Enterprise, Utah's Business Journal: Keeping the lights on

As long as there's a reliable flow of electricity, our lives go on the way we have come to expect it

It’s a hot summer afternoon. The kind of hot where it hurts to cross the asphalt in bare feet. Only a handful of people are in the once-crowded streets of downtown. Movie theaters are bare, and venues sit vacant with all concerts being canceled for the summer. Office spaces are mostly empty as businessmen and women attend meetings at home over their favorite web-based conferencing service.

In a nearby hospital, something else is occurring. Nurses are busily attending to patients. Working under the heavy burden of ensuring life and health, they check ventilators of two newly admitted patients who suffer the symptoms of a global pandemic. Doctors pull up charts on electronic tablets, hoping patients quickly recover to see loved ones soon. The atmosphere is tense, but the efficient cool air keeps patients and caregivers comfortable. One level down in a perfectly lit room, a surgeon is performing open-heart surgery on a middle-aged male, while at the base level, a young girl is getting her broken arm reset by an orthopedic physician. This is a typical day in a hospital. But what would happen if power or communication were lost and well-designed backup power systems failed?

The use of modern-day electrical energy is ubiquitous in first-world communities. It seems the only time we care about its presence is when it disappears. We rely on its existence almost as much as we do a Starbucks latte or our smartphone while trying to post selfies on Instagram. On the morning of March 18, 2020, at 7:09 a.m., a 5.7 magnitude earthquake shook the Salt Lake Valley. Society was blanketed by a global pandemic and awoken by the tremors of the Earth. Power outages occurred, businesses were disrupted, and many people panicked. However, through this crisis, the electrical and communication industry immediately addressed the problems head-on, working through the day and night to restore power and communication. Life without electrical power would affect our lives immensely. Without power, we may as well be living in the early19th century.

What does it take to keep our modern-day life in a state of order? It takes companies and experts willing to meet the demands of an “I need it now” society. It is incredible to reflect on what goes into an environmentally resilient power grid or a reliable building power system. There is no better setting to explore than a hospital to help better understand how order is kept and life and health are maintained. Please follow me on this journey.

A hospital requires it all: impeccable reliability, smart-controlled environment, state-of-the-art communication and technology, and even renewable energy. Does this happen? Indeed, it does. Here is how it happens: An incredible design team of electrical engineers create the drawings for the facility which are approved by the general contractor and owner. Earthwork is performed and electrical and communication conduits are run. In many cases, the high-voltage power system needs to be upgraded to meet the power requirements of the building. Conductors and wires are pulled from the utility connections into power transformers that convert the power down to a usable voltage. Then switches and panels are set. The building is closely coordinated, and communication and electrical wires are pulled. Lights, mechanical, and other critical elements are wired as well. This may sound like a lot, but it is only the start.

To be as efficient and sustainable as possible, lighting controls are put into place, LEDs are utilized, and some are even powered over ethernet. In addition, variable frequency drives are installed, which modulate based on the power needs of the motors for heating, cooling, and water systems. Emergency power generators are set and programmed to turn on during utility outages. Programmable logic computers (PLCs) are utilized to automate and tell motors to do certain tasks. We’ve come this far, so let’s not forget green sustainable energy.

If you look out front, that awning you parked your car under has photovoltaic solar modules mounted on top. When the sun is shining, power is generated into a battery system that will provide power when the sun goes down. The hospital relies on the electric utility for a large portion of its electrical needs. That is not all. The utility may also have a large-scale renewable energy facility that is generating power from the wind. This wind power is connected by a distribution power system that goes into a power substation. That substation steps up the power to the transmission system that transports the generated energy from not just the wind facility, but from other generation sources for miles to a region where it is stepped back down into another substation. From there distribution lines carry the power to the hospital and many other energy users.

We cannot forget telecommunication to the hospital. By receiving power from a radio frequency, distributed antenna systems (DAS) are installed throughout the hospital to support technological systems, move data, and allow wireless technology to thrive. This supports doctors, administrators, patients, and visitors.

To make all this happen, electrical and communication businesses work around the clock to maintain order in a demanding modern-day society. They not only design and install, but they help operate and maintain systems to prevent catastrophic failures, which, for a hospital, can mean life or death. Just as an ambulance arrives on the scene of an earthquake, so do the experts that keep power and communication functioning safely.

Is your business prepared with electrical partnerships and staff, preventative maintenance, and proper utilization of backup power systems? The next time you walk over to that light switch on your office wall, think of the details, the design and coordination. But most importantly, think of the people that make it happen for you.

Editorial contribution by Chad Ambrose. Chad Ambrose is an Executive Division Manager for Hunt Electric, overseeing the High Voltage, Industrial, and Automation & Controls group. Hunt Electric is a full-service electrical and technology contractor providing in-house turnkey services.