Leading the Charge
Electrical engineers on the design circuit
By Rachael Kvapil

lectrical systems rarely receive the same attention as the showier parts of engineering. Not only are wires hidden within walls, but the current they carry, unlike water in pipes, is invisible. It’s easy to think of electrical designs in terms of lights and outlets; however, the field has grown to encompass advancing technologies used for safety, productivity, and a healthier environment.

Jeremy Maxie, associate principal electrical engineer for RSA Engineering, says he has probably worked in every Anchorage school and every correctional facility in the state. Security is a major component of the company’s electrical engineering and consulting division—along with lighting, power, telecommunications, fire alarms, and audio-video systems. RSA Engineering is a design service company primarily focusing on mechanical, electrical, and site investigation services statewide, in the Lower 48, and even in Antarctica.

“Our goal with security is to keep people in and out of areas based on the needs of our clients,” says Maxie.

Beyond prisons, Maxie says security is a concern for all industries. His team has developed designs ranging from complex systems for correction facilities and schools to simpler systems for small retail shops. He says a good system design addresses three main areas: access control, intrusion detection, and video surveillance.

Access control is how a person gains entry and exits a locked area. For years, people used physical keys to unlock doors, cabinets, gates, et cetera. However, Maxie says the big drawback to a lock and key system is the need to completely replace all the locks and keys when an employee leaves or a key is lost. New electronic systems allow people to gain access using a fob or card reader, which can easily be modified from a central location without changing the hardware at every access point.

When it comes to intrusion detection, Maxie says there are several options when a building is unoccupied, including burglar alarms on doorways, glass break sensors for windows, and motion detectors. Clients must also decide how they want the system to react if it detects an intruder. Do they want an audible or silent alarm? Who should the system alert? And what other actions should it trigger?

The final component, video surveillance, is a growing aspect of security designs. Though people have attempted to integrate video into their security systems for years, Maxie says it isn’t until recently that cameras have advanced enough to make a real difference.

“Older cameras were clunky, analog systems that ran through co-ax cable and produced poor blurry images,” says Maxie. “Today, video surveillance is more intelligent. The images are clear enough to look for weapons, identify faces, and monitor places in real time. It’s allowed us to be more proactive instead of reactive.”

However, more advanced cameras don’t remove the human factor. Maxie says a single person can’t monitor thirty cameras simultaneously and expect to catch everything. This is where advanced system designs come into play, integrating hardware and software. While systems are not 100 percent perfect, Maxie says their ability to prevent problems is better now than when the only choice was to deal with things after an incident occurred.

solar panel setup
Design Alaska
When designing a security system, RSA Engineering considers two main aspects: what hardware is needed and where to place it. This requires an in-depth assessment of protocols and daily operations, the occupants, the security systems’ goals, and the hardware and installation budget. Electrical engineers also need to consider emergency scenarios where occupants are relocated to a safe area that locks out intruders or occupants are fully evacuated off the premises.

Maxie frequently speaks with school-age children about his work as part of educational outreach. Inevitably, the discussion veers toward how security is portrayed in movies and TV. The two most common scenarios that kids ask about are when someone cuts the electricity to a prison and convicts escape or someone holds a lighter to a sprinkler to set off the entire system as part of a distraction. Maxie says both scenarios are falsely depicted. Fail-safe magnetic locks that need electricity will unlock in a power outage, but prisons use fail-secure locks, which use electricity to hold a door open. In a power outage, prison doors remain locked, and authorized personnel must use an alternative method to unlock them.

As for sprinklers, Maxie clarifies that most only release water specifically where the system detects a fire hazard, so a whole floor wouldn’t be drenched.

Electrical engineers are the backbone of many infrastructure designs. Nicholai Smith, principal electrical engineer at Coffman Engineers, says his team delivers innovating solutions by remaining flexible and creative to meet project goals effectively. Depending on the project, electrical engineers at Coffman Engineers can either support a team or lead one.

In a multidisciplinary project, electrical engineers work with their counterparts to design systems that result in proper illumination, controls, automation, communication, and security. Smith describes these as projects where electrical systems are essential but not the main purpose. When electrical engineers lead a team, this is for a project where electrical design is the primary purpose, such as power generation, distribution systems, sensor controls, and new communication lines.

“Those projects where electrical engineers lead are generally more infrastructure related,” says Smith. “A quarter to a third of our projects focus more on electrical engineering designs.”

Electrical engineers from Coffman have played a significant role, for example, in replacing shipping pumps on North Slope pipelines. Shipping pumps transport drilling fluids to the suction tank and produced fluids to the storage facility. Smith says much of the original infrastructure on that project was aging out, and the entire off-stream electrical source needed to be replaced. Coffman Engineers upgraded the system to a 25,000-volt feeder motor control center that provided 600 horsepower to the pumps.

Smith says electrical engineering projects run the gamut. For instance, a project in Cook Inlet required an electrical connection for a mobile drilling rig using cabling that weighed ten pounds per linear foot. Coffman Engineers worked with the client to design a custom spooling unit for better cable management.

Electrical engineers have also worked with clients on partial inline testing to identify the health of a cable and predict failure rates within five years. Other services include preliminary investigation, feasibility studies, load and energy studies, project design, construction drawings, specifications, construction observations, systems commissioning, and outgoing consultation.

“Our level of involvement in a project depends on if a facility already has an electrical system in place,” says Smith. “If it does, we mainly focus on providing electrical services for our other disciplines. If electrical service is sparse or doesn’t exist, then we have a heavy involvement in building what is needed to make that happen.”

Smith says projects in emerging fields like liquified natural gas can present challenges when industry practices are not fully mature. Coffman Engineers worked with liquified natural gas facilities for many years before industry standards were developed, thus many older designs are being updated. Smith says work in emerging fields is a matter of correctly modeling the electrical and mechanical components for proper power load and then developing a load shed system that keeps a facility operating when power generation is in high demand.

Elizabeth Johnston, lead electrical engineer for Design Alaska, says few people recognize the electrical engineering contained within a particular facility. Even she rarely categorizes a design as extremely noteworthy; electrical engineering is just something her team does.

However, Design Alaska’s electrical engineering department regularly applies its experience in all phases of design, including high- and low-voltage distribution, interior and exterior lighting, interior power distribution systems, fire alarms, security, and building communication systems.

“Electrical Engineers make the building fun,” says Johnston. “Architects make the building look good; structural engineers make it stand up. Electrical engineers power it, illuminate it with functional and sometimes decorative lighting, and connect it to communications systems.”

One example is the renovation at Fairbanks City Hall for a childcare facility. Although the building was once an elementary school, the facility’s age is not ideal for classroom-age children. The space on the first floor needed additional restrooms, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and improved steam heating. From an electrical engineering standpoint, the design deals with rewiring for dimmable lighting, installing tamper-proof outlets, and addressing fire hazards.

“In projects more architectural in nature, electrical engineers are the last discipline to provide project input,” says Johnston.

Solar panels are detaching from the roof of Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park and Preserve, so Design Alaska electrical engineers devised a more efficient and robust arrangement to meet National Park Service sustainability goals. However, the project is on hold while the visitor center is closed due a landslide blocking the park road.

Design Alaska

Solar panels are detaching from the roof of Eielson Visitor Center
However, buildings with a sustainability component require a different level of electrical design. Sustainability is vital for the Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park and Preserve. Located 66 miles inside the park, the National Park Service in 2008 built a modern, low-profile building that blends with the landscape. Entirely off the grid, the visitor center relies heavily on renewable energy. Solar panels were integrated into the roof, and later a solar water heater and a small hydroelectric system were installed.

Johnston says the solar system is aging, and some panels are detaching due to snow shedding from the roof. Denali Park sees an average of 100 inches of snow annually, so keeping panels clean is challenging. To tackle these issues, electrical engineers designed a more robust, efficient system that fit the low-level profile of the visitor center.

“There is plenty of space to put solar panels,” says Johnston. “We could put them near the building, but it’s preferable for people to see nature and mountains rather than solar panels. Integrating them into the roof meant not all the panels were facing an ideal direction and were difficult to maintain without additional equipment.”

In the end, electrical engineers worked with a structural engineer to figure out how to attach panels to the side of the building. Johnston says that’s the benefit of working as a team: a single person isn’t responsible for developing all the solutions.

Though no electrical engineer can predict the future of systems design, each has their own ideas of where it might be headed. Maxie expects video surveillance to continue to play an increasing role in security. Smith says automation and cybersecurity will continue to influence the development of infrastructure. And Johnston says technologies like 3D mapping and drone aircraft will allow electrical engineers to accurately model spaces where they create new designs.