061. Power Series – How close can I get to my electrical gear?

Chris: 00:30

Welcome to EECO Asks Why. Today we’re digging into a fun topic of how close can we get to our gear inside of electrical distribution rooms. And with us today we have one of our favorite subject matter experts, Mr. Dan Leeman from Eaton, and Dan is going to help us with this topic. So Dan, welcome this morning. 

Dan: 00:45

Good morning. 

Chris: 00:46

Good morning. Can you start us off by when you first walk into a electrical distribution room, what are some of the immediate items that you look for? 

Dan: 00:54

Yeah, sure can. There was a couple of things that I’ve come across that typically give me some concern before I even enter the room. One is the general cluttered nature of the facility. You want to make sure that you’re always safe when you’re walking in and out of any facility, including electrical rooms, but you gotta be mindful of just the general trip hazards getting in and out of these rooms. But when walking into these electrical rooms, are they cluttered, is it used as a storage room as opposed to an electrical room as many of these are. 

Typically electrical rooms are the last part of the engineering plans and they turn into closets more so than actual electrical distribution centers. But, is there a good access, is there a good means of egress? If there’s an emergency in the room, can you get out? There’s certain code requirements for being able to get in and out of these rooms.

Are you going to be safe walking into that room and be able to get out if there’s an emergency? Do you have idle space around the equipment? Can you safely look at the equipment by walking around it? There’s code requirements of minimum isle widths. So is this one of the newer rooms that’s going to comply with it or are you going into a room that’s 50 years old and not exactly per latest code and OSHA requirements?

That’s the safety side of just walking in. Now you want to talk about the equipment itself. Is the equipment going to be something that you can actually look at and, what condition do you think the equipment’s in? So is the room is the electrical room air conditioned? That’s something that you can tell when you get in. It doesn’t have to be cold, but does it seem like there’s excessive moisture? Does it look like there’s ever been moisture in the room? 

I’ve been in electrical rooms with indoor equipment where the equipment has rust on it. And that just comes from a high moisture environment or some other chemicals in the air that maybe you should be concerned about as well.

But, the general condition of the gear. Can you read the labels on the gear? Does it look like there’s cardboard covering openings on the equipment? I’m sure we’ve all seen that. The makeshift dead front covers. Does the equipment looks safe? And if any of those questions concern you, the answers to the question concern you, then maybe it would be beneficial to just take a step back and maybe not go right into that room and really think through are you putting yourself or your customer at risk by just entering that area. 

Chris: 03:29

Absolutely. The big thing we’re harping on here is trying to promote safety. And I think you really touched on so many key elements there. The air condition is one that most people may not think about, but that potentially could lead to moisture.

And we’ve heard these terms come up with several times when people ask us about going into electrical distribution rooms. And the terms are limited approach boundaries and restricted approach boundary. Can you walk us through what that ultimately is telling us? 

Dan: 03:59

Sure. Yeah, absolutely. So I think it’s important to understand that there’s really two different types of boundaries that we talk about when we talk about electrical boundaries around equipment. There’s a shock boundary which is where we hear the terms limited approach or restricted approach, or in the old code, we heard something called prohibited approach, which doesn’t exist anymore. That has to do with voltage shock and voltage class.

And then the other type of boundary that we talk about is called an arc boundary. So we can talk specifically about the shock boundaries first, since you mentioned that. Limited approach boundary is based on, as I mentioned, the voltage class of the equipment. And it should be labeled on the equipment what the limited approach boundary is. And it’s really the line measured in feet and inches from exposed parts that unqualified people shall not cross. 

There’s a lot to unpack there, but when we talk about exposed parts, a piece of equipment that is sitting idle or running with all of its covers in place without any exposed voltage, meaning a door open, bus bar visual, the limited approach boundary there wouldn’t apply or it applies, but it’s not, you don’t have to stay behind that because the parts are not exposed. Once somebody opens up a door or a cover that is when that limited approach boundary comes into play. And if you, like me, are an unqualified person, and we can get into what makes you qualified or unqualified, as well but, if you, as an unqualified person enter that boundary, you are putting yourself at a high risk of shock hazard. So that would be limited approach it’s for it’s the line that unqualified people shall not cross when exposed parts or bus are present.

Restricted approach is also shock hazard distance. It’s typically much less distance than the limited approach boundary. It is also to expose parts and only qualified people can pass that boundary. And I guess this would be a good point to jump and discuss really what an electrically qualified person is, since we’re on the topic. So… 

Chris: 06:32

I was hoping you were going to go there next, just to clarify that for us, between qualified and unqualified. 

Dan: 06:37

Sure. Yeah. So the National Fire Protection Agency, NFPA 70 E, which is a standard for arc protection and shock protection, personnel protection, along with OSHA have definitions for what a qualified person is.

And a qualified person is somebody who has the general skills and knowledge related to this specific construction of that equipment and the operation of that equipment and they understand the hazards involved and they’ve been trained.  If I’m speaking to a group of salespeople, a group of engineering managers, such as myself, I would consider us all unqualified people because we’re typically not going to be going through site specific safety training when we enter these electrical rooms. So I would caution the listeners to always stay outside of limited approach boundary if any shock hazards are going to be exposed.  

Electricians or building managers or people who have an intimate knowledge of the equipment would be considered qualified as long as of course there’s documentation and all that to show it, but they would be considered qualified and be allowed to approach the equipment.

Chris: 07:58


Dan: 07:58

Those are the two big ones there. And if we’d like we can talk briefly about our arc boundary. 

Chris: 08:05

Sure. Absolutely. 

Dan: 08:07

Okay. So as I mentioned, two general types of boundaries, shock boundaries and arc boundary. So the arc boundary is a boundary that’s established from the, again, exposed live parts.

So they all talk about exposed parts. But this boundary is the one that is calculated in distance and feet and inches from that live part of which if an arc occurs a person could receive second degree burns at that distance. So again, a little bit to unpack there, but well-maintained equipment will have a label on the front and that label will give you limited approach boundaries, restricted approach boundaries. And it will also give you this arc boundary. And if you’re not wearing appropriate PPE to cross that boundary, then you are putting yourself at risk if any exposed live parts are present. 

Chris: 09:06

Okay. Thank you for walking us through that. Dan. That was really good. You mentioned people like salespeople, managers, things like that are typically not that qualified, but there’s there any minimum training or just awareness that people should have just prior to going into an electrical distribution room in general?

Dan: 09:27

Yeah. I think it’s important that we understand the NFPA70E standard. I believe that if we are being asked to quote and upfit and maintain electrical equipment, that we should have a fundamental understanding of that standard. There are courses available that you can take. A lot of OEMs or manufacturers offer training by qualified engineers.

There’s a lot of opportunity out there to at least get a fundamental understanding of what shock boundaries are, what your risks are, and of course, getting more into the details of what arc protection looks like. I would say that you would want to start with maybe just doing some reading on your own and then reaching out to some local vendors who might be able to support you in a more comprehensive training.

Chris: 10:21

Absolutely and partnering with partners like yourself, we can definitely get that training to the listeners out there to get more qualified individuals in place. So you’ve mentioned several times about understanding those boundaries. So for the listeners that are not used to going to E rooms, is there something in an E room that gives you that definition of what those boundaries are? 

Dan: 10:46

Yes. Yes. I say yes. Electrical equipment is required to have some sort of labeling on it that gives the people that are in that room this information. And that label is sometimes called an arc flash label.  Could be called a shock hazard label, but there are requirements now that every five years electrical equipment is required to go through a study and that study will dictate this information. 

That’s a relatively new standard in the last 10 years, when this has really started to pick up some momentum, even though it’s been around longer than that. With that, you have a lot of aged infrastructure in this country and there’s a lot of equipment all the way through that many factories, many facilities that don’t have any labels on it. So I would say that there’s a couple of things that you would want to make sure you’re doing just to, again, keep safety at the forefront of your mind. 

If you have to enter an electrical room, you have to go through these general conditions, like I mentioned earlier, is it cluttered, is it safe? First and foremost, do not touch the equipment. I see it all the time and it’s something that scares me, honestly. But if you walk into a room, you’re taking notes, don’t lean up against the equipment. Whether it’s brand new or whether it’s from the 1970s or eighties, don’t lean on it. Okay. You don’t know the condition behind it and arcs are fickle. It’s hard to understand exactly the condition of something that you can’t see. You can inadvertently cause a fault by sometimes just touching the equipment. Again, depending on the age and the, the condition of the equipment. So definitely don’t ever touch it.

Look from the outside. So if a qualified person opens a compartment or a cover or removes a dead front or opens a wire away then you need to step outside of the limited approach boundary, if you know what it is, and at the very least you should be stepping out of the electrical room.

And I know that we don’t, but I’ve seen this and it freaks me out actually every time I see it. But I’ll see a qualified person suited up in 40 calorie suits and being fully compliant with an NFPA 70 E standard. And then I’ll see a person in a polo and khakis looking over their shoulder.

And it’s just not good practice. So if you need pictures, if you need a description, then that needs to be done by a qualified person who’s trained and understands those risks. So I would say step out of the room. Step out of the approach boundary if you know it. 

Chris: 13:36

Absolutely. One question I had for you in particular, because you’re experienced, you’ve seen a lot of things you’ve already alluded to here, but what are some of the scariest experiences you’ve had or, you can definitely change the names to protect the innocent here, but I’m sure you’ve seen a lot, and I’m with you, I’ve seen the guy suited up and then there’s the salesman or whoever with polos and khakis behind them and that’s definitely not best practice. So any experiences you had that you’d like to share?

Dan: 14:03

Yeah. I would say that I’ve been in an electrical room that had a whole bunch of motor control centers, and this was in a chicken processing facility. This particular area of the facility wasn’t exactly the most well-maintained I would say. And there was just a lot of airborne debris and there was no event that occurred, but it definitely scared me, what happened. And everything was normal though. But it still scared me. And it just got me thinking about how things can change in the blink of an eye. So I was standing next to a motor control center and it had, it must’ve been at least a size four or size five across the line starter. And the process that starter was feeding. needed to start obviously.

And I just happened to be standing next to the equipment and that contactor pulled in. And you know, all of a sudden they own the lights dim for a second. The starter pulls in, lets out a loud crack. The MCC almost vibrated, and I was standing near it. There were no exposed parts, everything was okay, but it just, it got me thinking things can change in the blink of an eye.

And, if there was an arc behind that door, for example, as opposed to just a normal motor start, what type of injury would I sustain standing in front of it? Yeah. Those are the types of things. I think we need to understand that there’s a level of respect that we have to have for this equipment.

That this equipment, when it’s well-maintained, is still incredibly dangerous. It’s not just a big gray box. That gray box is there to contain and protect. To contain faults and protect people standing outside of it. So we need to be respectful of all that. 

Chris: 15:55

Absolutely. That’s the point of EECO Asks Why. What we’re trying to do is elevate awareness, safety for our heroes, the people in the plants, the people working on this equipment. Ultimately, we get down to the why. Why the things matter. Dan, why should our listeners care about learning how close they should get to their year? 

Dan: 16:13

I think you’ve said it, Chris. I think it has a lot to do with our general, personal safety and the safety of the people around us. We set it and forget it. It’s like that old infomercial term terminology, but we set gear and then we forget the gear and the gear runs and everybody’s happy until the gear doesn’t run anymore.

Okay. So there’s obviously a major risk that doesn’t have to do with safety. If your equipment goes down, then it’s shutting down your facility. It’s shutting down a process. It could be at a hospital, it could be at a chicken plant. It could be in a residential neighborhood and you lose power to some, apartments.

That’s not the worst that can happen with electrical equipment. That’s maybe the worst in the moment, but really electrical equipment causes, I don’t have the equipment doesn’t cause it, but electrical equipment is involved in many injuries and fatalities in this country and across the world every year.

And so really this has to do, this section that we just talked about, has to do with keeping yourself and the people around you and the people who are operating this equipment safe. That’s the key. 

Chris: 17:33

Absolutely. And the thing is a lot of this stuff, a lot of these mistakes that happen and mistakes do happen, but things can be preventable. Control what you can control. At the end of the day, we want everyone to go home safely to their family. So Dan you, you unpacked a lot here. Thank you so much for your time. Your knowledge and everything that you brought here today. 

Dan: 17:54

Oh, thank you. Appreciate it.