Gear Up for Grid Failure

12/01/2013 | By Jennie Morton

How to protect against power outages

Buildings have become increasingly susceptible to brownouts, power surges, and rolling blackouts. Addressing power outages has evolved beyond a code requirement to a necessary part of keeping your business and facility operations protected. Learn about backup strategies and systems you can adopt to minimize potential disruptions.

The Eye of the Storm
Severe weather remains the leading cause of outages in the U.S., accounting for 58% of all reported outages observed since 2002, finds the Economic Benefits of Increasing Electric Grid Resilience to Weather Events, a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers and the DOE’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. Thunderstorms, hurricanes, and blizzards were responsible for 679 widespread outages in the last decade, 87% of which affected 50,000 or more customers.

These weather events also come with a heavy price tag – upwards of $30 billion in damages annually. And the costs per storm are also rising. Based on DOE data, there have been 144 weather disasters costing $1 billion or more since 1980. Of those, 11 occurred in 2012, which is the second highest cluster behind 2011 for any year on record.

These trends indicate that intense storms are not merely freak occurrences but are possibly becoming the norm. The proof? Seven of the ten costliest weather disasters in American history occurred in the last decade alone (2004-2012).

Take Hurricane Sandy, for example. The superstorm caused a total of 8.5 million individual outages, with over 30% affecting New Jersey. Because a storm on this level has historically been rare, owners were unprepared to handle the extended disaster. Many of the blackouts lasted for days on end, putting commercial buildings at risk of mold growth, improper ventilation, vandalism, and sanitation issues. According to the DOE, the damages related to power failures caused by Sandy are estimated between $14–26 billion.

But your facility doesn’t have to experience a weather disaster to suffer from an outage. Irrespective of origin, the average cost of a one-hour blackout is just over $1,000 for a commercial business and jumps up to $4,227 for industrial users, finds the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the report Understanding the Cost of Power Interruptions to U.S. Electricity Consumers.

Whether your workers are stationed on a manufacturing line or tied to computers, very little business can be performed without electricity. Using the same math as the Berkeley researchers, you can quantify outage consequences by focusing on lost productivity and revenue opportunities.

As you calculate damages, make sure to factor in different lengths of outages and, more importantly, the full time required to restore operations. Some systems may need a significant amount of time to start up again after a power failure, notes Matt Effron, senior product line manager with Eaton, a power solution provider. Think of the time HID lighting alone takes to warm up, much less if your servers are rebooting.

“It doesn’t have to be an extended outage to cause significant delays,” adds Ed Spears, product marketing manager with Eaton. “It could be a four-second outage followed by four and half hours to get IT, computer, or manufacturing systems back online.”

Establish Critical Loads
Before you can determine which backup solution is viable, take a frank look at your operations and prioritize which systems are necessary to run during an outage. Critical loads are not a universal formula – a necessary requirement for one facility may be a nice-to-have option for others.

“Some tenants may only need a phone while others require full power,” notes David Cali, vice president of property management with Alfred Sanzari Enterprises, a real estate firm. “Most have adequate protection to meet code requirements for emergency lighting, fire alarms, and elevators, but backup power can also include some additional level of HVAC, security, and expanded lighting.”

The use of convergence has also drastically changed the risk associated with an outage. Don’t overlook how many systems in your building require an IT connection to run.

“Just like the migration to voice over internet protocol (VoIP), once disparate functions are now running on a single network,” says Ray Munkelwitz, director of the Smart UPS line and IT Business Group for Schneider Electric. “Systems such as lighting, HVAC, temperature control, building automation, and security can be just as susceptible to power anomalies as IT equipment.”

For example, your fire alarms and sprinklers are required to have backup power according to code, but your other life safety and security systems may not have the same luxury.

During an outage, how important is it that your surveillance cameras are up and running? Does your manufacturer offer battery options for your access control system, particularly if it uses electronic locks and badges?

Life safety precautions may also include ventilation requirements, particularly if you have lab or industrial processes that generate noxious fumes. For additional resiliency considerations for other building systems, review the sidebar.

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