How to protect your IT power from deep-freeze disasters

It may be too late this time but there will always be another major power outage. Be ready with a power disaster recovery setup.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Millions of people and businesses were left without power in one of the nastiest and coldest winter storms to hit Texas and the Midwest ever. That same deadly combination of cold, snow, and wind also crumpled the Texas power grid leaving homes and offices to sink into inside temperatures in the 30s. We can't do anything about that now, but this is a powerful warning that we should make sure we're ready for the next major power failure.

Also: Extreme weather forecast? Essential gear for when the power goes out

Because it will happen. That's not a possibility, that's a promise. 

The most common cause of declared business disasters is power failures. These can be caused by overwhelmed electrical grids, and by hurricanes, fires, and floods, too.

Sure, you can turn off what you can before the uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) die, let everything else crash, and then drink until power comes back on. Of course, that's not a good plan. Unfortunately, that's often what happens.

A better one is to deploy uninterruptible power supplies and pair Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) signaling and software such as APC's PowerChute Network Shutdown (PCNS) clients to automate your equipment shutdown routines. 

Another way is to support your data center with utility power from two or more substations. For example, the Seattle Westin Building data centerr has multiple 13.4 kV utility feeds from diverse power substations and multiple 480V 3 phase transformers vaults. The entire critical infrastructure is backed by a dual 500 kVA UPS system with 2N redundancy for when utility power goes out. Its 17 diesel generators can generate 19.5 MW of electricity to provide emergency power on the prolonged power outage.

Now that, my friends, is how you make sure your data center keeps working short of an asteroid strike. 

There isn't a "one size fits all" approach. You should ask for and get a custom-designed generator plan for your data center. Besides being tuned for your specific needs, generators must be capable of jumping to full speed in moments and accept full-power loads without impacting the load performance.

It's not enough to have your own generators. These must also be protected. For example, putting your generators on the ground floor in a flood plain is a dumb idea. Just ask the technicians at New York's Broad Street data center whose backup generators' fuel tanks were in the basement during Superstorm Sandy. When these were flooded out, a "bucket brigade" relaying 5-gallon buckets of diesel fuel up 17 flights of stairs to the generator was the only thing that kept Peer 1 Hosting from drowning. 

It's not just your data centers that are in danger when the lights go out. These days when so many of us are working from home, we need real power backups at home as well. Since it seems a sure bet that many of us will never return to working from a conventional office, your business should give serious consideration to diesel and gas power generators, solar power, and batteries for the home. Or, if your company won't provide them, give real thought to buying them for yourself.

Even as the cold is still freezing many of my friends and colleagues in Texas, the Midwest, and the South, power generators are getting most of the attention. There are several kinds of home generators, but for our purposes, what you want is a whole house generator, aka a home standby generator.

Ideally, these should provide: 

  • Automatic emergency backup power within seconds of an outage. 
  • Blackout protection seven days a week, 24-hours a day. 
  • Use an easy-to-access, existing fuel supply such as natural gas, diesel, or liquid propane. 
  • Can power your entire home or just supply electricity to a few designated circuits. 
  • Conduct weekly, self-diagnostic tests. 

If you live somewhere you can count on severe weather, such as blizzards, ice storms, fire-season, and hurricanes fork over the money for a permanent home standby generator system. If you're reasonably sure you'll only face occasional outages, look for a portable generator. 

The home generators are not cheap. The equipment itself will start at $2,000 and you can easily spend over $10,000. Then, on top of that, you must pay for installation. Portable generators, at the high-end, can cost as much as $2,800. But the top-of-the-line models can support an entire home. On the other hand, wiring them into your home can cost as much as the generator itself. 

To take care of a typical home, you'll need about 5,000 Watts. To work out in more detail, use the Kohler's home generator sizing calculator.

My recommendations, based on comments from friends and Consumer Reports, for home generators, include:

For portable generators, look at:

If all you need is something to juice up your smartphones, look into portable power stations.

You should also look into solar power. No, it won't help while you're in a blizzard or hurricane, but when you pair them with a house battery, they can keep you in power. There's a great deal of variety when it comes to solar panels and the companies that install and support them. Check your local companies to find the best deal for your area.

When it comes to batteries to back these up, you have several good choices. The ones I recommend aren't meant to take you off the grid. Their job is to supply you with AC power and can be charged by your local power utility or by solar. 

None of these are cheap. But, you need to ask yourself how much do you need your power when the power lines are down or your electrical utility fails you? For many of us, they're worth the money. 

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