Power Play: Planning and teamwork enable Plano-Coudon to complete major electrical upgrade in medical research building

It took four months of planning, 22 on-site electricians, 100 extension cords, 600 feet of temporary feeder cable, two 16-hour workdays, the installation of an interim electrical substation, and one large, standby order for generators and fuel in case of emergency. But the electrical upgrade project in an occupied and highly sensitive medical research building at the University of Maryland Baltimore not only went off smoothly but provided a prime example of high-impact teamwork.

DSC_1836The project was part of a multi-year contract Plano-Coudon Construction holds to upgrade electrical and mechanical systems, and renovate offices throughout UMB’s 14-story Medical Sciences Training Facility (MSTF) in downtown Baltimore. Crews needed to install 24 new floor disconnects on four electrical risers in order to provide the university with improved ability to conduct isolated shutdowns within the building. To complete that work, however, they would need to temporarily shut down two of the building’s electrical substations.

“It’s a big deal to shut down an electrical substation in a building like that,” said John Offutt, Plano-Coudon’s superintendent on the UMB-MSTF contract.

The building operates 24/7/365 and houses numerous research laboratories, including animal facilities, areas where light-sensitive experiments are conducted, and specialized freezers that have to maintain temperatures of minus 30 to minus 50 degrees.

Consequently, meticulous planning became essential to successfully executing the weekend-long electrical upgrade.

“We had multiple meetings between us, the university’s construction management team, their in-house electricians, their O&M guys, and the end users. We had meetings with 20-30 people around the table,” said Craig Pool, a project manager at Plano-Coudon.

“We basically made a roadmap of every single thing that was going to be shut down which was about three-quarters of the building. We looked at every single room and said, what power are we going to lose in this room, what is the effect of that, and is there something we need to buy temporary power for,” Offut said.

“There was a lot of legwork in this project, a lot of researching the activities in the building and identifying what equipment had to stay powered,” said Garrett Witts, project supervisor for Enterprise Electric, a subcontractor on the UMB-MSTF job. “Then we had to come up with a way of turning the power off, but keeping essential equipment running and not impacting any experiments.”

That plan involved creating a temporary electrical substation in the building and back-feeding essential systems to that substation while the two permanent substations were offline. Once the electrical upgrades were complete, electricians would migrate services back to the permanent substations and remove the temporary station and feeder lines.

“It was pretty intense,” Pool said.  “It entailed shutting down and bring back up three different 13-kVA substations. That’s big power.”

Out of its staff of about 300, Enterprise selected 22 of its most experienced electricians to execute the project. Then throughout the upgrade weekend, Offut and the university’s construction project manager walked the darkened halls of the building almost hourly to ensure that no systems had tripped and that all essential equipment was functioning.

The plan worked beautifully.

It was “one of the best examples of teamwork that I have seen,” Jean Graziano, senior project manager with UMD Facilities Management Design and Construction, wrote in a letter to Plano-Coudon and to the president of the University of Maryland. “P-C’s team headed by Craig Pool and FS John Offutt was extraordinary. This was a well-planned and carefully executed outage.”

“This is not something that everybody can do,” said Brett Plano, co-founder.

Individuals on the UMB-MSTF job must have high-level knowledge of electrical and mechanical systems, expertise in how research laboratories operate, and an ability to coordinate major projects within an active facility without disturbing sensitive, academic work, Plano said.

“It is an infrastructure project that touches everything and they have done it without impacting anything,” he added.

Plano-Coudon has executed other major projects within the multi-year UMB-MSTF project, including a “big crane day” in 2015. The company arranged to close Baltimore Street one weekend and brought in a massive crane to hoist structural steel and exhaust fans – which weighed nearly 4,000 pounds each and measured five feet in diameter and eight feet high – onto the roof of the 14-story building. Additional projects are planned through 2017, including the installation of other rooftop fans that are each approximately the size of a townhouse.