Test & measurement - Smarter choices in electrical testing

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Jim Wallace of Seaward, explains how advances in test technology have increased the range of test instrument options available to contractors

For contractors involved in electrical testing there has never been a wider choice of test instruments available.

In recent years the instrumentation industry has been at the forefront of innovation and technical advances. These changes have been made in recognition of the situation for electrical companies, particularly during difficult economic conditions, the challenge is to balance the provision of efficient, high quality test services with a competitive price tag and value for money offering.

The test companies that flourish will be those that combine a fast and effective service that does not compromise the quality of testing undertaken - and who can build on existing customer relationships.
In fact customer service and satisfaction levels have become a crucial area for electrical test companies. With less work around existing relationships become even more important. It follows that an ability to enhance existing customer services through the provision of a cost-effective and added-value test service can do much to both reinforce a company's reputation and maintain a positive profile with influential prospects.

In addition, as well as a wide variety of testers available, the ability to provide a seamless link between test instruments used in the field and central test record systems that produce test certification and other reports also takes on even greater importance.

The good news for large and small contractors is advances in test instrumentation mean a range of options are available to meet specific test needs - and budgets - for periodic electrical installation testing or portable appliance testing.

In 17th edition testing
The HSE's Guidance Note GS38 provides guidance to electrically competent people involved in electrical testing, diagnosis and repair. The note identifies three main test instrument categories - those that detect voltage, those that measure voltages and those that measure current, resistance and (occasionally) inductance and capacitance.

The first named forms an essential part of the procedure for proving a system dead before starting work, whilst the other categories are more concerned with commissioning and testing procedures and fault finding.

Guidance note GS38 provides details of the risks associated with the use of unsatisfactory test equipment and includes a list of safety precautions and requirements all professional electricians should be aware of.

However, in terms of selecting appropriate 17th Edition test instruments, electrical contractors are broadly faced with a choice between ‘multifunction/combination' testers or single application specific testers.

As the name implies the latter are designed to carry out one specific function - RCD testing, insulation, earth resistance etc - and the ‘all in one' type testers are single units designed to carry out a wide range of tests including earth loop, insulation resistance, continuity, RCDs etc.

Choice invariably depends on the scope of work to be carried out, but increasingly it is the multifunction testers that have become the preferred tools of the trade for those involved in 17th Edition testing. This is for both practical reasons, in terms of using one meter constantly rather than swapping and changing between testers, and also for budget considerations - buying, maintaining and calibrating one combination tester is invariably cheaper than buying three separate ones.

Multifunction 17th Edition testers carry out the required circuit tests and display the test reading for transfer onto the test certificate manually or alternatively, readings can be recorded on a PDA and transferred to a desktop application for certificate printing. Some testers are also linked with smart phone and portable laptop applications which work in the same way by gathering test data collected in the field for subsequent transfer onto a master certificate.

The latest generation 17th Edition testers eliminate the use of intermediary devices by storing a replica of the test certificate within the tester so test data can be automatically incorporated onto the certificate as testing is undertaken.

In this way the instrument combines the functions of a multifunction test instrument and data logger. When inspection and testing is complete, the certificate held inside the tester can be transferred to accompanying PC software for the completion and print out of formal certificates.

As a result the time consuming (and therefore costly) practice of recording results on paper, a dummy certificate or a PDA is avoided. In addition, because the tester warns the user if any certificate fields appear  incomplete or invalid, verification of data can be carried out on site immediately and without return visits.

Recently the concept on ‘on board certification' in testers has been extended with additional features aimed at large testing organisations or the testing of large premises.

For example, the moist advanced 17th Edition testers now have the ability to upload certificates generated on a PC into multiple testers. This is particularly useful in situations where a number of test personnel might be working on the same large installation, such as a hospital development or shopping mall and enables specific test work to be allocated to a number of engineers very easily.
Once testing has been undertaken, the software enables test results downloaded separately from different testers to be merged into a single certificate for the premises concerned.

Another new feature is the ability to ‘clone' certificates from an existing master document. This allows the user to select an existing certificate and use this as a template to create multiple certificates for identical or similar electrical installations.

The cloned certificates will contain all of the distribution boards and circuit details held in the original and therefore represents an easy way of generating certificates for, say, 20 or more  houses on a street which all have the same electrical configuration.

In these combined testing and certification testers, all data transfer between the PC and the instrument can be achieved easily using Bluetooth connectivity. This means a certificate can be uploaded to the tester, the required test and inspection carried out and the information downloaded to a PC and the final certificate printed directly onto pre-printed NICEIC, ECA, ECA Select or Napit stationery.

With such a wide range of test instruments and accessories to choose from, electricians and contractors involved in 17th Edition electrical testing can be sure the right test package solution is available to meet their specific needs and budget.

In recent years substantial technical development has gone into the development of new test instrumentation so the ‘tester' can now be used in a much more effective manner - improving operational efficiencies, adding value to the test process and enhancing customer relationships.

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