It’s no secret to the manufacturers who provide switchgear that their products are in ever-greater demand today. That’s because switchgear plays such a critical role in the operation of uninterruptable power supply systems. And these days, there are more end-users than ever—data centers, hospitals, financial institutions, manufacturers—that can’t afford to lose power for even the briefest second.
So, as the demand for uninterruptable power supply systems—better known as UPS—increases, so too does the demand for the switchgear that keep these systems operating.Electric grids are evolving rapidly, disrupted by regulatory changes, distributed generation, renewable portfolio standards, and evolving technology. Energy storage is uniquely positioned at the heart of all of this change. Download Greensmith Energy's White Paper to learn more about improving economics and demystifying energy storage systems.
Bryan Snyder, senior engineer for systems products in the electric power division of Caterpillar, sums it up this way: The primary role of switchgear in UPS systems is to provide for the flow of power to, from, and around these critical tools. For users such as data centers, industrial buildings, and hospitals, the flow of power dictated by switchgear allows them to set up all-important redundant power supplies.
That redundancy is important. Each of the redundant sources is capable of powering these end-users’ equipment and computers individually. Usually, one of these redundant supplies is actually providing power while the other is operating in standby mode, ready to take over if the other power source suffers an outage or interruption.
Switchgear, then, are necessary components of a UPS system, and are in greater demand today, as more users can’t afford to see their facilities suffer a power blip.
“Switchgear affords flexibility in the configuration and the flow of power,” says Snyder. “When an input source becomes unavailable, the sequence of operations within the switchgear will work to find an alternate source of power before the energy storage within the UPS is exhausted.”
That’s an important benefit. But new technology is making switchgear even more important to UPS systems. Snyder says that in more advanced power line communication-based systems, switchgear can also communicate to the UPS it is serving, sending it important data on a real-time basis. Because of this, the UPS system can optimize its performance based on the input power source or the mode of operation of the system, Snyder says.
With these important pluses, it’s little surprise that the manufacturers of switchgear are especially busy these days.
And the best news? Manufacturers don’t expect demand for switchgear to fall anytime soon. There are just too many businesses today that rely on UPS systems because they can’t afford even a momentary hiccup in their power supply.
The Demand Drivers
What kinds of clients are investing in UPS and switchgear today? Plenty of them. And manufacturers say that the number of these clients has steadily risen in the last decade.
“The customers that invest in a switchgear-type application are looking for flexibility in their design, improved redundancy capabilities, or enhancements in systems performance,” says Snyder. “Customers that select UPS are any customer where even a momentary loss of power could cost money or lives.”
Typical UPS customers include industrial users for whom a loss of power would mean lost materials or damaged equipment. Medical users rely on UPS systems to keep their imaging equipment operating, store their patient records, and, most importantly, prevent the loss of life.
Then there are data centers, which have long relied on the combination of switchgear and UPS systems. Lost power for data centers could cost customers millions of dollars in lost transactions or data. That, in turn, could cost data centers plenty of lost customers and revenue. Banking customers, too, could see millions of dollars in lost revenue if they suffer an outage for even seconds.
“In short, a UPS is an insurance investment where the cost of the investment is less than the potential loss for even a momentary loss of power,” says Snyder.
Joseph Thomas, senior technical specialist with Toshiba International Corporation’s uninterruptable power systems business unit, says that there are few businesses today that wouldn’t benefit by investing in the reliable combination of switchgear and UPS systems.
“Any type of electrical system is better protected by an uninterruptible power system,” says Thomas. “Sensitive electrical systems such as data centers, healthcare facilities, and commercial or industrial facilities, have specific power requirements that can be defined and protected with an uninterruptible power system.”
End-users might give little thought to the switchgear component of UPS systems. But these tools remain a critical component of any UPS system.
“Data centers, industrial facilities, and hospitals today rely upon sensitive and costly technology, such as computer servers and medical imaging equipment,” says Thomas. “They require switchgear to effectively distribute the resulting critical power loads.”
The Big Cost of Power Loss
Matthew Balmer, senior electrical engineer with Mitsubishi Electric Power Products, says that the typical UPS and switchgear customer that Mitsubishi works with is in the business of processing financial transactions in which a power interruption can cost as much as $1 million a minute.
“With this in mind, switchgear within the UPS system plays a vital role in operational availability, reliability, maintainability, equipment protection, and personnel protection,” says Balmer.
The heavy-duty users with which Mitsubishi works focus on reliability. They need failure-free performances. A UPS system has both upstream, or supply, and downstream, or paralleling switchgear. The combination of parallel UPS and paralleling switchgear provides the best performance in terms of reliability, availability, and maintenance, says Balmer.
The reliability of such a system stems from redundancy, that practice in which end-users rely on more than one source of power.
“This design eliminates the single-point-of-failure scenario in which a failure can de-energize the entire system,” says Balmer. “It also maintains system availability in the event of a utility power loss.”
When explaining the importance of UPS systems and switchgear, Balmer points to the huge sums of money that end-users can lose if their power supply isn’t reliable.
Banks and financial firms can lose customers and millions of dollars in revenue if power interruptions keep them from closing transactions in real time. Then there are manufacturers. Balmer uses the example of a manufacturer that extrudes glass or plastic. A power outage can cost such companies millions of dollars in terms of product that has to be scrapped, repairs that must suddenly be made, and orders that can no longer be processed on time.
Protected by the combination of UPS systems and switchgear, though, power-distribution systems have a far lesser chance of failing, providing a safety net to end-users.
“A process backed by a UPS provides the time required for an orderly shutdown, thus reducing or eliminating costly expenses,” says Balmer.
Tech on The Rise, Too
While demand for UPS systems and switchgear continues to rise, the technology behind these systems is also improving. Balmer says that the most important tech advancement has been the increased intelligence of switchgear. Circuit breakers can now send information about the health of a system to operators who monitor these systems from central command centers. Technology known as a Building Management System, or BMS, makes this possible.
Consider this yet another example of how smart technology is helping end-users better manage their power systems and operate their facilities more efficiently. Previously, circuit breakers only signaled open or closed status through a contact closure, Balmer says. Today, operators at command centers can access real-time circuit breaker status and analog data, such as current and voltage, to get a better read on how efficiently their power systems are operating.
Armed with this data, operators can take steps quickly to eliminate the risk of power interruptions.
“Data is knowledge for data center operation,” says Balmer. “Communicating real-time data to trained operators provides a means for prompt decision-making to avoid unnecessary interruptions.”
James Stacy, director of medium voltage offer strategy with the US business energy division of Schneider Electric, points to his company’s Premset switchgear as an example of the constantly evolving technology behind switchgear and UPS systems.
Premset is the latest switchgear developed by Schneider Electric to help end-users manage medium-voltage distribution networks. Stacy says that Premset switchgear is the most compact and price-effective switchgear available to such users. And Premset achieves these measures without compromising on any safety features.
Stacy says that traditionally, switchgear have been air-insulated, a mature form of technology that has served the market well during its lifespan. Then gas-insulated switchgear hit the market, Stacy says. In this type of switchgear, all conductors are sealed in a tank. Gas is then injected into the tank. The benefit of gas-sealed switchgear is that it is protected from the environment around it while being especially small and compact.
Premset, though, is an example of what is known as shielded solid insulated switchgear, Stacy says.
As Stacy describes it, a conductive ground is on the outside of the insulator in this type of switchgear. This conductive ground acts much like a medium-voltage cable. Because of the extra protection, dust, debris, and contaminants don’t affect this type of switchgear, making it an even more reliable technology than either air-insulated or gas-insulated switchgear.
“It really changes the game as far as the maintenance and performance of the switchgear,” says Stacy.
How the market reacts to Premset will offer some evidence of how willing end-users are to embrace new switchgear technology.
It’s not always easy to embrace a newly launched product or technology. Engineers and facility managers often have to convince owners or reluctant shareholders to invest in technology with a shorter track record. Owners sometimes prefer to stick with more mature, proven technology, even if a newly launched product comes with the potential of providing greater reliability and performance.
Stacy, though, says that early demand for Schneider’s Premset switchgear has been solid. Schneider launched the new product in the late spring of 2016. Today, the company is entertaining its first bids for the new switchgear.
The product has been available outside the US for the last three years, Stacy says. But Schneider Electric expected to close its first Premset order in the US in the late summer of 2016.
“There has been a strong response,” says Stacy. “It’s not every day that a whole new set of switchgear gets developed. A lot of end-users are extremely interested. This product is small, compact, and safe. It’s also very price-attractive. It is a great combination to have these characteristics comingled. It is a disruptive technology.”
Stacy says that he’s not surprised that end-users are embracing new switchgear technology. Switchgear is playing an ever-greater role in power distribution systems as users, like data centers, look for the flexibility and reliability that these tools provide their power-distribution systems.
“Switchgear must provide intelligence to reconfigure the network, but also the actual switching duty itself,” says Stacy. “It is becoming more critical as it plays an active role in today’s UPS systems. Think of today’s switchgear as being responsible for both network protection and the optimization of resources.”
Stacy says that it’s important for manufacturers to continue to advance the technology behind both switchgear and UPS systems. Today’s end-users are demanding ever more reliability from their power systems. The only way to provide this is by boosting the technology behind these key tools, he says.
“During the last 10 years with the growth in online services and today’s large data centers, 99.9% of our end-users need to be at six-sigma levels of power quality,” says Stacy. “They need a strong and robust system. Switchgear have to have the real-time information from the entire network to make these intelligent logic decisions.”
End-users can take relatively simple steps to make sure that their switchgear remain operational for decades. It comes down to basic, preventative maintenance.
“Switchgear generally does not need a lot of care and feeding,” says Snyder.
Snyder says that users should follow the recommended maintenance schedules put in place by their switchgear’s original equipment manufacturers. This means scheduling routine service and check-up appointments at the intervals recommended by these OEMs.
The only time that switchgear tend to suffer operational problems is when their end-users ignore these service recommendations, something that can happen when users put off maintenance to deal with other daily issues. Fortunately, a growing number of users are taking the maintenance of their switchgear—and their entire UPS systems—more seriously.
Again, you can credit the number of end-users today who can’t afford the briefest of blips in their power supply. Users realize that not following maintenance recommendations can cost them big money, should their UPS systems unexpectedly fail.
Those end-users who want to boost their maintenance schedules can turn to infrared scanning, says Snyder. Such scans can help identify loose connections, overloaded circuits, faulty breakers, damaged switches, and malfunctioning fuses. Detecting these problems early and fixing them quickly can prevent costlier problems in the future.
Thomas also recommends thermographic checks that end-users can use to find potential problems. Thomas says that users should routinely inspect their overcurrent protection devices and connection torque.
Besides these recommendations, Snyder also says that end-users should regularly test and calibrate protective relays and regularly inspect and maintain control wiring and connections.
By taking these steps, end-users should be able to keep their switchgear running efficiently for several years, says Snyder.
Balmer takes a different approach when it comes to the maintenance of UPS systems and switchgear. He says that the best-planned UPS systems are those in which engineers consider maintenance issues when developing the system. Maintenance should not be an afterthought when these systems are designed, Balmer says.
Balmer defines maintenance as the relative ease and economy of time and resources in which an item can be retained in or restored to a specified condition. This means that UPS systems should have switchgear that are easy for the right personnel to reach, making maintenance a far easier task.
William Bentz, senior director of US service operations at Schneider Electric, says that end-users who skimp on preventative maintenance risk losing big dollars should their UPS and switchgear systems unexpectedly fail.
The time that these users do spend on maintenance, then, is well worth it, he says.
“Maintenance today is all about the importance of the continuity of power,” says Bentz. “The only way to ensure a continuous supply of power is to maintain the equipment. Proper maintenance ensures that the equipment performs as it is supposed to every time.”
A proper maintenance program requires that end-users clean and re-lubricate any moving parts in the UPS system. Thermal scanning is important, too, Bentz says. That helps locate loose connections and potential hotspots.
“It helps end-users predict a problem before it results in a catastrophic failure,” says Bentz.
Regular testing of a system’s features is another important maintenance step, Bentz says.
“You want to make sure that all the features of your system will operate as they are intended to and in the time they are intended to operate,” says Bentz.
Finally, Bentz recommends that users regularly test the insulation levels throughout the gears of their UPS systems. Insulation levels can wear away during the lifespan of a UPS system. “Without testing, it can be difficult for end-users to identify when their systems’ insulation levels have been reduced.”
Bentz says that the majority of end-users operating facilities that can’t ever be without power do focus on preventative maintenance, taking the steps necessary to keep their UPS systems operating properly.
Funding, of course, can play a role. The owners at facilities that are struggling with their financial bottom lines might not want to invest much money into preventative maintenance. Unfortunately, this can cost such users even more money in the future.
Certain users, such as data centers, have plenty of redundancy built into their UPS and switchgear systems, Bentz says. Because of this, they can shut down certain parts of their systems for maintenance without impacting the overall level of power that these systems generate.
“If you look at older systems, maintenance can be a bit more difficult,” says Bentz. “Maintenance can require an outage of the whole facility. Sometimes that makes the system maintenance-
prohibitive. They can’t take a facility down to undergo maintenance. Fortunately, that is not the case with those systems that have redundancy built into them. At facilities where it is easy to perform preventative maintenance, they do it. At those where it is not, they tend to shy away from it.”
Safety improvements have hit the UPS and switchgear industries, too. Technicians working on today’s switchgear know that they are less at risk of being injured by dangerous arcing faults.
This is an important improvement. Just ask Thomas: “The most significant recent development in switchgear technology would be the additional of arc-fault mitigation,” he says.
There was a time when technicians were most concerned about electrocution when working on switchgear. During the last decade, thanks to safety improvements, those concerns have lessened. Technicians today are more concerned about suffering injuries from arc flashes. Today’s more arc-resistant switchgear, though, has dramatically lessened that danger.
“The goal is to reduce the amount of exposure from this incident energy,” says Stacy. “Switchgear can contain it if it is arc-resistant. We continue to see improvements when it comes to worker safety.”
Bentz, though, warns that no matter how many technological advancements come to the switchgear industry, workers won’t be truly protected unless technicians follow the maintenance recommendations spelled out by manufacturers.
“The safety improvements are only valid so long as the equipment is maintained,” says Bentz. “Equipment that is not well-maintained will not be as safe. You expect the performance to be ‘X’ but it really is ‘Y’ because you haven’t maintained the equipment. That delay in operation can make the difference between a protected worker and a non-protected worker.”