The Case for Fluid Power Certification?

Fluid power's strengths require that practitioners know their stuff.

Comments Off on The Case for Fluid Power Certification? September 16, 2008
by Pat Jones, P.Eng.

Fluid power is mode of power transmission and motion control that is used in a wide variety of industries. It can be used to transmit and control large amounts of power, is used to move and hold very large loads and, in some cases, incorporates critical safety features. So why is it that there is no recognized and regulated standard for knowledge of fluid power systems in Canada? Possibly some people think it is more like plumbing than power transmission.

In my day-to day-business, I often discuss this topic with the people who work with hydraulic systems, my area of endeavour, and they are always amazed that a person doesn’t need to meet a recognized standard to work on fluid power systems. In my opinion, such a standard is essential for at least three reasons: safety, reliability and continuity of knowledge.

Safety
It’s clear to me that people who have not been instructed specifically in hydraulic system safety do not understand exactly what they’re dealing with. I have heard many stories of ticketed mechanics who have been injured or killed due to a lack of knowledge of hydraulic systems. Fluids at high pressures can be hazardous, such as during oil injections. Raised loads and accumulators represent stored energy that must be lowered, blocked or released before servicing the system. There are situations that can cause pressure to intensify (go higher than maximum system pressure) that must be understood or component/conductor failure could occur.
I am not trying to be Chicken Little, but unless a standardized safety program is required for anyone that works on hydraulic systems, injuries and fatalities will continue.

Reliability
Proper knowledge in correct system assembly and maintenance goes a long way to making hydraulic systems run trouble free. Hydraulics get a bad name when they leak or a component fail prematurely. It is widely recognized that the No. 1 cause of failures in hydraulic system is contamination. I would hate to think this is because people working with hydraulics know this but choose to ignore how important it is. More realistically, I think it comes down to a lack of a proper knowledge standard for hydraulic system installation, operation and maintenance. I am still amazed that many people who deal with hydraulics on the plant floor don’t appreciate the importance of pre-filtering hydraulic fluid and pre-cleaning hydraulic conductors before installation. A recognized standard for this knowledge would ensure hydraulic systems can operate as trouble free as possible and expand the application of hydraulic systems in the future.

Continuity of knowledge
Hydraulic systems have been around for a long time. However, it is not uncommon to see systems with design problems because there is no recognized program for system design in Canada. There is no school where you can take hydraulic system design as a specialty in order to become a fluid power technologist or engineer.

Knowledge can be handed down and gained through on-the-job experience, but if no standard for required knowledge exists, then what determines when a person is ready to design or assemble a fluid power system? If a knowledgeable person retires, how is that information transferred to the person who takes his place?
This is where standards would help. Just like any technology, there are dos and don’ts that can be taught: things as simple as not connecting pump case drains into return lines, understanding how to size line properly and factoring in fittings. As one veteran with more than 40 years of hydraulics experience put it to me recently, “I still see some of the same problems I ran into 20 years ago.”

I would suggest there has to be a better way. Standards in knowledge and certification to work on this potentially dangerous equipment can only help cement hydraulics as a tried and true technology and help move it to the next level.

Existing training/certification
When looking at any recognized training/education program, I would think the most time an individual gets with fluid power, whether they are a mechanic or engineer, is roughly 40 to 80 hours—an insufficient amount of time to address what can be very complex hydraulic systems with their associated controls.

There are industry standards that deal with specific pieces of equipment that incorporate hydraulics, such as the Canadian Utility Fleet Council’s Utility Equipment Mechanic Certification. There’s also the CSA standards for aerial devices and cranes that address some hydraulic requirements. These, however, don’t represent an all-encompassing fluid power standard.

A recognized certification standard from the U.S.-based International Fluid Power Society already exists, and while this is not a training program, it does set the bar. I think this is an important first step. Some training to get to that bar is already available, and more will follow. I think it does not make sense to reinvent the wheel and develop a parallel certification in Canada. Is the IFPS certification perfect? No. Is it a very good place to start? Yes.

A good example of how this certification can work can be found in the recent introduction of the IFPS Connector and Conductor Certification; the safety aspect of proper assembly was the impetus for its creation. It was found that people fabricating hoses were not trained to any specific standard other than an in-house one. As a result, an industry-driven standard for certification was created to address the key areas that a person responsible for fabricating conductors must know. I think this is how it should work for every knowledge area in fluid power: industry-driven, relevant and created through consensus.

The way ahead?
Standards in hydraulic knowledge are very important. The safety aspect alone is enough to warrant that certification be required for people that assemble, maintain or design fluid power systems. I would suggest that even if you simply own fluid power equipment, you should at least have to have basic fluid power safety training. A recent fatality brought this front and centre for me. The person who caused the fatality had no knowledge of hydraulic systems and should never have attempted to do what they did. Someone else paid with their life.

The sooner certification is recognized by the fluid power industry in Canada as something that is essential, then the sooner we can get to work on a making it a standard that all can contribute to and endorse. The industry as a whole will benefit greatly.

Pat Jones, P.Eng. is the owner of Consolidated Fluid Power (CFP) Ltd., where he is an instructor and consultant with more than 20 years of hand-on experience in the fluid power industry. CFP is a private, vendor-neutral school dedicated to education in hydraulics headquartered in Dartmouth, N.S., and with partner locations in Seal Cove, N.L. and at Automated Fluid Power and Control Inc. in Burlington, Ont.