Don’t Know What You Got ’til It’s Gone; Why Paying Attention to Backup Battery Power is Important

Chris Mangum, President & CEO
Servato

Power outages are a fact of life. Generally when we think of outages we think about freak weather events or big cities pushed to their generation limits during peak summer hours. All in all, we imagine power outages as events that happen to other people and are highly unlikely to affect us and our businesses. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Outages are increasing in prevalence and impact, and so backup power is taking on greater importance.

If in your business backup power means batteries, remote management and monitoring is an essential component of preventing downtime and not a luxury for rich capital budgets. Below, we’ll examine the difference between a network equipped to remotely monitor and manage batteries compared to one without the technology and how this technology difference manifests during the most critical moments during a power outage.

Figure 1: Power outages from 2009-2016 and trendline. Source: Blackout Tracker: United States Annual Report 2016, https://switchon.eaton.com/blackout-tracker

Figure 1: Power outages from 2009-2016 and trendline. Source: Blackout Tracker: United States Annual Report 2016, source: https://switchon.eaton.com/blackout-tracker

Maintaining Backup Power is Harder than Ever
For those who use backup batteries – telcos, cable providers, railroad operators, oil & gas, etc. – maintaining backup batteries is becoming more difficult for several reasons. First, according to Eaton’s annual Blackout Tracker, power outages are on the rise. 2016 saw the highest number of outages across the country (3,879) and people affected (about 17.9 M). Figure 1 illustrates the rise in outages from 2009 to 2016 with a trendline predicting further increases.

Why is this happening? A confluence of factors explains the rise in outages. First, aging power infrastructure across the country is increasingly pushed beyond its limits. To exacerbate that issue, growing population and consumption increases the strain on the grid. This is in part to the expansion of connected devices that are driving new business processes and penetrating our residences. Finally, extreme weather events are on the rise bringing more risk to communities large and small.

The costs of these outages are rising too. The same Eaton report put the cost of downtime from power outages at more than $9,000/minute and notes that 9 out of 10 large organizations reported at least one network outage in the past year. Cumulatively, the report estimates that $26.5 billion is lost from outages by corporations across the U.S.

To mitigate these issues, backup power allocations in budgets should be improving, but the reality is they are either not growing or being slashed for to accommodate other projects. Companies from telcos to railroads are replacing batteries less often, in many cases leaving batteries in the field far longer than their expected service life.

Even if a company had the inspiration to improve their backup power allocation, they would find it difficult as power technicians constitute a shrinking portion of the workforce. According to Power Engineering Magazine, 40% of the workforce at America’s electric and gas utilities are eligible to retire in the next 5 years. The numbers are similar at telcos and other infrastructure heavy industries that rely on batteries for backup power. With all of these factors increasing risk it’s essential to look to remote management technology to bring automation and reliability to backup power.

When an Outage Strikes
I want to share a real-world example from a rural telco that demonstrates the value of a remote management system for backup batteries during an outage. In May 2017 damage to critical equipment at a power plant led to a power outage for more than 90% of the telco’s network. The telco has approximately 50 sites equipped with strings of 12V VRLA batteries for backup power, as is common in telecom networks. At the time of the outage, 19 of their sites were equipped with a hardware/software solution that provides remote monitoring and management for those batteries including State of Health (SoH) diagnostics and alarms.

Figure 2: Battery fuel gauges in ActiView Battery Management Software from Servato.

Figure 2: Battery fuel gauges in ActiView Battery Management Software from Servato.

The first immediate and major benefit was that the telco could immediately see the approximate run time of all backup power systems where the remote management system was equipped. Figure 2 shows the runtime of the sites several hours into the outage.

At the start of the outage, the expected run time on the 17 sites was instantly is visible in the software with expected battery capacity varying from about 14 hours to dozens of hours. The customer had instant visibility into which sites they should address first based on when they are likely to fail. This allowed the customer to begin planning a course of response including bringing generators to certain critical sites and prioritizing some sites that were likely to see battery depletion sooner than others.

By the next morning it was clear the outage was not going to be resolved quickly and the telco had to prepare for a new set of risks that occur during an extended outage. The first such risk is that batteries that remain fully depleted for too long can enter a state called reverse polarity. Reverse polarity is a condition in which fully depleted batteries cannot recover from discharge and are rendered useless. The possibility of this scenario means that the telco would shift its focus from trying to keep sites up to trying to prevent the cost of replacing an entire network of batteries if they all were to become reverse polarized.

The key part of this story is that the remote management technology provided the customer with information about how to act to aid the sites that had it installed. They could easily shift their response strategies on the fly and still have confidence they were addressing the most pressing sites at any given time. For the remaining 31 sites, they had no such insight and could not make strategic decisions. The result: only 3 remotely managed sites saw reveres polarized batteries which could be immediately diagnosed and replaced in the aftermath of the outage. One month later, the company has yet to triage non-managed sites. They simply do not know where to start the recovery process.

Know you are Protected
Backup power is increasingly critical to our connected personal and business lives. Despite the eagerness to connect just about everything to the internet, the systems for ensuring reliability – backup batteries and rectifiers – often do not receive this attention. If your network or business relies on backup batteries stave off power outages, the time to act is now.

For more information visit www.servatocorp.com

Chris Mangum, CEO, Servato
Chris Mangum is a seasoned leader and entrepreneur with extensive experience in strategy, business development, M&A, innovation and entrepreneurship across a broad range of business models. From 2007 to 2012, Mangum led corporate strategy and business development for CenturyLink. Prior to CenturyLink, Mangum led an entrepreneurial advisory firm that he co-founded in Atlanta called Venture X Group. At VXG, Mangum helped to launch over 100 entrepreneurial businesses representing investments of over $150 million. Prior to VXG, Mangum led a strategic development team for BellSouth, partnering with such early mobile data pioneers as General Magic, Palm, Compaq and QuickSilver. Prior to BellSouth, Mangum was a military intelligence officer in the US Army. 

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