any price.

Though the detailed results are proprietary to EUCG members that participated in it, POWER was given access to the overall findings. If you want details at the plant or unit level, you’ll have to join the EUCG and participate in the next study. Joining the EUCG and participating in its ongoing series of benchmarking studies gives you access to the next layer of detail and a way to rank your plant against its peers.

The study’s scope

The latest plant maintenance staffing benchmarking study by the EUCG (formerly the Electric Utility Cost Group, see sidebar) was based on data from 45 baseload coal-fired plants comprising 142 generating units. Only day-to-day staffing data were collected, to exclude the effects of planned outages on overall staffing levels. Plant, fuel yard, and instrumentation and control (I&C) maintenance personnel were included in this study. The plants range in size from less than 500 MW (27%) to over 2,000 MW (11%), and most are owned by one of 13 geographically dispersed utilities. Of the 45 plants, 71% report that that their fuel mix includes at least 50% Powder River Basin (PRB) coal or lignite. A little over half (58%) reported that a regional maintenance supervision and craft workforce was available to work at the plant.

Several other characteristics of the study population add perspective to the survey results. For example, based on responses, 16% of the steam generators have cyclone furnaces, 13% have been retrofitted with a flue gas desulfurization (FGD) system, and 18% have a selective catalytic reduction (SCR) system. Not surprisingly, 82% of the units report having a plant distributed control system (DCS), but only 11% have cooling towers. Some 74% of respondents said their plants have an equivalent availability factor (EAF) greater than 85%, and 44% said their EAF is above 90%. 

Finding good help 

One of the primary goals of the maintenance staffing study was to develop benchmarking targets for the split between in-house and contract labor. Respondents from 31 plants in the 45-plant sample said that, in addition to plant maintenance staff, they use some full-time contractors to perform plant maintenance; contractor job descriptions range from manager (14 plants) and supervisor (12) to laborer (8). The most popular craft positions included insulator (18), janitor/cleaner (18), electrician (12), and scaffold erector (11). About two-thirds of respondents noted that paying full-time craft contractors consumed 20% or less of their plant’s total nonplanned outage maintenance labor budget. Although contract maintenance represented more than 50% of the overall maintenance outlay at two plants, the average was 12%.

Many plants farm out specific maintenance chores, as opposed to retaining several contractors and having them share general maintenance duties. A number of plants reported spending more than 75% of their budget for a particular type of maintenance on hiring contractors. The top categories here were “fuel yard mobile equipment” (26 plants), “air compressors” (21), and “forced outage boiler tube repairs” (18).

To obtain more detailed information on contractor use, the survey asked, “How would you most likely staff a three-day forced outage caused by a boiler tube leak?” Just over half of responding plants (24) said the majority of that ad hoc staff would be in-house craft workers, supplemented by staffers from nearby plants (we should all be so lucky). Another 13 respondents said they would contract out that kind of repair work.

Notes added to survey forms provided the sought-for details. They included these: “Plant personnel get core work, then supplement with contractors,” and “Welding tube leaks is considered non-core work since our plant personnel aren’t certified welders.” One respondent noted that “All craft work outside the boiler will be ours, and work inside it would be contracted out due to a staff shortage of certified welders.”

If you’re interested in more benchmarking data specific to boiler tube repairs, I direct you to a two-part article on an earlier EUCG benchmarking survey that ran in the October 2005 and November/December 2005 issues of POWER.

Sharing the load

Many plants report doing more multi-skill training of operators to qualify them to perform the more routine maintenance tasks that in the past would have been considered the purview of the maintenance department. The top reported goals of such training were to have operators “assist maintenance during outages” (26 respondents), “replace large motor air filters” (15), and “perform equipment oil changes” (14). The two tasks for which maintenance craft workers were surely grateful for operators’ help were “change light bulbs” (20) and “clean the plant” (18).

To cover the other end of the spectrum, the study also asked respondents whether they are increasingly asking maintenance workers to perform “crossover” tasks traditionally done by operators. The overwhelming response (93%) was “no,” although three plants did note that their boiler water monitoring is done by chemistry/environmental techs, and their daily chemistry by I&C techs. Clearly, the trend is to train operators to perform more maintenance-related tasks, rather than to train maintenance workers to handle more operations chores.

The survey responses were mixed on whether in-house and contracted craft workers were assigned jointly to maintenance tasks (comingling). Fifty-three percent of respondents said that is common practice, but only on a straight-time basis.

The detailed maintenance staffing survey has several layers of data that can be sliced and diced by study participants. Let’s begin exploring them by delving into the details of maintenance craft and full-time contractor head count by plant size. (Remember, only by participating in the study can you gain access to all the raw data you’ll need to benchmark yourself against your peers.)

Figure 1 illustrates the full-time craft maintenance head count at small plants (<499 MW) in the reporting sample, identified by company and contractor. To enable comparisons on an apples-to-apples basis, head counts include I&C and full-time contractors but exclude supervisors, planners/schedulers, regional maintenance workers, plant cleaners, occasional contractors, and non-craft maintenance personnel. Figure 2 shows the maintenance craft head counts at plants rated between 500 MW and 999 MW, Figure 3 shows the counts for plants between 1,000 MW and 1,999 MW, and Figure 4 reflects plants larger than 2,000 MW. The plant codes shown below the bars were assigned to respondents to ensure their anonymity.

Maintenance craft head count appears to be a function of the number of units in a plant, but only up to a point. For example, Figure 5 shows that head count varies widely, but—not unexpectedly—increases sharply when a plant has larger units. Higher head counts also seem to be the case for plants configured with FGD systems.

5. Full-time maintenance craft head count by number of units per plant. Source: EUCG

The study results also indicate that some plants cross-train their I&C technicians to make them combination I&C techs/electricians, or IC&Es. Figures 6 through 9 show the head counts for this craft category in the same four plant size categories as Figures 1 through 4 for full-time maintenance craft personnel. The next layer of survey detail, available only to survey participants, correlates I&C head count with the presence of a DCS and an FGD system. The IC&E staffing strategy was found to be more prevalent in smaller plants than in larger plants.


The leadership factor

Hiring craft journeymen, either to add expertise to a plant’s workforce or to fill staff vacancies, will not be productive unless the workers are well-supervised. Accordingly, the survey asked each of the 45 respondents to state their plant’s “supervisory ratio”—the number of craft workers (in-house craftsmen, I&C and IC&E techs, and apprentices) divided by the number of managers, general foremen, and craft supervisors. Eight plants reported their ratio as 10 or greater; one plant reported a ratio of 19; the median was 7.3.

The survey asked the same question about the ratio of craft workers to planners/schedulers. The median reported was 13.3, although the data ranged from 30 to as low as three, with a ratio of 48 disregarded in the calculation.

Cost of doing business

Getting a handle on hourly wage rates is always difficult because raw reported figures fail to take into account the local cost of living, fringe benefits, and the range of union pay scales. However, the survey did request raw hourly wage information by craft specialty. The results (Figure 10) underscore the wide range of rates that plants are paying for essentially the same skill set.

10. Reported hourly wage rates for craft maintenance workers. The numbers atop the bars indicate the number of responses received for the specific specialty and wage rate range. Source: EUCG

Straight-time wage rates are only a ballpark measure of craft costs because overtime assignments can bust a budget for direct labor. In this survey, 36% of respondents reported that overtime was typically 11% to 15% of the straight-time 40 hours/week, 29% reported that it was 6% to 10%, and 9% reported that it was 21% to 25%.

Maintenance coverage (the number of hours in a day when a maintenance staff is on duty) varied pretty much linearly by plant size. Small plants (<499 MW) generally had 40 hours/week of coverage, but two plants reported coverage of 96 hours/week. Plants larger than 1,000 MW tended to have two-shift coverage, although roughly one-third reported still using single shifts of maintenance workers. Plants larger than 2,000 MW tended to have two- or three-shift coverage, but the mix of specific shift schedules and craft specialties varied significantly among plants.

Filling the craft pool

The final survey questions asked about minimum requirements for entry-level positions in power plant maintenance. Of responding plants, 21 said new hires only had to be high school graduates, 13 required the candidate to have a trade school diploma, and seven insisted on an associate’s degree. More than three-quarters of respondents (76%) reported having a formal maintenance apprenticeship program in place, although some required new hires to work as a helper for one year before entering the program, to avoid breaking company seniority rules. Over half of the respondents (54%) said their maintenance apprenticeship program lasts 37 to 48 months.

Robert Oldani ([email protected]) is a plant performance manager at DTE Energy and a member of the EUCG’s Fossil Productivity Committee.

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