high voltage electricians

Shop Spotlight: High Voltage Electricians

When plugging in those string lights, winter holiday decorative trees, and other displays, a wire connects to the outlet. Those plugs send out 120 volts of electricity, keeping lights shining bright throughout the night.

One team at F&S regularly deals with and considers lines with a voltage of that times 100.

F&S utility distribution electricians, also called high voltage electricians, monitor and repair power lines as they traverse throughout campus. Much of the infrastructure and equipment is hidden in plain sight across the campus landscape. And a note on the industry as a whole: this team of “high voltage electricians” refer to themselves more often as “medium voltage electricians,” and they are but one part of Shop 25.

Math, Numbers

Abbott Power Plant, a cogeneration facility that produces electricity and steam, supplies approximately 75% of campus’ energy. Once the electricity leaves Abbott, the utility distribution electricians team works to maintain a safe and reliable electrical distribution system. This electrical energy is sent to campus underground to a network of switchyards, distribution centers, and load centers.

Through a series of engineering feats and vital equipment, the lines are then sent into buildings at one of three voltages depending on the location and magnitude of the load. These voltages are 4,160 volts, 12,470 volts, and 13,800 volts. Once the electrical energy reaches individual campus buildings, the energy is transformed down to lower voltages that are then utilized by occupants of the buildings and by building equipment. These voltages are typically 120/208 volts and 277/480 volts.

The importance of our work necessitates immediate response, no matter when the issue happens, to restore power. We have to be available 24-7, 365 days a year.

Jeff Isaacs, Systems and Utilities Electrician Subforeperson, Shop 25

The majority of the university’s 52-mile electrical-distribution system is all over the 7.1 square mile footprint of the Urbana campus. The underground network consists of concrete encased duct bank, electrical man holes, and approximately 300 miles of cable. The electrical  circuits are then routed to two 69,000 volt switchyards, 12 distribution centers, 28 load centers, and 460 building transformers. All this equipment outside of Abbott Power Plant is maintained by the utility distribution electricians.

Importance of MEL

One de-commissioned former power plant, which decades ago supplied electricity to part of the young campus, is now the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory on the Engineering Quad.

Although power is no longer generated there, it’s still an important location to campus. Outdoor lighting, class bells, and fire alarm systems are all routed and in some cases controlled from this building. These systems, as well as the electrical distribution system, are absolutely essential to a safe and healthy campus.

A student walks to class in the fog by the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory.

And what’s there now is absolutely essential to a safe and healthy campus: all outdoor lighting is funneled through here, as well as the classroom bell system, featured in some older buildings still.

Lighting is not *powered* at this location, but rather, a system of low-power lines signal to nearby load centers at the exact same moment, to turn on street and parking lot lights across campus. The bell system is done in a similar way to ensure all students are notified at the same time: class is over!

Shop 25

Fire alarm repair
Fire alarm testing
Class bells
Campus outdoor lighting
Steam tunnels
Electrical distribution
Electrical locates  
Electrical metering

More Recent Work

In the last five years, electricians have replaced a “very large” amount of distribution equipment throughout campus, according to Isaacs.

“Much of this equipment was installed in the 1940s and 1950s.” He listed: transformers, switches, and miles of medium voltage cable, approximately $10,000,000 worth of equipment.

Happy Holidays and Stay Safe!

What’s needed when working in the field: “Properly rated fire resistant clothing, insulated tools, insulated rubber gloves, hot sticks, and medium voltage rated electrical testers are routinely used by the crew,” said Isaacs.

And when it comes to physically “flipping the switch,” more safeguards are needed: “Most switches, as you turn a handle, you have to load up and then hit a button. It spring loads it so it happens quickly. Not like flipping a switch manually, it’s a system with a motor to close or open the switch–it’s hammered shut in milliseconds,” said Brian Johnson, Shop 25 foreperson.

“All voltages and equipment F&S electricians work on are potentially dangerous if not worked on in a proper and safe manner. A large percentage of the our equipment is located outside or underground. This environment can be harsh for not just the equipment but the employees that work on it daily.”

Keep in mind, these are what you do NOT want to see when dealing with utility scale power, with a touch of the Holidays: