Emergency power: danger in complacency

Get free weekly news by e-mailBy Dr. Jim Kennedy, NCE, MRP, MBCI, CBRM, CHS-IV

Electrical power, in the short timeframe of one hundred years, has become a major part of modern day life. Our commerce, healthcare, economy, and livelihood depend on a consistent supply of electrical power. Even a temporary outage of power can lead to relatively extreme inconveniences to our everyday life. Our cities require electricity to function and without its supply from the power grid, chaos can occur. Power outages can be especially disastrous when it comes to providing life supporting services in places like hospitals and nursing homes, or in providing those services that we all take for granted such as in airports, train stations, and our modern office buildings.

Fortunately, most facilities that have a very high reliance on utility power have a source of backup power that is automatically ready to take over should the main utility power fail. Backup power is also increasingly being used by corporate IT facilities, telecommunications providers and other critical infrastructures that depend on computers and for their very existence. While a loss of power in general is not life threatening, it can result in catastrophic loss of data, decreased productivity, and loss of revenue.

As business and commerce came to know more and more about the causes of power failures they began to better protect themselves and their businesses from its devastating effects. The utilization of backup emergency generators became the primary safeguards that were put into place. However, an over-reliance on these safeguards has in some instances placed the very entities being protected at further and unanticipated risk.

Over the last few years, perhaps because of the aging of the installed base of emergency generators, I have become aware of a growing series of emergency generator systems failures.

I have seen generators explode and catch fire thereby increasing the losses experienced by the insurance company that relied upon it for keeping its critical data processing center fully functioning. I have seen poorly maintained generators fail to operate at the most critically inopportune time and which caused severe financial losses to an electric utility. I have also seen, during Hurricane Rita and Katrina, electric generators that eventually over heated and failed or simply stopped when they were covered by flood waters. I have seen poorly constructed re-fueling contracts leave emergency generators in-operable due to a lack of fuel during a critical ice storm in Canada.

In each and every case the emergency backup generator was being relied upon for the protection of critical assets, protection of property, and in some very limited cases to protect life. The danger of complacency, and not performing the necessary initial due diligence and then continuing to provide the necessary due diligence as it related to generator and emergency power systems maintenance led to catastrophic failures.

Based on what I see as a trend of failures when these critical mitigation safeguards are needed I have compiled a list of due diligence and preventative maintenance items that each owner of emergency generators needs to be aware of. They are as follows:

* Battery failure – makes the generator incapable of being started when needed. Many battery problems are caused by dirty and loose connections, maintenance is critical. Cable connections need to be regularly cleaned and tightened. Monitoring the battery charge rates will establish a trend that can help map the potential for failure. An increase of current may show signs of a battery or charger malfunction. Should be checked monthly.

* Fuel, oil or coolant leaks – can lead to failure to start, failure to keep running, or severe and/or catastrophic failures such as fires or explosions. Each week the generator, all hoses and couplings, and general area should be inspected to ensure that all levels are acceptable and that no leaks are present. All leaks found should be addressed IMMEDIATELY.

* Low coolant levels – can lead to overheating and eventual failure of generator when in operation. Each month coolant levels should be inspected to ensure that they are at proper levels and that no downward trend is visible (which could be a sign of a leak, cap missing causing evaporation of coolant).

* Air or water in the fuel system – can cause the generator to fail to start, fail to operate or operate sporadically. Monthly test runs provide enough time to verify that the engine will start, that the air or water is cleared from the fuel system, and that the generator comes up to voltage and frequency. This can be completed in less than five minutes.

* Running out of fuel – obviously, this causes generators to fail during operation. Mechanical fuel level gauges may not always be accurate as they may stick in a position until vibrations break them free. Low fuel level alarms must also be addressed, as they provide the same type of failure alarm. Some generators are equipped with ‘low level shutdown’ features.

* Over filled fuel tanks – during very hot days fuel can expand in the tanks and over top causing a fire hazard and life safety hazard to anyone in the area when the fire or explosion occurs.

* Breaker trips – can cause the power derived from the generator not to reach the intended destination. This could be due to an electrical failure or short in the system or generator. Breaker trips should be investigated to determine cause and to ensure that it will not reoccur.

* Failures of automatic transfer switches - can cause the power derived from the generator not to reach the intended destination. Transfer switches should be looked at periodically to ensure that they are operational.

As well as carrying out the above checks, every six months it is also good to make sure that the generator can be brought on line with a full load (capable of powering the devices it is there for). An electrician or your generator maintenance provider should be on site for those types of tests.

I also recommend that as part of due diligence someone review the generator and transfer switch maintenance contract to make sure that the repair time service level agreements are in alignment with you availability requirements. Also, fuel contracts should be reviewed to make sure that fueling will be available even during times of natural disaster.

Complacency can be dangerous and in some cases even life threatening. As business continuity professionals we all need to ensure that it does not.

About the author

Dr. Jim Kennedy, MRP, MBCI, CBRM, CHS-IV is the chief consulting officer of Business Continuity/Security Services for Recovery-Solutions. Dr. Kennedy has over 30 years' experience in the information security, business continuity and disaster recovery fields. He is the co-author of three books, ‘Security in a Web 2.0+ World, A Standards Based Approach’, ‘Blackbook of Corporate Security’ and ‘Disaster Recovery Planning: An Introduction’ and author of an e-book, ‘Business Continuity & Disaster Recovery – Conquering the Catastrophic’. Recovery-Solutions@xcellnt.com

•Date: 12th Feb 2010 • Region: US/World •Type: Article •Topic: Power management
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