Rope access saving generators millions of dollars per year
There is a way to save significant amounts of money when building and maintaining energy facilities. It’s not a completely new idea, but when combined with other kinds of innovative work techniques, “rope access” is producing new options for reducing costs, running into tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars per year in Canada alone. Power generators in Canada, the US and Europe have used rope access to great effect, reworking major parts of their maintenance programs and cutting costs by impressive amounts in the past 18 months.
Rope access technology includes a range of modern engineered systems for safely positioning technical personnel using structures with ropes and pulleys that may appear similar to those used for window washing on tall buildings. However today’s specially designed and controlled systems for rope access have achieved new technical standards and bear few similarities to the traditional techniques for window washing. A increasingly wide range of skilled personnel are using rope access as an innovative way of “getting to work,” says Masih Moosazadeh, of Rope Access Maintenance (RAM), one of the leading companies offering rope access technology in Canada.
Many maintenance programs require the use of extensive scaffolding, or cranes with man-lifts, in order to position technicians to work on various kinds of structures. In order to be safe and effective, scaffolding and cranes often become expensive. It’s estimated that $2.5 billion per year is spent on scaffolding in Canada, a major burden on maintenance budgets, the advocates of rope access believe. The power industry regularly racks up sizable bills for scaffolding to inspect, maintain and repair structures. (Think of exhaust stacks, cooling structures, or pressure vessels in thermal power plants for example.) Although rope access cannot replace all scaffolding needs, in those cases where it’s appropriate, it often reduces the time required for a job, and costs, by 20 to 30 percent.
RAM notes that in one case a Canadian generator estimated costs of $1 million and 20-30 days for scaffolding construction prior to a standard maintenance operation. Using rope access, the work was completed in 1 week for a cost of $250,000. They also believe millions of dollars were saved by a single Canadian power company recently using rope access. Rope access was used for an extensive list of tasks including:
• Lowering and raising qualified inspectors to inspect pipe hangers
• Installation and removal of fiber optic cable for eddy current inspection of boilers
• Cable installation and removal in vaults
• Caulking and painting of steel penetration
• Lowering of inspectors into reheater for inspection
• Spring can and pipe hanger inspections at various locations in the plant
• Video inspection of structural steel in turbine hall
• Cleaning of the turbine hall
• Retrieval of material from inside shielding walls of boilers
• Lowering inspectors to measure and inspect welds above feeder cabinets
• Grouting and painting of holes in shielding walls
• Cleaning of inlet and outlet condenser piping
• Grouting of old and new water nozzles in a 150’ riser
• Light bulb removal and replacement in stand-by generator rooms.
Major Canadian companies such as Shell Canada, Canaport and the CN Tower have also made forays into rope access.
The history of rope access is revealing. Rope access as an integrated system was formally industrialized and became regulated about 25 years ago when offshore maintenance companies realized they needed specialized equipment and a related safety-driven code of practice. Oil rigs, for example, needed all kinds of work done in places where scaffolding wasn’t practical. Special forms of harnesses, anchors, pulleys and tethers were designed and improved upon. Once the technology, codes and procedures were established, the use of rope access took root quickly across the North Sea, and soon began expanding across the world. Relatively recently a number of companies have begun using rope access widely for work projects on shore.
According to reports assembled by the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) more than 12,400 people were working in rope access situations at the end of 2012. Total working hours exceeded 12 million, of which over half was for work ‘on rope’. The Association has more than 240 company members.
RAM says the industry is doing more than $100 million per year in Canada, and growing quickly. The benefits are considerable:
• Flexibility: Rope Access technicians can operate in a wide variety of environments: complex steel structures, towers, penstocks and stacks, and hazardous confined-spaces, for example.
• Cost-effectiveness: Rope Access is 50-80% less expensive than scaffolding, cranes and other forms of at-height access. Fewer people are required to perform the same work, and the project is completed sooner because of the increased mobility and efficiency of rope access work. These factors work to minimize downtime, which in turn lowers costs in several ways.
• Speed and efficiency: Rope Access can improve project completion time by up to 50%. Rope Access systems are installed and dismantled quickly, often requiring fewer personnel. Because of Rope Access’s minimal interference with other site operations, disruptions and loss of production time is kept to a minimum.
The range of potential applications seems to be growing quickly. Rope access combined with wireless technologies like portable grinders and electronic instruments have opened up countless possibilities for new ways to do old jobs. It allows for the use of ultrasound, radiography and magnetic particle detection techniques to test the properties of materials in hard to reach places. In one application a technician with a video camera can be in real-time communication with engineers monitoring progress on computers in a separate location. For all kinds of specialized tradespeople, this kind of technology “offers a way to extend their reach,” improving their productivity. “The extent of viable applications depends on people’s willingness to rethink the way work is done,” Masih says.
Of course questions about safety always come up when people are introduced to rope access. The Association has published reassuring figures showing that accident rates for workers using rope access are much lower than those for workers in other industries including those using scaffolding or other types of at-height access. Most recorded rope access accidents actually occur on the ground. “Rope access is very robust, well-tested and inspected,” he says. Rigorous standards have been established. And of course, as a required practice, there are always at least two ropes on every individual, and every tool used by anyone on a rope is tethered. Labour unions have generally come to accept the practice.
With techniques like rope access coming along, there is reason to take the optimistic view that people will always find creative new ways to get the job done.