Electrical contractors are used to facing challenges without easy answers. Over the last decade, Lake Erie Electric of Toledo Inc., Bowling Green, Ohio, has leveraged what the company calls its Off-Site Support Services (OSSS) center to offer prefab work to bring projects together fast and solve those sticky situations.
The company’s creative approach—and willingness to solve unanticipated problems—worked effectively for its recent project at Amazon’s new facility in Toledo.
Lake Erie Electric’s OSSS assembles electrical products and racks, and also makes custom widgets needed in a hurry. Its team provides welding and software solutions for needs as they arise. In fact, every project offers its own challenges, said Brian Dilley, shop foreman.
Amazon’s 2020 project focused on a new fulfillment center at Toledo’s Southwyck Mall, which opened in 1972, had been abandoned since 2008 and was demolished in 2009. By the 2020 project, there was nothing there to reuse, so the companies started fresh. The 150,000-square-foot facility is housed on a 60-acre lot. It includes a delivery station, truck bays and a conveyor system to move product efficiently.
The global online retailer wanted a facility built to meet the needs of today’s customers, with an eye on tomorrow’s demands as well. That included accommodation for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, room to grow and the ability to operate as efficiently as the facility allowed.
The fact that Lake Erie Electric was able to install the fulfillment center in five months and do it with fewer man-hours than expected was possible in part due to prefab efforts. The company was founded in Cleveland in 1952 and today has 10 offices: eight in Ohio and two in Michigan. The company performs work in 27 states, with projects centered in the commercial and industrial sectors. In Toledo, the focus is steel mills, automotive and other industrial projects, hospitals and universities. Prefabrication in Toledo began eight years ago at a site once dedicated to plastic bag manufacturing. The company operates prefab, tools and shipping out of a building on 7.9 acres, with an 11,108-square-foot footprint. At least half of the space is dedicated to prefab.
“We do a lot of metal fabrication, painting, industrial work,” Dilley said, adding that, while some contractors consider one-off solutions a bane of their existence, “I get into a lot of one-offs or problems to solve. We do it all here.”
Once the Amazon contract was signed, Lake Erie Electric had to hit the ground running. They used tools that boosted efficiency on-site and at the OSSS.
“When we got the contract, we were two weeks from starting to dig, which meant we needed our first rack in two and a half weeks,” Dilley said.
The main time-saver was the group of racks the company made for 16 medium-voltage switches. These included a 32-transformer rack, which had one 6-inch and up to eight 4-inch conduits; 32 low-voltage switchboard racks, which had up to 18 4-inch conduits and 11 2-inch conduits; and 64 Quazite box racks, which had up to either 30 4-inch or 30 2-inch conduits, depending on the model.
“At first, it was a heavy coordination with the field to make sure we were making the right racks to keep them rolling,” Dilley said.
After a few weeks, though, the Lake Erie team had some breathing room.
“We also used one of our vendors to help with deliveries,” he said.
The racks were so large that only two at best would fit on Lake Erie Electric’s truck, but the company’s vendor could fit six or seven on their flatbed.
“This saved us from having to run a truck constantly from our shop to the site,” he said.
Occasionally, a prefabrication shop may offer some welding services, but Lake Erie Electric of Toledo goes further. One example was an effort by the OSSS team following a request from the company’s safety department. At the Amazon site, the safety inspectors identified a potential risk for men climbing on top of pole bases to pull the string out the top during light installations. There were 108 of these poles, and the safety department needed a solution that was safe and fast.
“I said I could make something,” Dilley said, adding that his team leveraged its CNC plasma cutter, created components that were welded together and added an axle with a wheel on it to construct a pulley system.
“Once they handed me the bolt pattern, we could figure out what we had to do to make it work … and it worked for the 100-some-odd light poles,” he said, adding that this ensured the electricians stayed safely on the ground.
The solution served as an example of one of Dilley’s mantras: Don’t overthink things.
“This was safety. Whenever safety is an issue, nothing else matters, so we got to work,” he said. “You could buy something like that, but you would be waiting for a week for it to arrive.”
In contrast, the wheel system was fabricated in about two hours.
Built for the future
There were other challenges for the project, especially around the EV charging stations being connected, which, as Dilley said, is “where it gets kind of fun.”
Since there is limited need for the EV charging stations now, everything associated with them is for future use. Therefore, although the conduit is in place, there is no cable in those conduits and no EV stations installed. Once there is demand for the EV charging stations, it will be easy for Lake Erie Electric workers to deploy them without having to shut down any systems.
The EV station accommodations required high-voltage switches and transformers, low-voltage switchboards and the actual EV chargers.
“We had to use our industry knowledge to look at what we think we can make work,” Dilley said. “We wanted the conduits fit into a footprint, ensuring there would be no rework necessary when the stations are actually deployed.”
Now that the installation is complete, he said that “there’s a good chance they won’t have to go there with an excavator and dig all that up.”
For the stations, Lake Erie Electric provided 145 racks, medium-voltage switches, transformers, switchboards and a bank of pole boxes. There would need to be 355 pokeups for EV charging stations, but layout was going to be a problem.
“You could technically pull a string a quarter-mile long” to measure out the pokeups and light poles, Dilley said, but that would not be the best solution for that kind of problem.
“We knew we would need a GPS system. That was not part of the bid. But it was deemed to be worth the investment,” he said.
So Lake Erie Electric purchased a Trimble Global Navigation Satellite System receiver. With a CAD drawing, they put in more than 1,000 points that could provide layout for each assembly.
“That was a major time-saver for us. We did that for ourselves anyway, because we would have been waiting on the surveyor if we hadn’t,” Dilley said.
Lake Erie Electric installed 40 miles of conduit for the stations. This was no small feat, and worth celebrating—the company even had shirts made that proclaimed “40 miles of conduit in 40 days,” he said.
Overall, when the company finished work in November 2020, Lake Erie Electric had provided racks, high-voltage switches, transformers and low-voltage switchboards with no detailed drawings, just a basic site layout. At that point, the contractor had prefabbed and installed the 146 underground racks for the power distribution throughout the project, as well as the 355 EV station pokeups, in-wall rough assemblies and 161 cord drops. While lighting fixtures were unboxed, put on racks and prewired, they also provided lighting assembly, consisting of 80 feet of Unistrut with conduit and wiring hung from the ceiling.
There were 10 electricians at the OSSS working on that project until the shop was able to spare half of them. They then moved on to the work site with 35 other electricians, leaving five people at the shop for day-to-day projects.
The ability to be flexible and think creatively in the prefab shop has made all the difference on many projects.
“Every morning I come to work, I have a plan, but I have learned to be agile and prioritize the projects as they come in,” Dilley said.
He expects to see electrical work further demand the kind of off-site shop work that Lake Erie Electric accomplishes during such a project.
“There is a culture shift that is happening in the industry, where I think people are starting to see the benefits of prefab,” Dilley said. “The safety and [quality assurance/quality control] advantages alone are worth it, but when you couple that with labor savings, it’s really a no-brainer.”
While tooling in the shop is generally going to be the same as the tooling used on site, “as you start doing more in the prefab shop, you can make upgrades to that equipment to increase your productivity,” he said.