Training Spotlight: Electrical Systems
By Thomas A. Westerkamp - October 2004 - Power & Communication
Among maintenance and engineering managers' top priorities is ensuring the reliable performance of their facilities’ electrical distribution systems. They do this in part by making sure their departments’ front-line technicians receive regular training that enables them to work more efficiently and safely.
Training, however, is a complex issue. Managers’ decisions in this area center on such issues as selecting key training components related to system maintenance and weighing the available options for delivering training, including online resources, on- and off-site options, and working with outside firms and manufacturers for training.
Laying the Groundwork
Safety training is a continuous effort that is best done with frequent, short, job-related meetings. This reinforcement keeps technicians focused on safety every day. A department’s work-order management software should contain all of the safety information, sketches and wiring diagrams that electricians require to work safely.
Safe work performance begins with each technician knowing the personal protective equipment (PPE) he or she should wear and how to adjust and wear it correctly. This equipment includes hard hats, safety glasses with side shields, safety shoes, ear plugs or muffs, respirators, fall protection gear, and gloves.
Also, under OSHA right-to-know laws, maintenance electricians must have access to material safety data sheets that detail the equipment contents, toxicity, safety procedures, spill-containment procedures, and safe methods for handling cleaners, coatings, lubricants, coolants, and fire-extinguisher fluids. Selecting and using the right PPE for the job, and keeping it in good working condition, is essential. Proper insulation and grounding of electrical tools also are critical.
Studying operating and maintenance manuals with the manufacturer’s safety instructions is a necessary preliminary step before doing any work. Time for this planning should be built into the time estimate for every job so the schedule is realistic.
The electrical trade is one of the highest skilled trades and one of the highest paid. Because of the complex nature of the work, electricians’ training needs are the most comprehensive and take the longest of all the trades. Apprentice training takes three to five years and typically includes 150 hours of schooling and 2,000 hours of annual on-the-job training as a helper.
Trainees starts by using hand and power tools to mount and anchor electrical boxes, hangers and conduit, and later they learn to pull wire through conduit and connect to fused switches, pushbuttons and electrical equipment. Technicians receive more low-voltage training for equipment such as fire alarms, emergency lighting, and electric locks, and they receive high-voltage-related training for service entrance wiring, switches, transformers, capacitors and cable trays. Welding also might be included.
The courses also should contain units on the National Electrical Code, as well as state and local building codes. These codes specify requirements, such as wire sizes, box sizes, switches, and fuse and heater sizes for various loads.
Since codes and equipment constantly change, journeymen electricians need ongoing training to stay up to date. They need training that covers subjects such as complex troubleshooting, training on new equipment with complex electromechanical or electronic control systems, electronic HVAC controls, computer networks, security systems, and emergency power generators with automatic switching systems.
Inspection and monitoring training also is a major component of the maintenance electrician’s education. Simple and frequent visual checks of meters and data logs are essential, as are tasks such as cleaning oxidized, pitted or dirty contacts and tightening connections that loosen from heating and cooling equipment. Technicians also must monitor alarm systems to ensure they operate properly.
No technicians should work on “hot” systems, but exceptions to this rule can occur for specialized work, such as outside transmission-line repairs and certain testing that must be done live. Electricians who perform this dangerous work require highly specialized training, experience and equipment.
Before making repairs, electricians should always disconnect the load from the power source, remove fuses from the fused switch, lock out the switch box, and tag it — one tag for each electrician — to let others know who and how many are working in the area.
Some electrical problems such as corona, excess temperature rise and vibration can’t always be detected safely during operation by listening to or feeling the equipment. More often today, electricians use diagnostic and monitoring equipment, including ammeters, voltmeters, multimeters, ultrasound equipment, thermal imagers, vibration analyzers and lubricant-analysis systems to stay ahead of the game.
These tools warn of growing problems so planners can schedule repairs before power failures occur. Power-quality checks require meters that measure power factor and submetering to locate power-shaving benefits.
Managers also must consider the numerous training delivery options that exist today. Often, a combination of methods is most effective. Among the options are these:
Online resources. More electrician course material is available on the Internet than ever. This fast-growing delivery method allows flexibility and is relatively low cost. Training can take place at work or in off-hours, wherever an Internet connection exists.
Onsite and offsite options. Many companies, union locals and electrical trade organizations sponsor onsite training or have classroom space and labs available offsite to provide this training. Local community colleges and vocational technical schools also offer post-secondary training for electricians. Another option in this category is self-study, individual-pace home courses.
Vendor training. When technicians must maintain highly complex equipment, such as new switchgear or energy management systems, vendors often offer training by their on-site installation engineers or off-site at their training facilities. Vendors also provide startup support to ensure proper operating and safety practices are used, that required spares are inventoried, and that recommended preventive maintenance is scheduled.
Training takes time. Managers cannot realistically schedule electrician work assignments 100 percent of the time. Some companies schedule as much as 7 percent of available hours annually for skill and safety training, 10 percent for apprentices. Finding the right training level requires that managers have a clear understanding of both technician training needs and the available resources.