Hurricane Sandy Shows Why Businesses Need Reliable Backup Power

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-11-04

Hurricane Sandy Shows Why Businesses Need Reliable Backup Power

Sometimes the lines stretch for miles. People come from far away to get the one precious commodity that they need to make life livable—gasoline. People carry containers for their home generators and they arrive with empty tanks in their cars. On the way, they pass dozens of darkened service stations that have plenty of fuel to sell, but they lack one essential thing—electricity.

In New Jersey, New York and elsewhere in the Northeast, nothing so quickly demonstrates just how much life has changed for the residents who lived through the pounding from Hurricane Sandy and must now live through the recovery. But in the meantime, they must live. These people need to cook their food, refrigerate it and stay in touch with the world. To do this, they need electricity and it’s the one thing they don’t have.

Unfortunately, too many of the essential businesses that could provide fuel, food and necessities, ranging from cash to clothing to cleaning supplies and medications, are closed. While some along the shore were destroyed by the force of the storm, many are undamaged and could open today if only they had electricity. And while commerce existed long before electrical power, today business depends on computers, point-of-sale terminals, lighting, refrigeration and mechanical equipment—such as gas pumps.

While it’s still possible to attach some businesses to temporary mobile power systems, these systems are getting hard to find. What’s needed to maintain your continuity of operations is a plan for emergency backup power. “They need a business continuity plan,” said Terry Dolan, executive vice president of Generac Power Systems. “Power is so important in today’s world.”

But how many businesses realize just how critical electrical power is to the long-term survival of their business? Probably not too many. “I don’t think many businesses try to vet out what their lives are like without the power,” said Andy Gagnon, senior sales support manager for Briggs & Stratton, the company that builds General Electric commercial backup power systems under license from GE. “What does it mean for their business and their customers? What does that mean for my business going forward? A small business especially, I don’t think a lot of those guys think about this,” Gagnon said.

Dolan said many businesses don’t plan for standby power systems because they think they can’t afford it. But in many cases, he said, this is not correct. “It’s not a huge investment,” he said, noting that many small businesses can be set up to run their essential services for around $15,000. “Compare that with the loss of revenue and products,” Dolan said.

Gagnon said that businesses need to look beyond the capital expense of the generator unit itself, and focus on the value of staying operational. “From a structural perspective, what kind of revenue loss would they have?”

Hurricane Sandy Shows Why Businesses Need Reliable Backup Power

Business should consider the cost of spoilage for products that need refrigeration and the loss of other products that can’t be sold and compare that with the value of being able to sell the products while earning significant good will from being a critical resource to the community, Gagnon said.

He also acknowledged that while many businesses have insurance to cover loss of products and operations, insurance costs are usually reduced substantially when the insurance company knows that you have emergency power and won’t immediately sustain inventory loses because of a loss of power.

But there’s more to it than that, Gagnon explained. “What kind of business are you perceived as, when you’re the guy providing your services in your community? Like the guys in Jersey that have gas available today,” he said.

Problem is, you don’t just go to the store and buy a generator and hope that will help you keep your business running. As is the case with everything else, you have to buy the right generator that’s the right size for your business. “The first thing you have to understand is what your essential needs are,” said Craig Staples, president of Staples Electric in Fairfax, Va. Staples is heavily involved in helping plan emergency generator implementations. “You may have to use it only once or twice a year, but you have to keep up with your future needs.”

Staples suggests making a bare-bones wish list of the things that are absolutely essential to keep your business in operation. Then, make a list of things that would be nice to have, but that aren’t essential. He said that you can add things until you reach a load threshold where you need a bigger, more expensive generator.

“You have to go through a mock scenario,” Staples said, noting that there is an alternate. “If you just went through an experience recently, you may have found what your essentials are. Otherwise you have to go through a mock-up. You include computers, lighting, servers, etc. Everything you really need, plus room to grow.”

The next step Staples suggests is to write it all down and let the electrician and engineer compute the load factors.

Gagnon agrees. “The best advice is to make sure they understand what their business power requirements are,” he said. “Get a local dealer and do an evaluation to decide what they keep running.”

“You need a profile of the business,” said Paul Bowers, Generac’s vice president of sales for the industrial power business. “What do you want to back up? Does it need to be the entire business and full operation or just critical loads? Sizing becomes very important.”

Dolan said that deciding what’s critical depends on the business and that it takes someone who is a licensed professional to size the system accurately. On the plus side, he noted that the result should be a backup power system that’s properly sized and doesn’t waste money.

Dolan also noted that it doesn’t take a hurricane to need backup power. “Power outages happen every day,” he said

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