Maintenance - Important for Safety

Electrical distribution systems serve us on a daily basis, regardless of if we are sitting in our home, driving down the road, or at work. This important infrastructure must be maintained, if not for longevity sake, then for safety sake.

Maintenance is a part of each of our lives in many aspects. One good example is the automobile. We invest in vehicle maintenance not only to ensure it lasts, but because we don’t want to be driving down the road listening to tunes on the radio and find that we need our brakes to avoid a hazard and they are not functional because we didn’t address worn brake pads or low brake fluid. The electrical distribution system is unfortunately not thought of in the same manner, and all too often doesn’t receive the attention it deserves to perform reliably over the life of the facility it serves. A good friend of mine calls me every now and then and begins his dialog with, “Thomas, there are opportunities all around us . . .” Maintenance is one of those opportunities that not only can increase safety in our industry but also help individuals, such as the electrical contractor, establish a continuous revenue stream. Maintenance contracts can be a win-win for everyone involved.

When I first started with Eaton back in the mid-90’s, I worked at a help desk taking phone calls and supporting our electrical equipment, such as circuit breakers, communication systems, programmable logic controllers, and more. One day, I received a call pertaining to our IQ 1000 II motor protection relay. The caller on the other end of the phone asked for my assistance in disabling the motor ground fault protection. After a general overview of the product and the purpose of ground fault protection on a motor circuit, the customer insisted on a way to turn the protection to the off position. At that time, the best way to defeat ground fault protection for the relay was to increase the setting to a much higher value, which the customer had already performed and resulted in a device that still tripped on ground faults. At some point late in the call, it was finally revealed that the reason he wanted to turn ground fault protection off was because he wanted to burn up the cable and the motor so he can replace them. I was advised that this was a salt mine and over time in salt mines you get a buildup of salt on motor terminals and electrical equipment, which will cause ground faults to flow. In this particular salt mine, they did not have a budget to maintain their electrical equipment, but they did have a budget to replace damaged equipment. When I hung up the phone after the call, I chuckled and told the story to the other guys on the team. In reality, there is no humor in that situation nor any other that puts individuals in a position to work with or around electrical equipment that is not properly maintained.


A maintenance program for any facility doesn’t come free, but it will cost much less than repairing the problems that may result due to not performing regular maintenance. The program can only be successful when supported by the top levels of management within the organization, as it will demand an allocation of resources and funding.

To understand costs, let’s use a standard pickup truck as an example. Let’s say we purchased a brand new truck for $31,106 and took it home for general use. Over the first five years of ownership, experts tell us that we will spend approximately $4,562 in maintenance and $1,073 in general repairs. Over those first five years, we spent approximately 18% of what we paid for the vehicle just to keep it on the road and doing what we need it to do. Let’s say we don’t invest in the proper maintenance of this vehicle. I’ve never tested it, but I can’t imagine it would take a long time for an engine without proper fluid changes to stop functioning. After doing a little research, I found that if I were to not replace the oil in my engine and perform other regular fluid changes, replacing the engine on my pickup could be upwards of $7,500. This cost is more than what the five years of maintenance would have cost to avoid this replacement. The other consideration is the cost to get done what we purchased the vehicle to do for us in the first place or the cost to get home when it dies on the road somewhere. That may be taxi rides, rentals, and other solutions. One more consideration is whether or not our lack of maintenance on this vehicle will cause safety concerns and put us and others we are transporting, or who are on the same road, in harm’s way.

Electrical distribution systems are similar to this example. The major difference is that no one expects his or her pickup truck to run forever without changing the oil, transmission fluid, and changing a belt or brake pad now and then. Electrical distribution systems are all too often expected to run continuously without maintenance. A maintenance program is a necessity, and management must fund and support it to be successful. From a facility perspective, lack of maintenance could mean unplanned downtime. It could mean lives are at risk. Here are key areas to explore early in the stages of developing a maintenance plan:

1. Safety for Personnel. Should the electrical distribution system fail or break down, we have to consider the impact on the safety of those working in the facility:

a. Incident energy: Those within the arc flash boundary can be exposed to high levels of incident energy should a failure occur in the distribution system.

b. Shock: Safety hazards that leave energized conductors or equipment exposed can present shock hazards that can be deadly.

c. Process: A process that is interrupted may present a hazardous location within the facility and impact many individuals at the same time.

2. Cost of Downtime. The cost of downtime will either be a hard cost that is measurable or a soft cost like productivity which is harder to quantify. For manufacturing facilities, downtime is usually easy to pinpoint. For example, in the petrochemical world, unplanned outages can cost millions of dollars due to lost production. The average cost of downtime, equipment damage and lost productivity could be as high as $700K an hour. A 100 MW petrochemical plant produces approximately $2 billion per year in revenues — or $228,000 per hour. With an average of 8 hours of downtime per year, an average 100 MW plant will lose over $1.8 million in revenue annually to electrical system outages. Downtime costs for the automotive industry, on average, are approximately $22k/minute. In March 2005, a survey of 101 manufacturing executives in the automotive industry was performed, and a majority of those surveyed said that the cost of stopped production is on average $22,000 per minute.

3. Equipment and System Needs. Let’s suppose that the vehicle we purchased in the above example was a special truck that is made to carry a specific product from our manufacturing facility to our end customers. Let’s say that it was specially made and took one year to get it from the manufacturer. When it fails due to our lack of maintenance it may take one year to get another; and for that period, we are not shipping product. The cost of lost customers and lack of sales would be devastating. The same goes for electrical distribution or controls equipment in a facility. Repairs can be more expensive for some equipment than for others.  If you have to replace specialized equipment, planned replacements are best.

When laying out your electrical maintenance program for your facility or your customer, it must include understanding the needs of each facility’s distribution system and equipment as every system will be different:

• Physical footprint: The square footage of a facility will impact the cost and nature of the maintenance program. Not every facility is the same.

• Business operation: The type of facility will also impact the maintenance program. A program for an office building will be much different and less costly than that for a petrochemical facility.

• Type of equipment: The type of equipment within the facility will be driven by the type of business operation but will command special needs and consideration. An inventory of specialized equipment and general equipment is important.


Maintenance of an electrical distribution system is important whether you are in a residential environment or a heavy industrial. The design engineer, electrical contractor, owner, and inspector all play an important role in this picture. Justifying maintenance on electrical distribution systems just takes a little effort around education to understand not only the value but the importance to safe operation.

As always, keep safety at the top of your list, and ensure you and those around you live to see another day.