Knowing the Full Story: Is it Safe?

Published On
Nov 1, 2017

For each project, electrical contractors must ensure the right equipment is on-site, that it’s affordable and, most important, safe and reliable. But what to do when dealing with installed equipment or with tools and equipment that they don’t own? How do they know it’s safe and hasn’t been damaged? ECs need to know whether the tools and equipment they use to install their systems are in working condition, and they need to know the panels, switches and cable they are working with are safe as well. Fires, storms and floods make determining this even more challenging.

Water damage and electrical infrastructure

Water and electric components are a terrible mix. Properly trained personnel can recondition some electrical equipment after a storm or flood, but it depends on a variety of factors: what that electrical equipment is, its age, the level of flooding, and the length of time the equipment was exposed to water. Panelboards, switches, fuses and switchboards offer a variety of challenges.

Water can damage the filler material of fuses and will degrade the insulation and the system’s interruption capabilities. When transformers are exposed to water, they can suffer corrosion and insulation damage. Transformers are just the beginning; any wire or cable product that is exposed to water is subject to damage, just as any metallic component—including the conductor, metallic shield or armor—is vulnerable to corrosion that can cause termination failures or damage the component itself. Any water remaining in most cable could accelerate deterioration of the insulation and cause premature failure.

With that in mind, ECs are expected to carefully inspect the cable-tray system to determine if its mechanical and electrical integrity has been compromised. Contractors are expected to repair or replace any damaged portions and do so according to original installation requirements. That includes removing all debris from the cable tray, and if any labels that warn against the use of the cable tray as a walkway have been damaged, contractors are expected to get replacement labels from the manufacturer and apply them.

Support in safety guidelines

When it comes to determining whether equipment in an installation is water-damaged, ECs are best served by looking at the latest text of the National Electrical Code (NEC), said Michael Johnston, executive director of standards and safety, NECA. 

[SB]For instance, not every EC might be aware of the new information that NEC Section 110.21(A)(2) provides. This new subsection dictates how reconditioned equipment is marked. Reconditioned equipment must be marked with the name, trademark and any descriptive marking to identify the organization responsible for the reconditioning, as well as when it occurred.

Water itself leaves a visual trace, and any sign of water on electrical equipment signals a need for possible replacement, Johnston said. If equipment has come in contract with water, some decisions need to be made.

There are cases of overzealous owners who may take insurance money and opt to refurbish equipment that should have been completely replaced. Companies and owners are more likely to refurbish equipment that might be out-of-date and no longer available from vendors.

Most contractors are well aware of the need to avoid that scenario. Until recently, the NEC has not listed specifications for that kind of refurbished equipment.

Each decision comes with its own challenges, but there are guides that dictate what to use, where to use it and when not to use something at all. For example, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) offers a guide to help ECs decide when a piece of equipment needs to be replaced, when it is OK to operate as it is, and when it can be refurbished. That is especially useful after storms where water damage has made an impact.

NEMA also offers specifications for evaluating water-­damaged electrical equipment that are being adopted by about five states thus far. These guidelines include advice on the safe handling of electrical equipment that’s been exposed to water.

“I think the big thing is making sure that any work is permitted and inspected [by a third party],” Johnston said. 

Do you know where your leased tools have been? 

In many cases, the equipment ECs use to install and test their systems is leased—potentially used or refurbished—and has a life history that’s not necessarily visible. However, owning equipment outright isn’t an alternative for many mid-size or smaller contractors, so they rely on equipment suppliers to certify, test and inspect their products. Statistically, a majority of ECs lease aerial lifts, scaffolding and digging and boring equipment, but the leasing of smaller tools—such as pipe threaders, benders, hand and power tools, electrical testers and other smaller devices—is on the rise. Safety equipment, including personal protective equipment, also can be leased.

When it comes to heavy equipment used on construction sites, leasing is often the most—or sometimes the only—feasible option. In fact, according to the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association (ELFA), about 78 percent of U.S. businesses lease or finance some of their equipment to save cash, ensure they have up-to-date technology, outsource asset management, or bundle equipment, installation and maintenance. In addition, a 2014 study conducted by found there is a drive in the construction market toward renting equipment.

Of course, leasing or renting equipment can become a safety concern if the equipment and tools have been overused or exposed to environmental damage. After storms, such as the ones that affected Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, the equipment leased in those areas can be in a variety of conditions from new to entirely inoperable. ECs must be alert to the condition of the equipment they use for installation. Visually inspect each leased tool and piece of equipment. If something looks off, request a replacement. Check with the lessor that the equipment has been refurbished or recalibrated properly. A professional leasing organization should certify that the equipment is safe to use. 

Electro Rent Corp. rents, leases and sells electronic test and measurement equipment worldwide. After major storms, it experiences an uptick in test equipment rental, said Drew Curry, North American sales manager for the company’s power and industrial group. Contractors that come to the company typically list safety as the top priority, and the company’s own efforts center around the calibration of test equipment. Each customer has its own parameters, he said, as well as the need to meet NFPA 70E and OSHA requirements. Calibration lab specifications, such as ISO/IEC 17025:2005, also should be considered when selecting a rental equipment provider.

Curry said anyone renting or leasing test tools should expect to see a certification sticker and have ready access to calibration records. They should be able to answer simple questions, such as “What is your accreditation?”

Whether they own or rent them, contractors must consider where their equipment and tools come from and what they have been through along the way. You must pay attention and remain vigilant. If something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t. 

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