Power panels: a flexible, modular approach

With lower total cost of ownership (TCO) and faster installation, power panels are entering into a new era of platforms.
By Jason Newby, GE Energy Connections September 21, 2017

Powering a manufacturing facility used to mean just writing a spec and then ordering and installing a standard, pre-assembled box and breaker power panel. Now, given the demands on plant engineers for improved energy efficiency, lower operating expenses and maintenance costs, facility managers are looking at new total cost of ownership (TCO) metrics for their power panel purchases or upgrades.Photo by Viktor Kiryanov on Unsplash

While a significant part of the power panel market still employs pre-assembled panels with components and circuit breakers installed by panel manufacturers, there is a shift toward more modular, field-configurable power panel platforms with pluggable components.

By examining the full supply and value chain of a typical power panel, multiple points for new TCO-focused benefits for power panels assembled and configured on a job site will emerge.

A look at panel circuit breakers
Before more modular and pluggable power panel components were generally available, it made sense to shift the time and cost issues of panel assembly to a manufacturer. With a circuit breaker, it can take 15 to 20 minutes to wire each lug-mounted circuit breaker to a power panel, which does not include the time and cost of dealing with incorrectly specified or misplaced parts including lugs, straps, brackets, and cover plates.

Newer modular power panels with pluggable and field-configurable components are changing job site installation models. New pluggable circuit breakers now can be installed in seconds.

As important as time and labor costs saving is that putting more flexible, modular solutions at the site of installation helps create new TCO value. Installing circuit breakers on site means that any problems with components, or the need to increase power protection to meet upgrade requirements, can be managed and changed in the field. This saves reordering and shipping time for new circuit breakers and parts, and gives distributors and contractors new flexibility to respond to changes in the field.

The power panel value chain
The core principle of TCO requires looking at every part of the value chain—from specifications and installation, to maintenance and end-to-end operating costs such as energy efficiency. In this new generation of modular, pluggable-component power panels, the modern architectures reduce the overall number of parts or SKUs that power designers need to specify and order. Circuit breakers are a single SKU item with all required parts—such as lugs, straps, brackets, and cover plates—included in a single package. From a TCO vantage, this eliminates the time, cost, and delay of incorrect or missing parts.

New modular platforms also greatly reduce the cost of handling, as modular components—from the exterior boxes and back panels, to internal power panels and pluggable bus bars and circuit breakers—are packed and shipped in smaller packages on standard shipping pallets that are easier to store and move versus traditional, full-sized power panels. Some of these panels can weight up to 1,000 pounds and take several people to move. These smaller, modular units also mean that power panel upgrades and expansions at existing facilities are easier to manage as modular panel components can more readily be moved through existing doorways and corridors.

Greater field-flexibility
As explained earlier, the modular characteristic of these new panel platforms not only shifts the time and labor savings equation from pre-assembled units to the facility side of the equation, but it also generates new TCO values by allowing more field-friendly changes and upgrades.

It’s not uncommon for power distribution and protection requirements to change between the specification and final installation. For example, the load requirement may have changed from 50 amp to 60 amp protection, or an upgraded electrical requirement was added, such as additional cooling. These on-the-job changes traditionally required new components to be ordered, adding time and cost to the project. Once they arrive, each new circuit breaker can take upwards of 30 minutes to change out and replace.

Pluggable or field-configurable components, such as rail-mounted bus bars or pluggable circuit breakers, eliminate the time, delay, and re-installation costs.

Another example: Job site changes often involve the power cable feed to the power panel. A panel may be specified for a bottom feed, but a top power feed may be found during installation. Normally that fix requires the time and cost of pulling new cables, or buying and waiting two weeks for a new panel to be shipped. New modular power panels feature pluggable power bus bars mounted on rails that can be oriented for a top or bottom feed by simply reversing the bus. Circuit breakers then are just plugged into the rail without wiring to a lug.

This kind of field flexibility also provides benefits at the other end of the value chain—in maintenance and upgrades. Pluggable circuit breakers can be changed out in seconds and upgrades in power capacity can be made more easily. Also, mix-sized circuit breakers can be installed together in one row, conserving valuable panel space.

Fundamental changes in power panel technology to more modular and pluggable components is changing traditional purchase-and-install paradigms. These new modular platforms make it easier to shift costs from panel builders to a more TCO-based, flexible, and field-friendly on-site installation, with maintenance, updates, and safety benefits as well.

Jason Newby is with GE Energy Connections’ Industrial Solutions division.