The 1990s (1991-1999)

Ask anyone in the electrical industry what they remember most about the 1990s, and you'll almost always get the same answer: deregulation. At the start of the decade, electrical professionals were buzzing about what to expect from this fast-approaching issue. But depending on which electrical industry player you talked to, the idea of dismantling utility monopolies and establishing open competition

Ask anyone in the electrical industry what they remember most about the 1990s, and you'll almost always get the same answer: deregulation. At the start of the decade, electrical professionals were buzzing about what to expect from this fast-approaching issue. But depending on which electrical industry player you talked to, the idea of dismantling utility monopolies and establishing open competition in the energy market brought both opportunities and obstacles.

After Congress passed the Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 1992, a new category of power producers called exempt wholesale generators (EWGs) emerged. According to a June 1995 Transmission & Distribution article, this allowed EWGs to generate and sell power at wholesale value. Each EWG could apply to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for access to a utility's transmission system. Then, the FERC set rates for transmission service. It wasn't long before independent power producers (IPPs) decided to build generating plants and sell power to the utilities. Soon thereafter, energy service companies (ESCOs) started to spring up to provide electrical services to industrial and commercial customers. This trend shaped the energy market into a much different animal. Although ESCOs obviously posed a threat to electrical engineers, contractors, and plant personnel, the new energy arena provided new business opportunities as well — as utilities began to downsize, cut overhead, and contract out engineering, maintenance, and contracting services.

Aside from utility deregulation, the Internet emerged as another phenomenal influence on the electrical industry during the last decade of the century. After the first version of the World Wide Web became operational in 1990, things began to change fast. Almost overnight, the Internet became a valuable business tool, forever changing the way electrical professionals conduct business. As more Americans joined the point-and-click craze, electrical manufacturers scrambled to get product catalogs online, electrical distributors established Internet ordering sites, and online training and certification replaced many traditional educational programs.

As we moved into the late 1990s, contractor consolidation swept the industry at a blistering pace. As many large contractors continued to buy up their smaller competitors and counterparts across the country, many small- to medium-sized firms questioned their survival in this fast-track marketplace. By the end of the '90s, Integrated Electrical Services, Inc. (IES), Houston; Building One Services, Washington, D.C.; and GroupMAC, Houston became household names in the electrical industry as these three roll-up giants purchased close to 100 contracting firms in less than two years.

The 21st Century would inevitably see more contractor consolidation and bring continued debate over utility deregulation and the stability of the nation's power grid.

Lockout/Tagout Practices Implemented

On Aug. 1, 1990, Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole approved the long-awaited Electrical Safety-Related Work Practices, better known as “lockout-tagout,” EC&M reports in 1990. Drawn up and administered by OSHA, the new regulations will go into effect in December 1990. Companies must have safety training procedures in place by Aug. 6, 1991. The OSHA standard requires employers to de-energize equipment when possible, and outlines lockout/tagout procedures to prevent re-energizing equipment. The rules stress training for what OSHA calls “unqualified” employees in high-risk jobs and set out various work practices to protect employees. The standard differentiates between electricians and linemen who are trained to work with electrical equipment and other workers who may encounter electrical hazards only on occasion.

A Look at EMF

In a 1991 EC&M article, Dean Holstein, associate editor of Electrical Wholesaling examines one of the most notorious electrical acronyms of the past 20 years: EMF (electric and magnetic fields). In the early '90s, the scientific community remained undecided on whether exposure to EMF has adverse health effects (including cancer) on people. However, the public sees EMF, which is emitted from power lines, building wire, motors, electric blankets, hair dryers, clocks, and video display terminals, as a genuine health hazard. Although no evidence at this point shows electric fields harm humans, researchers and scientists still question the effects of magnetic fields. Nonetheless, EMF is getting a lot of attention. Holstein cites several examples. A widely quoted series of articles in The New Yorker magazine in 1989 turned EMF into a major public concern. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) brought EMF into the public eye with the release of its report characterizing magnetic fields as a “possible, but not proven, cause of cancer in people.” In summary, the document calls the risk of cancer from 60-Hz electricity uncertain because the interaction between biological processes and EMF is not well known.

Going Green

How often does a market opportunity come along that's good for business, good for the environment, and good for customers, asks Jim Lucy, chief editor of Electrical Wholesaling, in a 1991 EC&M article. Although it's rare, Lucy admits energy-efficient electrical products with these characteristics do exist. Energy-saving products have been on the electrical scene for more than 20 years, but the market never reached its full potential. Why? End-users weren't convinced paying more up-front for products that offer future electrical bill savings was a good investment. Lucy says it's time for end-users to reevaluate energy-efficient products, because the rules of the game have changed. Several factors have given the energy management market a much-needed jumpstart, including: new governmental regulations that require the replacement of standard fluorescent ballasts with more efficient electronic ballasts; rebate programs that pay customers to use energy-savings products; government-sponsored “Green Light” programs, which encourage end-users to install these products; and the public's renewed environmental consciousness. This “Green Movement” presents a golden business opportunity for electrical professionals everywhere.

How Does the New Energy Law Affect Your Motors?

“You win some, and you lose some. That appears to be the case when the new, legally required premium-efficiency motors must be installed in place of standard efficiency motors five years from now,” writes Robert J. Lawrie, senior editor, in a 1993 article. He says customers win because power consumed by the new motors (if properly applied) will be lower and operating costs will be less. On the other hand, they may lose because premium-efficiency motors will have higher initial costs. Under the Energy Policy Act of 1992, most standard efficiency motors will no longer be manufactured after Oct. 24, 1997. After that date, only premium-efficiency motors will take their place.

World Trade Center Blast

“Five killed, maybe more; over 1000 injured, maybe more, at the World Trade Center in New York on Friday, February 26, 1993,” reports Robert J. Lawrie, senior editor in 1993. He goes on to recreate the scene: There was a huge blast in a basement, very little fire but overwhelming smoke — in darkened stairwells, in elevator shafts, in office areas. People who tried to use stairwells found them filled with smoke; there was no communication, no elevators, no lights, no direction from anyone. A few minutes after the bomb went off, all power to the 110-story tower was lost, including all emergency power, communications, lighting, and life-safety systems. Authorities said the huge blast knocked out three of eight power feeders and damaged emergency power lines and water supply to emergency generators. With power down, smoke exhaust fans, fire doors, certain elevators, emergency lighting, communications, and any other electrically powered safety systems were useless. Lawrie says this incident should serve as a valuable lesson to all electrical professionals, who must now reconsider their approach to designing emergency power and life-safety systems.

Tomorrow's Computers Go Green

In a 1993 article, Joseph R. Knisley, senior editor, examines the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Energy Star Computers program, which promotes the development and use of computer equipment/systems that are energy-efficient and/or lower their power consumption when left on. A cooperative effort between the EPA and the electrical industry, the program should save computer users billions of dollars per year. Why all the fuss over the new energy-efficient electronic gear that borrows power management technology from laptops and portables? Knisley says the wide use of “green computer equipment can bring appreciable reductions in electric power costs and can appreciably influence electrical system design, especially a facility's power density requirements.”

Call for Improved Working Drawings

“The poor state of working drawings is arguably the most critical problem facing today's construction industry,” writes John A. DeDad, editor-in-chief, in 1994. “We continually receive letters from electrical contractors, citing specific horror stories and lamenting their increased responsibility and exposure in conducting their business.” To combat this problem, EC&M assembled a committee of industry representatives to prepare a white paper detailing the division of responsibilities between the professional engineer and electrical contractor. Then, it approached the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Construction Specification Institute (CSI), NSPE, and other pertinent industry organizations in hopes of implementing the desired changes. (Note: NSPE, CSI, NECA, and IEC later endorsed this initiative.)

Preparing for a Forensic Investigation

Electrical accidents are unpredictable and can happen in even the safest working environments. So how do you expect the unexpected? Charles T. Raymond, P.E., engineering consultant, Ballston Spa, N.Y., tries to answer this question in a 1994 tutorial. The article familiarizes readers with electrical forensic procedures involving serious personal injury and/or substantial property damage and offers guidelines for dealing with potential litigation. This was the beginning of EC&M's very popular Forensic Casebook column.

What is a CMMS?

According to Daniel Teachey, technical marketing writer for Datastream Systems, Inc., Greenville, S.C., the pressure on maintenance in 1998 is at an all-time high due to “just-in-time” production schedules and today's leaner organizations. When any piece of vital (or “bottleneck”) equipment breaks down, everyone in the plant looks to the maintenance department for a quick fix. His article outlines a new approach to strengthen maintenance operations by centralizing information into one system: a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). He proceeds to summarize the system's features. When a user creates a work order, the system does more than just generate a paper work order. A CMMS also checks available labor, available spare parts, status of the equipment, and a host of other data. The information that previously took minutes or even hours to pull together now takes seconds.

First Online Ordering System

In 1998, a full-line electrical distributor launches one of the industry's first Web-based ordering systems, enabling customers to source and order electrical, lighting, and datacom products/supplies over the Internet, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The system allows “one-click” access to real-time inventory and customized pricing as well as account and shipping information.

Remote Source Illumination Wows Lighting Designers

In 1999, Joseph R. Knisley, senior editorial consultant, reports lighting professionals are using remote source lighting to take light from its source and send it through one medium to one or more remote points. Light can travel through a fiber-optic (FO) bundle or a prism light guide system, which is a hollow structure (square or tubular in cross-section) with walls made of transparent prismatic material. Both make use of a phenomenon called “total internal reflection.” Designers now use FO source lighting in many ways — from replacing traditional lighting systems to applications where lighting was previously impossible.

Don't Shy Away From Lighting Software

As lighting installations become increasingly complex, separate ambient, task, and security illumination take on greater importance. New light sources and technologies (such as remote source lighting) also complete design issues. State and federal energy requirements often define a maximum power density for lighting in new construction. In a 1999 article, Joseph R. Knisley, senior editorial consultant, reveals where readers can turn for help. Lighting design software serves as an effective tool to help contractors refine and analyze any project. According to Knisley, the growing use of these programs is already speeding and simplifying the process of handling bid work, design/build contracts, and retrofit projects.

Piecing Together the Residential Wiring Puzzle

“Now, more than ever before, a persuasive case can be made for upgrading a home's wiring system,” writes John Pryma, P.E., vice president and general manager, Structured Cabling Division, Genesis Cable Systems, LLC, in a 1999 article. According to Pryma, many current homeowners have recently discovered their wiring is inadequate. In the late 1990s, modern homes require high-speed access to the Internet and may also use a small local area network (LAN). Other features may include a home theater that requires connections to the cable-TV system or satellite dish, a surveillance camera, central alarm and security system with dial-up service to a monitoring station, and home-automation features. This presents opportunities for contractors.

A Power Plant on Every Block?

Amid summer power shortages, continued utility restructuring, and consolidation, affluent American households are receptive to the idea of generating their own electricity, according to a new national survey released in 1999 by RKS Research & Consulting, a nationwide market research and public opinion polling firm based in North Salem, N.Y. According to the article, while high-income, single-family homeowners register satisfaction with their utility service, growing numbers express interest in some kind of backup power source. Customers want and can afford increased protection against losses, discomfort, and inconvenience. According to the survey, one in 10 affluent households (11%) already owns some form of emergency backup generator. A larger proportion (15%) expresses a high degree of interest in on-site power generation, while another 24% remain neutral.

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