Published In February 2001
Goliath-like utility company ComEdison recently turned to a David of the electrical contracting industry, Active Enterprises Inc., for the Wood Dale, Ill.-based company’s specialized talents in installing backup generators for computer-based facilities. As computer-reliant companies grow, their databases and the fear of power outages and the associated loss of stored information also grows. Possible downtime and the loss of sensitive data have spawned a new mentality among big business: Spend whatever is needed today to avoid costly downtime tomorrow. For companies with 24 x 7 reliance on computers, a trend toward installing backup generators and alternate procedures to prevent downtime has certainly emerged. Some niche players are poised to capitalize on that demand, as they specialize in reducing fear factor. National mail-order company LTD. Commodities, succumbing to the fears of potential downtime, recently turned to ComEd and an electrical contractor it partners with, Active Enterprises Inc. The mission: To install backup generators at a facility in Bannockburn, Ill., and to increase the comfort level of the mail-order company’s top-level managers. Those managers chose wisely, as ComEd and Active Enterprises had already successfully worked together on backup power solutions. Founded in 1946 as Active Electric Company by the grandfather of third-generation leader and Vice President Lou Matson, Active Enterprises Inc., maintains a small, year-round staff of only eight people. Matson likes it that way, as he refers to his close-knit crew as “lean and mean.” The LTD. Commodities project would ultimately include the installation of a 1,020kw diesel generator, a 70kw natural gas generator, 75kVa uninterrupted power supply (UPS) unit and a retrofit of the main switch in the switchboard. The diesel generator is a megawatt that produces 1,600 amps of 277/480-volt power, with its size at about 7 feet wide by 12 feet tall by 17 feet long. The smaller gas generator is about 31/2 feet wide by 5 feet tall by 7 feet long. The additional UPS unit will provide the facility with eight hours of battery backup power, and will provide continuous protection against surges and spikes. The unit also serves to backup both the diesel and gas generators during computer downtime. Matson explained, “The UPS unit will be set up in such a way that it’s always running off the batteries, and the batteries are continuously being recharged by the power coming into it.” For LTD. Commodities uses, the larger generator will provide backup power for its 200,000-square-foot main warehouse, which shelters shipping, receiving, and order-filling operations. The smaller generator will support telephone areas, order-taking processes, PCs, lights, and receptacles. In the interest of cost for the project, LTD. Commodities purchased both generators in advance from Wisconsin-based generator manufacturer, Generac. The company also purchased other miscellaneous equipment and was already working with ComEd for technical support before Active Enterprises entered the picture. The entire project was slated to last four weeks. However, during the initial weeks, obstacles and complications arose, causing significant setbacks. “We’ve done other generator projects very similar to this one, but with a lot less setbacks,” Matson said. Weighing on the project even before it began was the two “waiting” generators in Wisconsin. In addition, after an explanation to the client about where everything would be placed, further “handholding” was required by Active to help the client conceptualize the magnitude of the project. After the client had a firm grasp of the project and all drawings had been approved, the site was “JULIED,” meaning the Joint Utility Locating Information for Escavators (JULIE) service approved the digging. Groundbreaking began in mid-September. Then, several days of consistent rainfall blanketed the job site, turning previously excavated areas into large mud puddles, as well as slowing other site work. Once back on track after the rain, the next problem Matson and his crew had to address was hiding underground. While running conduits and raceways, workers cut into several existing underground conduits to each floor, parking lot lighting, and other areas that were not identified on any set of drawings. “We spent two days repairing things we didn’t know existed, which put a bit of a damper on our schedule. The client wanted us to take the time to fix these things, but at the same time, wanted us to keep making our timeline,” Matson said. When pouring the concrete pad at the end of September, Matson knew he had to compensate for lost time. He opted for a special seven-day cure mixture of concrete, instead of a typical 31-day cure mixture. By the beginning of October, Matson’s staff had finished the underground raceway from the new megawatt generator to the inside junction box, along with being 50 percent finished with the interior piping. With the power shutdown and cutover now scheduled for the second week in October, another hurdle appeared, forcing the two-day event to be moved back once again to the end of the month. “We found out that the customer was planning to do some other HVAC work on the facility involving a helicopter doing a lift and set of rooftop equipment that same weekend,” Matson said. “What that means is that every time the helicopter is lifting something, my crews will have to clear out of the building. And with time and a half, or double time involved, this would have been too expensive.” As a result of the client’s rooftop work, the power shutdown and cutover was moved yet again. However, as it turned out, this date would also be temporary as the cutover was later postponed once more. Originally, Matson was going to use the megawatt generator for the temporary power during the weekend outage, but the customer decided it would like to bring in a separate, temporary truck-mounted generator. Eventually, the new blister for the switchboard arrived and was installed along with 500 MCM THHN copper cable from the building to the diesel unit. The interior conduits and terminations of cables were also completed for the larger unit, as well as the smaller unit being set on its pad and its raceways being completed. Simultaneously, two situations arose that required modifications to the diesel unit. First, the enclosure that houses the main breaker in the generator was not large enough to accept the four sets of copper cables. Matson and staff had to fabricate an additional enclosure to allow them to bring conduits into the generator and be able to terminate feeder cables. Secondly, the diesel unit arrived without a neutral buss detail. Workers simply fabricated a neutral buss and were able to install it by the end of the month. With everything in place for the shutdown, ComEd began by turning off the power to the 2,500-amp service, with cables already pulled from the generator to the building. Cables were then lugged onto the distribution panel to feed it. Matson then reworked the main switch section of the switchboard. One whole section of the switchboard was taken out, and replaced with a modified set of switches to run off the utility company or off the generator. A 2,500-amp main breaker was installed for the incoming service from the utility, and a 1,600-amp breaker was placed above for the power coming from the generator. At the same time, the small generator was powered up to provide backup power to the order-taking section during the four-hour outage needed to put the building on the generator. The UPS was disconnected to get a temporary feed to the computer room so it could also run off the generator. Then, Matson’s crew installed the new main switch and switch for the generator, followed by the new UPS, including connections with buss detail. At midnight on a weekend evening, the generator was turned off, connected with the new section into the distribution panel section, and ComEd turned the power back on, allowing the building to be back on permanent power. “I’m very pleased with the way that the project turned out, and the client is happy, which is the most important thing to us,” Matson said. With the project now completed, other problems with the electronics inside of the transfer switching were located. Matson said the manufacturers of the switchboard would address those. “I love starting jobs, but I like finishing even better,” Matson said. “We hit a few snags along the way, but I would have to say we overcame really well. Our motto around here is we do everything in pencil because we know beyond the shadow of a doubt, it will change.” Silva, a Hollywood, Fla.-based freelance writer, can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.