How to Manage a Plant Shutdown

Don Armstrong, Veleda Services

Major maintenance shutdowns can be stressful for both maintenance and operations personnel, but with careful planning and attention to details, they can also be very rewarding.

As with non-shutdown maintenance, the single biggest factor that impacts shutdown management is the operating schedule. In a plant that operates from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week or in a power-generating station that has seasons where individual units can be shut down for extended periods, shutdown scheduling is relatively easy.

However, in process industries that operate 24 hours a day seven days a week and where the cost of downtime can be up to $100,000 per hour or more, shutdowns must be treated like pit stops, with the maximum amount of preparation and a minimum of surprises.

The planning and scheduling of shutdown work is very similar to other work, with some notable differences. For instance, the level of activity is usually much higher with numerous opportunities for physical interference between jobs. Any maintenance performance problems will also be highlighted, especially if they cause a delay in start-up.

In addition, there may be many people around who are not familiar with the site, its people, systems, rules or hazards, as well as conflicting demands for tools, equipment and other resources.

Major shutdowns in process industries typically happen infrequently (every year or two) and take several days to complete. In general, these shutdowns should have two objectives:

  1. To repair problems identified during previous major shutdowns, and
  2. To inspect parts of the plant not accessible during operation in order to identify problems that will be repaired during future planned shutdowns.

Of course, problems that must be addressed immediately will be discovered occasionally, but they should be the exception. When these types of issues are found, the inspection process should be updated to avoid similar future surprises.

The key to a successful shutdown is to start the planning process early. Allow plenty of time to plan each job in detail, obtain competitive bids on contract work, manage the process inventory to gain access to tanks and other equipment for inspection, etc. A detailed "shutdown countdown" process should also be developed, including a list of essential activities, with a deadline for each one.

Shutdown Planning Tools

There is often a discussion about the best tools to use for shutdown management. For large jobs, a good critical-path application should always be used. For small, independent jobs, critical-path software or a spreadsheet may be employed. This is often a question of personal preference.

Detailed planning of shutdown work should be combined with some scheduling so key tradespeople and contractors who will be assigned to critical shutdown work can be included in the planning process.

Changing Roles During Shutdowns

During a major plant outage, roles will often change. For example, maintenance supervisors may switch areas to allow a special focus on critical work. Engineers could be assigned the role of "owner's representative" to manage contract work.

Planners may be assigned the responsibility of keeping work schedules and critical paths marked up to show actual progress, to assist with jobs they have planned, to flag problems and to monitor shutdown activity in detail. During shutdowns, they may also act as assistants to the maintenance supervisors or plan unexpected work.

Operators and their supervisors should provide support to the maintenance team by ensuring equipment is empty, clean and isolated when required, as well as thoroughly tested prior to start-up.

Generally, the best roles for maintenance superintendents or managers are to stay clear of all meetings except those related to the shutdown and to "carry water" for their people by assisting in the removal of any obstacles that arise and expediting additional help when needed.

It may be useful to make a list of jobs that have the potential to become problems, including those on or near the critical path, those with new contractors and those where the scope of work is uncertain. List these jobs in order of shortest distance and walk by a couple of times each day, talking to the supervisors and tradespeople to assess the job status. This list, which likely will change during the course of the shutdown, can provide some confidence that the work is progressing as it should.

Shutdown Progress Meetings

During the shutdown, progress meetings should be brief and frequent. Twice a day for 24-hour work schedules is suggested. Attendees should include the people with the overall responsibility for work in each area and for critical jobs.

The agenda should be limited to asking each person if he or she is aware of any issues or problems in their area of responsibility that may affect the shutdown scope or schedule, to identify actions to address these issues and to name the person responsible for those actions. At the beginning of the next meeting, the agenda should begin with a review of the issues from the previous meeting to ensure they have been adequately addressed. Surprises should never be allowed.

Shutdown Documentation

The documentation for a major shutdown can be extensive. It may include the list of shutdown work, critical-path schedules, the process inventory plan, permits and other safety documentation, the shutdown budget, all isolation and vessel-entry procedures (complete with detailed schedules and resource plans), as well as a list of the people responsible for all aspects of the shutdown (including their work schedules and 24-hour contact information).

Major shutdowns provide an opportunity for the people in the maintenance department to demonstrate how well they can perform under pressure. A well-planned and well-executed shutdown can be an exciting and satisfying experience. A strong operations/maintenance partnership will be key. Finally, be sure to include all operations and maintenance activities in an integrated shutdown schedule, which should be under constant review and revision during the shutdown period.

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About the Author

Don Armstrong is the president of Veleda Services Ltd., which provides consulting and training services to maintenance departments in industrial plants and i...