29 Aug 2019

The Do's and Don'ts of Electrical Maintenance

Aggreko Transformer
 

What keeps the lights on in your building, and powers the elevators and mechanical systems? How are your computers, phones, IT, and security systems constantly running without interruption?

The electrical system is the lifeblood of your building. Without it, nothing happens. You need to keep it in perfect working condition, identifying potential problems early and taking steps to prevent deterioration or failure.

Why Is Electrical Maintenance So Important? 

The fallout from electrical faults or breakdowns can be huge. Having a transformer, a breaker, or even a connector break or fail can - at best - lead to a period of downtime. At worst, it can mean fire, serious injury, or even death.

Despite this, many contractors and building managers remain complacent about inspecting and maintaining their electrical systems. Many seem to forget that installations don’t last forever, or bypass important routine maintenance tasks when pushed for time or money, leading to larger issues down the line.

Broadly speaking, there are four types of maintenance: 

  • Run-to-failure
  • Preventative
  • Predictive
  • Reliability-centered (RCM).

Run-to-failure maintenance is when you let something break before you fix or replace it. Obviously, this isn’t ideal and a robust maintenance program will reduce the risk of this becoming necessary, but realistically there’s always the chance that something could just snap.

Preventative maintenance is what it sounds like: keeping on top of small issues, like rust forming or lubricant running low, as they develop, to prevent bigger problems from forming.

Predictive maintenance is similar to preventative maintenance except that you’re specifically trying to identify the signs of future damage, which often aren’t visible to the naked eye. Thermographic inspections, used to find heat spots, are an example of this.

Reliability centered maintenance, or RCM, is the most effective approach. This is an in-depth system for maintaining equipment and components that could solve serious, business-critical problems were they to fail. 

Done right, RCM dramatically improves the reliability of your electrical system, but you need to be prepared to analyze your system carefully, evaluate failure modes for every item and develop a distinct maintenance schedule for each piece of important equipment. It’s more resource-heavy, but it could mean vastly reduced risk of shutdowns as well as improved safety and lower repair costs in the long run.

Putting Together an Electrical Maintenance Schedule

If you don’t already have one in place, take the time figure out a maintenance program that covers all your electrical equipment. This will vary depending on your type of business and the equipment you use, but there are some basics that apply to just about any large building. 

Start by listing all the electrical components and equipment you use in your facility. For each item, note how they are being used, how you can monitor performance and what signs of wear, damage or failure you can look out for.

Next, identify the most business-critical components, establishing a timeline for assessing and conducting repairs or replacements on all of these throughout your building. Then move on to less vital components. 

Work out which parts of your system will need to be taken offline and when - and what steps you’ll take to minimize the impact on normal operations. Will you switch to a backup electrical system, or rent a generator and temporary distribution?

Remember that “lower priority” doesn’t mean “unimportant”. The tiniest switch or wire can knock out a whole system and cause frustrating delays when it goes down!
 
Along with determining the management of this maintenance period, establish a regular schedule for repairs and upgrades. In addition, make sure to include plans for training and upskilling your team to handle this maintenance and understanding how to use newer tools and technology.

Remember, you need the involvement of several groups of people to schedule outages and downtime, to allocate budget for replacement parts and temporary utilities, and generally to sign off on what you’re trying to achieve. Make sure to communicate the schedule of work with the building and property managers, and that the occupants are aware of the work that will be taking place. 

Make sure you include all stakeholders in your plans, stressing to them why it’s so important to tackle these issues now!

Top Tips for Electrical Maintenance

Components and items that should be covered in your maintenance program include: 

  • Switchgear (enclosures, insulators, supports, connectors, conductors)
  • Circuit Breakers (insulation, contacts, air circuit breakers, arc interrupters, operating mechanism, auxiliary devices)
  • Vacuum, Oil and Molded-Case Circuit Breakers
  • Disconnect Switches
  • Battery Stations and Chargers
  • Cables and Bus (Aerial Cables, Bus Duct, Raceways)
  • Transformers
  • Surge Arresters
  • Protective Relays
  • UPS Systems

As we’ve seen, you’ll need to draw up an electrical maintenance program that fits your context, equipment and business-critical operations. That said, there are some common do’s and don’ts that apply to most situations:

Do...

  • Appoint at least one dedicated electrical maintenance manager. In a large facility, building or company, there should have several.
  • Establish a standard for technical drawings - and keep all your technical information in one place to make maintenance easier.
  • Gather a history of electrical failures from your CMMS as well as experienced tradespeople and operators, so that you know what you’re up against.
  • Integrate maintenance with BOM processes so that you know what you need to order and when, as well as how long you’ll be waiting for items to arrive.
  • Conduct thorough risk assessments to figure out what could possibly go wrong (from within your electrical system and factors outside it), the impact this would have and what the knock-on effects would be.
  • Schedule regular inspections.
  • Be specific and practical in your preventative maintenance guidelines. 
  • Check that all electrical components are clean, cool and dry.
  • Inspect all transformers, motors, switches, circuit breakers, motor starters and so on for visible signs of deterioration as well as their operating temperatures.
  • Clean, lubricate and exercise disconnect switches on a regular basis.
  • Verify the connected load on all equipment.
  • Use Thermography technology to run infrared scanning of terminations. This allows you to identify hot spots, which may need urgent attention.

And Whatever You Do, DON’T…

  • Only address electrical problems when something breaks. It will cost you more and create far more delays if you wait until that point. Preventative maintenance is much smarter!
  • Take a run-to-failure attitude to electrical parts. You should replace them before they become inefficient and potentially dangerous.
  • Let your team lock spare parts, electrical plans and tools in private lockers and cupboards. You need these in a central store where you can find them quickly when you need them.
  • Undertake maintenance tasks in an arbitrary order. You need a way to rank electrical components in order of how critical they are and then follow that order logically!
  • Try to maintain the arc chutes of older circuit breakers, as these contain asbestos.
  • Leave room for doubt. For example, if your maintenance checklist says something like “inspect brushes”, the person doing it doesn’t necessarily know what they’re looking for or what actions they should take. Saying “Replace any brushes under 40mm long” is much more useful.
  • Allow untrained, unqualified staff to handle key maintenance or inspection tasks!

Final Thoughts

Proper maintenance inevitably involves taking certain circuits and equipment offline. Many companies put this off for as long as possible to avoid expensive downtime - an approach that ends up costing them a lot more than something breaks down.

Not only is this a risky game to play, it’s also unnecessary. With proper planning, you can design a temporary setup, rent backup utilities and electrical equipment, and switch over section by section, until you’ve completed the round of maintenance. That way, you keep your electrical system spick and span without the hit to your bottom line.