How we serve: Instrumentation technicians

Man standing in generator room.
John Schwab, apprentice instrumentation technician at Leland Olds Station.

Many processes and systems within a plant happen so automatically that it’s easy to forget someone had a role in getting everything set up just right. Cue the instrumentation technicians.

At a basic level, instrumentation techs help the plant utilize automation. They install, test, calibrate, and maintain instruments in order to manipulate measured variables such as temperature, pressure, emissions, and flow.

The instrumentation techs at Leland Olds Station are in charge of the logic, or programming, that controls the plant. While the control room operators monitor screens and run the actual processes throughout the entire plant, the instrumentation technicians manage the logic working in the background.

“The logic might say that a certain system has to be working before another can run, or it could say that a motor has to be running a certain amount of time before a system can begin running,” John Schwab, apprentice instrumentation tech at Leland Olds Station, says. “Everything is programmed so that when it’s time to run a system, everything runs smoothly just like it should.”

Often, control room operators are the first to know that something isn’t functioning correctly. When they do, they’ll submit a work request to the planning and scheduling department. They will build a work order package and send it to the instrument techs for repairs and troubleshooting.

“The control room operators are monitoring the units 24/7, so they notice problems right away. They’ll submit a work request, and we will start troubleshooting as soon as we receive a work order. If it is a problem we can’t figure out, we get the mechanics and electricians involved, too,” Schwab says. “The problem could be the logic or it could be a physical issue, so we’ll work with them to troubleshoot and get it figured out.”

In a perfect world, once automations are set up it would be as simple as pressing a button for everything to run smoothly. In reality, instrumentation techs are continually calibrating equipment to ensure the proper functioning of automated equipment.

“Wear and tear happens at a plant, so maybe the timing of a system firing up needs to be extended for five seconds because a valve needs more time to open now and the mechanics are unable to get to it or the unit has to be off to replace the valve, for example,” Schwab says.

Testing doesn’t just happen in the control room.

“Whenever we do testing, we go into the field to look at actual equipment. One of us will be at the computer and another at a turbine during a calibration. Then based on what we see, we’ll adjust the limits and run the test again until it meets the tolerances the computer is asking for,” Schwab says.

Schwab says one of the best learning experiences he’s had since he began his apprenticeship a year ago was working on the Leland Olds Station Unit 1 outage last spring.

“We learned a lot about different things we need to do for outages, like turbine valves we have to test and set the limits on that we don’t work with regularly. It was a big success, especially because we have a lot of new guys in the shop,” Schwab says.

Outages like this are critical for the plant to continue functioning at the level it needs to maintain reliability for the membership.

Schwab’s apprenticeship will end when he has reached 6,000 work hours and three years of experience.

“At first I did a lot of shadowing other instrumentation techs, but now I’m getting to do a lot more on my own,” Schwab says.

While taking instrumentation classes, Schwab was able to utilize Basin Electric’s tuition reimbursement program, which reimburses employees for classes towards approved degrees.

Even though Schwab is newer to his role, he’s not new to power plant work. Growing up, his dad was a control room operator at Leland Olds Station, and he previously worked at Antelope Valley Station in operations, working his way up from a temporary position to an equipment attendant. He says the best part of his job is all the people across the plant he gets to work with.

“We get to work with a lot of different people in the plant and do a variety of stuff, and I really like the guys in the shop. They’re a good bunch,” Schwab says. “And I have to say that working straight days now is pretty nice compared to shift work.”

Every job within a power plant plays a role in maintaining reliability, but Schwab is grateful he found his niche and can now support the membership as an instrumentation tech.

“Problems like the control system not working correctly can cause major issues if they aren’t caught early and corrected, and that can mean lost production time for the plant,” Schwab says. “Of course, we fix issues when they come up, but we stay on top of regular testing so we can avoid issues and keep everything running smoothly. We know what we do is important for the members at the end of the line who rely on us for power.”

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