Late one Friday night in May 2016, a massive electrical fire consumed the majority of Wirco Alloy Engineering and Casting Foundry (Wirco-AECCO) in Champaign, Ill. The fire, sparked by a shorted-out fan, quickly ignited the insulation, resulting in a complete loss of electrical service on the building’s west side. That fire took out the company’s most critical equipment: two induction furnaces and two arc furnaces that served as the heart of its business.
During the following 14 months, Champaign-based Remco Electrical Corp. installed temporary power to get the critical operations up and running and then provide a highly complex rebuild. Despite the conditions created by the fire damage, an old electrical system without drawings, and a short deadline, Remco fully repaired and upgraded the company’s electrical system to support the foundry both now and in the future.
For this unique project, Remco partnered with GHR Engineers and Associates. When it was finished, the team had installed a new 4,000-ampere (A), 480-volt (V) service; a 1,200A, 120/208V service; and 4,160V service for the arc furnaces. The company also built in an 800A, 480V service for the new induction furnaces and added a 4,500A switchboard.
Foundry with a history
Wirco-AECCO—which was founded in 1941—manufactures a full line of cast alloy steel fabrications, such as baskets, fixturing, new and rebuilt furnace fans, furnace rolls, corrugated boxes, and wrought and cast radiant tubes.
The fire could have been devastating. It was raging by the time firefighters came on-site, and local newspapers reported the flames could be seen for miles. At its height, crews were pumping as many as 6,000 gallons of water per minute on to the fire.
The foundry owners knew they wanted to rebuild. For one thing, it was important to the community. The company employed 92 local residents. Fortunately, none were working at that late hour, and there were no injuries.
The primary foundry structure dates back to the late 1800s or early 1900s, said Joe Wells, then-general manager of Wirco-AECCO. That meant there were no drawings of the first electrical system, and the original construction was a considerable mystery.
“This was of great importance as it had a direct impact on the scope of work that Remco Electrical had to perform in order to bring the foundry back into operation,” he said.
Remco Electrical arrived on-site the Monday after the fire with the rest of the rebuild team. The foundry’s first goal was to get manufacturing back in operation as quickly as possible.
The entire facility suffered water damage and flash rusting caused by extreme heat. All utilities had to be capped, secured and shut down for repair and replacement before part of the east area could be brought back into production, which occured in advance of the rest of the plant.
While most operations had taken place on the west side where the fire had destroyed the systems, the east side was still in usable condition, so that was the initial focus. The EC was able to do limited work using three transformers on the east side. However, without the two induction and two arc furnaces, the company was able to produce only a small portion of its previous capacity.
Wirco-AECCO brought in temporary trailers for the company’s engineering lab and metallurgical department so work there could continue, and Remco Electrical installed the temporary electrical services to them.
The company has its own substation with two separate, three-phase, overhead power lines running down the north side of the property. However, the night of the fire, utility company Ameren was able to turn the power off before critical damage could be done. Therefore, when the rebuild began, the utilities were intact.
“We just had to design the services to fit around them,” said Stan Lynch, Remco Electrical vice president.
The west side, where the fire had done the most damage, was the challenge. First, all the existing power supply going to that side of the building—known as the Static Foundry—had to be disconnected and raceway removed for demolition to begin.
Remco Electrical was tasked with making all necessary electrical connections to the equipment, systems and controls as well as debugging and troubleshooting any discrepancies.
“Most, if not all, of the west area and Static Foundry in some manner or another had to be interfaced back into the electrical infrastructure of the plant areas not destroyed,” Wells said.
All of the on-site transformers servicing the west and Static Foundry had to be replaced. This meant four utility-owned transformers and two Wirco-AECCO-owned arc furnace transformers, all specially designed, were disconnected, removed and shipped to a service center for analysis and corrective repairs. The arc furnace transformers were built to match the specific power requirements of each arc furnace. Therefore, repairing these transformers was essential.
“A new build of these transformers could take 16 to 18 months,” Wells said.
One room in the northwest corner of the building housed all the 250V disconnects that were the primary feeds to that end of the plant and six 600A disconnects.
Due to the age of these disconnects and the transformers that fed them, all of it had to be replaced. To accomplish that, Remco installed a new 1,200A service.
The new system
Remco Electrical addressed lighting first. Wirco-AECCO took the opportunity to replace the lighting with an LED high-bay 460-watt fixture system across the entire facility. That way, lighting was consistant, higher quality and consumed lower energy. This service was installed and went live in November 2016. The 4,160 services feeding the induction furnace and both arc furnaces came online in the spring of 2017.
The company had to account for requirements for powering arc furnaces and new induction furnaces. By adding additional equipment, Remco Electrical had to install it outside the building.
“There was no room inside for building,” Lynch said.
Therefore, the 480V and 208V main services—all NEMA 3R rated—were installed outdoors. The EC used an existing block building to house the two transformers for both furnaces. This installation required a medium-voltage switchboard with a main breaker, and two separated sections with a vacuum switch in each section.
The controls for the arc furnaces were a key challenge. Remco Electrical used new drawings created by Square D.
“We were able to connect up the switchboard with control panels as well as controls to each furnace and to each transformer,” Lynch said.
The EC also installed a new glycol system—the cooling equipment for each one of the arc furnaces and all related components.
New safety measures were installed, as well. Because all the equipment operates in a single room, the company needed it to be inaccessible for safety reasons when in operation.
“When these arc furnaces are running, you cannot get into it,” Lynch said.
Remco Electrical installed a specialized key-entry system in which a specific key has to be inserted into a lock at the operations control panel for the units to run. This key can switch the units on and off. The system then ensures that the equipment isn’t operating if an individual needs to go into the transformer room.
Redundancy is built in to further increase security. In fact, there are two keys (one for each furnace) and users must have both keys to get into this room or make the furnaces operate.
The 1,000-pound induction furnace needed its own high-power energy supply. The 800A service Remco Electrical installed required another 4,160V primary feed to a six-phase transformer.
The fire damaged other parts of the facility, as well. A warehouse on the west side of the campus needed to be reconstructed. The new building provides storage and an office complex where the old warehouse stood. The engineering and metallurgical labs were able to move out of the temporary units into the new structure. Throughout the project, construction crews worked with Ameren and the city building inspection department, whose representatives visited the site to monitor the work.
With the rebuild complete, production has returned to its previous capacity. Seeing the facility back in operation after the fire serves as a reminder for Remco Electrical and the other members of the rebuilding team just what can be done with community support and dedication from a large team of engineers and contractors, Lynch said. He said there is no way to do justice to the efforts that were accomplished there.
“It was probably the hardest, most interesting project I have ever worked on,” Lynch said. “It goes to show you just how much this community was behind getting this plant back online and keeping these jobs here.”
Wells agreed that this project was an incredible accomplishment.
“The depth, scope, designs and complexity was at times overwhelming,” he said.
Lynch credited the people in the team for making the restoration so successful. He specifically mentioned Jeremy Gentals, Remco Electrical’s foreman on the job; the Remco Electrical crew; Cliff Roberson, Wirco-AECCO’s maintenance supervisor; and his fellow staff members.
“Although this unfortunate fire was devastating to operations and revenues, Wirco-AECCO was committed to maintaining this manufacturing facility to protect the livelihood of their employees,” Wells said. “Remco Electrical played a huge role in making this happen.”