Steve the Plumber – placing a value on safety

An important data center issue is the cost of safety. Improved approaches to component and system design result in less downtime and a safer environment

My father in law, Steve, immigrated to the U.S. from Hungary via Germany in the 1950s.  It seems that in 1956, there were some well documented reasons to leave Hungary and he did just that, swimming across the Danube River into Austria.  He ended up working for the U.S Embassy in Dusseldorf, Germany, and after about 8 years, they asked if he’d like to come to the U.S,  He said “Why not?”

When he arrived in the U.S., he was to report to a place that helped with employment, as arranged by the embassy.  There were construction jobs and he could be either a plumber or an electrician.  Naturally, he asked what the pay was. It seemed that you made about 10 cents more per hour as an electrician (remember this was the early 1960s).  But he asked the hiring guy “What’s the worst day as a plumber?” Without missing a beat, he answered his own question “You take a shower.”  Then he asked, “What’s the worst day as an electrician?” Again he answered “You come home in a box,” and, as you can guess, he became a plumber.  For Apu (Dad in Hungarian) it was worth a 10 cent pay cut to be safer.

Likewise, the data center is an “always on” multi megawatt power environment.  And the front lines of safety are the low voltage components and the systems like PDMs or PDUs (Power Distribution Modules or Units) and RPPs (Remote Power Panels) that are frequently in the “white space” or computer room floor.  This is the area that people are more likely to be exposed to low voltage power, particularly IT personnel who most likely don’t have much or only rudimentary electrical training.  If you look at our latest offering, the ProLine panel, you’ll see a design that keeps live electrical parts protected; in fact it’s the industry’s only ip20 “touch safe” UL 67 listed panel board.  But enough of the commercial, what’s really interesting is the design story.

We have a customer who has been involved in the design and manufacture of critical power products literally since the beginning.  In fact, his company is the only one who can boast that his equipment, in the 20+ years he’s had his own company, has never had a failure.  In the Data Center industry, where downtime can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars or more per hour, this is a staggering achievement.  Anyway, he came to us a few years ago with an idea to help one of his customers.  The issue was the cost of safety.  The customer is a major financial institution, and as such has many data centers where downtime can have tremendous financial implications.  The existing products used at that time (and even now) are larger versions of residential grade panel boards.  Other than number of circuits (42 or 84 vs 30 or 24) they are the same as the panel board in your house.  The panel board is fine for this use, as you don’t typically take off the cover to look at the connections or rewire (most homeowners would call an electrician when things get more complicated than resetting a branch breaker, which is good).  In a data center, however, there are certain instances (IT refresh, thermal scans) where you may have to remove the cover of the PDU which in the case of the residential panel exposes you to conductive parts (see picture)


Now, contrast the above with the view of an ABB Proline panel and see how the live parts are all enclosed: (the top side lug cover is removed so you may see the details of the lug landing, neutral and ground bar:

So, it’s obvious that this product would give you a better level of protection from live electrical parts.  And yes, it is a little more expensive than the typical solution shown in the first photo.  But, as designed with input from our financial end user and OEM partner, it certainly brings peace of mind and safety to the white space of their data centers.

I’d like to think my father in law’s career choice may have been different if this was available at that time, and the man known as Steve the plumber in the neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens might have been Steve the electrician.

Comments welcome below…



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About the author

Dave Sterlace

Dave Sterlace is the Head of Technology for Data Center Solutions at ABB, and has 20+ years of experience in data center power, automation and critical power.
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