Control panel design with maintenance in mind

Some Considerations for Designers and Builders of Control Panels to Help Ensure the Panels' Maintainability

By Don Fitchett, Business Industrial Network

With the true cost of downtime being so high, maintenance-friendly control panel design is required to reduce that downtime. Often, end users feel equipment maintainability is low on the designer's priority list or just an afterthought.

The lack of maintainability concerns in control system design can be attributed to oversight, initial-cost reduction and not understanding installation and usage scenarios.

In our PLC training classes, we give the example of the outdated mindset that says, "Whoever writes the program in the least amount of code is the best." Less code might have been true in the early days when memory and processing power were limited. Nowadays, with plenty of memory and processing power, the objective is to write the simplest program for the layman to understand and work with, in troubleshooting, for example.


A part of today's maintenance requires using the PLC, programmable automation controller (PAC) or other control device to make minor changes and to troubleshoot otherwise complex equipment. Maintenance personnel understand ladder logic more than they do structured text or other Pascal-like computer programming languages. Even if you are more comfortable programming in structured text, the program should be in ladder logic for better maintainability. Of course, there can be exceptions, but the rule should be "simple for non-technicals to work with."

Here are some considerations for designers and builders of control panels that will help ensure the panels' maintainability:

    • Have an outside-the-panel PLC communication port and fused 120-V outlet.
    • If it's an ac-powered PLC, have the line filter on 120‑V control power come off the transformer's secondaries.
    • Give customers a well-documented copy of the PLC program on CD or access to a cloud-hosted version.
    • Bring critical warning lights, such as PLC fault, battery, force comm, outside the panel or to the HMI.
    • Use aux contacts on E-stops and disconnects to detect them in the PLC and/or HMI.
    • Write predictive maintenance (PdM) logic in control to further enable reductions in your customers' unscheduled downtime.
    • Always break up logic into organized sub-routines for user ease of understanding and navigation.
    • Use agile programming designed to accommodate change.
    • Program preventive maintenance (PM) alerts, including electrical PM alerts, into equipment.
    • If PLC vendor software does not provide processor status bits and a word-structured view in a data table, create a subroutine that displays important processor status tags for easy troubleshooting. Be sure to include processor fault codes, real-time clock, first-scan status bit, etc.
    • Consider providing PLC program backup on a PLC EEPROM in a PLC that reloads the program automatically on memory fault.
    • Use fewer possible connections to reduce electrical PM time and increase overall reliability.
    • Clearly mark or label spare I/O on terminal blocks.
    • Ensure that service techs and start-up techs clearly document changes, and share that documentation with maintenance.
    • Have automated warning alerts if neutral-to-ground voltages exceed 2 V, or if there are other indicators of harmonics that can fault PLCs or other solid-state control devices.
    • In larger panels, include illumination for safety and ease of maintainability.
    • Consider panel-temperature monitoring, particularly an over-temperature warning.
    • Provide all manuals and documentation in searchable PDF digital format on CD and offer a cloud-hosted version.
    • Include recommended parts to stock and mean time between failures (MTBF) rate in manuals.
    • When MTBF is not of value (as for intermittent electro-mechanical devices), then provide the activations between failures (ABF) rate.
    • Monitor MTBF/ABF for key components and indicate warnings in the controls as the component approaches its MTBF/ABF.
    • Consider remote access for PdM measurements in panel designs, so measurements can be made without opening panel when possible.

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  • <p>I was hoping to hear you speak on overheating issues of enclosures and what is the most economical means to address it. With air conditioning and cfc's becoming a thing of the past what "Green" alternatives are out there? I have associates that are using the air to air and air to water units and rave about the problems going away. What are your thoughts. Mike</p>


  • <p>I only had so much room in the article, but as mentioned, the important thing is that you are automatically monitoring temperature, so if for some reason cooling fails, at a minimum maintenance is alerted before production shuts down or components fail. First of all panel cooling should not be a challenge in most cases if you are following specification by each component vendor and sticking to the rule of thumb to leave 20% of panel for future expansion. But there are exceptions to every rule, like a panel in the middle of the desert or in a foundry. :) Also you can use a current reduction approach from initial design. Not sure about regulations in your location, but I have seen in the past, panel designers put drive and transformers on outside of control panel for better cooling flexibility. Air-water exchangers should be used if refrigerated water is not green enough. Air to water panel coolers are the most environmentally friendly solutions (Green). You can use software like ProClima to calculate which type of cooling your specific panel designs will need. If you follow the above guide and still find cooling a challenge, seek out your drive supplier for solutions as they do more cooling R&amp;D than most other component vendors.</p>


  • I believe the title of this article is misleading. I was hoping to get more tips on things such as the physical layout of a panel or different types of bulkheads, methods of wire routing, etc


  • For example, I have had maintenance personnel tell me that they much rather have terminals running vertical in the panel because it provides them easier and more comfortable access.


  • Thanks Tisha for the extra advice. Like I mentioned in my reply to Mike (above), I was limited for space in the article. So I focused on the less commonly thought of design issues, rather than those more commonly known like terminal placement and cooling. To cover them all would make a small book or course. But you and others can add your ideas here in the comment section, and they are welcome. So its all good. :)


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