Ensuring back-up generators come online for hospitals in the event of a power cut

Following the recent power outages across the country, we explore how hospitals can ensure they continue to operate in the event of shutdown

Ensuring standby generators are in good working order is crucial to helping hospitals avoid closures in the event of a power outage

Britain’s recent powercut saw almost a million people across large areas of England and Wales affected in what was the country’s most-severe blackout in over a decade.

And, with Ipswich Hospital investigating why a back-up generator failed to kick in during the power outage;many critical infrastructure providers will now want to check that their equipment is operating as expected should an incident like this occur in the future.

Speaking to BBH following the incident, Jason Harryman, sales and business development manager for electric power-diesel at Finning UK & Ireland, the country’s sole dealer of Cat engines, advises on three key considerations to help ensure back-up generators are working correctly and that any issues are addressed quickly should equipment fail to come online immediately when required.

Testing times

“Whether for public safety, national security, or business continuity reasons; mission-critical facilities must remain operational at all times,” he said.

“Yet, because back-up generators are designed to operate from standby for much of their life; it is important to ensure they are regularly tested.”

Many believe that their SLA will automatically cover emergency call-outs, which is a common misconception

A routine testing procedure of back-up generators should be in place at all hospitals and health centres, he advises.

Indeed, for mission-critical facilities such as these, it is recommended that testing should be undertaken on a weekly basis.

“Mechanical components within the back-up generator containing moving parts must be used frequently in order to make sure they do not become inoperative and faulty,” he warns.

One element that it is particularly critical to test is battery voltage.

“A measurement of the battery voltage during start-up will reveal whether any problems are potentially on the way,” said Harryman.

“For example, if battery voltage is too low, then a back-up generator may not be able to start quickly enough in the case of a power outage, which could lead to serious and costly repercussions.

Inspecting any issues

It is important that facilities managers recognise, and act upon, any unexpected issues that may be identified by the back-up generator’s controller.

This means regularly checking that no reporting faults have been identified, and, if they have, dealing with these as a priority.

“It is critical that any potential issues that the system’s controller might identify around the standby temperature, for example, are investigated,” said Harryman.

Because back-up generators are designed to operate from standby for much of their life; it is important to ensure they are regularly tested

“A hot engine for standby is needed, as it will then deliver load better than from a cold start should sites be faced with a power outage.”

Generators designed to operate from standby will only come online in the event of an emergency. Therefore, they are not in regular use and may not be subjected to the same stringent inspection regimes as other capital plant.

Harryman explains: “When not in use, for instance, a back-up generator’s fuel can become a common issue if preventative measures are not taken, as fuel can become contaminated by water condensation, dirt ingress or rust over time. This can lead to filter blockages, or premature wear of fuel injectors or pumps.

“As a result, it is crucial that the appropriate equipment inspections are taking place.”

Ensure an SLA is fit for purpose

A service-level agreement (SLA) means critical infrastructure providers can be confident that they can rely on repair and maintenance expertise from a trusted supplier so that back-up generators will remain operational no matter what the circumstances are. This provides sites with assured peace of mind, as well as fixed budgeting costs, and should be a consideration for all healthcare facilities.

Nevertheless, it is critical that the SLA is fit for purpose, Harryman warns, and at an appropriate level to meet demand.

“Many believe that their SLA will automatically cover emergency call-outs, which is a common misconception,” he says.

“At the time, many will have been tempted to opt for a more-cost-effective SLA, which might not provide the site with the repair and maintenance support needed.

“This will often be due to the belief that they might have the in-house skills and capabilities to deal with any potential generator issues, and the decision has been made as part of a cost-saving exercise.

“Therefore, it is always recommended that operators check the terms of their SLA and ensure it meets their site’s demands.

“Users should seek a trusted partner with a strong track record of delivering reliable back-up systems, which considers each site’s individual requirements.

“Back-up generators require regular maintenance and testing to ensure they are operating properly, and this should be supported by a suitable SLA.

“By taking these steps, critical infrastructure providers can be safe in the knowledge that they have taken every precaution and have the right provisions in place should a power outage – such as the one recently experienced in large areas of England and Wales – occur.