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 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 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, 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.