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Caring for healthcare facility electrical infrastructure

By Frank Waterer / Special to Healthcare Facilities Today
June 16, 2017

An issue of vital concern in any healthcare environment is the health of the electrical components of the facility’s power distribution system (PDS) working behind the scenes.  As healthcare professionals are responsible for tending to the psychological and physiological well-being of patients, the operations and maintenance managers of healthcare facilities are responsible for attending to the care of electrical system infrastructures to ensure they are functioning and operating at their maximum efficiency.

Comparable to how the human body is not designed to work at peak performance 24/7, electrical power distribution systems cannot be designed and constructed to operate 100 percent of the time in perpetuity. In the healthcare sector, a power loss impacts more than just revenue losses. Dependable functionality and reliable electrical power is very much a matter of life and death. Whether a system is old or relatively new, proactive management and maintenance programs, i.e., ‘checking’ on system condition to reduce the potential for downtime, will help operations and maintenance personnel mitigate the risk factors that impact functionality and reliability, which ultimately drive savings in productivity, costs and human lives.

Checking your vitals: Proactive assessments

A good first step in ensuring a facility’s electrical infrastructure uptime is to perform a power system assessment to determine the current state and reliability. In many cases, this type of assessment is completed only after an incident or situation such as the tripping of protective devices, an electrical shock incident or an emergency power system abnormality deems it necessary. However, in health care facilities, where uptime, safety and productivity are crucial, this type of proactive assessment or subsequent reactive maintenance practice (employed as standard practice by more than half of buildings owners across industries) may not be practical. Health care facilities simply cannot wait until equipment malfunctions or fails completely before initiating corrective action.

In fact, since Sept. 11, 2001, several electrical codes have been revised to stipulate mandatory regular assessments for certain facility classifications, including health care environments. This includes Article 708, Critical Operations Power Systems (COPS), of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 70 [aka; National Electrical Code (NEC®)], which provides mission critical facilities (e.g. hospitals, police and fire stations, emergency call centers, specific telephone exchanges and critical communication centers) with a higher level of protection. For these types of facilities, NEC® mandates the performance of a “risk assessment” to identify potential hazards, outline the likelihood of their occurrence and establish a baseline of vulnerability for the PDS.

When conducted proactively by an experienced professional electrical engineer, comprehensive assessments provide valuable information on the present state of a PDS, including the usefulness and reliability of the electrical equipment and the compatibility of existing equipment with newly installed or planned electrical equipment expansions. Armed with this information, facilities personnel can:

  • Identify aged, dysfunctional, outdated, underrated, unreliable or worn out equipment;

  • Determine the vulnerability of a facility or process to the adverse effects of unplanned downtime;

  • Enable personnel to adequately and proactively determine necessary requirements to improve the present state of the PDS to extend its lifespan, including budgeting for replacements or retrofits;

  • Determine any violations of electrical codes, electrical standards or best practices; and

  • Establish a baseline for future maintenance and testing, upgrade and/or expansion activities.

Assessment pre-op: Where to start

There are several steps that must be considered before an assessment process begins. First, it is critical the health care facility organization identify, select and work with a professional electrical engineer and engineering services company. These individuals should be experienced in the design and installation of a wide variety of power distribution equipment as well as industry-specific codes and standards—this will be imperative to the overall success of the process.

Workplace safety is another crucial element and should be considered as part of the pre-, during and post-assessment process. Although it is the responsibility of facility management to maintain a safe work environment, the electrical engineer performing on-site assessments should be trained in accordance with NFPA 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, and safety procedures should be reviewed and understood by both the assessment party and the facility maintenance team. This includes changes to the 2018 Edition of NFPA 70E related to Job Safety Planning, which will likely be expanded and clarified to include the stipulation that before starting any job involving work with or around electrical equipment, the contractor or employee in charge is required to complete a job safety plan and conduct a job briefing with the employees involved.

A potentially overlooked but critical element of any assessment process is the scope of work. Diligence in the beginning of any process is intended to prevent misunderstanding, distractions or expectations of tasks not clearly covered in the scope of work. Before any work begins, involved parties must have a clear and documented understanding of which electrical equipment or components of the equipment will be assessed or worked on, and which functions or work activities will be performed. This could include; measurements, electrical or functional testing, installing metering or monitoring equipment, or operating a facility's equipment. The needs of the engineer completing the work are equally important. They must clearly identify any specific assistance from a facility’s operations and maintenance staff that may be needed while on site, including support such as resolving questions, acquiring badges, accessing records and advising on the physical location of included equipment.

Visualizing the procedure: The assessment process

Not all PDSs are the same. As such, different assessments will be necessary for different types of equipment, such as power class transformers, distribution class transformers, service equipment, new installations, downstream equipment, electrical room construction and emergency generators. However, no matter the situation, there are universal considerations for the engineer performing the evaluation. This includes:

  • Having an up to date one-line diagram from which to begin the assessment and inspection processes;

  • Becoming familiar with the physical location of significant electrical equipment connected to the PDS;

  • Understanding the normal electrical operations characteristics, building construction and layout, and limits of the equipment to be assessed;

  • Knowing the applicable electrical codes, which were in force when the equipment or PDS was originally constructed or installed; and

  • Understanding the dimensions of the facilities under assessment as well as outside influences and conditions such as atmospheric disturbances or recent changes in configuration or operation of the facility’s internal electrical distribution systems. 

Aged, dysfunctional and non-code compliant electrical installations, equipment, and systems in the health care environment are not just a nuisance. They are very real factors in patient life or death, and evaluating the state of the electrical system is not just good practice, its compliance. Like any good doctor, facilities personnel must perform routine check-ups on the health of the system. Through regular assessment of electrical infrastructure, facilities managers can not only drive business, but also enhance the safety and reliability of a health care facility’s electrical infrastructure, and ultimately save lives.

Frank Waterer is an Electrical Engineering Fellow at Schneider Electric.

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