Do you have the energy to continuously pursue maintenance and reliability best practices? Do you have the power to make that happen? If you answered "no", can you afford not to?

We Energies has earned a reputation as one of the most progressive utilities in the nation when it comes to maintenance and reliability. As condition-based maintenance (CBM) champion Don Kerber tells it, "I started working here in 1979, and predictive, preventive and proactive strategies were utilized then. They were there before I came, and I can say without a doubt that they will be here long after I retire."

Given that history, it's not surprisingly that We Energies (the trade name of Wisconsin Electric Power Company and Wisconsin Gas LLC, an entity whose 26 power plants have a peak generation capability of 5,676 megawatts) has won the ReliabilityOne award for the Midwest region five out of the last seven years. The accolade, given by a major utilities industry consulting group, recognizes superior system reliability. Similarly, We Energies' 1,210-megawatt Pleasant Prairie (Wis.) Power Plant is generally acknowledged as among the country's best coal-based plants when it comes to overall productivity.

"The recognitions are kind of a pride thing, but this isn't a race. There is no finish line," says Jim Rescheske, a corporate predictive maintenance specialist who has been with the utility since 1978. "Our program is continually evolving, and it always will be so. New technologies, new ideas, new methods are continually being added."

Vibration analysis. Infrared thermography. Oil analysis and lubricant optimization. Acoustic ultrasound and ultrasonic testing. Each is a part of We Energies' past, present and future.

We Energies' Pleasant Prairie Power Plant is located south of Milwaukee.

"I've always felt that our company has been leading the technology rush and been a leader in terms of understanding, analysis and application," says Rescheske. "We're at the leading edge, but not the bleeding edge. We've advanced with forethought and reason and a lot of very talented people. We've never had much catching up to do, but we always have room for improvement."

Read on to better understand:

  • the history and role that oil analysis plays in the CBM initiative;

  • the functions of the company's "oil minister" and the plant "oil czars";

  • how oil analysis and lubrication activities are used in concert with other predictive/CBM tools to identify minor issues before they become major ones;

  • how the maintenance organization shares knowledge about program successes and obtains buy-in; and,

  • the impetus placed on training to ensure momentum and growth.

Roots of Oil Analysis
Kerber and Rescheske admit that oil analysis is not the most developed maintenance tool in We Energies' arsenal, but that's understandable when you compare it with vibration analysis, which has a long and storied history at the plants.

"A few months after I hired on, 31 years ago, an engineer I was working with bought a little vibration analyzer," says Rescheske. "From that point on, I grabbed that technology and flew with it."

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We Energies maintenance veteran Todd Maki (at left) checks on the health of a machine.

Dave Groshek, the vibration lead person at the Pleasant Prairie Power Plant in the southeast corner of Wisconsin, provides his own anecdote. "From the day this plant was built in 1980, we've had a vibration program in place. We still have a cabinet full of old Scientific Atlanta cards. I could go back and find vibration data from 1980."

The company also has utilized acoustic ultrasound for 15 years and infrared thermography for more than a decade.

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The Pleasant Prairie Power Plant excels at CBM thanks to people such as (from left) Todd Maki (vibration analyst and ultrasound inspector), Sharon Seymoens (thermography co-lead), Dave Groshek (vibration and acoustic ultrasound lead), Pete Agerholm (oil minister) and Doug Goebel (CBM coordinator).

Oil analysis is a little brother to vibration analysis in We Energies' PdM history, but it can stand tall. Its roots within the company go back nearly 20 years, when samples were drawn from major pieces of equipment and analyzed at either the corporate laboratory in downtown Milwaukee or by the main lubricant supplier, Mobil, at its own labs. But back then, the process was less proactive in nature and wasn't always about finding the root cause of issues.

"We'd get the samples, send them out, and if they came back with a recommendation that the oil sample may be contaminated, we'd change the oil," says Groshek.

Oil analysis and lubricant health gained greater emphasis when We Energies ushered in a formal CBM program for its Fossil Operations (coal-based power plants) in mid-1994.

"We concluded that predictive achievement wasn't going to be defined by a single tool," says Kerber. "This was about coordinating the plants in a standard direction and about maximizing all that we had or could have at our disposal."

To achieve common direction and purpose, the CBM reporting structure in Fossil Operations was drawn up to include:

  • a champion (Kerber);

  • plant-based CBM coordinators who work with the champion;

  • corporate (based in Milwaukee) CBM technical coordinators for vibration, thermography, oil and acoustics who report to the champion; and,

  • CBM technical leads (for vibration, thermography, oil and acoustics) at each plant who communicate with the plant and the technical coordinators.

Plant leads and technical coordinators are aligned by CBM tool, thus creating four teams: Shake, Rattle and Roll (vibration), Thermography Dudes (thermography), OPEC (oil), and Rattler and Leaker Seekers (Acoustics).

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Infrared thermography is used to identify budding issues so that they can be addressed before they become more intrusive, invasive problems.

Oil Minister and Oil Czars
Today, machinery lubrication and oil analysis is about making the best decisions. As is the case with the other CBM tools, that starts with subject matter experts.

Mike Finco was installed as the oil coordinator (or "oil minister", as he's listed in the organization chart). In this position, he is responsible for ensuring progress is being made to quality and performance goals established by Kerber and the plant CBM coordinators. He provides oversight and support to the oil leads (or "oil czars") at each of the plants, determines training needs and works to establish standard practices.

"On a regular day, Mike may be working to standardize oil sampling methods and getting that information to the plant level," says Kerber. "Or, if we are putting in a new piece of equipment at a plant, he would decide how often they should sample and what the criteria should be for acceptance and non-acceptance."

Oil czars focus on the technical needs of their particular plant. One to three oil czars may be found at a plant.

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Pete Agerholm serves as the oil czar at the Pleasant Prairie Power Plant.

"They take the data from an oil analysis report and determine what we need to do from that," says Kerber. "If they have a cooling tower fan motor that has high metals, they are the ones that decide what to do with it. If they see moisture in it, they are the ones that are going to ask for the filter cart to be put on. If it continues, they are the ones that will look for the source of the moisture. Do I need a breather or is the breather shot? They determine what the plant needs to do and make that recommendation."

Signed on to Signum
Smart oil decisions also are the product of a good work process.

Gone are the days of samples taken primarily after issues surface or breakdowns occur. No longer is "dump the oil" the final or fallback action.

Current practices were established four years ago after the company subscribed to Mobil's Signum Oil Analysis program.

"We have standardized on that at most of our facilities," says Kerber. "We have set up standard sample rates - periodic, monthly, quarterly. We submit samples to Mobil and have them do the analysis. The results come back to key people at the plants. The whole process was that it is automated on our end. We have one group that is responsible for determining what samples need to be taken. They print the labels, label the bottles and take them to the teams that take the samples. The teams look and see that their crate is filled with empty sample bottles; that means they have to go out and do rounds. They take samples and deliver the filled crate to the mailroom. The mailroom is responsible for packing them up, putting on the pre-made label and sending them out.

"That has really helped out in getting samples taken, shipped and analyzed. That process is working pretty good across most of our facilities."

We Energies' internal lab in Milwaukee does handle spindle- and turbine-related oil samples required for insurance purposes, performs spectrographic analysis on occasion, and is called upon for emergencies or when analysis results are required within 24 hours (instead of the standard three- to four-day service through Signum). But since this lab also analyzes everything from process water to environmental-related samples, use of its services is the exception rather than the rule.

"Mobil is our exclusive provider of oil, so we get a lot of free samples or samples at low cost," says Rescheske. "It's usually more cost-effective to send our samples out."

Oil czars pore over analysis results to determine appropriate actions steps and, if necessary, lead activities to determine the root cause(s) of anomalies.

Oil + Vibration + IR = Success
As Kerber stated earlier in this article, predictive achievement doesn't come through a single tool. The strength of CBM is apparent when two or more technologies are used in concert.

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Jim Rescheske is a true subject matter expert on vibration analysis. He has worked with the technology for more than 30 years and holds a Level III certification.

For instance, using acoustic ultrasound while greasing motor bearings ensures correct, precise preventive maintenance.

Merging technologies also can confirm or refute a possible mechanical issue.

If an oil analysis report shows an emerging issue such as rolling element wear, a vibration lead may be called to perform a signature analysis on the equipment in question. A thermography lead also may join in and take a temperature reading. Trend reports may be accessed from the computerized operating data historian to compare the present state with past data.

"All of this will be done while the equipment is running," says Pete Agerholm, the oil czar at Pleasant Prairie. "The last thing we want to do is get a mechanic to come in here and tear this piece of equipment apart, which impacts uptime and cost."

CBM actions can deliver "saves" and savings.

"We had a problem with our circulators and started picking up higher vibration levels," says Agerholm. "We looked at past history from oil results and started to slowly see rolling element wear coming up in our particle counts. We broke it down to a metal - like a Babbitt - and started to find out that we were losing bearings. We were able to pinpoint where it was coming from. We went ahead and fixed it before it completely failed."

Showing the Value
Savings can be substantial. Kerber and Rescheske state that CBM efforts logged more than $1 million in savings in each of the first several years of the program.

"However, we quit tracking dollars in 1996 because we were losing too much wrench time filling out paperwork to figure out what the saves were," says Rescheske.

On top of that, they say, top management had been and still is a firm believer in the power of CBM.

Finally, as a CBM program matures, save totals (should) become smaller since there is less and less low-hanging fruit.

That doesn't mean that company employees aren't apprised of the program's value. Kerber publishes "CBM Technology Saves", a newsletter that provides case studies of noteworthy saves. Photos, lab data, screen shots, etc., help tell the story that CBM makes a difference.

One case study explained how effective use of oil analysis identified issues with a fan outboard bearing and a cooling line. Early identification prevented a boiler from potentially going off line, and required maintenance was performed during a scheduled outage.

In another example, significant gouging was found on fan bearings. Oil analysis provided insight into the root cause of the problem - believed to be contaminant ingress to the bearing housing from air flowing over the fan bearing housing into the fan suction. To rectify the issue, gearing seals were replaced with a contaminant-excluding design.

"I send the newsletter out to all Fossil Operations management. It goes to headquarters and to the plants," says Kerber. "I ask them to share it with their own crews. Since our plants have very similar equipment, what is learned at one site is applicable to the others. The president of the company reads them. In fact, he recently asked me, 'You're going to write a few more of those, aren't you?' He believes there is benefit in this information."

Plant employees and fellow maintenance workers also can get an up-close and personal look at saves. Technical leads such as Groshek collect damaged components and use them as learning tools to demonstrate failures and root causes.

Big Train Coming
Learning and education are exceptionally important for any organization, but it is even more so for maintenance at We Energies.

The company has, as previously stated, a long history of progressive practices. That is a plus.

Continuous improvement is engrained in the culture. That's another plus.

The company has a wealth of talented employees. Big plus.

But, the average age of the maintenance workforce is nearing 55, and a sizeable percentage of workers will soon be eligible for retirement. That's a potential minus.

We Energies is addressing that proactively by greatly expanding its training center in suburban Milwaukee. This summer, Rescheske moved out of his role as the corporate coordinator of vibration analysis, thermography and acoustics and accepted a leadership role as a corporate maintenance trainer.

"Within a year, we will have lots of new maintenance classes because we realize that many senior, knowledgeable people will be leaving," he says. "The focus of the training will be on the new employees and then branch into training new supervisors."

Training in machinery lubrication-related topics will undoubtedly be on the docket. In the future, Rescheske says the center might host certification courses for budding lubrication technicians and lubricant analysts.

A primary goal is to have a cadre of maintenance workers trained and perhaps certified in multiple predictive/CBM technologies.

The Next Breakthrough
In assessing the components of We Energies' CBM program, Rescheske provides the following ratings on a 1 (beginner) to 10 (best practice) scale:

Vibration analysis - 7 (he gives Pleasant Prairie a 10)

Oil analysis - 7 (Pleasant Prairie gets an 8)

Thermography on electrical components - 9.5 (Pleasant Prairie gets a 10)

Acoustic ultrasound - 1 (everyone is still learning how to apply and maximize this technology)

As witnessed here and in the previous section, challenges and opportunities do lie ahead. As a result, We Energies is far from done and far from satisfied.

"We aren't there yet, and we know it," says Kerber. "There's always room for improvement. For example, one of the things that we want to do for training and everyday use is catch the acoustics, catch these sounds, so people can play them. This is what a bad bearing sounds like. This is what a dry bearing sounds like. This is what an overstuffed bearing sounds like."

Adds Rescheske: "We'll constantly be looking for what's on the horizon. What can we learn from it and what can we implement? Technology is always changing and evolving. We learn about newer and faster ways. I'm waiting for my iPod Touch to be connected to a vibration pen instead of that big, bulky, 12-year-old data collector. That's the next technological breakthrough. Stuff like that will be commonplace in the next few years."

This type of work is definitely not for those who have a hard time with commitment. It requires energy, as well as a considerable amount of power and influence. Are you up to the challenge? Are you ready to be like We?

Amped Up about We Energies
Company: We Energies (the trade name for Wisconsin Electric Power Company and Wisconsin Gas LLC) provides electric service to 1.13 million customers in portions of Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It also serves 1.06 million natural gas customers in Wisconsin and 454 steam customers in downtown Milwaukee. The company has 26 power plants that have a combined peak generating capability of 5,676 megawatts.

Employment: We Energies employs more than 4,500 people.

Focus plant: We Energies' Pleasant Prairie Power Plant (P4), located 40 miles south of downtown Milwaukee and five miles west of Lake Michigan, is the largest generating plant in Wisconsin. Designed specifically to burn low-sulfur, Western coal, the site uses towers to cool the condenser water that converts turbine exhaust steam back to water for reuse. P4 is the first power plant in Wisconsin to be retrofitted with an advanced air quality control system to reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions. The plant's two units, constructed in 1980 and 1985, have a combined net generating capacity of 1,210 MW. The site employs 200 workers, including 96 in maintenance.

Investing in Education and Certification
We Energies has a history of supporting maintenance certification. It's practiced and it's preached.

Jim Rescheske, a corporate-based predictive maintenance specialist, holds Level III certifications in vibration analysis and infrared thermography.

Other examples:

  • Dave Groshek, a vibration lead person at the Pleasant Prairie Power Plant, is Level III certified in vibration.
  • Don Leiting, thermography lead at Pleasant Prairie, is Level II certified in that technology.
  • Also, oil czar Sue Sorelle is a certified Level I Machine Lubrication Technician. "

As the technology coordinator, I set up many training classes over the years," says Rescheske. "I've brought in a bunch of vendors to put on Level I, Level II and Level III courses. We have many people around the company who are Level I certified - mainly in vibration and infrared, but we have gotten more interested in programs related to lubrication and oil analysis."