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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Arrives

Here's how the term “PCB” achieved worldwide notoriety almost overnight.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created by Congress in 1970. Within just a few years, the EPA began to study reports of ill effects in humans who had come into skin contact with, or had inhaled fumes from Askarel fluids, and studied incidents of genetic disorders where Askarel had entered into the human food chain. Research studies showed that somewhere between 30% and 70% of the chemical composition of most Askarel was “polychlorinated biphenyl” and thus, the term “PCB” achieved worldwide notoriety almost overnight.

Modern liquid-filled secondary substation transformer. Courtesy: Schneider Electric, Inc.After widely publicized research studies and public hearings (and a few criminal prosecutions), the EPA issued a formal ban on production of PCB in 1979, and issued a long list of mostly confusing regulations to American companies about what to do with the millions of tons of Askarel that were already in active service in electrical equipment everywhere inside and outside their plants.

The formal ban of PCB hit American industry like a bombshell, and left thousands of companies struggling in search of acceptable alternatives. Some alternatives that soon emerged were silicone fluids, high molecular weight hydrocarbons (R-Temp, for one), and perchloroethylene, as retro-fill substitute fluids in existing equipment, as well as for use in new transformers.

A large new cottage industry immediately sprouted, with hundreds of companies specializing in the replacement, removal, and legal incineration of Askarel fluids.

Westinghouse had reasonably good success with producing new transformers that were filled with percloroethylene, under the trade name Wecosol. GE took a slightly different approach with an interesting transformer design trade-named VaporTran, using CFC-113 as the dielectric fluid. A clever and effective design, it used the principle of evaporative cooling for keeping the transformer windings cooled and insulated.

After a few years of study of these new replacement fluids, the EPA found major problems with almost all of them.

The EPA eventually found perchloroethylene to be an even more serious toxin than the PCB it replaced. Silicone fluid was found to have about zero biogradeability—you could cart it off to a landfill at end of life, and it would never go away. R-Temp was classified as a “hazmat hydrocarbon” —if it ever spilled or leaked inside your plant, you’d have to notify the EPA, fill out a lot of incident reports, and call in a hazmat cleanup team. GE’s CFC-113 was found to be a somewhat dangerous fluorocarbon that could damage the earth’s upper atmosphere ozone layer.

American industry in general had spent many tens of billions of dollars in trying to find effective solutions for replacing Askarel fluids, and now the industry was essentially being commanded to do it all over again, to remove and replace most of the more modern replacement fluids, all under the watchful eye of the EPA.

Canada also went through a similar national remediation process, a few years behind the U.S., but with less rigorous government regulation that actually caused much less consistent results than in the U.S.

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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Jeffrey Wimmer

Wednesday, 02-05-12 13:49

It is my understanding that the test profiles established for PCB would have also found water to be carcinogenic.  The safe levels had to do with ingestion, and if you ingest as much water as they suggested PCB, your body would not be able to process oxygen IE drown.
GE has a long history of cooperation with the federal government.  This is one such example - the profits was made on selling the new transformers as demand skyrocketed on a limited supply chain.
GE has most recently removed the risky the step of actually manufacturing things,  and instead just doesn't pay any domestic taxes.


Manuel Manuel

Thursday, 26-04-12 10:32

Instead of blaming the messenger (EPA), you should take a more objective approach and talk about the merits and failures of askarel and substitutes. Westinghouse is essentially gone in the electrical equipment field due to lack of vision. GE appears to be gradually heading in the same direction. Veterans of the U.S. manufacturing industry can talk about several environmental disasters that have at best been paved over and fenced in.
When we as customers used to believe in the marketing information coming from GE, Westinghouse and others, we trsuted them in looking after our own best interests. We have been deceived often enough to no longer trust them simply because of their name and now do expect them to walk the talk.
I don't see anythig wrong with that and would definitely would like to see the equivalent of a Consumer Union in the electrical industry.


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