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Transformer Anxiety

A recent survey reveals how much factory managers and others are worried (or not) about transformer failures.

Almost two-thirds (61%) of commercial and industrial transformers operators, transformer OEMs, and network operators had a transformer failure in the last five years, according to a recent survey conducted by Midel, a major supplier of ester-based transformer fluids. And 80% of those taking the survey worry about transformer failures. It seems they have good reason to.

More than half expect a failure would either significantly hurt (41%) or halt operations entirely (9%). Another third expects a slight impact, and only 12% were confident operations would carry on. But even with a third expecting little to no impact, those that do expect problems seem to believe they would last a while. 19% say it would take more than three days to recover from a transformer failure, 23% say a week, 18% believe it would be more than month, and 11% estimate it would take longer than six months to get back to normal.

The respondents also identified the top worries regarding what might cause transformer failures. The top three are lack of maintenance (61%), aging or damaged equipment (56%), and electrical failures (52%. Three other threats that scored high include equipment quality (40%), overloads (37%), and lightning strikes and weather (33%). It is interesting to note that these figures may not tell the whole story. Respondents who have not experienced a transformer failure within the last five years were more likely to report a shorter time needed to reinstate power. They may be underestimating the difficulty due to lack of direct experience.

Transformers can fail for any number of reasons, from lightning strikes and terrorism to lack of maintenance and aging equipment. When asked to identify the three potential causes that concern them most, respondents pointed to lack of maintenance (61%), aging and damaged equipment (56%) and electrical failure (52%). To a lesser extent quality of equipment, overloading, and extreme weather also scored highly.

Analysts at Midel put forth three important conclusions regarding the survey results:

Transformer failures are a significant concern. Most respondents who have experienced transformer failure within the last five years are concerned about them and estimate it would take at least a week to reinstate power supply after one. In other words, transformer failure is neither a niche concern nor a minor business risk.

Operation and maintenance are key. Lack of maintenance was the most likely reason for transformer failures. Operation and maintenance (O&M) schedules were also highlighted as the second most important way to reduce the risk, coming after the quality of equipment and components. Yet, reducing O&M costs was the primary motivator for improving transformer performance. This implies operators know O&M best practices are vital, but struggle with the costs of implementing them.

There is a transformer fluid disconnect. Across the board, factors such as safety and environmental protection rank highly. At the same time, although price is important, fire safety and dielectric performance are reported as the most important factors when selecting transformer fluids.

These findings suggest most companies would use ester fluids in transformers, given their superior fire safety and environmental performance. However, mineral oil remains the fluid of choice. What might explain this disconnect? Some transformer operators may not realize that ester fluids are an option that meets the needs they describe. Others may understand the benefits but be constrained by upfront budgets.

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