NASA and other high-tech organizations such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratories rely on Allied Signal Corp.'s powerful radio telescope facility at Fort Irwin, Calif., to communicate with satellites, the Voyager space probes and the space shuttle. A reliable electric supply is critical not only for the Allied Signal facility itself, but also for the safety and success of space programs and scientific research.
Recently, however, a 1960s-vintage breaker operating off Allied's main power feed failed, cutting power to the telescope and portions of the complex. More critically, its passing created a massive dilemma for the technicians: locate a replacement breaker of the same type--a slim-to-none chance, considering the component's age--or upgrade their entire system, which would take weeks and an enormous amount of money.
According to Larry Wilson, Cognizant Operations engineer at Allied Signal's Pasadena headquarters, most of the electrical system at the radio telescope facility had been upgraded some years before. But for some reason the breaker--the Achilles' heel of the system--was left untouched. Compounding Allied's difficulties was the fact that the breaker's manufacturer was no longer in business.
"We couldn't find a replacement breaker anywhere, and our only option was a total upgrade of the electrical system, which meant installation of a new breaker, pads cables and accessories. It was a very expensive option--in the ballpark of $70,000 to $80,000, and that was just a rough estimate."
While searching for a replacement breaker, Wilson discovered Romac, an electrical equipment recycler in Commerce, Calif., with over 30 years of experience in providing replacement breakers for similar situations, where manufacturers have gone out of business or the existing manufacturers either don't stock replacement breakers or recondition older equipment. Some circuit breaker manufacturers, including Eaton/Cutler-Hammer, Pittsburgh, Pa., offer reconditioning and rebuilding services capabilities, but when vendors don't it forces end users to search for other options.
"Allied Signal's breaker was a funky old piece of gear of a vintage that made it impossible to obtain through any other source," says Jim Clippard, sales manager at Romac.
Complicating matters was the fact that Romac discovered that the breaker that Allied wanted to replace had an incorrect rating. It was not a 1,200A DST, but a 2,000A 4160V Federal Pacific, DST air circuit breaker, which is even harder to find. Fortunately for Allied, Romac had that breaker in stock. "I didn't realize it but our site personnel bought a 1,200A breaker and we needed a 2,000A," says Wilson. "The site had confused the numbers, and the information didn't get back to me until Romac notified us. They said from some of the drawings and discussions we had they knew something wasn't quite right. Luckily they caught the error."
Romac reconditoned the breaker in less than three weeks at a cost of $13,000--saving Allied at least $57,000 on the price of installing a complete electrical system. "A new 2,000A main breaker, if they were to buy it right now could have easily been $40,000 for just the gear, not including installation costs," says Romac's Clipper.