TVA’s elite group of problem-solving boiler inspectors travel the Valley, working in small spaces to offer big support to the generation fleet.
Many of the entrances to the TVA fossil plant boilers measure 14 inches in size—yes, 14 inches. That’s comparable to the size of a small wastebasket in circumference. Now imagine entering a boiler through one of these entrances.
TVA boiler inspector team members can often be found crawling through entrances like this. Their work is done inside the boilers, which requires maneuvering through small, dusty spaces and crawling on knees and elbows with several pieces of equipment and PPE.
Coupled with the cramped environment is also very little, if any, light in the areas they work. The inspectors rely on headlamps to perform their inspections, which require taking measurements to 1,000th of an inch.
Once in the boiler, the inspectors spend hours inspecting and measuring to identify potential issues that need to be addressed. Obviously, claustrophobia cannot be on the list of qualms for a boiler inspector nor can a fear of heights—inspectors often work on suspended scaffolding up to 180 feet off the bottom of the boiler.
Boiler inspectors are tasked with examining miles and miles of steel tubing. One small leak or issue can take a unit offline, causing financial loss for TVA.
The boiler inspector group consists of five licensed boilermakers who travel the Valley making sure 27 fossil units at seven plants and 21 heat recovery steam generators at eight plants are in proper working condition, boiler wise. Each of the inspectors has an assigned fossil plant they serve and report to. However, they deploy as a team during outages, and when issues arise it’s an “all hands on deck” mentality.
Their main and most important mission (besides working as safely as possible) is to be a problem solver. Tasked with inspecting fleet components, the team works to resolve boiler issues during outages and as needed when issues arise. Each plant has a boiler and each boiler has its own style. No two boilers within the TVA fleet are the same.
During outages, the boiler inspectors research what part of the boiler to inspect each day, hold a pre-job brief, and assist the plants with prioritization of work/need and budgeting for the work. Jimmy “Blue” Sutton explains, “We work hand in hand with plant and contract boilermakers to create the best solution for the equipment at that particular site.”
To aid the team, they use a handheld computer to document the results of their inspections. They are able to research past issues, drawings of the boiler and boiler components to help them problem solve. This tool helps get issues resolved quicker. It also helps the next boiler inspector that goes into the same boiler, as dates, concerns and more are all logged and documented. In addition, the inspectors use the records to create and present reports for fleet management onsite to help them understand the background of issues and boiler condition.
“It’s been a steep learning curve going from the guy who fixes the issue to the guy who finds the problem,” says one of the newest inspectors, Charles “Buddy” Boles. “I went from working with sledge hammers and torches every day to working on a computer screen.”
Senior Manager of Metallurgy, Chemistry & Performance Engineering, Lisa Ortiz, says boiler inspectors play an integral part in the health of TVA’s boilers. “They travel thousands of miles each year, often with short notice, covering the Valley to inspect and serve our plants.”