Gear Up for Grid Failure

Nov. 25, 2013
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. PageBreak

Electrify Your Emergency Preparedness
Once you determine your capacity, you can match your emergency load requirements with backup options. Uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, generators, and cogeneration are commonly used to restore electricity.

UPS is a device that responds to power quality issues, smoothing out any fluctuations to avoid disruptions, Spears explains. This solution is ideal for facilities that cannot withstand even a microsecond of downtime, such as those with IT, medical, and industrial applications.

While UPS can expertly handle brownouts and surges, it can also help during an outage by filling in the gap between when power goes out and a backup generator kicks on.

“If the UPS is paired with a backup battery, it can transfer to battery power when it senses a condition outside of its range, transferring electricity from DC to AC via an inverter to supply the load,” explains Munkelwitz. “Battery backup can be anywhere from 20 minutes to a whole day, depending on how many batteries you have.”

Regardless of which type of UPS system you have, make sure to run periodic calibration tests in battery mode to determine if there’s any degradation in the run time.

Fuel Up with Backup Power
Whether natural gas or diesel, generators remain the workhorse of power outages and the most commonly used backup system.

5 Building Resiliency Ideas from the Big Apple

In response to Hurricane Sandy, New York City is pursuing new codes that will strengthen building resiliency and emergency preparedness in the face of adverse weather. Take a page from the Big Apple and adopt these measures to protect your facility during an outage.

  1. Reliable Sanitation – Equipped with a manual override or long-lasting batteries, automatic toilets will still flush during blackouts. This will assist with occupants sheltering in place and reduce sanitation risks. Aim for at least one faucet and one toilet in each bathroom that can operate without external electrical power for at least two weeks.
  2. Building Water Reserves – Water towers can provide potable water during power losses because the water stored in the tank can be distributed using gravity, not power. Consider maintaining your existing water tower or using water towers in new construction.
  3. Quick Connects – Exterior hookups enable quick connections to portable generators and boilers. It is much easier to connect this equipment if hookup points are installed in advance.
  4. Preserve Telecommunications – Loss of power to telecommunications systems and flooding that damages underground phone and data lines can cut off communication between buildings and the fire department. Large properties in flood zones should consider having a backup wireless fire communication system. The use of storage batteries with a life of at least eight hours to serve fire and life safety communication systems should also be used.
  5. Maintain Temperatures – Utility failures often disable heating and cooling systems, leaving interior building temperatures dependent on whatever protection is provided by the insulation and air sealing of a building’s walls, windows, and roof. Tightly seal new windows and doors and upgrade roof insulation during roof replacement to increase thermal retention.

“There are several industries that can live with a five-minute interruption, but if the power is out for hours or days, you need extended generation,” says Sean Brady, senior director and cofounder, Data Center Advisory Group, with Cushman & Wakefield, a real estate firm.

Generators often require a short amount of time to warm up and start producing electricity. If you’re worried about the lag time, you can use UPS to fill in the gap, says Effron.

As local fuel supplies can be quickly depleted during an event, it’s important to have a process in place for fueling your generator, says Bob Kenyon, executive vice president of sales and development, Altas Oil. This includes having a supplier on standby and contracts negotiated.

“You also need to calculate what the burn rate of your generator is so a supplier knows in advance how much fuel needs to be delivered to keep operations online,” Kenyon adds.

If you don’t want to invest in a generator, you can rent portable power as long as you have external connections available. “If power is needed to run an entire building, for example, a larger standby generator can be rented on a weekly basis at an escalated cost,” says Cali.

Preventive maintenance is also important to perform to ensure the generator will fire up at a moment’s notice.

“Many companies run routine tests on their power generation units. Some will cycle the equipment weekly or biweekly from 30 seconds to 15 minutes,” explains Kenyon. “At minimum, you should test the generators once a month and perform any maintenance at the same time.”

Rely on Clean Power
Combined heat and power (CHP or cogeneration) can also come to the rescue during an outage.

According to A Guide for Using Combined Heat and Power for Enhancing Reliability and Resiliency in Buildings, a report from the EPA, HUD, and DOE, “CHP systems allow facilities to remain functional in the event of a disaster and for non-critical loads to resume functionality as quickly as possible. For example, CHP systems with back start capability and other technical requirements can ensure seamless operation during a grid outage. […] In so doing, they provide continuity of critical services and free up power restoration efforts to be focused on other facilities.”

By simultaneously producing electricity and heat from a single fuel source, CHP is approximately 30% more efficient than using grid-purchased electricity and an on-site boiler. They can also use a variety of fuel options, such as natural gas, biomass, biogas, coal, waste heat, or oil.

An important benefit of CHP over backup generators is that they’re used year-round, continuously producing power and utility savings. The additional thermal energy can also be life-saving during an emergency and allows electricity to be used to power other critical systems beyond heating.

Renewable energy, such as solar and wind turbines, may also help supply electricity during an outage. Solar output will obviously be low during the thick of a storm, but when sunny skies return, it can be a useful source of power.

“Solar is unlikely to supply the necessary load demands of an entire facility, but you could draw from PV panels to run just the lights,” says Brady. “It’s one way to cover a small portion of your operational loads during an emergency.”

Investing in Tomorrow
Don’t view power outages as an unavoidable inconvenience – take a proactive approach instead and future proof your facility against down time, equipment damage, and lost business continuity.

“Too many owners have a false sense of security and think a major outage can’t happen to them. They may not even have an emergency plan, much less the infrastructure required to power their facility,” says Kenyon. “But having backup power provides security. The last thing you want on your mind is whether you can conduct business during an outage.”

Jennie Morton [email protected] is senior editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Jennie Morton

A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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