Be Prepared: How to Create a Power Outage Contingency Plan
Severe weather affects everyone in the world in one way or another. Whether it’s blizzards, extreme heat, flooding, or hurricanes, dangerous weather events put stress on infrastructure and very frequently lead to power outages.
If your business operates in a storm-prone area, it’s critical to have a contingency plan for a power outage, and that involves having sources of backup power that don’t rely on a connection to the grid.
Hurricane season is upon us, and for those in areas where massive storms are likely to strike, now is the time to plan and prepare. Let’s dig into how.
What Types of Businesses Need a Contingency for Power Outages?
Virtually any business can benefit from having backup power on hand, but some can benefit more than others, and some require it.
Two of the most critical kinds of facilities that need emergency power access are food production facilities and hospitals, both of which are required by law to have backup power available. After all, in the event of a hurricane or other natural disaster, people still need to eat, and people will very likely need medical care. Hospitals are beacons for shelter and safety as well as treatment in an emergency situation, and that power access is critical to their mission.
Food production facilities, likewise, need that power to be able to provide for the area and community.
Other facilities that can use power generation, but aren’t quite as strictly regulated, include:
- Other medical facilities, like doctors’ offices and outpatient clinics.
- Labs of varying sorts, as support for hospitals and other facilities.
- Stores. People still need access to goods and services during an emergency. Right?
- Production facilities, because the demands of the rest of the world don’t wait.
- Electrical contractors because they can’t help others if they’re stuck without power themselves.
- Restoration companies, who go in once a storm has passed and need portable power to do so.
- Municipal facilities, which still need to function in an emergency situation.
- Temporary housing and shelters for those displaced by storm damage.
- Community centers to provide shelter and resources and a place to organize.
Practically any place of business, municipal facility, or public work can benefit from having a power outage contingency plan and the hardware required to back it up.
Why Power Outages are Dangerous
It’s incredible how much of modern society relies on electricity to get things done. The central power grid is a miracle of modern engineering, but it’s not foolproof. Downed trees, downed poles, damage to substations and power facilities, and more can all impact the grid and its ability to support you.
Why is it bad when the power goes down, though? It’s more than just an unscheduled vacation; a power outage, particularly one caused by a hurricane, can have vast repercussions.
- Computer damage and data loss. A separate data recovery and disaster plan is a great thing to have, but it’s even better not to lose power and risk your systems in the first place (and to have redundant, off-site backups in case the worst happens.)
- Business downtime. Any time your business isn’t operating is time when you’re losing money, unable to fulfill contracts, or provide goods or services to your customers. The longer you go without power – like when you’re waiting for half of the state to recover from a hurricane – the worse it is for your business.
- Damage. Hurricanes aren’t just a lot of wind. Heavy winds, heavy rains, debris, and more can all impact a business. Power is required to help prevent damage, protect against flooding, and pump away water. It’s also necessary for rapid clean-up. You’ve likely seen pictures of mold-covered homes and businesses left to languish after a storm; the longer it takes to get power back, the larger the repair bill will be if anything is salvageable in the first place.
- Personnel risk. More extensive facilities may not have many windows, and if a storm cuts out power, it can be difficult or impossible to navigate in the dark. Moreover, it can even be dangerous in facilities with falls, large machines, or other hazards. Power, even if it does nothing else, can provide lights so people can navigate safely.
All of this is setting aside the human risk and cost, which is, of course, mitigated by home protection, care, and disaster plans.
Before the Storm Season: Be Prepared
Preparing for power outages begins long before the storm season rolls around and should start ASAP.
Remember that the worst time to have to track down and buy something like a generator is when a storm is bearing down on you; that’s when everyone else is searching, when store shelves are emptying at a rapid pace, and when your chances of getting an appropriate backup system in place are slim to none.
Start by making a checklist of tools and resources you would need as part of your storm recovery plan and power outage contingency. Here are some ideas:
- Welding machines. Hurricanes can cause a lot of damage, so having a welding system on hand to make temporary repairs can be a huge relief. Make sure you get a machine with multi-function capacity, plenty of accessories, and backup parts, and have at least one person on staff trained to use it.
- Generators. Having a source of backup power is essential. You never know if your access will be down for hours, days, or weeks. Backup generators can be full-facility machines installed in place, or smaller, more portable generators, or both, depending on your needs.
- Heavy equipment. It may be beneficial to have something like a bobcat, forklift, or excavator on hand to move debris, haul aside fallen trees, and more.
- Backup computers. Often, laptops with their own self-contained batteries and portable functionality are ideal. A few rugged, case-clad tablets might be beneficial as well.
- Fuel. Generators consume fuel, as do service vehicles of all sorts. Make sure you have fuel on hand, at the very least, to power your generators. Make sure you keep the fuel refreshed, as well; don’t forget gasoline can go stale and lose potency in as little as three months. Diesel lasts 6-12 on average, and many generators use it.
- Compressors. Many tools can be powered by compressed air instead of electricity, so keeping a compressor on hand can be beneficial as well.
- Protective equipment. This can be things like heavy plywood boards to secure over windows (or steel shutters for a more permanent installation), tarps, tie-downs, bands, and other forms of security to protect assets from blowing away (or walking away after the storm).
Not all facilities will need all of these on hand, but it gives you a good idea of what to think about.
What would be useful, helpful, or downright necessary in the event of a disaster like a hurricane passing directly overhead?
Another thing you should do as part of your preparedness checklist is determine the electrical load you’ll need to support. A generator does you no good if it doesn’t have the capacity to meet your needs.
Our recommendation is to calculate several different load thresholds.
Start with the bare minimum emergency power. This is enough to power lights, safety equipment, mobility tools like elevators if necessary, and emergency HVAC if it’s required for your facility. Add in enough additional capacity to power things like compressors and other tools that may be necessary in an emergency situation.
Next, determine an average “functional” load. This is your capacity if you want to remain open and in operation, even if you’re doing so at a lower capacity. For a store, this might mean keeping the refrigeration on in addition to the lights.
For a production facility, it might mean keeping the critical machines powered up but shutting down fewer necessary accessories.
Third, you want a “maximum capacity” load. This is your full power, all-hands-on-deck, everything-at-work load. This is the primary load you’ll need to cover if you want to operate at full capacity during an emergency situation and is what the backup systems for critical infrastructure will need.
Picking and evaluating generator systems
Once you know your power capacity needs, you can shop for an appropriate generator system with the right amount of capacity and redundancy, as necessary.
Evaluating a generator system is about more than just deciding between a portable unit or an installation or choosing between gas or diesel. You also have to consider factors such as:
- Wattage capacity. Calculating your capacity is critical, which is why we spent so long on it above.
- Type of power. Do you need steady, uninterrupted power, or is some variability acceptable? Will a heavy power draw stress a generator to its limit?
- Battery systems. Will your generator tie into battery backups or another local generation system, like solar? Will they have their own capacity to store some power temporarily?
- Three-phase. While single-phase power is generally acceptable for residential use, commercial facilities and essential buildings will likely need a generator system with three-phase capability. It’s more stable and reliable, but of course, usually more expensive.
Of course, the other factors are still relevant. Do you want an installed system hooked up directly to your building or portable generators you can haul to where they’re needed? Do you want a system to kick on automatically if power is lost, or is manual start okay? Do you want to purchase a system, or do you want to rent something for the storm season and return it during the off-season?
The Storm’s Coming
It’s one thing to be prepared ahead of time, and it’s another to have your plans put into action.
So, have a storm contingency plan, and be ready to implement it. Divide duties and assign them to individuals, and make sure they’re completed.
Once a storm has been named and is on its way, it’s time to put your plan to work. Secure your assets, safely shut down machines as necessary, and make sure your generators are tested and functional. This is your last chance to obtain any necessary items, but remember that big purchases and installations need to be in place already.
You can rent generators, welders, and other tools for the duration of the emergency, but they’re likely going to be in increasingly short supply as everyone else scrambles for their own contingency plans.
Don’t forget to secure physical assets. You may want to have waterproof storage containers available for sensitive documents and electronics in addition to your other forms of physical storage. More than a few businesses underestimate how reliant they are on paper until that paper is soaked and moldy.
After the Storm
In the immediate aftermath of a storm, your disaster recovery plan comes into play. Your generators are hard at work keeping your facilities running. You can put people in place to prevent the loss of assets, either from theft or just post-storm damage. Keep an eye out for shorting equipment or downed lines that can be safety hazards or cause fires.
Once the storm has passed, you get to evaluate your disaster recovery and power outage contingency plans.
What worked, and what didn’t?
What did you need but didn’t have and could obtain for the next time? What challenges did you encounter, and how can you address them in the future?
While we primarily provide welding equipment rentals, we’re also more than happy to offer rental power generators and distribution panels as well. We have a variety of towable, portable generator systems available for rent to suit pretty much any needs you may have during the storm season. The hurricanes are coming, and now is your best chance to be prepared.
Have any questions?