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Test Lab Produces 1.2M Volts in Single Jolt

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NEWTON FALLS, Ohio – Lightning can strike the same place twice – and possibly three or four times a day – at a manufacturer here that has expanded its technical and testing capabilities to accommodate a growing segment of its business.

“This was five years in the making,” says Russell Sewell, CEO of Quality Switch Inc., as he looks upon two busy high-voltage electrical generators the company recently installed at its new Horace H. Sewell High Voltage Testing & Research Center. The lab, named after Russell’s father, the founder of the company, was commissioned several weeks ago after years of planning and preparation.

Housed in a new 50-foot high building, the lab is used to test the electrical capacities of the company’s premier product – the switches it manufactures for the electrical transformer industry.

The lab replaces an older testing area within Quality Switch’s main plant, which can generate about 30,000 volts of electricity.

That’s not even close to the punch that this new equipment can deliver, says engineer Adam Sewell. The new lab uses two major pieces of equipment – an 18-foot high lightning impulse generator that can produce as much as 1.2 million volts in a single jolt, and a 26-foot high applied voltage testing unit that continuously transmits a comparatively lower charge – as much as 700,000 volts – to test a product.

“Our switches have to be tested,” Adam Sewell says. “In some cases, it can take hours or days to set up a test, but the actual test might take less than a second.”

Quality Switch serves domestic and foreign markets, Russell Sewell says. Developing the new research center allows the company to enter the high-voltage segment in response to increasing demand from its foreign end-users. “We do a lot of exports, and a lot of our foreign customers are asking us for these high-voltage switches,” he says. “Our foreign customers are driving this.”

As an example, Sewell points to one of the company’s recent visits to South Korea. “There were about 60 transformer plants there,” a significant amount for a country the size of Indiana. Quality Switch sells to transformer manufacturers, who in turn sell their packages to end users all over the globe.

A sizeable portion of the Quality Switch’s products can be found in South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Australia, where the electrical grids are more updated and have the capacity for higher transmission levels. Thus, the switches are required to undergo rigorous testing.

But to be competitive in this market is to have access to the testing facilities and equipment necessary to validate Quality Switch’s products. “There are some other labs across the country – there are only a couple – and the closest one to us is in Philadelphia,” Sewell says. “That can cost $10,000 just for a one-day rental of the lab space, if you can get in.”

The growing overseas market convinced Quality Switch to construct its own freestanding research and test center at the rear of the property. “It’s easier to walk across the driveway, test our materials and our switches, and get our products to market a lot faster,” Sewell says.

Quality Switch employs 35, eight of whom are engineers. “We’re not a garage shop operation and this is a big step for us,” he says.

The investment – the company covered all of it – stands at about $1 million, Sewell says. The two electrical generators cost some $300,000 each, while construction of the building came to $400,000.

“The entire building is a Faraday cage,” observes Doug Senne, engineering manager at Quality Switch.

A Faraday cage – so named for the 19th-century English scientist Michael Faraday – refers to an enclosure constructed with conductive material, in this case, steel, to block electrical fields.

Every piece of metal in the building is connected with other metal, making it a continuously grounded unit. A metallic mesh is buried beneath the concrete, while strips of metal descend 20 feet into a small hole in the middle of the lab floor.

“Every piece of metal is welded together for a continuous ground,” Senne explains, including the window frames in the control room.

Precision testing in this industry is imperative, he continues, because transformer companies assemble complexes that can cost upward of $500,000 to install. “There is a very low tolerance for failure in this market,” he says. “Manufacturers don’t want to make a $500,000 or $1.5 million transformer and have a $1,200 switch bring it down.”

More important, the industry is composed of a close-knit group, and it’s likely any word of failure would move through the ranks of the major players, damaging the reputation of the switch manufacturer, Senne says.

That hasn’t happened at Quality Switch, according to Senne, and indeed, just the opposite has occurred. In the past, customers have called Quality Switch to investigate a failure even though it wasn’t one of the company’s switches that caused the problem.

“We’d call back and say, ‘This isn’t our switch,’ ” he says. “They told us that they understood that, but knew we would do a better job of finding the root cause of the failure than the manufacturer. So, how good is that?”

The switches are tested based on their size and projected capacity, relates Adam Sewell. The lighting simulator, for example, is stoked with just 480 volts of electricity. Capacitors inside the tower recharge the voltage as it climbs the 18 feet toward the top of the tower, generating the desired amount of power. Then, the energy is transferred to an equally tall transmitter that sends the voltage across a thin metal wire connected at the top and descends into a tank filled with oil, where the switch is situated.

“For our switches, it’s probably around 700,000 volts,” he says, using the impulse generator. “We test to the level of failure – we take it to the level and go beyond that,” depending on the class of switch.

“The highest switch we tested passed 950,000 volts and failed at 975,000 volts,” Senne adds.

Applied voltage testing is usually performed at levels of 200,000 to 350,000 volts, he says, and the power increases until the switch fails. On a morning in late April, operators in the control room of the test lab watch monitors as the numbers climb from zero to 100,000 volts, then to 150,000 volts, and ultimately to the programmed 320,000 volts.

At that point, a loud bang and a flash of light followed as a bolt of electricity raced across a testing strip in less than a second – connected to a positive node at one end and grounded at the other.

Quality Switch CEO Doug Sewell says that this lab not only opens up the potential for new business in the foreign markets, it enables the company to lease space in the future for its customers or others in the field in need of testing services.

“Eventually, we hope to do exactly that,” he says. “It’s part of our game plan, but we have to learn how to use it ourselves and test our own products first. We’re just getting started.”

Pictured: Doug Senne and Russell Sewell stand inside the company’s 50-foot high testing lab.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.