Plan Your Next Outage Carefully–Your People and Blood Pressure Will Thank You

By Nick Gaglia, NAES Corp.

There are four phases to any project: initiation, planning, execution and closing, according to the Project Management Institute.

Successful outage projects succeed because of careful planning and, conversely, such projects fail because of a lack of it. Conscientious planning of your outage will reduce risk, make it easier for your people to work in harmony and probably keep your blood pressure out of the danger zone, as well.

To do it right, you’ll need to define work scopes and schedules, stage scaffolding and tools, purchase materials and services, order spares and arrange for support staff. You’ll want to work through the appropriate union, where applicable, to ensure your labor needs are met with quality people promptly when you need them. To complete a significant outage project on schedule, your plan of execution must be well-organized–from new-hire safety training and site orientation down to orchestrating the work on a daily and hourly basis. That means close scheduling of craft, tools, materials and support staff to stay on schedule and not compromise safety or efficiency. Pre-job safety training will go a long way toward ensuring the work is done safely and according to best practices.

Planning begins with defining the scope, and the earlier the contractor gets involved, the better. Project contractors must work closely with the client’s engineers and managers from the start to ensure successful collaboration. For a long-term maintenance or capital asset project, outage planning begins at least a year in advance, and the contractor and client must work together to develop budget and schedule. This enables the client to justify and allocate the proper time and funding. Once the project is approved and the subcontractors selected, the contractor assists the client with reviewing the overall scope and preliminary drawings and specifications. The more informed the contractor is, the more successful the execution will be.

There Might be a Better Way

During the preliminary design stage of a large environmental improvement project, a project manager was touring a site along with the client and several engineers from the company that was supplying the environmental system. Their purpose was to identify possible interferences and develop workarounds for the new system. Having the contractor involved at this early stage enabled the team to come up with several solutions. A large instrumentation rack, for example, was designed in a way that would interfere with access around the unit. The engineering company wanted it moved, which would entail a significant amount of work: New wire would have to be pulled, conduit reworked and new instrument lines run. The contractor, however, identified a simpler solution: modifying and moving some of the existing platforms. This not only saved the client substantial time and money but familiarized the contractor with critical design details early. Although this meant revising the contractor’s plan, it made for a more successful execution.

Once you’ve established the scope of your outage, identify any facets that can be completed prior to shutdown, such as staging the scaffolding and other material.

Once the scope of an outage is established, the contractor should identify any facets of the project that can be done prior to shutting down the unit or units. This will reduce cost and streamline the schedule. Because outages typically are worked on a straight-time, overtime and double-time basis, any tasks performed before the unit goes offline can be performed on straight-time. For example, during a large capital project, a contractor was able to work up the rigging plan and stage the material months in advance. The material was moved into place and some of the advance maintenance work done. As a result, the project was completed two weeks ahead of schedule.

Use a WBS to Estimate Accurately

After defining the scope and identifying pre-outage work, the client and contractor should firm up price and schedule. A work breakdown structure (WBS) makes this easier by enabling the team to break up a large project into smaller, more manageable tasks. These tasks then can be estimated more accurately for duration and manpower resources.

Developing an accurate WBS also helps with tracking the project, making it easy to assess how far the work has progressed at any given moment. Using a project management tool such as earned value analysis will improve execution. For repair work based on inspection, it’s easy to estimate these jobs using experience at sites where there’s a long-term maintenance contract. Once all the repair work and projects have been estimated, total resources can be figured out by craft.

Communicate With Everyone

Keeping all parties informed is another critical part of outage planning. Many power plants are at remote sites and require a large traveling work force to perform the overhaul. This makes it essential to work with the local union halls or local craft labor because large overhauls can require as many as 600 workers. Most union agreements call for a pre-job conference, which is the proper occasion for explaining manpower requirements. Working closely with the unions and explaining resource needs well in advance will help them attract skilled employees to the job.

Sending your people home safely every day is your first priority. Develop procedures for all confined-space work, and procure any nonstandard personal protective equipment that may be required.

It’s essential to seek out key craftspeople for the lead roles on an outage project and to get them involved as early as possible. If they are on board from the start, they’ll gain valuable knowledge of the project and offer their advice and buy-in on schedule, work flow and resource requirements.

Safety Doesn’t Happen by Accident

The most critical element of any success story is sending employees home safely each day. Safety must be factored into every phase of the project–the planning and the execution.

It is essential to recognize, understand and mitigate any likely hazards. A good start is to work up a job hazard analysis during the planning phase. Confined-space work must be identified and procedures drawn up for carrying it out safely. Personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements must be established for any jobs not covered by standard safety requirements. Any abatement of lead or asbestos must be addressed up front. Specialty equipment–fresh air, harnesses, retrieval devices and so forth–must be budgeted and procured. Getting the safety team involved early in the project will ensure a safe outage.

Exclude Subs From the Planning at Your Peril

Subcontractors–whether they report to the contractor or the client–should not be viewed as bit players in an outage project. Excluding them from the planning phase can result in serious frustration later.

Typically, it’s during the critical first week of an overhaul that this has the most impact. To avoid subcontractor pitfalls, set realistic expectations for them during the outage planning meeting. Get commitments on their work scope and durations. This will eliminate major bottlenecks, such as having 500 people sitting on their thumbs, delayed by subcontractors whose scope of work and schedule has not been integrated properly into the master outage plan.

All four phases of a project require serious attention, but working up a thoughtful, comprehensive outage plan and including all players in the process can improve the chances of having a safe, efficient and successful outage.


Nick Gaglia is vice president of project management, maintenance and construction at NAES Corp. A professional engineer with more than 35 years in power generation and utility operations, he has technical expertise in power plant mechanical, electrical and control systems. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Montana State University.

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