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Powering up your business

The power cuts in August which affected thousands of homes and businesses throughout the country drew attention to the fact that power outages and less serious but still disruptive blackouts can lead to serious issues, particularly regarding computer systems. What lessons can be drawn to ensure that a cut or reduction in power does not have a critical impact on an organisation?

THE BUILDING SERVICES ENGINEER INSTITUTE’S VIEW
DAVID STEVENS,
VICE CHAIR OF CIBSE FM SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP

The UK’s national grid is at greater risk of brown and blackouts due in part to a reliance on renewable sources such as wind and solar, which have less consistency than traditional energy sources and therefore a potential instability in their supply to the grid. Whilst the National Grid states that such occurrences are incredibly rare, local power failures, fluctuations and brownouts are relatively common and an increased risk from cyber-attacks and terrorist attacks is not impossible to imagine.

Hopefully organisations will plan ahead to prevent the damaging implications of power loss or brown outs. The facilities manager must lead this strategy and process, and where in-house expertise does not exist, then outsourcing critical support and maintenance is perfectly acceptable – however the FM should be setting the direction that supports the business continuity plan and ensuring that there is sufficient budget for the required level of resilience and maintenance that supports the organisation’s objectives.

Getting maintenance and the associated infrastructure reliability right is about supporting the core business and ensuring adequate system resilience for essential equipment that the organisation needs to survive.

There will be a balance between what services are to be supported during a power loss, what is essential for trading or reputation protection, and what can be sacrificed – the infrastructure and costs required for full electrical load support is generally prohibitive for even the largest of organisations.

FMs very much need to consider what it is that their organisations can do without, potentially for long periods of time – and where can services be transferred or outsourced away from the affected building. Agile workplaces and those with cloud-based software and file storage are best suited for this location transfer.

A general lack of preparedness by businesses, especially SMEs, can result in loss of trading ability that has devastating impacts on the business. Buildings – like the organisations they host – are unique and often have vulnerabilities with legacy systems, each responding differently to power loss; requiring a tailored maintenance strategy and back up provision to ensure the systems integrity, when called upon in emergency circumstances. The functionality, reliability and availability of these critical assets need to be maintained and capability stress tested on a regular basis.

Uninterruptible Power Systems (UPS), generators, batteries and non-essential load shedding all form part of a resilience system that needs specific tailoring to the unique systems of a building. It’s worth noting that a UPS system won’t keep the lights on, but will support the critical systems until the generators are running and able to take the critical load. It’s important to consider that after a power out, the recovery stage is also often problematic, initially due to a possible inrush of electricity supplies, as the organisation tries to re-establish its systems and operations to full functionality and recover its lost business.

There is a wide range of guidance documents for FMs to upskill in this area, the most useful and reader friendly is the CIBSE Guide M – Maintenance Engineering and Management Guide, with sections on operational risk assessment & management and contingency management, which is available to download for the CIBSE website. 

THE FM PRACTITIONER’S VIEW
LUCY HIND,
HEAD OF PROPERTY AT BARNSLEY COUNCIL

How many times in our sector do we hear “it will never happen to us”? Often has been my experience when it comes to considering risk, mitigation and putting in systems and processes to support business continuity. I have frequently discussed risk and mitigation as part of my day-to-day role looking at ensuring as best we can against any considered threats. Power outages is one that is sometimes overlooked and by some organisations not deemed a threat until something happens.

Today our National Grid delivers reliable electricity to millions of homes and businesses. However, electrical failures that affect large geographic areas, as well as localised outages, do happen on a recurring basis and we live in a modern society where almost everything is run by electricity. Businesses rely on this powerful energy to be able to perform tasks and ensure continuity of service, whether that be a data centre, an office or in a retail outlet. For hospitals and other health-care facilities, however, these power outages can be life-threatening. The one thing all businesses want to avoid is loss of money and bad publicity through failure to deliver service and, this is where generators come into their own providing a temporary supply of electrical energy. Industrial generators were developed to ensure that there is a continuous supply of power in the event of failure on the grid system. Thus, this equipment has the capacity to guarantee an efficient performance to equipment, in case there are breaks to the electric supply.

So why are we still having the debate about necessity? I would say that it is quite simple, until something happens to you or you have experienced an issue within your organisation we still believe that we will not be affected and that it will not happen. Power blips in essence are not an issue – not until they occur. Be aware and vigilant, risks to our business that involve our power supply do happen and for business continuity, generator back up is essential. We must also not forget that once bought and in place these systems need to be set up correctly to provide essential supply to areas of special need. They need to be sized correctly for demand and regularly maintained in line with guidance to ensure that the systems are in full working order and able to provide continuity of business operation. You do not want to have a system in place that fails when it is needed through lack of set up and maintenance… At the end of the day it is vital that we keep the lights on! 

About Sarah OBeirne

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