Power Play: Hard Knocks or Opportunity?

As the Great Blackout of 2003 rolled through the Northeast and Midwest, a lot of people were left in the dark. But the blackout turned on the lights for a group of National Electrical Contractor Association (NECA) member contractors in Michigan. They saw the blackout as opportunity knocking.

Banks, hospitals and other businesses need to protect mission-critical applications and human life. A properly installed UPS (uninterruptible power supply) is one of the foundations of a backup system.

“As with any job, the customer's needs are where you start,” said Jerry Gordenier, president of J G Squared, Chelsea, Mich.

When the series of major grid power failures hit, businesses sat up and took notice.

“With the huge blackout a year ago, there is a sense of angst about power,” said Michael L. Crawford, manager of the Michigan NECA Chapter, which has 12 divisions covering 70 counties. “For contractors, this represents a big potential source of business and revenue.”

“The chapter spent over $14,000 last year promoting and explaining backup systems,” Crawford said. The effort is paying off in more and larger jobs for electrical contractors.

Not everyone who requests installation of a UPS system does so because of the blackout. Hospitals have long known that human lives depend on a consistent, even, reliable flow of power, even when the national grid goes down.

While many businesses feel a steady supply of electricity is vital, any television station owner will tell you that being knocked off the air means death to the station. Viewers click away to competitors, while advertisers demand refunds.

Two of J G Squared's more interesting projects to date are the University of Michigan's Purple Power project and the Transmission Tower project for WPXD-TV.

Hospital UPS

The University of Michigan Hospital elected to install a system of orderly load shedding for its backup system.

“In essence, this was the ability to prioritize and automate the logic behind what gets powered when the supply becomes limited,” Gordenier said.

The generators and a substantial amount of infrastructure were already in place. However, everyone knew it would take a well-coordinated effort by all parties involved to do the job, as it had to be done with the hospital still fully operational.

There were many bid packs for portions of the multimillion-dollar undertaking. When the work began, five separate electrical contractors were awarded the project: J G Squared, AF Smith, Hatzel & Buehler Inc., Turner Electric and Shaw Electric.

Coordination was paramount in a mission-critical project of this size and complexity. The project manager for the University of Michigan Hospital, Ken Silverman, elected to hold one weekly progress meeting for all contractors involved. This was an interesting approach, he said.

“You'd think five electrical contractors sitting in the same room, talking about different pieces of the same job, should be a recipe for disaster, but it wasn't,” Gordenier said.

Gordenier said the jobs they do for such customers as the University of Michigan Hospital are typically designed by engineers, such as Ayres, Lewis, Norris, and Mae, and then installed per plans by the electricians.

The project, which lasted approximately 12 months, required several miles of 4-inch conduit and many more miles of 500 MCM wire.

Some of the work was quite literally on a giant scale. There were junction boxes large enough to stand up in. Those junction boxes had to be punched perfectly so 32 4-inch pipes would seamlessly enter from two different sides. When completed, they worked like a charm.

ASCO transfer switches were told what to do by logic from Cutler Hammer IQ 1000 system and software programming by Honeywell. “All of this was installed for a backup system that the customer actually hoped would never be used,” Gordenier said.

The crew did several things right, however. So well did they execute their plans that the project was nominated for and won a Pyramid Award.

TV tower … and fast

“The WPXD-TV station tower is more of a design/build where the overall scope of work and end result is defined but the means used to get there is left to the contractor,” Gordenier explained.

J G Squared's work on the WPXD project was designed to back up an 800A, 480V service that feeds transmission equipment for a 1,000-foot broadcast tower.

Completion of the project required a 500-kVa-generator set, RF filtering equipment, 35,000-volt DC transformers, cooling towers and ratcheting type voltage regulators.

“The design was diagrammatic, and there was a considerable amount of design time spent engineering the system,” Gordenier said.

Michigan gets a lot of snow and ice in the winter. Towers, especially those reaching 1,000 feet into the sky, require de-icing. So, in addition to protecting the electronics, a carport-type structure had to be built over the generator. This was to shield the generator from falling ice in the winter as the tower's de-icing system did its job.

Once they got going, management at the TV station decided they wanted protection right away. “The project was accelerated due to the customer wanting delivery of the system in eight days instead of the originally projected four to six weeks,” Gordenier said. A team of 10 electricians worked 12 hours a day to complete the task on the new schedule.

While power backup projects can be rewarding, both financially and psychologically, both electrical contractors and their customers often overlook the possibilities.

Increased demand

In Michigan, a string of power outages brought the idea of doing a better job of promoting power conditioning and backup to the business public. The Michigan Chapter invested some time, effort and money in looking at the markets.

According to Crawford, the Lansing area and western Michigan were identified as two prime areas for marketing commercial backup systems. Crawford noted that systems range from small, propane-fueled backups to the large diesel systems, to fuel cells.

“The $14,000 we spent last year was mainly on a TV ad in the Lansing area. It emphasized the need to hire a licensed electrical contractor and to use licensed electricians when installing backup power,” Crawford added.

Not all applications go as smoothly as the ones at the University of Michigan or WPXD. A number of businesses in the area have had significant issues with inappropriate installations.

Sizing issues

“The most accurate way to size a generator or UPS system is to calculate the peak demand load and plan for that plus 25 percent capacity,” Gordenier said. He noted that this often results in a generator fully capable of handling an entire building's load while still being sized significantly smaller than the service size for the building.

He said two points that are often overlooked when designing a generator system are location and sound.

“You must be certain that the exhaust is situated so it is never to be subject to entering the facility. You must also make certain that all local codes are met and there is ample clearance from doors, windows, fresh air intakes, and similar things are considered. If there is any doubt, involving a licensed mechanical contractor is a great way to get it right,” he added.

Contractors should check with local authorities with regard to sound and acceptable levels for the area. If there is a restriction, it usually is stated in decibels (DBs).

“Your generator specification should list the DBs of the intended machine,” Gordenier said. If the restriction requires quieting the machine down, custom sound shielding can be purchased to achieve almost any level of sound dampening required. Gordenier also said lead times on natural gas and diesel generators vary with typical generator sets up to 100 kVa.

“The price goes up as the sound goes down. We like to tell our customers, it is the best sound you will hear when the power is out,” he said.

HARLER, a frequent contributor to SECURITY & LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS, is based in Strongsville, Ohio. He can be reached at 440.238.4556 or curt@curtharler.com.


About the Author

Curt Harler

Freelance Writer
Curt Harler, a frequent contributor to SECURITY + LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS, is based in Strongsville, Ohio. He also can be reached at 440.238.4556.

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