Why And When to Modernize Electrical Switchgear
Switchgear is the backbone of every facility’s electrical system, powering the technologies that ensure business success. And as technology is continually updated to increase operational efficiency, drive better results, and increase performance and safety, keeping switchgear up to date is a critical competitive differentiator (and, in data center facilities, imperative for business continuity).
While switchgear has an expected lifecycle of around 15 to 20 years, making maintenance or modernization requirements relatively predictable, budget and staff constraints oftentimes lead facility managers to push modernization to the last possible minute, increasing the risk of electrical failures such as unplanned outages that lead to costly downtime — which, in the data center space, can have major financial and reputational impacts. It is imperative data center facility managers keep up with modernization best practices to ensure their facilities are operating efficiently and reliably, and are up to date with the latest safety regulations.
In addition, modernizing solutions is proven to be more cost effective than replacing entire systems at once. This article examines strategies data center facility managers can follow to know when to replace low voltage (LV) and medium voltage (MV) switchgear and the importance of modernizing over time.
Electrical systems in the U.S. are aging rapidly, decreasing current switchgear’s reliability, putting uptime at risk, and increasing the potential for costly outages. However, these aging systems can be just as reliable and safe as newer power systems if electrical personnel implement the appropriate modernization processes and solutions. One issue that facility managers run into rather frequently surrounds the issue of mismatched equipment in the data center. Oftentimes, facility electrical systems are made up of equipment sourced from different operating equipment managers (OEMs), which can make maintenance, standardization, and vendor management challenging. In addition, replacement for aging equipment can be tricky as the availability of older spare parts decreases while the price for newer parts increases.
Another consideration for modernizing switchgear is improving safety for electrical workers, reducing the risk of injury or even death onsite. Working around electrical equipment on a day-to-day basis can be extremely dangerous, especially when working with outdated equipment that is not compliant with the latest standard safety guidelines. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates electrical facilities using standards set by the NFPA, specifically regarding article NEC 70E. As new switchgear hits the market, it is often updated to include the latest safety features in compliance with the most current protocols and procedures. With electrical safety being standardized through specific organizations and articles, it is important for facility managers to incorporate current equipment into their electrical systems to avoid injury in the workplace or fines from noncompliance.
One of the most prevalent safety-related issues in electrical facilities is arc flash, an electrical hazard that almost all electrical workers have experienced at some point in their careers. In fact, according to OSHA, there are approximately 30,000 arc flash incidents that occur each year, with many resulting in serious injuries that have the potential to be deadly. Keeping the commonality of these incidents in mind, managers should be actively seeking ways to reduce the instance of arc flash risk and keeping their employees safe. Older, worn out LV and MV breakers with slow opening times and maintained with aftermarket parts sourced by the gray market (channels unintended by the original manufacturer) is most likely to cause an arc flash incident. Modernizing switchgear can mitigate this risk through the addition of breakers to the existing switchgear for additional circuits.
HOW TO MODERNIZE
Once managers have realized the need to modernize, there are a couple of ways to go about doing so. Replacement of entire electrical systems can use up a significant amount of time and resources if equipment ages to the point of obsolescence. Finding all the equipment to update within an entire electrical system could take even the savviest data center facility manager months to do. And tearing out the existing LV and MV switchgear to completely replace everything could take another several months. If managers are proactively seeking ways to correct faults in their systems, it is much easier to identify the problem and modernize the equipment that is not performing well in real time, reducing the overall timeframe of replacement.
There are two primary ways for electrical and facility personnel to go about modernizing their switchgear:
Direct replacement breakers: Upgrade solutions feature new LV or MV circuit breakers designed to fit into the existing old OEM cubicle with little-to-no modification to the switchgear cell. A direct replacement upgrade solution reduces downtime since there is minimal (if any) outage on the equipment bus. All direct replacements are designed and tested to meet or exceed IEEE/ANSI C37.59 standards.
Retrofill: When direct replacement breakers are not available or impossible to be designed, the existing LV or MV switchgear cell and bus are modified to accept the new circuit breaker. This option requires a longer bus outage (compared to the direct replacement option), during which time the internal circuit breaker cell is modified to accept the new circuit breaker. A retrofill solution is often used in lieu of the direct replacement option for larger devices, such as main circuit breakers and tie circuit breakers.
Managers may not realize an issue within the facility until it is too late, making it crucial they conduct routine assessments of the electrical systems within their facilities. Assessments can point out where there are faults in the system and alert data center managers to areas where switchgear may be out of date. In addition, inventory management should also be performed routinely as facilities have likely sourced equipment from different OEMs and will need to keep track of available spare parts.
Reliable switchgear is crucial for ensuring facility (and business) uptime. In addition to its operational benefits, modern switchgear can also reduce the risk of safety hazards including arc flash. With rules and regulations around safety procedures strictly enforced by OSHA, managers should ensure that all their facility’s equipment is up to date.
Data center facility managers can save cost, time, and resources by continuously modernizing their switchgear rather than ripping and replacing. While managers may be hesitant to modernize due to already constricted resources, an unexpected outage scenario in the future will be much more expensive.