Commercial vs Industrial space

In the middle of writing a sure to be rousing, crowd pleasing multi part series on –wait for it– continuous fusing machines, I find I need to do a short post on zoning. This will be useful for two groups of people, those looking to upgrade equipment or would like to and those looking for new digs. If you’ve never leased a business location before, it would be awful if you were locked into a place only to discover you couldn’t use it for the purposes you’d envisioned. The electrical power at a location you lease or buy can determine the kind of equipment you can use. So, if you’ve been pinning your hopes on a space in order to buy better machines, realize that many of these machines will not run on power available at a commercial location. You probably need an industrial space.

First, the terms industrial and commercial are not interchangeable, each mean something different. There are several kinds of commercial properties but these are typically stores, offices, restaurants and even malls. Industrial space ranges from light industrial (apparel and woodworking) to heavy, such as automotive or a steel mill. The costs between commercial and industrial locations can vary a lot. Some commercial properties are really fancy, designer touches, nice carpet while industrial spaces can be quite spare. Industrial space has a different class of amenities. Simplistically speaking though, industrial spaces cost less than commercial per square foot.


Industrial space will offer you a lot of amenities that you may not realize you need yet. Industrial spaces have docks and overhead doors. Nifty those, you never know how useful those are until you get stuck with a stiff rate charge from the freight company because they had to send you a truck with a tommy lift. Another amenity available with industrial space is three phase power (the whole reason I’m writing this post). That’s not to say that every industrial space has three phase but it is easier to find small industrial shop space with three phase than it is to find that in a small commercial property.

Oh, what’s three phase and why would you need it? I’m so glad you asked because electrical power options is the real subject of this post. Most people are familiar with 110 and 220 voltage. Most households in the US runs on 110. An electric dryer or electric stove runs on 220 because hot things draw the most power. In industrial space, you can have a third option called three phase power or 233v. In spite of only that little difference of 13 between standard 220, you could think of three phase as 220 on crack. The reason you might need it is for sewing machines or as it happens, fusing machines (subject of the upcoming posts). You can fairly easily modify a 233 sewing machine to run on 220 but you can’t do that with a fusing machine. So, the end result is that you may want to get an industrial space because three phase power is fairly easy to get in even a small industrial shop.

If your location is otherwise perfect but doesn’t have three phase, you might want to consider adding that service. However, this will not be a free installation otherwise it would have already been done. Still, one of the reasons most cities establish zoning requirements is so that service infrastructure (like power) is designed to facilitate that sort of service upgrade. Any industrially zoned area will have the appropriate infrastructure to readily upgrade power service.

Now, in the event you’ve gotten this far and think “okay, so I just need three phase, I can add that on to my house”, let’s have a little chat, you and I. Unless you have deep pockets or a spouse who is frothing at the mouth to get three phase to supply his own (expensive) hobbies at a shop building out back on your property, this isn’t going to happen. You can -theoretically- add three phase power to existing service at your home but it is costly because these costs go way beyond the install of another separate pole, service line and box; these are long term.

When I was in the Brewhouse (my previous residence -an industrial “loft” when I started this blog) I paid industrial electric rates which are much lower than consumer rates, the latter is what you’re likely to be charged at a house. Power comes in at 480 and “steps down” via a transformer. A three phase transformer isn’t “free” like the ones hanging up on poles in neighborhoods; you have to pay for the power processing that this transformer does. The electrical processing that my transformer did, alone, amounted to 65%-70% of my total electric bill. In other words, I don’t know what your existing rates are but tacking on the costs of a transformer (before you even run one piece of equipment that draws power) the costs are considerable. Another thing is that you have to consider resale factors. Will you ever resell the property? Unless you’re setting up some kind of permanent industrial type building on the property that would be a selling feature to another buyer, you can be sticking future buyers with a hefty rate charge. Assuming they don’t or can’t (for some reason) turn off power to the building that is. At the Brewhouse, it was all or nothing. If the transformer wasn’t on, I couldn’t power a night light.

Now back to what I said before about adding three phase to an otherwise perfect industrial location that didn’t have it, you might get a discount from your landlord so negotiate that (get an estimate from the power company; one party in the forum estimates this cost at $10,000) because this is a considerable improvement to his/her property. As it is, the cost difference between otherwise identical spaces one having three phase and one not, is usually negligible. The benefit to the landlord is that the three phase unit will always rent over the other one without it.

Oh and girls, you may have a hard time getting fellas to call you back on industrial space, or they’ll only hear “fashion” or “apparel” and nothing else you say and continually try to steer you into one store front after another. I have had the worst time getting men to call me back when calling about industrial space. One guy just wouldn’t hear me so I took out a piece of paper and wrote “INDUSTRIAL, LIGHT MANUFACTURING” in block letters and told him I didn’t want to see anything that wasn’t this. He said (literally) “oh, you want industrial space”? Yeah, I did.

Ideally, the best space to get is a space that was previously occupied by an apparel manufacturer because it is likely to be set up in an amenable fashion for your purposes. This is important because a lot of industrial space (particularly warehousing) is not climate controlled so unless you want to be known as a literal sweatshop, you need heat and air conditioning. Another thing you’d be lucky to get is “raceways” or overhead power hung from the ceiling. The function can be loosely described as multi outlet power strips except these don’t have outlets; you need a special kind of plug. You need raceways for cutting.

There is one last option, that being phase converters but I don’t know anything about them. A phase converter is a box you install that modifies the electric service to meet the power demands of the equipment. Supposedly you can run a 220 machine on 110v with one. Still, I don’t know about running a 233 phase machine that gets hot (like a continuous fusing machine) off a converter box, maybe it’d be okay with a three phase sewing machine. I don’t understand converters enough beyond knowing you need a rotary type so a dealer is going to be your best adviser as to whether a converter box would compromise the equipment long term and wear it down.

In summary, a location you lease or buy can determine the kind of equipment you can use so if you’ve been pinning your hopes on a space in order to buy better machines, realize that many of the machines that do the best work run on three phase so you should shop industrial space carefully.

Related:
Plant organization
Plant organization pt.2
Plant organization pt.3
Commercial vs Industrial space

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12 comments

  1. graham says:

    Nice post.

    Two comments:

    In my recent search for a bar tack machine, I’ve been told that computers themselves on computerized bar tack machines generally take a wacky and funny electrical input. I’m told that this means that converting them from 220 3 phase to 110 is prohibitively expensive.

    Second, I doubt that anywhere else in the country is as expensive as NYC is to have 3 phase wired into a building. It might cost me $10k, but I really doubt that is a valid indicator of the cost.

    I do have a question: The folks who I will probably purchase my bar tack machine from believe that I can run a heavy duty static phase converter, and that I don’t need a rotary phase converter. Does anybody have a solid answer on that?

  2. Jess says:

    I’ve heard 3 phase power tossed around a lot and always kind of wondered why someone would need it. This clears a lot of things up, very good article!

  3. J C Sprowls says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m so thankful you wrote about this. You know, though, you just reminded me about other aspects of renting space, too. That’s the rental agreement (i.e. Net, NN, NNN). You should take a breather on renting a space, I think I owe you a sizeable chunk of information.

    BTW… I’m moved into the new house. I still haven’t invested in any fusing devices, yet. But, I did already ask an electrician about hanging a 110v raceway (my knife uses 110, btw). He just sighed and said, “yes, it’s possible”. So, it’s not just a ‘girl thing’ they all have their perceptions and need persuasion. My guy just doesn’t quite grasp what I’m doing, either. I keep explaining; but, I think he just needs to see it.

    This coming weekend, I’m staining and (hopefully) sealing the basement concrete floor before unpacking and setting up the equipment. After I roughly locate the equipment, I’ll bring out the electrician. And, yes, I’ll put the knife on the table so he can see why I’m asking for a raceway.

  4. Eric H says:

    Three phase power gets its name from the fact that … uh, well, let’s say that the generator is like a spinning magnet and there are three coils around it, each 120 degrees separated from the other two. As the magnet spins around, it energizes first one (A), then 120 degrees later the next one (B), and finally 120 degrees later the third one (C) before starting over again, ABCABCABC (60 times per second in part of the world, 50 times per second in other parts). They step the voltage up to run it over the distribution system because there are fewer losses that way, and then step it down to something more reasonable so it doesn’t kill people and burn things at the business end.

    All three phases are stepped down in the US to 115 V (plus or minus 5) for residential use. For most applications, you are only using one phase and the neutral line. For others, you are using two phases (A and B, for example) but not the neutral; the vector difference between these is 208 V (find the square root of the sum of (120 + 120*sin(30))^2 and (120*cos(30))^2). In fact, whether you use A and B, B and C, or C and A, the vector difference is always 208 V.

    The other way to operate is to use multiple phases. These are strangely referenced by doubling the single phase voltage (2 * 110 = 220, 2 * 115 = 230, 2 * 120 = 240). There may be some esoteric reason for picking one over the others, but if you read the fine print on your machine, they will typically say something like “230 V +/- 10” or “220-240 V”. A two phase machine is using AB, BC, or CA and probably the neutral.

    A three phase machine is using all three phases but probably not the neutral. The phase order may matter, especially on motors. For example, if it is designed to run ABC and the electrician hooks it up ACB, it may run backwards (or the smoke may run out). Phase order is only a matter of swapping two wires (note that ABC is the same as CAB and BCA, but the opposite of ACB and its twins CBA and BAC, and there are no other choices).

    The reason for using higher voltages and multiple phases is that power is equal to current times voltage times # of phases. All things equal, a machine using 220 V, 3 phase power will have much lower average current than one running 115 V single phase. Current creates heat in wires, and heat reduces the reliability and lifetime of the equipment. It also adds to your misery and/or cooling bill.

  5. Eric,

    I wish I understood more of your dissertation on 3-phase power :)

    This makes me wonder–I just moved from an industrial space to a regular apartment. I was not aware of anything about 3-phase power, but the outlets in the space were definitely not the normal kind, and it used to house a printing operation, so perhaps I had 3-phase power without knowing it.

    Now I run my industrial sewing machine on decidedly non 3-phase power. Am I doing it permanent damage?

  6. tania wadzinski says:

    Interesting reading but I’m still at a loss….do I sell my used commercial Pfaff with the 3 phase 220 volt or is there an affordable way to make it work with 110 volts. Currently it sits at a an electrical motor shop and “when they have time” will look for an answer.
    I am a hobby user and can’t justify spending big $$. If I do end up selling does anyone have suggestions of how to market a machine like this…..it was a working machine in a furniture factory sewing upholstery.

  7. Kathleen says:

    I wish I could help but I can’t. If it were me, I’d sell it, get another machine and after the painful lesson, would not make it again.

  8. David says:

    My hat is off to Eric H for taking on the topic of three-phase power in the comments. It can be a daunting topic to teach.

    I have had success using a Variable Frequency Drive (VAR) to use 110v to run a three-phase Juki, but it is not a setup to be taken on by a non-electrical person. Still a knowledgeable electrician should be able to set one of these up for less cost than a rotary converter. But it still might add enough to the total cost of the machine that you would be better off finding another machine. A VAR may be a decent option for a single machine, but probably not a high demand fuser.

    There are also large digital converters like this manufacturer makes: http://phaseperfect.com/models.htm

    They are not inexpensive. If I recall correctly a 10HP one prices out at several thousand dollars. They are considered by some to be the best for CNC type equipment. The power is said to be cleaner (less electrical noise) than the three-phase from the power company.

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