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Defending Your School Against Unpredictable Power
By: Duston Nixon

The unpredictable nature of utility power is a growing concern for both businesses and educational institutions. The threat of severe weather is a high concern in many areas of the country, but a new danger is becoming increasingly common as demand grows for energy. Year after year, utility providers are being forced to meet our growing needs with increasingly outdated equipment – often leading to unexpected outages.

A recent article published by CNN points out that utilities in much of the United States are still delivering power with the same equipment they had in the 1960s and 1970s. This means that when the load placed on the power grid becomes too great, providers have no efficient means of avoiding overload situations.

According to research conducted by the University of Minnesota, non-disaster related power outages in the U.S. are up 124 percent since the early 90s. This increased demand resulted in 36 outages across the country in 2006 alone.

What This Means for Educators
A single unexpected power event can lead to a nightmare scenario for a school and its faculty, students, and parents.

Educational institutions face particularly high stakes when it comes to power problems.  Today’s technology allows school administrators new levels of control and communication, but these systems also increase the importance of consistent power delivery.

Security systems such as access control and surveillance cameras are perhaps the most visible example of what can be lost when power goes down. Without electricity, CCTV screens go dark, access controls fail, and emergency notification systems cannot detect fire or other problems. Communications equipment, including telephone and network devices, also depends on clean electricity to function properly. The safety of students and faculty, in turn, is wholly dependent on these systems.

An Offensive Approach
The only way to ensure that power outages will not endanger a school is to take an offensive approach. This starts by ensuring that all peripheral equipment is fed through a quality surge suppressor to protect expensive equipment from power surges and spikes.  For more vital systems, uninterruptible power supplies, or UPSs, provide battery power in the event of an outage. Finally, in mission critical situations requiring large amounts of backup time, gas or diesel power generators are the answer. The most important aspect of any power protection plan, however, should be to eliminate any single point of failure – redundancy can make all the difference.

Surge suppressors are a must for all non-critical peripheral equipment. Frequent surges are a problem for much of the U.S. Even small upticks in voltage can shorten the life of electronic equipment tremendously, and larger events can lead to catastrophic failure without proper protection. The important points to consider when purchasing surge products are straightforward; look for a trusted name, UL certification, the highest joule rating for your budget, and a solid connected equipment warranty.

For more critical equipment (such as desktop workstations, network equipment and security system components), the backup power of an uninterruptible power supply or battery backup is the most cost-effective answer, and there are three types to choose from.

Standby UPSs, or off-line, represent the lowest cost option. This type of UPS features surge protection and backup power by way of fairly simple circuitry, and simply passes utility power through until a power problem occurs.

Line Interactive UPSs represent the “better” option. The most notable difference of these models is automatic voltage regulation (AVR), which will boost power when voltage dips (brownout) and buck power when a surge occurs. This type of UPS conditions the power, removing electronic noise that can shorten the life of equipment and cause application errors and even loss of data. AVR equipped units also offer longer battery life as the batteries are only accessed when power loss occurs.

The final, and best, UPS type is the true On-line. These provide the highest quality power protection through double-conversion of utility power. Incoming A/C utility power is converted to D/C power, and simultaneously conditioned to eliminate noise and other problems. It is then converted back to A/C power before exiting the UPS, and provides true uninterrupted power with no battery transfer time when an outage occurs.

While selecting the proper UPS type is important, proper sizing of the unit is also vital. Sizes are given in both Volt Amps and Watts, which measure the unit’s capacity, and determine the amount of runtime the system will provide for a given amount of electrical load. Most manufacturers provide guides on their websites to make the selection process simple for users. 

The final piece of the protection puzzle is often a backup generator. Like UPSs, these are available in countless models and sizes. Inexpensive and compact portable units can sustain appliances and small systems, while much larger multi-million dollar diesel models capable of supporting entire enterprises for virtually endless amounts of time are also available for critical applications.

Peace of Mind
To ensure the continuous operation of vital components, a comprehensive power protection plan should be constructed, taking into account both budget and runtime requirements. The key point to remember is that outages occur every day. These events have little conscience when or where they strike, and schools face significant liability when problems occur. Luckily, the tools for complete protection are readily available, and prices are at all-time lows, making it possible for every administrator to ensure power problems won’t lead to disaster.

Duston Nixon is marketing communications specialist for Para Systems, Inc./Minuteman UPS, a manufacturer of power protection and management products, www.minutemanups.com.

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