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Various Rants Regarding Structural Engineering Practice in the Process Industry

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I have been working for awhile now for a client who is an "emerging" Engineering, Procurement, Fabrication and Construction company (EPFC) dealing primarily with the energy sector. Currently, I'm working on a couple of jobs adding capacity to small domestic refineries, as well as some natural gas processing plants.

I've done this sort of work off and on for years now, and it's interesting to note how little much of the routine changes, and how different things are in this business compared to other sectors in which structural engineers typically labor. It's not all bad--the pay rates are, as ever, the highest of any other type of work that I have done--but it's too boring to discuss what's right; I'd rather focus on the things that make my head explode.

Chapter I. "We don't need no steenkin' P.E.!"

Years ago the engineer registration/licensure laws and regulations were not considered to pertain to engineering work done on behalf of the refinery or chemical process plant owner-operator. This arose from a twisty definition of "employee," as a matter of fact. Even today, all states with which I'm familiar have some version of exemption for engineering work performed directly for a facility owner by an engineer who is a direct employee of that owner. For example, if you worked for Conoco as a structural engineer back in the day, you could do structural design to your heart's content for Conoco facilities, and no engineer's seal is required; you don't even need to be a P.E. That's the primary reason why relatively few engineers in "industry" are licensed P.E.s: It isn't required for what they do.

However, about twenty years ago, states such as Texas started clamping down hard on "EPC" firms that did not provide sealed drawings for construction of client facilities, because of course the EPC's engineers were NOT "employees" of that client. There were feeble attempts to object on the grounds that an engineer for, say Brown & Root was actually doing engineering for that which B&R was installing, and at the time of installation B&R "owned" that work, but it never flew. In fact, when I worked for B&R in the late 80s, they issued a sternly-worded directive regarding work done in ANY state in the U.S. as a result of a rather stiff administrative penalty handed down by the Texas state P.E. board.

Yet here were are in the first decade of the 21st Century, and I constantly encounter "dumb looks" on the part of engineering managers here at my current client when I ask who's going to seal the drawings for this project we're doing in [STATE].

"Well, this has never come up before. Why do you think they have to be sealed?"

State laws require it.

"No, that doesn't apply to owners of refineries. Just don't worry about it."

Chapter II. Q: When is a Building Code Not A Building Code? A: When It's 'A Standard.'

When you are in the "commercial sector," you use building codes. When you are in the "process sector" you use "standards" that often contain the words "code" or "building code" in their titles, but "aren't codes" because "we don't have to abide by building codes."


"Yes, of course."

ACI 318?

"Yes, it's a 'standard.'"

Well, the title is Building Code Requirements for Concrete Structures.

"Yes, the rest fo the world uses it as a building code, but to us it's a standard. We don't have to use building codes."

Um, is that documented somewhere?

"I think so, at the last company I worked for. But we all do the same kind of work the same way."

So you are saying we don't need to abide by requirements for things like emergency egress, etc., because we don't have to abide by the building code?

"Right. Except that we do have plant standards and industry standards and OSHA and stuff like that."

Just not building codes.

"Now you got it."

Chapter III. We've Been Doing This For 27 Years! What Have YOU Done?

I have often characterized these types of companies as "construction companies that throw the engineering in for free." Combine that with the notion that you "get what you pay for," and you get where I'm headed.

Construction rules the roost. Engineers are an unnecessary adjunct that just get in the way of getting the job done--sort of like Second Lieutenants in the Army. Since the concept of "engineer of record" has never breached this side of the fence, the notion that somehow the engineer is the professional in ultimate charge of the work has eluded most of those in construction--many of whom tend to wind up in the executive suites of such firms.

This also goes for project managers, almost all of whom are engineers by training, but have been involved with construction for so long that they can't see any other point of view. Engineering typically accounts for 10% or less of the total budget for these projects--and structural engineering only about 2 or 3%--so you get a corresponding "vote" as to what is of most importance.

Chapter IV. Piper At The Gates of DOW (or ConocoPhillips, or ExxonMobil, or ...)

Without a doubt, the most powerful entity on the engineering side of the project is not the Project Engineer, nor the Process Engineer, nor any sort of Engineer at all. It's the "Piping Designer," who is no engineer at all, but an upjumped DRAFTSMAN who happens to know how to string pieces of pipe and associated appurtenances together, and make Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams (P&IDs) according to the many Post-It notes he's collected from the Process Engineer who, although certainly and IMPORTANT member of the team, usually does his thing at the very beginning of the job and then goes away, leaving the "Pipers" in charge.

You want to talk about a non-engineer who is always ready and eager to shut out any engineer-type from the vital information on the project, and has the power to do it? That's the "Pipers." These people have a sense of self-importance that is only exceeded by local politicians, network news-anchors and, well, other Pipers.

Everything flows to them, everything flows (selectively) from them, and you can just sit right there and wait on the information you need, buddy. I don't care how many letters you have after your name (including that there "PE" thingy), the Piper's the man!

* * *

I could go on, but I tire of my rant already. Besides, one of the junior Pipers has agreed to let me see where they might put some major pipe supports, and I've got to jump when he says "go".

Happy trails, y'all.
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