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Power Up

While facilities managers don’t need to be experts, having a basic understanding of electrical systems can help them operate during emergencies.

By Regina Ludes

Electrical power is needed to operate everything from lighting and HVAC systems to computer equipment and refrigeration units. Without power, you wouldn’t be able to serve restaurant customers, and retail customers wouldn’t be able to shop. The disruption of business could mean losing customers and losing revenue. While they don’t need to be experts in electrical systems, facilities managers who understand the basics of the components can spot potential problems before they occur.

Len Segal, Stones River Electric
Len Segal, Stones River Electric

Electrical systems are often overlooked in the daily operations of a facility — until something goes wrong. But facilities managers should make it part of their regular maintenance routine, keeping safety in mind. “A regular inspection as part of an electrical maintenance plan can alert you to frayed wiring or overloaded outlets, which, left unchecked, could result in fire and serious damage,” said Len Segal, Business Development Director with Stones River Electric in Madison, Tennessee, outside of Nashville.

Routine inspections are also helpful to monitor a site’s energy consumption. In grocery stores, about 60% of energy is consumed by the HVAC system, while lighting consumes only 30%.

Preventive maintenance programs are rare for electrical systems in retail locations, so it’s common for FMs to be in reactionary mode when electrical failures occur, Segal added. For example, during a power outage, managers may need to access data about their systems to understand the type of emergency generator they may need. “If your team doesn’t have data available, the local electrical utility can often provide resources,” Segal said. It’s always best to call a professional to perform proper maintenance.

What FMs Should Know

Segal offered several tips for maintaining electrical systems.

Keep good records. Know the types of equipment you have, when they’ve been inspected and if they’ve been repaired or had parts replaced. Allocate budget resources wisely for repairs and upgrades, whether planned or unexpected.

Pay attention to unusual smells, noises or smoke. These are usually signs that some component of the electrical system is not working properly. “Some light ballasts will make a humming sound, for example, which usually indicates that it’s getting ready to fail and should be replaced,” Segal said. Intermittent issues, like strobing lights or items taking longer than usual to turn on, can also indicate that a component is not working properly. In addition to lighting, a step-down transformer can make buzzing and humming sounds before it fails and a 75kva transformer could potentially put anyone nearby in immediate danger if it were to fail.

Keep long-term operating costs in mind. When considering leasing options and energy upgrades, don’t look only at upfront costs. “Investing in something like LED lights, for example, might have some upfront costs, but the incremental investment and savings will more than pay for itself within months or years,” Segal said. Some suppliers, he added, offer a “pay from savings” option, so no capital is required for the upgrade.

Understand the basics of your site’s electrical service. Know the voltage and service amperage at the site so you know the energy capacity. That knowledge can also help FMs respond quickly during power shortages. 

Know the codes and standards governing the electrical industry. NFPA 70 is the National Electrical Code that outlines the safety requirements for Arc Flash labeling. Arc Flash incidents have increased but aren’t commonly known. NPPA 70B is the standard for electrical equipment and infrared testing. The 2023 update recommends inspections on electrical gear every 12 months.

What’s New in Electrical Systems?

Many sites are increasingly implementing energy management systems (EMS) and building management systems (BMS) systems. EMS is designed to monitor energy use at a location, while BMS gives managers necessary data to make non-energy-related decisions about the site’s operations. 

With Internet of Things (IoT) technology, managers can connect devices and sensors to the internet, which allows them to monitor their assets, streamline operations and track energy consumption. There’s also a push toward implementing hydrogen into power systems, Segal said.

Another development is revisions to electrical system requirements. “In 2024, the challenge is to understand the changes in the new reference documents. For example, Arc Flash labeling requirements of electrical systems are changing, and FMs need to understand the impact this might have on their facilities.”

Facilities managers who stay on top of these trends and technologies can make better decisions about their electrical needs in the future.

Looking for more facilities management education? Visit the ConnexFM Education and Resources page today.

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