Having experienced three "boom/bust" cycles in manufacturing during my career, I estimate that 65% of idled plants eventually are reactivated in some form or another, with the remainder sold and moved to the Far East or scrapped. It takes just an improvement in the marketplace, some marginal economic advantage involving the cost of raw materials, or a major failure/logistical catastrophe at some other facility to drive the decision to restart a facility. Unfortunately, executives and new owners of plants often lack intimate knowledge of the equipment used in manufacturing operations. Therefore, once they identify a window of opportunity, they may impose an unrealistic deadline that can create major headaches for those involved in reactivation.
The most difficult job for those tasked with running the project is managing "expectations and communications" around the restart. There's always a significant gap between perception and reality of what it actually takes. The thought "We can get a few old hands back on site, hit the start button, and be back in operation." is delusional.
Frequently when shutting down a plant, companies don't take appropriate steps to preserve assets and ease restart. (See: "Mothballing Requires More Than Idle Thought.")
We are all familiar with the problems that magically appear after a shutdown/turnaround of only a few weeks. It's therefore no surprise that idled facilities left essentially unattended over several years become seriously degraded. Detecting and quantitatively assessing that degradation usually takes considerable time and expertise. Compounding the problem, the people most familiar with the plant, the last operating team, now likely are scattered geographically, with some retired.
APPROACHING A RESTART
A restart process has things in common with a new-build startup but can be more complicated. To provide a comprehensive and accurate estimate of cost and time an "initial major survey" of the plant and supporting utilities is essential. This survey should be very detailed. Spending money here is insurance against getting halfway through a startup and finding a fatal flaw in a major component, as was the case in a recent Florida nuclear facility.
Even when pressed, do not give an unrealistically low estimate before the inspection — it will come back to haunt you. Getting pressure vessels, tanks and fire suppression systems back into compliance can involve major expense. Discuss what it will take with your insurance representative. Figure out what is minimally acceptable at least in terms of an extended inspection schedule. Can you stretch the timescale?
Review all records and talk to knowledgeable previous shutdown participants even if they are retired. Also compare "as is" photographs to those taken at shutdown. Try to find out who has stolen what components.
Determine what engineering could be involved. Draw up restart plans item by item — write detailed work specifications.
Present and get approval of the restart cost-and-time estimate before you commit to major expenditures.
Write an environmental and health statement. Can all required permits be reestablished without major issues?
Search for knowledgeable people for the restart. Distinguish between local knowledge, skilled engineering workers and active operators. Keep timing in mind… calling back a full operating crew to watch a maintenance contractor work for several months is an avoidable waste of money.
Demand the careful and extensive use of checklists while removing both bags of desiccant and line blinds. I have dozens of stories of startup delays caused by debris stuck in control valves, blocked impulse lines, and "rogue blinds" positioned for some reason in places that nobody could understand later.
Rent or set up a few tanks and a pump(s) to facilitate quick chemical cleaning for removal of rust and residual product. The same equipment can be used to facilitate "water runs" of certain sections of plant during recommissioning.
I can't over-emphasize the need for early and comprehensive "risk-based inspection" using the most accurate and sophisticated methods available, such as miniature video cameras, borescopes, ultrasonic guided-wave thickness meters, etc. Don't compromise here. A simple visual inspection isn't enough given the consequences of missing a major defect.
Here are a few aspects to keep in mind:
- Control systems with "unobtainable obsolete components." Before spending a small fortune on old pneumatic systems and distributed control systems, examine what an electronic upgrade would cost.
- Original equipment manufacturer or local machine shops. Once a shop has a unit they will want to restore it to "as new" condition. You probably can't afford that expense and must reach some clear understanding with them before work begins.
- Testing. Relief valves and other devices used on process lines are by now well beyond their retest period. Therefore, getting a mobile test shop on site probably is cost effective.
- Pressure vessel code compliance. Depending on the state in which the plant is located, there might be no wiggle room. However, a very early discussion with the insurance carrier around minimum test requirements is important.
- Old product and intermediaries left in equipment and drain/sewer systems. Handling such materials often is more difficult than necessary. In my experience, contractors engaged to help are understandably but unnecessarily cautious and expensive. The assistance of operations people familiar with the plant and the intermediate materials can make their removal both simple and cheap.
- Stuck valves and low point restrictions in flow. Use an infrared camera to identify these. (See: "Use Thermal Imagery For Process Problems.")
- Fuels and lubricants in inventory. It's common to find growth of algae or generation of mild acids inside the equipment and storage containers. Inspect or change the materials if you suspect any deterioration. Get them analyzed first.
- Protected enclosures. Do not presume liquid vapor phase and volatile corrosion inhibitors have completely thwarted rusting. Before refilling with lubricants, conduct an internal visual inspection.
- Motors and generators. Exposure to the elements often results in difficulty to reestablish sufficient internal resistance to ground. Avoid sending units to a contractor's shop — where control of the restart budget can be lost. Instead, find a local electrical contractor who has heating equipment that can be brought to site. Don't dry windings in electric machinery at temperatures exceeding the rating of its insulation system. In general, keep to a maximum temperature of 194°F or 90°C. Check with the manufacturer for equipment-specific information and recommendations.
- Boilers and fired heaters. Ensure the setting (brickwork, refractory and insulation materials) is thoroughly dry. Use portable heaters where necessary to make certain all refractory materials are dry.
- Safety appliances. Clean and repair, as needed, devices such as safety and relief valves, steam gauge, water column, low-water cutouts and blowdown systems.
- Controls. Inspect and test all, especially the water level control and low-water fuel cutoffs, before operation.
- Burners. Do not fire these until a burner technician has checked them. An explosion could occur if the combustion controls don't function properly.
- Safety warnings. Replace lost and faded notices, etc.
- Large machines. In addition to a thorough visual inspection, take oil samples for comprehensive analysis.
- Visual inspection. Look particularly for galvanic corrosion anywhere dissimilar metal components come into close proximity.
- Maintenance. Keep good records and re-establish your preventive maintenance program based on a risk-based reliability-centered model.
Remember, the key is knowing where the deficiencies are, and then fixing or mitigating them early in the process.
BERNIE PRICE is CEO of Polaris Veritas Inc., a Houston-based consulting group. E-mail him at Polarisver@aol.com.