Power reliability: plan ahead to close gap between continuity and chaos

Electricity is never more precious or scarce than after a disaster. Lights don't work, telephones are disabled, businesses are shut down.
By Michael J. Wuebben , Manager, EPG Market Support, Caterpillar North American Dealer Sales, Mossville, IL May 1, 2000

Electricity is never more precious or scarce than after a disaster. Lights don’t work, telephones are disabled, businesses are shut down. No real recovery can be made without power, yet, in most cases, no one can predict when utility service will be restored.

The distance between continuity and chaos in managing a business is sometimes smaller than many realize. Even the best of plans can be wiped away by the devastating effects of a natural disaster. Other times, a power outage can result from something as routine as programming a couple of digits in a computer program.

Power failures are beyond your control-but they don’t have to control you. Regardless of how interruptions happen, now is a good time to start planning your backup power system. Providing for a safe, reliable supply of electricity ensures that your business will save time and money during a power interruption. Taking steps to evaluate installing permanent generator sets, or leasing or renting them, can help carry you through an emergency.

Getting started

Become familiar with some of the industry terminology associated with generator sets before talking with a power equipment supplier. Then, determine your power requirements. Make a list of critical loads and conduct a walk-around to examine your electrical system. Note connection capabilities and any special requirements that a backup system design may need.

To supply an entire plant with the same amount of power supplied by a utility requires making a determination of power needs on the entire aggregate load. A simple and accurate way to do this is to take ammeter readings from the electrical distribution boxes when the facility is running at peak load. Confirm your calculations by checking the amount of peak electrical use listed on a recent utility bill.

If only certain functions at the facility will require power, individual loads should be prioritized. If priority is in doubt, think in terms of potential profit loss, employee safety issues, or problems that might occur as the result of a decrease in productivity due to downtime. Computers, lights, HVAC systems, process equipment, and pumps are examples of critical loads. Prioritizing is especially important in the event of an emergency outage. It may take several hours to secure the rental equipment needed on-site during such situations as hurricanes or floods.

Typically, a separate distribution box is set up in most buildings to feed critical loads. One building may already be set up to handle enough temporary power to manage the loads served by a specific set of circuit breakers. If so, it is possible to take an ammeter reading with just critical loads running. The nameplate on the equipment also helps determine amperage or voltage of a specific piece of equipment.

Asking the right questions

Once power needs are determined, a generator set supplier needs to be selected. If your plant can tolerate momentary outages (4 hr to a day) rental power is an affordable solution. A generator set can be rented and kept on standby during critical months. If your facility cannot withstand more than a momentary lapse in power (15 sec or less), a permanent, back-up power installation is the better investment. For critical power needs that cannot tolerate any power interruption, a UPS system is required in conjunction with a permanently installed generator set.

The key to best serving your needs is to find a supplier who offers a full line of permanent or rental generator sets, all associated equipment and services, and a qualified maintenance staff. Here are a few questions to ask a potential supplier.

  • What kilowatt range of generator sets is available?

    • Does the dealership deliver the generator sets and related equipment? If so, how long will it take to receive the equipment onsite?

      • Will the dealership deliver at any hour, day or night? During a holiday?

        • What experience does the dealership have in sales and rental for your industry?

          • What type of technical support is provided?

            • What happens if the generator set goes down onsite?

              • Does the dealership provide equipment operator training?

                • The equipment supplier should be able to provide a detailed breakdown of the scope of services, assistance with equipment selection, and installation advice for the application. Following is a brief checklist of items that may be included.

                • Does the location require the use of sound-attenuated equipment to meet local codes or OSHA requirements?

                  • Where will the generator sets be placed once onsite? It is important to make this determination because generator sets vary in size. Large units, or power modules, may reach 8 ft wide by 40 ft long. Sufficient space around the equipment also is required for airflow and cable attachments.

                    • Who is responsible for transporting the rental units to the site? Ensure the right size truck and delivery equipment are used to move the equipment. Or, shop around and negotiate a fair contract with a local trucking firm that can handle the job safely and efficiently on short notice.

                      • When routing cable from a generator set outdoors to the electrical distribution boxes inside, consider installing a weather-head or cable access door that can be closed when not in use.

                        • Will the equipment supplier provide extra fuel if the rental generator set runs for an extended time? Inquire about the availability of double-walled fuel tanks or spill containment basins for greater protection against leaks and spills.

                          • What are the supplier’s capabilities for hooking up and maintaining rental equipment? A qualified electrical contractor can handle those duties if they are comfortable with the critical requirements of the project.

                            • Being prepared

                              Obtaining back-up power can be time-consuming. Keep a copy of your company’s action plan on file in a secure location or with a key contact that can be reached during emergencies. Files that include information on critical load priorities, required voltage and amperage, and the location of the electrical schematic drawings should be readily available. As an added precaution, specify the loads that must be isolated from the main breaker before delivering power from the generator set. Also, ensure that you have access to complete contact information for in-house maintenance and operations staff, the generator set supplier, and the fuel supplier.

                              The issues affecting power supplies are complex. They will not go away. Now is the time to analyze back-up power needs and take the steps necessary to protect your plant. Assistance is available from your local electric utility or from an electrical consultant familiar with your business, industry, and local power supply situation. Many generator set dealers also have information on power reliability issues and can suggest appropriate solutions.

                              It is never too early to start planning to protect power for the future. Planning ahead almost certainly positively impacts your chances for success in the event of an outage. This advice is especially true when it comes to ensuring that the power stays on even during the most chaotic situations.

                              Michael Wuebben has more than a decade of experience with Caterpillar in the power generation and marine businesses. Prior to joining the firm, he was with General Dynamics. He is a graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy with a degree in marine systems design. The Caterpillar web site is located at www.cat.com.