Viewing maintenance from the perspective of investment protection

Gary W. Foster, Stanley Consultants Inc.

Electric utilities pass through several phases of development: original incorporation and construction, on-going operations, upgrades and expansion, and—though perhaps not a phase but rather a continuum—maintenance. While maintenance may not be as visible as construction or expansions, it can be argued that routine and preventive maintenance is the most important aspect of a utility. Lack of maintenance jeopardizes other operations inherent in electric utilities and their quality of power and service to the public; therefore, it also jeopardizes revenue.

Maintenance for some foreign electric utilities is often seen merely as an activity and, by very small utilities, as passive in nature. Maintenance as a preventive measure is often deferred and sometimes neglected or completely overlooked. If maintenance is viewed less as an activity, however, and more as a vehicle for protecting a utility’s investment, it assumes a more compelling meaning.

Maintenance programs

In its most comprehensive form, a routine maintenance program requires hands-on actions and is a function of daily activities that follow a definitive scheme, methodology, schedule, and program. It consists of frequent inspections, replacement, upgrades, removal of vegetation, system expansion, etc. on a predictable routine basis. For smaller utilities, where revenue is minimal, cash flow difficult, and cash reserves less than plentiful, a sophisticated maintenance program would be difficult to initiate and maintain. Additionally, financial deficiencies would exacerbate the effects of a maintenance program that may already be moribund.

In this case, maintenance assumes more than a backburner priority. However, it is a proven fact (but not immediately obvious), that the longer a utility defers maintenance, the more costly the neglect or oversight will be— resulting in a never-ending downward spiral. But for a utility that does not have the means to install a sophisticated maintenance program, routine maintenance—regardless of how minimal or subtle—can still result in positive short and long term benefits.

Without too much trouble, a small utility can develop an effective maintenance plan drawing on available resources without burdening financial capacities. To begin, a complete inventory of available hardware and equipment must be conducted so as to be able to ascertain what emergencies can be handled with equipment on hand, and to determine which equipment or hardware must be obtained to mitigate or correct high incident or debilitating problems.

Along with an inventory of electrical hardware and equipment, an inventory of tools and other equipment available for repairs and installations must be made. As with hardware, any tool that may be required for emergency situations, but not on hand, must be obtained.

Maintenance also implies proper care and storage of equipment. Too often, improperly stored electrical equipment and material is a true sign of impending disaster. Transformers, reclosers, switches, etc., should not be stored in grass in the corner of a substation or outside a powerhouse in an area that is also used for discards. A storage plan must be developed that addresses area size, locations, equipment layout and security. Security of equipment is paramount primarily because inventory represents investment and, at issue, maintenance is investment protection.

Throughout much of the world, weather is tropical, meaning there is a high level of humidity and corrosion. Sensitive equipment should be stored in warehouses thereby reducing exposure to harsh weather. Highly sensitive electrical equipment such as relays, and SCADA components must be removed from any possible contamination of water or corrosive threats and stored indoors. Transformers should be stored on pallets in an open but covered secure area. Switches are important because of the electrical contacts and these must remain corrosion free. Insulators are less prone to damage due to weather, but care should be take to store them in such a manner that chipping of the porcelain is reduced. While copper and aluminum conductor are less vulnerable to weather, the wood reels on which they are sometimes shipped can rot rendering the conductor to a pile of unusable spaghetti.

For those utilities with the means to develop more than a simplified maintenance program, a computerized database is essential. One should note that there are many maintenance and database software programs available. Quite often a smaller utility cannot afford one. This does not excuse a utility who is customer oriented to develop its own. To reduce costs, maintenance databases can be developed on any spreadsheet program. In fact, an advantage is they can be custom designed to meet the unique needs of the utility. The database can indicate material and hardware on hand and status of each, list points of potential problems, and show a maintenance schedule that can be printed out and the data re-entered after the inspections are performed.

Foster is a vice president with Stanley Consultants, of Muscatine, Iowa, and markets his company’s services in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. He has worked extensively with electric utilities in these regions on issues ranging from evaluation of hydro-power potential to system upgrades and maintenance programs. He can be contacted by e-mail at fostergary@stanleygroup.com.

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