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July 26, 2011

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

With aging infrastructure and renewables joining the supply network, the stability of the electric grid is becoming more and more unpredictable. This reality is affecting plants and manufacturing facilities across the country, causing particularly bad headaches for facilities maintenance supervisors and electrical engineers who manage power-sensitive equipment.

When a fast-growing composites manufacturer in Pennsylvania experienced persistent power problems, the answers were not easy to find. For years, the plant had been plagued by disruptive and dangerous electrical problems that blew fuses/amplifiers and burned circuit boards on equipment across the plant. The anomalies came very fast. In fact, by the time the plant’s electrical engineers became aware of them, tracing the cause was next to impossible.

After checking every panel and service supply, Dan Claxton, plant maintenance supervisor at the facility, hired an outside firm to search for answers — but had no luck. The cost of burned equipment, including circuit boards, amplifiers, fuses, and electronic modulating valves, amounted to $50,000 a year, plus that much more in downtime.

Suspecting an external power problem, Claxton complained to his electric utility. Utility engineers came out and plugged in a power monitor for a week. Noting a problem on the electric utility side of the meter, they replaced the transformer. About a month later, the transformer was replaced again. Nevertheless, problems at the plant persisted. Something bigger was going on, but the electric utility engineers had no good answer as to what it was.

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