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Vancouver buildings to face power disruptions if maintenance is missed

If you own or operate a building in Vancouver's downtown core, it's time to check whether your electrical maintenance for your electrical vault is up to date. If not, you'll likely face power disruptions as BC Hydro crews carry on routine maintenance.

The issue lies with "dual radial vaults" — the underground vaults within most commercial downtown buildings that provide their access to the electrical grid. The "dual" vaults are served by two separate distribution currents, so that there is a redundancy system always in place, in case of a power outage.

The vaults require routine maintenance to ensure they don't present a hazard to workers.

"WorkSafeBC rules require that every three years, a building owner or representative such as property management company, is supposed to have a certified high-voltage contractor de-energize the whole vault, take the equipment apart, clean the components and check them for any needed repairs, and then restore power. Then the vault's good for another three years," says Raj Sharma, BC Hydro manager of key account operations.

Many vaults are non-compliant

A number of customer owned vaults are currently non-compliant with this mandatory routine. And with 600 vaults in the city, several others will become non-compliant over the next few months if they don't complete their maintenance.

This has become a problem due to a recent reinforcement by WorkSafeBC and BC Hydro, which now prohibits BC Hydro crew members from entering any non-complaint vault where maintenance has not been kept up to date.

If maintenance is not up to date, we need to shut the power off

Sharma says there are crews working constantly downtown to complete routine maintenance on BC Hydro's portion of the electrical grid. Normally, when work on a particular circuit might impact a building, workers would enter that building's vault and switch it to the other circuit.

Switching between circuits ensures grid maintenance is accomplished, with no power outage for the building (and its many tenants). In most cases building owners are unaware of this constant switching, a testament to BC Hydro's system, and our goal of reliable power.

Because crews are no longer allowed to enter non-compliant vaults to make the switch, BC Hydro must completely shut down power to any building affected by routine grid maintenance work. Outages can vary in length, but even five minutes can cause frustration for building tenants.

"We've had data centres impacted. We've had restaurant shutdowns. It's a pretty big deal right now for customers," says Sharma.

Worse, if there is a power outage in a building caused by a storm or other problem, BC Hydro crews are not able to enter a non-compliant vault until it is de-energized. That could cause significant delays in restoring power.

"The simple message here is, you need to keep up with your routine 3-year maintenance schedule," says Sharma. "It's a safety issue for the crews, which is why this rule has been put in place by WorkSafeBC. But it's also a way to reduce your risk of serious problems.

"A vault typically has 132,000 volts flowing through it. If there's an arc flash [electrical explosion] or an equipment failure, it can mean real damage and significant risk to the public, customer employees and our workers ."

Updating maintenance: how we can help

We're sending "no-switching" letters to customers with non-compliant maintenance on their dual radial vault. If you have received such a notice, it's an urgent reminder that your building is at risk of power disruptions.

To support customers in completing their routine maintenance, we're arranging "maintenance windows" — periods of several days when a customer's circuit is isolated from other customers, enabling maintenance. Building owners must arrange for a certified high-voltage contractor to complete the work during the window or risk unplanned power disruptions.

Says Sharma, "Unfortunately, sometimes good records are not kept about when routine dual radial vault maintenance should occur. So we're urging building owners, property managers, strata councils and electrical contractors to pay attention to maintenance schedules, and bring all vaults into compliance, so we can ensure uninterrupted power service going forward.

"If you are unsure or worried, have a qualified electrician enter the vault safely and check the last service stickers. If you have dates that indicate 2009 or older, you are at risk."

Book your maintenance window now

To book a maintenance window for your dual radial vault, or for more information, please contact your Key Account Manager, or contact Raj Sharma at 604 453 6556.