Hurricane season 2008 is well under way, and some electrical contractors may be working with customers on storm preparedness. In the past, the standard practice was to take chances with big storms and power outages. Recently, formerly risk-taking homeowners and businesses started allocating money for generators, generator hookups and even solar panels to ensure outages, such as those that occurred with the series of hurricanes in 2004, never happen again.

Many critical projects have been completed, but contractors anticipate several more busy years ahead. Projects of this type include installation of permanent backup generators or quick connection of a temporary of power unit. These sites vary in size from 100 to 2,000 kilowatts (kW) and serve after-storm critical functions, such as those supporting cell towers, pumping stations, gas stations and public shelters.

Historically, tropical systems have been geographically isolated, and that is still true. However, coastal population zones have changed with more people living near the ocean, and a few years of hurricane activity drove home the vital nature of keeping the power on or getting it restored quickly. For example, during the active 2004 hurricane season, hurricanes Charlie, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne crossed the state of Florida from various directions, affecting every major city. The next year, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, swamping New Orleans and devastating the many communities that line the Gulf of Mexico, including Biloxi and Gulfport.

“I think the last four storm seasons were a real wake-up call,” said David Long, senior vice president of Miller Electric Co., with offices in Jacksonville, Fla., and throughout the Southeast.

Since 2006, generator installation has increased throughout much of the Southeast and other parts of the country. Miller Electric Co. has been contracting generator hookups and backup power plants for large companies that must stay online or be able to recover quickly after an outage. The company’s focus includes three major industries—banking, insurance and telecommunications companies—which are paramount for the recovery of a city. If the insurance companies lose their power, Long said, they cannot settle claim damages, and the local banks must be operational for communities to perform transactions.

Long said Miller Electric has a history of responding after a disaster and helping to ensure its customers recover very quickly after being struck by a storm.

“Our clients work very hard to prevent failures,” Long said. “They understand the criticality of supporting the infrastructure of their cities.

“No doubt private industry is better prepared today and the public sector has continued to improve to ensure the citizens of Florida are protected.” Long said.

Furthermore, a business that suffered damage or power outages in one location can now continue operations at another site that has installed backup power.

MJM Electric Inc. in Tampa, Fla., is working with the telecommunications industry in “storm hardening” to ensure companies remain operational before, during and after a storm. Those measures consist of floodwater controls and generators, transfer switches, paralleling gear and redundant electrical services, all of which are being installed by MJM Electric, said Mark Mazur, company president.

MJM Electric has been providing backup power to businesses throughout Florida and the Carolinas for several years. The single largest project, however, is providing store generators for an unnamed major grocery chain. The grocer is installing generators in each of its Florida stores, and MJM Electric is providing a large percentage of these installations in central Florida. Each of the 500-kW generators will power the entire store for several days. Previously, the facilities had enough generator power to run emergency lighting, thereby providing safety for customers and personnel leaving the store during a power outage. However, insurance incentives encouraging that there won’t be any food spoilage costs in an outage have led such companies to install generators to keep the refrigeration units running.

“Many food processing and handling plants that store food—dairy plants, produce facilities—are looking at full backup power as an option,” Mazur said.

Sun rises

Some of MJM Electric’s business also includes solar work, although Mazur said it accounts for only a small percentage of the backup power work the company does. However, MJM Electric intends to be a solar power solution provider when the technology becomes more commonplace.

“We are positioning ourselves to install photovoltaic,” he said. “There’s not much incentive [to the consumer] to do it yet [in Florida].”

By comparison, in states such as California, solar installations can receive state funding for up to 50 percent of the photovoltaic installation.

In anticipation of a growth in Florida solar power, however, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 915 is training its apprentices to install photovoltaic systems, and MJM Electric assisted the students in putting that system into place. Still, however prepared the company and union is, the marketplace is not quite ready.

“The question still is who should do the work?” Mazur said.

If solar panels have water running through them to provide water heating, the work could fall to electricians, roofers or plumbers.

Following the storms in 2004, solar panel interest grew in Florida despite the shortage of financial incentives. Following the most destructive hurricanes, solar panels were among the equipment that often remained undamaged, and after a hurricane, sometimes sunshine is the only guarantee.

Bill Young, senior research engineer at Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC), has made it his business to help others set up a solar solution for backup power, something that is already becoming fairly common in countries, such as Germany, where fire departments are using solar power panels to provide backup power, and Japan, which uses solar power for its highway gas stations.

In the United States, such applications may still be years away. Until recently, solar energy was used for stand-alone residential applications almost exclusively with big batteries, Young said. In 2004, after a push from the Department of Energy and the industry, a trend toward solar systems that used inverters instead of batteries appeared.

More common now, however, are bimodal systems with batteries and inverters, Young said. However, these systems still create some National Electrical Code (NEC) safety issues. The NEC requires measures to be taken so the power does not feed back into the grid.

“Some utilities may require a separate disconnect,” Young said. Bimodal inverters are available, but they are not popular, perhaps because of added cost.

“There is still a large percentage of people who don’t want to take on the cost or the maintenance of batteries,” he said.

The FSEC has put 15 solar power units on schools, but only one is bimodal, Young said. That school has 10 kW of battery backup, while the other schools were reluctant to go through the cost of a bimodal system.

Altogether, there are only 20 or 30 businesses that currently have bimodal solar battery systems, Young said.

“I do follow-up work on disasters all the time and I’d rather not be without backup power,” he said. “Other people are looking at it differently—where is the economic payback?” he said. “Most commercial people are more concerned about the economics.”

Despite that concern, the Orlando Convention Center building specifications include photovoltaic panels on the roof with grid ties.

Mission-critical

Other more traditional backup power is being installed by the medical industry that, like the financial and communications companies, cannot afford to be without power. The James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Florida, is installing a mammoth backup power solution that will ensure the hospital can generate enough power for all its own operations for up to a week. The project, which includes eight 2,000-kW generators with 13.2-kV operation, was too big for most of the local contractors. Doan Pyramid, Cleveland, had completed a similar project for a Veterans Affairs hospital in their home city and the Department of Veterans Affairs reached out to them for a bid on the Tampa project.

It’s almost a $40 million project, said Michael Joyce, Doan Pyramid executive vice president and project executive.

Doan Pyramid brought three foremen from Cleveland for the job, including project manager Bill Watson, who is leading the project. He has worked with Local IBEW 915 where business manager Bill Dever helped them staff their crew to peak at 30 to 35 men, Joyce said. They arrived on the site in November 2007 and will be finished in the first quarter of 2010. Not only will they install the eight Caterpillar generators, they will also install new primary distribution gear and run about 85 miles of cable and 50 miles of raceway.

The Veterans Affairs Hospital, Tampa, is one of the premier veterans hospitals in the country. Many of the Iraq war veterans go directly to this hospital for medical care. Although the hospital had back up power generators it was not enough to guarantee the kind of critical power coverage the facility needs.

Doan Pyramid will build 14 new hurricane proof substations and run several miles of bus duct. They also are providing centralized rather than localized power back up with a redundant N+1 system.

“This is a very complex system,” Joyce said, using SCADA system controls and diagnostics that provide graphics and real-time information to facilities managers.

A long time ago, electricity was seen as a luxury. Now it’s a necessity. As the electrical contractor, you have the means and know-how to help your customers ensure they never lose power, even under the worst conditions. This is a reassurance that is in demand. Use that to your advantage to secure more contracts.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.