When the first personal computer (featuring an 8-bit Intel 8088 processor, 16 KB of memory, and a floppy-disk drive) came on the scene in 1981, it suddenly gave the masses access to more data than they ever dreamed possible. “Not since the development of electric power systems began a hundred years ago have engineers produced such a fundamental and far-reaching tool for change,” reports the IEEE History Center. “And just as was true a century ago, much of the responsibility for the direction and impact of that change lies with the engineers.”

With the dawn of the information age came a whole new market for the electrical industry: voice/data and telecommunications work. As the computer craze began to explode in the early '80s, so did the demand for wiring, cabling, networks, and those who could install low-voltage equipment. By the end of the decade, the industry had to keep up with emerging voice/data/video technologies and learn a whole new vocabulary of acronyms, such as ISDN, ATM, and PBX — to name just a few. Whether they're delivered by satellite, CATV coaxial cable, fiber optic or copper-based telephone cables, all of these hot new services had to be connected to an internal computer network and related devices within a building. This opened the door for electrical contractors, designers, and engineers to compete with datacom specialists for profitable telecommunications projects — a trend that would continue into the next century.

Especially relevant to the electric and power industries, April 26, 1986, brought the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history. The Chernobyl Accident, which occurred at the Unit 4 reactor in the Ukraine, produced a plume of radioactive debris that drifted over parts of the western USSR, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia, reports “Chernobyl Accident,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001. The incident raised questions about the safety of the Soviet nuclear power industry and slowed its expansion for a number of years.

As the 1980s came to a close, electrical professionals faced many of the same challenges they struggled with the decade before, including the energy crisis, pressure to retrofit existing electrical equipment with energy-efficient replacements, government involvement in the electrical industry and labor relations, health concerns over electromagnetic fields (EMF), and a shortage of generated electric power.

Desktop Computer Speeds Spec Writing

In a 1981 article, EC&M examines a microcomputer with word-processing and engineering software programs that helps small firms compete with larger computer-equipped companies. The article chronicles the business of John West and his consulting firm in Deer Park, Texas. A few years earlier, West had two clients and a fistful of competitors in the industrial area around the Houston Ship Channel. As business picked up, he soon realized he needed a computer. After researching his options, he chose a desktop microcomputer that incorporated a video display screen, disk storage, and an executive-model electric typewriter with correcting capability to provide “hard copy.”

OSHA's New Electrical Standards

“The new electrical regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are now the law of the land,” writes J. F. McPartland, editorial director in 1982. The federal government is now enforcing compliance with these rules (which now include extensive retroactive applications) and issuing stiff penalties for violations. The first set of OSHA's new electrical safety standards became effective on April 16, 1981. Entitled “Design Safety Standards for Electrical Systems,” these regulations covered specific, mandatory rules on “all electric equipment and installations used to provide electric power and light for employee workplaces.” The new standard covers only those parts of an electrical system that an employee would normally use or contact. The exposed and/or operation elements of an electrical installation (such as lighting equipment, motors, machines, appliances, switches, controls, and enclosures) must be constructed and installed in a way that minimizes electrical danger to people in any workplace.

Plastic to Overtake Steel?

In a 1982 EC&M article, editors predict plastic will overtake steel as the main material used in electrical and other conduit by 1995. According to a report compiled by Predicasts, Inc., Cleveland, steel accounted for 56% of the market in 1980, translating into 176 million ft of conduit. Analysts expect this market share to decline moderately to about 43% in 1995, as plastic assumes a major role in the industry. Accounting for only 31% of the market in 1980, plastic conduit is expected to increase its market share to 50% by 1995. Editors note that the ongoing industry controversy over plastic conduit and the role PVC plays in generating toxic fumes in a fire will not “knock plastic conduit off its growth path.”

Federal Rules for PCBs

In 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it will regulate the use of electrical products containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Promulgated under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), this rule amends regulations originally passed in 1979 but set aside in 1980 by a court decision. The rule affects electric equipment that was previously classified as totally enclosed transformers (other than railroad transformers), capacitors and electromagnets, voltage regulators, switches (including sectionalizers and motor starters), circuit breakers, reclosers, and cable not addressed in the 1979 rule. Here's a partial list of the rule's provisions:

  1. Prohibit the use of PCB transformers and PCB-filled electromagnets (500 ppm or greater) posing an exposure risk to food or feed after Oct. 1, 1985.

  2. Authorize the use of all other PCB transformers for the remainder of their useful lives, with quarterly inspections for leaks.

  3. Authorize the use of large PCB capacitors that are located in restricted-access electrical substations for the rest of their useful lives.

  4. Authorize the use of large PCB capacitors located in contained and restricted-access indoor areas for the rest of their useful lives.

  5. Prohibit the use of all other large PCB capacitors after Oct. 1, 1988.

  6. Eliminate the proposed inspection requirement for all large PCB capacitors.

  7. Authorize continued use of all PCB-containing, mineral-oil-filled electric equipment for the rest of its useful life.

Seeking Plant Radiation Limits

Nonionizing radiation comprises radio waves (from radar, radio, and TV broadcasts), microwaves, and electromagnetic emissions from a variety of plant equipment. According to a 1983 news update, this radiation could cause plant explosions, disrupt electronic equipment, and expose workers to multiple health hazards. Editors predict this issue will gain momentum, as U.S. and international agencies prepare to issue new rules covering both electromagnetic interference (EMI) and worker exposure to all kinds of nonionizing radiation. In fact, the article reveals that the Federal Communications Commission will soon extend its regulations, which now cover only EMI from personal computers, to most industrial electronic equipment. Maintaining a “voluntary” rule to protect workers against nonionizing radiation since 1971, OSHA is working toward mandatory regulation in the next two years.

Software Enhances Calculation and Design

In a 1983 article, A. M. Nasle, MSEE, senior electrical engineer and systems analyst, and Stephen Squillance, PE, FIES, vice president and corporate director of EE, Smith, Hinchman & Grylls Associates Inc., Detroit, outline five engineering software programs they've developed to speed tedious calculations involved in electrical design work. Accessible through a telephone connection to a central computer location, these five programs cover protective-device coordination or analysis, voltage-dip analysis during motor starting, short-circuit analysis, load-flow analysis, and ground-mat design/analysis. Originally designed for internal use, the programs are now available to electrical designers through Computer Sharing Services, Denver.

Designing and Installing LANs

Local area networks may be “the key technology in revolutionizing American business, because they permit geographically distant microcomputers or other digital-based equipment to communicate with each other and share resources and data,” reports EC&M Associate Editor Joseph R. Knisley in 1985. Besides sharing expensive peripherals, a local network can handle electronic mail, multiuser databases, automation, computer-aided manufacturing, and many other services. Networks can also increase the reliability of data communications because they can employ a large number of channels and transmission media. According to one industry source, LAN expenditures for 1983 to 1984 were $224 million and are expected to reach $1.31 billion by 1988 as the cost of equipment drops. “It is easy to foresee that, with the profusion of video data terminals, personal microcomputers, word processors, PBX consoles, facsimile machines, and other electronic devices, the data cable will someday be as prevalent as AC power wiring in an office or plant,” predicts Knisley. This article marks the beginning of EC&M's coverage of the growing voice/data market to educate readers on the opportunities in telecommunications work.

Wiring the Modern Office

According to Robert J. Lawrie, EC&M associate editor, selecting the best wiring methods for a modern office is a demanding task that requires a thorough understanding of the latest office needs and available wiring methods. In a 1986 article, Lawrie writes that the office has evolved into a highly complex, electronic/automated operation with hundreds of facilities providing several services. He asks readers to imagine the extensive wiring required to meet the accelerating growth of computer systems, telephone and signal systems, and the need for power at workstations. Add in fire-protection, security, life-safety, energy-conservation, and other communications/environmental systems that require modern, computerized control, and you've got an overwhelming wire-management problem. As demand for these “intelligent” buildings increases, electrical designers, engineers, and contractors must learn to install these wiring systems effectively.

EC&M's Youngest Fan

In a 1986 “Letter to the Editor,” John J. Wilson Jr., of John Wilson Industrial Services, Clearfield, Pa., writes: “As a longtime subscriber to EC&M, I view the arrival of each issue with pleasure. However, I now have to wait my turn to read your magazine. My 3-year-old son Jerry, an avid EC&M fan and possibly your youngest ‘reader,’ is first. He grabs the magazine as soon as it comes into the house and begins by looking at the ads. He is able to identify pictures of safety switches, transformers, conduit, wire, fuses, motor starters, and various tools.”

PC Sales to Skyrocket

More and more professionals in the scientific, engineering, architectural, and construction fields are relying on personal computers (PCs) to expedite business activities, EC&M reports in 1986. The article, which forecasts PC sales will triple by 1990, cites two new industry reports. According to the surveys, scientists, engineers, and architects used 372,000 PCs in 1984. Analysts say this number will rise to 1.3 million units by 1990. By the end of 1984, approximately 123,000 PCs were used in construction offices nationwide. Experts predict this number will increase to 500,000 units by 1990. Fueling this growth in the construction market is the demand for job estimating and costing, project scheduling and management, and general office accounting functions.

Telephone Wiring in the Home

Already experienced in power, lighting, and control systems, contractors can now add residential telephone work to their list of services, writes EC&M Senior Editor Joseph R. Knisley in 1987. He asks readers to consider the opportunities in this market. The amount of auxiliary equipment being connected to telephone jacks continues to increase, while sales of accessories will soon surpass standard telephone sales in dollar volume. Therefore, continued breakthroughs in electronic technology are creating voice and data products for contractors to add to standard telephone wiring systems.

Installing Fiber Optics

An increasing demand for high-quality and high-capacity voice, video, and data transmission has been fostering the continuing application of fiber optic technology, writes EC&M Senior Editor Joseph R. Knisley in a 1987 article. He suggests electrical contractors can profit from the growing field of fiber optic (FO) cable splicing and proof testing, once they undergo adequate training and get the right equipment. Why make the switch to fiber optics? According to Knisley, FO cables have already shown their cost-effectiveness in long distance telecommunications applications and intra-city communications networks, where their low loss permits spanning long continuous runs with few repeaters (up to 50 km between repeaters) than with conventional copper cables. The fiber's large bandwidth also allows a ½ in.-diameter FO cable to carry 144 video and 288 wideband audio channels simultaneously. Other advantages include electrical isolation and lower noise, notes Knisley.

Telecom Installation Tips

“Automated offices are arriving so fast that the communications wiring of most buildings cannot handle them. Workstations are bulging with computers, disk drive storage units, modems, printers, plotters, digitizers, VDTs, communications equipment, and other electronic gear. Thus, today's voice and data premise wiring systems are being considered as another essential building utility,” writes EC&M Senior Editor Joseph R. Knisley in 1988. In this 74-page engineering reference model for planning and installing voice/data communications wiring, Knisley refers to this wiring as a building's “fourth utility,” along with the AC power, HVAC, and domestic water systems.

How Safe are EM Fields?

In a 1989 news brief, EC&M offers insight on how electromagnetic fields affect humans. According to the article, scientists have not proven electromagnetic fields emanating from power lines or other sources have an adverse effect on health. However, a report released by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) suggests certain steps should be taken to limit the number of people exposed to such fields. “Some, but not all, of the studies conducted so far indicate that electromagnetic fields may encourage cancer — lymphomas and leukemia in particular,” the article says. The OTA report urges more funding be provided to resolve the issues. “Already, concerns have prompted vigorous public intervention and litigation that has significantly impeded the ability of private and public utilities to construct new power transmission facilities,” the report concludes. “Without adequate science on which to base answers, the contention could go on for many years and have costs significantly greater than the costs of the needed research.”