Electrical system audits can increase safety and boost the bottom line

Nov. 10, 2010
Don't fear the audit: An electrical checkup might uncover opportunities.

Most people cringe when they hear the word “audit” because it’s a process associated with finding fault and uncovering hidden problems. It’s understandable that the idea of an audit triggers fear — no one wants to be associated with problems. Audits aren’t as intimidating as they sound. In fact, an audit is a necessary tool for you to assess things like plant operations, worker safety and plant documentation. Incorporating changes and improvements that result from your audit findings can have significant payback. So, rather than being something you should fear, an audit might be exactly what your facility needs.

If you’re operating a facility, you’re surrounded by a complex electrical system. Often, electricity is taken for granted because it’s such an integral part of plant operations. When not handled correctly, electricity can be dangerous. The National Electrical Code (NEC) has been developed and modified during the past few decades to ensure the safety of everyone working at operating facilities. You have a certain degree of responsibility to ensure your facility and staff are up to date on these codes.

Think back to the last time that you had your electrical system inspected. Can you even remember? Maybe there hasn’t been a full audit since plant operations began or the most recent major addition was completed. You might have a solid understanding of how your electrical system operates, but could your staff locate appropriate documentation in your absence in the event of an incident? It’s important that you and your staff know your way around this all-encompassing system.

There are many business reasons to request an electrical system audit. Your reasons could be anything from wanting to reduce energy expenses and costs associated with unscheduled downtime and seeking improved workplace safety to needing a better understanding of your existing operation and how it would fit into future expansion plans.

An electrical system audit is your first step in reducing energy expenses. When you review utility bills, do you see penalties or charges that concern you? As an example, an audit could show how efficiently your system operates and help you identify areas for improvement. Through an audit, you might find that upgrading certain pieces of equipment can reduce energy usage and pay for itself quickly. Changing equipment could increase electrical efficiency and keep you from incurring stiff monthly penalties from your utility provider. Significant changes might result in improved rate structures from your utility.

You might find that your audit documentation gives you a great tool to use in troubleshooting an event or incident as you have needed information to identify and correct issues to get back online more quickly. If one hour of downtime costs your plant $50,000, consider that every minute you can save with good documentation is valued at $833. The expense of an audit is quickly recovered if it eliminates even one unscheduled downtime event.


After performing an electrical site audit at their Orange City, Iowa location, Advance Brands, producers of Fast Fixin’ brand foods experienced increased proficiency throughout the plant on the strength of complete electrical documentation and reported decreased plant maintenance downtime from over 15% to less than 5% during an 18-month period.

There are many hazards in an electrical system. An audit of your operations might encompass your entire operation or it could help assess potential danger for specific events. Arc flash is a hot topic that receives a lot of attention, but there are many other hazards, as well. You can minimize shock hazards by identifying them and implementing proper work rules and maintenance personnel training. An audit might identify that existing circuit breakers can’t sufficiently handle the loads your operations requires. If you’re not actively seeking this information, you put your plant at risk for short circuits.

In addition to specific electrical events, your electrical system audit could focus on safe work practices, including a review of your overall safety procedures, lockout-tagout program, energized electrical work policy and more. This would involve documenting the system and evaluating it for safety, reliability, improvement and future electrical system flexibility. A regular safety practice review is a good investment when you consider that the average cost of any electrical injury is $50,000 and a single arc flash incident can cost a company $1 million in medical expenses, equipment replacement, downtime, insurance and penalty costs. An audit proves that you’ve been proactive in reducing accident risk, which might result in reducing insurance premiums.

Through electrical site audits, Ag Processing, Inc, a grain and grain product cooperative headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, found that updated electrical one-line drawings, along with the detailed reports, have assisted in identifying potential problem areas, as well as verifying proper code installations.

It can be difficult to quantify safety because you can’t easily apply a monetary value to a personal injury or loss of life. But it’s undeniable that costs involved with a single incident will greatly outweigh the preventive expense of an audit.

Another important item that you gain from an electrical system audit is an understanding of your existing system that you can use when planning for future expansion. Thorough documentation is essential for you to know the current loading of your system, especially when you are studying how to get power to an upcoming new expansion or remodel project. If you can identify and communicate to engineers and contractors how your current system looks and operates, you can more easily expand it. If you’re unable to articulate that information clearly, you should expect to pay more because future projects will be more time-consuming and costly without the tools to communicate effectively.

So, why would you dread the thought of an audit? When you acknowledge what could be gained from the information — more efficient operations, safer workplace conditions and future planning capabilities — what is holding you back? Take the next step and commit to making an electrical site audit happen. The next time that you hear “audit,” think of safety, efficiency and increased production. Perhaps instead of dreading an audit, you should be begging to have one.

Brent Kooiman, PE, is a senior project engineer at Interstates Engineering in Sioux Center, Iowa. Contact him at [email protected].

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