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Electrical Troubleshooting Quiz — June 6, 2023

June 6, 2023
How would you handle this challenging situation?

The plant electrical engineer of a local manufacturing plant has reached out to your electrical services firm for technical help with a political problem. This quiz is drawn from an actual case history in which a similar situation existed with the plant manager effectively reporting to the HR manager by deferring to him and ceding authority to him. How do you help the client without being dragged into a situation that costs your company its ongoing revenue stream with work done at this plant?

Sandolph, the “human resources director” at this plant, is the son-in-law of the company’s majority stockholder. The company has four plants, and the HR manager at each of the three smaller plants reports to Sandolph. Consequently, Sandolph sees himself as the de facto plant manager. Sandolph is also the office manager, and he’s taken a keen interest in the computers used in the office. He’s also made it clear to the plant engineer that Sandolph is in charge of all PCs used onsite.

Sandolph and the Robertson (the plant electrical engineer) are often at odds. The office computers have been failing lately, and Sandolph told Robertson the problem is “bad power.” He went online and bought a harmonics analyzer so he could confirm his assertion. Sure enough, the device shows plenty of harmonics in the office branch circuits. Now Sandolph wants Robertson to install a specific harmonics mitigation device at the supply to the office distribution panel. Robertson convinced Sandolph to get your company’s opinion before proceeding, and your boss assigned you. How should you handle this?

Answer to Quiz. First of all, Sandolph is not a “qualified person,” so he should not be assessing power quality on electrical systems. The problem is he doesn’t know that. And it’s not up to you to tell him. Let him have his five minutes of glory. Sandolph is the person you must convince, and you must do that in a way that strokes his considerable ego.

Prepare for your visit by writing out the points you want to cover with Sandolph. When you arrive, he’ll want to immediately show you how smart he is. Let him do that for a bit, but then take charge of the situation. Tell him you appreciate his insight and hard work, but “I’d like to collaborate with you as I walk through things my way. Can we do that?” Ask him if he can spare 20 minutes now to look at some things with you. It would be better to leave Robertson out of this visit, so decline if he offers to have Robertson come with. Something like, “Nah, I think you and I can handle this” would work.

One issue is he can see a lot of harmonics.

  • Ask him show you this, since he is insisting the harmonics are to blame. He’ll probably zero in on total harmonic distortion (THD). This number often frightens people who don’t understand how to read a harmonic signature, but it’s meaningless by itself. Look at the magnitude of the 3rd and 5th in relation to the fundamental. Even in a big office full of computers, these should not be significant. Briefly explain this relationship to him.
  • Explain that the harmonics he’s seeing are due to all the switching power supplies. Point out that these supplies are designed to run in a high harmonics environment, precisely because it’s common to have an office full of them. The computer power supply is so large because it filters the power in addition to converting the voltages to what’s needed.
  • Point out that a harmonics mitigation box installed on the panel won’t reduce the harmonics that the power supplies are putting onto their supply power. Even if a similar box were applied at each point of use, it wouldn’t fix anything the power supplies aren’t already designed to handle.
  • The plant also has harmonics, but of a much larger magnitude due to large motors. Is the failure rate significantly higher there? You already know the answer to this because his complaint is about the office. But get him to say it.

The real issue is the high failure rate.

  • Walk through the office with him and look at how the PCs are situated. Do the power supply vents have ample space, or are they jammed up against cubicle walls? Are any fan vents blocked, or do they have free space for at least a foot in at least two directions? Can air circulate, or does heat build up around the PC case?
  • Do people stack paper and other insulating materials on top of the PCs?
  • Are the PCs sitting on the floor (floor stand or not), and thus located where they will intake the most dust?
  • Do the cubicle walls have dust? What happens if you shine a light and smack your hand on the cubicle material? If you see a big dust cloud, you have identified the likely culprit.
  • Ask him to open the case of a couple of failed units. You will likely see extensive dust build-up. Shine a light on the CPU cooling fan blades, and show him the dust build-up there. The heat sink should similarly be insulated by dust, make sure he sees that.

Once you and Sandolph have together looked that the actual cause(s), ask him if he has ideas for a solution. Keep him focused on the fact that computers need to run cool, which means no blockage of air and no dust build-up internally. Don’t tell him what the solutions are, ask his opinion of them using “What do you think of” questions.

Sandolph won’t want to lose face. So whatever solution he comes up with, let him know that’s a great idea. If it can be improved upon, suggest with more “What do you think of” questions. As long as you haven’t made Sandolph look stupid, he will have a way to save face internally. Be sure to thank him for his time and say something to the effect that you wish all clients caught on so quickly. On the bill for services, it would be a good gesture to use the words, “Collaborate with client” in the description of work.

About the Author

Mark Lamendola

Mark is an expert in maintenance management, having racked up an impressive track record during his time working in the field. He also has extensive knowledge of, and practical expertise with, the National Electrical Code (NEC). Through his consulting business, he provides articles and training materials on electrical topics, specializing in making difficult subjects easy to understand and focusing on the practical aspects of electrical work.

Prior to starting his own business, Mark served as the Technical Editor on EC&M for six years, worked three years in nuclear maintenance, six years as a contract project engineer/project manager, three years as a systems engineer, and three years in plant maintenance management.

Mark earned an AAS degree from Rock Valley College, a BSEET from Columbia Pacific University, and an MBA from Lake Erie College. He’s also completed several related certifications over the years and even was formerly licensed as a Master Electrician. He is a Senior Member of the IEEE and past Chairman of the Kansas City Chapters of both the IEEE and the IEEE Computer Society. Mark also served as the program director for, a board member of, and webmaster of, the Midwest Chapter of the 7x24 Exchange. He has also held memberships with the following organizations: NETA, NFPA, International Association of Webmasters, and Institute of Certified Professional Managers.

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