Published In September 2000
As the gateway to the Caribbean and South America, Miami is a city filled with endless opportunities to have fun in the sun. But when it comes to being the gateway of modern communications systems, Miami and Tri-City Electric Co. Inc. are all business. Phone home To provide more telephone service to and from South America, AT&T Global Services began running underwater telephone cables from cities such as Venezuela, Colombia, and Fortaleza, Brazil, in early 1998. The cables’ destination was the fifth floor of the existing AT&T International Cable Station in Miami. “This facility routes all international calls from South America, and houses the separate business units of AT&T Global, and AT&T Domestic,” explained J. Russell Borden, Tri-City Electric executive vice president. It was imperative, therefore, that the retrofit work on the building be completed when the cable reached Miami in the early fall of 1999. The electrical portion of that time-critical project fell to Tri-City. The contract was awarded on a negotiated design-build basis. AT&T first contracted with Dames & Moore, Boca Raton, Fla., to be the architects of the physical plant’s redesign. “The fifth floor of the building was to be designed as a separate physical entity from the rest of the facility with its own utilities, its own electrical feed, its own HVAC, and a separate cabling infrastructure,” says Borden. Dames & Moore then contracted with Duffey Construction, Miami, to be the general contractor. They selected Tri-City as the project’s electrical contractor and Duffey as the general based on the 30-year relationship the two companies have of working on various projects for AT&T. “We even performed the original electrical work on the AT&T facility in Ojus, Fla., in the early 1970s,” Borden added. In the fall of 1998, Dames & Moore, Duffey Construction, and the Miami-based engineering firm of Bailey Engineering Consultants (BEC) met with Tri-City to discuss the project concept and to begin formulating plans on how to approach the work. Tri-City immediately began researching exactly what would have to happen to achieve the electrical system’s goals of: * Providing temporary service for the existing facility until the new power generation system was installed. * Designing and installing initial lighting and power upgrades so the facility could begin to be used even while construction was still under way. * Satisfying the customer’s goal of having two distinct entities in the same building while simultaneously satisfying county zoning laws. During this research phase, Tri-City worked closely with BEC to finalize the electrical design. The schedule was so tight that electrical system construction began even while engineers at BEC were still finalizing the electrical drawings. “Dames & Moore, Duffey, BEC, and Tri-City worked throughout the entire process as a team with the single goal of providing AT&T with a state-of-the-art communications facility,” said Borden. Tri-City Electric was responsible for installing new power generation and a complete cabling infrastructure at the facility. Equipment to be installed included three 750 kW generators, one 750 kW load bank, one 4,000-amp switchboard with redundant feeds and tie breakers, one 3,000-amp switchboard with redundant feeds and tie breaker, one generator control switchgear with paralleling controls, four 800-amp distribution panels serving AC and critical loads, and six variable frequency drives to control the air handlers. “An amazing amount of wire, conduit, and equipment was installed on-site,” observed Rick Sorrells, chief estimator. By the time Tri-City completed the project, they had installed 13,500 feet of 4-inch PVC for the power and communication systems, 5,000 feet of 4-inch rigid conduit, 8,400 feet of 11/4-inch innerduct, and 35,000 feet of 600 Kcmil THHN copper wire. “The rigid conduit alone almost totaled a mile in length,” added Will Mersch, general foreman. Mersch was responsible for all aspects of the $4 million project installation, including extensive involvement in the engineering and design phases. Tri-City Electric has performed a lot of this kind of redundant electrical work for companies such as AT&T, Bell South, and Sprint. “We also have years of experience in providing power generation systems in the institutional, health care, and commercial markets,” Borden stated. One of a kind What made this project very unique was that the customer wanted a separate facility built on one floor within an existing building. “All the power feeds from Florida Power and Light (FPL) had to be run up the five stories of the building, and then across a section of the roof before being terminated in the new switchgear that was being installed to serve the fifth floor,” explained Borden. Before that could happen, however, the utility had to first route power into primary switchgear in a separate generator building, which was erected by Tri-City. Only then were the 20, 4-inch conduits run up and over the building and terminated inside. Another unique aspect of the project, according to Borden, was the amount of redundancy the customer needed. “Not many projects include two separate utility feeds into a facility from two separate power grids,” he observed. The building was specifically designed this way in case either power grid failed. And in case both power grids and utility feeds were somehow to fail at the same time, Tri-City installed three separate 750 kW emergency generators. Only two of those generators would actually be needed to run the facility in case the main power were to fail, leaving the third as the final redundant backup. The project schedule presented the Tri-City team with its own set of challenges. Although temporary lighting and power work began in January 1999, the bulk of the power generation installation began that May and was completed only four months later, when the underwater cable arrived from South America. “Performing the work and satisfying AT&T Global’s requirements for absolutely uninterrupted power took massive amounts of communication and coordination between us, the customer, the utility, the general contractor, and the other trades on-site,” Borden said. Meetings among all the participants were held twice a month to ensure that the project was on track. On the job site, however, front-line supervision personnel met daily to discuss any problems that had arisen and how to resolve them quickly and efficiently. Coordinating with FPL to gain access into the existing utility vault, which houses the transformers and primary switches, was also difficult. “To be able to handle the new loads, FPL had to increase the size of one of the two transformers in the vault,” Borden explained. That transformer had to be removed so Tri-City could install the conduit that would bring in the power. Then it had to be replaced. “All this work had to be completed without the facility experiencing a second of power loss.” Finally, the telephone switching equipment inside the facility is, of course, very sensitive to any dirt or dust. AT&T, therefore, requires any type of contractor working inside any of its facilities to first view an orientation video that covers topics such as cleanliness and safety. “There are open racks of telephone switching equipment throughout the facility and because of its sensitivity to environmental factors, our crews had to exercise extreme caution and avoid creating any kind of dust,” Borden said. Company electricians used special masonite sheets to cover the equipment while working inside the facility and took special pains to ensure that their clothing and tools were clean. Customers for life In 1946, three partners; D.R. Borden, Sr., William Daniel, and Charles Elliott founded Tri-City Electric. D.R. “Rod” Borden, Jr., became president and owner in 1978. Over the years, the company has continued to grow by focusing on a philosophy of providing customers with ongoing service, maintenance, and building services for the life of the facility. The company creates value for its customers by providing complete service and customer satisfaction. “The idea is to provide the highest quality service that keeps the customer returning to us for all its electrical needs,” said Rod Borden, Jr. The company believes it must also create value for its employees by providing a challenging and rewarding workplace. “For instance,” Borden explained, “Our project managers have complete responsibility for all facets of a project from purchasing to project staffing to coordination and communication with the owner, general contractor, and employees, all through project completion.” Project managers are also authorized to make the necessary decisions that ensure successful project completion and customer satisfaction. “Our employees are judged strictly on results.” In fact, some employees have stayed with the company for years, including one that has been at Tri-City since 1958. Tri-City takes the same approach toward its industry partners with a philosophy of creating strategic alliances in an environment of utility deregulation and industry consolidation. Tri-City Electric offers its customers in the healthcare, telecommunications, institutional, commercial, and government markets a full range of design, estimation, project management, new electrical installation and retrofit services, and 24-hour emergency and on-going maintenance services in low- and high-voltage, energy management, controls, life safety signaling, and emergency systems technologies. The company also offers its customers pre-construction, value engineering, design, and schedule development services. “Historically, we have only offered design services for high-end commercial, healthcare, and institutional customers, although we are now beginning to offer these same design services for the voice/data/video market,” Borden said. To keep up with the changing technological times, Tri-City has formed several divisions to provide the specific services that achieve the individual goals of its customers. In 1990, the company formed a separate service division, which today accounts for 30 percent of total sales. “We began the division to take advantage of the higher margins associated with the nature of service work and to provide a steady revenue stream during the usual cycles of construction work,” Borden explained. In 1997, the company developed a new business focus on the voice/data/video (VDV) and healthcare markets. “Although we had performed this type of work for years, we decided to begin focusing more closely on it because of the rapidly changing opportunities in this type of work,” Borden said. South Florida has an ever-increasing elderly population and healthcare providers, there and elsewhere, are changing the way they deliver their services. “Customers in both the voice/data/video and healthcare markets require a rapid response to fulfill their requirements, which is one of our specialties,” Borden said. A resurgence in tourism and convention business in Miami led Tri-City to form a division in 1997 that specializes strictly in trade show and exhibition services. “These customers have unique needs, and a separate division helps us provide for them,” Borden explained. Most recently, the company also formed a fire service division to provide fire alarm installation, certification, and inspection services. Such diversification of services and a willingness to change with the times has allowed Tri-City to amass $20 million in annual sales and an average of 220 employees, 26 of whom work in the office and provide warehouse, accounting, project management, and estimating support. Looking toward tomorrow “Partially because of new technologies and partially because of increased customer demands, the industry itself is changing dramatically and we cannot ignore the need for ongoing training,” Borden said. “Extended training is necessary for both those employees that work strictly in the field and for those that are on the front line of supervision and that deal with building and facility owners or their representatives.” Borden stresses this training is also necessary to attract the high-caliber employees needed to fulfill customer needs. Tri-City has long recognized this need and invests heavily in training its employees at all levels of the company. To ensure its continued success in the future, Tri-City Electric continues to develop its service and facilities management departments to take advantage of the benefits that type of work affords. “We also plan to become more heavily involved in the voice/data/video and premise cabling infrastructure markets,” Borden said. This decision is based on those markets’ continued growth potential and the varied opportunities they present as more factories, plants, and commercial and institutional facilities demand high-tech systems. The company also plans to increase its design/build capabilities within the next few years as part of its goal of being an integral part of a building’s life span and its objective of providing a full range of electrical services. In an increasingly competitive environment, Tri-City Electric’s advantage comes from its years of experience, technical expertise, and ability to provide an extensive range of high-tech and value-added services. “Most of the work the company performs is on the higher end of the technological curve,” observed Russ Borden. With resources such as long-term relationships with suppliers and the ability to effectively coordinate and communicate on the job site with other trades and general contractors, Tri-City Electric is committed to remaining its customers’ “electrical provider of choice” for a long time to come. BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to Electrical Contractor. She can be reached at (410) 394-6966 or by e-mail at email@example.com.