Improving the Role of Energy Efficiency In the Maintenance Department

Earlier in my career I was an industrial maintenance manager. I had the privilege of leading a world-class maintenance organization at one facility and starting a system up from scratch at another (and a few that were in between). I was in the Navy Nuclear Power Program so I have a pretty good idea of what good maintenance is.

Energy Efficiency needs to be a key part of the maintenance repertoire but unfortunately seldom is that ever the case. Maintenance technicians could easily understand the technical and business ramifications of energy efficiency but they are usually not part of the conversation. That needs to change, because no group can affect energy efficiency (both good and bad) as much as the maintenance department can.

What happens when maintenance is not part of the discussion? Here are a few examples:
• A new Energy Management System is installed. After a few months no noticeable reduction in energy consumption has occurred. Investigation shows the majority of the system has been jumpered out by the maintenance department. The reason for this is that maintenance received zero training on the system and it’s benefits. Maintenance still had to make customers happy and was uncomfortable with the automation, so they went back to the manual system they knew. This can happen for years if no one is monitoring the systems.
• Low efficiency motors are repaired instead of replaced when failures occur.
• V groove instead of notched belts are used simply because “they were in stock”
• Equipment that fails is replaced with the exact same equipment, with no thought to newer technology
• Specification was written 2 decades ago, but it still must be good, right?
• This is my personal favorite. Equipment is left running 24/7 because there is fear that if it is turned off it will not turn back on. Unfortunately this mindset comes into play often on the largest of loads such as chillers, pumps, boilers etc…

In large manufacturing facilities, the issue can be much worse. I recall the use of compressed air “blow-offs’ to keep insects from getting on the product. It was a seasonal issue that beetles would inevitably get on the product sheet (galvanized steel), get crushed as the sheet goes through the process line, and cause quality issues. This “blow-off” was basically a pipe with holes drilled in it. Since a ¼” hole at 100 psi costs about $10,000 a year in energy, one can just imagine the cost of running this device 24/7 for months on end. Because energy usage and cost was assigned to a separate department and the end user was never part of the loop, these situations are inevitable.

So what can be done? Here are a few ideas that would definitely be a good start.

1. Train, train, train!
Yes, I know that you think when you hire these guys they should already know everything, but things change. Tribal knowledge (word of mouth or the old “stay with so and so for awhile until you know what you are doing”) just is not a consistent method and sometimes poisons the whole department because the “go-to-guy” may not be the best trainer (or may have some bad habits).

Sharing real world examples of how maintenance affects energy usage can go a long way in getting buy in from the maintenance department. There is often an energy cost associated with decisions that the maintenance department makes. There are situations, at times when management and support staffs are not available, that the on-site maintenance personnel have purchasing authority. By being informed regarding energy efficiency, they can make the right business decision and defend it. A good example would be a simple AC motor. Maintenance technicians need to know about the much higher long-term costs associated with purchasing the cheapest possible motor. Knowing that the initial cost of a motor is only 5% of its’ total operating cost, definitely helps in making the right decision. Understanding the annual costs associated with operating motors should show how important it is to shut them off when they are not needed.

Vendors often will train for free. I found that drive belts offer an excellent training opportunity. The vendor will show technicians the proper way to install and tension a belt, and the advantages/disadvantages of the different types of belts. It is unbelievable that you will still see seasoned maintenance technicians use a screwdriver or crow bar and “stretch” a belt over a sheave. This is a big no-no and is not good for the belt. This was probably learned by “tribal knowledge”!

2. Communicate.
Close the loop on letting maintenance know what the usage is. This should at a minimum be on a graph and show the temperature relationship (to prevent the old “it must have been hotter/colder excuse). This works especially well if a graph can show a causal relationship such as “notice how much lower the electricity bill is since we started shutting down the air compressors on the weekends”. This shows not only an improvement, but re-enforces that this needs to happen, and that if it does not, there is evidence for all to see. For manufacturing, breaking this down to an “energy use/intensity per part” is a powerful tool. We all understand that more production generally means more energy consumption, but breaking it down to energy usage/part is a useful method that allows for comparisons between high and low production periods.

If an energy team is being developed, maintenance has to be represented. Otherwise, when the energy team generates their first “energy efficiency punch list” and gives the majority of the list items to maintenance for completion, the reception will be lukewarm at best. If maintenance had a part in making the list, coupled with a clear understanding of how and why it was originated and what will be accomplished by it, the chances of getting the items on the list completed (not to mention in a more timely manner) go up exponentially.

3. Involve maintenance on new equipment purchases and equipment/construction decisions
Seems like common sense, right? It is shocking how many times equipment shows up that was designed elsewhere and simply does not work the way it was intended. Maintenance (and operations) gets stuck with it and gets told to “make it work”! Having maintenance on board early in the design process helps with far more things than just energy efficiency (ensuring the thing can be accessed for work is always important!). When the maintenance staff has a thorough understanding of energy efficiency and it’s benefits, they can help push for more efficient equipment replacements as existing equipment reaches end of life. Maintenance technicians can be very tenacious and are good allies when fighting for a cause.

4. Lose the reactive maintenance mindset.
Easier said than done, I know. Back when I was a technician, I worked in places that actually called the job “standby” and you were there for breakdowns only. What a waste of talent and money! When I set up a maintenance program, the very first thing I set up is the surveillance routes. Maintenance surveillance routes are simply having maintenance technicians walk the facility observing the status of equipment and documenting it in a signed checklist. In maintenance utopia, the whole facility should be looked at by maintenance at least once a day (“looked at” does not mean every cover removed etc… but at least a walk by; senses can pick up a lot). If issues are found, they are either fixed immediately or a work order is written to get the issue resolved. I am an advocate of the “problem tag” system that hangs a tag near the issue so everyone knows that it will be addressed. The tag number will go on the work order so the loop is closed. If a maintenance department has nothing like this in place, expect considerable resistance at first when trying to implement it! Once the system is in place and working, however, it is shocking how quickly breakdowns are reduced. Equipment problems almost always consume more energy. Here are just a few examples that simple surveillance routes would eliminate:
• Broken or slipping belts
• Clogged or missing filters
• Stuck or broken dampers or linkages
• Jammed conveyors and/or overloaded motors
• Compressed air leaks
• Hydraulic and fluid system leaks

Let’s not forget that surveillance routes occurring during non-operating times can also be mini energy audits. Turning off things when not in use can be one of the biggest ways to lower the energy usage. Here are a few examples of things that could be found on a walkthrough:
• Lights left on
• Equipment left on
o Air compressors are common culprits
• Environmental controls not backed to non occupied settings
• Plug loads

Obviously the simple methods that I mention here are not meant to replace a comprehensive predictive/preventative maintenance program, but, in my opinion, maintenance surveillance routes should be a foundation for any maintenance program.

5. Share the love!
If a performance pay system exists by all means make energy consumption one of the key parameters. If it is for management only, make sure that it is part of the maintenance managers’ performance review. He/she can effect energy use in so many different ways, there needs to be some tie to compensation so it stays on the hot list.

Yes, I know the maintenance staff can be condescending, overbearing, obnoxious and just plain scary. I have had to manage or work with all those types at one time or another (and maybe even be those types at one time or another). The truth is, however, that the maintenance staff can by your biggest ally when it comes to cutting energy cost. No one else has access to equipment operation like they do and can have more effect. They can make a huge difference. Make them a large part of the organizations’ energy reduction efforts, and reap the rewards. Leave maintenance out, and results will suffer.

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