Backup Power Generators for Critical Applications
Cost savings associated with backup power
Greg Sala, general sales manager for the East region of Cummins Sales and Service, says there is a saying they have at the Cummins offices: “No one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to buy a generator.'” But when facility owners and operators experience a power outage that ends up costing thousands to millions of dollars of lost revenue, they oftentimes may wish they had.
Every year, the onset of the hurricane season—from June 1 through its completion on November 30—is but one reminder of many natural and manmade events that can cause power outages. There is much to consider for what can be lost by not investing in backup power, points out Richard Lincoln, director of product management for Generac.
“Between lost business, lost productivity due to idle employees, and even a reputational hit by not being available during a power outage when customers need them most, backup power systems and the uptime they provide are an investment few organizations can or should live without,” he adds.
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One of the most critical facilities needing reliable backup power is data centers. Data centers do double duty in needing an environment that can’t skip a beat when it comes to power; not only do they exist as a backup for other facilities, but their own buildings must be equally secure.
Venyu Solutions, a data center operator whose services include co-location, cloud computing, and designing and building data centers for other clients, incorporated Generac into its own operations five years ago when evaluating options for a data center in Baton Rouge, LA.
The company chose Generac’s Gemini diesel standby generator because it met the needed load criteria. “The best part is we were able to eliminate the paralleling switchgear because the microprocessor-based controls eliminate the need for the large switchgear arrays” which freed up footprint for the data center as well as saving nearly $900,000 from project costs, notes Michael Balles, director of design services for Venyu.
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Balles, who was the keynote speaker at a Generac engineering symposium in 2016, says Venyu’s design philosophy is to use the same products in-house at all of its locations in order to save costs on parts, labor, and maintenance contracts.
That was the driving factor in standardizing the Gemini throughout its system, he notes.
“We do have some smaller units for things like life safety, so at our Shreveport center, we have a 200-kW UPS that handles the fire pump,” says Balles.
Balles points out that his company’s clients expect a high level of reliability and redundancy. The company’s first data center in Baton Rouge has been in operation for about 12 years without a failure of electrical power because of backup generators. Its second Baton Rouge and Shreveport, LA, data centers are also similarly fortified.
The Uptime Institute, which provides tier certification for data center design, construction, and operation, certified Venyu’s Shreveport operation as a Tier 3 data center. Levels range from the lowest of Tier 1 to the highest of Tier 4.
“It’s all about reliability and redundancy,” notes Balles. “Tier 3 means we’ll only have a certain amount of down time each year, and most of that is planned.”
All of the company’s systems are redundant. In Shreveport, Balles maintains three 1-MW generators. “I need two at any given time,” he says. “I always have a spare. As that facility grows, it’ll eventually grow into a fourth generator.”
Redundancy is the foundation for any infrastructure component within Venyu’s facilities.
“We get power from two substations,” says Balles. “We can’t afford for our clients’ power to go out because of an outage. In between the utility and the generators, we have large battery arrays providing uninterruptible power to the client.”
Generac’s Modular Power Systems provide multi-megawatt backup power.
Costs such as testing and maintenance are inherent in having onsite backup power to ensure the ongoing reliability, says Balles. Also, he views the generators as the company’s primary power source.
“The utility is really just the cheap alternative,” he adds. “It’s cheaper for me to get power from the utility on a day-to-day basis and pay per kilowatt hour, versus paying a fluctuating diesel price.”
True cost savings in having backup power is derived through preventative measures. “It prevents us from being sued or losing clients because we lose power,” says Balles. “I can’t afford a loss of power at any point. We’re 24/7, 365 days a year. My lights are on constantly. I cool. I don’t have heaters because the computers are heaters in the storage array.” In total, Balles runs 7 MW of Gemini power along with a 200-kW and a 150-kW unit.
Balles’ advice for facilities considering backup power is to do the math: “The most important thing is your cost of downtime. If an event happens and you lose power, what does that cost you in revenue?” he points out. He cites Publix supermarkets as a non-mission critical enterprise that took a financial hit in 1992 in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. At the time, the supermarket chain was a client of Venyu.
The grocery store chain did not have generators, so food such as meat and milk that had spoiled in long-term power outages were a write-off, Balles notes. Shortly after the event, the supermarket corporation sought a backup data center because its data center couldn’t cover point of sales, notes Balles.”The cost of down time stretched across multiple segments of their business,” he adds.
At the time, the supermarket chain sought an alternative data center outside of the “hurricane alley.” When Venyu personnel visited Florida to interview for the project, which ultimately was given to another firm, “We pulled into their headquarters to do our interview and there were about 500 generators sitting in the parking lot. That was their staging area. They were going out and putting generators at every single grocery store because there was a weather event and they were unable to serve their market.”
That illustrates that while most critical facilities such as hospitals, data centers, and public facilities like jails and fire stations typically have generators so that they can remain operational in such events, there is an increasing number of companies that are not necessarily mission-critical and are incorporating backup power in their operations, Balles notes. He cites two examples that are across the street from his own office: the corporate headquarters of a steel manufacturer and a call center for the federal healthcare marketplace.
While the steel manufacturer’s office is not processing steel at the headquarters, “they’ve got all of their data operations, order entry, and human resources there,” notes Balles. “Everything is data-driven today. Their cost of down time has driven them to install a generator.
“The call center is just people sitting there talking on the phones looking at computers. They’re keeping their systems alive with a generator so they can stay in operation because they realize any loss of their ability to provide a service or product affects their bottom-line.”
People are doing more computing now than ever before, relying on email for order entry, human resources needs to keep track of insurance, accounting needs to keep track of payroll.
“It’s all being done on computers and it’s all generating data that’s going on servers and storage devices in these facilities and it becomes critical,” says Balles. “IT is no longer a back office operation. For some companies, it’s their primary source of revenue. It’s become extremely important to provide those backup services and it all goes back to the cost of down time. Can you afford to be without power for an hour and what does it cost you to do that? I’ve heard estimates of down time costs at hundreds of thousands of dollars a minute.
“For any CEO, CIO, or CFO, it’s important to look at that. That should drive your decision on backup power,” he adds. “In most cases, one or maybe two events could pay for themselves, especially if it’s a prolonged event.”
Generac, the company whose units are used by Venyu, offers a variety of products and configurations that make reducing costs easier for facility managers, notes Lincoln. “Generac’s Modular Power Systems [MPS], for example, are designed to give facilities the freedom to get multi-megawatt backup power if necessary, while not being tied to a single large generator with its large footprint,” he adds.
Instead, Generac MPS allows several smaller generators to be deployed across a facility’s campus where space might be more available and paralleled to provide the total backup power the facility requires. This approach also improves reliability because the backup power system is not reliant upon any single generator for power, Lincoln points out. If one has to be taken out of service for maintenance, the facility is still protected, says Lincoln, adding that “reliability of up to 99.999% can be achieved with a paralleled solution.”
MPS solutions offer additional cost effectiveness by being modular, notes Lincoln.”As a facility grows, so does its backup power needs,” says Lincoln. “An MPS solution allows a facility to add additional units as power needs grow, which is more cost effective than replacing a single large node with a larger generator set.” For situations in which the footprint of the paralleled system must be small, Generac offers its Gemini Twin Pack, featuring two 500-kW generators connected in parallel within a single enclosure for one megawatt of backup power in a smaller space.
Individual Twin Packs can themselves be paralleled for additional flexibility, reliability, and cost savings. Other options are available, such as those offered by Cummins, a single-source manufacturer of engines, alternators, digital controls, transfer switches, and digital paralleling systems. The company’s power range reaches to 3000 kW (3750 kVA). Cummins provides backup solutions for a number of applications, such as commercial and industrial facilities, airports, data centers, oil rigs, mining, and cell towers.
Sala notes that although there are many facilities at which federal government regulations mandate the use of backup power—water and wastewater treatment plants, jails, hospitals, and nursing homes, for example—and that mandate focuses squarely on protecting life, there are financial consequences of failing to provide that protection.
Places such as data centers, casinos, and businesses that process credit card transactions see a greater financial hit as a matter of not having backup power and on the other hand can justify the cost of the systems “quite easily,” says Sala.
“Any place you can keep a network up and running and still do business is where the cost savings are,” notes Sala, adding a secondary financial benefit is derived from not having to send employees home for paid time off. Sala points out that return on investment is an important factor in considering cost savings. Manufacturing, such as a plastic injection molding operation, is a case in point.
Cummins provides backup solutions for a variety of onsite applications.
“When a plastic injected molding machine loses power, it cools and you have an expensive cleaning process and have to start all over again making them,” says Sala. “To further complicate it, if you are a just-in-time delivery to an automotive plant making injection molded plastic parts, you may have missed something by two or three hours and all of a sudden, you’ve shut down the plant downstream from you because you don’t have any parts. Oftentimes, there are fines associated with that.”
Cummins recently sold a generator to a company that manufactures springs for the race car industry. “They’re made in a kiln that heats the steel up,” says Sala. “If they lose power, they oftentimes have to start the process all over again.”
Fuel stations connected to convenience stores seek onsite backup power not only to keep the pumps running, but to continue to generate revenue from selling snacks and beverages by keeping the refrigeration going, says Sala.
Grocery store chains such as Meijer and Publix and retail stores such as Target have generators at all of the stores that, although they are not large enough to power the entire store, provide enough power to run the lights and cash registers, says Sala. “They keep all of their perishables in a refrigerated trailer that they bring in until the counters are empty and then they refill the coolers,” says Sala. “Depending on the length of an outage, they may call us up and rent generators.”
Other facilities, such as those utilizing a refrigerated warehouse, may find it too expensive to bring in permanent generators because they may not necessarily reap a return on the investment, he adds. “Chances are the stuff would be frozen for two days and the electricity would be back on by then,” says Sala. “A lot of those places can’t afford the initial investment to do it. It’s millions of dollars.”
Credit: AJ Mast-Cummins
Cummins generators around the Superbowl Village in Indianapolis, February 1, 2012
In that event, facility owners can turn to companies such as Cummins or other backup power generation companies for rental generators, says Sala, adding that the company responds to a significant number of temporary outages.
“A storm comes in and you want to back up your building, but you don’t want to spend that initial outlay to own that equipment,” he says. “You can buy a connection box for $5,000 and then call Cummins when a storm is coming to reserve a generator. You just have to pay for transportation, fuel, and you have to hook it up. Renting obviously offsets owning. Most places offer both.”
Oftentimes, the presence of onsite backup power is dictated by building codes. “For instance, in the city of Detroit, if you have a building that’s more than five stories, you’re required to bring the elevator down to get people out,” he says. “Building codes can dictate whether you have to have a generator or not. Most businesses just put enough in to keep the lights on and the computer room running so they can do the basics.”
The ability to conduct business transactions is a compelling reason to have backup power when a facility isn’t necessarily required to do so, Sala points out.
Cummins’ own buildings serve as a model. “We power up the whole thing,” says Sala. “We make sure the air conditioning comes on, we want our lights on outside, we want the sprinklers to run. We want everyone to know we have power.”
Doing so enabled the company to serve a number of facilities during the 2003 power outage caused by a software bug at an Ohio facility of FirstEnergy Corporation’s control room.
Credit: AJ Mast-Cummins
Cummins generators around the Superbowl Village in Indianapolis, February 1, 2012
The impact—which affected some 55 million people in eight US states and Ontario—lasted from several hours to several days throughout the affected areas.
“We were up and running,” says Sala. “Most of the Midwest was not.”
Following every major weather event, there is usually some lesson learned that leads to a renewed examination of backup power, including new regulations, notes Sala.
For instance, after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, Florida legislators passed a law requiring certain fuel stations and other fuel-related facilities within a half-mile of an interstate or a designated evacuation route to be equipped with transfer switches and wiring to enable the facility to use an alternative energy source such as a portable generator to operate all fuel pumps, dispensing equipment, safety systems, and payment-acceptance equipment.
However, a generator is ineffective during a weather event if it is not installed in the proper place, thus negating any cost savings. Generators placed in basements that flooded during Superstorm Sandy and placed below sea level during Hurricane Katrina led to placement changes, Sala points out.
The generator rental business “goes nuts” when massive power outages occur, says Sala. “We’re up for days sending our fleet all over the country,” he says, adding that Cummins has had contracts with FEMA to provide emergency portable generators during natural disasters and significant weather events.
“I’ll get an email saying how many generators do I have available and how soon can I dispatch them,” adds Sala. Some facilities such as restaurants opt to write off food losses on their insurance rather than invest in backup power, notes Sala.
Noting the large fleet of generators that grocery stores such as Meijer and Publix now have, Sala points out that “they want to be able to have their lights on. That means you’re like a port in the storm. People see your lights are on and they expect to be able to go in and buy something.”
Sala says Cummins offers site visits to help facility operators ascertain their backup power needs. A site evaluation provides solutions to the question of what the facility would do if the power goes out. The visit often includes an examination of past power bills and the times when peak demand occurs.
A quick connect box can be wired into the facility’s electrical system, enabling Cummins to quickly deliver a rental generator with cable to the facility for a rapid plug in, says Sala.”Then your electrician throws a switch, you turn it on and we start backing it up.”