Who Really Needs One?

Simply put, an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is a device that provides battery backup when the electrical power falls to unacceptable voltage levels. There are currently three types of UPS systems available that provide different levels of protection, depending on the needs of the application. An offline, or standby, UPS unit provides backup power to equipment but no power conditioning. A line interactive UPS is similar to offline technology but provides the user with voltage regulation. A true online double conversion UPS system offers the highest level of protection.

“This technology offers steady power output, backup power and power conditioning,” said Suzette Albert, product manager for Sola/Hevi-Duty, a part of the EGS Electrical Group, Rosemont, Ill.

While many people associate the need for backup power with lightning or other externally generated phenomena, 70 to 80 percent of events are actually generated within a facility. The typical small UPS system will provide backup power for only a few minutes during these events, providing sufficient time to power down the connected equipment, ensuring it loads in an orderly manner. Larger systems may offer enough battery power, however, to last for several hours.

“A real UPS system has no drop-off time and maintains constant power availability,” said Gus Nasrallah, senior product manager, power solutions for Leviton Manufacturing Co. Inc., Little Neck, N.Y.

UPS systems are used to protect all types of computer systems, from a single home computer to vast corporate networks, data servers and data centers, telecommunication systems, hospitals and biomedical environments.

“An installed UPS system is appropriate for any application where power supplies and power quality need to be protected for the security and safety of people, property or data,” Albert said.

The importance of UPS systems and the need for power quality and conditioning has grown as computer applications and telecommunications and automation systems have evolved.

“In today’s around-the-clock business environment, downtime just isn’t an option,” observed Chris Loeffler, product manager for Eaton Powerware, Raleigh, N.C. Downtime, even when measured in mere seconds, can carry a staggering price tag. According to Loeffler, studies show that businesses can lose $10,000 to several million dollars per minute when networks go down. Losses from a lack of backup power can be felt in terms of both damage to sensitive electronic equipment, which is now being used virtually everywhere and in everything, and a loss of data.

“For example, when Caterpillar’s Solar Turbine division lost its UPS system, it subsequently lost $4 million of revenue in just one day,” Nasrallah said.

The use of UPS systems to guarantee backup power is particularly important in the semiconductor industry, according to John Goosseff, three-phase marketing manager for MGE UPS Systems, Costa Mesa, Calif. “Even the most minor outage or transient voltage, spike or sag can cause millions of dollars in damaged products and materials,” he said.

Trends and advancements

The most current trend, according to Mark Szalkus, sales application engineering manager for GE Power Quality, is the demand by owners across industries for increased energy efficiency.

“Owners want to reduce energy consumption as much as possible, including the energy used by their UPS systems,” he explained. In the conversion process from AC to DC and back to AC power, UPS systems can lose as much as 9 percent efficiency. “Customers are looking at that power conversion loss as an additional cost and want it reduced.” 

Toward that end, the industry is researching ways to develop transformerless UPS systems to increase efficiency during the power conversion process and to develop new ways to store energy and eliminate batteries. In the meantime, maintenance-free batteries for UPS systems are in the marketplace. These dry cell, lead acid batteries, according to Nasrallah, don’t emit carbon, so they don’t require ventilation. “This feature is a critical factor in data centers or other applications that must remain cool.”

Another trend in UPS technology is toward more redundant and modular solutions that allow better maintainability of equipment without power interruption or risk of load loss, according to Goosseff. Modular UPS systems eliminate single points of failure through decentralized static bypass switches and controls that are distributed within each unit, rather than installed centrally, as they historically have been. Modular design includes built-in redundancies that provide extra assurance that if one UPS module in the system fails, the load will automatically be picked up by the other modules.

“Such redundancies are being demanded by customers for the added protection and to support the load,” Goosseff said.

In addition to modularity, scalability is becoming an increasingly important trend in the market and allows facilities to upgrade their systems in accordance to changes in load demands.

A growing trend in data centers is the demand for UPS systems that have a smaller footprint and that can reduce energy costs while delivering a scalable and flexible power protection solution.

“New blade server designs enable data centers to reconfigure their power system to meet the increasing demands required by their growth,” said Loeffler. Some blade servers meet these needs by offering the ability to expand UPS implementation up to 60 kW in a single enclosure by simply plugging additional parallel UPS modules into the existing system.

Market opportunities

The UPS system market in the United States is currently more than $2 billion, according to Nasrallah.

“The growing pervasiveness throughout the country of more sensitive electronics and electronic equipment that is more easily damaged by power outages, spikes and other power anomalies is one factor driving the growth of the UPS market,” he said.

Demand for UPS systems is also growing as facilities upgrade or replace existing systems to keep current with changes and advancements in technologies and efficiency, according to Albert. “The proliferation of sensitive electronics, from home computers to offices and factories, is contributing to market growth and making UPS systems a necessary commodity item.”

Actually, electrical contractors benefit from any growth in the UPS market since their expertise is required for the installation of any new or replacement systems.

“All UPS systems, even the smallest ones, require input power that needs to be wired by a licensed electrical contractor. And larger UPS systems typically require even more support from electrical contractors,” Loeffler said. In addition, a large percentage of UPS systems are being purchased through electrical contractors, giving those companies additional revenue from the product sale.

More specific opportunities in the UPS market can be found by electrical contractors in the data center segment. The prevalence of data centers in the country is growing, and they require more protected power to run the new blade servers.

“The increased power requirements of blade servers and the added investment in information technology (IT) equipment being made by data centers are opening the doors for electrical contractors to install UPS systems and expand these facilities,” Goosseff said.

The growth of data centers can partially be attributed to new construction, as companies consolidate their smaller locations into large, centralized facilities to reduce the overall operating expenses of their IT departments, according to Loeffler. In addition, conformance to privacy legislation, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), require additional computing and storage capacity.

“With upper management constantly pressuring their organizations to meet legal and operational pressures, the UPS opportunities in this market will continue to grow and prosper,” he said.

How to succeed

In order to take advantage of the increasingly growing UPS market, electrical contractors need to understand how to provide integrated solutions that include all aspects of the technology, such as batteries and building management systems. Basically, an electrical contractor should provide a complete protective solution to the customer and add value to its UPS installation.

“It’s important to understand the technology to choose the proper system for the application,” Nasrallah said. Factors to take into account include how much backup time is required by the end-user and the correct load capacity. “Oversizing the system does not help the end-user, nor does it provide increased protection,” he added.

Contractors also need to understand that UPS systems do not solve all power quality and output problems. Proper grounding must also be maintained and transient surges on the supply side of the system must be eliminated for the UPS to function properly.

“It’s also imperative,” Albert said, “to understand the customer’s business and what critical operations need the most protection.”

Contractors that succeed in the UPS market will work as partners with the end-user, the UPS OEM manufacturer and the facility’s engineering consultant in the design process to ensure that the customer is receiving the optimal system for the application and the most value. “The contractor can be integral in designing the UPS system’s infrastructure to optimize its energy efficiency and footprint,” said Brad Thrash, UPS product manager for GE Power Quality.

The future for UPS systems includes more intelligent systems with increased robustness, enhanced scalability and higher power density, according to Loeffler. With more functionality will come new platform design architectures to ensure the proper level of protection at all times and optimized system operation.

Demand for clean, reliable power will continue to drive UPS market growth, predicted Szalkus. “The continued evolution in technology to meet customer requirements for energy efficiency will lead to lower operating costs and improved energy storage.”

With growth rates predicted to be 10 to 15 percent per year in North America, the electrical contractor who does not pay attention to the market will miss a great growth opportunity.

“The electrical contractor that trains its personnel and understands UPS system applications and technologies can become an extremely valuable source of knowledge and solutions for the end-user,” Nasrallah said.     EC

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or by e-mail atdarbremer@comcast.net.