Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best: Lessons we learned from Y2K

The last twenty years of the 20th century were filled with excitement and anticipation about what would happen in the century ahead. It would not be a normal change because we were entering a new millennium, and there were many ideas about what would happen. Computers would run everything. The workday and workweek would be shorter. We would all work from home, or more of us would. Most of us would get around in flying cars. In other words, life would be dramatically different.

As time went on, it became apparent that some of these predictions would not happen. The flying cars would have been easy. However, it takes a lot more skill fly an aircraft than to drive a car. I do not see that one happening anytime soon.

During the 20th century, computers were invented and improved, and we became increasing dependent on them. During the computers’ entire existence, the year had always begun with the number 19. Checks were printed with the number 19 in the date field because that was all we had ever dealt with. Our electronic age had been born and matured in the 1900s.

The Millennium bug

Around the last decade of the 20th century, there was a sudden realization that equipment with date related functions might not be able to roll over to the year 2000. A lot of software relied on two-digit year codes. For the first time, there would be a four-digit roll over. This problem was referred to as Y2K and the Millennium Bug. However, the actual change of millennium year was 2001. Widespread media coverage called attention to the impending problem, and dire predictions caused somewhat of a panic. Pundits suggested the financial infrastructure would be disrupted. There were also predictions that the utility grid would shut down. Societies around the world would be adversely affected by the transition from Dec. 31, 1999, to Jan. 1, 2000, at exactly midnight. In most cases, software or firmware upgrades were put in place. In others, it just made sense to invest in new systems or equipment. Either way it was a busy time for IT professionals!

The expected widespread problems did not materialize. The only problems I remembered were with Blockbuster Video and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), part of the Department of Defense. I can’t imagine what a 100-year late charge for a video might be. The interruption at NRO resulted in some disruption of satellite data for a few hours, but it was restored. Other minor disruptions were not widely reported, including an outage on the island of Diego Garcia, a remote military base located in the Indian Ocean.

This was a unique threat. It could have caused chaos, but it didn’t. Was the problem exaggerated? Perhaps, but we will never know. What made this truly unique was that everyone knew exactly when the problem would occur to the minute and second. The call to action had been in place for years. No one wanted to run the risk that this problem would impact their business. The certainty of when it would occur was a powerful incentive and tool. It isn’t likely that we will ever again have such a precise timing of a potential catastrophe. When it comes to preventive maintenance, do many of us push our luck? A failure may happen, but it may not. There are many instances of systems or equipment outlasting its predicted failure point. Is it worth the risk?

As I write this, two dams have just failed in Michigan, and there is widespread damage from the floodwaters. Fortunately, there was no loss of life. These dams were known to be at risk because they had failed inspection. In other words, they exceeded their life expectancy. When we know that equipment or a system isn’t safe, we may get away with continuing to use it. However, with every passing day, the odds stack up against us. When the results can be so catastrophic, is it worth the risk?

There was a TV commercial a few years ago for IBM Watson where a maintenance person arrived at an office building to repair an elevator because the monitoring system had indicated it would fail within two days. Are we there yet? Perhaps for some sophisticated equipment, it is possible to detect some out of tolerance conditions. For some produced parts, trends toward the limits of tolerance will indicate a need for repairs.

The concept of just-in-time manufacturing is that parts for major assemblies show up just when they are needed. No inventory is maintained, and the concept relies on a steady stream of parts flow. This can only happen when equipment is running reliably with no unscheduled breakdowns. It relies on scheduled maintenance rather than breakdown maintenance. It depends on maintenance in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.

For most types of equipment, regularly scheduled preventive maintenance should be implemented based on NFPA 70B, the Recommended Practice for Electrical Equipment Maintenance, which also relies on the guidance from the manufacturer.

Twenty years later, we know that we will never have the benefit of the date again. Did we learn anything from Y2K? Since there were so few problems reported, the preparations were obviously a huge success. The year 2020 didn’t involve a big calendar change and not much planning really seemed to be necessary.

However, 2020 has been anything but ordinary. There have already been a couple of valuable lessons from this year that, although they didn’t all directly affect the electrical contracting industry, are still applicable. One lesson involves the national strategic stockpile of critical supplies. This is a cache of critical supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), medications and equipment that would all be used for a pandemic. The $8 billion stockpile is located in a number of warehouses around the country. Some of the PPE had reached the end of its service life, and there were reports that many of the ventilators were nonfunctional. The lesson is that if parts and equipment are stockpiled, their condition must be periodically verified to ensure it is ready to use. An inventory of available equipment is useful, but it is no guarantee that it is ready to use. All equipment deteriorates over time. We often think that only equipment that is actively in service will deteriorate. However, material in storage also degrades, and this applies to electrical equipment, too.

Another powerful lesson is that it is always important to source equipment and supplies from reliable vendors. Today, many of us order personal and business supplies online. We all shop for the best deal. It is possible to shop reliable online sources while getting pop-up ads for cheaper alternatives. However, some of these products may be counterfeit or low quality.

I am a longtime advocate for listed products, which provides a higher degree of reliability. During the pandemic, the prices for some supplies and equipment rose dramatically. PPE for healthcare workers was in very short supply. A number of efforts to obtain it went outside of the normal channels. These efforts also involved people who were not normal customers. In some cases, the purchased products were inferior. It is important to source from reliable vendors and use listed products.

One bit of progress this year is that everyone knows what PPE is. Everyone has heard it on newscasts from the very beginning of the pandemic. However, now we need to further educate the public to understand that it means much more than infection control through face masks and plastic face shields.

There is a variety of different types of PPE based on the hazards being encountered. Everyone understands that firefighters wear turnout coats and pants, gloves and helmets. However, fewer people grasp that electrical workers need protective attire because of the hazards they can encounter on the job site, such as electric shock, arc flashes and arc blasts.

This year has been punctuated with a pandemic, dam failures and murder hornets. As you read this article, we are in the midst of hurricane season. If you aren’t prepared for it, now is the time to get ready. NFPA 70B provides some good maintenance requirements to get started.

Most permanently installed generators are set up to self-test on a weekly basis. However, that fact should be verified. Tests under load should also be conducted. Portable generators are often neglected, and fuel deteriorates over time. Fuel stabilizer will help to preserve the fuel, but it has its limitations. NFPA 110, the Standard for Emergency and Standby Power Systems, provides detailed requirements and guidance for generator and associated equipment maintenance beyond requirements in NFPA 70B.

Supplies of spare parts for restoration work should be inventoried to ensure they are sufficient to get through operations. Since some supplies deteriorate in storage, equipment should be inspected to ensure that parts are ready to be put into service. PPE can be damaged during normal use; it should be inspected and cleaned by qualified personnel to ensure that it is ready.

We thought that the year 2000 would challenge us like never before. We were prepared, and the calendar rollover was a whimper. Twenty years later we look back at Y2K as a distant memory. Meanwhile, 2020 has been the year that challenged us like no other. There are many lessons that can help us to prepare for challenges in our own industry. What else will we face before the year is over?

About the Author

Mark Earley

Mark Earley, P.E., is the chief electrical engineer. Retired from the National Fire Protection Association, he was secretary of the National Electrical Code Committee for 30 years.

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