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We know Marconi and we know Edison. But we don’t know the man who superseded both Marconi and Edison as being the crucial link in modern electrical transmission.
To find out where we’ve come from we need to go back. Way back. To the beginning where electricity started to transform itself into a usable commodity.
Foregoing some of the insights of experimenters along the way we’ll actually settle on the late 1880s. Here is where things start to get interesting. Interesting because there is a divergence of belief about the technology. Thomas Edison, favouring Direct Current power, built his business using DC. However, DC power generation has limitations. It’s bulky. It isn’t very safe. It doesn’t transmit large amounts of power over great distances. His vision is for a power generating station seated within the cityscape at regular intervals in order to overcome these shortcomings.
In the midst of the challenge of convincing the consuming public (and potential investors) that his system is safe, along comes a Serbian immigrant with four cents in his pocket and a letter of recommendation. The letter lands Nikola Tesla a job. The job is more of a challenge. Edison will pay Tesla $50,000 to help him solve some of the problems of DC power – arcing. In short order, Tesla solved the issue and demanded his payment. Edison rescinded the offer, claiming it was a joke. Tesla immediately resigned.
But his exploits did not go unnoticed. A certain Mr. George Westinghouse recognized the potential where Edison did not. Edison didn’t fully understand AC power and didn’t wish to understand it. That disregard was another reason the two men couldn’t work together. Tesla’s work was just starting to comprehend the many possibilities of Alternating Current.
Westinghouse gave Tesla a job and purchased a complete system of patents from Tesla that included his ideas for: Generators, transformers , transmission lines, motors and lighting. Every modern understanding we possess today comes from Tesla’s ideas. Westinghouse also agreed to a royalty payment of $2.50 for every horsepower of electricity sold.
But Thomas Edison would not go down without a fight.
The showdown of the ‘War of the Currents’ took place at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Both Westinghouse and General Electric (financier JP Morgan had absorbed Edison into GE in 1892) were invited to submit bids to make the event as the first one that would be fully illuminated by electricity. The Westinghouse bid was successful: it was much cheaper than Edison’s DC system. Tesla’s higher voltage transmission meant less bulky cabling and therefore 50% less cost.
The 1893 World’s Fair was lit by 100,000 incandescent light bulbs powered by 12- 1,000 hp AC Generators. 27 million people attended and 80 percent of all electrical devices manufactured after that historic event were Alternating Current.
But winning the War of the Currents was just the beginning.