Every week, medicare contracto Nortidian Administrative Services LLC converts thousands of Part A and Part B claims to electronic documents in multiple locations from North Dakota to Hawaii. With federal requirements for secure standby power reaching their steepest levels ever and profit-gobbling consequences for downtime due to emergency power disruptions or inaccurate monitoring, Noridian officials made a technology leap. Last year, the company switched from a manual generator maintenance program to the Cummins automated PowerCommand iWatch wireless monitoring system.

“We jumped on board immediately. Not only do we have it on our Cummins generators, but it interfaces with our Caterpillar, Detroit Diesel and Kohler generators,” said Ken Roseth, Noridian assistant vice president of facilities. “It’s not very common in the generator industry to put everything on the network. You want to be able check the oil, check the fuel level, see the smoke or hear the engine roar yourself. So there has to be a confidence level that you can monitor when they’re running and when they’re not.”

Mission-critical markets

To facilitate community safety and speed up hurricane evacuation, the state of Florida now requires some gas stations to provide backup power. In most emergency events, building systems for priority functions, such as heating, ventilating, air conditioning, egress lighting, exit signs, fire alarm systems, security, surveillance and sprinklers, still need power. With life support systems at risk, hospitals and other healthcare institutions may appear to be the most vulnerable customers.

However, data centers are becoming the largest consumers for commercial backup power systems.

“It’s not the office of the ’90s with boxes of paper. A lot of the data that goes in and out of offices is flowing electronically,” Roseth said.

According to Jim Kukla, marketing manager for Kohler Power Systems—Industrial, over the past five years, demand has grown significantly for large generator sets in the range of 1 to 3 megawatts.

“New blade servers for data centers and telecom are requiring three times as much energy to run and keep cool,” Kukla said.

According to Janet Lynch, Kohler’s senior product manager for controls and switchgear, in public and private commercial, industrial and institutional (CII) market segments, the need for remote monitoring of generator sets is driving the development of integrated solutions designed to alert technicians to conditions that pose threats and lead to equipment failures.

“The biggest thing we get asked for is a solution that tells customers there’s a problem. If there’s a fault when they try to start a generator or during its operation, they want to know about it right away to take action,” Lynch said.

Integration of standby power monitoring into building automation systems is becoming more common for some customers.

“Mission-critical customers often want to set up a generator--monitoring page within their building automation system. The parameters are read directly from the generator controller into their systems using open communication protocols. This allows the generators to be monitored as easily as other building systems,” said Michael Kirchner, Generac training manager.

Microprocessors to satellites

Today’s standby power generators, as some jokingly suggest, may be watched as closely as the financial markets because of the billions of dollars in operations and intelligence they power. Despite their sophistication, backup generator failures are quite simple, said Rich Scroggins, manager of networks, switchgear and ATS controls, Cummins Power Generation.

“Four reasons will cover 99 percent of standby generator failures, including lack of fuel, dead batteries, block heater failure and forgetting to turn the control switch to ‘auto,’” Scroggins said.

The ability to see and respond to these issues in commercial, industrial and institutional facilities has matured with the evolution of monitor choices, Kirchner said.

Remote monitoring itself is not new, and today’s technologies range from microprocessors to global satellite management.

“More than 10 years ago, we had a software product that just ran on a PC on Windows 3.1. You had your generator controls communicating over a modem over a plain old telephone line,” Scroggins said.

From determining the scale and management of remote site equipment to protecting customers from service outages, it’s more important than ever for remote monitoring systems to do more than just track operations.

“Now, customers can start, stop or check the status of their on-site power systems anywhere they have an Internet connection or get alarm notifications anywhere their cell phone or pager works,” Scroggins said. “Wireless remote monitoring of standby, rental or prime power generator sets not only increases convenience for power systems owners, but it significantly improves reliability by providing real-time information and historical data logging.”

“As a government contractor, we get six to eight major audits a year. Documentation is huge. Many generators don’t have built-in logical programs that print out reports. They don’t have uniform platforms or uniform software, but the iWatch allows you to get uniform reports from every site within minutes,” Roseth said.

The wireless system also enables off-site testing and peak-load shaving.

“To take it a step further, if we foresee a major heat wave, we have the ability to transfer the load. We’re in areas where utilities will give us a better rate if we have a generator available. If we get a call on a Saturday from the utility company that we need to load shed, we can transfer the load from any Internet connection. That’s the flexibility it gives us,” Roseth said.

Even in the digital age, generators still require maintenance. Generac has targeted its remote monitor efforts around ensuring that generators get that maintenance when needed.

“Our generator controllers include a predictive preventative maintenance algorithm that can call out when the generator needs servicing,” Kirchner said.

To support this and other remote monitoring functionality, Kirchner contends that most customers today use a hardwired approach for enhanced reliability.

“When I’ve done analysis of installation costs, I realized the control wiring was immaterial compared to the power cable and conduit. Since the control wiring and conduit already exists, what does it really cost to add a shielded cable for RS485 communications or a phone line? The cost is so small, it’s hard to track,” Kirchner said.

And the future of remote monitoring is shaping up to look a lot like the present.

“The biggest thing we’ll see is more people will want to be able to use one tool to access different information from different systems. We all have computers and cell phones and PDAs, and people are going to be expecting that the information comes to them as part of the systems they already have in place,” Lynch said.

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached via e-mail at mcclung@lisco.com.