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Volume 32, Issue 3

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Monday, 16 September 2019 20:53

When Disaster Strikes: Electrical Considerations for Disaster Planning

Written by  ED SPEARS

Product Manager, Eaton

Significant events like hurricanes, floods and explosions can cause companies to experience enormous loss of property, production and revenue – not to mention threats to personnel safety. That’s why it is essential to have a preparedness plan in place to ensure that business operations can resume in a rapid and safe manner.

While disasters can impact companies and facilities in a variety of ways, this article will focus on two important aspects of disaster planning: power outages and electrical safety. We’ll look at the impact of blackouts across different industries as well as what businesses can do to avoid downtime and ensure electrical safety when disaster strikes.

Impact of blackouts on the bottom line

From severe weather to cyber attacks, power outages happen for various reasons and their impact is far reaching. Over the past decade, Eaton’s Blackout Tracker has logged more than 32,000 separate power outages across all 50 states. In 2018 alone, Eaton registered 32,149 outages nationwide, affecting more than 212,491,272 million people for a collective 1,950,490 minutes.

The costs and consequences of power outages are often difficult to calculate and can vary depending on the industry. A 2016 Ponemon Institute study estimates that the cost of a U.S. data center outage has grown to $8,851 per minute. The toll scales even higher for healthcare organizations, which face an average cost of $690,000 per outage, according to Ponemon, and this number increases when considering the impact on patient care.

Disturbingly, S&C’s 2018 State of Commercial & Industrial Power Reliability report found 18% of companies experienced a loss of more than $100,000 as a result of their worst outage, while half of customers endured outages lasting more than one hour over the past year. The same survey revealed that 25% of companies reported experiencing at least one outage per month.

A snapshot of notable events from the last couple years reveal that power outages impact organizations across a variety of industries. Even the nation’s most prestigious universities are affected by unexpected power cuts, which can leave students and teachers on campus in the dark. Manufacturers and financial service companies also suffer significantly from blackouts, as well as industries that deal with perishable products, from food to pharmaceuticals. Not even our bustling airports are immune from outages that can bring operations to a halt.

Industry case study: Data Center

A 2018 assessment from Uptime Institute offers insights on power management trends and current challenges with a focus on data centers. The report found that while data centers are managing power better than ever before, there’s been an increase in the rate of power failures. The Global Data Center Survey, which probed nearly 900 data center operators and IT practitioners from facilities of all sizes, reveals that power usage effectiveness (PUE)—a measure of the power needed to operate and cool a data center—reached an all-time low of 1.58.

This compares to an average PUE of 2.5 in 2007, 1.98 in 2011 and 1.65 in 2013. The Institute also exposes a concerning trend of power outages on the rise. In fact, the number of infrastructure outages and “severe service degradation” incidents increased by 6%, representing 31% of surveyors who have experienced an outage at their own site or at a service provider’s site.

These discoveries draw questions about whether placing so much focus on PUE and efficiency is somehow leading to more—and bigger—outages. While acknowledging it’s possible the two are related, Uptime officials stop short of correlating the findings, and instead suggest a different cause for the increased number of failures: the trend toward data center consolidation. Officials say as organizations move workloads from secondary to primary sites in a time-intensive process, they often fail to invest in the secondary site that’s being decommissioned. As a result, wear and neglect creep into a data center, increasing the likeliness of failure.

Another source for potential problems is the cascading effect when one data center failure leads to others. In fact, 24% of Uptime survey respondents say they have been impacted by outages that occurred across multiple data centers. This glitch can happen between two private data centers or in a hybrid situation where an on-premise center connects to a third-party provider, such as Amazon or Microsoft. Furthermore, the Uptime Institute predicts that the number of outages caused by cascading failures could escalate even higher as companies increasingly adopt multiple cloud services strategies, coupled with a growing interdependency of multiple IT services. While a hybrid architecture can make an organization more resilient, it can also decrease visibility and accountability with the potential of leading to more outages.

Every industry faces a unique set of challenges, and data centers are not the only targets dealing with evolving IT demands and an expectation for 100% uptime. The examples of major power disruptions underscore the need for power backup solutions to protect against and minimize the impact of downtime.

Critical components of a backup power system

To avoid the dangers of unplanned downtime, businesses should have an integrated system in place for power management and disaster preparedness. For starters, an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) – typically deployed in conjunction with a backup generator and a power distribution unit (PDU) – can deliver reliable power during outages so that critical IT functions can stay up-and-running. These systems help companies avoid data loss and hardware damage by providing availability for networks and other applications during a power event.

As the movement toward hybrid IT environments continues, monitoring software is now an essential piece to the power management puzzle. Additionally, some companies utilize virtualization infrastructure, which can be combined with power monitoring software to streamline and maximize their capabilities. By aligning power management solutions with common virtualization management platforms—like those from VMware, Cisco, NetApp, Dell EMC, HPE, Nutanix and Scale Computing—businesses and their IT teams can extend the availability of their services. This function allows teams to remotely manage physical and virtual servers and power management devices all from a single console

Making safety a priority

Another major consideration when it comes to preparing for disaster is ensuring electrical safety before, during and after disaster strikes. Unfortunately, this topic is rarely given the attention it deserves. Companies often rely on the professionals performing electrical equipment installations – or even on electrical equipment manufacturers themselves – to make their infrastructures safe. But the reality is that everyone has a part to play, and this is especially true for disaster planning.

Electrical systems are typically designed for functionality, aesthetics, easy maintenance, efficiency and safety, but with so many competing priorities safety doesn’t always get the focus it needs. Moving to a safety-by-design strategy with electrical systems can help modernize infrastructure and ensure safety before a disaster.

The first and most important step to introduce a safety-by-design approach is to take the time to understand the unique circumstances and challenges that a given location might face. This could include auditing current power distribution assets and reviewing critical load analysis, generator connectivity, availability and fuel sources – identifying where the risks occur and how to address them in the event of a disaster. To ensure safety is a top priority, it’s also helpful to consider ways to modernize or update specific equipment that might become unsafe during a disaster and capitalize on opportunities to make these changes.

Following this, businesses can implement an emergency continuity plan within their facilities to identify qualified personnel. They can then draw on data to allow electrical staff to quickly and safely reduce hazards by isolating or putting dangerous equipment in a safe location that limits employee access. Teams must be sure to communicate the continuity plan to the appropriate employees and conduct disaster drills so employees can respond effectively.

Like power backup planning, electrical safety warrants a holistic approach in conjunction with other aspects of the facility’s operation. Structure, plumbing, HVAC and other aspects of facility design play an essential role in safety, and can create hazards if they are not considered in overall disaster planning efforts.

The bottom line

As companies seek to better understand the implications for disasters in their own businesses, it’s important to examine each component of their disaster preparedness plan to ensure they’re protected before, during and after an event. It takes a heightened focus on the front end to avoid downtime and safety issues in the face of an emergency, but the payoff of preparation is worth it. With an integrated strategy in place, businesses and their staffs can rest easy knowing their systems – and people – are covered.