Driving through Chicago's O'Hare International Airport with Bob Johnson, project manager for M.G. Electric Service Co. Inc., Arlington Heights, Ill., is unlike anything most of us will ever do. As Johnson drove past building after building at O’Hare, it seemed every third sentence or so was interrupted with his non-boastful and matter-of-fact interjection of, “You see that building? My team and I did the wiring there when it was built,” or “We did the electrical work in that one on its last renovation.”

I was anxious to get a look at his latest project, a new control tower with a cylindrical shape that presented a real challenge.

“There is just limited space, so things are packed in tight,” Johnson said.

Nation’s (second) busiest airport

Even though the new North Air Traffic Control Tower (NATCT) project broke ground in 2006, its roots go back to 1998, when O’Hare first lost the title of “nation’s busiest airport.” In 2001, the city of Chicago responded by announcing the O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP), a $6.6 billion capital investment and airport modernization plan to reconfigure the airfield. It includes the construction of a new runway, relocation and extension of two existing runways, and the decommissioning of two others to provide eight runways in a more modern parallel configuration. OMP also calls for a new terminal and gate facility on O’Hare’s west side and expansions of the existing Terminals 3 and 5 on the east side.

Pressure to move the new program along increased when, in 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assigned flight caps on O’Hare to address persistent flight delays related to over-scheduling. But in 2007, O’Hare was still dead last in on-time performance and led the nation in cancelled flights. The FAA caps effectively eliminated any chance for O’Hare to ever regain that coveted title with its current runway configuration, relegating it to being the “second busiest airport” behind Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International.

O’Hare recorded more than 76 million passengers on 935,000 flights in 2007, as compared to the Atlanta airport, which logged 994,466 flights. But with the 440-acre OMP expansion, O’Hare is expected to process nearly 1.2 million flight operations annually by 2018.

“The new runway components will make O’Hare more reliable, improving performance in good and bad weather,” said Rosemarie S. Andolino, OMP executive director.

North Air Traffic Control Tower

The $2.9 billion first part of the three-phased OMP includes a new far-north runway and the extension of an existing runway. Those projects are scheduled for completion on Nov. 20, 2008. Completion will immediately result in the lifting of the 2004 FAA flight caps, resulting in passenger and flight totals that easily exceed precap levels.

The federal government agreed to provide $42.3 million to cover the cost of the NATCT project, and the city of Chicago signed a 20-year agreement for the FAA to occupy the new tower.

“We now have a state-of-the-art air traffic control tower as part of a modernization project that will help reduce delays and congestion while increasing safety and capacity,” said Sen. Richard L. Durbin, D.-Ill., who helped broker the massive financial deal.

The control tower will operate the new runway but won’t replace the existing main tower. The 255-foot, 17-floor NATCT includes more than 200 tons of structural steel, 2,100 cubic yards of concrete, 22,000 square feet of exterior cladding and a 4,500-square-foot channel glass architectural wall system. The tower project also includes a 10,000-square-foot single-story base building and a 600-square-foot electrical vault building. Both of those buildings will have vegetated roofs—part of Mayor Richard Daley’s green vision for the city of Chicago.

Wiring in an odd cylindrical shape

Standing on the 12th floor—which is comprised entirely of the owner’s electrical room—M.G. Electric’s general foreman Steve Graf pointed with pride to the intricate maze of overhead conduit. They are within a half-inch of his drawings.

Those conduits are just a small visible sample of the more than 55 miles of metal and nonmetal conduit in the overall project. In the base building and tower, the M.G. Electric crews installed 126,000 feet of ¾-inch EMT conduit and 17,000 feet of ¾-inch galvanized rigid conduit. Crew members also installed 150,000 feet of PVC schedule 40 conduit, ranging from 2- to 5-inch diameters.

In those conduits and throughout the buildings, crews ran 201,200 feet of a variety of electrical cables, predominately 12 AWG wire (150,000 feet) and as large as 500 kcmil conductor (6,000 feet).

Power for the project comes from the local electric utility provider, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), through the new electrical vault. The critical nature of the tower means that redundancy will be a major feature. ComEd, therefore, provided two separate electrical feeds to the vault, each with its own transformer.

Other redundant features on the project include a three-hour uninterruptible power supply system by Mitsubishi, which in turn is backed up by a 500-kilowatt Kohler generator system that will start up after 30 seconds of power being down, project manager Johnson said. The generator is fed by an on-site 8,000-gallon fuel tank.

Power to the tower comes from the vault through the base building over a single 1,200-amp, 277/480-volt feeder. In the base building, the M.G. Electric crews have installed four transformers, three transfer switches, 17 distribution panels and one motor control center. In the tower itself, there are an additional six transformers and 15 distribution panels.

“And there is a massive amount of grounding in the project. You wouldn’t believe how much,” Johnson said.

Low-voltage partnering and subcontracting

Of course, no modern air traffic control tower could function without extensive low-voltage cabling. M.G. Electric provided and installed all of the “pipe and box” work and Cooper B-Line cable tray and data racks for the low-voltage systems, but it subcontracted out most of the remaining work.

“We can usually be more competitive when we sub it out,” Johnson said. “That’s because we only hire journeyman A-card electricians, but low-voltage work can be done by C-card electricians.”

M.G. Electric hired TelePlus Inc. of Addison, Ill., to perform the telecommunications cabling.

“While this was not an especially large project, it has a lot of visibility for us being at O’Hare,” said Mike Clancy, TelePlus project manager. The TelePlus portion includes the inter-system copper cabling for the electric power monitoring system (EPMS), the copper station cabling for the base building and the copper station cabling for the tower. That includes about 75 station cables emanating from each of the two telecommunications rooms. TelePlus is installing a certified Systimax solution by CommScope as required by the project specifications.

The FAA will provide the cabling between the two telecommunications rooms, and another contractor will provide the fiber optic connectivity between the NATCT and the main O’Hare tower.

Security and life safety

For the security systems, M.G. Electric partnered with Johnson Controls.

“We are a nationwide contractor for the FAA,” said Bob Michalec, a project manager for Johnson Controls. His contract on this project includes the access control, card reader and intruder alert systems; security fence with sliding gate; intercom and video link systems; and CCTV system.

The M.G. Electric crews installed the cables for those security systems, after which Michalec’s crews are providing the system devices, programming and startup services.

“Our work includes the whole range of cable types,” Michalec said, “including fiber and copper, both stranded and coaxial.”

Similarly, M.G. Electric installed the fire alarm system cables and devices and partnered with High Rise Security Systems of Westmont, Ill.

Regaining the lead

In November 2008, with a new runway and air traffic control tower operational, an expanded O’Hare International Airport will surge past all previously set traffic records, eventually becoming the busiest airport in human history.

The words of President John F. Kennedy at O’Hare’s 1963 dedication ring true again: “This is an extraordinary airport in an extraordinary city, in an extraordinary country. … There is no other airport in the world which serves so many people and so many planes.”

And Bob Johnson will have yet another O’Hare building that he can drive by and proudly mention, “You see that tower? My crew did that work.”

MUNYAN is a freelance writer in the Kansas City, Kan., area, specializing in business writing and telecommunications. He can be reached at www.russwrites.com.