DON'T LET YOUR ELECTRIC SYSTEM SLIDE
PROPER MAINTENANCE AND MODERNIZATION CAN GIVE YOU THE DATA, SAFETY AND LONG LIFECYCLE YOU NEED FROM YOUR POWER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM
BY NICK FORTUNA
If the switchgear in your building’s electric power system hasn’t been upgraded in a decade or more and regularly maintained, then it’s likely not part of the Internet of Things, it may not have the capacity for increased power demands such as electric-vehicle charging stations, and it could represent a hazard to maintenance professionals and building occupants.
Darwin Newton, head of operations for the eMobility Solutions and Electrical Services group at Siemens, said building owners and managers should have an arc-flash hazard analysis performed by a licensed power-system engineer every four to five years. That will give them confidence that they’re in compliance with NFPA 70E and won’t face Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) penalties or fines.
NFPA 70E is a standard established by the National Fire Protection Association at the request of OSHA, and it covers safety requirements for electrical equipment installed within or on buildings.
So, what exactly is an arc flash? It’s an electrical explosion that typically occurs when an energized conductor such as a bus bar or wire comes in close proximity to another energized conductor or even the ground. The uncontrolled electrical current attempts to jump from one conductor to another and passes through an air gap. The result is a release of electrical energy that ionizes the surrounding air, generating intense light, heat and sound.
According to Industrial Safety and Hygiene News, about 30,000 arc-flash incidents occur in the United States each year, resulting in 7,000 burn injuries, 2,000 hospitalizations and 400 deaths. In response to this workplace risk, regulatory bodies such as OSHA have stepped up their enforcement of electrical regulations and codes, including NFPA 70E.
An arc-flash study analyzes data from your power distribution systems and determines incident energy levels, the arc flash boundary and the required level of personal protective equipment needed for employees and contractors to service equipment safely, Newton said.
In addition, the study helps building managers to:
• Maximize the reliability of critical electrical systems, avoiding outages and costly downtime
• Improve the efficiency and extend the lifecycle of electrical equipment, reducing energy costs
• Supply safety information to subcontractors
• Provide documentation for lower insurance rates and workers’ compensation cases
According to NFPA 70E, your arc-flash analysis is only as good as your electrical system preventative maintenance program. The equipment must be properly operated and maintained to ensure the integrity of the arc-flash analysis and the workplace safety of employees and contractors.
“A good electrical services provider should offer consulting, documentation and training for employees, enabling them to operate the power distribution system and minimize the risk of an arc flash,” Newton said.
Engineers can recommend needed upgrades, tailor a preventative maintenance program to your facility’s needs and provide regular reporting to ensure that solutions are meeting predetermined goals, he added.
“In many cases, upgrading old equipment to arc-resistant low-voltage switchgear, remotely operated breaker controls and digital metering are worthwhile investments, not only from a safety perspective, but it also provides operators a wealth of data that can be utilized for energy-efficiency measures as well as system expansions such as EV chargers,” Newton said.
Electrical upgrades can help building managers to achieve their sustainability goals by digitalizing their power systems. Once you know the details of your power consumption, you can establish benchmarks and goals to measure your progress in becoming more energy efficient.
“The trend is to digitalize everything,” Newton said. “If you really want to track your energy usage and your carbon footprint, you’ve got to have access to the data.” Having this data can allow owners to leverage remote monitoring, asset management and incident reporting, among other digital services, he added.
Newton said current trends in the electrical space include adding Level II and Level III charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) and installing distributed energy solutions to reduce costs and enhance resiliency and sustainability.
Having charging stations onsite can be a differentiator for businesses and employers seeking to cater to environmentally conscious workers and customers, Newton said. As rental-car agencies and service vendors upgrade their fleets to EVs, building owners and managers are responding by adding more charging stations.
“It’s not as common at resort hotels just yet, but we are seeing them a lot at hotels that cater to business travelers,” Newton said. “Some office buildings are installing anywhere from four to 20 charging stations.”
Building managers also are installing distributed energy devices such as battery storage to power their buildings in the event of an outage. In some cases, these batteries complement rooftop solar panels, storing green electricity during daylight hours for use at night. In other cases, there is no renewable-energy component, and the batteries simply allow buildings to purchase electricity when demand and prices are low.
“When demand is fluctuating on the grid, you can reduce your costs utilizing energy storage to purchase when rates are low and consume when they increase,” Newton said.