The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on most people’s lives, affecting how we live, work, and play. But it’s also having an impact on our country’s electrical power grid. Over the last few weeks, the grid voltage across the country has continued to climb. While at first blush this might not sound like a bad thing, since the grid typically deals with voltage drop due to high amperage draw from structures like workplaces and retail centers that are currently for the most part shuttered, these higher voltages are reaching the internal power systems of healthcare facilities and other buildings.

So why is this an issue? Newer electrical equipment, produced in the last five years or so, is designed to operate at voltages plus or minus around 10%. This means a piece of equipment designed to operate at 460 volts, such as a variable frequency drive (VFD), will operate fine if the voltage coming into it is anywhere between 414 volts and 506 volts. However, if voltage varies beyond these parameters, the unit is designed to shut down to avoid burning the unit up internally.

So, what does this mean for hospitals and other critical environments?

We recently saw this problem occur for one of our clients. The voltage spiked over the 506-volt threshold (to approximately 508 volts), this in turn caused mission critical equipment in the hospital to shut down.

Because VFDs now control a variety of mission critical equipment, like chillers, pumps, and air handling equipment, a shut-down could be catastrophic. During this time, if a piece of your equipment that’s connected to a VFD drops offline and there isn’t anything obviously wrong, have your electrician first verify voltages at the equipment and the main switchgear to rule out this issue before further trouble shooting.

To help avoid this issue in your facility, monitor voltages more than normal (if you have internal metering) and at various points until this pandemic is over and life has returned to grid.

  • Most main switchgear has electrical meters on the front of the gear, these meters read voltage. Have someone in facilities monitor these meters once or twice daily.
  • Most modern equipment has digital metering on the equipment itself. Monitor these in addition to the meters on your switchgear.
  • If your building automation system (BAS) has voltage readings, set parameters for alarms.

If your equipment reaches 500 volts, you should start watching very closely because at 506 and above, it’s highly likely your systems could start shutting down. At this point you should also contact your local power company to discuss having your voltage adjusted.

If you have any questions about how this issue could affect your facility or what can be done to protect your systems from failure, contact Henderson Building Solutions today. We’re equipped to evaluate these types of situations by providing facility condition assessments, building monitoring, emergency preparedness services, and more. We’re here to help – it’s what we do.


About the Authors

Dave Goerke

Senior Construction Manager
With more than four decades of construction experience, Dave’s extensive knowledge base is unmatched. His ability to identify potential issues before they become a problem and quick on-his-feet thinking make Dave well sought after by our clients. Dave has managed and delivered project sites across the country. His ability to provide unparalleled solutions and innovative ideas to ensure project needs are met has served his clients well. He is currently helping select clients develop new prototypes to help them achieve their goals.

Drew Rimmer

Drew is an executive vice president co-leading Henderson Building Solutions, a company that he helped found. His mix of optimism and logic is the perfect combination to create opportunity for our companies and our clients. With decades of engineering and project experience under his belt, Drew is always thinking outside the box to find the best solution. He truly lives out our vision of being the firm that changes the industry. Specifically, Drew has a passion for collaboration throughout the design and construction process to become a partner for the life of the building, which was his Henderson dream. We love his endless positivity and how he encourages his teams to embrace the client’s point of view. After all, he’s a pilot, so we know vision is his strong suit.