INDUSTRIAL: Protecting Power

Ernest D. Menold fabricates a cage to protect an electrical substation. 

The Infrastructure and Jobs Act the U.S. Congress passed in November 2021 included funding for upgrades to the national power grid. Within months, the bill has already brought work to Ernest D. Menold Inc. of Philadelphia.

Menold’s customer, a major Mid-Atlantic power company, used Infrastructure and Jobs Act funds to update a critical electrical substation. New developments in technology have greatly improved electrical transmission efficiency. To accommodate expansion and take advantage of the advances, however, the power company needed to enlarge the substation and install new components that are much larger than the originals. Before they could bring in the final reactor, they needed a massive cage to protect the investment. 

A single bird or squirrel can damage a reactor and shut down power to an entire neighborhood. Power companies safeguard reactors with cages to keep out wildlife and unauthorized human activity. The power company turned to Menold for a fast, high-quality solution that would allow them to provide continuous power to the community. 

“We have served this customer in a variety of ways for over 50 years,” explained Ernie P. Menold, Menold’s vice president. “We erect the pre-fabricated metal buildings that house their electrical switchgears, and we fabricate parts like brackets, electrical boxes and cable chases for their substations.” Menold technicians even service the substations with their fleet of welding rigs every day. 

Ernest D. Menold's team fabricates and installs a reactor cage. Photos: Ernest D. Menold 

Even with ample field experience, the schedule posed a serious challenge. “We were given a very tight turnaround for fabricating and installing this reactor cage,” Menold said. During four intense weeks, Menold’s team of three to four shop workers stayed on the project for 460 hours, with 140 hours of overtime and 65 hours of double time. Running a crew on Sundays and paying double time is rare for Menold because very few customers are willing to spend that much for labor. “Sometimes cost becomes secondary to schedule because of the nature of what you're serving, which is keeping the lights on in people's homes,” he said. “The deadline was tight because of the essential nature of the project. Our customer is part of the national infrastructure, and they're receiving infrastructure money. When they invest money in upgrading the infrastructure, including these substations, things need to happen fast.”

With their strong relationship and decades of expertise, the customer trusted Menold to start work without any engineered drawings or even a materials list. “Because of our previous experience making these types of cages, we had extensive knowledge of what we were building, like where cables are going to run through the cage,” explained Menold. “We were able to make design decisions based off what we know about the application.”

Supply-chain issues determined the materials for the project. “We normally include Extren, a fiberglass structural material, in these types of cages, but it has extremely long lead times right now,” Menold said. Fortunately, Menold has long-standing relationships with their vendors and detailed familiarity with the markets. The lead times on the aluminum would fit into the required timetable. “We explained to the customer that if we were able to fabricate the cage without Extren, we’ll be on time, but if Extren was required, we wouldn’t be able to meet the schedule.” 

Understanding the situation, the customer approved an all-aluminum cage that did not use any Extren. Menold’s own CAD department drew up the design with Autodesk Inventor, and the shop fabricated the 24 by 161/2 by 18-foot cage. They used 10-inch by 6-inch aluminum I-beams and 3-inch by 2-inch by ¼-inch aluminum angles, for a total of 4,000 pounds of metal. 

The shop did the final assembly outside to allow enough room for the structure, then loaded the completed cage onto a flatbed truck for delivery. Even on its narrowest side, the 16½-foot wide cage was too wide for the roads. State law required a police escort, with officers driving in front of and behind the truck, as it drove down highways and through a residential area. 

Menold’s team is proud of their role in keeping the country’s power system running smoothly, but the honor comes with some personal sacrifices. “Our guys have a great sense of fulfillment with their work, and a few years ago they were posting pictures of the substations on Facebook,” Menold said. Then the energy company explained that the team’s desire to celebrate their work posed a threat to national security. “If we release information about where these substations are, that opens them up to terrorist threats. Someone could take that information and go after the electrical grid. Now we avoid sharing the customer’s name and the location of the substations in public.”