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Best Practices for Dealing with Aging Power Infrastructure

By enacting a $1 trillion federal infrastructure law in November, the U.S. government provided a glimmer of hope for an aging U.S. electrical grid that one Wharton Business School academic described as “a third-world electricity system that really needs to be upgraded.”

The contiguous 48 U.S. states contain one of the largest power infrastructures in the world, with more than 7,300 power plants, approximately 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, and millions more low-voltage power lines and distribution transformers—all serving 145 million customers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The national grid is divided into three largely independent “interconnections,” servicing the Eastern and Western portions of the United States and parts of Canada, as well as Texas.

Much of the electrical distribution system exists outdoors, where it is exposed to the full range of environmental extremes. In 2021, a massive winter storm in Texas left 4.5 million customers without power, according to the Associated Press. That calamity is just one example of how years of neglect can make electrical systems vulnerable to the elements.

More Upgrades Mean More Demand

Another potential strain on the national electrical infrastructure is the national push for clean energy. The infrastructure law represents the largest investment to date, including an expanded electric vehicle infrastructure. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the United States currently has approximately 44,000 public charging stations for battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. However, the new law calls for more than a tenfold increase, with a target of 500,000 charging stations by 2030. The Boston Consulting Group estimates each battery electric vehicle will require an additional $1,100 in grid upgrades, totaling upwards of $25 billion in power grid investment.

Many charging stations will require increased automation and smart technologies, so it’s difficult to predict future power demands and just how susceptible this new infrastructure will be to disruption.

Disruptions Remain a Reality

No matter how this new grid takes shape, the fundamental way electricity is currently delivered in the United States makes power surges an ongoing concern. This is because U.S. power grids deliver electricity “just in time” in response to the rise and fall of demand, so that there is a balance where the grid’s supply and is nearly equal to users’ demand. The amount of grid switching required to adjust supply can cause significant electrical disturbances.

The fundamental way electricity is currently delivered in the United States today makes power surges an ongoing concern.

Surges—also known as “overvoltage” spikes—can damage or destroy electronic equipment within residential, commercial, industrial, and manufacturing facilities. In addition to grid switching, external surges can result from wind-induced contacts, the use of heavy equipment in the area, and lightning strikes.

In fact, according to the Insurance Information Institute, the number of insurance claims in the U.S. involving lightning strikes dropped between 2017 and 2019, but the total amount of lighting-related claims increased by 11 percent, totaling $920.1 million in 2019. One potential reason is that, given the emergence of smart home technology, there are more interconnected electronics for a power surge to damage.

Problematic Indoor Surges

External surges aren’t the only source of potential damage. Power experts estimate that 60 to 80 percent of power surges are a result of issues inside the building. According to Berkley Asset Protection, a survey by IBM of monitored facilities in 49 cities found that an average of 128.3 power-related disturbances occur in a monitored facility each month—more than four power surges a day. Within industrial facilities, especially, devices and power motors constantly switch on and off during the day.

Billions in Potential Damages

While power surges are measured in milliseconds, this is all it takes to cause severe damage to electronic equipment. For high-volume manufacturers, damage from power surges can disrupt production, creating costly delays in the supply chain. Industrial losses can run into billions of dollars from power quality issues resulting in fires, production disruptions, claims filed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), data loss and downtime.

To make matters worse, damage caused by surge events is not inherently covered by property insurance, according to Nationwide. The resulting losses that follow such an event—including emergency repairs, ruined inventory, or replacement equipment—are not automatically covered either. Protection from power surges requires specific endorsements on insurance policies.

Surge Protectors Offer Advanced Protection

For anyone who has tripped a breaker in their home by plugging in a hairdryer or portable heater, the concept of electrical safeguards should be familiar. However, conventional fuses and circuit breakers are not designed to protect sensitive electronics such as access control panels, surveillance systems, data networks, or AV equipment from overvoltage spikes. For this, a dedicated surge protective device (SPD) is required.

In short, placing SPDs along every electrical pathway is the most thorough approach to safeguarding critical electrical equipment from a potential power surge, whether due to external or internal sources.

Electricity Gets Safely Diverted

The basic principle is that a power surge will follow a path between two contact points. In other words, electrical current needs a place to enter and exit. An SPD acts as an electrical safety gate, intercepting excess voltage and diverting it safely via a grounding wire, because electricity always follows the path of least resistance to the ground.

SPDs are designed to divert overvoltage surges above specific thresholds without failing. Ratings can range from a few thousand amps to more than 400 kiloamperes (kA). For perspective, the average lightning strike generates a current of approximately 20kA, with extremes cases reaching upwards of 200kA.

A Layered Design is the Most Effective

Because electrical disturbances and power spikes can come from multiple sources and at different levels, surge protection technology works best in a layered approach. Surge protection codes and recommendations often refer to specific “types” of SPDs. “Type 1” SPDs are permanently installed on the line side, or the load side, of the service entrance, after the step-down transformer provides the supply voltage. “Type 2” SPDs are permanently installed on the load side of the service entrance, after a current limiting device. “Type 3” SPDs are installed 30 feet or more after the service entrance panel and can be permanently or temporarily installed near the point of use.

In addition, the NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code requires SPDs on all signaling system circuits entering any building. This protects the fire alarm system from outside wiring and external antennas that can be particularly vulnerable when exposed to lightning and other electrical disturbances.

A Best Practices Approach

Most surge protection strategies work from the outside­ in. The first layer involves intercepting surges from the main power supply. One might think that would be enough to protect the entire building or facility. However, there are other electrical pathways into the system, such as fire alarm panels, ATMs, and point of sale devices. Any power surges on these cables can pass into the primary electrical system, as well.

Most surge protection strategies work from the outside in.

Since voltage can travel in both directions when it reaches a cable, the best approach is to install SPDs on both ends of a cable or wire run. For example, when installing an external security camera, there would be an SPD near the camera and another near the power source. Each will act like a roadblock on either end of the path, preventing the power surge from going anywhere else but to ground.

In the event of an external power surge, the multiple surge protectors throughout the building will provide complete coverage and safely divert the overvoltage. This strategy also works inside the building. Placing multiple surge protectors along cabling throughout a facility will intercept internal surges and prevent damage, as well.

On a smaller scale, the same approach applies to residential homes or apartments. “Whole house” protection places surge protection on the main power feed from the street, as well as at key internal connecting points for burglar alarms, video surveillance systems, and HVAC systems.

If There’s Power, Equipment Needs Protecting

The commitment to improving the U.S. power infrastructure holds promise. No one can say what innovations might emerge over the next few decades if the United States is successful at making a transition toward renewable energy. However, if there’s electrical wire in the ground, on a pole, or snaking through a building, it is susceptible to electrical surges and spikes. As a result, businesses and homeowners would be wise to prepare themselves for the reality that disruptions are going to be with us for a long time.

Derrick Berg is a field sales engineer for DITEK Corporation. With more than 25 years of experience in both direct and indirect sales, Berg has worked in the computer/IT service, business security, and cybersecurity industries and has trained sales teams on both the local and national level. Berg is a veteran of the U.S. Army and enjoys collecting and working on vintage sports cars and traveling. He lives in Murphy, Texas, with his wife Ginger.