Will the backup stack up?

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Standby diesel generator

Finning UK & Ireland’s Jason Harryman provides some valuable advice on how to ensure your backup generation kicks in when it is needed, and what to do if it does not…

Standby diesel generator

The major power outage on 9 August saw almost a million people across large areas of England and Wales affected in what was the country’s most severe blackout in more than a decade. With Ipswich Hospital investigating why a backup generator failed to kick-in during the power cut, many critical infrastructure providers such as data centres will now want to check that their equipment is operating as expected, should an incident such as this occur in the future.

Testing times

Whether for public safety, national security or business continuity reasons, mission critical facilities must remain operational at all times. Yet, because backup generators are designed to operate from standby for much of their life, it is important to ensure they are regularly tested.

A routine testing procedure of backup generators should be in place. Indeed, for mission critical facilities, it is recommended that testing should be undertaken on a weekly basis. Mechanical components within the backup generator containing moving parts must be used frequently in order to make sure they do not become inoperative and faulty.

One element that it is critical to test is battery voltage. A measurement of the battery voltage during start-up will reveal whether any problems are potentially on the way. For example, if battery voltage is too low, then a backup generator may not be able to start quickly enough in the case of a power outage, which could lead to serious repercussions.

Inspecting any issues

Do not overlook how important it is to recognise and act on any unexpected issues that may be identified by the backup generator’s controller. Check regularly that no reporting faults have been identified. If they have, then deal with these as a priority.

It is critical that any potential issues that the system’s controller might identify around the standby temperature, for example, are investigated. A hot engine for standby is needed, as it will then deliver load better than from a cold start should sites be faced with a power outage. 

Generators designed to operate from standby will only come online in the event of an emergency. Therefore, they are not in regular use and may not be subjected to the same stringent inspection regimes as other capital plant. 

When not in use, for instance, a backup generator’s fuel can become a common issue if preventative measures are not taken, as fuel can become contaminated by water condensation, dirt ingress or rust over time. This can lead to filter blockages, or premature wear of fuel injectors or pumps.

As a result, it is crucial that the appropriate equipment inspections are taking place.

Is the SLA fit for purpose?

A service-level agreement (SLA) means critical infrastructure providers can be confident that they can rely on repair and maintenance expertise from a trusted supplier, so backup generators will remain operational no matter what the circumstances are. This provides sites with assured peace of mind, as well as fixed budgeting costs.

Nevertheless, it is critical that the SLA is fit for purpose, at an appropriate level to meet demand. Many believe that their SLA will automatically cover emergency call-outs, which is a common misconception. At the time, many will have been tempted to opt for a more cost-effective SLA, which might not provide the site with the repair and maintenance support needed. This will often be due to the belief that they might have the in-house skills and capabilities to deal with any potential generator issues, and the decision has been made as part of a cost-saving exercise.

Therefore, it is always recommended that operators check the terms of their SLA and ensure it meets their site’s demands. Users should seek a trusted partner with a strong track record of delivering reliable backup systems, which considers each site’s individual requirements.

Backup generators require regular maintenance and testing to ensure they are operating properly, and this should be supported by a suitable SLA. By taking these steps, critical infrastructure providers can be safe in the knowledge that they have taken every precaution and have the right provisions in place should a power outage occur – such as the one recently experienced in large areas of England and Wales.

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