Spotting the invisible threat in medium voltage switchgear: Detecting partial discharge before it strikes

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If you work in an industrial or manufacturing setting, you’re familiar with unplanned downtime. It happens on average about 15 hours every week – or 800 hours annually, and it’s more expensive than ever. In some industrial plants, a one-hour shutdown now costs up to $1M every hour.

Some issues that cause downtime are easy to identify – a tripped circuit breaker, transformer malfunction, or a blown fuse. Others are much more insidious and harder to detect, like partial discharge (PD), the inability of a portion of the insulation to withstand the electric field applied to it.

Let’s look at the specifics of partial discharge, its potential impacts on your facility, and a monitoring solution designed to prevent a loss from equipment failure.

Small sparks that add up to a big problem

Medium voltage switchgear contains solid insulation commonly made of epoxy, polyester, or elastomeric materials. Environmental factors such as severe temperature fluctuations, and high humidity cause these barriers to break down over time, creating gaps and air voids. Superficial condensation and pollution along insulators in ambient air progressively damage their dielectric performance.

This can lead to partial discharge. It can happen anywhere in an electrical installation. Everything may look perfectly fine on the outside, but underneath, it’s a different story. It starts small, and it always gets worse. These discharges can happen a thousand times per second – you may even hear a faint crackling, see a bluish glow, or notice tracking or erosion on insulation – weakening the insulation and building up electron deposits. Left unchecked, it will, one day, lead to a flashover. The result is disrupted operations, loss of productivity and revenue, and perhaps a damaged reputation.

Even though electrical equipment manufacturers suggest performing an annual inspection to test and clean medium voltage switchgear, this checkup does not detect any damage, voids, or cracks inside the insulation.

Detect, diagnose, and solve

The focus has traditionally been to find the problem and fix it, which, after what can be a catastrophic breakdown, is not an ideal maintenance method. Just as important is the analysis – understanding the problem better and finding approaches to prevent these breakdowns.

The most effective way to track equipment health over time and reduce potential risks without prolonged shutdowns is through 24/7 monitoring. This service is often performed remotely – a perfect example is EcoCare*. The service includes the Partial Discharge Monitoring Solution, designed for medium voltage switchgear. Backed by a team of dedicated electrical distribution experts trained in the nuances of partial discharge, customers are provided with the capability to help determine root causes and corrective actions and manage daily operations proactively and efficiently.

medium voltage switchgear and partial discharge

The core of the solution is the PowerLogic PD100 sensor, which allows for continuous monitoring to maximize service continuity and optimize maintenance. Active Plus connectivity with EcoCare provides remote monitoring, expert analysis, and maintenance recommendations, all supported by a digital platform and Schneider Electric’s Connected Services Hub. Benefits include early anomaly detection to prevent downtime, integration with new equipment, and cloud-powered diagnostics and insights to enhance operational efficiency.

This solution fully complies with standards like IEC 62671-213, written to ensure a high level of quality and safety for HV equipment, and inspired by the IEC 60270 standard, which outlines the methods to measure such discharges and is essential for ensuring the reliability and safety of high-voltage electrical installations.

Let’s say the PowerLogic PD100, combined with other sensors inside your medium voltage switchgear such as the humidity-measuring PowerLogic CL110, picks up partial discharge activity that spikes every morning over a few months. The Connected Services Hub correlates this data from the environmental and partial discharge sensors to analyze the severity and impact on the electrical system. At the same time, real-time notifications are sent and pushed to maintenance personnel through a dedicated webpage or mobile app. This equipment visibility allows fast response before assets can be further damaged. Without this high level of monitoring, facility workers would likely be unaware of these partial discharge events until the equipment failed.

The Partial Discharge Monitoring Solution also integrates seamlessly, where available, into new panels or existing equipment, offering an unobtrusive and elegant enhancement from the start. It also integrates with the EcoStruxure™ platform, designed to provide a full-scope, holistic approach to condition-based maintenance. This broadens the scope of services, creates a comprehensive strategy for maintenance rather than just an isolated service, and supports the equipment’s long-term health and efficiency.

Rather than simply detecting PD, it also provides actionable insights to help you better understand your equipment’s health and plan for future preventive maintenance. The EcoCare service plan provides constant visibility into your MV switchgear’s performance.

Stop problems before they escalate

Partial discharge is a complex phenomenon that requires specific knowledge and competencies so that you can get the right insights for your equipment. A dedicated and highly skilled team of 125+ experts worldwide is available remotely 24/7, proactively monitoring, analyzing, and troubleshooting your critical electrical assets by using the EcoStruxure digital platform.

Through a diagnostic phase and collaborative efforts between your team and Schneider Electric experts, you can identify, resolve, and even predict issues such as partial discharge before they escalate into major problems.

Are you interested in the peace of mind that comes with knowing there’s another set of eyes on your facility’s most valuable assets? Watch the video below to learn more.

*Please verify the availability of EcoCare in your region through a local services sales representative. If EcoCare is not yet available, you can start leveraging EcoStruxure Service Plan.

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