Shortcuts. We all take them from time to time. We take them when we're in a hurry to get our kids to practice and our normal traffic route is overly congested. We take them at home when we're trying to wrap up that weekend project and the big football game is about to start. We even take them at work when we're in a rush to finish a project, thinking “If I've overlooked something, someone else will pick up on it before it becomes a problem.”

What's the big deal? So your kid misses a few minutes of their piano lesson because that shortcut actually turned out to be longer than your original route. So that bookshelf you've just stained looks a little blotchy because you didn't take the time to properly sand it between stain applications. So someone catches an error on some paperwork you've passed along at work and they bring it back to you to make some corrections. It's not like your shortcuts are killing anyone, right?

Although that may be true for some professions, taking shortcuts in the design, installation, and maintenance of electrical systems can spell disaster. Yeah, your shortcuts might only lead to the premature failure of system components or poor power quality, but they could also just as easily lead to the catastrophic failure of equipment and result in substantial property damage or, even worse, the death of a worker.

This month's cover story on page 34 points out the dangers of failing to properly size and adjust short-circuit protective equipment during installation and failing to maintain and re-adjust these devices as the electrical system changes over time. If excessive short-circuit current on a system exceeds the rating of protective devices like fuses and circuit breakers, those devices are likely to fail catastrophically during a fault. This could lead to extensive downtime and expose workers to severe injury. That's why it's so important that you always perform a short-circuit and coordination analysis during the initial design phase of the project. Bypassing this step is a shortcut you should never take — even if the facility owner thinks it's an unnecessary expense.

It's also worth noting that shortcuts taken by others can just as easily place you in harm's way. This month's Forensic Casebook story on page 14 points out the dangers of working on an older system where others have taken shortcuts to keep it up and running. Although this system's short-circuit protection devices were most likely properly sized and coordinated to its load when it was first designed, no one bothered to perform follow-up studies on the system as it grew in size and its loads changed. The deliberate blocking of a protective device, the continued use of obsolete equipment, the inadequate documentation of the existing equipment, and a questionable lock-out/tag-out procedure led to the death of an electrician — all in the name of taking shortcuts and avoiding the real need for a system overhaul.

Do me a favor. The next time you're at work and your boss is screaming at you to get the job done and you're worried about driving your kid to practice after work, take a minute to stop and think about what you're working on. In either case, the potential benefits of a shortcut just don't justify the risk.