In the past, blackouts have led us to focus on preventing systemwide single component failures. But August’s blackout increased nationwide awareness for the need for backup power systems.

During the blackout, people were trapped in the heat of the subways, water was unavailable to certain locations and cell phones became inoperative. As we soon discovered, the critical need during a crisis such as a blackout is maintaining public services.

The blackout also affected wastewater and communication services. According to New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection, which manages the wastewater treatment system, backup power for the North River and Red Hook plants was intermittent, and one large station pumping sewage from Manhattan to the Newtown Creek plant had no backup power.

How do we control our vulnerability? While the electric power industry focuses on prevention, New York can reduce adverse effects by drawing upon decentralized approaches: small, dispersed generation systems, some of which are already in place for backup to provide power for essential services.

The causes of blackouts often lie in small events whose widespread ramifications are rarely understood, appreciated or communicated, especially in light of the growing interconnectedness of electric power with essential services. Because they will not stop happening, we must to continue to find ways to manage the spread and severity of the consequences and to keep essentials operating despite a power failure.

With recent major disasters ranging from earthquakes and storms to serious electrical outages and rolling blackouts, the need to be prepared in these emergency situations has sharply increased over the past few years. While for some, a power outage is merely an inconvenience, for others, it can be a true disaster. Without power during a blackout, batteries can’t be recharged, cordless phones cannot operate and life-sustaining equipment cannot function. The effects of a disaster highlight the need for a strong disaster response system. These outages can create uncertainty, anxiety and even panic for some. However, there are several ways to prepare for these situations.

“We manufacture portable standby power transfer switches for residential and light commercial applications. Our units range from single-circuit furnace controls to multicircuit transfer switches to main-breaker load centers with manual transfer capability,” said Jeff Flegel, executive vice president for Reliance Controls. “Our units range from residential for whole-house manual transfer panels to anything that someone wants to run on a portable generator like community wells, an irrigation system, etc. When the blackout occurred on Aug. 14, it increased the awareness that if the same power outage had occurred on Jan. 14, it would have been an absolute disaster. After the blackout, reports said large businesses were able to make up for the product losses easily, whereas the smaller businesses were sensitive to being out of business for that time.”

During the blackout, some power systems such as fuel cells that weren’t connected to the grid were used.

“By the mid ’80s, articles began to appear on the deterioration of the power grid and the increased demand for power,” Flegel added. “People today are becoming more and more worried about the power grid. When Y2K came about, it did a great deal to increase awareness of small standby generating systems. It caused a glut in the marketplace and an increased awareness for portable generators and standby units.”

American Power Conversion recently introduced a 1U Smart-UPS RM, which maintains computer-grade power even if the nominal voltage drops by 30 percent without having the UPS utilize battery power. The UPS is space-optimized to take up only 1U of rack space and is available in 750VA and 1,000VA.

The 1U rack-mount uninterruptible power supply features USB and serial connectivity to APC’s PowerChute Business Edition software, which enables IT administrators to provide safe system shutdown and UPS management for servers and workstations.

“Our rack-mount Smart-UPS has long been an industry benchmark for reliable, manageable power protection for networking applications,” said Ed Bednarcik, vice president of APC’s Business Networks Group. “By decreasing the U size of the units without decreasing VA levels or functionality, we are able to provide users with a high-performance, power-dense unit that requires less space in the rack.”

The Smart-UPS rack mount system provides a wider input voltage range that can maintain computer-grade power even if the nominal voltage drops by 30 percent without the UPS utilizing battery power. When the battery is being disconnected for replacement, the testing feature is automatically disabled in the unit and notifications are broadcast via in and out of band notifications.

When bad weather or other conditions interrupt power service, homeowners can find themselves unable to heat or cool their homes or run necessary appliances and lights. While fireplaces may provide substantial heat and flashlights or lanterns can provide light, many appliances will remain unusable until power from the grid is restored. This situation becomes serious if applications such as medical devices, telephone, home office computers or refrigerators are threatened. Emergency backup systems currently available on the market make it possible for homeowners to have continued access to electrical service during power outages. These systems are typically based either on fossil fuel-powered generators or on battery-based storage systems.

While the goal of both approaches is the same—to produce backup power—they each have advantages and disadvantages. For emergency backup power during typical power outages, battery-based systems represent a fairly simple and silent alternative.

The length of time a battery-based storage system can provide emergency power to the home depends on its overall capacity and the type and number of appliances connected to the backup system. Battery-based systems are not designed to provide power over an extended length of time. For example, a typically configured 2,000 to 4,000W system can provide household appliance loads up to 12 hours. However, power conservation can extend operating time considerably longer. Fossil fuel-fired generators can be integrated into some systems to supplement the batteries when power is not available from the grid, or to help the batteries support the home’s load.

“We also have a 2U Smart-UPS unit, which is more compact and powerful and is easier to install,” said Ron Seredian of American Power Conversion’s media relations department. “In the information technology industry, one of the most important things is being able to power up a system with smaller units that take up less space and we have done just that with the 2U.

“With the recent power outages in New York and California, people are reminded that we live in a digital economy and we don’t want to be without power for long periods of time,” he continued. “Larger UPSs can stay operational for several hours, which is important to hospitals, grocery stores and large companies. There used to be an issue with redundancy as there used to be two UPSs running parallel, but now it has become cost prohibitive. Backup power systems are now offering longer run times, smaller units and cost-effective solutions.”

“We have a 2,800kW, 60Hz unit powered by an 1,800 rpm diesel engine, which can be used in a variety of applications,” said Mark Repp, director of marketing for Kohler. “We have been working on the unit for the past nine months and we are able to offer it in a variety of configurations. The backup power industry continues to grow and was really built up in 1999 and the Y2K years but we have seen a small decline since then. With the blackout in New York in August and the threat of hurricanes, we are seeing the market coming back. More and more companies are now realizing the necessity of backup power support for almost every application.”

GenTran’s new PowerStay Manual Transfer Switch line is expandable in the field to up to 16 circuits, making it easier for contractors to simply upgrade instead of replacing the units. The enclosure can also be flush or surface-mounted so contractors can stock one unit that suits most applications.

“In the past, only one item could be run off a generator,” said Beth Johnson, vice president of marketing of GenTran Corporation in Atlanta. “Then there were four to six circuit units so in the event of a power outage, you could hook up a well pump for water, utilities, a TV, garage door opener, etc. Our focus now is on creating, designing and manufacturing transfer switches making portable generators safe and more convenient. We have recently redesigned our entire product line for four, six, eight, 10 and 12 circuit units in varying wattages. We now offer four standard models up to 15,000W, which were previously limited to 7,500W, that are now expandable.”

Backup power systems can provide immediate electrical power to critical loads during natural or other disasters. Because there is no noise, maintenance or pollution normally associated with backup generators, oftentimes costs of these backup systems vary, depending on size and options selected.

The systems are well suited to maintaining service to furnaces, entertainment and home office electronics, lighting, microwave ovens and refrigerators. Other appliances, such as electric heaters, electric water heaters, stoves and air conditioners would place a large demand on the system, and quickly deplete the batteries. Therefore, they are not good candidates for battery-based backup power.

Potential owners need to identify which appliances will be supported by backup power and determine the load needed to accommodate them. The capacity of the system can then be sized to fit the needs identified by the owner. EC

SPEED is a freelance writer based in Weymouth, Mass. She can be reached at 617.529.2676 or kkspeed@aol.com.