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Staying Ahead of the Breakdown Curve (Conclusion)

Weather considerations, management communication, importance of personal ‘maintenance’

TACOMA, Wash. — Keeping ahead of mechanical failure is like chasing a virtual carrot—if you were a horse.

You never catch the carrot, and it is a repetitive situation. It’s good for engineers—it keeps us employed.

Preventive maintenance is the little things we do, repeatedly, hoping to prevent or delay the inevitable breakdown.

Every plant is going to have different needs in this arena, as well as varying levels of cooperation with owners, plant managers and hours of operation.

For this article, I’m defining “preventive maintenance” as the things we can do with the plant running with minimal downtime impact or parts costs.

I wish the real world was as easy as the “scheduled on paper” world, but it isn’t, and sometimes we change the oil on our car a little later than prescribed.

The beauty of having a schedule for greasing, blowdowns, control panel vacuuming and such is that you can keep the pace a little tighter than it needs to be so that on the occasion a service interval is delayed, you have built in a safety of time.


As I write this, winter is here. It hit us, and much of the country a little harder and earlier than we expected.

Winter demands an entire set of preparedness and prevention. Water lines and potential freezing/bursting are obvious, and you probably already have dealt with this and have built-in countermeasures in place.

What about your fire suppression? Our sprinkler contractor comes in every September for a “low point drain” of our system.

In many municipalities, such as ours, the annual inspections and maintenance must be done by a third party that is certified. This is expensive but so worth it.

A dry system, even if it has not tripped, will build up condensation inside simply by being pressurized by compressed air and subjected to wildly varying temperatures, like what you would expect in an ironing room.

I have dealt with a couple of failures of these systems. One was annoying; the other was quite painful.

I will say that I have seen how quickly a well-serviced suppression system can quickly arrest what would otherwise be a devastating fire.

Another winter frustration is frozen air lines and actuators. Most of us have air dryers and oilers on our equipment.

You see water stacking up in the bowl, and you drain it, and the world is good, right? Well, that water was delivered to that bowl from somewhere.

We have a relatively new and well-sized air dryer immediately after our plant compressor. We live in the Northwest, so our air is wet. We extract about 4 gallons of water a day at this point.

Many of you (and us, previously) do not have an air dryer. That moisture is going to your accumulation tanks, and even if you are diligent about draining those, your supply lines will carry some moisture.

Even with the air dryer, we still drain the tanks, and we still get some moisture in our lines.

Winter exacerbates the problems of moisture in your system, but moisture is a problem year-round. Pneumatic cylinders and actuators will suffer a premature demise from the moisture ruining piston seals and clogging ports.

Alcohol can be used to help dry these systems, but if your subsystems are not using lubrication at the separator, this can accelerate the drying out of all the rubber seals associated with pneumatic systems.

I like to replace poly lines every couple of years, sometimes pulling the lines apart at lower points to push built up moisture out by charging the system. This has helped me.

I also have begun installing “dirt lines” on new systems. Essentially this is just a drop like you would see on a gas line or a low point drain on a suppression system.

The difference is I install a ball valve and cap that we can open and try to push some moisture out. Seems effective in my world.

Also, about compressed air, if you can walk the plant alone with nothing but the compressor running, I will bet money all of us would hear a leak or two. This is another constant battle.

We feed a beast with two hearts: the boiler and the compressor. It needs both to live. Keep these leaks at bay.

I involve a subcontractor in our annual boiler inspection, and with the cold weather here, we are all conscious of gas costs.

I have one of their crew adjust each burner in our plant on the day of our internal. One good tech can handle our plant in less than a day. Your plant may need a couple of visits, or maybe you have someone on staff that is proficient in using water column gauges and can make these adjustments, in-house, regularly.

I’m not even smart enough to know why a regulator might be out of adjustment half of a turn since the last adjustment, but you can see a visible and measurable change in flame and drying times, etc. if there is a correction made.


Maintenance. Reliability engineers. Chief. It doesn’t much matter the title or the fancy bow we wrap it in. We are a necessary evil, of sorts, to our industry.

We don’t provide revenue. We don’t sign new accounts. If you are like me, sales and service are something you only think about if they are not happy with quality or volume.

With that said, a plant experiencing good uptime and reliability generally rests directly on our shoulders. Be sure to contact the owner or general manager a couple of times a week. Share with them the accomplishments, and challenges, that the week or month has presented.

A good relationship with ownership is a powerful tool in getting the support you need to not only stay efficient but also to progressively get better. That owner, even if they won’t say it out loud, will be your biggest fan.

They need you to be successful for them to be successful. We don’t provide revenue, but we surely can provide better margins by being good stewards of their equipment, providing greater volume with less labor.

Your other managers need your ear, too, and if the relationship is good (and life is better for all parties when it is), they can share their concerns about certain equipment, and you can try to schedule downtime for maintenance.

I am fortunate enough to have great relationships with ownership, plant management and production management. None of us can fully understand each other’s position or pressure, but “one team” is an easy sell and the best way to approach all aspects of business, laundry or otherwise.

I’ve said this many times: Listen to those voices doing the work on the floor. These veteran production workers, and even some of the newer ones, can have solid ideas and good intel. Maybe their wishes aren’t always practical, but this “one team” doesn’t run without them.


Lastly, everything you just read is simple stuff you have already said and/or heard and done.

Whether you are the owner of a small dry cleaner working 16-hour days, seven days a week, or a chief engineer at the greatest laundry in America or a floor lead, keeping inanimate objects running and producing can suck the soul out of you.

Busy schedules and demanding deadlines will have us delaying a dental checkup or a doctor’s visit. Longevity and experience and loyalty are the most important tools we bring to our companies and apprentices.

Stay healthy so you can keep giving. Let the people you lead feel good about themselves and the job.

Our field recently lost a great engineer. He was smart and kind and dedicated.

Carlos Ramon Espinoza, an engineer with Magic Linen, passed away much too young. I only knew him briefly, but he impacted me immensely.

He is probably making sure the escalator to heaven is running at peak efficiency even as I type.  

For Part 1 with maintenance suggestions from greasing to frequency drives, click HERE.

Staying Ahead of the Breakdown Curve

(Photo: © Photoerick/Depositphotos)

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Matt Poe at [email protected].