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Should You Upgrade or Retrofit Your Electrical Equipment?

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

Electrical equipment, such as control panels, switchgears, and breaker boards, are essential for managing industrial processes and keeping employees and equipment safe. Naturally, you want your equipment to perform these safety and control operations to the best of its capacity, as equipment failure can lead to operator injury, equipment downtime, and lost revenue.


Electrical equipment can quickly become technologically outdated or degrade over time, meaning it won’t perform at its expected capacity. When faced with outdated or degraded electrical equipment, businesses must upgrade their gear (replacing it entirely with new equipment), or retrofit their equipment (only replacing certain components.) Both approaches have pros and cons, and we’ll look at them based on five key business metrics.


Costs: Short and Long-Term


Upgrade: A complete electrical equipment upgrade can cost significantly more than a partial retrofit as every component and surrounding supports (enclosures and sheet metal) must be removed and replaced. However, a complete retrofit can save money in certain areas, such as being more energy efficient or freeing up floor space.


Retrofit: A retrofit is cheaper, requiring only a partial replacement of specific components. After assessing your equipment stock, a strategy to retrofit equipment can be drawn up. This may take the most basic approach of just replacing components that have become obsolete and pose a danger to operators and equipment. The level of retrofit can be scaled up depending on requirements and budget, such as installing a modern PLC or remote control functionality.


Safety Concerns


Upgrade: Safety is a paramount feature of electrical equipment and control systems, so a full assessment should determine whether a full upgrade and replacement of existing equipment is necessary. Though this is relatively rare, a complete equipment upgrade can still be carried out if an organization wants to use only the most modern safety equipment available.


Retrofit: Guaranteeing safety best practices can also be achieved through a strategy to assess potential safety risks and retrofit equipment that isn’t meeting current standards. The process of identifying what needs to be replaced can vary. For example, protective relays in your switchgear may still be perfectly functional but may not be made by their manufacturer anymore, so replacing them as part of a retrofit will update the equipment and extend the warranty on it, improving your overall facility safety.


Returns


Upgrade: Upgrading your electrical equipment and control systems gives you the greatest scope to update processes and install components that align your operations with modern best practices. While it will cost significantly more than a partial retrofit, it could deliver greater returns. Whether these will repay the investment or how long it will take depends on the nature of your business.


Retrofit: A plan to retrofit equipment is also a roadmap for gaining the maximum return for the minimum outlay. For example, replacing an outdated HMI or adding that function to a control panel can reduce the training required for a specific set of controls, lowering the skill level required to manage a process. Identifying the ‘low hanging fruit’ when you retrofit equipment can maximize your returns.


Old switchgear that needs a retrofit

Regulatory Requirements


Upgrade: Several regulatory requirements in the US outline requirements and best practices for electrical equipment and control systems, including NFPA 70, UL508A, UL698A, and UL891. In very specific situations, where a status assessment deems none of your current equipment to be salvageable, a complete upgrade may be required to ensure compliance with relevant standards.


Retrofit: In most situations, compliance can be achieved by focusing on replacing only the necessary obsolete components. In most situations, at least the ‘power envelope’ (the bus, power cables, breakers, and sheet metal of the enclosure) will still meet the required standards, so only non-compliant or at-risk components need to be replaced.


Equipment Downtime


Upgrade: A key deciding factor when considering whether to upgrade or retrofit equipment is how long the process will take and how much downtime the equipment needs. In most circumstances, even with a full upgrade, the equipment downtime will be limited to the installation period, which should be a couple of days. However, if the equipment is assessed to have significant safety flaws, it may have to be taken offline entirely or partially until these are resolved. Sourcing the parts and planning for a complete replacement of electrical and control systems can take up to 20 weeks from assessment to completion.


Retrofit: The length of equipment downtime with a partial retrofit of equipment depends on the size of the retrofit required. A simple change of small components can be done in a few hours, while a larger retrofit, like installing a whole net set of PLC controls or modernizing a switchgear or genset controller, can take up to 12 weeks for planning and sourcing parts. Again, the actual machine downtime will probably be limited to several hours.


Upgrade Your Equipment with Enercon


When deciding whether to upgrade or retrofit equipment and electrical control systems, there are several things to consider. Chief among these is how much it will cost, with a full replacement costing significantly more than a targeted retrofit of obsolete components. Apart from situations where equipment is entirely non-salvageable, it is generally possible to achieve regulatory compliance and required safety standards by assessing and replacing targeted components. A full upgrade will require more equipment downtime and project lead-in than a retrofit.


Whether you require a complete upgrade or targeted retrofit of your electrical equipment and control systems, our team can help assess your needs and deliver a project that fits your parameters. To find out more, get in contact with us.


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