How One Electrical Engineering Service Can Solve the Whole Electrical Problem

October 25, 2023

If you’ve ever managed a construction project, you may have found it easier to handle fewer professional engineering firms with several areas of expertise, as opposed to multiple that each have niche specialties. When you select firms that offer a wider range of services, you tend to get better coordination, stronger quality management, and a clearer path to making sure your project is completed on time and on budget. So, instead of hiring a separate Electrical Engineering (EE) firm for your building and another for the solar and microgrid system, here’s why we recommend the “one and done” approach instead.

Consolidating the Process

As the GM or architect, consolidating EE efforts allows for a more fluid experience. You have one firm that knows all things electrical, and ideally, they’ll know how to do things right the first time. When the firm is well-versed in all areas of the EE process, you likely won’t be dealing with expensive issues that could’ve been avoided.

EE consolidation is especially important if you’re working on a multi-family home project, because these projects usually involve multiple meters, including a master meter, tenant meters, and meters for common areas. Because of the complexity of the metering, designing the solar or microgrids can raise some difficult questions. For example, should you sit the meters together in a central location, or do you distribute them across all units? And, does this decision change when incorporating batteries, resiliency, and/or microgrid controls? This type of decision on the “demand side” of the site are best made with the “supply side” (i.e., solar and micro grids) in mind, because there’s a direct relationship between the cost- (and revenue-) efficiency of the solar system and the placement and location of the meters.

Other examples like school campuses, curved roofs, hangars (lightweight metal roofs), and load control systems also benefit from having a consolidated EE firm.

Improving Efficiency and Quality

When you choose the “one and done” approach, you’re able to optimize the complete electrical system – supply AND demand. This also tends to be a more cost-effective approach, since sometimes it pays to adjust the grid system to fit the load, and other times, it pays to adjust the load to fit the grid system.

When we’re engaged in this process, we employ both options to bring you the best system possible. To us, “best” is defined as finding the ideal balance between the highest efficiency, lowest cost, and fastest development timeline.

Bringing us in as the sole EE of record also allows us to speed up your project by coordinating all relevant disciplines to the best critical path management schedule. If there’s a critical path that’s not under our control, the project can be delayed when certain predecessor activities are not completed within the proper sequence. To put that another way, if you have multiple firms working in silos, you may end up lighting dollars on fire trying to backtrack. This is especially true when engineering firms need to be brought in after several major design and electrical decisions have already been made.

The takeaway is to not put yourself in the position of solving impossible electrical issues. You’ll have a much more efficient project if you make sure everything is correctly addressed from the beginning.

What Not to Do

We don’t want to be the one to scare you, but not consolidating your electrical engineering efforts can lead to problems ranging from minor cosmetic issues, all the way to major safety concerns. Fortunately, these problems can be avoided, but let’s look at what can happen when they’re not.

  • Aesthetic Shortcomings: We once worked on a project that involved using solar panels as a façade to hide unattractive mechanical equipment. The issue was, the design of the façade kept changing, and those changes weren’t necessarily the most optimal. Because of this, we had to install “dummy” solar modules that weren’t connected to anything just to make the façade look a bit nicer. If we were involved from the beginning, we could have used smaller solar panels and adjusted the length of the façade to make sure we electrically connected all the solar panels the customer had to buy. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s an inconvenience and lost generation opportunity that could have been dodged with better planning.
  • Spacing Issues: If we’re not consulted nor hired to work on the building’s electrical distribution system, we often won’t find space in the electrical room for any new solar / microgrid wall-mounted equipment. As a result, we’d need to put equipment in other less-efficient, less-aesthetic, and sometimes, less-ideal conditions to appease the code, project budget, and timeline. It would’ve been far better to design the electrical room with flexibility in mind, or at the very least, with all components considered beforehand. Another example of this is with buildings that have vents and equipment throughout the roof. When we’re the EE of record, we make sure we leave enough real estate available for solar panels before the roof becomes too crowded.
  • Safety Modifications: Sometimes, the EE for a building will spec equipment for the main service panel or switchgear and coordinate that with the local utility company. If this is done without consideration of the solar and microgrid connections, we end up needing to modify the expensive new switchgear to accommodate those connections. This basically entails “breaking” and “fixing” the brand-new piece of electrical gear, then sometimes getting it re-certified and re-listed for safety and compliance purposes. If we were involved from the beginning, we would’ve designed the electrical system for the entire building and ordered the proper gear from the start, with no downstream modifications nor re-designs required.

Making Better Load Decisions

The EEs for the building usually decide how to run load calculations, and often, we notice they could be executed better. For instance, we’ve seen EEs who add heating and air conditioning loads together to determine the building’s full electrical requirements. The issue here is that most people don’t run their heating and air conditioning coincidentally, so they don’t need to be added together. Instead, the EE can take the larger of the two values and use that for load calculation, or at a minimum, discount the sum of the two loads with industry standard discretion.

You might be thinking – okay sure, this could’ve been caught with a bit more scrutiny, but what’s the big deal? The reason is because if load calculations are over-stated, it can impact the microgrid sizing, leading to a miscalculated cost-benefits analysis of the owner or architect’s offset goals. Typically, we like to take into account appliance efficiencies and utilization rates of various loads in order to recommend the most cost-advantageous microgrid design that brings the building’s net demand under the line. This analysis is a bit more involved than simply what a “demand side” EE (for the building) or “supply side” EE (for the microgrid) would do independently of one another, since it’s a multivariate optimization problem when the two are combined into one.

If you’re looking for an EE firm that gets the details right, contact us to learn how we can help bring your project to life.

CA Small Business Enterprise

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NAICS Codes:
541330 – Engineering services
541340 – Drafting services
541490 – Other specialized design services
541618 – Other management consulting services
541690 – Other scientific and technical consulting services
541990 – All other professional, scientific, and technical services

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811024, 81101701, 81101516, 81101604, 43232614, 81101505

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