Line Contractor

Transformation Station: Forest Electric Corp. design-builds a 69-kV substation

Photos courtesy of Forest Electric Corp.
Published On
Dec 6, 2021

For nearly 60 years, Edison, N.J.-based Forest Electric Corp. has served the commercial electrical contracting needs of corporate and service organizations throughout New York and New Jersey. Nowhere was their expertise more successfully demonstrated than with the completion of a design-build substation for a Fortune 100 financial institution in December 2020. Specifically, Forest Electric was awarded the design-build of a 69-kilovolt (kV) substation to support a new 16-megawatt data center in Totowa, N.J.

As the construction manager and design-build contractor for the project, Forest Electric coordinated all subcontractors, personnel from local utility PSE&G and the data center owner’s representative from conception to completion and, leveraging deep engineering expertise and extensive prefabrication capabilities, successfully completed the project on time and on budget, while reducing manpower by 20%.

Now part of EMCOR Group, a company that’s publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, “Forest Electric employs an average of 225 workers, and we’re known for our expertise with medium-voltage distribution at substations in mission-critical data centers, pharmaceutical centers and hospitals,” said Harry Sassaman, president of Forest Electric Corp.

substation 1

“As part of these projects, we take the incoming voltage from the distribution (utility) side and provide transformation/distribution to step it down,” Sassaman said. “In this case, power came into the substation at 69 kV, which is a medium-voltage format that’s more reliable and stable in terms of power quality. We transitioned the power down to 15 kV, and then stepped it down again to 5 kV as it came into the building/data center, which was backed up by generator power.”

According to Sassaman, the project’s need for speed to the market was so critical that there wasn’t time to hire an electrical engineer to create the design for the substation, so it was easier for the end-user to engage bids across multiple contractors to provide a design-bid proposal.

As the contracting firm with the winning bid, “we had to work closely with the utility company and the building owner’s utility consultant to integrate the utility’s regulations, metering processes, specs and more into our substation design from the ground up, because the incoming distribution we needed didn’t exist on the property before we got there,” he said of the substation, which was over an acre in size and strategically designed to accommodate future expansion.

“There was 15-kV power available on the street, but the client wanted two 69-kV lines brought into the substation to ensure adequate power to the data center,” he said.

To ensure proper coverage, “we assigned both a senior project manager to this project, as well as one of our design engineers to oversee the layout and coordination of the equipment foundations and make sure that the equipment would sit properly on the anchor bolts,” Sassaman said, whose team coordinated the timeline with the end-user’s utility consultant, but remained responsible for the master schedule to meet the overall completion date. “It took about three months to create the design-build plan and then a year to construct the substation with 15–20 of our people on the project, along with another 35–52 workers to build the critical power for the data center,” he said.

substation 2

Challenges abound

Sassaman confirmed that the Forest Electric team faced several challenges throughout the project—not the least of which was the aggressive time frame.

“A key challenge was the time stamp, within which we had to commission the substation and get it online so that the client could run all of their supplemental equipment—medium­-voltage switchgear, UPS technology, etc.,” Sassaman said. “During the course of the job, there were many critical dates that had to be met, and we had to coordinate utility requirements so that we could order the transformers, switches, structural steel for the substation and much more. The issue was that things weren’t always approved readily, and there was a long process for getting submissions of shop drawings to the utility contacts and owners, getting sign-offs and securing approvals.

“Systems in the substation were built to spec, not off-the-shelf, and the transformers on the job took a ton of time to receive. From the time of approval, for example, it took 26 weeks to get the transformers manufactured and delivered, and we couldn’t build foundations for the substation until all of the pieces of equipment were approved,” he said. “One thing after another needed to be done, and any one critical step that was delayed could slow us down and jeopardize our schedule.”

Sassaman and his team also had to contend with Mother Nature on the project.

“We needed to remove snow during the winter so that an excavator could prepare the foundations for the just-in-time delivery of equipment and the timed setting of concrete within a certain window,” he said.

Despite these and other challenges, Forest Electric met the energization date with a few weeks to spare.

“Throughout the whole process, the owner was very active in monitoring our progress on the job and was delighted that we successfully met the date so that they could proceed with validation testing and commissioning,” Sassaman said. “The client was extremely happy with our performance on the job, as well as our collaboration with their team members and consultants—so much so that they recently awarded us an expansion project.”

The situation on the ground

“At Forest Electric, we’re used to working under pressure and sometimes having to reevaluate our strategy or equipment, especially when we’re working on data centers or for pharmaceutical companies with new cancer drugs on the market that are racing to get new R&D facilities up,” Sassaman said. “Today, we’re also dealing with rising commodity prices and serious supply chain issues; delivery of some materials recently went from 70 to 140 days, and things continue to get worse—for example, we can currently get conduit, but not fittings or wire/cable feeders. While the situation was difficult during the pandemic, we were able to make things work, but now two of the largest PVC resin manufacturers have been so backlogged that they’ve struggled to even take our orders.”

At the same time, Sassaman said, “it’s difficult to hire second- and third-shift workers today, because not everyone is coming back to work during the pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies and hospitals we work with only want vaccinated workers on-site and we’re dealing with that; our office is over 98% vaccinated, but certain trades are losing a lot of their workforce.”

Sassaman noted that material shipping has also been difficult for the industry, because many independent truckers couldn’t make enough money to cover their insurance and permits during the pandemic, accelerating attrition in that field.

“These days, you might pay a premium to a trucking company to bring product up from another state, only to have them dump your job for a more lucrative one at the last minute,” he said. “It’s a full-time job for our people to manage the supply chain, and we fear that it will get worse. Gas and copper prices have been going up, and PVC resin has been in limited supply since Hurricane Ida. We think that inflation will grow and that economic conditions will continue to be difficult through spring 2022,” he said, noting that this reality can be especially hard on smaller contractors.

Lessons learned

The project involved using a 69-kV ground switch, 69 kV to 15 kV transformers with tap changers, 69-kV SF6 circuit switches for the transformers, 69-kV SF6 breakers, CT and PT stands for PSE&G, 69-kV A-frames and surge arresters, 69-kV underground power cable terminators, underground conduit and feeders to the data center and future capacity to install two additional transformers.

substation 3

“We always review lessons learned after every project, and I think the big takeaway on this 69-kV substation project was about communicating, coordinating with and keeping up the pressure on our utility partner; it required a day-to-day full court press in order to secure the approvals we needed so that we could order equipment in a timely manner to meet our tight time frame,” Sassaman said. “It was about working with everyone from the owner’s consultant to the utility manager to understand their needs and determine our next steps. Part of our project’s success also involved finding the right integrator to help us with the design and drawings and determine the right equipment for the substation; picking that optimal design-build partner was key for us.”

Given that they haven’t missed one date yet, Forest Electric’s clients realize they can rely on the contractor, he said.

“I think that this project proved that we’re different from our competitors in that we can take medium-voltage substations (69 kV) and work with an owner and consultant to facilitate a successful project and get a substation energized on time,” Sassaman said. “We have a lot of respect for this client, and being able to perform and make this a successful project for them was extremely rewarding.”

Sassaman credits much of his team’s success with its positive culture.

“I run our company like it’s family—everybody here is a team player, and we take pride in achieving the end-user’s goal, whatever the cost,” he said.

This project won a 2021 NECA Project Excellence Award in the “Substation/Interconnection” category. Sassaman couldn’t be prouder of his team and their accomplishment.

“I was elated to receive NECA’s Project Excellence Award, and our whole team was so happy that NECA chose us for this prestigious recognition,” Sassaman said, who serves as Governor of the Northern New Jersey Chapter of NECA and also sits on NECA’s national Codes and Standards Committee. “It truly made my year—in a challenging year without too many bright spots—to be recognized for this project.”

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