Electrical Electrical Monitoring Electrical Test Equipment Lifecycle Management

Establish Electrical System Reliability

EP Editorial Staff | June 10, 2021

When an electric-power asset fails, it’s not the cost to repair/replace the asset that hurts. It’s the extended plant downtime.

Overcoming these seven challenges will result in the culture change needed to build a reliable electric-power system.

By Chip Angus, SDMyers LLC

Monitoring and data management are becoming ubiquitous in the industrial world as we work toward a more reliable and interconnected future. Electric-power systems, however, have not been included in this move toward data-centric reliability.

In 2020, we conducted a focus group to discuss electric-power reliability. The discussion centered around the reliability of entire electrical systems in the industrial market, including transformers, cabling, breakers, and relays and protective equipment. One of the questions asked was whether participants had a high-voltage electric-power reliability program. Only 8.3% said that they are well on their way to developing electric-power system reliability, with 6.7% at the beginning of the process. A quarter of the respondents acknowledged they should have a program but are not currently addressing the matter. Most significantly, half of the people in the group said that they have no program whatsoever. Some weren’t even aware of the risk.

Every person in the focus group did have one thing in common: They have programs for every other asset class in their organization. They had programs for the servers in their data centers; the steel mill people had programs for their furnace trucks, furnaces, auxiliaries, LMFs, and EFS; every industry represented had a CMMS that covered their other critical assets. Most had nothing for their electric-power system.

We all know that it is a lot cheaper to prevent a breakdown than it is to fix a repair. Downtime and replacement costs can range between $100,000 and $50 million for the breakdown of a $400,000 transformer. It’s not the cost of the asset that’s the issue; it’s the cost of downtime while you wait for the replacement to be installed.

The ideal solution is to extend that understanding of reliability to the electric-power system. The first step toward this goal is to categorize equipment by criticality and evaluate the real risk of electric-power system failure.

When IT is involved in the process from the beginning, they become part of the solution rather than a challenge to overcome.

Categorizing Risk

When you define a fleet of transformers by their criticality/risk and history, it becomes possible to prioritize maintenance needs for each asset. Criticality ranking can be developed by asset class and categorized into four distinct groups:

Non-critical transformers can be run-to-failure. Downtime is an inconvenience and an unplanned expense, but failure of these assets does not have a significant knock-on effect to the rest of the operation. Testing is all that is required so that you are aware of the condition and can plan accordingly.

Auxiliary transformers power equipment and structures that are important to business operation. An unexpected loss, however, would not cause significant disruption of a line or the shuttering of a facility. These transformers require regular testing and interpretation of test data, regular field inspection, and transformer management training for key staff. For auxiliary transformers, reactive maintenance is acceptable.

System-critical transformers power production lines and hospital wards; places where a loss of power is unacceptable and creates substantial losses in revenue or poses a real danger to life and limb. These transformers require regular testing and interpretation of test data, regular field inspection, electrical testing, and advanced transformer-management training for key staff. This equipment requires single-gas, real-time monitoring to detect insipient faults and allow an immediate response to prevent downtime. Predictive maintenance is required for system-critical transformers.

Mission-critical transformers are pieces of equipment so vital to the overall operation of a facility that failure could be catastrophic. These transformers require regular testing and interpretation of test data, regular field inspection, electrical testing, advanced bushing and PD monitoring, engineer evaluation and review, and advanced transformer management training for key staff that covers the lifecycle of the equipment, from installation to decommissioning. This equipment requires multi-gas real-time monitoring to detect insipient faults and to provide immediate data on what is causing the fault. Preventive maintenance is required for mission-critical transformers.

Categorizing assets is a significant first step toward developing a reliability program for the electrical system. There are seven barriers that must be cleared to lay the foundation for a reliability-based strategy:

• organizational barriers that arise when there is not enough involvement across departments
• tendency to prefer “the way we have always done it”
fear of a loss of jobs as technology becomes more vital to monitoring and analysis
• fear of a loss of control from the plant level to the corporate level
distrust of electric power reliability as a “flavor of the month” idea*unclear expectations
timelines that do not factor in the complexities of bringing a power system back up to where it needs to be.

A focus group revealed that the real risk of electrical system failure is not known to many reliability leaders.

Organizational barriers

Most organizations are set up to operate efficiently. Things don’t get done unless there is a standardized process and everyone in the system not only knows their role but excels at it. What organizations are not set up for is cross-departmental and cross-hierarchical sea-changes in culture. These challenges are about communication—each can be met, challenged, and overcome if everyone is on the same page.

Anyone who is not part of the solution could potentially be a barrier. Experience suggests that these areas are where many of the major issues arise.

One of the main challenges is the difference in the way purchasing and procurement people approach solutions. Purchasing people tend to be interested in one thing: lowest price. Procurement people are interested in acquiring the best solution for the problem. Ensure that the procurement people are part of the reliability team, because their influence will affect plant management and E&I people more than anything. Procurement is looking for the best solution, not the cheapest price, and not a solution that just meets specs. Involve both teams from the outset when you can.

The minute that you start talking about monitoring, IT must be involved. Part of their responsibility in your operation involves cybersecurity, so there’s a natural tendency here for more cautious professionals to say that monitoring can’t be done securely. It can and is being done all across the industrial world. In fact, it must be done to effectively protect your electrical assets and prevent unexpected failure.

Convincing IT of this isn’t difficult once you start the conversation, but you have to involve them in the process from the beginning—you can’t just spring it on them at the end. With communication and involvement, they become part of the solution rather than a challenge to overcome.

At some point, risk management will get involved. Whether it’s an insurance expert who comes in and walks through the plant as a consultant or your own internal risk-management expert, at some point they’re going to need to be brought into the project. Risk-management professionals are an excellent resource when you’re trying to bring about culture change because they can create the awareness and understanding of the real risk of not investing in reliability and deliver it right to the C-suite.


One of the biggest barriers we face is with mindsets. People often prefer the tried-and-tested way of doing things, sometimes referred to as TTWWHADI or That’s The Way We Have Always Done It. Plants are operated by experts, and maintenance teams have followed processes that have kept production at peak efficiency for years. Communication here is once again essential. They haven’t been doing it wrong; the success and strength of your operation is testament to a job consistently well done. But, with critical electric-power systems, there are ways to protect that efficiency that go way beyond the current mode of thinking. Changing hearts and minds might be the most challenging barrier to overcome. But it’s an essential one.

Fear Job Loss

When new processes challenge TTWWHADI, the first assumption for many at the plant level is that technology will replace people. Far from it. The goal is maintaining production and profitability, not removing expertise. The most important aspect of any reliability program is wisdom and that must be communicated from the beginning.

Loss of Control

Plant managers own their P&L, and they can be reluctant to allow corporate decision-making to impinge on that metric. This reluctance is almost always assuaged when plant managers see how a transformer-reliability program is in their best interests. A reliable electric-power system means that a plant can continue to operate at peak efficiency and maintain its profitability. Again, the importance here is in communicating the value of long-term system reliability over quarterly figures. This is a delicate balancing act that requires collaboration at all levels rather than working in silos.

Flavor of the Month

When an organization decides to make significant process changes, such as implementing a transformer-reliability program, it’s important to emphasize across the entire organization that those changes represent more than a just a novel way of doing things. They represent an organization-wide culture change. Buy-in is essential, from the boots on the ground at the plant level to those in the C-suite. If reliability is seen as another “flavor-of-the-month” from corporate, rather than as real culture change, there will always be friction and resistance. Get everyone involved from the beginning and make the expectations clear to all.

Categorizing assets by criticality/risk and history also makes it possible to prioritize maintenance needs for each asset.

Unclear Expectations

If we know that silos stifle the implementation of electric-power reliability programs, then it stands to reason that they will also create confusion if expectations are not communicated thoroughly across the organization. In an organizational structure that is scaffolded around efficient processes, it’s imperative to make sure that everyone knows their role. Who owns the asset and what is the current state at the start of this analysis? Who is committed to support the effort? How are they committed to it? Are you going to have monthly meetings? There must be a team with representatives from every part of the organization to ensure expectations are stated, communicated, and met.

Unrealistic Time Frames

If a problem has developed in an electrical system over a timeline that is measured in decades, it is unrealistic to expect that the problem can be resolved in a matter of months. The focus should be on criticality and deciding which issues are most important to resolve.

You can’t solve these problems overnight. Electric-power-system reliability is achieved through the execution of a long-term strategy that is based on standards. These long-term strategies require multi-year budgets and an appreciation of lifecycle management. From purchasing through monitoring, inspection, maintenance, and repair, it’s important to note that a multi-million-dollar electric-power-system reliability program is more cost effective than a plan that involves massive capital expenditure every few years. EP

Chip Angus an Electrical Power Reliability Manager at SDMyers LLC, Tallmadge, OH (sdmyers.com), where he helps industrial companies develop long-term transformer-reliability solutions. Before specializing in transformer management and electric-power reliability, Angus was president of a structural and plate fabrication firm and service center. He now works primarily with manufacturing and steel customers.


Sign up for insights, trends, & developments in
  • Machinery Solutions
  • Maintenance & Reliability Solutions
  • Energy Efficiency
Return to top