Q: Between storms and natural disasters, the aging electrical grid and the financial impacts of a production shutdown, what are some key considerations in an on-site or backup power supply?
A: A well-designed and thought out backup power supply delivers what Al Pacino called, in the 2005 film Two for the Money, “the world’s rarest commodity … certainty in an uncertain world.” And while today’s world seems to continually ratchet up the uncertainty quotient, facilities professionals can mitigate the risk while reducing lines down and other hits to the bottom line.
Why a backup power supply is important
Facilities that operate in controlled environments, whether cleanroom manufacturers or specialty laboratories, are highly power dependent. Any interruption to a steady, reliable power supply can wreak havoc with product integrity, research, shipping schedules, factory utilization, and toolsets. Power interruptions can quickly kill a profitable quarter, damage customer relations, deliver a body blow to a company’s reputation, and increase SG&A costs for weeks as employees scramble to deal with the collateral damage of a power interruption. To coin a mantra of the United States Marine Corps, “Failure is not an option.” So when there’s no room for power failures, an on-site redundant power system becomes a valuable commodity. To many businesses, it’s essential.
While manufacturers have tales of notoriously unreliable electric supplies for offshore locations, the United States has experienced its share of “lights out” incidents. As policy pundits and politicians wrangle over upgrading the country’s electric utility systems and deploying the smart grid (at a projected cost exceeding $1.5 trillion), it’s estimated that non-disaster electricity outages impacting more than 50,000 customers have increased more than 124% since the early 1990s. These outages are estimated to cost the economy more than $119 billion annually. Add in the projections for increased frequencies of severe weather events, and today’s facilities professional has a lot to think about.
The many flavors of onsite backup power
Demand has been growing for the installation of reliable on-site backup power systems – whether UPS (uninterruptible power supply) systems, microturbines, cogeneration systems, portable emergency power equipment, generators, or centralized systems comprising a variety of generating and storage components. The following is a high-level guide to assessing your facility’s best option, whether your need is driven by safety considerations or 24/7 operational requirements.
You want what? Why?
Before you even consider signing any purchase orders, conduct a brutally honest assessment of your company’s goals, facility needs, and financial commitment to the project.
Are you looking to remain fully operational in the face of an extended power outage? What levels of redundancy are required? Is your goal to simply maintain power, or does it encompass other considerations, such as being as green and clean as possible? Do you want to focus on ensuring continuity of mission-critical operations only? Is mobile equipment an option? Can rental equipment cover some requirements?
Make sure you carefully define your company’s mission-critical operations realistically … organizations have a tendency to inflate the criticality of individual departments. You need to “separate the wheat from the chaff” – and clearly identify “wants” vs. “needs.”
Take a long, hard look into the crystal ball and consider future growth – both how much growth you project and when. It can be cost-effective to size for future capacity now.
Many of these required decisions can become politically charged in any organization. It may be helpful to engage an outside consultant – such as an electrical engineering firm – to guide constituencies to a consensus on goals, approaches, equipment, and budget, while developing a variety of options or phased improvements for consideration. An outside consultant can offer impartial advice grounded in experience.
Who gets a “say”?
Carefully construct a group within your organization that needs to buy into the project – and seek their views regarding operational, customer, and safety needs. Operations, finance, manufacturing engineers, HR, and community relations – all have a perspective and perceptions about the organization’s needs. But at the end of the day, the final project recommendations and scope need to be developed and owned by the facility’s team. Don’t let the “camel-designing committee” derail a tightly devised plan.
To get to specifications, you must consider several variables that can be dumped into two buckets: those driven by location, and those determined by operations.
Like a crisis management plan, location dramatically impacts the scope of any backup power system. Is your facility located where severe weather is common? How about natural disasters? What are the normal temperature and humidity ranges? These factors will dictate the design of your power generating system, as well as redundancy, shelters, and where to site the equipment. Are your needs limited to one facility or multiple facilities located near each other? Is the purchase (or rental) of mobile equipment a better fit for your scope and budget? Is there a mobile equipment supplier nearby that you can lock down for availability, delivery, and cost – even in the face of a natural disaster? What’s the track record for power outages in your area, and the performance record of the utility in getting power restored? In a massive regional outage, how will power restoration be prioritized, and where would your facility fall in the food chain?
The big picture items in the operations bucket include budget constraints, the goals we discussed above, required (or desired) functionalities, staffing levels and staff capabilities to operate and maintain the equipment, desired energy efficiencies and “clean power” specifications, capacities and permitting/regulatory constraints, and legal requirements such as those outlined by the National Fire Protection Association.
Make sure you understand, clearly define, and communicate how the equipment will be loaded when it’s operational. Full or part load? Short term or sustained operating? Need for additional redundancy? Growth? Upsizing the system by 40% or so is a common practice to engineer for growth. If you’re not opting for 100% operations at 100% capacity, carefully segment your loads based on criticality of function.
Accurately defining project parameters is the linchpin to success (or failure). It’s the variable you didn’t think of that can tank a system – and often that failure isn’t recognized until the system has been installed, an always costly error. A set of outside eyes belonging to an electrical engineer can mitigate the issue of being so close to a project that it’s difficult to see the forest for the trees.
After you define all the items above, take the time to verify your data … it’s the engineering equivalent to the carpenter’s rule to “measure twice, cut once.” And only after verification can the true equipment design and specification work begin.
Design variables and considerations are a subject worthy of a stand-alone column, well beyond today’s scope.
Commissioning, testing, and maintenance
Before signing off this month’s column, I want to touch upon three important considerations that deserve to be top of mind when developing a backup power system: commissioning, testing, and maintenance.
I highly recommend you undertake all three and develop strong, ongoing programs for each. Too often – and especially when backup power systems haven’t been called into use – they can become the “out of sight, out of mind” component of any facility.
Integrating a formal commissioning review into the project will ensure the equipment is operating as specified. Make sure you utilize the services of a certified commissioning agent, and integrate them into the team as early in the process as possible.
Once your system is installed, how often should it be tested? After the initial, post-installation run through to test every aspect of the system, many companies run either a monthly or quarterly test. On at least a quarterly basis, run the major components through their paces: generator(s), PDUs, the UPS, switchgears, the automatic transfer switch, the static power transfer, and other major components. Given the role of backup power supply in emergency operations and disaster recovery, it’s a good idea to run an annual drill that encompasses not only facilities and operations but also support personnel such as communications, finance, and HR, as well as potentially impacted operations employees.
Finally, a word about maintenance: backup power systems do not live on greasing the flywheel alone. To guarantee maximum operational time, reliability, and cost minimization due to breakdowns during critical operations, a comprehensive maintenance program should be developed, funded, and adhered to. Al Pacino’s words are spot-on: A solid maintenance program will deliver “the world’s rarest commodity … certainty in an uncertain world.”
Richard Bilodeau, PE, is director of engineering at SMRT (www.smrtinc.com). His 30-year career includes plant engineering positions in clean manufacturing. Richard has designed, operated, and supervised the construction of advanced technology facilities, numerous industrial projects, health care facilities, and corporate offices. Contact: TheFacilitiesGuy@smrtinc.com
This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Controlled Environments.