A new breed of technician continues to emerge from the electrical contracting ranks with an eye on maintenance and power quality (PQ).

Of course, there have always been power quality specialists, but the discipline continues to evolve. The emphasis is not only on preparedness and continued operation in longer power outages, natural disasters and other worse-case scenarios, but on smooth and efficient daily operation.

The proliferation of integrated systems and increased power requirements continues to change the landscape of the end-user’s facility. Clean power is critical and harmonics, voltage sags and swells and other power problems are often dealt with through head-end and on-board microprocessor control diagnostics and other hardware and software.

Power generators and backup are Microsoft Windows-based or include integrated analysis and troubleshooting. Programming and assessing the power quality of a system is often accomplished on a laptop, desktop or other computer-aided control device. Keeping problems at bay is a proactive approach, rather than reactionary.

In a recent independent study of electrical contractors by Renaissance Research & Consulting, New York, N.Y., statistics point to the emergence of a specialist to address the ever-growing demand for quality power and distribution. The study identified the four most common types of power quality equipment as grounding and lighting protection, surge suppression, uninterruptible power systems, and standby generators.

According to the study, power quality projects account for a significant proportion of the contractors’ revenue, almost 60 percent on average, suggesting the survey had identified a group of power quality specialists. As with other contracting niches, these specialists play an important role in product selection and may gravitate to equipment that provides the type of power quality parameters, such as diagnostics and other troubleshooting capabilities.

Evolution in action

Over the last decade or so, facilities have moved away from what was in essence a more stable, less efficient load to higher efficiency power, which is more sensitive. This change, as well as the addition of myriad electronics within a facility, has resulted in some well-known problems.

“Industrial and commercial facilities have moved from linear or resistive to non-linear loads, characterized by electronic devices and computers,” said Peter Harwood-Stamper, power quality marketing manager, Fluke Corp., Everett, Wash.

Harmonics, corrupt power and other problems may result without proper care. Manufacturers continue to take steps to educate contractors and facilities managers on how to protect their equipment from top to bottom in this relatively new type of building environment.

In the past, utilities were the usual suspect for power quality problems, but more and more these troubles can come from the sophisticated, nonlinear loads installed within the facility.

Power quality has become a reliability issue, and continued uptime is crucial. As power quality specialists develop maintenance programs for their end-users, they are looking carefully at the equipment they are buying. Products allow them to track, troubleshoot, calculate and record power quality parameters on-site within the facility and plan ahead.

The role of the power quality expert has definitely increased over the last few years and a higher level of reliability is the goal, said Jeff Custer, director of Industrial Solutions, Kohler Power Systems, Kohler, Wis. Power quality has increasingly become proactive, and not simply reacting to a disaster or utility outage.

According to Custer, the focus on power quality is two-fold: enhance momentary disturbances such as spikes and voltage dips, and deal effectively with longer-term outages that require generators and/or battery backups (UPS).

“Two to four hours of backup is just not good enough to deal with some of the natural disasters we’ve been presented with lately. Facilities are adding generators to give them longer backup and to ride them through as power becomes restored,” he said.

Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC); refrigeration; emergency lighting; elevator control; cash registers; electronic locks; and much more must be considered.

“There are so many long term consequences of power outages, such as when the HVAC shuts down. Not only are there heating and cooling problems, but moisture, mildew and other concerns. Contractors need to talk to their customers about potential scenarios which may occur and plan ahead,” he said. EC

O’MARA is the president of DLO Communications in Park Ridge, Ill., specializing in low-voltage. She can be reached at 847.384.1916 or domara@earthlink.net.