Expect the Unexpected

With any assignment we tackle at SHP, there is a clear understanding that unexpected issues are all but guaranteed to emerge. Whether it is a clear-cut renovation or the design and construction of a brand-new building, our engineers, architects and designers are equipped to handle the task at hand, no matter what hiccups there are. Though some may be more difficult to resolve than others, our team revels in a challenge.

Such was the case at the soon-to-be-complete addition to a historic Cincinnati high school. The design of the high school blends the building’s historical, classic features with cutting-edge functionality. SHP has completed many projects at this landmark school, including several additions, the school’s natatorium, and its fine arts wing.

So, when our client called us this year requesting an additional classroom building for the campus, we were happy to oblige.

The Issue

Most modern buildings and virtually every modern school have a generator that exists solely to provide backup power in the event of a power outage. The generator’s effectiveness, range, and adaptability will vary, but keeping the school’s emergency systems operational at all times is especially important. For example, the emergency lighting and fire alarm system are critical in an emergency, regardless of any power malfunctions, particularly common during winter or rainy months.

During the design process of the new addition, it became apparent to SHP’s electrical engineers that there would be an issue with one of the school’s existing generators. Initially, the client was hoping to use one generator to provide backup for both the central high school building and a newly implemented two-story building that houses additional classroom space. However, our engineering team quickly realized that the generator they had in place would not work as intended. SHP explained to its client that the problem lies within the generator’s method of grounding as well as the existing transfer switches.

Grounding the generator with a direct connection to earth provides for the safeguarding of persons and property from the hazards that arise from the use of electricity. In this case, the generator wasn’t provided with its own connection to earth, but was instead provided with a ground via the existing school.

A transfer switch is a piece of equipment found “downstream” of a generator that is able to tell when the utility power is offline. Once it detects that power is no longer online, the switch sends a signal to the generator to start the engine and feeds power to the building or the emergency loads. It sounds easy enough until you realize that the transfer switches in place for this school were intended to be paired with a generator that is not provided with a direct connection to earth – what are commonly referred to as three-pole or solid neutral transfer switches. As constructed, the school would not be able to provide backup power to both of these buildings at the same time with the existing generator.

The Solution

After this problem was discovered, our electrical engineers were hot on the case, working diligently to find a solution that wouldn’t break the bank. Joe Faiola, a veteran in the electrical engineering industry, along with his team, spent weeks researching different ways to solve the problem.

“Altogether, it was about a two to three-week process,” Joe said. “I reached out to a technical authority in Chicago to get his thoughts on this unique design challenge. He gave me his opinion, but even he struggled with the right recommendation.”

Along with the feedback he received, Joe dug up decade-old submittals, tracked down the person who initially sold the generator to the school district, and even spoke to a grounding expert before finally coming to a conclusion.

The team recognized that they had a few different avenues they could go:

  1. Provide an entirely new generator to power the newly constructed building.
  2. Design for a battery system in lieu of a generator.
  3. Modify the existing generator’s grounding connection, replace the existing transfer switches to be compatible with a grounded generator, and provide new transfer switches in the new building.

Joe put together a pros and cons list, laying out every detail for the client to see. Ultimately, the decision was made to purchase a new generator for the building, as this option was as technically effective as it was cost-effective.

Challenges like this, though not usually this involved, pop up in every design we bring to life. It’s really just par for the course, but at SHP, we will never shy away from the unexpected. Our ultimate goal is to provide exemplary client service, and as long as that is accomplished, we’ll always roll with the punches.