Expect the Unexpected: McWilliams Electric Co.

By Susan Casey | Sep 15, 2015




Fun comes in all forms at the Annual Septemberfest every Labor Day weekend in Schaumburg, Ill. The festival features carnival rides; fireworks; pony rides; a Labor Day parade with bands; performances by school and Schaumburg Park District groups; national acts, such as Pat Benatar, Rick Springfield and The Family Stone; and jugglers and other strolling performers on the festival grounds. Also key to the event is the Taste of Schaumburg, for which 24 of the village’s restaurants set up kitchens in a tent and cook their signature dishes. On Labor Day, local not-for-profit organizations serve food and beverages.

This year marks the festival’s 45th anniversary, and times have changed. Once a quiet farming village settled mostly by immigrants from Schaumburg, Germany, today the village boasts its own airport and convention center.

“It’s a great event for Schaumburg that the entire community looks forward to each year,” said Roxane Benvenuti, special events coordinator. “People plan family reunions around it. Admission is free. All music is free.” 

In past years, approximately 250,000 people have attended the event with an average daily attendance of 80,000.

Planning for the festival’s electrical needs begins months in advance. For the past five years, McWilliams Electric Co. Inc., Schaumburg, Ill., has worked with the Village of Schaumburg’s Engineering and Public Works Department (EPW) to provide temporary power. EPW takes the lead on the planning and setup, and McWilliams works with that group. During the fest itself, which takes place on approximately 40 acres adjacent to the Schaumburg Village Hall, McWilliams Electric takes the lead, managing the power and troubleshooting problems.

Streamlining the process

McWilliams was especially busy the first year the company handled the event’s temporary power. 

“The vendors didn’t have enough power. Circuits were tripping. We were running around trying to add circuits. We had to roll out more SO cords with the receptacles on them and connect them up to the main distribution, which wasn’t easy to do with the festival-goers all around,” said Joe Ramello, director of engineering, McWilliams Electric.

Since then, McWilliams and the Engineering and Public Works Department have streamlined the process. Two to three months prior to the event, Dave Hellmer, EPW electrician, meets with vendors and restaurant owners to see what electricity they will need for their booths. 

“The application process for food vendors includes them telling us what they’ll bring—how many refrigerators, what type of equipment, etc.—so that we know how much power they’ll need,” said John Williams, EPW superintendent, field services. “A lot of them don’t know the power requirements for the equipment. It’s really all about planning. We have to know where vendors will be and what their power requirements are. In the past, we wouldn’t get that information soon enough, so then we were trying to figure that out while doing the setup.”

The results of those interviews are provided to McWilliams Electric, so the company knows what to expect. 

Another step taken relates to power cables. 

“Neighboring communities shut down streets and set things up in a downtown area when they have events,” Williams said. “They run cables along the curb lines and from generators to where they need the power.”

That was the arrangement at Septemberfest until 15 years ago, when an ice truck drove in and caught one of the cables. That incident, as well as ongoing problems of negotiating transport of carnival rides through areas strung with overhead cables, and some available funds prompted the village to dig trenches and install permanent underground PVC conduits on the festival grounds. Village electricians pull cables through those conduits and connect them to generators they have placed at specific spots on the grounds. McWilliams Electric workers then connect those to the temporary panels. 

“We run cables in the conduits that are permanently placed under the parking lot and then on to the generators,” Hellmer said. “We need to know what cables we have going where. It’s important to make sure everything lands right otherwise we have issues and changes have to be made.”

Preparation and setup

As preparation for the fest, Schaumburg’s EPW sets up generators in specific spots. 

Six diesel generators are rented for the event. Two 125-­kilowatt (kW) units are situated by the food tent, which houses booths for Schaumburg’s restaurants and local not-for-profit organizations. One is for the food tent and runs 24 hours per day and the other serves as a backup. A 100-kW generator is set up by the main music stage, which is placed on a grassy field that has a natural amphitheater-type lawn-seating area. Nationally known acts perform there each evening and the generator has to be capable of operating sound equipment for production purposes and handle on and off fluctuation. Besides providing power for the main stage sound, that generator is also used to power the office trailer, tour bus/motor home and projection screen. It is also ground-neutral bonded and can share an unbalanced load. A 180-kW generator provides power for the main stage lights. A 20-kW generator provides power for the projection-screen projector for the main stage gazebo. Another 50-kW generator is set up by the vending area to provide power for the sponsor booths, the bingo tent, an ATM trailer and the dining tent. 

Food vendors’ booths are located in a parking lot on the festival grounds. A 60-foot-by-160-foot tent houses the various restaurants’ kitchens. An adjacent 60-foot-by-150-foot tent is used as a dining room, and adjacent to that is a 40-foot-by-80-foot bingo tent. Once placed near the tents and stages, EPW then pulls main cables underground to the generators, installs SO cords across the inside roofline of the tents. 

The cords are run above and inside the various tents. EPW has those up by the Thursday before the festival, and McWilliams Electric does the connections and terminations of the panels and the red boxes that are actually the panel boxes.

On the Friday of the festival, McWilliams’ crew of five electricians, working two consecutive 8-hour shifts, set up the main distribution of the power, complete the connections to four temporary electrical panels, and distribute power to vendors. 

“Sometimes we end up running an extra cable just in case,” Ramello said. “A few of the restaurants use a lot of power, so we have to rearrange power with the restaurants next to them to make it all stay on during the fest.”

As with any temporary event there is the unexpected. Restaurants or vendors may want to pull out or want a change of location, so adjustments have to be made. 

“On the day of the installation, the vendors come in, and some want a change from their designated spots, so we work with the village electrician to change the outlets that we’d already put in place,” Ramello said. “We have to map out the indicated spots and make adjustments to the original design in order to equalize the distribution. It can take long time, depending on the vendor. Some vendors use no power, and some vendors use a lot.”

Changing environment, changing needs

With any outdoor event using temporary power, unexpected problems and last-minute changes can be expected. One of the steps McWilliams Electric now takes is talking with vendors as they show up and checking with each one to see what they are going to plug in. This way, McWilliams Electric knows up front if there are any issues that would require them to add more power. 

“We check their equipment because some of the equipment they bring in is not up to the standards of today,” Ramello said. “They plug it in, and it doesn’t work. We try to fix it for them if we can. Otherwise, they have to get a different piece of equipment—­warming trays, electric chafing trays, food warmers for pizzas, refrigerators or freezers. Our biggest challenge is to keep the power on for all the restaurants. They think they’re in their own restaurants and can plug anything in that they want. We’re constantly rearranging circuits for them.”

Summer rainstorms have occurred during past fests. 

“It’s a factor because of the popping of the breakers and circuits that spark the trip because of the GFI receptacles,” Ramello said. “We have to see why they’re tripping, and normally it’s because extension cords are lying in the water on the pavement. Water in the parking lot runs toward the drain. If it’s a hard rainstorm, we’ll have quite a bit of water on the ground, and the cords have to be put up off the ground. We go around with the vendors and suspend the cords from the tables using tie wraps to get them out of the way. We have to do a lot of drying out, which we do as best we can with silicone and rags, but we have to wait for things to dry out before we can get things back on. The tents are covered enough, but you still get some splashing or find that vendors have cords lying on the ground that are in the water. We have to get those out.”

In response to potential rainstorms, EPW has changed the way things are hooked up in regard to their boxes. 

“We used to not have the GFIs hooked directly on panels, and now mostly everything is right there: panels, time cords and requirements,” Hellmer said. “We regulate a lot of that.”

The village also now has boxes with indicator lights that tell exactly where a problem is, so during the fest, McWilliams Electric can see the issue’s exact location. 

Full of surprises

On temporary power projects, always expect the unexpected.

“One thing we’ve learned in doing the fest is that, every year, we have to make sure we have enough SO cords and outlets in case we need them during the fest,” Ramello said. “We always seem to have to add power.”

About The Author

CASEY, author of “Women Heroes of the American Revolution,” “Kids Inventing!” and “Women Invent!” can be reached at [email protected] and





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