Be smart about how you purchase intelligent switchgear.

The functionality and benefits of intelligent breakers are increasing all the time, but as they do, so does the learning curve for the facilities managers who must justify their purchase. Sure, intelligent breakers and switchgear make it easier to keep a facility running properly by improving reliability and simplifying load management. But unless you're planning on using them for the right applications, they can be a waste of time and money.

In the current economic climate, it's become standard business practice to closely scrutinize the cost vs. benefit relationship of any purchase. But what many people don't realize is it could cost more to not install intelligent devices. Designed to provide electrical data on things like power quality, over- or under-voltage conditions, and harmonics, intelligent breakers are intended for facilities like EMC2, a Hopkinton, Mass.-based data storage manufacturer.

The company's data center employs intelligent switchgear for collecting electrical data from both main feeders and branch devices. The data travel over the network to a building management system, which monitors computer room equipment and other critical devices. If the facility is running on backup power, the system initiates an alarm when standby power sources approach capacity. Building operators can then monitor and control loads to avoid downtime caused by loss of service.

The potential savings and incremental gains realized through increases in operational efficiency and productivity usually form a strong case for buying intelligent switchgear — but not always. While intelligent switchgear enhances reliability in any situation, not everyone needs it. Its value in a data center or critical power application is obvious, but a warehouse lighting load may be far more tolerant of downtime. However, if that same warehouse contains automated conveyors, intelligent switchgear could still save it thousands of dollars.

If, as is the case with Frigidaire's Springfield, Tenn.-based range plant, that warehouse conveyor system is the production bottleneck or “choke point,” every minute of downtime is revenue lost. When assessing reliability needs, look at the cost per minute of downtime for each load, but don't make broad assumptions.

Reliability isn't the only issue. You can use intelligent switchgear to “smart-manage” energy consumption, track monthly power usage, customize load reduction strategies, and schedule equipment idle time around peak electrical usage. Universities are increasingly implementing intelligent switchgear to monitor loads beyond the service entrance, allowing them to track and allocate energy usage for individual research labs, and submit costs for government reimbursement.

Intelligent switchgear simplifies load management and cost allocation efforts, streamlines the diagnosis and troubleshooting of minor problems, identifies major power consumers, and helps maintenance workers make decisions based on real-time knowledge of energy usage and quality. Centralized data collection and reporting can reduce labor costs by eliminating the need for someone to manually collect data. Further, these efforts enable preventive maintenance so you can replace parts or components before they break down. If you've ever done much work with switchgear maintenance, you can appreciate the advantages of a device that tells you the condition of the contacts without forcing you to shut down for an inspection.

Selecting and specifying. Given the advantages of intelligent switchgear and the functions of your facility, you may determine it's worth specifying in your next project. But how do you make sure you don't buy something you don't need? Here are three steps that will help you find the answers.

Step one: Identify your requirements. What are you really trying to do? What are your resources for acting on the information the system can provide? While different applications mandate different levels of sophistication, you can roughly divide system functionality into categories of Good, Better, and Best. As you define your requirements, consider factors like monitoring, control, and communications.

  • Monitoring. Do you want to monitor the quality of incoming power from the utility or monitor power to individual branch devices?
  • Control. Do you want a system that will automatically open and close selected breakers or transfer to an on-site power generator during peak loads?
  • Communications. Do you need to access information locally or remotely? Do you want to tie in a phone line for dial-up access or do you need Ethernet and TCP/IP connections for LAN, WAN, or Web-enabled access?

Step two: Select the right equipment for the job. Look for a nonproprietary system at a competitive price. It should have an open architecture that enables communications with other devices, systems, and databases. It should be upgradeable in terms of software, firmware, and connectivity. While requirements vary, make sure it can satisfy the basic functions of measuring current and voltages, performing power calculations, and identifying energy consumption.

Step three: Select a technology partner. The best partner understands the scope of your requirements and equipment, from metering, mounting, and power quality to energy flow and cost allocation. You want a vendor that can commit to a deadline and deliver all of the required hardware and software, including initial programming and displays for a completely functional system to solve the problem that justifies the project in the first place. That vendor must also be able to back up its system with a reputation for quality, reliability, and pre- and post-sales support.

Like any other investment, the implementation of intelligent breakers and switchgear requires an in-depth analysis of the cost vs. benefit scenario. But don't stop there. Consider what it may cost you in downtime and failures to not install it. A meaningful analysis requires you to look at the feature set that meets your needs. To overcome the cost-savings objections that often arise with such purchases, look at what problems you're solving with the intelligent switchgear and calculate the revenue saved. If you have the right feature set, the numbers will be compelling.

Williams is market development manager for Siemens Energy & Automation in Alpharetta, Ga.