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The Main Switchboard in the 21st Century

Switch on to the future Main Switchboard now. It sure ain't what it used to be.





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Has anyone asked you recently what you think is the main switchboard of your dwelling? Or, more importantly, what you reckon is in a switchboard? What’s a switch? What’s a board? Is a meter board different to a switchboard? If you were asked you probably thought, “What boring questions? Who cares!”

 Well actually quite a few people care. And, believe it or not, they concerned what your image of the main switchboard is. There is a simple reason why they care. There are big profits and beloved ideologies involved.

I have written else where how the cluster of technology we call the electricity meter and the ripple relay response device shapes our awareness and our ability to interact intelligently with the grid and how it dictates important elements of the design and use of our dwellings.

When I call the meters and ripple control technology the main switchboard I immediately get responses from engineers and corporations saying the meter is not a switch. They say that while they might own the meter and the ripple relay (“hot water control”), they do not own the main switchboard. “The switchboard is the property of the building owner!”  I will not delve deeply into the educational, political, environmental, legal, economic, mechanical and social aspects of what I call the main switchboard. However it is often fun to find out the origins of terms and phrases we take so much for granted nowadays.

About Boards
My forty-year old dictionary provides eleven definitions for the word board, none of which will keep an electrical engineer happy.  The definitions that seem most relevant are:

“A wooden rack in a box office of a theatre containing the tickets, sometimes reflecting the seating plan.”

“An organised official body: a board of directors.”

“Telecommunications – the control panel connected with all the microphones on a radio broadcast.”

The word switch has more precise definition for this discussion:

“A device to make or break a circuit or transfer a current from one conductor to another.”

I cannot locate the origins of the term switchboard but I do know from the very first domestic electricity circuit, engineers were keenly aware of the fire-hazard that electricity can pose. Thomas Edison nearly burned down the home of J P Morgan, the powerful investment banker, as he attempted to impress him with the new technology. For that reason we can eliminate the definition of a board as a piece of wood. The proponents of DC circuits saw Wood as an insulator for a very brief period but soon the use of insulating and relatively fire resistant materials such as marble was universally adopted in dwellings.

The main switchboard, with its collection of metering, circuit breaking and earthing devices was literally a flash point in a dwelling. Electricity surges tend to impact here. It was also vulnerable to fires as the wiring emerged at this point from its protective conduit pipes. The grease preservative in the insulation wrapping the wires was exposed to air. As a result the insulation dried out and cracked off. 

Because wood was not used as a base, the term board was unlikely to have been associated with the material it was assembled on. It is much more probable the term derives from the fact that it was a display of the circuitry and equipment required to control the dwelling. The definition of boards as control centres or directors also makes a lot of sense, as we shall see.

A quick search on the Internet for modern definitions throws up a raft of definitions that will not really help electrical engineers who only countenance the switchboard as the board on which meters and relays are sited. A search on the word board throws up the following definition at

“7. control panel, instrument panel, control board, board, panel -- (electrical device consisting of an insulated panel containing switches and dials and meters for controlling other electrical devices; "he checked the instrument panel"; "suddenly the board lit up like a Christmas tree")
8. circuit board, circuit card, board, card -- (a printed circuit that can be inserted into expansion slots in a computer to increase the computer's capabilities)”

The first definition makes it clear that the prime use of the term board is display. Any engineer “checking out the instrument panel or control board” studies the instrument display. What they are mounted on does not even register. The mounting tells them very little.

The reference to computers is a potent indicator of meaning too. It indicates the mounting can take any form as well as presaging the “solid state” (non mechanical) and relatively “virtual” world of the main switchboard in the future.

About Switchboards
A web-search under switchboard tends to throw up links to telecommunications.
Hyperdictionary only provides links to telecommunications: telephone central where circuits are completed with patchcords
Synonyms  patchboard, plugboard
see also central, exchange, phone system, telephone exchange, telephone system

A rule of thumb seems to be that industry sectors provide definitions of switchboard that suit their marketing strategy. For instance, a power surge control company defines a switchboard as:

“A large single panel, frame, or assembly of panels having switches, overcurrent, and other protective devices, buses, and usually instruments mounted on the face or back or both. Switchboards are generally accessible from the rear and from the front and are not intended to be installed in cabinets.”

This clearly excludes 99% of main switchboards that are sited in cupboards, cabinets and boxes in or on dwellings throughout the country.  The laminating industry focuses on the insulated mounting structures they provide:

“A single large panel or an assembly of panels on which are mounted switches, circuit breakers, meters, fuses and terminals essential to the operation of electrical equipment.”

This extremely narrow definition will keep some engineers happy but it really does not tell us anything. The same panels can equally be used in computers or telephone exchanges. Their meaning lies in what they are associated with. This narrow definition is about as much use as saying your brain is just a clump of glia and neuron cells. It is the display or circuitry that the cells form that makes it a brain.

The definition is also unhelpful because it confuses switches with their forms. Any of the above devices can act as a switch and we are concerned to identify the main switchboard.

Before exploring switches further we will finish our short tour of common definitions. Telecommunication companies tend to define a switchboard as a plugboard or patchboard and focus on the involvement of manual operations. eg “Equipment used for manual switching operations.”

Where it gets really interesting is the varieties of definitions of switch, board and switchboard used in the computer industry. What is so instructive here is that clearly images of switchboards have moved far from the old image of the large slab of marble loaded with large black boxes that whir and clunk. Modern images of a switchboard include concepts of “PC based switchboards”. These may involve switchboards that support “PC-to-PC, PC-to-Phone, Fax-to-Email, and Fax-to-Fax calling.” They can even involve even more abstract concepts of switchboards as “electrified yellow pages” for linking consumers and businesses

You can buy patch panels for your computer system. What are patch panels? The retailers invite you to “Think of it as an old fashioned switchboard. A place where network connections are made and often rearranged, which guide the information to the correct destination, each and every time.”

About switches.
The concept of a switch takes on new dimensions in the “digital age” Look at this definition of a computer switch:

“There are several ways in nature that one can create binary numbers. For example, a switch is open or closed, and a magnet has a north and a south pole. The principal device currently being used is the transistor, which is either on or off. Some uncommon devices are Josephson junctions and light switches.”

This is a world away from the definition of a switch you will get from many electrical engineers. Ask them for a definition and they will insist it is a hinged or toggle switch that can assume either of two positions such as you have on your wall to control lighting and other electrical circuits. Its unlikely they will point you to the caps lock switch on your keyboard, as does the Webopedia. It is even less unlikely they will come up with Webopedia’s definition of a switch as “another word for option or parameter – a symbol that you add to a command to modify the command’s behaviour.”  These same engineers then wonder why their passionate calls for the public to adopt “smart” sustainable electricity use are unheard by policy makers and the public.

The point is “smart” electricity use involves all these definitions. Did you know the wires carrying electricity have been communication wires for half a century now? Local grid operators send signals through them to your main switchboard to switch your heating systems off at times of peak demand for electricity. Yes, you probably knew but it has been ingrained in you to think of the wires as “power wires” or “electricity cables”. Recent developments have developed the capacity of the grid wires to transmit broadband data and this will make your thinking even more outmoded.

At the same time, modern cell phone technology means the main switchboard in a dwelling can communicate with the local electricity retailer or grid owner as well as with the dwelling occupant using radio transmissions. And there’s more. Much more.

The cladding of dwellings can be used to generate electricity and heat now in unprecedented ways. New forms of storing such valuable energy forms such as hydrogen cells and thermal stores are becoming available. Gas fired central heating units can also power small-scale electricity turbines. So the main switchboard can control and optimise uses of grid and dwelling sourced generation.

It can also optimise use by controlling the activities of “smart” appliances such as heaters, fridges, freezers, fans and air-conditioners that are fitted with tiny computers. No, I am not talking of expensive fridges that can do a stock take and email you with a shopping list at the supermarket to save you having to think. I am talking of appliances that alter their operations to make the most of the periods in a day when electricity can be purchased most cheaply off the grid.

You may now be getting a glimpse of why it is so important to some people what you now imagine as the main switchboard on your dwelling to be. A common theme of all these definitions of a main switchboard is master hub and central control. The shape of the control centre in turn shapes our concepts of how electricity can be used. It can enhance or reduce our sense of being able to interact with the national grid in an intelligent way. It is little wonder certain sectors are interested in vesting that control in themselves.

Before discussing issues of control, we will revisit our definition of a switch in the electronic age. Recall the definition of a switch is “a device to make or break a circuit or transfer a current from one conductor to another”. Again some electrical engineers have trouble perceiving that meters are switches For their benefit I will track the evolution of some of their uses as the main switch on dwellings. 

Some meters, called prepaid meters, measure both the flow of electricity and the amount of credit the consumer has. If insufficient credit is registered then the meter breaks the circuit between the dwelling and the grid. Credit was traditionally maintained by inserting coins into the meter. Then with the advent of the electronic age credit was transferred to the meter manually using swipe cards to ensure they did not switch off the supply. In these situations the dwelling residents operate the switch that connects and disconnects them to the grid.

Alternatively the main-grid supply company sends out a person out who manually switches off the dwelling. In many cases they break the circuit to the grid by removing the feed cable to the meter.

The Age of the Internet and Cell-phone technology largely removes the need for manual intervention. All that is required is one touch of a keyboard button to establish a bank authority to transfer money directly to the retailer’s bank and/or to the dwelling’s consumption-credit monitor. Failure to maintain credit activates the switch automatically or the retailer sends a signal via the wires or by radio waves for the meter to disconnect the dwelling from the grid.

Of course there are other switches that can be used to break the circuit to the grid. They can take the form of the “pole fuse”, a switch still called by this name by some electricians - even if it is sited on the dwelling. There may be a large toggle switch – called the mains switch or the mains circuit breaker. Sometimes they are sited with the meter and ripple relay switches but often they are sited some distance apart. In that situation, some engineers continue to argue that the board with the toggle switch or main fuse switch is the main switchboard; despite the fact these devices are subservient to the main monitoring/response equipment.

This argument suits the corporations that own the main monitoring/response/switching equipment. It is against their short-term interests for the public, politicians and regulators to be mindful of the powerful control this ownership gives them to shape the design and use of dwelling and national resources. Indeed they express considerable indignation when it is suggested that they own the main switchboards to dwellings and can be adamant that the building owner still owns “the main switchboard”. My survey of our retailer’s attitudes to netmetering reveals how New Zealand’s existing legislation enables them to control and limit competing systems and technologies.

I have already cited a raft of examples of how the “meters and ripples controls” act as the main switches. There are more.

Electricity can flow through meters in both directions. However it is possible to lock the meter so that it is switches off to the flow of electricity from one direction. This has huge implications on the ability of consumers to make effective use of dwelling-based electricity generation and the development of a sustainable national economy. In fact, as I outlined in Stop the Rort Start the Talk, there is a century long battle by Bulk-electricity generators to eliminate alternative uses of energy, especially small-scale distributed electricity generation.

The battle continues.  
At present in New Zealand, various groups are fighting to ensure legislation means household electricity meters are switched off to two-way flows. This means if a household generates a few watts of electricity they will have to install an extra meter if they wish to transmit it to the grid.

You might think this small-scale distributed electricity generation is good. Surely it means less high-risk thermal power stations, flooded valleys and expensive grid investment? Surely it means a more sustainable use of national resources and a more resilient main grid? Surely it’s a sound civil-defence that helps insure us against the impact of major weather events and earthquakes?

Well that is not how some people perceive it. The bankers of the Bulk-generators feel their investments are at risk. Control over electricity use at every level enhances their profit-making opportunities. Simply put, there is quicker, easier money to be made out of large capital-intensive projects.

 Fossil fuel (and nuclear) sectors make some of their best money when the main grid is operating at peak capacity. They don’t want to share the profits that can be made at peak load times with every tiddley generator with a few solar cells on their roof and/or some storage capacity.

Treasury officials tend to be focused on maintaining tax revenue. Ensuring electricity meters are switched off to two-way flows enhances their ability to generate tax. They can tax electricity flowing from the grid to the dwelling and electricity flowing from the dwelling to the grid. If the meter is not switched off to a two-way flow, then only the net amount of the electricity flow is measured.  Say the grid sourced electricity is 600 kiloWatts hours a month and the dwelling generates 200, net metering with two-way meters means the treasury can tax only 400 units instead of 800 units. If the dwelling can interact in an intelligent way with the grid, then electricity purchased off it will tend to be cheaper as well. The dwelling may be making the national economy more efficient and resilient and it may be conserving the environment. However Treasuries tend to be driven by other concerns.

Politicians tend to be addicted to the tax revenues from electricity sales. Even those who maintain they are committed to the development of distributed generation and a Sustainable Economy find it difficult to see this source reduced. There is the hilarious phenomenon of parties who argue most strenuously for lowering taxes and leaving money in the pockets of the average person and yet provide not a peep of objection to the imposition of expensive and inefficient “tax meters” on low-medium income households. Indeed some such parties will argue that such meters are essential for “equity” and to stop subsidies. This is nonsense, as is revealed when the same parties approve provision of large subsidies of billions of dollars to bulk-generators to maintain “standby generating capacity”.

Finally the current dominant school of Economics bases its concepts of a successful economy on measured transactions rather than social and environmental indices. As a result devotees find their doctrine threatened by concepts such as meters switched open to reversible flows of electricity. Their key measures of such as Gross National Product, already relatively meaningless in terms of revealing the health, wealth and sustainability of the individual, become even more meaningless.  While there may be additional economic activity and greater quantities of electricity generated from sustainable sources of energy, the GNP is seen to shrink. This is translated by the principal beneficiaries of certain industrial sectors, the media and politicians as a failure of policy.

All these narrow sector concerns combine to create a most limited idea of what the main switchboard is. It means that as the switchboard evolves into a virtual control centre imbedded in a small plastic console in your kitchen or in your dwellings control computer, the status quo is maintained for them. Public perceptions and the Government legislation governing ownership and use of the main switchboard remains be based on images of fireproof insulated slabs of material on which are mounted a range of circuit breakers. That structure may or may not contain large black boxes full of spinning dials and things that go clunk and spark with loud bangs.

Clearly this image is outmoded and unsustainable.

So here’s the challenge I gave a forum loaded with engineers who are “energy experts” concerned with the development of sustainable uses of valuable energy forms:

What term would you choose to describe the technology that forms the master control of the electricity flow between your dwelling and the local grid and dictates how you design and use your buildings and its appliances?

Remember, no matter how smart and sustainable your dwelling and appliances are and no matter how much the local grid owner might wish to work in a cooperative, intelligent way with you, neither of you can do much if the “meters and ripple response” centre are basically dumb and switched off to many options. The term you choose has to have political clout to counter the lobbying of retailers whose business is based on bulk-sales driven imperatives. It must keep politicians mindful of the blocks retailers can put in the way of an intelligent electricity system.

One forum respondent suggested the use of the term “interface”. This term is accurate in that the main switchboard is the interface of the dwelling with the local grid, the point at which utility ownership and private ownership meet. However it fails to capture the fact that it is ownership of the technology at this point that dictates who controls what. Personally I still hang out for main switchboard. Regardless of whether the main monitoring –response technology is on a panel, in a cupboard, in a console or in a small computer it is the point where electricity and communications systems come together as in a network exchange. We must not lose sight of the political fact it acts as the master switch and an important gateway to a sustainable future.

It will be interesting to see what the Electricity Commission imagines is the main switchboard as it legislates on the issue this month. Will it be stuck back in the old black box on a marble slab days or will it reveal a capacity for “smart” sustainable thinking?

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