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More Green than Gray

Sept. 1, 2010
Electrical reconditioning may be the ultimate in recycling.

Editors Note: This is the first of a series we'll be running occasionally, inviting electrical industry personalities to sound off on some of the more contentious issues of our time. Our aim with this series is to provoke some discussion on topics many would like to avoid. We invite all readers to comment on the article on

Green is good. Gray is bad. Sometimes it seems like the electrical industry has become obsessed with colors. Unfortunately, these labels often make as much sense as choosing a book by its cover, or judging a man by his clothes — too superficial to be useful, and often misleading.

The simple truth is that the “greenest” electrical solution is one that doesn't:

  • Pollute the environment to build;

  • Consume valuable raw materials and energy; or

  • Waste electrical energy over comparable solutions during operation.

Based on this definition, reconditioned electrical equipment is by far the greenest of the green, especially when it cuts downtime and productivity losses from months to days and saves the customer big bucks.

Unfortunately, some segments of the electrical industry feel that reconditioned product interferes with another “green” initiative: making money. This is a bit disingenuous since most electrical manufacturers offer in-house reconditioning services themselves for all the reasons listed above. Still, many commentaries on the electrical industry lump reconditioned equipment into the same category as counterfeit products and call it all the gray market. The automotive replacement parts and printer and copy machine markets both felt the same way once. Now, reconditioners in those two industries employ thousands of skilled workers and generate billions in revenue each year.

The simple truth is that reconditioning does save millions of tons of waste from landfills every year, doesn't consume energy like traditional recycling, doesn't pollute the environment like manufacturing, and creates jobs where automated manufacturing eliminates them. So, will the real green champion please stand up?

Reconditioning, Greenest of the Green

Recycling uses energy to turn simple products like sheet metal, aluminum and copper wire into bulk materials that can be manufactured into something else. Reconditioning, on the other hand, doesn't use energy to convert working products back into raw materials. It doesn't consume more energy or pollute the environment by manufacturing recycled materials back into finished products. Reconditioning cleans, plates, replaces parts (only when necessary), upgrades and tests products to make sure they work ‘as good as new.’

Safely reconditioning products takes skill, acceptable international standards and trained technicians. In 2003, Boston University professors William Hauser and Robert Lund conservatively estimated that the U.S. reconditioning industry employed 480,000 skilled workers and machinists, generating $53 billion in annual revenue1 — more workers and revenue than are employed by the U.S. steel, computer or pharmaceutical industries.

Is this an argument against recycling? Not at all. But just as the energy debate has wisely turned away from inefficient ethanol production and toward abundant, environmentally-neutral natural gas, wind, and solar power, industrial sustainability needs to accept that recycling is only part of the answer to a sustainable future, especially when reality — in terms of cost effectiveness and employment — are added to the equation.

Reconditioning: Transforming Sustainability

Today, industrial motors are the most commonly reconditioned electrical apparatus, but what about other industrial and commercial electrical apparatus, such as transformers, switches, panels, relays and circuit breakers? Are there opportunities for safely reconditioning these devices, while saving customers money and protecting OEMs' deserved profit margins? Of course.

A recent market analysis by Publications predicts global electrical transformer market revenues will reach $36.7 billion by 2015, or about the same as industrial electric motors.2 A transformer, like an electric motor, is a good candidate for reconditioning because the bulk of the material resides in the core, which is made from laminated steel, and the metal coils or windings, either aluminum or copper. These characteristics make transformers potential candidates for both reconditioning and recycling. To determine whether buying a new transformer, building a transformer from recycled materials, or reconditioning a transformer is the more sustainable alternative, one must consider all the hidden costs from raw material to finished product.

Consider a 3000kVA transformer, which can be found in every utility company from Albuquerque to Zibo. A 3000kVA transformer weighs 22,000 lbs, out of which the steel base and enclosure weigh about 3,000 lbs, aluminum coils weigh 3,800 lbs, and laminated steel core weighs 15,200 lbs.

For this analysis, we'll combine the steel in the enclosure and base with the laminated core of silicon steel because the U.S. Department of Energy does not have detailed energy and pollution figures for electrometallurgical ferroalloy products, such as silicon steel. The average U.S. ton of steel requires 657.6 kWh of electricity to manufacture. Therefore, the steel components of our transformer, weighing 18,200 lbs or 6.1 tons consumes 4,011.4 kWh of electricity to extract the ore and smelt the steel. Again, using U.S. government statistics, generating 1 kWh of electricity on average produces 2.3 lbs of carbon dioxide (CO2), the most common greenhouse gas.3 Therefore, the steel components of the transformer added 9,226 lbs of CO2, or 4.6 tons.

Aluminum takes a lot of electricity to extract the metal from the raw ore. In 1997, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that it takes between 5.9 and 6.5 kiloWatt hours (kWh) to produce one pound of aluminum.4 That means the 3,800 lbs of aluminum in the 3,000 kVA transformer required an average of 25,560 kWh to extract from the mined ore. Just the electricity to extract the metal from rock cost the aluminum smelter an average of $1,507.84 , which of course must be passed along to the consumer, but what about costs to the environment?

As stated, generating 1 kWh of electricity on average produces 2.3 lbs of CO2. (This amount will change depending on whether the electricity was supplied by a coal-fired plant, which produces more CO2, or nuclear plants, which are clean alternative as far as greenhouse gases are concerned.) Based on 2.3 lbs of CO2per kWh, extracting the aluminum for the transformer added 58,788 lbs, or 29.4 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, aluminum processing is a dirty process, and the extraction produces roughly the same amount of CO2 as it took to generate the electricity to run the smelter. This means to create the aluminum for the transformer added about 58.8 tons of CO2 to the environment. That's before the aluminum was shipped to the OEM manufacturer and manufactured into wire for windings. Unfortunately, this is as far as we can take this part of the analysis because manufacturers don't share how much energy it takes to stamp metal into cores, or wind cores into transformers.

Together the raw steel and aluminum used in the 3000 kVA transformer consumed just under 30,000 kWh, and produced 63.4 tons of CO2.

A Lot of Hot Air

So is 63 tons of CO2 a lot or a little? To put these pollutants in context, the average car in the U.S. produces 6 tons of CO2 per year, which means that producing the metals for the transformer added the same amount of pollution to the environment as 10.6 cars driven for one year.5 If melting and forming the raw metals into a transformer only required half the energy used in smelting the aluminum, then the environmental cost of the new transformer is approximately 95 tons of CO2, or the equivalent of 16 cars driven for one year.

The numbers improve when using recycled aluminum. If the transformer manufacturer used 100 percent recycled aluminum, they would only use 5 percent of the electricity, or 1,278 kWh, adding 2,939 lbs of CO2 (1.5 tons) to recycle the raw aluminum. The electricity consumed and pollutants generated from turning the aluminum into transformers stays the same, however, even if a manufacturer could use 100 percent recycled materials, which is unlikely. The recycled aluminum would have to come from aluminum cans since few recyclers have the ability or are willing to take apart large, complex apparatus like electrical transformers to extract aluminum coils and steel parts.

Now consider the costs to the customer and the environment from reconditioning the same transformer. To inspect, clean, test, verify and perform all other reconditioning steps spelled out in industry standards, such as those available from the Professional Electrical Apparatus Recyclers League (PEARL), two technicians would spend about 56 man-hours to return the transformer to pristine condition at a labor cost of $3,000.6 A minimal amount of electricity would be used in the bake oven to dry the transformer out, and to power the test equipment to make sure the transformer is safely operating to the original specification. The reconditioner would also use a gallon of solvents to clean the parts and some insulating material to refurbish the housing.

Unlike switches, panels, circuit breakers, motor controls and other electrical apparatus, transformer designs rarely change, so obsolescent designs aren't likely to be a detracting factor to reconditioning. New energy-efficient transformer designs are entering their second decade of use, which means there are now more “used” transformers that could be returned to service through reconditioning than “new” transformers entering the marketplace annually — and the gap grows each year. Finally, lead times for a 3,000 kVA transformer range from 16 to 20 weeks, while a reconditioned transformer can be ready in a week or less. If a company is losing $10,000 a day because of a down transformer, a safe reconditioned replacement may be the only realistic answer. As more and more OEMs adopt lean operations with minimal inventories, long lead times become more common across a wider range of products.

When you consider other industrial and commercial electrical apparatus that are designed for repair and maintenance — such as disconnects, fuses, relays, circuit breakers, panels, etc. — recycling is not an option because there isn't enough recyclable material to make the effort cost effective. Customers could always “buy new” when something breaks, but the costs can be significantly greater than replacing a single part. That's what Allied Signal, operator of NASA's Fort Irwin, Calif., radio telescope facility faced when they needed to replace a 2000A, 4,160V Federal Pacific air circuit breaker that was no longer available from the manufacturer. “We couldn't find a replacement breaker anywhere,” said Larry Wilson, operations engineer at Allied Signal. “Our only option was a total upgrade of our electrical system. This meant installation of a new breaker, switchgear cabinet, new pads, cables, and accessories.” The upgrade would cost up to $80,000, but Wilson was able to find a reconditioned breaker for $13,000 while cutting downtime from weeks to days. For most manufacturers, downtime translates to thousands of dollars — or more — in lost revenue every day.

Reconditioning: Challenges and Potential

As Boston University Professors Lund and Hauser write in their 2003 study on the U.S. remanufacturing industry, “If a durable product can be made to have a longer useful life, several benefits accrue to society. The value of the labor, materials, energy and capital equipment that goes into making the product is not prematurely discarded. The drain on human, natural and technological resources is thereby reduced. The costs of solid waste disposal are reduced. Living standards can be higher for the same amount of resource use…(Reconditioners) typically recoup 85 percent to 95 percent of the energy and materials in the products they rebuild. If a product with a normal lifetime of eight years can be given an additional eight-year life, the demand on energy and material resources to maintain the population of that product can be cut by 40 percent to 45 percent. The doubling of the lifetime of any durable product is likely to accomplish savings of this magnitude.”

Certainly not all products — even electrical products — are good candidates for reconditioning. The product needs to be durable and tested to guarantee safe operation that meets or exceeds original performance specifications. Industrial products are excellent candidates for reconditioning because, as Lund and Hauser point out, “Buying reconditioned goods is best accomplished by a buyer with some expertise.” Automotive mechanics regularly specify reconditioned alternators, tires, engine parts, etc., because they are experts in automotive repair and understand the benefits and risks. Are electricians any less expert in their own field?

Risks and liability concerns are major challenges for reconditioned products. Who has the liability, the manufacturer, the distributor or the reconditioner? Fortunately, many industries are developing technical standards to assist reconditioning, including groups like PEARL, EASA and NETA in the electrical industry. PEARL, for instance, requires certified reconditioners to have adequate training, liability insurance, test equipment, documentation, and follow established best-practices. A consumer can feel confident buying from these certified suppliers of reconditioned equipment just as they can feel confident in the reconditioned alternator on the shelf of your neighborhood NAPA store.

Education is the key to overcoming misinformation. As Lund and Hauser write, “Lack of public sensitivity to the economic and ecological contributions of the industry makes it difficult to garner legal or regulatory support to counter these threats.” In some cases, the government actually discourages reconditioning as part of its environmental regulations. For example, The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System adopted by the U.S. government provides tax incentives for buildings that use environmentally sustainable construction practices. Since its inception in 1998, more than 14,000 projects in the United States and 30 countries covering 1.062 billion square feet (99 km2) of development area have applied for LEED credits. Unfortunately, under MR Credit 4: Recycled Content, LEED specifically excludes the reconditioning of “mechanical, electrical, and plumbing components,” saying that LEED credits only include “materials permanently installed in the project.” However, recycled furniture — not generally considered a permanent fixture — is accretive to the LEED tax credit.7

Technology advances in energy production and distribution hold the potential to drastically improve the world, but we should never fail to act today because of the promise of a better tomorrow. Hopefully, with more education and outreach by key industry trade groups, companies and governments will learn of the easy benefits of reconditioning, and that “new” doesn't automatically mean “sustainable.”

Citations/End Notes:

  1. “The Reconditioning Industry: Anatomy of a Giant, A View of Reconditioning in America Based On A Comprehensive Survey Across the Industry,” William Hauser, Robert T. Lund, Department of Manufacturing Engineering, Boston University, June 2003

  2. “Global Electricity Transformers Market is Expected to Exceed $36.7 Billion by 2015,”

  3. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Frequently Asked Global Change Questions

  4. “Energy and Environmental Profile of the U.S. Aluminum Industry,” July 1997,

  5. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Frequently Asked Global Change Questions

  6. Professional Electrical Apparatus Recyclers League,

  7. U.S. Green Building Council, LEED for New Construction and Renovations,

Winn Hardin, founder of Hardin Business Communications LLC, is a marketing and sales consultant for technology-focused organizations and publicist for the Professional Electrical Apparatus Recyclers League (PEARL). Previous clients include the National Fire Protection Association, author of the National Electrical Code, and few other small businesses such as Microsoft, IBM and HP. You can contact Winn at [email protected], check out the people at HBC that make him look smarter than he is at, or give him a call at (904) 246-8958.

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