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Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

Contractors and maintenance staff think outside the toolbox to reveal some unexpected electrical tools of the trade

What's in an electrician's toolbox? A quick survey might reveal a combination of hand tools, such as pliers, screwdrivers, nut drivers, wire strippers, measuring tapes, label machines, and fish tapes/poles, along with power tools, including power drills and saws. However, these common tools may not be adequate for every task. For instance, absent from the list is the radio-controlled robot that Kenny Powell, instrumentation/electrical (I/E) supervisor at the Seminole, Texas-based natural gas processing plant of Hess Corp., an independent energy company based in New York, uses to install new cable in the cable tray mounted on top of the pipe rack approximately 40 ft to 60 ft in the air.

To keep his feet — and those of the other workers in his department — firmly and safely on the ground, Powell brainstormed different options to avoid “walking” the cable tray. Eventually, he came up with robotics. A year and a half ago, this led to the purchase of a complete robotic unit, including customized cameras, infrared lighting, and programming from SuperDroid Robots, Fuquay-Varina, N.C., which provides a wide range of robot kits, packages, and parts for hobbyist, educational, military, and law enforcement applications. The device, which uses two treads to propel it forward, measures 20 in. wide and 28 in. long (Photo on bottom of page C18) — small enough to fit inside the 36-in. cable tray.

Using the radio control, Powell maneuvers the robot down the cable tray. Small cable is tied to one of the handles he built and installed on the device. Larger cable is connected to it by a 1-in.-diameter pull rope. For direction and elevation changes, workers are staged on scaffolding to install rollers or rope to control the pull. Powell estimates he uses the robot as much as two to three times a month, although it may go unused for several months at a time. Despite its sporadic use, this unique tool has improved safety at the plant. “For years, we have had safety issues when installing new cable in that cable tray,” Powell says. “There just wasn't a way for people to safely walk the tray pulling the cable.”

Prevention campaign

Predictive tools are sometimes not counted on lists of common hand or power tools (Multi-Task Force on page C20). However, for Rick Hightower, process control supervisor at Columbus Water Works, Columbus, Ga., they're the most important. Currently, Hightower is in charge of all electrical work at the utility — from design to maintenance. His six technicians and one supervisor are required to test every electrical motor rated more than 50 hp throughout the site, which includes seven major facilities — with a 100 million-gallon-a-day (mgd) freshwater facility and 53 mgd wastewater facility — and 84 remote sites on a semi-annual preventive maintenance schedule. If you do the math (and Hightower has), that equals 1,700 50-hp motors, 900 1,200-hp motors, and around 40 450-hp motors.

Three years ago, Hightower, driven by rising maintenance costs and increased motor failures, consulted the motor and switchgear manufacturers as well as the motor repair shops and determined he needed a new way to test his findings. He hired a technical college to formally teach his staff the standards and guidelines they needed to put in place. Then, he wrote software for the new testing standards, based on a Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheet. Although the start-up costs were minute, Hightower explains this process required a lot of development.

Next, Hightower decided to plot winding measurements. Using a 2,000V megohmmeter, his technicians perform a 1-min. plotting test every 10 sec and a 10-min. test plotting every 1 min. (Photo above). The department then uses these measurements to graph the dielectric integrity and polarization index (PI). The program uses information about the winding class, type of insulation used on the motor, and standard for megohm resistance. The PI testing indicates the presence of dust, dirt, or moisture — or a combination of winding degradation. “We can actually see the motor windings degrade over time, and then we can schedule less costly repairs before complete winding failure,” Hightower says. “In the past three and a half years, we have seen a significant cost savings without a single failure.”

Cracking the Code

A final item not usually found on the list of favored tools is actually a commonly overlooked workhorse — the National Electrical Code (NEC). “It's an essential tool,” says Pierre Belarge, president of Elmsford, N.Y.-based Electrical Training Solutions, certified member of the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI) and a self-professed “hands-on” former contractor and inspector turned electrical industry instructor and advocate. “The last few years, my most important tool has been the NEC book and myriad standards,” he says. “Since I am in New York, I also reference the New York State code series.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) “Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition,” most electricians learn their trade through 4-yr apprenticeship programs, which comprise paid on-the-job training (2,000 hr each year) and related classroom instruction (at least 144 hr each year). Optimally, classroom instruction includes electrical code requirements. In addition, most state and locality licensure requirements include knowledge of the NEC and local electric and building codes. Yet, this required training may not be enough to gain a full understanding of the Code, according to Belarge, who estimates only 20% of electrical professionals in his area have a firm grasp of the NEC. “Everybody knows how to use a pair of pliers, a hacksaw, and benders, but the average electrician or contractor is only a casual reader of the Code book,” he says.

Belarge cites time as a barrier to undertaking a serious study of the Code. “It's very difficult for contractors to learn the information, train their workers, and also win jobs and do them properly,” he continues. “They don't have enough time to learn how to use the Code book. Up until a year and a half ago, everybody was too busy working. Now, they're too busy trying to get work.”

In addition, the language (or legalese) in which it's written is also a problem. “It's a complex document,” Belarge explains. “They all know that they need to learn this stuff, but they get frustrated.”

In his travels to contractors' headquarters, Belarge has seen signs of this frustration firsthand, such as Code books sitting on the floor behind the door of a contractor's office. He has also noticed signs of their disuse in the faded copies on the dashboard of trucks. “They don't even know what color Code book they have in order to tell you what year they're in,” he says. “Or they don't buy the Code books at all. I started a new class last night, and one of the students, who has 22 yr in the business, had never, ever opened a Code book!”

To rectify this problem, Belarge suggests several options, such as resources made available from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the Quincy, Mass.-based publisher of the “NEC Handbook” for each Code cycle and the IAEI, as well as local training programs, such as the one he provides to electrical professionals in New York.

Trainers subject themselves to rigorous study so that electricians and contractors don't have to and then offer condensed versions in their lessons. “I travel to a lot of different locations to take as many classes as possible,” says Belarge, noting that for those with limited travel and training budgets, online resources are also available. “I also meet with members of Code-making panels, so when I teach contractors or their workers, I can pass on the information. I try to make myself available to the contractors and do what's easiest for them.”

Ten yr ago, field training was the primary focus, whereas Code training was secondary, according to Belarge. However, with the evolutions of project delivery methods and building philosophies, particularly design-build and building information modeling (BIM), electrical contractors now have to really understand the Code. “It's a change that requires them to be better readers and to understand what they're doing a little better,” Belarge says. “Now, contractors know education is important, and it's really the way they're going to be able to keep their jobs.”

Sidebar: Multi-Task Force

Hand tools help electricians and contractor perform everyday tasks. Over the years, hand tool manufacturers have focused on ergonomic design and weight to prevent hand and wrist injuries caused by repetitive tasks. However, sometimes they fail with their design tweaks and make what some electricians deem “novelty” tools. Randy Mitchell, general superintendent for Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based Tri-City Electrical Contractors' understands this firsthand. After winning tools (a pair of pliers and especially some mechanical screwdrivers) as a safety award, presented by his company every quarter, for his work on the Apopka Memorial Middle School renovation in Apopka, Fla., Mitchell quickly quit using them regularly. “They just didn't seem to have a durability to them,” Mitchell explains. “You'd use them for a couple of months, and then the novelty would wear off, and you'd realize it wasn't really doing the job for you.”

So imagine Mitchell's surprise when a 10-in-1 screwdriver bestowed on him through the same rewards program became a staple in his pouch. “When I first saw it, I just thought of it as another one of the novelty tools, but I got into the habit of having it in my pouch and realized that it's more than a novelty tool,” Mitchell confesses. “That thing really does its job — and does it well.”

The tool in question contains two flat and two Phillips head tips, as well as four specialty tips. In addition, it boasts two different sizes of nut driver connections, which remove screws on air-handler units and access panels and covers.

Although the original tool is still in working order, Mitchell bought a second one for backup. In fact, in the two years Mitchell has used it, the tips have shown very little wear, despite heavy use. “I use it multiple times a day,” he says. “It has really stood up to daily use in a commercial application. This is the one tool that's in my hand most of the day.”

However, what may be the biggest advantage of the tool is its multi-tasking ability. Mitchell's load has been lightened considerably through the screwdriver's versatility. “I carry my common tools,” he explains. “When you walk around all day with 30 lb of tools on your hip, and you're able to eliminate four or five tools by carrying one that's strong enough to do the job, that's the real benefit. That's what really amazed me about it. It does a good job replacing a lot of weight in the pouch.”

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