Train Your Operators on Energy Efficiency

Aug. 9, 2010
Provide them with the right information and listen to their ideas.

In this second in a four part series about educating people in your company, we'll focus on the operator.

The two most important parts of running an energy efficient unit are designing it properly and operating it well. For most of us, the equipment is already there and we can't control the inherent efficiency. However, correct operation of that equipment to maximize energy savings is something we can control. To do this, we must first properly train our operators.


Most places instruct operators based on the "need to know" principle. Basically, you just tell the operator what's required to do the job safely and properly. The purpose of this approach is to achieve consistent operation of the unit without too much deviation. The operator is instructed to prioritize actions and events - putting safety first, followed by reliability, rates, quality, yield and energy. There's nothing wrong with this progression; in fact it always should be enforced. However, to maximize unit profitability, you must ensure your operators make it to energy.

So, the first thing you must do is to automate as many of the other duties as possible. Freed from chasing down a hundred lab samples and checking a thousand field gauges, the operator can get to the point of trimming excess air from the furnace and monitoring steam traps for leaks. Now, with operator workload reduced, you can start the energy training. For each energy area, you need a key performance indicator (KPI). The KPIs you use for operators aren't necessarily those that you'll be using for reports. All KPIs for operators must relate to items they can control. They should be able to access these KPIs 24 hours a day. I try to put the KPIs in their distributed control system or all their reports so that the numbers always are in front of them.

I keep each KPI simple so there's no question about what should be done. For a furnace, the KPI should be percent oxygen instead of excess air or furnace efficiency. By concentrating on oxygen, the operator understands that reducing the oxygen number to a target range decreases the cost of operating the unit, which increases profitability. Steam isn't an easy KPI. I try to find something on the unit that is controllable, like letdown valves or vents. One of my favorite KPIs is product slop or recycle. It not only looks at energy but also at the capacity and effectiveness of the unit. If the unit runs with an energy management system (EMS), your KPI can include time for response or percentage of time the system is online. I like using an energy-lost dollar calculation on my EMS system and keeping track by shift (see: http://www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2009/164.html). It creates a lot of controversy and gets people more involved in making sure the EMS is working properly.

Now, once you have your KPIs, you must gather your operators in a training room. First, give them all the basics about what energy is used, how much is used, and how this compares to similar units in your company or in the industry. Then, present each KPI; tell them what's being measured and how to control it. They need to know what valves to turn or who to call.

Next, introduce them to the dollar figure and set an initial goal. If you've an incentive program, it would be perfect to tie energy savings into that program. What I like doing is bringing in outside experts. Your steam vendor, furnace specialist, rotating equipment person and process technologist can help you out. After providing the operators with all this knowledge, it's your turn to listen. Hold an idea-generation or brainstorming session where they can present ideas on how to reduce energy or to do their job better. This last point is very important because operators know best what's preventing them from doing a better job.

Typically you'll see results almost immediately but they'll taper off after a while. So, it's important to keep communicating the importance of energy. I usually ask the operations manager or plant manager to give a pep talk about keeping energy efficiency at a high level. But at least once every six months, you must bring operators together to refresh their memories and review results from the past six months. This is a good time for another idea-generation or brainstorming session to look at ways to improve operator performance.

Training operators in energy efficiency means providing them with the right information and listening to their ideas of how they can do their job better. Do this and you'll see real savings in your fuel bill.

Gary Faagau is Chemical Processing's Energy Columnist. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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