Quality and Reliability
Power failures can ruin reputations . . . and bottom lines.
By Dan Rafter
At Washington state’s NetRiver, the power can’t go out—ever.
If it does, this high-density data center located in the Seattle suburb of Lynnwood, WA, will lose its most important asset: its reputation among customers for providing reliable service.
That’s why NetRiver works with manufacturers such as Eaton Electrical, manufacturers that provide the data center with the uninterruptible power supply systems—better known as UPS systems—that make sure power outages don’t happen.
“If we have catastrophic power failures, we are penalized,” says Adam Vierra, sales and marketing director for NetRiver. “We’d have to pay our customers—but that’s not even the real issue. The real issue is that if we have a power failure, we ruin our reputation in a business that is heavily reliant on uptime availability. It makes or breaks your ability to move forward, to grow your business, and to take on more clients. You definitely don’t want your power to ever go out.”
Vierra and NetRiver are far from alone. Businesses across the country need quality and reliable power. And, it’s not just data centers. Hospitals, manufacturing facilities, media companies, and financial firms simply can’t afford to have the lights go out, even when these outages are measured in minutes.
And while many of these business have backup power systems onsite, they’d rather not run them. After all, running a diesel generator for any length of time costs money, money that isn’t in big supply during these difficult economic times.
Because of this, the demand for high-quality and reliable power continues to grow. It’s a demand that’s largely resilient during even these troubling economic times.
Businesses might not like spending money to guarantee that their power is reliable. But they know that if they don’t, they’ll lose even more money in lost business and reputation.
This is a trend that Mark Szalkus, director of technical application engineering, North America, with GE Energy, says won’t slow any time soon. There are simply fewer businesses across the country that are content to live with the occasional power failure.
“It’s not a luxury these days for businesses to have full-time 24/7 power,” says Szalkus. “That is now a necessity.”
The Demand for Quality, Reliable Power
NetRiver is an example. As a colocation center—a data center that provides storage space and security for several companies’ data—NetRiver promotes its reliability when selling itself to potential clients.
Part of this reliability includes the promise that NetRiver’s clients will have constant access to their data and cloud-based programs whenever they need it. If the power in NetRiver’s Washington facility ever went down, clients wouldn’t have the immediate access that they’ve paid NetRiver to provide.
And NetRiver, most likely, would suffer the negative business effects—most notably, a loss of clients—that come with a reputation for being unreliable.
Fortunately, that hasn’t happened. NetRiver has taken the steps to ensure that it has not only constant power, but quality power, too. This last part of the equation—quality power—is sometimes ignored. But it’s vitally important to NetRiver’s success, too, Vierra says. Building owners and managers might concentrate on power outages. But
NetRiver officials know that reliable power isn’t only about keeping the lights on. NetRiver and other data centers can’t experience fluctuations in their voltage levels, either. Voltage spikes can cause serious damage to their servers and high-tech equipment.
Because of this, the company invests in UPS systems and power conditioners. This makes sure that the servers NetRiver is operating receive voltage at the right levels.
The equipment necessary to ensure quality power is not inexpensive. But for Vierra, this cost is well worth the peace of mind, and reputation for reliable service, that it brings to NetRiver.
“Uptime availability is what we do,” says Vierra. “Losing power, or suffering even a brief disruption in service, is simply not something we can have happen.”
The good news for the manufacturers of UPS systems, advanced meters that more accurately measure a building’s power supply, power conditioners and load banks that test a facility’s power quality is that the demand for data centers is only continuing to grow.
And data centers remain the top client type for companies that specialize in power-quality and -reliability products and services.
“In a bad economy, people have to find a way to make a buck,” says Vierra. “One way companies can do this is to increase their efficiencies. The growth of data centers is driven by this. Colocation, cloud providers—all these things are happening because people are finding that storing their data offsite is simply a better way to do it. It’s not as costly as having a server room in your building.”
The growing popularity of cloud services is an important driver of the growth of data centers—and, as a result, companies that focus on power reliability and quality—too. Companies are finding it more efficient to store their data and operating programs remotely, in the cloud. Of course, the data centers are the cloud, the sites where all that company data is actually located.
Vierra expects more companies to turn to colocation data centers as their officials become ever more comfortable with storing their data and programs in the cloud.
And company size is becoming irrelevant, another change that is indirectly leading to more business for manufacturers in the power-quality and -reliability fields.
“We are even seeing over time that the smaller guys understand this, too,” says Vierra. “It used to be that you’d see the bigger players turning to colocation data centers. The smaller firms would have their servers in their offices. Now we see them, too, adopting the colocation approach. We’ve seen a lot of businesses going to the cloud to save a buck. Well, we’re the people behind the cloud.”
Ed Spears, a manager in the technical marketing and power quality division of Eaton Electrical, says he, too, has found that the power-quality business is one that is continually growing. Spears estimated that this industry is growing by 5% to 10% every year.
Of course, the growth of data centers has helped. But so has the growth of other businesses that can’t afford either power loss or fluctuations in their power supply. Consider medical providers, automated factory floors, businesses that rely on sensitive electronic controls. Such businesses continue to grow. And such businesses need reliable power.
“I remember when we were worried when computer systems were getting smaller and smaller and needed less power,” says Spears. “We assumed that the demand for our products would be smaller, too. We assumed that our products would barely be needed any more. But during the last 20 years, this has all changed. The requirement for computer services, the demand for computer services, has far exceeded any drop in our business that might have resulted from computer systems getting smaller.”
Reversing the Energy Efficiency Shift
Ross Ignall, director of product management with Edison, NJ-based Dranetz, agrees that the demand for reliable and quality power is only increasing.
He should know. The company for which he works, Dranetz, provides both power-quality products—such as electrical safety testers, multifunction meters, and data-acquisition tools—and power-monitoring systems. The company’s software helps building owners and managers analyze power-quality issues—issues such as surges, flickers, and spikes—and find solutions for them.
Ignall, though, is particularly interested in one of the less-talked-about reasons for the growth in his field: the shift from companies focusing on energy efficiency to these same firms now concentrating more heavily on power quality.
During the height of the Great Recession, businesses and municipalities became focused on saving money in whatever way possible. During this time, “energy efficiency” became a much-used phrase. Building managers knew that their bosses wanted them to shave as much money as possible from their yearly operating budgets.
One way to do this? Decrease the amount of power that their buildings and facilities
Boosting energy efficiency is certainly a laudable goal. But, as Ignall says, it shouldn’t come at the expense of ensuring that a facility’s power supply is reliable and of a high quality.
“This has changed today. Today, businesses realize that they can’t lose power,” says Ignall. “They are using highly sensitive equipment that can be damaged by fluctuations in voltage. This equipment is expensive. Today, then, we are seeing the direction swinging back to power quality and reliability and away from energy efficiency.”
This means steady business for companies like Dranetz, companies that promote power monitoring as an essential tool in guaranteeing a reliable and high-quality power stream.
It can be a challenge still, though, to sell building owners and facility managers on the benefits of power monitoring, Ignall says. Clients have accepted the fact that equipment such as UPS systems and power conditioners are important; such equipment, after all, keeps the power on and protects sensitive and pricey equipment.
But some clients still don’t truly understand the benefits of power monitoring. And that’s what officials with Dranetz and other power-monitoring companies are working today to change.
So far, the effort has been effective. Dranetz is seeing a steady growth in its monitoring business, Ignall says, and companies are recognizing that by monitoring their power supply, they can avoid problems before they become especially costly.
Ignall compares power monitoring to the “check engine” light in a car. “That light comes on, and you know something is not right,” he says. “You might not know exactly what is wrong, but you know that you need to get your car looked at. It’s the same way with monitoring. It allows you to catch problems early on and prevent what could become a catastrophic failure.”
In addition to the mindset switch that Ignall has found, there are several other reasons why businesses and municipalities are turning to companies such as Dranetz, GE, and Eaton to help boost the quality of their power: infrastructure that has aged, and not always gracefully.
“Building owners of sites that include anything that is sensitive to power anomalies—data centers, medical labs, industrial manufacturing—are finding that their problems relating to power quality are on the rise as the electrical infrastructure around them ages,” says Spears. “If they are in a big city or even in a rural area, they have to recognize that their power-quality needs might be changing as the electrical infrastructure that they rely on continues to age.”
These infrastructure problems occur both inside specific buildings and outside in the public grid. In fact, Spears estimates that 60% of all the power-quality issues, everything from spikes to outages, that building owners see originate within their own facilities.
This is why Eaton recommends that building owners or facility managers schedule regular site audits from independent organizations. It’s essential, Spears says, for building owners to bring in outside contractors to evaluate their sites for potential power problems. This is especially important for the owners or managers of older buildings that might not be designed to handle the pressure that high-tech machines place on their electrical systems.
As an example, Spears points to older hospitals. If these older buildings are being retrofitted with more modern CT-scan or MRI machines, hospital officials should order a site evaluation to make sure that their electrical systems are up to the task of supporting this newer equipment.
“You might have a data center moving into an old building that might have once been a warehouse or manufacturing facility. That can lead to potential or actual problems with an infrastructure not set up to handle the demands placed on it by a data center,” says Spears. “A site audit will find those potential problems. The people doing the audit will also recommend any upgrades or procedural changes that can lessen these possible problems. There may be power-quality equipment needed to limit their exposure to power issues.”
Of course, not all buildings have the same power needs. This is an important factor in determining in what type of power-quality equipment building owners and managers should invest.
“We need to educate building managers on what power quality is,” says Szalkus from GE. “Power quality is very general. It means different things to different people. A lot of what it means depends on the applications taking place inside a building. If I am a credit-card transaction company, fewer milliseconds of power outage can be tolerated. If I’m a movie theater with backup power, I can take hours of power interruption and my business can continue to thrive.”
After performing a site audit, then, building managers need to determine what power solutions their facilities need. As Spears says, some managers might decide that they need battery backup to protect against outages. Others might choose power conditioning or UPS systems.
It all depends on whether managers need solutions designed to help them ride through a very brief outage or if they need equipment to battle voltage spikes or other power disturbances within their own buildings.
Even after building owners and managers decide on a specific power-quality solution, they still have decisions to make. For instance, a building owner might decide that a UPS system is the solution to a facility’s power-quality woes. That UPS system, though, can come in a variety sizes. As Spears says, a UPS system can be small enough to fit under a desk or large enough to occupy the entire basement of a building.
This again highlights the importance of site audits. Auditors will rely on monitoring equipment to study the power quality in a specific building, and then be able to make recommendations based on these findings.
A Turning Point
Szalkus says that he’s seeing more clients turning to a different form of power quality monitoring: Private meters. More buildings owners are installing their own private electrical meters in their buildings. They then compare the readings from these meters to the power that their public utility is saying that their facilities consume.
Is there’s a big discrepancy between the figures? Utility customers now have the information they need to fight for lower power bills.
“I think we are at a turning point,” says Szalkus. “New technology is being brought in. We all know the lifecycle costs of this equipment. Owners want to protect this equipment. When that happens, they put in a lot of safety nets. Equipment that monitors power and protects from power anomalies is part of this safety net.”
GE offers several power-quality solutions for its clients. This includes high-tech SCADA systems that can control the power flow throughout a building based on what is happening in the public utility grid. For instance, if the power grid is overstressed, a SCADA system can automatically change the amount of power that a building with onsite generating capabilities produces on its own.
These smart grid solutions are becoming more popular as businesses rely more on expensive and sensitive equipment, Szalkus says.
“If we can get our SCADA to talk to all those devices out in the public grid, if we can have some level of communication with the utilities, we can react to certain outages and protect ourselves,” says Szalkus.
Building owners can even benefit when companies like GE provide smart grid solutions to their public utilities.
Szalkus cites the following example: The local utility might know of a power outage as soon as a customer calls. If one customer calls, the utility might treat the outage as an isolated incident. If 5, 10, or 20 customers call, the utility then knows that it faces a larger problem.
The utility then maps the phone calls, studies its grid map and determines that all 20 customers complaining of a power outage live on a particular section of Adams Street. Once it’s determined this, the utility sends a crew out to search for the problem.
This takes time. GE, though, can greatly reduce this. The company can provide utilities with sensors that ping back to a public utility’s data monitors. When the sensors ping back, they are telling the utility that they are, in effect, alive; they are not facing any problems. When something does go wrong, though, the sensors will immediately notify the utility. Not only that, they’ll tell the utility exactly where the problem is occurring and what the problem is.
The technology can even tell repair crews if a specific capacitor bank has failed, providing these crews with the equipment’s serial number and part number. The GE system then scans the utility’s inventory system and determines whether the utility has a replacement part available.
“What used to take hours of evaluation can now get fixed within an hour,” says Szalkus. “The benefit for the business owner or building manager is that their power now gets restored faster. They can rely less on their onsite power generation. They can turn off their diesel generators sooner rather than later, saving them money.”
As Szalkus looks at the changing world of power generation, he sees a future that includes even more demand for power monitoring and testing.
A growing number of buildings are relying on their own onsite power systems to combat power outages, Szalkus says. Others are installing wind turbines to provide them with an additional power source.
No one knows, Szalkus says, just how this will impact the public grid.
“Say I’m in a big industrial park and more and more of my neighbors are installing onsite power systems and power-quality equipment—will this compromise my power quality? Is the power quality of the overall grid compromised?” asks Szalkus. “The more we move toward renewables, like my neighbor’s wind turbines, or the more we move toward buildings generating their own power with agreements with the local utility to export that power to the grid: What does that do to power quality? Who is watching this? Those are big questions we now face.”
The increase of distributed generation throughout a region means that the customers of public utilities now have more to worry about when it comes to the performance of these utilities’ large generators. For instance, will their utility’s transformers burn out because it is pumping too much secondary power back to a high-voltage line?
At the same time, public utilities today have fewer dollars to spend on upgrading the public grid to help it deal with the growing number of wind turbines and onsite systems sprouting up in the properties they serve.
The federal government’s stimulus money has largely dried up. This means that available funding for retrofits, maintenance and enhancements has lapsed.
All these factors combine for one thing: Building owners will need to invest more money in equipment and services that boost the quality and reliability of the power they need to operate.
“If you look at some of the data, we’ve been tied to some of the same transformers from when your grandfather was around,” says Szalkus. “Your grandfather might not have even been born yet. What we are putting into buildings today are high-speed communications systems. Our demand for power quality 50 years ago was a lot less than it is today. If a phone call dropped 50 years ago, you’d call that person back. Now we raise a big stink if our Internet connection is down for five seconds and our file download was interrupted.”
Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor to Distributed Energy.