News & Insights

The Language of Electrical System Documentation

The importance of knowing what you need and how to ask for it

By Matthew Robinson, PE

The dumb-luck rule states that we can always find what we aren’t looking for. I don’t mind sharing that I’ve been a victim of this rule plenty in my career. But what if we don’t even know what we are looking for in the first place? It sometimes doesn’t occur to us that we lack the language or vocabulary to articulate exactly what we need at a specific moment in time. So then how do we do our work when this is the case? In some instances, we let our pride get the best of us and shoulder our way forward, all the while telling ourselves “I don’t need this thing to do my job”. Sometimes we’ll use our own understanding and experience to try and ask for what we need (or more accurately, to help the other person read our mind). In other cases, we may not even understand what could be available that we could request to make our jobs easier. As former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld once said,

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”

So, what are our unknown unknowns? In our line of business, system documentation tends to be a pretty major set of them. Changes in ownership, management, or just pure attrition may turn a well-documented electrical system into a mess of hand-written notes and missing drawings in a matter of years. You may find yourself looking for that one critical drawing that depicts the portion of the system in question, or you may find yourself without any documentation whatsoever and the building owner shrugging their shoulders as you search for a needle in a haystack. If such documentation no longer exists, you can ask for it until you’re blue in the face, it won’t magically appear; But let’s consider the more common scenario. The documentation does exist, somewhere. Someone at some point has seen it. Do you have the language to explain what you are looking for to someone that doesn’t know what it is you need?

This is where a standard language for system documentation is beneficial. This is where an understanding of the work and knowledge needed to create and modify these documents can mean the difference between fumbling in the dark and getting home in time for dinner. If you can explain what this documentation should look like, or what other documents may have helpful information, you then have a chance at triggering that “A-ha” moment that jogs someone’s memory and leads you to the piece of information you need. And even if, after an exhausting search, you still can’t find the documentation you need, an understanding of what goes into creating these system documents will allow you to expertly craft your own. When looking at the problem from this angle, it makes sense that you would want the language to ask for this material in as many ways as possible. Do you think you think you could articulate your needs in a stressful situation?

If your answer is no (and even if it was yes but you are always open to enhancing your ability to work efficiently and effectively) join Qualus for our seminar on Electrical Documents. Attendees will spend two days covering the terminology and conventions associated with, as well as the construction of, the most common types of electrical system documentations. This course is great for those that have limited experience with the myriad types of electrical drawings and documents that make up a modern power system. This course is also great for those that may have a lot of field experience with this material, but never received any formal training on the standard conventions and practices surrounding their creation and maintenance.

Join us in Nashville, Tennessee on August 30 and 31 for Electrical Documents and add the language of electrical system documentation to your repertoire!

Matthew Robinson, P.E. is senior manager in training and development at Qualus with a history of working in the electrical power industry. Matthew is a registered Professional Engineer and holds a master’s degree in power engineering from Northeastern University. To discuss Matthew’s professional courses for your team, contact us at For a full list of available QualU courses, see our course catalog.