As technicians, it is an article of faith to us that our preventative maintenance inspections and troubleshooting help clients intervene before undesirable consequences caused by undiscovered problems wreak unexpected havoc on an industrialÂ plant’s operation.
We truly believe in our ounce of prevention, but we don’t always really know for sure.
Except that there are stories that circulate among people in my trade, repeated often enough to become legend – even if they have maybe been exaggerated a little bit, here and there.
The one I use frequently in talking to my technicians is about a coal fired power plant located “back east, somewhere.”
The incident in question happened “several years ago.”
Here’s the story I was told by Old Bill, a guy who had been in the business for years, and knew a lot of stuff about coal power plant operations.
“There was this coal burning power plant, you see. Put out about 500 – 600 megawatts. It had been built thirty five years ago, but was generally in good shape. They worked on it regularly and kept it running.
“Then they got some new management. They had some young hot shots from outside the industry who knew a lot about numbers, maybe, but didn’t know squat about boilers and turbines.
“And, as these smart guys tend to do, they got to looking at controlling expenses and their eyes lit on “technical consulting.” It wasn’t a huge number, but it did stand out.
“So they started pitching a fuss about how come we paid outside people for preventative maintenance services, when we had our own people – who got paid a fair wage with benefits and all.
“The smart guys didn’t want to hear about what the technical guys did, why they did it, how it was important, and what would happen if they stopped doing it. They just wanted them off the budget, now.
“Well, the maintenance guy tried to tell them. He tried in different ways at different times. He didn’t get anywhere. He kind of got the feeling the new guys thought they were old cronies he was just propping up – and letting the outsiders do the work while his guys leaned on their tool boxes or sat on their duffs.
“So, the preventative maintenance technicians who would come in about every six months to do a complete vibration analysis and balance of the big induction fans got the boot. And when they stopped coming, the veritable time bomb starting ticking away.
“The big induction fans each weighed about 35,000 pounds. They were being driven by 4,500 hp motors. They were in an environment that was hostile to their big steel vanes. And, the constant use of these rotating units continued to put a strain on their bearings.
“It didn’t happen overnight. But it happened. And, it wasn’t pretty. The fan blades started corroding. The acidic atmosphere they were in began to eat holes in them. At that size, loss of metal that wasn’t repaired began to create an unbalance in the system, straining the bearings.
“Of course, this happens all the time. The difference was, without troubleshooting and technical support, there was no one to notice the progressive deterioration, and the growing hazard. Nobody was monitoring the vibration signature of the bearing, so nobody saw the cliff up ahead.
“As you might expect, the technical guys at the plant knew better. But, when they asked for an outage to do periodic and preventive maintenance, they were told to just keep on running the plant. They gave up on their appeals to get the troubleshooting boys back in.
“It seems like bad things tend to happen at the worst possible time, and what happened at this plant was no exception. A hot, hot summer caused people to use their air conditioning all the time. And, leading up to the Independence Day holiday, all the factories were working hard prior to the days off, all the shops and malls were crowded, and power demand peaked as it rarely had before.
“This is when the bearing on one of the induction fans decided it had had all it could stand. It gave out, and the fan just came apart. Half of the blades separated from the shaft, and the others just bent. It was a good thing no one was near it, or the mechanical mess would have been compounded with some worker fatalities.
“But, that’s the only good thing you could say about it. Because when the fan blew apart, that power naturally went off line, which put the other power generators in a world of hurt, and they started to strain. There was a voltage drop throughout the system, and the whole grid started to look vulnerable.
“Here is where the old guy proved his worth. He was able to intervene and with the operators at his plant and the other people in the nearby plants, they got the system stabilized. But it was a near thing.
“Now, if this were a movie, the old guy would have got a promotion and a parade. And, the so-called “smart guys” would have got their walking papers. But that’s not what happened.
“The old guy got forced into “early retirement” and the young guys took credit for keeping things going even under the bad circumstances. And the company spent I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix everything.
“Now,” Old Bill said. “You may think that this is a load of bunk I’m feeding you. But, here’s the gold watch they gave me when they put me out to pasture after the fan went all to blazes.”