Why backup generators fail
posted at 7:01 pm on November 5, 2012 by Ed Morrissey
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.