Past, Present, and Future: Electrical/Wiring

Jan. 9, 2006

A lot has happened since Edison flipped the switch in 1882

One bright idea leads to another. When Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb, he needed a means to distribute power to its users. A lot has happened since he flipped the switch in 1882, turning on the first electrical distribution system - including the “War of the Currents.” We can be thankful that George Westinghouse won the infamous battle he fought with Edison over alternating current (AC) vs. direct current (DC) power.

Westinghouse’s work with William Stanley, Franklin Leonard Pope, and Nikola Tesla resulted in the wide-scale adoption of the polyphase AC motor, and laid the foundation for 3-phase AC power at 60 Hz - the U.S. power generation and distribution standard still in use today. While you can argue that not much has changed in electrical/wiring since those days, ignoring advancements in wiring methods, overcurrent protection, and the growing need for power is to erase more than 100 years of evolution.

The hazard resulting from overheated wires has diminished greatly, and is just one measurement of progress. Thanks in large part to the standardization of products by Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) and the creation of the National Electrical Code (NEC), facilities today can reap the benefits of electricity without the dangers of fire.

Fuses were among the first strategies used to protect against sudden, large overloads of electrical flow. However, when circuit breakers were invented in the 1930s, the new technology quickly gained favor. While both fuses and circuit breakers stop the unsafe flow of electricity, unlike fuses, breakers do not need to be replaced after they are tripped. More recently, smart circuit protection devices have gained interest. These devices offer features such as solid-state current limiting, the ability to program trip points remotely, and digital communication on load current, trips, open wire, and disconnected load. For these reasons and many more, expect their use to rise in the future.

With the first draft penned in 1896, the NEC has set a precedent for safe and smart electrical/wiring installations for over a century. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the Quincy, MA-based organization issuing the code, it is the most widely adopted element of a building code in the United States (and the world).

Wiring methods have advanced tremendously through the years. It was not uncommon for electric power wires to be pulled through existing gas piping in the early 1900s. Today, electricians can hardly recall a time when raceways weren’t the norm. The 1940s and 1950s ushered in more innovation, and cable wiring methods quickly gained popularity because they were both easier and faster to install.

It’s no surprise that the use of power and electricity has been on the rise for decades. Businesses rely on low-voltage systems to power up an ever-increasing amount of technology. The widespread use of the PC has pushed the limits of energy consumption and greater demand requires the installation of switchgear, feeder cables, and panel boards with increased ampere ratings.

The long-term ramifications of the Construction Specifications Institute’s (CSI’s) recent revision of MasterFormat™, a uniform system for organizing project data and specifications, are yet to be foreseen. The 2004 edition makes a distinction between electrical power work (the distribution of 60 Hz energy) and a new cluster of technologies and wiring techniques for communications, life safety, and automation (CLA) applications. “In other words, there are people who are specializing in fire safety, access control, telecommunications wiring, or controls. They’re forming a different package of services for a building,” says Lewis Tagliaferre, an electrical industry veteran and proprietor, C-E-C Group, Springfield, VA. This change in construction documentation reflects growing specialization among applications for electricity and the need for owners to keep up with the new technology.

Jana J. Madsen ([email protected]) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.

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