Managing major plant shutdowns


Major maintenance shutdowns can be very stressful for both Maintenance and Operating people, but with careful planning and attention to details, they can also be very rewarding.

As with non-shutdown maintenance, the single biggest factor that impacts shutdown management is the operating schedule. In a plant that operates 8 hours a day, 5 five days a week, or in a power generating station that has seasons where individual units can be shut down for extended periods, shutdown scheduling is relatively easy. However, in process industries that operate 24/7, and where the cost of downtime can be up to $100,000 per hour or even more, shutdowns must be treated like pit stops, with the absolute maximum amount of preparation and the minimum of “surprises” during the shutdown period.

During our 3-day Planning and Scheduling training course, we spend very little time talking about shutdowns, because the planning and scheduling of shutdown work is very much same as any other work, with some notable differences, including:

– the level of activity is very much higher

– any maintenance performance problems will be highlighted, especially if they cause a delay in start-up

– there are many opportunities for physical interference between jobs

– there may be conflicting demands for people, tools, equipment and other resources

– there may be many people around who are not familiar with the site, its people, systems, rules or hazards.

Major shutdowns (or “turnarounds”) in process industries typically happen infrequently (every year or two) and take several days to complete. In general, these shutdowns should have two objectives:

  1. To repair problems that were identified during previous major shutdowns and
  2. To inspect those parts of the plant which are not accessible during operation to identify problems that will be repaired during future planned major shutdowns.

Of course, it must be expected that problems which have to be addressed immediately will occasionally be found, but these should be the exception and when they are found the inspection process should be updated to avoid similar future surprises.

Above all else, the key to a successful major shutdown is to start the planning process early. There should be plenty of time to plan each job in detail, to get good, competitive bids on contract work, to manage process inventory to gain access to tanks and other process equipment for inspection and so on.

I was fortunate to be a part of a team of experienced shutdown managers, from both Operations and Maintenance, in a multi-mill kraft pulp company that developed a detailed “shutdown countdown” process which starts 18 weeks in advance of the first day of the shutdown. Click here to see the list of 130 activities that were identified as essential to a well-managed shutdown, with a deadline for each one.

Note that this list should never be adopted as a standard without being critically studied and revised to suit any specific operation, however it is a good framework to use as a starting point. Behind each line item there is a detailed write-up, which is available (at no cost) by contacting us. We can also provide an Excel spreadsheet where you can enter the planned starting date of a shutdown and the deadline dates for all other activities will be displayed.


Shutdown planning tools

There is often a discussion about the best tools to use for shutdown management. For the large jobs which may determine the shutdown duration, a good critical-path application, such as MS Project®, should always be used. For the many other small, independent jobs, critical-path software or a spreadsheet may be used, and this is often a question of personal preference (see “Scheduling– Spreadsheets or critical-path software?”).

While the shutdown-countdown list shows “Detailed planning” (item 26) starting at 12 weeks prior to the start of the shutdown and taking two weeks, in practice, such planning may start long before this date. The detailed planning of shutdown work should be combined with some scheduling so that key tradespeople (and contractors) who will be assigned to critical shutdown work can be included in the planning process (see “Detailed planning“).


Roles change during shutdowns

During a major plant outage, roles will often change.

– Maintenance supervisors may change areas to allow a special focus on critical work.

– Engineers may be assigned the role of “owner’s representative” to manage contract work (and they must be trained to understand and accept the very special responsibilities that go with this position).

– Planners may be assigned the responsibility to keep the work schedules and critical paths marked up to show actual progress, to assist with the jobs which they have planned, to “flag” problems and to generally monitor shutdown activity in detail. During shutdowns, they may also act as assistants to the maintenance supervisors, something that they should not do during plant operation. They may also be assigned to plan unexpected work.

– Operators and their supervisors should provide support to the Maintenance team, by ensuring equipment is empty, clean and isolated when required, and is thoroughly tested prior to start-up.

– Probably the best role for Maintenance Superintendents and/or Maintenance Managers is to stay clear of all meetings except those related to the shutdown and to “carry water” for their people, by assisting in the removal of any obstacles that arise and helping to expedite additional help where it is needed.

As a Maintenance Manager, I found that it was helpful for me to make a list of the jobs that I knew had the potential to become problems, including those on or near the critical path, those with new contractors and those where the scope of work was uncertain. I would list these jobs in order of shortest distance and walk by a couple of times each day, talking to the supervisors and tradespeople to assess the job status. My list would change during the course of the shutdown, and it gave me some personal confidence that the work was progressing as it should.


There are many other important positions, some temporary, for effective shutdown management, and these are covered in some detail in the notes which accompany the shutdown countdown list.


Shutdown progress meetings

Shutdown progress meetings held during the shutdown should be frequent (twice a day for 24-hour work schedules is suggested) and very brief. Attendees should include the people with overall responsibility for work in each area and for critical jobs, and the agenda should be limited to asking each person if he or she is aware of any issues or problems in their area of responsibility that may affect the shutdown scope or schedule, to clearly identify the action that will be taken to address these issues and to name the person responsible for those actions. At the beginning of the next meeting, the agenda should start with a review of the issues from the previous meeting to ensure that they have been adequately addressed. Surprises should never be allowed.


Shutdown documentation

The documentation for a major shutdown can be extensive, and include:

– the list of shutdown work

– the critical path schedules

– the process inventory plan leading up to and during the shutdown

– permits and other safety documentation

– all isolation and vessel-entry procedures, complete with detailed schedules and resource plans

– a list of the people responsible for all aspects of the shutdown, their work schedules and their 24-hour contact information

– the shutdown budget

Major shutdowns provide an opportunity for the people in the Maintenance Department to demonstrate how well they can perform under pressure, and a well-planned and well-executed shutdown can be an exciting and satisfying experience. A strong Operations/Maintenance partnership is an important key to a successful shutdown, and all operating and maintenance activities must be included in an integrated shutdown schedule, which should be under constant review and revision during the shutdown period.

This is a very brief overview of shutdown management. For more information, please contact us.


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Don Armstrong, P. Eng


Veleda Services Ltd


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