Training Pump Operators to be Reliability-Minded

Robert Perez

Learning it Wrong
One day I was talking to a seasoned operator about how he prepared pumps for service after repairs. I asked him specifically how he vented some of the critical process pumps that handled environmentally sensitive fluids. He told me he didn’t have to vent them at all because they were all self venting. I stood there for a few moments shocked, bewildered, and then disappointed. I soon understood what it was he was telling me. Whoever had trained him long ago taught him he never had to vent pumps before startup because they only purchased self venting pumps. He was right that most pumps are designed to be self venting but the associated pump piping is not!

If a pump’s piping is fully vented, most pump casings are designed so that they will air free themselves. But, if the pump’s piping is not properly vented, the pump can have difficulty eliminating trapped air in the casing and piping system subsequent to a repair. In extreme cases, a pump can destroy itself before becoming fully primed if not properly air-freed. This sad story illustrates the problem with on the job training: Misunderstandings, misinformation, and fallacies are often perpetuated from one co-worker to the next until they are cleared up with some type of training. There is also the real possibility that what was once learned has either been forgotten or is now out of date.

On the Job Training versus Formal Training
I don’t mean to be overly critical of this operator or the company he works for, but this example begs the question: Is on the job training (OJT) enough for pump operators? Processing plants are complex systems that utilize a wide range of equipment and processes. Plant managers must judge how their precious training dollars are best spent. They must also deal with a continuous stream of transfers, retirements, and resignations.

Unfortunately, there are probably countless operators that have never been provided with any formal instruction. This is probably because pumps are often considered less important due to the fact that they are often spared and relatively inexpensive. When they fail, people shrug their shoulders and say, “It’s just a pump.” There are operators who have been taught simply to push the start button and walk to their next task. It’s only when a major pump-related event occurs that management gets interested in training. The best way to avoid major or frequent failures in the first place is to initiate and maintain a formal pump training program.

Here are several points to consider about the lowly pump:

  1. Pumps are typically installed without any sort of automation, i.e. flow control valves, automatic venting valves, automatically opening suction and discharge valves, etc. If no automation is installed, it is up to the operator to know how to monitor and protect the pump from unsafe conditions.

  2. Often pressure gauges or flowmeters are absent to allow for monitoring. The hope is that, when the start button is pushed, product will flow at the desired rate in the proper direction. How can a pump be monitored without this instrumentation?

  3. Pumps are very sensitive to start-up conditions. They don’t like to be operated without liquid or without back pressure.

  4. One size does not fit all when it comes to pump start-ups. The wide variety of pump types in a plant necessitates that operators understand what start-up procedure is required for a given pump design and situation.

Training Economics
How much training is required? Let’s first ask the following question: How much are your pumps costing you? To answer this query, I recommend you figure out how much your pumps are costing you per operator. Let’s say you have 1000 pumps, with a 36 months MTBR, costing $6000 per repair. If your facility employs 100 operators, you are spending $20,000 per operator (see calculation below). The bet is that training will improve your MTBR and reduce the cost per repair due to the elimination of secondary damage from improved monitoring. Improving the MTBR by 2-5% alone is worth $400 to $1000 per year per operator. Elimination of secondary damage, releases, and fires represent addition benefits.

Calculation of the Cost of pump repairs per operator

Cost of Pump Repairs Per Operator

In this case, it seems well justified to budget $400 to $1000 per year per operator. This provides a one year payback on your investment. Remember that your 2 to 5% improvement will continue well past the training year. Note: When your MTBR exceeds 8 years you can begin backing off some your training budget.

I don’t mean to imply that pump training will solve all your problems. There are many reasons why pumps fail and most of them are unpreventable by operator intervention. Here are a few:

  • Normal wear out, i.e. end of life

  • Hydraulic misapplications

  • Improper repairs

  • Wrong materials of construction

However, I feel it is safe to say that correct operating procedures, proper startups, and careful monitoring will undoubtedly extend pump operating intervals and reduce repair cost by avoiding secondary damage with them. Additionally effective training will not only significantly reduce operator related failure it will also instill more confidence into your operators.

Training Options
There are a number of proven ways to educate operators. Here are a few:

  • Formal training in a classroom setting. You can bring in a consulting firm or pump supplier to provide your operators with classroom training, composed of theory, proven reliability methods, and hands-on demonstrations. Self-paced training, either online or with study guides, is another proven option. There is a full array of self-directed training to be found on the web. Formal training should probably be provided every five years to ensure exposure to new technology and concepts.

  • Refreshers provided in-house. You can also enlist the assistance of in-house machinery engineers or technicians for basic refresher training. This type of training should be provided every other year to ensure on-going technical competence.

  • Hands-on “practicals”. Senior operators can watch and evaluate junior operators as they start-up pumps. Yearly “practicals” and field demonstrations should be encouraged. A great example of field training would be to have a junior operator swap from a main to the spare pump while a senior operator is watching.

  • Frequent reading of technical journals or textbooks. This type of training should be provided to your operators on a continuous basis. Ensure there are enough copies of current pump journals and textbooks in your shops and control rooms for all to peruse.

  • Operator certifications. It makes good sense to ensure your training dollars are justified by requiring operators to prove they have learned and retained the key points of reliable pump operation. I recommend that certifications be required every five years or after new hires have completed their initial training. Ideally, certifications should be comprised of a series of questions covering theory and practice, as well as field exercises requiring that the candidate demonstrate detailed knowledge of their equipment and how to operate them reliably.

  • Any other effective training ideas out there? Send them to me so that I can share them with our readers.

Remember that operators are the hands, eyes, ears, and noses of your processes. They are vital to your overall success. It’s your choice; either prepare them for operating success or set them up for certain failure. Training is one of the most inexpensive means I know of improving your process reliability.

About the Author
Robert Perez is the author of the “Operator's Guide to Centrifugal Pumps” and web site editor for He has more than 25 years of rotating equipment experience in the petrochemical industry and holds a BSME degree from Texas A&M University at College Station, a MSME degree from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Texas PE license. He can be reached at

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