In the on-going challenge to maintain reliable, efficient operation at the lowest possible cost, Mike Tucker of Furmanite International outlines a route to optimize maintenance resources for maximum value.

By Mike Tucker, Furmanite International, UK

It is widely acknowledged that effective maintenance strategies and practices impact directly on power plant efficiency and productivity, thereby contributing to bottom-line profitability. Maintenance is therefore not just an essential requirement, but a pivotal element in effective plant management. A well-maintained plant will run more smoothly, consume less fuel, achieve better combustion efficiency, and see reduced CO2 emissions.

There remains, however, a prevailing attitude that views maintenance as a cost rather than an investment, so that many power plant maintenance managers are faced with a considerable challenge – to manage often ageing plant equipment cost-effectively and meet demands for optimum efficiency in terms of production, energy consumption, emissions, with minimized downtime, on a reduced maintenance budget and often diminished in-house team.

Outsourcing to pull in the necessary specialist expertise and additional labour as and when required to supplement an in-house maintenance team is one typical solution. But there is another route that is increasingly being recognized and implemented by power generation companies for the value it represents. This alternative is one long advocated by Furmanite, the technical services company geared to maximising asset uptime, and is that of a permanent core team on-site presence from a single-source contractor able to deliver a wide range of specialist services and technologies in support of the operator’s own resource.

One plant that has seen benefits from this option, for example, is the British Energy Hinkley Point site, where a core Furmanite on-site team is in place, working closely alongside and effectively integrated with the in-house maintenance team.

Outsourcing issues

While outsourcing can be useful in supplementing in-house resources and bringing in specialist skills and expertise there are downsides. It can often mean involving a large number of contractors with specific areas of expertise, for example, which in itself entails further management and logistics issues to be addressed. Moreover, in situations where a rapid response is critical, calling in outside resources can consume vital additional time. An on-site core team presence overcomes such issues.

Furthermore, because a preventative maintenance strategy is generally seen as desirable, yielding long term benefits – one industry survey reported that 85 per cent of respondents agreed that preventative maintenance increased their production capacity – the fact that a core on-site team can help to facilitate this (whereas the traditional outsourcing route will tend to be used reactively, calling in expertise to meet identified requirements) is one of the approach’s significant advantages. The on-site team concept has been shown to provide substantial savings, increased production, improved efficiency and reduced downtime, while importantly always maintaining the operator’s quality and safety standards.

On-site benefits

At British Energy’s Hinkley Point site, where Furmanite has had a core team in place five days a week for close to four years, the avoidance of delays in delivery, and reduced mobilization and demobilization costs for pressure leak sealing and defect management requirements are among the primary advantages of this arrangement over traditional outsourcing. Feedback gained by Furmanite indicates that significant savings can be generated by having a team on-site compared to reactive call-out scenarios when a problem arises, with up to 80 per cent time savings in leak sealing, for instance, from defect detection to completed repair.

On-site core team: capability to identify a defect or leak, and seal it immediately
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At another UK power station a steam and water leak from a valve was identified as a high priority when a reactor was brought back on-line and was sealed by the on-site Furmanite team within an hour – a massive saving in time over the more usual 24 hours under the call-out option. In another instance, when a leak in underground pipework preventing compressed air from being pumped into the turbine threatened to delay the start of a double reactor outage, the presence of the on-site core team enabled the leaks to be sealed and the situation rapidly resolved.

At Hinkley Point, where the ability of the on-site team to identify a defect or leak and seal it immediately is one of the core team’s major contribution areas in support of the in-house team, it is not only their on-site presence, but the fact that the team takes ownership of the work this involves at an operational level that is beneficial.

Where formerly the operator would have identified the need, and had to call in the specialists and handle all planning and necessary permits, scaffold, lagging, NDT and other requirements themselves, this responsibility is now shouldered by the Furmanite on-site core team, whose systems are integrated into the client’s own, resulting in greatly reduced time demands on the plant’s own maintenance personnel. Similarly, at another power station in Scotland, Furmanite’s on-site team has been trained in the operator’s internal computerized systems, reducing the onus on the in-house team and helping to minimize paperwork and improve efficiency and productivity.

In one illustration of these benefits, when a steam leak was discovered inside the lagging on a bend near a valve on the steam start-up vessel for a reactor turbine, the Furmanite team was on-hand to assess the work required and make the necessary arrangements immediately, getting the scaffold in place and pipework delagged, and undertake the work without delay. By being able to act swiftly in such situations, a core team can deal with any leaks before they become urgent and costly issues that could impact on operational efficiency or have safety or environmental implications, thereby helping to protect against potential unscheduled shutdowns.

Efficient use of time is further demonstrated in another case, when a steam leak on a bypass flange was required, and it was decided that this would be undertaken at a time when the reactor production could be brought down to reduce the system pressure to maximize safety. With the team permanently on site this assessment could be made, decisions taken, and the work undertaken at the specified later time, without incurring the cost of wasteful delays had an outside team been mobilised to site and had to wait to undertake the work.

Proactive advantages

Moreover, the Furmanite core team is able to assist the operator in implementing a proactive, preventative approach, by conducting regular site surveys to identify and act on any potential problems at an early stage, so avoiding or minimizing remedial requirements and costs. The team’s contribution can include monitoring and recommending preventative actions, as well as undertaking the repair and maintenance work required. The relationships that build up at plant level, plus the in-depth on-going knowledge of the plant, site and company policies, that develops as a long-term partner to the operator is a further advantage of the core team approach that comes into play.

By maintaining a log of all work carried out, the team can also assist with forward planning for scheduled shutdowns, identifying any permanent repair work needed. Additionally, Furmanite can offer further services and additional technicians as required to remove some elements from the tightly subscribed outage schedule through pre-outage preparation, helping to reduce time pressures and avoid delays. Services such as Trevitest (to test safety and relief valves on-line in advance of shutdown so that only those requiring work need be removed during the outage) or Pressurised Systems Integrity (PSI) Management (to identify the exact work requirements on all critical joints in advance of the shutdown), as well as on-site machining enabling work to be undertaken in-situ avoiding the time, cost and logistical issues involved in transporting equipment or components to a workshop, all have a valuable role here.

On-site core team: Trevitest on-line valve testing helps to reduce time pressures in outage schedules and avoid delays
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Importantly, the fact that the multi-skilled Furmanite technicians are able to deliver a wide range of specialist services and technologies that may need to be called in helps to address the potentially problematic issue of multiple contractors on site. Additionally, when its specialist services, from pressure leak sealing, on-site machining, and valve repair and Trevitesting, to PSI Management and pipeline intervention among others, are not required, Furmanite recommends that its on-site team uses the time productively to support the in-house resource as required, carrying out leak sealing or fugitive emissions surveys, refurbishing used leak sealing clamps, or undertaking general mechanical maintenance duties on-site or in the engineering workshops, including work such as general fitting or valve repair.

Tracking performance

An important element in any successful on-site core team arrangement will be to ensure that expectations are set and performance targets met. To this end agreed key performance indicators (KPIs) should be established up front to ensure that all requirements are fully met, and a ‘glass wall management’ process implemented to ensure total transparency, enabling the on-site team’s activities to be monitored and measured.

Clearly the permanent on-site core team route has multiple strengths to offer, with the advantages of bringing in specialist expertise coupled with the efficiency benefits of being on-hand, knowing the plant and the operator requirements, and being able to make a proactive and preventative contribution. Importantly, both sides gain. The plant operator benefits from cost, efficiency, and service advantages, helping the maintenance team to minimize downtime, avoid unscheduled disruption and ensure maximum availability of assets. The contractor also gains from being able to plan effectively, as well as gathering the necessary information to ensure skills and equipment are matched to the requirement for optimised delivery. Ultimately, both parties will profit from achieving predictable outcomes and maximized efficiencies.