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Thu 31 Mar 2011 12:00 AM

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Best of the tests

Electrical testing equipment has had to diversify to keep step with higher power demands and applied technology of industry clients

Best of the tests

With many areas of the Middle East experiencing record power demand, it will surprise few that the market for testing applications is intensifying and, in some target areas, diversifying.

Products suppliers and organisations that provide a testing service to award industry-recognised quality certifications face an increasingly complex market that goes beyond the core utility companies to the power demands of the industrial and commercial building sectors. The uptake of technology by end-user companies, rarely harmonious across the region, is creating a widening range of appliances, from legacy relays from the 1950s to the latest computer-based meters. Providers of testing equipment must widen their products in step.

Andy Hedgecock, Middle East manager at Omicron, a global provider of primary and secondary testing equipment that has a regional base in Bahrain, says that good testing equipment can last 10-15 years but technology for vital MEP parts such as relays is developing at a speed that threatens to make the equipment obsolete.

“The traditional style of relay, for example, was invented in the 1940s-1950s and a lot of them are still being used,” he says on the sidelines of the Middle East Electricity exhibition in Dubai last month. “New ones, however, are digital and work through computers, so the old equipment to test it cannot be used.”

The company has adjusted to the challenge of keeping step with new technology by investing heavily in its own research and development. But the increasingly commoditised business making and selling relays, switchgears and transfers have meant that each new innovation is only an incremental enhancement on what went before. Hedgecock compares it to the profit-maximising graduation in mobile phones and televisions.

Nevertheless, he says, the company must develop products that cover the whole spectrum of electrical equipment, old and new, with the drive to create ‘future-proof’ products. This essentially means computer based reading technology to match the increasingly prevalent digital relays in new commercial buildings, where the copper used to send a charge into the relay and obtain the reading is replaced by what he calls “the Ethernet” of digital signals that appear on screen.

“It’s a device that sends primary and secondary signals,” he says. “You test with digital signals that produce sampled values, by injecting simulated values.”

Three-quarters of the company’s business is in the utility sector, he says, including client manufacturers such as Schneider Electric as well as companies such as ETA Electrical Engineering that install large systems and need the right tools on hand to check that everything is working properly. Around 12% of the company’s revenue derives from the Middle East, Hedgecock told MEP Middle East’s sister publication Utilities Middle East last September.

But despite a rising power demand in the Middle East (around 7% year-on-year in Saudi Arabia, according to some estimates) product suppliers say there are little cohesive regional standards for electricity testing in commercial and residential buildings.

“There is no periodic testing market, but any industry that has a continuous flow of electricity would want to solve power [problems] quickly,” reasons Nick Parton, regional operations manager at Megger.

“Most people have the idea that if electricity is working, it is okay, and maybe they don’t appreciate the life of the electrical insulation, which can be monitored by testing regularly.” Checking electrical insulation, which can rot away and leave to exposed conductors, is another necessity that must be undertaken periodically, he says.

Megger’s product range covers the big systems for utilities and industrial companies but also handheld devices used to test systems in high-rise buildings. The company’s smaller scale, higher margin devices that can be used by asset managers and landlords represent for Parton the solution to an important gap in the market to fill, particularly as European markets can act as precedents.

“There is a huge opportunity in this as buildings get older,” he says. “In the GCC there have been huge strides in quality standards and good acceptance of HSE. In the UK, there are portable appliances testing in line with health and safety legislation. That will develop here. They are starting to understand.”

Residual-current devices (RCDs), a safety tool that switches off power supplies when electricity is detected to be ‘leaking’ that would be harmful to those using electrical equipment, are another element of a building’s electrical infrastructure that must not go untested. In this case, what is being tested is the so-called ‘earth loop’.

“In a building, there is an earth wire to take the current down to the earth,” he says. “If the earth wire is not good enough, it won’t flow [the power] to the earth, so you need an earth loop tester.

“Once tested, this will make sure the earth wire is good enough to flow into the ground. That’s not easy here [in the Gulf] as the dusty ground here is not a good conductor.

“So we carry out four tests, including earth resistance. If the earth resistance is too high, the fault current won’t flow into it.”

Testing electrical appliances for safety and quality purposes is a complex market when factoring in the many stages between the manufacture and installation. The obligation to check the equipment changes along the line, and occasionally there is discrepancy between the certification of individual components and the overall certified safety of the electrical system in which the components are used.

ASTA, a certification provider, is well-placed to see this chain of product distribution and installation. The company has two major areas of service, according to Pierrick Balaire, business development manager for Asia. The first is to tests electrical system designed for the specific demands of a building, such as the Burj Khalifa. It will provide an ASTA accreditation but will not provide ongoing maintenance, which is the responsibility of the specifier.

“We will make sure the breaker works at the factory though not the final installation in the building, says Pierrick Balaire, business development manager for Asia. “The maintenance is up to the local company or importer.”

The second area of testing is for individual low-to-high voltage accessories, such as plugs and outlets, where the company will provide an accreditation that comply with the local standards.

“Once it is compliant then we will do regular testing to make sure it continues to comply with safety standard to the same level as when it was manufactured. So this is applicable for high volume products, things made in the 1000s every year.”

The company also provides safety checks at ports before goods are being exported, to give surety to the end purchaser of the appliances that when the goods left the country of manufacture they were at a high standard. “We’ll coordinate with the factory to say when the container is ready to be shipped and make sure it is the same [level of quality], which means we might have to do tests, though not destructive tests,” says Balaire.

Balaire says the ASTA mark is well-established in the Middle East, with product manufacturers seeking the certification to boost the product’s credentials when tendering for projects – as well as allowing the products to be sold at a higher price. But he adds that, according to conversations in the UK industry, verifying a building with electrical testing equipment is “a dog-eat-dog market: who can come up with the cheapest instruments.

“Most of the time there is not so much specification. There is not a lot of cross over between certification and testing and the product manufacturers.”

Further, electrical system designers occasionally incorporate too much of the system’s overall design under the accreditation banner of some of the individual products used within the system. This means that, essentially, an overall system is not the accredited sum of its parts. Though the allowance of this is part of the agreement between designers and end client, it can produce a degree of opacity to the system, he says.

“Some of the certification processes are expensive. There is always an extrapolation from the calculation and the client has to be comfortable with that. But when something goes wrong it can take years to identify who is to blame.”

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