Commercial Standby Power

The recent destruction of Hurricane Matthew was a stark reminder of how powerful storms can be and the damage they can cause. Northeast Florida has been fortunate to have avoided such large storms over the years, but every year the dice are rolled again and we all cross our fingers that our luck will hold out.

Business Risk Assessment

Although we have no control over the storms themselves, we can control how prepared we are and how we deal with the damage. If a Category 3 -- or larger -- hurricane hits Northeast Florida, you could be out of power for several weeks. Possibly longer. Have you considered the impact to your business if power is out for a long period of time? If not, making that part of your business’s emergency plans is critical. Consider performing a business risk assessment to determine the level of risk to your business. You may realize it’s time to acquire a standby power system to feed your critical loads during an outage. 

Designing the System

If you decide to buy one, spend a little time designing the system. A properly designed system can save money and ensure the generator can provide the power and energy you need when you really need it. Generator under sizing is a very common mistake. Don’t just buy and install something that “should” work. Take a close look at the loads you’ll need to run and the requirements they have. Good questions to answer include: What starting currents does the equipment have and can the generator handle them? How critical are the loads? What type of transfer switch system will you need? Do you need to run the whole facility or just some specific, critical loads?

Because utility power is very reliable, you may design your system to just get by during brief outages. During a major natural disaster you probably won’t be able to operate normally anyway because the community around you will be in disorder. So your power system may only be needed to operate critical functions until things improve. This will reduce the size and cost of the system you’ll need. Do some homework and work closely with an Electrical Contractor on the design of your system.

Fuel Source

You also should consider what type of fuel the generator will use, how much fuel it requires and how that fuel will be stored. Fuel type and capacity is very important aspect of design and operation. You will have to choose between gasoline, diesel, propane and natural gas, each of which has its advantages and disadvantages. Once you choose a fuel source, run some calculations on how much you’ll need. Generators can gobble up a lot of fuel, especially if they’re running for long periods of time. Finally, take some time to consider the location of the generator, noise and emissions levels and aesthetics in the initial design plans.

If you decide a portable generator will be sufficient to power your loads, it’s best to spend a little money to get the system set up properly and safely. If you don’t have a covered, ventilated outdoor space for the generator while it’s running, build one. Don’t run the generator anywhere near the inside of the business where carbon monoxide fumes can enter. Doing so can be deadly.

Standby Generator Application

You should also install a bus transfer switch that will allow you to safely power up the electric panel from the generator. Running power cords may not be the easiest way for your business to function and rigging something to power your panel is dangerous and illegal. A simple transfer switch should be installed to ensure there’s no back feeding to the grid and you’re safely powering up the loads. Most electrical contractors should be able to install one or you can consider implementing something like a Generlink transfer switch. You’ll also need to fill out a standby generator application with JEA. This application must be reviewed and approved by JEA before the permit is released.

Periodic Maintenance

Once your system is installed, create and implement a routine testing and maintenance program. Periodic maintenance and testing will help ensure the generator operates properly when you need it. It’s also a good practice to test the transfer switch and run the system under full load for a brief time every so often to see how the generator handles it and whether there are any issues that need addressed. Just starting up the generator and running it ensures the generator will run, but it doesn’t ensure that the power system will switch over and operate properly under load.

Testing is typically performed monthly or quarterly, depending on the critical nature of the load. You should also test the system at the first indication that a severe storm may impact the region. Testing and running the system under load should be done with portable generators as well, but it’s not nearly as critical because another one can be quickly purchased, assuming there are some still available when you discover that yours doesn’t work.

Your maintenance plan should also include tracking the fuel’s age. Fuel has a limited life span which varies among the fuel types. Keep track to make sure you have plenty of relatively fresh fuel, especially at the start of storm season.

Other Options

There are other options if you are unable to purchase and install a system. You can rent or lease a generator, but you’ll need a strong relationship with the dealer and a keen sense of timing because when you need it, most likely many others will as well. You can also look into sharing a generator with neighboring businesses. It’s not common, but there are folks who do it. No matter what type, size or alternative you choose, you’ll be glad for it during a utility outage when backup power can become the lifeblood of your business.

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