Life Goes On: Emergency power reliability

In this power-hungry world, people find it unacceptable to lose their connection to electricity. A backup generator can supply peace of mind, bringing home- or business-owners the emergency power they need. Fuel sources vary—diesel, biodiesel, gas or a biodiesel blend­—while some can even be installed with photovoltaic (PV) or wind systems. The global generator industry is an $18 billion market; in North America, that figure is about $3 billion for nonresidential applications.

In the home, emergency power protects homeowners and their belongings and keeps life uninterrupted.

“It varies from region to region and depends on the size of the home and the homeowner’s needs, but, in general, residential emergency power protects the home’s HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] and other critical items, such as refrigeration and lighting,” said Rama Menon, marketing manager for the residential and light commercial segment of Cummins Power Generation Inc., Minneapolis.

Some residential generators also support even more critical needs, such as medical equipment. Less critical, but nonetheless important to many homeowners, generators ensure the continued operation of communication and entertainment systems and garage doors.

“Residential emergency power enables homeowners to stay in their homes and protects them from events such as freezing pipes in cold climates,” said Melanie Tydrich, senior channel manager, residential/light commercial for Kohler Co., Kohler, Wis.

In commercial or industrial applications—including man-ufacturing plants, office buildings, grocery and convenience stores, and medical offices—emergency power reliability is essential for protecting companies’ investments in inventory, equipment, critical processes and data; for the comfort, use and safety of their employees and customers; and for ensuring continued operations or service to the community.

“If nothing else, backup power enables the orderly and safe shutdown of sensitive computers, servers and other sophisticated, critical equipment,” said Rich Thompson, director of product marketing for Generac Power Systems Inc., Waukesha, Wis. 

Backup power additionally enables enterprises to continue to operate cash registers, gas pumps, security systems, first responder systems, refrigeration and elevators.

However, the most important asset in today’s world that requires the protection offered by backup emergency power might not even be physical. Rather, it’s data.

“Every company has a data center, whether it’s a large facility that processes a great deal of information from different sources, or a single server,” said John Steele, inside sales manager for Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc., Warrendale, Pa. “It’s the flow of that information that reliable emergency power protects.”

Whether for a home, business, hospital, airport or neighborhood grocery store, emergency power mitigates or prevents damage from a utility outage and enables homeowners and businesses to function and assist the community.

“Backup power ensures the continued operation of critical applications in an emergency and the safety of residents, employees and customers,” Menon said. “It also ensures vital communication for security services throughout the community.”

While a generator provides emergency power, an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system ensures the power is continuous, reliable and clean.

“Generators and UPS systems function together, enable the continuous flow of information during an outage or other event, and provide safe building operation for people and equipment,” Steele said.

Permanent or mobile solution?

In the residential and light commercial market segments, people who have experienced utility outages are driving the demand for permanently installed generators.

“The power grid needs billions of dollars in upgrade investments, which has reduced confidence in the grid’s reliability,” Menon said.

In other market segments, such as in hospitals, other critical-care facilities and hotels taller than four stories, the code drives demand for an emergency power.

“For example, circuits that control fire pumps in buildings have to be backed up, and businesses need to protect their investments and people from disasters and power outages,” Thompson said.

Although not required by code, backup power is essential for certain facilities, such as data centers, financial institutions, cell towers and manufacturing plants.

“Unfortunately, too many people think that even a one-
second outage is acceptable,” Steele said. “However, it can actually take eight to 12 hours, and sometimes even days, to come back up, creating significant costs.”

Knowing that emergency power is essential, the decision must then be made whether to go with a permanent generator solution with an automatic transfer switch (ATS) or a more mobile, manual solution.

“The most important factors to take into account when making this decision are the types of items that need to be backed up and their level of criticality and the end-users’ comfort level and willingness to interact with the generator,” Menon said.

When choosing a solution, consider the loads that the generator will need to handle, whether someone will need to be present during an outage to operate the generator, the reliability of the grid, the utility’s commitment to maintenance and tree trimming, the ability to refuel during an outage and the availability of that fuel, and the total of cost of ownership of the entire backup solution, including any UPS system.

“The contractor and its customer need to evaluate the system’s efficiency, maintenance needs, initial cost and general overall costs, which is typically done on a 5 to 10 year return-on-investment,” Steele said.

Both the permanent and mobile solutions have their own advantages and disadvantages, depending on the needs of the end-user. A permanent generator solution will automatically power whatever it is designed to run and can handle larger loads than portable solutions, and it offers a higher level peace of mind, an uninterrupted life or business, and increased safety. No interaction is needed between the user and the generator and there is no direct handling of fuels. A permanent generator solution also could include a UPS system that will instantaneously provide clean power to critical equipment.

“UPS systems, however, only have an average of 5–15 minutes of backup power available. Larger facilities—or those with critical computer, process or other equipment needs—will, therefore, always need to choose a backup power generator system with ATS to ensure a constant flow of power to that UPS,” Steele said.

In comparison, a portable generator solution is cheaper than a permanent one. It is mobile, smaller and does not require multiple permits, needs less maintenance or standard periodic testing, and doesn’t require a fuel source installation. It’s a better choice for a homeowner or small commercial facility. 

A portable generator comes with drawbacks. For instance, a business owner could not back up multiple sites with one unit. There would still be some downtime to get the generator up and running, as well as some safety issues arising during that downtime that a homeowner or other user would have to be aware of. It needs to be fueled manually and has to be occasionally tested by hand, and a portable unit can only handle smaller loads.

Your business goes on

For contractors, providing reliable and clean emergency power to commercial or residential customers is a real opportunity.

“Contractors, however, need to educate their customers on the different solutions available, the abilities and challenges of those solutions, and on the historic reliability of the local grid,” Thompson said.

By heightening end-users’ awareness through education, contractors can drive their own opportunities in this market.

“The goal is for contractors to provide solutions before an event occurs and business operations are disrupted or people are in jeopardy,” Thompson said.

To make suggestions about the types of emergency power, contractors need to understand the home’s, building’s or facility’s load requirements and the particular incoming utility service.

“Those factors will drive the size of the generator as well as the type and size of the ATS and panels,” Menon said, adding that the contractor must determine the incoming fuel type. “Contractors can use their relationships with both plumbing and mechanical contractors and partner with them to tap into the fuel and provide a single-source installation.”

By performing a site survey, a contractor can gather all this information, Tydrich said.

“That information will enable the contractor to help the customer determine what is important to them and whether they need to consider power quality, noise ordinances or other jurisdictional or homeowner association codes as well as the assess the appropriate installation site,” she said.

For contractors that may not have experience with installing reliable emergency power, Tydrich recommended training classes in generator technology for residential options and for the more sophisticated systems required by larger commercial, industrial, and mission-critical applications.

Over the next five to 10 years, generator and UPS technologies will continue to advance and offer greater reliability and increased efficiency, Steele said. In the long term, a more economic and viable renewable-energy sources will be applied that will function with generator and UPS systems to improve the end-user’s total cost of ownership.

“Today’s renewable-energy technology has too high an up-front cost and too large a footprint to have an effective total cost of ownership,” he said. “The industry, however, is continuously researching new sources and ways to generate renewable energy.”

Other growing areas will focus on more integration of generators with remote monitoring solutions and more requests for builders to include backup power, or at least the wiring for it, as grid reliability concerns grow, Menon said.

About the Author

Darlene Bremer

Freelance Writer

Darlene Bremer, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributed frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR until the end of 2015.

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