Visits to a number of plants this year have identified a common problem when it comes to energy conservation in their ovens and furnaces. They've got institutional amnesia -- as organizations, they don't remember what they need to do to keep their equipment running at top efficiency.

This isn't anything new -- it's been a problem in many companies for generations -- but what is new is how pervasive it is. The last few years have not been kind to the retention of information used to ensure equipment is running smoothly, safely and efficiently. Equipment specifications and operating manuals are nowhere be found, the Old Guard, who knew how to set up and run the equipment, have retired or were laid off in a downturn. Tools and instruments used to maintain the equipment are gathering dust on some shelf because no one knows what to do with them.

Some companies have managed to cope with this by outsourcing their servicing and tuneups, but the quality of the results depends on the knowledge and skills of their contractors. Some are very good; others leave a lot to be desired. And if the vendor is booked solid when a crisis pops up, you're forced to muddle through until they can get to you. You can't afford not to have at least a basic in-house capability to troubleshoot and tune your heating equipment, even if you continue to depend on an outside service organization. So how do you rebuild this lost capability?

Get Your Equipment Documentation in Order

Specifications and manuals missing? Contact the equipment manufacturers for replacements and put them in a secure (but not inaccessible) place. They'll probably charge you for copies, but don't complain. Spare parts don't come free, and these manuals are some of the most valuable spare parts you can obtain. Do you have copies of the tuneup reports and settings from your service contractor? You should, all on file. If you have any doubt about whether that oven or furnace is running right, those reports will give you baseline settings to check your current readings against.

Designate Someone to Be Your Process Heating Guru

Give someone responsibility for the process heating equipment. If they don't know much about how it works, send them to training seminars offered by equipment vendors, trade associations and colleges. It's not rocket science, but it is specialized knowledge. Once they're up and running, give them the authority and freedom of action to make the corrections and improvements needed.

Get Your Diagnostic Equipment in Order

Knowing what the right setting should be is no use if you can't take readings on what you have now. Clean that dried crud out of your manometers and refill them with fresh fluid. Charge up the batteries on your flue gas analyzer and try to calibrate it. Your next purchase might be a new analyzer cell. Starting from scratch on equipment? See “An Ounce of Prevention,” in the June 2004 Energy Notes column for a shopping list, and the August and September 2004 columns for suggestions on what to check.

Document and Track Your Results

Factory walls are plastered with statistical charts on product characteristics, productivity and quality. I have yet to see one logging combustion system pressures or fuel-air ratios. We track monthly energy consumption, but not the parameters that drive it. Give those burner and fan settings some visibility.

Bring Back an Old-Timer

After all this, you may still be plagued by gaps in your knowledge of how the equipment is supposed to run and how to put it right. If people keep saying, “Old Fred took care of this stuff -- sure wish we could pick his brains now,” ask Old Fred to come back for a day or two of consulting. There's a good chance he'll jump at the opportunity -- it's a break in his retirement routine, and he'll probably be flattered that someone still cares about him and what he knows. Pay him for his time and expenses, and make sure everyone who can benefit from his experience is there to listen and learn. If you missed the opportunity to have him pass on his expertise while he was still working there, here's your chance to set some of it right.

Re-establish the Tradition of Collecting, Preserving and Passing On Knowledge

Smooth-running, efficient heat processing operations don't happen by accident. They're the result of a host of good management practices, including learning how our equipment works, regularly checking and documenting its vital signs, giving visibility to that information and last but not least, preserving it and passing it on to our successors. We blew the handoff once before -- let's not repeat the mistake.