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Heating, air-conditioning, and ventilation systems are what keep large buildings comfortable all year long. Industrial plants often have facilities to provide electrical power, steam, or other services as well. Stationary engineers operate and maintain these systems, which can include boilers, air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment, diesel engines, turbines, generators, pumps, condensers, and compressors. These workers are called stationary engineers because the equipment they operate is similar to equipment operated by locomotive or marine engineers except it is not on a moving vehicle.
Stationary engineers start up, regulate, and shut down equipment. They ensure that it operates safely and economically and within established limits by monitoring attached meters, gauges, other instruments, and computerized controls. They manually control equipment, and if necessary, make adjustments. They use hand and power tools to perform repairs and maintenance ranging from a complete overhaul to replacing defective valves, gaskets, or bearings. They also record relevant events and facts concerning operation and maintenance in an equipment log. On steam boilers, for example, they observe, control, and record steam pressure, temperature, water level, power output, and fuel consumption. They watch and listen to machinery and routinely check safety devices, identifying and correcting any trouble that develops.
New building and plant systems are increasingly being run by stationary engineers using computers. These systems allow engineers to monitor, adjust, and diagnose systems from a central location or using a laptop computer linked into the buildings' communications network.
Stationary engineers also perform routine maintenance, such as lubricating moving parts, replacing filters, and removing soot and corrosion that can reduce operating efficiency. They test boiler water and add chemicals to prevent corrosion and harmful deposits. They also may check the air quality of the ventilation system and make adjustments to keep within mandated guidelines.
In a large building or industrial plant, a stationary engineer may be in charge of all mechanical systems in the building or an industrial power plant or engine room. Engineers may direct the work of assistant stationary engineers, turbine operators, boiler tenders, and air-conditioning and refrigeration operators and mechanics. In a small building or industrial plant, there may be only one stationary engineer.
Stationary engineers generally have steady year-round employment. They usually work a 5-day, 40-hour week. Many work one of three daily 8-hour shifts, and weekend and holiday work often is required.
Engine rooms, power plants, and boiler rooms usually are clean and well lighted. Even under the most favorable conditions, however, some stationary engineers are exposed to high temperatures, dust, dirt, and high noise levels from the equipment. General maintenance duties may cause contact with oil and grease, as well as fumes or smoke. Workers spend much of their time on their feet; they also may have to crawl inside boilers and work in crouching or kneeling positions to inspect, clean, or repair equipment.
Because stationary engineers work around boilers as well as electrical and mechanical equipment, they must be alert to avoid burns, electric shock, and injury from moving parts. They also must be aware of exposure to hazardous materials such as asbestos and certain chemicals.
Stationary engineers held about 30,000 jobs in 1994. They worked in a wide variety of places, including factories, hospitals, hotels, office and apartment buildings, schools, and shopping malls.
Stationary engineers work throughout the country, generally in the more heavily populated areas where large industrial and commercial establishments usually are located.
Most stationary engineers acquire their skills through a formal apprenticeship program or through informal on-the-job training which usually is supplemented by courses at trade or technical schools. In addition, a good background can be obtained in the Navy or the Merchant Marine because marine engineering plants are similar to many stationary power and heating plants. The increasing complexity of the equipment with which they work has made a high school diploma or its equivalent necessary; many stationary engineers have some college education.
Apprenticeship programs are sponsored by the International Union of Operating Engineers, the principal union to which stationary engineers belong. In selecting apprentices, most local labor-management apprenticeship committees prefer applicants who have received instruction in mathematics, computers, mechanical drawing, machine-shop practice, physics, and chemistry. Mechanical aptitude, manual dexterity, and good physical condition also are important.
An apprenticeship usually lasts 4 years. In addition to 8,000 hours of on-the-job training, apprentices receive 600 hours of classroom instruction in boiler design and operation, basic chemistry and water treatment, elementary physics, pneumatics, refrigeration and air conditioning, electricity and electronics, computer systems, and other technical subjects.
Those who acquire their skills on the job usually start as helpers to experienced stationary engineers or as boiler tenders. This practical experience may be supplemented by postsecondary vocational training in computerized controls and instrumentation. However, becoming a stationary engineer without going through a formal apprenticeship program usually requires many years of work experience.
Most large and some small employers encourage and pay for skill-improvement training for their employees. Training is almost always provided when new equipment is introduced, usually by a representative of the machinery manufacturer, or when regulations concerning some aspect of their duties change.
Most States and cities have licensing requirements for stationary engineers. Applicants usually must be at least 18 years of age, reside for a specified period in the State or locality, meet experience requirements, and pass a written examination. Because of regional differences in licensing requirements, a stationary engineer who moves from one State or city to another may have to pass an examination for a new license.
Generally, there are several classes of stationary engineer licenses, each specifying the type of equipment or the steam pressure or horsepower of the equipment the engineer can operate without supervision. A first-class license covers equipment of all types and capacities. A licensed first-class stationary engineer is qualified to run a large facility and to supervise others. An applicant for this license may be required to have a high school education, apprenticeship or on-the-job training, and several years of experience. Lower class licenses limit the types or capacities of equipment the engineer may operate without the supervision of a higher rated engineer.
Stationary engineers advance by being placed in charge of larger, more powerful, or more varied equipment. Generally, engineers advance to these jobs as they obtain higher class licenses. Some stationary engineers advance to boiler inspectors, chief plant engineers, building and plant superintendents, or building managers. A few obtain jobs as examining engineers or technical instructors.
Persons wishing to become stationary engineers may face competition because of the small number of openings expected through the year 2005. Although growing commercial and industrial development will increase the amount of equipment to be operated and maintained, automated systems and computerized controls will make newly installed equipment more efficient and reduce the number of stationary engineers needed. Therefore, employment of stationary engineers is expected to decline through the year 2005. Most of the job openings will arise from the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. Because turnover in this occupation is low, partly due to its high wages, relatively few replacement openings are expected.
Due to the increasing complexity of power-generating systems, job opportunities will be best for those with apprenticeship training or vocational school courses in computerized controls and instrumentation.
In 1994, the median weekly earnings for stationary engineers who worked full time were about $591. The middle 50 percent earned between $430 and $758 a week; 10 percent earned less than $304 a week; and 10 percent earned more than $977.
Other workers who monitor and operate stationary machinery include nuclear reactor operators, power station operators, water and wastewater treatment plant operators, waterworks pump-station operators, chemical operators, and refinery operators.
Information about training or work opportunities is available from local offices of State employment services, locals of the International Union of Operating Engineers, and from State and local licensing agencies.
Specific questions about the occupation should be addressed to:
International Union of Operating Engineers, 1125 17th St. NW., Washington, DC 20036.
National Association of Power Engineers, Inc., 1 Springfield St., Chicopee, MA 01013.
Building Owners and Managers Institute International, 1521 Ritchie Hwy., Suite 3A, Arnold, MD 21403.
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