Many power plants and steam generating facilities across the nation are past their intended 30-year lifespan. Some are even pushing more than 50 years old. During these decades, significant changes have been made to plant systems, components and layouts to improve performance and maintainability. Plant operations have also been modified to comply with new regulations and incorporate new technology. While many of these changes were recorded on plant drawings, are you willing to bet the safety of your workforce that all changes are shown and the proper isolation procedures are documented?

Modifying Operational Procedures

In recent years, actual plant operations have also changed. Once serving as the primary source of continuous electricity, many of today’s existing coal-fired plants are now asked to periodically shut down in order to better accommodate less expensive or renewable energy sources dominating the power market. This more flexible operating structure has, invariably, impacted operating procedures.

These new operating requirements also come with changes to the plant’s procedures and controls documentation. During decades of continuous operation, a plant’s piping and instrumentation diagram (P&ID) and procedural documents have — hopefully — been updated and modified countless times. But sometimes, plant changes were not documented, or the papers are long gone. Much of the plant operational knowledge may also be held by one or a few operators. Retirement and workforce downsizing often means these assets are lost, leaving a knowledge gap with serious safety implications.

A Road Map to Efficient Operations

Serving as a road map of the entire plant landscape, accurate P&IDs identify all systems and equipment, providing unique tag identifiers for each instrument valve, pipe and piece of equipment. And just like a road map, these plans also identify the many other components along, and in, the way of efficient operations. Having updated, legible and accurate P&IDs will allow operators to better plan, document and communicate plant activities and decrease the potential for recordable safety incidents.

Accurate plans and procedures developed from updated P&IDs can expedite development of lockout/tagout procedures, allowing technicians to work more efficiently. Current P&IDs are also used to train operators and maintenance personnel, reducing potential for injury or death. Reliable, robust safety systems can only be incorporated when there is complete understanding and visibility of a plant’s layout and operations.

In the case of decades-old plants now required to cycle power production within a renewable energy generation mix, up-to-date plans and documentation can expedite the response of plant operators to potential equipment and system events that may bring down a system or potentially the whole plant.

Today, power plant operators are watching the many engineers and technicians who understood the plant’s infrastructure and operational intricacies plan their retirement. Worse yet, many face a void because those knowledgeable staff members have already left. This information gap creates a great challenge for the new operator or engineer charged with taking over operational management.

Investing in the redrawing and development of existing P&IDs and procedures is time and money well spent. In addition to critical documentation, the process can aid asset management inventories, equipment redundancy and identification of potential system improvements. Greater operational insight and documentation is possible regardless of plant type, age or staffing level.

Whether examining single operating units or an entire plant, plans can provide operators with insight into prioritizing necessary actions to improve safety. The process also gives a unique chance to understand industry best practices or identify needed, longer-term improvements.

If you’re interested in learning more about creating or updating of your plant’s drawings and procedures, let’s connect. We can help.

Bryan Durant is a mechanical engineer at Burns & McDonnell with more than 17 years of experience designing power plants. As the plant improvements mechanical business unit manager, he’s responsible for the identification, development and execution of small operations and maintenance and capital projects.