Keep It Simple

By the time the first simple electric motor controller products began to be used in manufacturing plants, electricians had been installing and serving motor controls and motor control centers for more than 50 years.

Motor control (MC) technology has come a long way since then, and today’s motor control center (MCC) does much more than start and stop electric motors. It may include variable frequency drives, programmable controllers and metering capabilities.

Roger Innis, an estimator/project manager with Baker Electric in Des Moines, Iowa, began his career as an electrician in 1978.

“There were no process controls then. It was hard wiring relay logic,” Innis said. “There were some electronic motor controls, but they were either OEM type for specific equipment or were a part of very large system projects. The structure of the hardware and power and distribution components haven’t changed a lot, but the controls have changed 100 times over.

“Today, 90 percent of motor control systems are process controlled with multiple individual controls with digital processor ‘brains’ that make them fully programmable for start and stop and give them the capability to monitor all conditions from whether they are on or off to how much voltage is being used. Most large systems have graphic software to visually show displays of system components with animation and real-time information about what the system is doing, including whether motors are on or off; instrument status, such as levels, pressures, flows; and other functions that are part of the process. The entire process can be viewed as a graphic depiction of the system or systems.”

Basic controls are available that simply need to be positioned and connected, or MC components can be configured to meet a facility’s specific requirements with options including separate control transformers, control switches, pilot lamps, additional control terminal blocks, different types of bimetal and solid-state overload protection relays, and various classes of power fuses and circuit breakers.

Options for contractors

Many medium and large electrical contractors have experience servicing motor controls. Their involvement varies from installing systems of designs and components specified by others to involvement in major projects where they are one of the project’s integrators.

Innis said the level of involvement that is right for an electrical contractor depends on many factors, including the size of the company, experience of its staff members, the geographic area where it works, the types of clients it serves, and the company’s goals.

“The dilemma many contractors face is the decision whether to move from simply installing MCs to investing in project management and field technical staffs to participate in design and specifying components of a project,” Innis said. “Management has to weigh the costs of investing in personnel and advanced training, and to recover the investment that it requires means committing to pursuing motor control projects over the long haul. For example, it would not make sense for a medium-size contractor of our size based in Iowa to staff up for large industrial projects of multinational or international companies that are in distant locations.”

From his early experience as a motor control specialist and managing MC projects for Baker Electric, Innis identified four basic levels of MC involvement for electrical contractors.

Industrial and manufacturing facilities

These are straightforward projects, often in large manufacturing facilities in which the owner simply needs the contractor to install the MCs. They may lead to the opportunity for other electrical work. Owners of these projects usually have proprietary equipment and in-house programming criteria that mandates they perform configuration and programming. Manufacturers of these controls usually have a corporate purchasing structure that allows the factory to purchase equipment direct. The cost of the controls and related equipment is taken out of electrical contractor’s portion of a project, so there is not a lot of cost associated with performing the control work from a technical or engineering standpoint. Electricians need to be trained for specific control-system installation, but the cost is minimal due to the facility support and normal training. Contractors who serve regular clients well and have long-term relationships will have the edge for getting MC work when it comes along.

System-specific projects

MCs are part of a complete package that includes industrial equipment, such as conveyors, sorters, palletizers, and metal shredders for recycling scrap metal.

“These projects are usually done by a specialty contractor for a specific system, or the system supplier is a contractor working on a complete turnkey project,” Innis said.

The contractor also may have an electrical staff that does the control work. Most of these projects have programmable logic controller-based (PLC) controls. An option here is to pursue relationships with system suppliers or contractors for the electrical work. This requires management training/expertise, and electricians have to be experienced with different types of control systems due to the variety of such. MC experience is necessary for these projects.

Upgrading old MC systems

There is a continuing need to upgrade old motor controls, which typically requires replacing hardwired controls with PLC-based components, replacing old PLC-based controls with newer ones, or replacing all existing controls. Most new systems are coming out with Ethernet communications ability, and many use Internet protocol-addressable devices that require replacement of front-end components.

“Such projects provide the electrical contractor the opportunity to control all elements of a project,” Innis said. “When regular clients require MC system upgrades, most contractors will want to do the project. Large contractors likely can perform these projects without having to hire more staff. For smaller contractors, they can be a means to recover costs for training personnel in MC work, and [the work] permits the contractor to design the project. If no designer is on staff, a consultant can be hired. Again, establishing and maintaining good relationships are very important. Why allow a competitor to get a foot in the door?”

MCs bid part of general electrical package

Examples of such projects are a municipal water or wastewater treatment facility or pumping station in which the primary project contract is for earth work, a new structure and equipment, and MCs are included in the contract.

“Most of these projects are bid as a prime contract for the entire project,” Innis said. “Usually the electrical contractor is asked to include the MCs in the electrical bid package for the power and distribution systems. Control equipment and installations are either in the electrical 16,000 divisions of specs or are in specialty sections by themselves, division 13,000, for example. The control specifications usually identify one to three different sources of equipment, but limit the suppliers to those that are familiar with customer requirements or have similar existing control systems that are operating at customers’ facilities.”

For such projects, Innis said, the electrical contractor must decide whether to take the step up to being an integrator and hire additional staff and provide a different level of training. The goal would be to pursue approval as a MC vendor. Frequently, the MC package is larger than the general electrical package, and sometimes, some of the invited vendors do not bid. The electrical contractor then is placed at a disadvantage because he is completely reliant on vendors for a successful bid. Occasionally, the vendors are working with others on the MC install package.

“If the decision is to proceed, the only way to achieve a return on the investment in people and training is by volume of work, and that must be built slowly. It may be difficult to get established as an integrator and that means newly trained personnel may not have full-time work,” Innis said.

Manufacturers and suppliers

MC components are available through several suppliers. Innis said brands often are strong in specific geographic areas.

Peter Lugo, product line manager, Motor Control Centers, Eaton Corp., believes electrical contractors can do more to take advantage of the potential offered by the MC market.

“The role for the electrical contractor today has changed from being an installer to that of a solutions provider where the contractor can be involved early in the design and application of the motor control projects,” Lugo said. “This applies primarily in design/build projects.”

Factors driving the changing role for contractors include customers wanting a comprehensive design/build/maintain solution on their projects from engineers and contractors, he said.

“Customers are increasingly expecting the contractor to be knowledgeable in the startup process of complex motor control products, such as adjustable frequency drives, reduced voltage starters and harmonic correction units,” Lugo said. “Contractors should avail of the training available on complex motor control products from the product manufacturers.”

Lugo said changes in MC equipment include design for arc flash safety, predictive diagnostics, increase in data trending and communication capabilities, and ease of installation.

Dave Turchick, Schneider Electric Square D business director for control products, said many electrical contractors specialize in installation but rely on others to specify pieces and parts of the application.

“The loss or lack of specialization means that it’s critical for motor control systems to be intuitive, simple and provide just the right functionality for the application,” Turchick said.

Some electrical contractors haven’t fully taken advantage of the MC market.

Turchick compared advances in MC equipment to the way the digital age has moved from individual technologies, such as wireless telephones, MP3 players and GPS devices, to a consolidated, compact solution that houses all of those capabilities into one device. MC systems should be simple, open, robust and compact and can be programmed to a customer’s exact specifications with the push of a button.

“Simplification in integration, installation and maintenance, and flexible use with connectivity and commissioning is a trend for the future,” Turchick said.

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Griffin, Oklahoma City, is a construction journalist specializing in the electrical, telecommunications and underground utility construction industries. Contact him at .

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