24/7 Connectivity Required

By Deborah L. O’Mara | Aug 15, 2015
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Power is everything. Consumers demand connectivity to home, business, people and places 24 hours a day. In this uber-integrated information society, staying in touch through Wi-Fi, Ethernet, cellular and other networks is the expectation.

Momentary power loss can cause significant damage to data centers and open security vulnerabilities in the protected premises or critical infrastructure, such as power transmission. A Wall Street Journal report, “U.S. Risks National Blackout from Small-Scale Attack,” (March 12, 2014) cites that the United States could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout if saboteurs knocked out just nine of the country’s 55,000 electric-­transmission substations on a scorching summer day.

According to Neil B. Jones, business development manager, Staco Energy Products, Miamisburg, Ohio, backup power in electrical terms should cover the following: redundant utility feeds, standby generators, automatic transfer switches, uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and static power distribution units (PDU).

“The key word being ‘backup,’ meaning your secondary plan in case the primary plan for power fails,” he said. “When referring to a UPS, you are talking about a solution being used to prevent a critical load like hardware, software or data from being damaged by commercial-power events or from a complete power failure or a brief power outage. In most cases, the UPS is not a backup device, but, rather, it is the primary power path to the critical load. In reality, only the offline UPS should be thought of as a backup-power device, as they do not provide conditioned power to the critical load until the incoming power fails or falls out of specification. They actually switch from offline to online as the power event occurs. That’s a good definition of backup.”

While most applications are not mission-critical or worst-case scenario, there are many reasons users want to keep their security, data and information infrastructure on and available. That alone has dictated changes in the category of power. Bill Allen, director of marketing for Minuteman Power Technologies by Para Systems Inc., Carrollton, Texas, said the product nomenclature may be used interchangeably, and, often, a UPS is also referred to as battery backup, backup power or automatic standby. However, there are various differences in technologies now deployed by UPS manufacturers.

50 years of innovation

The first type of UPS technology introduced in the 1950s was the online UPS, which takes the alternating current (AC) signal supplied by the power company, converts it to direct current (DC) power and, at the output, converts it back to an AC signal and then sends this signal to attached devices.

“Through this process, an online UPS serves as an electrical firewall that protects attached devices from any type of power problem with no delay or switching time,” Allen said. “The AC signal is totally regenerated, providing pristine power. This is called double-conversion technology and is still used. An online UPS is the most costly type of protection today, but it is also the best type of protection.”

According to Allen, the next technology introduced was the standby UPS. As opposed to an online UPS, this type uses switching circuitry that takes the AC signal provided by the power utility and passes it through to attached equipment.

“If there was any type of over-voltage or under-voltage outside a given range, or if a total blackout occurs, the UPS switches to battery-backup mode and provides the necessary backup power,” he said. “Basically, the solution for all power problems is to switch to battery mode. This type of technology is the least expensive in use today and was developed to lower the cost of a UPS to make it more readily available to a wider range of users.”

Finally, line-interactive technology emerged. This is a switching type of UPS that is similar to a standby, except it provides automatic voltage regulation (AVR).

“Low voltages (brownouts) and over-voltages (surges and spikes) are by far the most common power problems,” Allen said. “By incorporating AVR technology, the battery is used only when there is a power outage (blackout) preserving battery power and extending the life of the battery. The cost of a line-interactive UPS is between that of an online and standby UPS.”

Let the application be your guide

Users choose the UPS to suit the level of protection and reliability that the equipment and mission require.

“Large security control rooms or data centers generally use online UPS systems, while smaller, less critical systems use line-interactive technology,” Allen said. “For less critical systems such as desktop PCs, small surveillance systems and peripheral devices, standby UPS solutions are typically deployed. Today, businesses have ‘good,’ ‘better,’ ‘best’ choices, depending on the importance of the devices and the budget available.”

New monitoring capabilities have propelled power into proactive maintenance and network connectivity. Power-­monitoring software was introduced in the early 1990s, allowing users to check AC power conditions supplied by the UPS, with notifications sent if a problem occurs. This was accomplished through an RS-232 port between the UPS and a PC, adding a high level of visibility and manageability. The next technology to come along was simple network management protocol (SNMP) a standards-based protocol to manage and monitor network devices. Many higher end UPS solutions now have the option of adding an SNMP controller card, allowing the UPS or other device to be another appliance on the network.

The product category has definitely changed, said Ed Spears, Eaton product marketing manager, Raleigh, N.C.

“In early times, people needed a blackout box to save data and equipment so it didn’t crash, and they would wait for power to come on with a UPS,” he said. “Now, every client does not want power to go out for any reason; no orderly shutdown and maintaining of data as in the past protocol. They want to be able to access all information, even in a power outage. That’s what has changed—from a mentality to save data and shutdown to now the UPS is bridging the gap until the backup or longer term generator comes on. The end-user wants uninterruptible power, no matter what.”

In addition, Spears said the advent of off-site servers and redundant data centers has had an effect on the specification of power.

“Computer operation is not as tied to the immediate data center as it was in the past,” he said. “Data centers can shift operations quickly and have backup at another site or state. They still need battery backup to transfer to another computer center, but can move nearly instantly from one to another.”

In addition to keeping power up and running, the product category has become more efficient and cleaner. UPS units take up a smaller footprint, and many have total harmonic distortion (THD) of less than 5 percent to work with sensitive appliances and technology. Software and network connections offer intuitive insights into operating status and possible problems—even before they occur.

“Naturally, customer connectivity is a must in today’s environment,” Jones said. “Most high-level UPS systems are monitored by the client’s building-monitoring system (BMS) and some are indeed pumping the data to their network operation centers. The data is now viewable via tables and smartphones depending on the device’s network security.”

Aesthetic units for residential applications

Automatic standby generators have also changed, becoming modular, scalable, efficient, more aesthetically pleasing and less obtrusive. It’s no longer a rectangular hardware box; new units are rounded and contoured with a digital display. There’s also innovation in wire-free load management and smartphone connectivity, said Jake Thomas, director of product management, Generac Power Systems Inc., Waukesha, Wis. In 2013, Generac rolled out Mobile Link, a smartphone application for homeowners to monitor their standby power generator from a tablet or mobile device.

With Mobile Link, owners can view the generator’s status and maintenance needs, set the unit’s exercise schedule, review running and maintenance history and receive push notifications to indicate status changes.

“Originally, Mobile Link was a web portal for consumers, and then we decided to go with an app and cellular connectivity rather than Wi-Fi or Ethernet,” Thomas said. “With cellular, it’s always on and powered from the generator; we know it’s going to have power. With the app, consumers can see what their generator is doing, the status and even get a proactive alert via text or email if the generator needs attention or maintenance.”

Another innovation in power is targeted load management.

Generac’s smart management module (SMM) is a load-management system that manages backup power to essential circuits identified by the homeowner, and autonomously pushes available power to nonessential circuits as it becomes available.

The SMM is easier to install because no control wires are required, which helps lower installation costs. Up to eight SMMs can be installed with a compatible automatic transfer switch to manage power loads. The technology is protected in a NEMA 3R, weatherproof enclosure, making each unit compatible for indoor and outdoor installations. Additional features include an LED indicator light, which allows homeowners to verify which essential circuits are receiving power, and lockout switch that prevents unwanted circuit operation while on generator power.

The product category continues to develop squarely away from static, unintelligent “boxes,” and the UPS continues to add essential roles as technology and user needs have changed.

“The UPS, in addition to providing battery-backup power, spends a large part of its time conditioning the power that comes in,” Spears said. “It keeps power clean, balancing loads and preventing harmonic distortion. Computing equipment has become more tolerant but can’t run off raw generator output; critical devices have become more sensitive and faster and need clean power, which is what the UPS accomplishes.”

Staying connected to systems, services and data has changed the product category of UPS solutions and backup power. Many new capabilities that provide cleaner power and less harmonic distortion have evolved, along with the ability to yield proactive status and maintenance alerts. Systems are scalable and modular and provide a solution for every market—from residential to commercial to mission critical—delivering 24/7 uptime everyone expects.

About The Author

O’MARA writes about security, life safety and systems integration and is managing director of DLO Communications. She can be reached at [email protected] or 773.414.3573.





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