What Managers Should Know About Aging Electrical Systems

Learn about maintaining older electrical infrastructures and the importance of preventative maintenance and risk mitigation to ensure safety and reliability in building electrical systems.

What Managers Should Know About Aging Electrical Systems

The electrical components of buildings work behind the scenes, tirelessly and flawlessly – until they don’t. And when they don’t, they really don’t.

Here are some electrical system facts all building managers should know.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was very popular to bring unmetered power into the building and have Hawaiian Electric Co. (HECO) meters on each floor for individual units. These configurations have a large switchboard on the ground floor bringing unmetered power to various centers.

There’s a house meter on the first floor for the elevators, pumps, and lights. There will likely be a main switch every three floors and some sort of house panel at the top and bottom of the building. If there is a HECO vault on the property, the AOAO likely owns everything from the vault to the outlets (except the meters), including the transformers.

A bigger building may have a configuration with a large main switchboard fed by transformers directly on the property, or on a pad in front of the property.

In these buildings, the main switchboard feeds smaller panels throughout the property. There are usually only one or two meters in this configuration and HECO probably owns the transformer, but the building still owns the wire from the transformer to the property.

Why does it matter which type of configuration exists on the property? In the event of a failure, it will be clear who’s responsible and must pay to make repairs.  

Regardless of a building’s configuration, there are things to know about the life of electrical systems.

For one, they typically have a 50-year life, which sounds like a long time – unless the building is 60 years old.

If the community owns the transformers, they may have polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in them, which have been banned in the U.S. since 1975, but are still widely in use.

For transformers with PCBs, it’s very important there are no leaks. Even a single drip on the floor can result in a huge fine.

Components of a transformer break down with age and heat. A transformer oil test helps confirm the electrical age of the transformer’s components and is useful for determining end of life. Transformer failure is not only spectacular – like fireworks on New Year’s Eve – but failures can leave buildings without power for six months or more.

No matter who owns a transformer, there are many other points of aging and failure in the system, such as the main disconnect switch. This is another single point of failure that will take at least two weeks to six months to fix.

Between the main disconnect switch and the transformer are service entrance conductors. The underground conduit (metal or plastic pipe through which the electrical wires are run) will inevitably have water in it.

If the conductor insulation fails, the failure will likely destroy the conduit it’s located inside. And typically, the only fix for this is digging a trench and laying new conduit and conductors.

Distribution panels could be in the main electrical room with the main breaker, or potentially in an electrical room on a residential floor. These breakers sometimes feed stacks of panels and bigger electrical equipment, such as elevators and booster pumps, and have the same issues as the main breaker.

Connections in these panels can loosen over time and as breaker springs get weaker. Once this happens, there’s a very good chance these breakers won’t reset if they ever trip or are turned off.

Finally, there are the load centers (i.e., breaker boxes) which distribute power to the individual circuits that feed appliances. If a breaker fails to reset, only one appliance or one water heater would be lost instead of a whole apartment, floor or building.

These are the lowest-risk components of the system – unless you see the words “Federal Pacific Electric” or “Zinsco” are on the panels. If they are – watch out! Those brands of breakers are very high-risk!

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Have preventative maintenance performed on the electrical components, including infrared scans of buses and connections, repairing of any problems found, cleaning of electrical components, and lubrication of metal-clad breakers and switches. This should be done a minimum of every five years.

You should plan for a complete replacement of the electrical system if replacement breakers are not readily available. This is a must for Federal Pacific Electric and Zinsco systems that are not safe under any condition.

If the equipment is any other brand, an evaluation should be done by a licensed electrical engineer to determine the remaining life of the system based on condition, availability of parts, etc.

Electric cars are not going away, nor is the need for chargers. Many older electrical systems cannot support more than one or two chargers. Additionally, there is a constant demand for more appliances and more AC. This is also the time to look at those items and plan for future capacity.

The electrical system is potentially the most overlooked system in your building. It also tends to be the most reliable. However, every system in a building depends on a healthy electrical system.

Life as you know it will be changed for a very long time if there is a catastrophic failure of one of the main electrical components. Today is not too soon to have an evaluation completed that can potentially save your building from a major inconvenience and save money in the long run.

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