November 5, 2012

DISASTER PREPAREDNESS: In Backup Generators We Trust? They’re handy, they’re not perfect.

On Monday, New York University’s Langone Medical Center lost power during Hurricane Sandy, and ended up having to evacuate 215 patients when the generator that was supposed to keep its charges alive and its critical systems running failed to turn on. Across the United States there are about 12 million backup generators. Most only operate during blackouts — times when a hospital, or a laboratory, or a bank, needs electricity and can’t get it from the larger electric grid.

But backup generators aren’t 100% reliable. In fact, they won’t work something like 20%-to-30% of the time, said Arshad Mansoor, Senior Vice President for Research & Development with the Electric Power Research Institute. The bad news is that there’s only so much you can do to improve on that failure rate. The good news: There are solutions that could help keep a hospital up and running in an emergency, even if the emergency power system doesn’t work.

It’s like having a car you never drive. The less you drive ‘em the more they rust.

UPDATE: Reader Will Frye writes:

As one who was responsible for operation and maintenance of backup generators during my 37 year career I can assure you that emergency generation can be a LOT more reliable than a 20 to 30 percent failure rate. Of course like other electromechanical systems they require continual attention. Maintenance and training and testing on a recurring basis are essential.

They are expensive insurance policies for worst case scenarios and management has to understand their importance. If not valued and maintained they will degrade rapidly.

I don’t know what Langone Med Center did to prepare for the storm but if administrators failed to include testing the backup generators in their preparation plan they should be summarily fired. Testing doesn’t ensure the machines will come on line next time but it should make it highly likely.

And reader Billy Rawl emails:

Don’t know about others, but my 25 KW Generac has never failed when I needed it. But like a car, boat, airplane or any other piece of mechanical equipment, they have to be maintained. My worst nightmare is to lose electrical power and have a $10,000 inoperative generator, so I do everything I can to keep it in running order such as maintaining the battery, oil, coolant and make sure it runs for about 20 minutes every week. Well maybe not my worst nightmare. That would be if we get stuck for another 4 years with that charlatan in the White House.

It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to live normally with A/C or heat, lights, computers, TV, stereo, etc. when the rest of the neighborhood is dark and cold (or hot).

It’s probably even more wonderful to know that your ventilator will keep working. And reader Harmon Ward writes:

For dozens of engineering related reasons the vast majority of commercial backup generators run on diesel fuel. In California this has led to regulations which limit how often backup generators can be tested and how long they can be run while being tested. Even at hospitals. Hopefully our Air Quality Management District has factored in the amount of air pollution caused by an emergency evacuation.

Great. I hope that New York didn’t have similar rules.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Christopher Smith writes:

I’m a life long IT worker. I worked at a high availability data center on the weekend shift. One of my jobs was to run the backup generator once a week, take the readings on the 1000 hp diesel engine, check the fuel level, write down the power output readings every 10 minutes for an hour, etc.

A critical emergency generator should not fail to start. If it failed to start when you needed it or failed to provide the power it was meant to provide, that means you failed to properly maintain it.

One would think that a hospital’s maintenance schedule would be particularly rigorous.

MORE: An anonymous reader sends this:

The generator failed because it was flooded. No steps were taken to prevent flooding from the storm surge.

Once under water, there was no way for the thing to work.

Simple sandbagging would have prevented the failure. But no one bothered.

No supporting links, but if true it’s an egregious failure.