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Your Building's Aging Electrical System Needs an Upgrade

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Emily Newton's picture
Editor-In-Chief Revolutionized Magazine

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief at Revolutionized Magazine. She enjoys writing articles in the energy industry as well as other industrial sectors.

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Many commercial properties go years without being renovated or refreshed. Older establishments are notorious for electrical and plumbing issues, which can cause some real headaches. Unless something major goes wrong, what signs indicate an electrical system upgrade is in order? How would someone know it’s time to ditch the aging electrical system and go with something more efficient?

The general rule is that anything 25 years or older needs a refresh, especially an electrical system. However, 25 years is way too long. Components and the system may have deteriorated due to wear and tear, but older ones were designed when power demands were lower — and most aren’t up to today's standards.

A facility’s aging electrical system may well need an upgrade, but to know for sure, some minor assessments are necessary. No hands-on experience is required to find the most common issues.

Here are some warning signs that warrant an electrical system upgrade for any building.

1. Exposed Wiring

Unsecured or exposed wiring is an absolute no. It’s dangerous for everyone on the property and can lead to serious problems, like an electrical fire. Live wires caused 85% of nonfatal electrical injuries at workplaces in 2020, so anything exposed deserves immediate attention. It’s also a glaring sign that the aging electrical system must be replaced. 

Building regulations and engineering codes have changed over the years, and exposed wiring is not something that would be acceptable for commercial properties built to today’s standards.

2. Circuit Breaker Woes

Circuit breakers that are tripped constantly are a solid indicator that the system cannot keep up with power demands — something with more voltage capacity is needed. They are designed to trip when various electrical events happen, shutting off the flow of electricity and protecting the property and related systems. These issues can also wreak havoc on auxiliary equipment, transformers included. Short circuits, over-voltages and power surges are the most common causes of random failures in transformers and other components.

Shut-offs happen when voltage limits are surpassed, which can be due to heavy machinery and demanding electronics. Frequent occurrences mean something nefarious is likely happening behind the walls. It’s best to check the electrical system when a shutoff occurs, even when it could likely be a one-time demand issue, just to be sure.

3. Excess Panel Heat

Heat is another clear sign that something is going awry with the electrical system, mainly when it’s coming from an electrical panel, switches or outlets. Most electrical equipment operates above 104 F, so overheating is a common issue as systems age. It also gets exponentially worse as it goes on, as every 10 degrees Celsius above components’ temperature halves their life expectancy.

In severe cases, the heat may even cause wiring insulation and fixtures to melt, which could create dangerous sparks or even fires. Given these risks, it’s best to address excess heat as quickly as possible to minimize damage.

Modern electrical systems and wiring are designed to mitigate heat as much as possible and prevent fires or hazards from happening altogether. Consequently, heat from electrical panels shouldn’t be noticeable in a system today.

4. Flickering Lights

A bad bulb or light fixture can sometimes cause flickering lights, but it’s also a sign of poor wiring or electrical solutions. Lights that flicker when flipping a switch or plugging electronics into an outlet are almost certainly an electrical concern. It’s surprising how common this occurs on aging commercial properties.

A few signs can reveal whether the flickering is an electrical issue or just a dying bulb. The system is likely fine if just one or two lights have gone out or the flickering was a one-time event. However, lightbulbs constantly going out across many fixtures can signal that issues need to be addressed and an electrical system upgrade is required.

5. GFCI Won’t Reset

Ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets and switches work like a localized circuit breaker. They’re designed to monitor voltages or the electrical current flowing through the connected switch or outlet. The GFCI system will cut off electricity when there’s a short and power flows out of the circuit— precisely what happens when a circuit breaker trips. 

GFCI outlets have a reset button that makes it quick and easy to turn the electricity back on without visiting an electrical panel. However, there could be a more serious problem if the reset is not working and the GFCI remains disabled.

Generally, this means the issue is near or at that particular outlet. There’s cause for concern when multiple GFCI systems can’t be reset or see frequent cutoffs.

Where to Start With an Aging Electrical System

It’s important to understand that retrofitting an aging electrical system in an older commercial property calls for much more than just replacing the major electrical components, such as the electrical panel or circuit breakers. It’s critical to assess, test and potentially service all parts, including the wiring hidden behind the walls. It is a major undertaking and can cost more than a quick surface refresh of the visible components.

The failure rates of older electrical systems can be quite high, with the most common hazard being heat or fire-related. That is why insurance and property inspectors are more thorough when dealing with buildings that are 25-30 years old. This also makes it difficult for property owners and administrators who would still love to utilize or repurpose seasoned structures. 

When considering an upgrade for aging electrical systems and commercial properties, the best place to start is to have a licensed and experienced professional take a look. Engineering consultants are the best bet. They can identify how old the current system is, determine where some of the most likely failure points are and provide an estimate for the necessary work.

Someone that suspects an electrical system upgrade is in their building’s future should look for the common warning signs. Flickering lights, tripped breakers or GFCI outlets that won’t reset indicate it’s time to call in an expert.

 

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