Back to Basics Makes Sense

At a recent Technology Committee meeting for a local school district, there was considerable discussion about the lack of responsiveness in getting electrical infrastructure issues fixed. Everyone from the administrators to the principals to the teachers joked about how long such things take to get remedied. Yet the same group was approving spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on technology equipment and software. It is sort of like buying the top-of-the-line sports car, but then putting the lowest grade gasoline in the tank and wondering why the performance isn’t up to expectations.

Despite talk at conferences and technical committees for the past 20 years, there is no comprehensive “quality of supply” standard in the United States, nor are there “power-quality susceptible” standards for equipment sold in here.

In Europe, where there seems to be much more of a legal enforcement versus voluntary compliance attitude towards such, there are International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standards that must be met for a company to be able to put the CE label on its equipment (similar to the UL mark). Without that label, equipment can’t be imported into those countries. This is also the same group that has approved and enforced EN50160 (Europe Norm) as the quality of supply standard. With it, the electric utilities have to keep certain parameters within limits for 95 percent of the time. That leaves 5 percent to the wind. In this 24/7 global economy, that isn’t acceptable by many. Even in the classroom, how many teachers would want to have their lesson plans interrupted at that same rate, and how many hours would that be?

Department of Education entities in many states have issued minimum standards for number of computers per student and some even have minimum levels of technology skills required for graduation. School districts have invested millions of dollars in technology equipment, but are often forgetting two aspects of it. The first isn’t really power quality related, but deserves a quick mention. Most companies have information technology (IT) departments with roughly a 30-to-1 ratio of computers to IT personnel. Things break, things don’t work right, new equipment needs to be installed, etc. And there is also the replacement cost as new and more powerful software comes out. This can cause those technology expense budget lines to grow exponentially if not planned for and closely managed. Having one technical support person responsible for 10 schools with 30 to 50 computers per school is a bad lesson plan.

But what about the allocation of funds and knowledge of power quality standards needed to keep this IT equipment running at the performance level expected and meet the classroom and administrative needs?

If you look at the classified ads for custodian and maintenance personnel for a school district, the emphasis is often on being trained and licensed to fix boilers. An important requirement, for sure, but how many of those people who are required to maintain the electrical infrastructure are trained and knowledgeable in things such as permissible voltage distortion levels before transformers need to be resized, magnitude and duration limits of sags before equipment fails and requires a reboot, or grounding impedance requirements for surge protectors to effectively divert the energy from impulsive transients?

Then there is the loading effect of all this IT equipment. In many classrooms, they just run additional outlet strips off the existing wiring. Does the wiring have the capacity for another couple thousand Watts of non-linear power? When the laser printer heating element cycles and draws 10A of current, resulting in a sag below the operating limit of the power supplies of the six computers plugged into the same circuit, who has the training to detect and correct such an error? The lesson is interrupted, as a teacher has to re-start the computer and reload the program, finding the place where they left off. Unproductive? Yes, though we tend not to measure productivity in education in the same way that an industrial facility does. But the “product” here is far more important—educating the next generation.

Universities often buy power quality monitoring equipment for their sensitive laboratory facilities, yet it is very rare for a public school district to purchase it or even know that they need it. With tight expense budgets and funding getting voted down, few if any are considering allocating money for training of the maintenance staff on the issues affecting this million-dollar-plus investment. The result is a disservice to the teachers, the administrators, the tech support people, the IT equipment vendors, but most importantly, to the students.

Technology has the potential to open doors and improve a student’s ability to learn in ways that we are still learning. But without the properly designed and maintained electrical distribution infrastructure behind it, it is like putting 87 octane in a Porsche 924: it runs, but oh, how much better the ride could be.

BINGHAM, a contributing editor for power quality, can be reached at 732.287.3680.


About the Author

Richard P. Bingham

Power Quality Columnist
Richard P. Bingham, a contributing editor for power quality, can be reached at 732.287.3680.

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