Aging power control and automation systems can carry risk in terms of downtime of mission critical power systems through reduced availability of replacement components and a lack of knowledge when it comes to replacing existing devices within. Of course, as components age, their risk of failure increases. Additionally, as technology advances, these same components are discontinued and become unavailable, and, over time, service personnel lose the know‐how to support the older generation of products. At the same time, though, complete replacement of these aging systems can be extremely expensive and may require far more downtime or additional space than these facilities can sustain.

The solution, of course, is the careful maintenance and timely replacement of power control and automation system components. By replacing only some components of the system at any given time, customers can benefit from the new capabilities and increased reliability of current technology all while uptime is maintained. In particular, expert service providers can provide in-house wiring, testing, and vetting of system upgrades before components even ship to customers, ensuring minimal downtime. These services are particularly useful in health care facilities and data center applications, where power control is mission critical and downtime is costly.

Automatic transfer switch (ATS) controllers and switchgear systems require some different types of maintenance and upgrades due to the differences in their components; however, the cost savings and improved uptime that maintenance and upgrades can provide are available to customers with either of these types of systems. The following maintenance programs and system upgrades can extend the lifetime of a power control system, minimize downtime, and reduce costs.

Audits and Preventative Maintenance

Before creating a maintenance schedule or beginning upgrades, getting an expert technician into a facility to audit the existing system provides long-term benefits and provides the ability to prioritize. With a full equipment audit, a technician or application engineer who specializes in upgrading existing systems can look at an existing system and provide customers with a detailed migration plan for upgrading the system in order of priority as well as a plan for preventative maintenance.

Whenever possible, scheduled preventative maintenance should be performed by factory-trained service employees of the power control system OEM rather than by a third party. In addition to having the most detailed knowledge of the equipment, factory-trained service employees can typically provide the widest range of maintenance services. While third-party testing companies may only maintain power breakers and protective relay devices, OEM service providers will also maintain the controls within the system.

Through these system audits and regular maintenance plans, technicians can ensure that all equipment is and remains operational, and they can identify components that are likely to become problematic before they actually fail.

Upgrades for ATS Systems

In ATS controller systems, control upgrades can provide customers with greater power monitoring and metering. In addition, replacing the controls for aging ATS systems ensures that all components of the system controls are still in production and, therefore, will be available for replacement at a reasonable cost and turnaround time. In comparison, trying to locate out-of-production components for an old control package can lead to high costs and a long turnaround time for repairs.

The most advanced service providers minimize downtime during ATS control by prewiring the control and fully testing it within their own production facilities.  

In addition, new technology also improves system usability, similar to making the switch from a flip phone to a smartphone. New ATS controls from Russelectric, for example, feature a sizeable color screen with historical data and alarm reporting. All of the alerts, details, and information on the switch are easily accessible, providing the operator with greater information when it matters most. This upgrade also paves the way for optional remote monitoring through a SCADA or HMI system, further improving usability and ease of system monitoring.

Switchgear System upgrades

For switchgear systems, four main upgrades are possible in order to improve system operations and reliability without requiring a full system replacement: operator interface upgrades, PLC upgrades, breaker upgrades, and controls retrofits. Though each may be necessary at different times for different power control systems, all four upgrades are cost-effective, extend system life spans, and minimize downtime.

  • Operator Interface — Similar to the ATS control upgrade, an operator interface (OI) or HMI upgrade for a switchgear power control system can greatly improve system usability, making monitoring easier and more effective for operators. This upgrade enables operators to see the system power flow and view alarms and system events in real time. Also similar to ATS control upgrades, upgrading the OI ensures that components will be in production and easily available for repairs. The greatest benefit, though, is providing operators real-time vision into system alerts without requiring them to walk through the system itself and search for indicator lights and alarms. Though upgrading this interface does not impact the actual system control, it provides numerous day-to-day benefits, enabling faster and easier troubleshooting and more timely maintenance.
  • PLC and Communication Hardware — Many existing systems utilize legacy or approaching end-of-life PLC architecture. PLC upgrades allow for upgrading a switchgear control system to the newest technology with minimal program changes. Relying on expert OEM service providers for this process can also simplify the process of upgrading PLC and communications hardware, protecting customers’ investments in power control systems while extending noticeable system benefits. A PLC upgrade includes all new PLC and communication hardware for the controls of the existing system but maintains the existing logic and converts it for the latest technology. Upgrading the technology does not require new logic or operational sequences. As a result, the operations of the system remain unchanged, and existing wiring is maintained. This greatly reduces the likelihood that the system will need to be fully recommissioned and minimizes downtime for testing.
  • Breaker and Protective Relay — Breaker upgrades may often be necessary to ensure system protection and reliability, even through many years of normal use. Two different types of breaker modifications or upgrades are available for switchgear power control systems: breaker retrofill and breaker retrofit.  A retrofill breaker upgrade calls for an entirely new device in place of an existing breaker system. Retrofill upgrades maintain existing protections, lengthen service life, and provide added benefits of power metering and other add-on protections, like arc flash protections and maintenance of UL approvals. Breaker retrofits can provide these same benefits, but they do so through a process of reengineering an existing breaker configuration. This upgrade requires a somewhat more labor-intensive installation but provides generally the same end result. Whether a system requires a retrofit or retrofill upgrade is largely determined by the existing power breakers in a system. For medium-voltage systems, protective relay upgrades from single-function, solid-state or mechanical protective devices to multifunction protective devices provide protection and reliability upgrades to a system.Upgrading to multifunction protective relays provide enhanced protection, lengthen service life of a system, and provide added benefits of power metering, communications, and other add-on protections, like arc flash protections.
  • Controls Retrofits — For older switchgear systems that predate PLC controls, one of the most effective upgrades for extending system life and serviceability is a controls retrofit. This process includes an entirely new control interior, interior control panels, and doors. This enables customers to replace end-of-life components, update to the latest control equipment and sequence standards, and access benefits of visibility described above for OI upgrades. The major consideration and requirement is to maintain the switchgear control wiring interconnect location to eliminate the requirement for new control wiring between other switchgear, ATSs, and generators.  Retrofitting the controls rather than replacing allows the existing wiring to be maintained and provides a major cost savings to the system upgrade. Just as with ATS controls retrofits, manufacturers can build the control panels and doors within their own facilities and simulate noncontrols components from the customer’s system that are not being replaced. In doing so, technicians can fully test the retrofit before replacing the existing controls. What’s more, they can provide customers with temporary generators and control panels, so the existing system can be strategically upgraded one cubicle at a time while maintaining a fully operational system

Benefits of an Expert Service Provider

As described throughout this article, relying on expert OEM service providers amplifies the benefits of power control system upgrades. With the right service provided at the right time by industry experts, mission critical power control systems — like those in health care facilities and data centers — can be upgraded with minimum downtime and costs.

Some of the most important cost-saving measures for power control system upgrades can only be achieved by OEM service providers. For example, maintaining existing interconnect control wiring between power equipment and external equipment provides key cost savings, as it eliminates the need for electrical contractors in installing a new system. Given that steel and copper substructure hardware can greatly outlast control components, retrofitting these existing components can also provide major cost savings. By upgrading a power control system with an OEM service provider, power system customers with mission critical power systems gain the latest technology without the worry of downtime and the huge costs associated with full system replacement.