With more companies getting ready to operate again and empowering their employees to work from home, reliable electricity is essential. But, reliable power is not a given. It can come with a threat to business continuity for remote workers trying to operate from home offices as well as businesses starting to run again.
Aside from the threat to business continuity when the lights go out, there is a risk of damage to computers, other electronic equipment, machinery and manufacturing processes.
“South Africans need to become more energy independent. Not necessarily off the grid, but independent,” says Nick Oosthuizen, Managing Director at Inframid, which provides Electrical Energy Efficiency Consulting and Program Management Services.
He advises companies, institutions and individuals to be careful about buying solar combined with battery backup systems before first weighing up the costs of backup power versus only Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) systems versus UPS systems connected with renewable energy such as solar.
“Don’t confuse your UPS requirements with your backup needs. Backup power ensures that your total energy pool is covered in the event of a power failure. This means that you will have electricity to source power to all the energy-using systems your business needs to keep operating. However, within that pool, there is a load which cannot be lost for even a few seconds; otherwise, there is a significant risk of losing critical systems and information. This critical load is where UPS systems are needed to provide a seamless transition during the changeover to the backup power supply.
Certainly, a UPS can be used as backup power if the essential installation is small. But UPS systems can be costly and they only last as long as their batteries last. If your total essential load is minimal, as in the case of a small house or small office, a UPS could be used as a backup energy source. However, you would need a bigger battery to run it for more extended periods.
“Likewise, for bigger installations and when more extended periods of uninterrupted power supply are required, a large battery will be needed, and it becomes costly. This is when a UPS with an alternative backup power source makes more sense.”
When considering UPS systems, Oosthuizen says it is vital to understand which part of the energy load would require a seamless transfer of power. In other words, know the total demand and how much of that requires an uninterrupted power supply to avoid the risk of damage or loss of valuable data.
A UPS will be needed in the following scenarios as seamless transfer and bridging the gap between the electricity mains going down and the backup power source taking over:
- In the home, for computing, security andcommunication systems; and equipment such as DSTV decoders which causes high levels of inconvenience.
- In schools, for educational computing systems, administration systems and IT applications such as CAD which are necessary especially during exam times.
- In general, to power electronics that could be damaged by power dips and surges.
- In the manufacturing industry, to prevent loss or damage to tools such as mouldings etc. In some of these cases, a few seconds downtime can take hours to clean and restart.
“For backup in the IT classroom, they would implement a UPS because they require backup only for the classroom. In the event of a power outage, the UPS takes over seamlessly and lasts for say 30 minutes. So, if the outage is less than 30 minutes, the UPS can also be considered as a backup. However, during exams the school needs to hire a generator to cater for possible longer power cuts. In this case of the school, a backup generator with a local UPS is the most cost-effective way to support their energy needs, both during exams and normal tutoring.”
He says that localising UPS systems in this scenario is more sensible than centralising a UPS on the main power supply but should be considered on a case by case basis. UPS systems can be localised on every office or classroom where uninterrupted power is essential. Less costly backup power can then be implemented more centrally to provide electricity for longer periods.
Cost-effective backup power solutions include diesel, petrol, steam and gas of which the refilling can be controlled. Sun-powered energy such as solar panels is an option, but alone it is not a reliable source to use as backup power for essential loads since it is reliant on sunshine. And, the addition of batteries is costly.
A feasibility study is recommended to understand all aspects of the total energy demand, identify which parts require uninterrupted supply, determine the most cost-effective options for backup power and consider renewable energy sources to lower energy costs.
Oosthuizen concludes: “Don’t confuse UPS and renewable energy with backup power as it could cost you dearly. UPS systems are necessary, but they can be expensive if they are called to provide backup power for your entire load. The golden rule is to localise your UPS and centralise your backup power and grid tied renewable energy as much as possible.”