Cut the Copper

Joe Guentert is owner and sole proprietor of Power Distribution Systems, located in Charlotte, N.C. He is a 1969 graduate of the University of Notre Dame (dual majors of Electrical Engineering and Business Management). He had an 18-year career with General Electric Co. with various assignments around the U.S., and worked five years as a vice president of IEM Inc., Fremont, Calif.

He founded Power Distribution Systems in 1994 in San Ramon, Calif. Since that time, the company has focused entirely on mission critical electrical power systems, with the vast majority of projects being large data centers. The company specializes in medium voltage power distribution, primary substations, medium- and low-voltage switchgear, and the integration of protective systems, control, and monitoring systems within data centers.

The 'loadcenter' unit substation concept and World War II

In this "Cut the Copper" installment, we learn about how the shortage of copper forced plant electrical engineers and consulting engineers to become more creative in their designs of electrical power systems for large industrial plants.


During World War II and immediately afterward, U.S. manufacturing industries were running at hyper-speed, expanding as fast as possible to keep up with wartime and post-war demand for products of all types.

Throughout the war, supplies of copper were exceedingly tight. Virtually all of the copper that could be produced and obtained by the U.S. went into the war effort. Demand for things like internal wiring for all of the new ships and planes and tanks, cable and bus for the new plants being built to manufacture the war machinery, and munitions and copper shell casings, all combined to consume virtually all of the copper that was available.

The supply of copper became so tight that for several years the U.S. Mint even coined pennies punched out of steel (zinc plated, to prevent rusting) in order to conserve precious copper for uses strategically more important than pennies.

The overall situation forced plant electrical engineers and consulting engineers to become more creative in their designs of electrical power systems for large industrial plants, and the “Loadcenter Unit Substation” concept was born.

Comparison of copper used with 'loadcenter' approach versus outdoor tranformer and 450 V duct bank.The basic concept was that if you could take medium voltage distribution at 5, 15, or 25 kV, and run it long distances deep inside a big factory over very small conductors, then connect it to step-down transformers located “in the center” of the actual heavy loads, then the very large cross-section low voltage secondary feeder cables could be greatly reduced in length.

So, Askarel-filled “loadcenter unit substations” became instantly popular, and were installed right out in the middle of manufacturing floors or on mezzanines directly above them, in thousands of plants all over the country. Where intelligently designed, the concept could often eliminate the need for about 80% of the copper that otherwise would have been required, so this was great innovation with important consequences. The terms “Loadcenter Unit Substation” and just plain “Loadcenter” stuck in the industry for decades.

This trend continued during the huge industrial expansion immediately after the war. And, over the next 30 years, tens of thousands of Askarel-filled loadcenter substation transformers were produced and installed inside industrial buildings.

Helping Joe on these blogs posts is Brian Steinbrecher, an electrical engineer focused on medium-voltage power distribution systems. His 30 year career includes work with an end-user (IOU), a manufacturer of power systems equipment, and as a system designer/consultant. Brian has a wide breadth of experience within the utility segment from systems design to equipment specifications and from system studies to construction and start-up. He has written many technical documents, papers, and reports and holds over a dozen active patents.

A good portion of Brian’s career was with Cooper Power Systems where he performed engineering and marketing work in behalf of their major product groups. Prior to moving into his current role, Brian was the Director of Engineering for a product group at Cooper. Brian is currently the Owner and Principal Engineer at Galt Engineering Solutions located in Brookfield, Wis.

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Peter Volpe

Wednesday, 11-04-12 08:57

Same reason why HVDC transmission makes so much sense. You figure it would have already taken over due to the cost savings alone on line losses nevermind the savings on wiring.


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