Green Room

Why backup generators fail

posted at 7:01 pm on November 5, 2012 by

It’s usually because no one tests them on a regular basis, as we’ve seen in a couple of critical moments this week.  This caught my interest because my former job required me to manage systems like the ones that failed at the New York City hospital (via Instapundit):

On Monday, New York University’s Langone Medical Center lost power during Hurricane Sandy, and ended up having to evacuate 215 patients when the generator that was supposed to keep its charges alive and its critical systems running failed to turn on. Across the United States there are about 12 million backup generators. Most only operate during blackouts — times when a hospital, or a laboratory, or a bank, needs electricity and can’t get it from the larger electric grid.

But backup generators aren’t 100% reliable. In fact, they won’t work something like 20%-to-30% of the time, said Arshad Mansoor, Senior Vice President for Research & Development with the Electric Power Research Institute. The bad news is that there’s only so much you can do to improve on that failure rate. The good news: There are solutions that could help keep a hospital up and running in an emergency, even if the emergency power system doesn’t work.

So why do backup generators fail? The short version is that we only use them, you know, for backup. Most of the time, these generators just sit around, doing nothing. It might seem like you’re keeping them safe, but it’s actually a pretty rough way to treat a mechanical system.

BoingBoing equates this with scooters put up for the winter, but scooters aren’t designed to save your business — or lives.  In my previous career, I ran call centers for burg/fire alarm companies, whose UL certification depended (in part) in having generator/UPS systems, and testing them on a weekly basis.  We actually had to test them under load once per month, which seriously shortened the life of the UPS battery array, but was worth it.  When you don’t test under load, you don’t know if your generator will keep pace with your needs, or whether the load will switch properly at all.  I had a load-switch failure happen to me during a power outage in one of those centers even with testing under load on the regular schedule, which resulted in an all-night effort to keep alternate power sources to our critical systems before the batteries expired.

Bottom line: if you have a backup generator in case of emergency, either for your business or your home, you’d better commit to testing it on a very regular basis.  Otherwise, you will have a big chuck of metal that’s only good for a conversation piece.

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Agree completely.

dogsoldier on November 5, 2012 at 7:09 PM

Gee, mine @ home gets tested every few months, whether I want to or not.

And, it runs on my propane tank in the yard ( I converted it from gasoline a few years ago).

E-R

electric-rascal on November 5, 2012 at 7:10 PM

that’s generator 101 no?

cmsinaz on November 5, 2012 at 7:15 PM

Any decent standby generator has weekly exercise time. Most of the problems arise from automatic transfer switches.

rik on November 5, 2012 at 7:15 PM

Any decent standby generator has weekly exercise time. Most of the problems arise from automatic transfer switches.

rik on November 5, 2012 at 7:15 PM

I’ve been startled by them a number of times. It’s a bit jarring to have a diesel engine fire up out of the blue.

forest on November 5, 2012 at 7:24 PM

And, it runs on my propane tank in the yard ( I converted it from gasoline a few years ago).

E-R

electric-rascal on November 5, 2012 at 7:10 PM

I’m going to look into that. I had a bugger of a time with mine because the carburetor managed to get a bit corroded. I got it working well before the storm hit us but only used it to fill the well tank as needed. For lights I have a few solar panels that run a couple of lights. I plan on adding 6 more panels and maybe running most of my house lights off them on a regular basis.

Frank Enstine on November 5, 2012 at 7:25 PM

Here’s what I do with my home generator (4kw).

About once a month, I fire it up and let it run for about 30 min with a load. Mine supplies 120 and 240 (which I need for my well pump). I’ll hook up the cords to the well pump and let it cycle a few times, shut’er down and cool off. Back to the garage with a full tank of gas.

I’m one of those weird guys that pays attention to the weather, more so when somebody says “storm”. If it appears theres a nasty one coming, out comes the generator the day before storm time, fire it up, let it warm up, then shut’er down, get the cords ready, (first cord goes to the entertainment center…can’t survive without the PS3), then relax.

Not quite a prepper, but I’m taking notes.

BobMbx on November 5, 2012 at 7:26 PM

Politicians?

RedNewEnglander on November 5, 2012 at 7:38 PM

There are a lot of idiots out there heading up the maintenance of hospitals if they aren’t regularly exercising their generators, and regularly testing their switchgear.

NotCoach on November 5, 2012 at 7:45 PM

I used to work for a software firm in a federal building. We received lower insurance rates because the building was equipped better than most and they tested their emergency power generators every week. Drills and relentless testing make a huge difference when the real thing hits.

lexhamfox on November 5, 2012 at 8:05 PM

Not quite a prepper, but I’m taking notes.

BobMbx on November 5, 2012 at 7:26 PM

Well said sir.

I’d take my bets on survival with most of you than just about everyone on Huffpost.

Symshady on November 5, 2012 at 8:17 PM

I live in Missouri 1//4 mile from a deactivated Minuteman site. That generator ran backup on a regular basis and was always being maintained by AF crews.

Since I live in “tornado alley” my generator gets a workout once a month and I too am a weather watcher. Our county has been hit by a tornado three times in the last four years. Go figure….

Sergeant Major on November 5, 2012 at 8:23 PM

There are a lot of idiots out there heading up the maintenance of hospitals if they aren’t regularly exercising their generators, and regularly testing their switchgear.

I smell a rat…

I work in a healthcare facility and we DO NOT MESS AROUND when it comes to the generator.

The generator is tested every week and load tested every month. I have heard of a single generator failure in 5 years and in that case it was the water pump letting go after the unit had been running for a while.

This is all mandated by the state of CT and you will be out of a job rapidly for failing to do the required testing, service and documentation.

I call B.S.

gdonovan on November 5, 2012 at 8:30 PM

So that’s why my lawnmower nevers works first thing in the spring.

J-Paul00 on November 5, 2012 at 8:32 PM

Not quite a prepper, but I’m taking notes.

Look into a transfer switch and power the whole house, not cords required.

I’d say look into a double male ended 10 gauge cord to backfeed into the dryer socket after pulling the service disconnect but that isn’t code. ;-)

gdonovan on November 5, 2012 at 8:39 PM

Couldn’t agree more. Our department used to run the backup for 1 hour each month.

GarandFan on November 5, 2012 at 9:11 PM

In our State Hospitals are required to power up the batteries at least once a month, right down to checking the load and auto switches. So do all civil defense headquarters, the jails, police stations, sewer plants public and private,airports, water pumps, and County and State offices. After a few tsunamis, hurricanes, and volcano eruptions, you tend to know the manual.

pat on November 5, 2012 at 9:15 PM

If you have a gasoline generator you need to fire it up and run a 50% load on it for 15 minutes once or twice per year.

Drain the gas out of the carb bowl.

Generators can lose there residual magnetism if not ran for a long time or if they run out of fuel while under a load.

To fix that, get her started again and the plug a drill in to a 120 socket and twist the chuck back and forth real fast while you hold the trigger.
Be careful ’cause that drill will kick on when you have successfully flashed the field.

Also people often can’t start their genset because they often have a low oil switch. check your oil level.

I build and repair generators all the time.

esnap on November 5, 2012 at 9:51 PM

Living in Florida, we test our generator monthly. Then drain the gas and store. I always keep fresh gas on hand, using last month’s gas in the car or motorcycle. (Yeah, I use StaBil too.)

I definitely want to look into the propane conversion. That would solve problems before they start.

ProfShadow on November 5, 2012 at 10:46 PM

Installed emergency generators, for hospitals, come on automatically once a month. So yes they are tested.

The one which failed in NYC was due the fuel pump was in the basement with the fuel tank. It flooded. the generator was on an upper floor but without fuel, it could not operate.

Kermit on November 5, 2012 at 11:57 PM

One other piece of advice is to use non-ethanol gasoline or as we call it here, 100 proof gas. The alcohol that is put into gas will corrode the entire system of any carburetor and make it un-startable. It is hard to find but it is available in most areas.

inspectorudy on November 6, 2012 at 12:10 AM

Rule of thumb for maintaining generators — You can do this weekly but be sure to do it SOME TIME before you need to use it:

> Visually inspect the unit for any visual defects or damage
> Check all engine oil, coolant, and fuel levels.
> Also check for fuel pressure as well paying in mind any leaks or excessive pressure.
> Check engine intakes and exhaust ports (cleaning if necessary).
> oh and lastly check the battery charger unit (so that this ACTUALLY works when you need it to).

Rule of thumb for testing generators.

1) Visually inspect generators once a month for any visible defects.
2) Once a month inspect parts for any sort of defects or corrosion.
3) Test generators on a monthly basis at about 30% max rated load for 30 minutes (once a month).

You can do steps 1-3 at the same time btw.

4) Replace all oil and oil filters (this includes gearbox oil). Check and replace all spark plug caps. Inspect (and replace if needed) all drive belts, fans, and air filters for damage.
5) Once a YEAR test the generator at 100% max rated load for at least 1 hour.

Steps 4-5 can also be done at the same time btw.

Chaz706 on November 6, 2012 at 4:29 AM

So that’s why my lawnmower nevers works first thing in the spring.

J-Paul00 on November 5, 2012 at 8:32 PM

My Toro lawnmower started on the first pull in the spring for 16 years. Best lawnmower I ever had. It always started on the first pull.

Dasher on November 6, 2012 at 8:14 AM

Well this is an interesting thread. I should save it for future reference, such good advice.
We live way out in the country in SW ND & have often experienced power failures for weeks at a time. This is un-fun in -30 degree below zero weather.
However, we do NOT own a generator.
We have a wood stove in our house, lots of trees along the river we live on & I can a lot of our food.
The only thing I need to do is replace our electric stove with a gas one.
Otherwise, we do not really miss electricity when it is gone except for the water, which if we had to can go down to the river.
I find the generator a waste of $$ for us just bcs we are so prepared in other ways.

Badger40 on November 6, 2012 at 8:15 AM

My Toro lawnmower started on the first pull in the spring for 16 years. Best lawnmower I ever had. It always started on the first pull.

Dasher on November 6, 2012 at 8:14 AM

So, what brand of engine does your Toro lawn mower have? Briggs&Stratton, Honda?

Oldnuke on November 6, 2012 at 8:20 AM

Chaz706 on November 6, 2012 at 4:29 AM

Excellent testing and inspection plan! I’d probably start it once a week and let the temperature stabilize at no load conditions but that may be overkill.

Oldnuke on November 6, 2012 at 8:23 AM