Shutdown Tips: Tame Turnaround Tribulations

Oct. 23, 2018
Long times between shutdowns increase the importance of proper preparation

The satisfaction of successfully troubleshooting a problem often can give way to frustration when implementing the optimum fix gets delayed because it must wait until the next turnaround. Many operating companies are extending the period between shutdowns. For instance, some refineries and petrochemical plants now aim to run many of their units for five years or longer. At a lot of sites, the period between shutdowns actually may exceed the length of time a single engineer is responsible for the unit.

In many cases, plant shutdowns provide the best opportunity to perform plant fixes or upgrades. Indeed, doing many equipment and process changes effectively, safely or at all often must wait until the plant is shut down.


However, when a troubleshooting effort identifies a problem whose optimum solution requires a shutdown, a plant frequently resorts to a temporary fix or accepts less-effective operation until the next turnaround. Unfortunately, some solutions get forgotten in the time, perhaps years, until the plant shuts down. Additionally, all too often, a temporary measure becomes permanent. Long-term operating excellence rewards getting to the optimum fix, not just settling for a temporary solution.

Keeping an evergreen list of work needed in the next shutdown is one way to stop things from being forgotten. Such a list requires ongoing attention. First, you must update it with unit changes, and add problems as they occur along with proposed solutions. Second, it must be kept active between handover of responsibilities. Your list is useless if your successor doesn’t know about it. Third, it must become part of the planning for turnaround work. Pulling out the list only 30 days before a turnaround won’t get the work done.

Turnarounds can be time consuming and exhausting. Nobody wants to start planning for the next turnaround the day after the previous one finished. However, that’s the right time to begin.

If you don’t have a list of things needing to be done, start one right after a turnaround. Put tasks into two categories: those that didn’t get done in the just-completed turnaround and those identified during that shutdown.

Next, for every item on the list, roughly estimate the lead time required to analyze, decide, engineer and procure to get a solution in place. Don’t skimp on the time here. For a major plant, reckon a minimum of one year lead time for even the smallest project. Larger projects may require two to three years for implementation. As the unit run progresses, put any additional items that need fixing or upgrading on the list. For every addition, also note the estimated lead time.

Roughly determine how all the projects should spread out over the time likely available before the next shutdown. Try to ensure the workload based on the project durations is nearly even over the time to the shutdown. Having a relatively constant workload allows for keeping project teams together and, thus, makes for more-efficient work flow and reduces total costs. It also avoids the risk of time slipping by and work on projects commencing far too late.

As I’ve already noted, successfully implementing this approach requires starting project work for the next turnaround immediately after the previous one. To keep control of costs for the projects, insist that decisions get made. Avoid the temptation on the first projects to say “we have plenty of time, we can study more options.” Kicking the can just escalates costs and delays other work. The inevitable result is a crush of work at the last moment.

It’s certainly acceptable to cross some projects off the work list. However, you must base such decisions on changing priorities, economics or market conditions. Deleting projects from the list because of poor planning undermines operating excellence.

Maintaining operating excellence demands more than just identifying problems and putting temporary modifications in place. It requires getting permanent optimum solutions implemented during infrequent shutdowns. Keep track of work proposed. Make sure work items don’t get forgotten or lost during handover of responsibilities. Effectively manage the workload to improve efficiency and reduce costs. With longer-and-longer runs between shutdowns, these steps have become more difficult. However, doing them right has become more important as well.

ANDREW SLOLEY is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor. You can email him at [email protected].

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