As electrical system design work grows more complex and becomes more closely linked with other project design elements, design engineers are turning to their desktop computers for a helping hand. Facing more time and budget constraints — and the need to get projects designed right the first time — engineers are finding a reliable ally in new generations of PC-based electrical design software. Increasingly powerful, versatile, and user-friendly, the software is giving users more tools than ever to quickly and accurately perform complex calculations and design/evaluate systems that will work in a variety of real-world applications.

One fan of electrical design software, Tom Baker, leader of control/electrical systems for the gas, oil and chemicals (GOC) business of Black & Veatch Corp., an Overland Park, Kan.-based engineering, construction, and consulting company, says it's become indispensable as the electrical and instrumentation component of GOC projects grows more complex.

“It's a simple fact that the wiring running through the plants we design, from source to destination, no longer runs through just a few terminals, and that power gets to its destination in a single shot,” says Baker. “You have branches, relays, and power moving to many different places before reaching its destination. Instead of a one-to-one relationship with circuits, you increasingly have to deal with a one-to-many relationship, and that poses a problem in designing a relational database to handle all of that information. Designers need to be able to see all of that on a computer screen and in a database — and that's been a challenge.”

Likewise, Vic Steffen, vice president/group manager in the San Francisco office of Syska Hennessy Group, Inc., a New York consulting engineering firm, says electrical design software has grown in importance to engineers as it has evolved and improved over the years.

“It's definitely a tool we use here in designing power distribution systems for our projects,” he says. “It's really streamlined things compared to how we designed years ago in the sense that it gets things done faster and provides very reliable data. That wasn't always the case when this software first came out. It often produced erroneous results that were quite obvious to an engineer. But now that the products have gone through the mill, they're much more reliable.”

Attributes expand. Advances in information technology have produced an array of design software choices. While some packages are designed to be extremely user-friendly, others cater to more novice users. And, where some are designed to link easily with CAD-based drawing software, others are stand-alone products more oriented to doing calculations and generating reports in the pre-design phase. Users looking to purchase or upgrade; therefore, must understand their needs and evaluate products in light of the tasks they'll have to perform.

For instance, electrical design engineers who work on petrochemical projects at Dallas-based design engineer Fluor Corp. are increasingly interested in being able to mesh their work with that of mechanical, plumbing, and other disciplines. This has led the company to begin transitioning to a new electrical design software platform.

Troy Weaver, an electrical applications specialist with the company, says Huntsville, Ala.-based software developer Intergraph Corp.'s new SmartPlant Electrical 2007 software will offer better linkage to the enhanced SmartPlant plant design suite, giving Fluor designers a way to better tie their designs and databases to those generated by mechanical, piping, civil, and structural designers.

“It will enable us to do standard things like tracking cable runs, calculating voltage drops, and keeping equipment load lists, but one of the main benefits will be to keep everyone involved in a project in the same database rather than in individually generated spreadsheets,” Weaver says. “Everything our engineers do will be captured in a database and used to produce drawings, templates, reports, or whatever is needed. It will take care of all the calculations, track revisions, and alert our users to changes in other designs that could affect our work, such as motor sizes. The goal in moving to this new software is to get all the databases talking to each other.”

As more attention is paid to completing projects on time and accurately, Weaver says Fluor's adoption of electrical design capabilities that interfaces readily with designs of other disciplines will hopefully yield less bumpy and more glitch-free projects.

“This setup will produce better conflict and collision alerts, and with the shorter budgets and tighter schedules we're facing now, we have to all find better ways to do our engineering but ensure that all disciplines are seeing the same data at the same time,” he says.

Some designers are attracted to software that can easily work with other programs that are vital to the design process, most notably CAD software. Bill Hodges, an electrical designer with LAN Associates, a Midland Park, N.J.-based engineering firm, lauds a recent enhancement to Volts, an electrical design software program marketed by Dolphins Software, Sacramento, Calif. The software now can “talk” with AutoCAD, one of the leading CAD programs, marketed by Atlanta-based Autodesk, Inc.

“Volts has integrated AutoCAD DXF, enabling seamless interoperability between Volts and AutoCAD or other DXF [drawing interchange format] CAD programs,” Hodges says. “The new feature means we can now save time and money by eliminating the need to print reports and schedules and have them manually drafted into CAD files. This function should help minimize errors, increase productivity, and lead to improved documents.”

Cashing in on customization. For other users, the most attractive feature of any electrical design software is its computing power and ease of use in creating complex diagrams. For some, high-end products, such as those marketed by Operation Technology, Inc., Irvine, Calif., (under the ETAP brand); Easy Power, Portland, Ore.; and SKM Systems Analysis, Inc., Manhattan Beach, Calif., targeted at experienced users might be the better choice.

Steffen, who witnessed the emergence of design software and saw it become more user-friendly and capable over the years, says the best software takes the hard labor out of the design process and serves as a check of whether competent design engineers are on the right track.

“The software is usually not a hands-off, totally automated system — we often use it to check the designs we've developed,” says Steffen. “We'll lay out an electrical distribution system — complete with panelboards, busways, switchgear, and other components that power the building. We'll have the software check load flows, and flag something if we have more load on a circuit than it can bear — plus calculate short-circuit ratings at each point in the system to help us in selecting panelboards, distribution equipment and cable ratings, and perform selective coordination studies.”

However, a growing number of users are seeking an array of different functionalities in electrical design software. Designers at Glumac, a San Francisco-based consulting engineering firm, are starting to use new design software marketed by Autodesk that is both powerful when it comes to design capabilities and robust when it comes to information accessibility and sharing.

Jennifer Ferguson, an electrical designer with Glumac, says Autodesk's new Revit MEP software will give experienced systems designers a way to build systems that use information stored in databases that house total project information.

“More than a drafting tool, this is a design tool that allows engineers to get more into the details of engineering because it supports them with calculations that you can't get in CAD-based design systems or other design software,” she says. “In the past, we've had to use Excel or other programs to do electrical calculations, but with Revit engineers are able to develop detailed electrical designs. But it takes a design-level person to use it, because it's only as good as the information that's put into it.”

Equally important, Ferguson says, is the software's ability to give electrical design engineers access to other relevant project information that affects their designs. Built to work within the emerging concept of building information modeling (BIM), Revit helps ensure that all of a project's design engineers are working off the same script.

“The holistic element of the software is huge,” she says. “It helps ensure that your design works with the entire building so you don't have to come back and make costly design changes in the construction phase.”

Black & Veatch's Baker agrees that one of the essential elements of any electrical design software is its ability to track and incorporate changes as a project progresses. The company is moving toward new generations of software that incorporate those features, he says.

“The big challenge in using any of this software is revision control,” he says. “Some of the new design software we're working with has document management capabilities that track and cycle changes back to a master working file. What's really improved is the user-friendliness of how that change is presented. Data dumps of the past would overwhelm you. Change control and management functions are getting more mature in many of these products.”

Staying ahead of the curve. For all the emphasis on making new generations of electrical design software more collaborative and easier to use, many users still value software for its ability to perform a variety of complex calculations and reflect emerging design trends.

Syska Hennessy's Steffen cites the ability of more software packages to perform arc flash analysis as an example of software developers' efforts to add important functionality.

“In electrical design, things tend to evolve, and new concerns with respect to distribution systems emerge,” he says. “Means are now built into some software packages to calculate the energy release when a panel or switchboard fails that causes an arc flash. Software will calculate that energy release based on short-circuit studies and provide information as to the type of protective equipment that personnel will need when they work on the system.”

For the typical user, however, modern electrical design software continues to provide the essential productivity-enhancing and labor-saving elements present in any software. As the process grows more complex — not to mention interdependent on other engineering designs — designers will be looking to turn more of that work over to software.

LAN Associates' Hodges says electrical design software has definitely transformed his work. “Electrical design is no big secret; it's just time consuming,” he says. “Technology and software facilitates the design process by automating repetitive and time-consuming tasks, and standardizing and managing design data. It increases productivity and eliminates or minimizes errors compared to the manual design process. The use of design software is necessary to remain competitive.”

Zind is a freelance writer based in Lee's Summit, Mo.



Sidebar: Cracking the Whip on Design Software

The useful life of electrical design software has always been limited. Once a project is complete, all of the software's computing power usually sits idle until it's redeployed on a fresh job. But design engineers and software vendors may be looking at how to make it continue to work for project owners on into the future.

“The opportunity to take the electrical design beyond just documentation needed to build a structure, and go past that to apply it to the ongoing performance and maintenance of a building throughout its lifecycle is an intriguing capability,” says Jennifer Ferguson, an electrical designer with Glumac, a San Francisco-based consulting engineering firm.

Ferguson can easily imagine the day when design software can be built to serve as a key facility management tool for project owners.

“I can see it becoming a living document of sorts that can be given to facility managers or owners and enable them to see how their systems are performing and identify areas that may need maintenance,” she says. “Instead of going through a traditional troubleshooting exercise to determine the cause of a problem, the software and the model it built can be pulled up to see how the system was originally designed.”

Some design software is currently capable of being used in a similar fashion. Vic Steffen, vice president/group manager with Syska Hennessy, a New York consulting engineering firm, says some clients do retain access to the databases and models built by design software. Owners sometimes use it as a reference tool when they modify, expand, or otherwise change a system component. “It's not just a design tool; it can serve as a maintenance and upgrade tool as well,” he says.