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When Mark Twain said, “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that ain’t so,” he wasn’t specifically talking about the need for continuing education, but he might as well have been. Those who make their living providing engineering expertise to others have worked hard to ensure that they know the right answer, so they can provide the best possible guidance to their customers.
A moving target
The challenge, however, is that the breathless pace of modern technology ensures that the right answer has an incredibly short shelf life. Technologies evolve quickly. The tech landscape is littered with the bodies of yesterday’s cutting-edge solutions. The only valid strategy for engineers is to invest time in continuing education, and to share that intelligence with their customers.
Good companies that have reason to be proud of their products like to say that their best customer is an educated customer. When the customer is in full possession of the facts, the good companies don’t have to work as hard to make the case that they are presenting the best choice to their customers. But engineers have to know the right answer before they can share it.
Therefore, a commitment to continuing education is vital, and it benefits everyone. Yet way too often, engineers don’t devote enough time to educational opportunities, even when those opportunities are free. Why?
Engineers are human. Like anyone else, they like to stick with what they know: a specific technology, a comfortable brand, or equipment they’ve recommended in the past. Published surveys of specifying engineers show that familiarity is such a strong motivator of behavior that it even trumps reliability of the product, and is twice as important of a factor as price.
To one degree or another, everyone is guilty of holding on a little too tight to their tried-and-true ways. It’s easy to understand. Everyone likes knowing the answer without having to expend a lot of investigation energy. And there is a real comfort in avoiding unknown risks. But in order to be the very best advocates for customers, engineers have to be open and available to the evolving needs of their customers, and to have their noses to the ground for fresh solutions to meet those needs—or else they risk knowing things that ain’t so.
Good news, bad news
As exciting as new technological developments are, they almost inevitably come with some degree of a learning curve. A consulting-specifying engineer may specify standby generators infrequently or have an application outside of his or her normal projects. Very often an engineer’s core expertise is in facility power distribution and lighting. Customer expectations can shift slightly and sometimes dramatically in response to new innovations and changing market conditions. Not knowing the new rules can result in an engineer failing to maximize the value proposition with his or her customers. These realities are compounded by ever-changing codes, which always bring the real risk that an uninformed design choice will result in compliance issues with the authority having jurisdiction.
The good news is that whether an engineer is new to the power generator space and needs to quickly get up to speed, or a savvy veteran who just wants to make sure he or she is at the top of the game, there are continuing education classes available to help provide the best answers to the tough questions. Knowledge truly is power when designing standby power solutions.
More choices = better choices
Incorporating the unique requirements of a standby generation solution into various types of applications can be challenging. Matching customer expectations for performance, reliability, growth, and sustainable environmental responsibility can create multiple competing design requirements. This is where having options becomes essential to success. Only when an engineer has a complete understanding of the breadth of available technologies and best application practices can he or she achieve optimal solutions.
New technologies = new possibilities
Today, the standby generator industry is innovating to achieve new possibilities for customers. The major manufacturers have reconsidered how they provide simple, high value, and redundant standby power solutions. These solutions have created a new set of customer expectations for reliability and scalability. Natural gas exploration technology has fundamentally changed the supply and pricing of this fuel, triggering a corresponding rise in customer expectations on how best to use low-cost, clean-burning natural gas generators. In response, manufacturers have innovated new solutions, such as bifuel, that combine natural gas into traditional diesel engines, as well as new approaches to maximize the power density and lower the cost of natural gas gensets.
Now more than ever
While standby generators are not automatically part of every project, they are inarguably becoming more important due to the ever-increasing demands placed on our antiquated power grid. Americans are using 400% more electricity now than they were in 1990, and each home uses seven times more power than the average home in 1950. What once was a practical option for some has rapidly become an absolute necessity for many. These realities are causing standby power to expand into new market segments at an increasing rate.
What I learned in school today
A recent poll of attendees of Generac’s Engineering Power Symposium this year asked the engineers to share the most important thing they learned there. Their answers are provided in the following paragraphs and may help you create a roadmap for ongoing continuing education relative to standby power generation.
Generator sizing: Proper sizing of generators was one of the biggest concerns. Today’s market constantly uses more power electronic devices that make sizing generators more challenging. Predicting the impact of VFDs, soft starters, UPSs, and other harmonically challenging devices on standby generators is an exercise in harmonic analysis with which most general consulting engineers are not familiar. When these challenges are combined with the transient effects of across-the-line motor starting, it’s no surprise that many system designers are looking for more sizing information and best in-class analytical tools. These concerns should be addressed by obtaining detailed training on these vital issues and comprehensive transient and harmonic analysis tools. If, through continuing education, a misapplication can be avoided, the education was well worth the time invested.
Code requirements: Code requirements were, unsurprisingly, also a topic of high interest. The National Electrical Code was never written with on-site power generation as a particular focus, which can lead to confusion. NEC issues prompted several engaging discussions on requirements for disconnects on incoming generator feeders, separation of circuits, reliability of fuel, equipment installation locations, and fire pump overcurrent protection. Code compliance can be an exercise in detailed investigation while trying to avoid the landmines of interpretation and local norms. Having a deeper understanding of how the code works as a whole to address the correct implementation of on-site power is key. It is also essential to understand what causes confusion in the code, resulting in different interpretations and local market norms.
Paralleled power generation: Paralleled power generation and the significant reliability and scalability that it offers is another area of keen interest. Changes in technology continue to bring integrated paralleling solutions into all applications. Most engineers don’t have much experience with the basic concepts of synchronization, real and reactive power balancing, and how these are achieved within traditional and integrated solutions. Only through a thorough understanding of the concepts and various implementation technologies can an engineer achieve an optimized solution to meet the unique requirements of each application.
Opportunities for continued education
Standby power is a unique product category that requires consulting engineers to reach into the marketplace for additional knowledge. Continued education is available via trade groups such as EGSA, 7x24, and ASHE. Education is also available from multiple suppliers in the market. It is through the combined efforts of trade groups and manufacturers that an engineer can fully explore standby power through multiple perspectives.
Never stop learning
There is always a balance in every profession between occupying your professional comfort level and keeping your skills fresh by stretching out and continuing your education. Luckily, there are a number of avenues available to pursue that education, many of them at a low cost or even free.
Because this article started with a quote from Mark Twain, it is only appropriate that he should have the last word: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing you can do is keep your mind young.”
Who are we to argue with Mark Twain?
Michael Kirchner is technical support manager for Generac Power Systems, Waukesha, Wis., where he supports and trains on all industrial products. He has a BSEE and an MBA from the University of Wisconsin. He has been with Generac Power Systems since 1999.
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