Comparing 3 approaches to electrical equipment maintenance

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As California recovers from wildfires and widespread power outages, it’s worth taking stock of the situation that hospitals, manufacturing plants, and other critical facilities now face.

Much of the conversation has focused on decentralized options such as microgrids and generators. These approaches will certainly help. Yet regardless of whether you install a back-up supply, you must still ensure that once electricity does reach your facility, your equipment distributes it reliably and efficiently.

In this post, I’ll compare three strategies for enhancing the reliability of your electrical equipment.

Three options for aging electrical systems

Let’s compare your options to find out what fits your needs best.

Approach 1: Waiting and running until failure

We all know people who delay going to the dentist or getting an oil change. Humans are prone to valuing instant gratification over long-term benefits.

And yet, unless you get lucky, downtime will catch up with you one day. According to a 2018 national survey of commercial and industrial building operators, over 80 percent experienced an outage in the last two years.[1] Over half of respondents reported dissatisfaction with power reliability.

Downtime isn’t cheap. We’ve all heard the horror stories. That same survey reports 18 percent of commercial and industrial facilities reported at least one outage that cost over $100,000 in 2017. This percentage rises in the manufacturing and IT sectors.

Although this approach may save money in the short term, in the long run, it’s often riskier and costlier.

Approach 2: Rip and replace

The second option is a “rip-and-replace” approach, in which you overhaul your electrical system with new equipment. The benefits of this approach include added peace of mind of a brand-new system that can be equipped with the latest IoT-enabled devices.

Yet for most facility owners, this option may not be the most practical because it can cause long-term downtime as the old system is swapped out, and increase cost due to avoidable capital expenditures on brand-new equipment.

Approach 3: Retrofit and modernize

There’s a happy medium between leaving your equipment as-is and ripping it out entirely. The retrofit approach offers the benefits of modernized gear while avoiding significant capital expenditures and downtime.

What are modernization services? In general, modernization services begin with a certified engineer performing an on-site assessment of an electrical system’s health. If the engineer detects anything that needs replacing, they’ll design a new hybrid solution involving both existing and new components. Next, engineers install the new solution on a pre-determined schedule. The primary benefit for customers of modernization services is that the system remains intact and only necessary replacements are made, thereby minimizing downtime and saving costs.

The benefits of retrofits over rip-and-replace:

  • Modernize and bring intelligence to your older gear by adding smart breakers, meters, and relays
  • Save money by avoiding new equipment outlays
  • Avoid or minimize downtime via a multi-phase approach to the retrofit that swaps out the system in stages

Let’s analyze how retrofitting and rip-and-replace compare when it comes to cost and carbon footprint.

Consider a typical power distribution system, consisting of 12 switchgears (eight feeders, two incomers, a bus coupler, a riser, and eleven circuit breakers). Compared to replacing the entire switchboard, retrofitting the system (aside from buying new circuit breakers) offers cost savings of 65 percent. That’s a major difference.

There’s also the environmental benefit. We at Schneider Electric strive to follow circular economy principles by avoiding new consumption and extending the life of existing gear. By avoiding newly manufactured products, the retrofit approach saves nearly 774,000 MJ of energy (equivalent to 135 barrels of oil), avoids emitting about 88,185 pounds (40,000 kgs) of carbon, and preserves 13,737 cubic feet (389 m3) of water. You can read the full analysis in this white paper.

The business case for retrofits and modernization

Companies around the country are starting to focus on power reliability as extreme weather intensifies and the cost of downtime rises. And with the California power outages still top-of-mind, right now is an excellent time to pursue modernization services.

Where should you start? Here is an easy-to-use tool that you can use to generate a custom recommendation on replacing or upgrading your switchgear.

[1]  “S&C’s 2018 State of Commercial & Industrial Power Reliability Report,” S&C, April 2018

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