Making a splash with power connectors

Bulgin helps Aqua Control Inc. find a reliable solution for challenging underwater conditions

Man-made water features are a pleasant sight in any environment. They range from small cascading ponds with tinkling fountains to large water features that pump powerful streams of water into the air to the accompaniment of coloured lighting. Whether they are installed in public places as an attraction for all to behold or purely for personal enjoyment at home, water features offer a range of subtle benefits to health and wellness.

Human beings have always been drawn to water, and for many people, listening to the soft sounds of moving water promotes a feeling of relaxation and eases tension. Water features are also good for the health of the natural environment too – the circulation of water enabled by the pumps helps to keep bodies of water oxygenated, thereby preventing stagnation and keeping freshwater plants and fish healthy.

It is little wonder then that the design and sale of water features is a big business. Spring Valley, Illinois-based water features manufacturer Aqua Control Inc. (ACI), which was established in 1970, is a leader in this field. The company has designed and installed many famous water features throughout the world and manufactures fountains, floating fountains and aerators of various sizes, with outputs ranging from 0.5 horsepower all the way up to 40 horsepower.

However, until a few years ago, there were still intermittent failures with running mains power to the equipment, and connectors were identified as the weakest link in the chain. If water comes into contact with the wiring or electrical contacts via the connector housing, this can cause the entire system to trip or short-circuit up to the distribution board or isolator switch.

“Controlling electricity in water is a primary requirement of our business, and a difficult one. We looked for underwater connectors for a long, long time,” said Willis Dane, president of ACl. His engineering team needed to find just the right solution that ticked all the boxes: the connectors they needed had to be rugged, water resistant, cost effective and most of all, easy to use.

Resisting the harshest conditions

Since the majority of the components in any electrically powered water feature are housed underwater 24 hours a day, seven days a week, resistance to water ingress is a top priority, and this is especially true for power connectors.

It is not just tap water the connectors have to withstand either. Water feature components are also subject to all sorts of different environments, ranging from algae-rich water in ponds, lakes and backyards to ocean-grade saltwater in bays, which is highly corrosive. The products can also be immersed in strong chemical applications such as chlorine to treat water infested with algae.

Additionally, connectors must face one last challenge: extreme temperatures. High temperatures are not often a concern as the connector will be immersed in water, but very cold weather can cause the water surrounding the water feature to freeze. This can cause hairline cracks in the connectors as the housing material contracts and expands, leading to water ingress after repeated exposure.

Unearthing the right connector

Dane and his team noticed an advertisement from Bulgin, a rugged connector and component manufacturer based in the United Kingdom, and decided to get in touch with them to see if they could get some samples to test. Back then, there were no Bulgin distributors in the United States, so they worked directly with the Bulgin engineering support team in the UK to find the solution they were looking for.

What followed was a carefully planned four-phase project management process. Firstly, the Bulgin team had to investigate and understand ACI’s complete engineering challenge in order to arrive at a recommendation of the product that would be needed to solve it. The second phase was the shipment of samples direct to ACI for assessment, followed by testing and implementation phases.

After completing the first phase of the project, the PX0921 flex in-line cable connector was recommended as being the correct product for the job. The PX0921 forms part of the 900 Series, the highest-powered circular connector in Bulgin’s Buccaneer range capable of up to 32A, 600V ac/dc ratings. The PX0921 offers a “quick disconnect” feature with a positive fast-acting locking ring that enables testing, repairs and maintenance on the water features to be carried out very quickly. With its IP68 rated composite material housing, the connector is consistently able to withstand water, dirt, corrosive chemicals and extreme temperatures to last throughout the water feature’s predicted lifecycle.

Carrying UL, CSA & VDE approvals, these heavy-duty cable connectors are offered in plug or socket versions and accommodate 13-15 mm cable diameter as standard or 7-13mm with an additional gland pack. The specially designed locking ring enables the connector to be turned easily, even with gloved hands.

Safety is also a key feature of the 900 Series connector, leading earth contacts for 3, 4, 5 and 7 pole versions and trailing neutral on 5 poles, making it ideal for use in fountains and other underwater applications.

According to ACI’s design engineer Rob Hank, product testing is a time-consuming but essential process for the design team. The company carries out innovation-based testing on new prototypes and also tests every single product they manufacture before it is shipped to the customer. He says the PX0291 connector helps to make the testing process quicker and easier.

“With the Bulgin connectors we are able to easily swap the unit out of the water, change something on it and put it right back so that we can iterate on our testing very frequently through the quick disconnect features.”

Out in the water, failure-free

Since ACI started to use the PX0291 connector as standard on their water features, there are now thousands of them in operation all over the world, and they are proving to be as reliable in the long term as it was hoped they would be.

“We have plenty of places where things can go wrong in our motors, in our pumps, being that they are underwater and they face some harsh conditions, so it’s nice to know that the connector is one point that we don’t see failures,” said Hank.

Vice President and CEO of ACI, Adam Pacholski, points to one of the company’s most prestigious installations as proof that it was worth the long search to find the right connector.

“One of our biggest fountains is at Oracle Corporation in San Francisco, California,” he said. “We have a 40-horsepower geyser out there that shoots about 80 feet (24 metres) tall and about 1,200 gallons (4,500 litres) a minute, which is really quite impressive. The Bulgin connector is very nice because it’s robust and the composite materials allow it to be applied in many different environments.”

According to Dane, it is the ongoing dependability of the connectors makes all the difference when it comes to ACI’s customer satisfaction and fulfilment of the company’s brand promise.

“It’s imperative that these underwater connectors don’t leak and shut the fountain off, because customers would be very unhappy,” he said. “The Bulgin connectors have reliably solved that problem.”

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