Five basic questions to ask about control panels

Take the time to ensure control panels aren’t just a commodity for projects to maximize efficiency.

By Jerry Smith, Integrity Integration Resources (I2R) December 23, 2016

With the rapid pace of today’s technology, control panels often don’t get the thought or consideration they deserve. There are many reasons for this. Some project managers consider them mere commodities, and others consider them the necessary thing that the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) or the electrical contractor will provide. Even when a project is done in-house, the input/output (I/O) list is still in flux right down to the last minute. Many times equipment is chosen so late in the process that the control panels can be difficult to integrate into the system, leaving the panel builder to figure out the mess. Also, as the project progresses, situations and requirements change, making the control panels change as well. The following are five frequently asked questions about control panels that provide some insight on why system integration project managers should give control panels a thorough review:

Question #1: Panel building is considered a basic part of any integration project, but it’s also crucial to its success. What are some of the key things users should consider?

Answer: Scheduling is important and so is the intricacy and complexity of the project. Are you using new technology? Does this project have specific hazard or safety requirements? Are there environmental considerations?

Panel specification is very detailed, and it is often difficult to outline the details until the equipment is purchased and finalized. The global sourcing of equipment has not helped, as panel standards around the world vary and can significantly confuse the issue.

With those things in mind, give your control panel some priority in the planning process. If you are just looking for price, you get what you pay for. Custom panels are not OEM panels built 10 at a time to the same spec. Suppliers may not call your attention to design issues or specification differences. On the other hand, an integrator with a panel shop usually has engineering services that can save a lot of time and confusion and add needed clarity to a project.

Remember, that while the control panel is usually not very high-tech, they stay on the jobsite for 10 to 15 years, so quality panels are important to production uptime and to maintaining the project’s lifecycle.

Question #2: What are some of the bad experiences that are important to competent panel building?

A: Here are a few types of problems that can occur in these cases:

  • Thermal management in panels is often over-looked and/or under-designed. Panels get too hot, and premature component failure occurs or process shuts down frequently.
  • The components are not labeled or are mislabeled
  • An obvious lack of quality control
  • Loose wires
  • Communication wires not properly separated from high voltage conductors
  • Not enough room for the incoming field wiring
  • Lack of quality testing is a huge factor. The drawings may not match what is delivered. This can lead to rewiring and re-installing equipment in the field because of poor panel design.
  • Wires that were not properly terminated, including poor crimps, insulation pinched in terminals, and nicked insulation.

Question #3: Are there industry standards for panel builders? What are the risks, regulatory and operational, in not following such standards?

A: There are standards such as UL, NEC, NFPA, etc. The interpretation of these standards is what creates risk and not the lack of standards. There are areas within the standards that can be interpreted in several ways. Many times, these interpretations are done for cost reasons versus integrity of the design and safety.

The risk in not following the standards ranges from a rejection of a panel at the jobsite to the death of someone onsite. Consequently there are fairly significant price swings from panel shop to panel shop depending on how that shop interprets standards and applies that to the panel build.

Question #4: Manufacturing is a cost-sensitive industry. What is the issue of cost versus value in panel building?

A: The first thing to consider is motive. Are you trying to get the control panel for the cheapest price?

It is better to consider the overall cost of ownership. These include benefits such as production uptime, a panel working correctly "out-of-the-box," easy troubleshooting when components fail, on-time delivery, and getting the correct prints with the panel.

The momentary satisfaction of paying the lowest price for the panel quickly fades during the first sign of trouble.

Part of the value in quality panel building is the ability for a panel shop to consult about the design, which is an extremely valuable attribute. They have an understanding of the standards that ultimately allow the panel to pass electrical inspections and keep the process safe, which also manage costs. Anyone can build a panel from a set of prints, but not everyone can or will correct design errors and interpret standards.

Testing is another big issue. Customers should want a panel that’s been thoroughly tested. However, there is a cost involved in complete testing. That cost of testing becomes insignificant the moment the panel has a problem on the jobsite. It is surprising how little testing is done by some panel shops. A "smoke" test is usually done to make sure there are no sparks, but rarely do low-cost panel shops do thorough tests that test functionality and wiring of all components.

Question #5: What are the best ways to manage costs on such projects? How can an integrator help save money without impacting value?

A: Integrators often know the best and most cost-effective ways to engineer a project because of their years of experience in doing successful and similar projects. Understanding and meeting customer expectations can help manufacturers manage their cost versus value considerations. An integrator can also help by being the coordinator for panel builds. Many projects will include panels built from OEMs, electrical installers, and UL panel shops. Often these panels must all work together, and it is usually during checkout that the issues arise from a lack of coordination with panel builds. This can add significant delays to startup.

The bottom line is all control panels are not created equal. And all control panel shops are not created equal. Project engineers spend time determining the right equipment for every project. Our recommendation to enhance the expectation of a quality project is to get qualified integrators involved early in the process. Bring them into the project consultation to help determine what is actually needed and use best practices for building your desired control panels. If they don’t have a panel shop that they’re associated with, they will be able to audit panel shops to observe best practices and make recommendations.

Jerry Smith is owner of Integrity Integration Resources (I2R), a 2013 System Integrator of the Year winner.