How to Prepare for Planned and Unplanned Outages

Prepare for scheduled and unplanned production outages in order to proactively keep your machinery in tip top shape.
By Ed Myers
February 21, 2023

It takes a lot to keep a business afloat today so when a major part unexpectedly breaks or a piece of machinery suddenly wears down, project owners are quick to hire contractors who have experience solving issues in a short amount of time without compromising on safety or quality.

On the flip side, many project owners regularly schedule production outages in order to proactively keep their machinery in tip top shape, helping to prevent an unplanned issue from causing a delay in production, which typically equates to lost revenue and a potential loss of customers.

Preparing for a planned or unplanned outage is therefore critical for any contractor who wants to take on this type of work, which can be lucrative given the time sensitivities and risks involved. If you’re a contractor looking to expand your services to include planned or unplanned repair and maintenance, there are a few key things to be aware of in order to successfully implement this line of work.

Pre-planning critical for planned outages

Needless to say, when a project owner gives you ample notice about a planned outage, contractors should immediately start pre-planning and provide an outline of their scope of work that details exactly how they will get the work done.

The most important part of pre-planning is being in communication with all of the other contractors and subcontractors involved so that you can accurately outline where your scope of work ends and their scope of work starts. Most outages involve a range of different players who will each handle a different part of the work so it’s critical to coordinate with them upfront so that there is complete understanding of who is responsible for what and how it will be sequenced.

When work is accurately pre-planned, contractors can then determine labor and material needs, as well as provide a timeline that’s usually scheduled down to the hour. Timeliness is critical since any delay could hamper production, and it ensures that all contractors and subcontractors are working in unison and won’t be held up by any one aspect of the job.

“Pre-planning was critical when we replaced a process piping system at a Colorado pharmaceutical plant, which had naturally begun to show some wear and tear,” says Clint Thurston, project manager at ICM. “We had to take the pipe offline and repair it, which took a fair amount of time given the complexities involved. Thankfully, we gave the project owner an accurate scope of work and timeline after consulting with the other contractors involved, which helped the owner have a good sense of what to expect.”

However, given current supply chain challenges, critical parts often aren’t available right away so an alternate plan must be made in its place. This usually means providing a short-term interim solution to help the client get by until the part comes in, whether it’s for just a few days or for several weeks. Being able to provide an immediate plan B is critical as it helps a client get back on their feet and prevent them from losing valuable revenue.

Planning for the unplanned outage

When a part unexpectedly fails or there is a major mechanical malfunction, planning is also key but is typically done much faster. Upon arriving onsite to inspect the issue, it’s critical to be honest and forthright about whether you can handle the work, which could be determined by your skillset and/or whether you have enough people available to handle the job.

Oftentimes, this simply means pulling labor off of other jobs if the issue can be resolved quickly, and then drafting a scope of work that outlines your exact portion of the work that includes a schedule executed by the hour. Since many unplanned outages require around the clock support, it’s important to split workers by day versus night shifts so that they can share the physical, mental and emotional toll of the job and aren’t overburdened day-to-day.

“At a local steel mill, the arc furnace lost its bearing, preventing it from making steel, so we had to work around the clock to fix it and get the mill back online,” says Jeff Chandler, project manager for ICM. “We immediately put a plan into action, but it still took three weeks to complete with over a dozen employees working 24/7 on the job. Luckily, we were upfront about the complexity of the issue so the project owner wasn’t surprised by the length of time it took to fix.”

Since unplanned outages are naturally unpredictable, it’s important to have alternate plans on what you will do if/when something goes wrong or if a critical part won’t arrive for several days or weeks. This means that you shouldn’t tell the owner that you’ll “figure it out as you go” but have concrete plans in place for any additional issues that may arise.

Since material availability has been a major issue for contractors, they should have an extensive list of vendors they can work with should the first vendor not work out or not be able to source the materials needed for the job. Interim or workaround solutions should also be put forth to help clients get back online quickly until longer-term solutions can be put into place, particularly if the solution requires a part or materials that won’t be available right away.

There is no doubt that today’s project owners have a lot on their plate so being an immediate resource when something goes wrong can pay dividends down the road should you complete the work correctly and in accordance with their expectations. But doing so requires the right amount of pre-planning, communication and foresight so that you’re not overpromising something you can’t deliver.

This is critical regardless of whether the outage is planned or unplanned since both scenarios lead to production downtime, which costs the project owner valuable time and money. However, if you come in prepared and ready to tackle the job from all angles, you’re likely to be rewarded for your efforts in both the short and long term, helping it become a new line of income for your business.

by Ed Myers

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