Stationary engineers operate and maintain boilers, engines, air compressors, generators, and other equipment used in providing utilities such as heat, ventilation, light, and power for large buildings, industrial plants, and other facilities. They are called stationary engineers because the equipment they work with is similar to equipment on ships or locomotives, except that it is stationary rather than located on a moving vehicle. There are approximately 50,000 stationary engineers employed in the United States.
History of Stationary Engineer Career
During the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, many new inventions changed the ways in which people lived and worked. Some of these inventions included new energy sources, including steam engines, coal, electricity, and petroleum. When this power was applied to the new machines, many aspects of life began to alter dramatically.
As the industrial revolution spread, new, large factories were built. Sometimes working conditions for the construction and stationary workers were not good. Employees were required to work 60 to 90 hours per week, and their wages were low considering the number of hours they put in. So in 1896, a small group of stationary engineers met in Chicago to form the National Union of Steam Engineers of America. Each was from a small local union and all shared the skill of being able to operate the dangerous steam boilers of the day. This ability also made the steam engineers vital to the construction industry, which used steam-driven equipment at the turn of the century. As members began working with internal combustion engines, electric motors, hydraulic machinery and refrigerating systems as well as steam boilers and engines, the union changed its name to the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE). Today, the IUOE sponsors apprenticeship programs and is the primary union to which stationary engineers belong.
Wherever big equipment installations are located, stationary engineers are needed to operate and maintain the equipment. Once again, their jobs are changing. Equipment is becoming increasingly automated and operators now use computerized controls.
The Job of Stationary Engineers
Stationary engineers are primarily concerned with the safe, efficient, economical operation of utilities equipment. To do their job, they must monitor meters, gauges, and other instruments attached to the equipment. They take regular readings of the instruments and keep a log of information about the operation of the equipment. This might include the amount of power produced; the amount of fuel consumed; the composition of gases given off in burning fuel; the temperature, pressure, and water levels inside equipment; and temperature and humidity of air that has been processed through air-conditioning equipment. When instrument readings show that the equipment is not operating in the proper ranges, they may control the operation of the equipment with levers, throttles, switches, and valves. They may override automatic controls on the equipment, switch to backup systems, or shut the equipment down.
Periodically, stationary engineers inspect the equipment and look for any parts that need adjustment, lubrication, or repair. They may tighten loose fittings, replace gaskets and filters, repack bearings, clean burners, oil moving parts, and perform similar maintenance tasks. They may test the water in boilers and add chemicals to the water to prevent scale from building up and clogging water lines. They keep records of all routine service and repair activities.
Stationary engineers try to prevent breakdowns before they occur. If unexpected trouble develops in the system, they must identify and correct the problem as soon as possible. They may need only to make minor repairs, or they may have to completely overhaul the equipment, using a variety of hand and power tools.
In large plants, stationary engineers may be responsible for keeping several complex systems in operation. They may be assisted by other workers, such as boiler tenders, heating and cooling technicians (See “Heating and Cooling Technicians”), turbine operators, and assistant stationary engineers. In small buildings, a single stationary engineer may be in charge of operating and maintaining the equipment.
Often the instruments and equipment with which stationary engineers work are computer controlled. This means that stationary engineers can keep track of operations throughout a system by reading computer outputs at one central location, rather than checking each piece of equipment. Sensors connected to the computers may monitor factors such as temperature and humidity in the building, and this information can be processed to help stationary engineers make decisions about operating the equipment.
Boiler tenders may be responsible for taking care of steam boilers on their own in building or industrial facilities. In some cases, they tend boilers that produce power to run engines, turbines, or equipment used in industrial processes. Boiler tenders may feed solid fuel, such as coal or coke, into a firebox or conveyor hopper, or they may operate controls and valves. They may also be responsible for maintenance, minor repairs, and cleaning of the boiler and burners.
Stationary Engineer Career Requirements
A high school diploma or its equivalent is required to become an apprentice stationary engineer. Courses in computers, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and mechanical drawing are good introductions to the field, along with vocational training in machinery operation.
Stationary engineers learn the skills they need by completing an apprenticeship or through informal, on-the-job training, often in combination with course work at a vocational or technical school. Because of the similarities between marine and stationary power plants, training in marine engineering during service in the U.S. Navy or Merchant Marines can be an excellent background for this field. However, even with such experience, additional training and study are necessary to become a stationary engineer.
Apprenticeships are administered by local committees that represent both company management and the union to which many stationary engineers belong, the IUOE. Apprenticeships usually last four years. In the practical- experience part of their training, apprentices learn how to operate, maintain, and repair stationary equipment such as blowers, generators, compressors, motors, and refrigeration machinery. They become familiar with precision measurement devices; hand and machine tools; and hoists, blocks, and other equipment used in lifting heavy machines. In the classroom, apprentices study subjects such as practical chemistry and physics, applied mathematics, computers, blueprint reading, electricity and electronics, and instrumentation.
People who learn their skills on the job work under the supervision of experienced stationary engineers. They may start as boiler tenders or helpers, doing simple tasks that require no special skills, and learn gradually through practical experience. The process may go more quickly if they take courses at a vocational or technical school in subjects such as computerized controls and instrumentation.
Even after they are well trained and experienced in their field, stationary engineers should take short courses to keep their knowledge current. Employers often pay for this kind of additional training. When new equipment is installed in a building, representatives of the equipment manufacturer may present special training programs.
Certification or Licensing
Most states and cities require licensing for stationary engineers to operate equipment. There are several classes of license, depending on the kind of equipment and its steam pressure or horsepower. A first-class license qualifies workers to operate any equipment, regardless of size or capacity. Stationary engineers in charge of large equipment complexes and those who supervise other workers need this kind of license. Other classes of licenses limit the capacities or types of equipment that the license holders may operate without supervision.
The requirements for obtaining these licenses vary from place to place. In general, applicants must meet certain training and experience requirements for the class of license, pass a written examination, and be at least 18 years old and a resident of the city or state for a specified period of time. When licensed stationary engineers move to another city or state, they may have to meet different licensing requirements and take another examination.
Stationary engineers possess mechanical aptitude, manual dexterity, and are in good physical condition. They like keeping track of details and understand the importance of following schedules and routines. A prospective stationary engineer should be able to work independently, without direct supervision.
Exploring Stationary Engineer Career
A good way to learn about this work is to get a part-time or summer job in an industrial plant or another large facility where utility equipment is run by a stationary engineer. Even an unskilled position, such as a custodian in a boiler room, can provide you with an opportunity to observe the work and conditions in this occupation. Talking with a stationary engineer or a union representative may also prove helpful.
Stationary engineers hold about 50,000 jobs in the United States. They work in a wide variety of places, including factories, hospitals, hotels, office and apartment buildings, schools, and shopping malls. Some are employed as contractors to a building or plant. They work throughout the country, generally in the more heavily populated areas where large industrial and commercial establishments are located.
Stationary engineers often start out working as a boiler tender or craftsworker in another field. Information about job openings, apprenticeships, and other training may be obtained through the local offices of the state employment service or the IUOE. State and city licensing agencies can give details on local licensure requirements and perhaps possible job leads.
Experienced stationary engineers may advance to jobs in which they are responsible for operating and maintaining larger or more complex equipment installations. Such job changes may become possible as stationary engineers obtain higher classes of licenses. Obtaining these licenses, however, does not guarantee advancement. Many first-class stationary engineers must work as assistants to other first-class stationary engineers until a position becomes available. Stationary engineers may also move into positions as boiler inspectors, chief plant engineers, building superintendents, building managers, or technical instructors. Additional training or formal education may be needed for some of these positions.
Earnings of stationary engineers vary widely, but range from less than $27,850 to $66,870 or more annually in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The median annual salary was $44,600. In metropolitan areas, where most jobs are located, earnings tend to be higher than other areas.
Most stationary engineers receive fringe benefits in addition to their regular wages. Benefits may include life and health insurance, paid vacation and sick days, employer reimbursement for work-related courses, and retirement plans. Benefits for boiler tenders are similar.
Stationary engineers usually work eight-hour shifts, five days a week. Because the plants where they work may operate 24 hours a day, some stationary engineers regularly work afternoon or night shifts, weekends, or holidays. Some work rotating shifts. Occasionally overtime hours are necessary, such as when equipment breaks down or new equipment is being installed.
Most boiler rooms, power plants, and engine rooms are clean and well lighted, but stationary engineers may still encounter some uncomfortable conditions in the course of their work. They may be exposed to high temperatures, dirt, grease, odors, and smoke. At times they may need to crouch, kneel, crawl inside equipment, or work in awkward positions. They may spend much of their time on their feet. There is some danger attached to working around boilers and electrical and mechanical equipment, but following good safety practices greatly reduces the possibility of injury. By staying constantly on the alert, stationary engineers can avoid burns, electrical shock, and injuries from moving parts.
Stationary Engineer Career Outlook
Employment opportunities for stationary engineers will be best for those with apprenticeship training or vocational school courses covering systems operations using computerized controls and instrumentation. Even with that training, workers will face competition for job openings.
Employment is expected to grow more slowly than the average profession through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Although industrial and commercial development will continue, and thus more equipment will be installed and need to be operated by stationary engineers, much of the new equipment will be automated and computerized. The greater efficiency of such controls and instrumentation will tend to reduce the demand for stationary engineers. Job openings will develop when workers transfer to other jobs or leave the workforce, but turnover in this field is low, due in part to its high wages.