How About Some Respect for the Electrical Guys?

Consider, for a moment, some of the major concerns graying the hair of building owners and facility managers today: power quality and availability; rising energy costs; and ever-increasing computer and telecommunication loads. Yet while this menu might seem to be just what an enterprising electrical engineer could only dream to order, particularly to boost his or her prominence on a building-t...

By Chuck Ross, Contributing Writer June 1, 2004

Consider, for a moment, some of the major concerns graying the hair of building owners and facility managers today: power quality and availability; rising energy costs; and ever-increasing computer and telecommunication loads. Yet while this menu might seem to be just what an enterprising electrical engineer could only dream to order, particularly to boost his or her prominence on a building-team roster, this just isn’t the case, at least according to one experienced practitioner.

“Electrical is always the last in the scheme of the design process,” says Ken Lovorn, P.E., president of Pittsburgh-based Lovorn Engineering Assocs. (LEA). “And if you lie back and let things go, you’re going to finish last, too.”

Despite the Rodney Dangerfield “no-respect” downheartedness, Lovorn, like a go-get-’em college football coach, says electrical engineers can’t afford to feel sorry for themselves.

“I think electrical engineers are responsible for being proactive and going out to find out what he needs to know.”

For example, when electrical designers are involved from the beginning, he says, electrical plans can be developed before floor plans are finished. In this ideal scenario, engineers can work with architects to ensure proper placement and clearances for all required equipment. In the less-desired (but seemingly more common) arrangements, where electrical specialists enter later in the game, they can end up having to fight to ensure equipment and wiring are accommodated and loads are properly supplied.

Keeping harmony in design

The good news is that, indeed, electrical design has become all the more important as loads have become more sensitive. Desktop computers have been around for a while now, but where older models could ride out short-duration power fluctuations, newer systems are much less robust.

“The original PCs had a big, clunky transformer inside,” he says. “You could unplug one and plug it back in, and it wouldn’t turn off. The new equipment has less tolerance to problems in the system. We’ve got two or three projects right now where that’s a major issue.”

The difficulty in these current projects, Lovorn says, is adequately addressing the voltage harmonics caused by the computers’ switched power supplies—and the units’ sensitive transistors, which react to the slightest power irregularity. However, he adds, clients can too quickly suggest harmonics as the culprit when much simpler explanations may exist.

Lovorn notes one recent scenario in which a client’s newly installed photocopier blew out its motor. The manufacturer’s repair personnel immediately began looking at power-supply problems. LEA was called in and discovered that, instead, a steam pipe had shifted behind the wall, crushing a network cable. “The repairman was looking for electrical problems,” Lovorn says, noting the expensive workarounds the client might have undertaken if the situation’s true cause hadn’t been discovered. “You’ve got to make sure what problem you’re solving before you solve it.”

Out of sight, out of mind

One of the challenges electrical engineers face is that much of their work isn’t immediately apparent and involves equipment many clients may not understand. Of course, illumination levels and outlet placement are critical to client satisfaction, but even more important is the design work that goes on behind walls and in basement equipment rooms. Convincing clients—and sometimes, other design professionals—that such attention is necessary can be difficult.

Lovorn cites the necessity of ensuring adequate fault duty as an example. He says this is an especially critical exercise in congested metropolitan areas, where electrical networks can be highly interconnected. Providing appropriately sized overprotection equipment can be crucial to building and occupant safety, Lovorn notes, as can taking the time to place this equipment so it responds in a coordinated fashion when necessary. Because a strong system is essentially invisible—if it’s successful, you may not even know it’s operating—some may see its design as an easy budget target.

“I’ve run across quite a number of architects who haven’t understood the importance of fault duty,” says Lovorn.

A system-stressing electrical event may not occur until long after construction is completed, Lovorn says. “Building owners don’t understand how important this is; they could end up burning their buildings down.”

But even though he sees fault protection as overlooked, Lovorn points to the considerable interest in backup power supplies—an ironic turn, given that greater attention to system protection could limit the need for backup power.

“Backup power is relatively common,” he says. “Nearly every project we have in-house has backup generation in it. The owners are the primary drivers.”

This trend, Lovorn says, started with the buildup to the year 2000, when doomsayers predicted massive power failures caused by computers unable to make the millennium switch. Although the millennium bug, in the end, was nonexistent, interest in backup power has continued to grow. Many of Lovorn’s current suppliers—including Cummins, Caterpillar and Kohler—have told him they are having trouble keeping up with demand.

Designing a better future

Cost-cutting clients and unappreciative fellow building-team members may cause aggravation at the individual project level, but Lovorn sees a much bigger obstacle looming for the electrical engineering discipline as a whole: a lack of new blood entering the field.

“I think the biggest challenge—and this has been in the making since the transistor was invented—is that there are fewer [electrical] engineers coming up who are interested in the power side. I’m already seeing that it’s difficult to find people.”

One problem, Lovorn says, is the perception that electrical engineering is a commodity service rather than a specialized field. Lovorn is involved with the engineering programs at both Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, to help introduce students who might otherwise pursue a career in electronics to the opportunities that power-system design offers. He gives the students hands-on responsibilities, far beyond the photocopying and coffee pouring other internships might offer.

“I bring in co-op students and give them a project,” he says. “They make a lot of mistakes. But everyone who makes it through has an idea of what we do.”

Sounds like an experience clients and architects could benefit from.

A New LEED on Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency, with rising energy costs, of course, is a major point of interest for the clientele of Lovorn Engineering. But also directing a greater focus on energy efficiency is an interest by clients to receive the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

That being said, in firm president Ken Lovorn’s experience, it’s imperative that electrical engineers educate their clients about some of the performance repercussions these efficiencies may raise before making any jump into real energy-saving systems.

“The problem I’ve run across is that everybody wants energy conservation, until you say, ‘We’re going to have to change the way you light this facility,'” he says. The engineer often brings clients to his own offices, where lighting consumption is limited to 0.6 watts per sq. ft. To meet this goal, common areas are maintained at a relatively low 10-ft.-candle level, with workstation task lights at each designer’s desk.

“You can’t just say, “I want to save energy,” he continues. “You have to help them understand what this means.”