FM Issue Bonus: Maintaining Order When The Power Goes Out

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By Brian J. Phelan
This Web exclusive is published here in conjunction with the September 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

It’s a startling statistic: lack of regular maintenance is the single greatest cause of failure of emergency power engine generators. Generator, fuel, and starting systems fail due to lack of maintenance. These are the easiest parts to maintain but the most often overlooked.

A national provider of emergency power solutions held a roundtable discussion on emergency power for healthcare facilities. Hospital facility managers (fms) and consulting engineers who design and build emergency power systems for healthcare facilities shared their experiences about properly maintaining these systems.

Hospitals are mandated to have emergency power systems because they are responsible for “defending in place.” During emergencies hospitals must stay in place and not evacuate, so the building must be designed to protect, or “defend its ground.” It’s important for hospitals to continue to operate during power outages because patients cannot be moved readily to other facilities.

Speaking at the roundtable event about the maintenance practices at his organization, Kevin Deitsch, fm at Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver, CO, said, “We have found that following manufacturer specifications for our emergency power systems is the right thing to do. In our case, keeping our equipment in tip top shape has cut the failure rate to near zero.

“Our electrical system is on a one, two or three year cycle for maintenance, and this includes our emergency power,” Deitsch continued. “For emergency power, we have generators, automatic transfer switches, and paralleling control switchgear under contract. Our protocol for maintenance events takes our team three to four months per function to plan.”

Jerry Petric, partner at Korda/Nemeth Engineering, Inc. in Columbus, OH, said, “Testing and maintenance are very important to ensure the emergency power system remains operational. Both monthly and annual testing of the system is already required by code. Testing with actual loads is better than testing at night when loads are minimal.

“I have heard, on one occasion,” continued Petric, “that a full operational test was not conducted by the manufacturer’s service agency, and the generator failed to start because the selector control on the automatic transfer switch was to the off position. Fortunately, the hospital’s maintenance staff noticed and corrected the problem. This example shows how important it is to test and maintain the system.”

Petric also noted, “Bypass isolation transfer switches are recommended for the critical branch, so transfer switches can be maintained without interrupting the loads being served.”

Dawn Willey, fm for Benefis Healthcare in Great Falls, MT, said, “With our closed transition transfer switches (CTTS), hospital staff doesn’t realize power has transferred. We monitor the sensitive equipment, and the CTTS truly pays for itself, because nothing goes out of synch. Tens of thousands of dollars could be lost if a board on a CAT Scan or MRI fails.

“Before we modernized our emergency power system,” she added, “I was told by radiology that we had ‘bad power.’ They can’t tell me that anymore because everything is in synch. Not being in synch can be incredibly expensive. Think about everything a hospital runs on concerning electronics: security, radiology, CAT scans, operating rooms. And that’s just the big stuff. Then we have the 500 IV pumps, and even our beds have electronic boards that are $1000 each. Nobody wants anything to be down.”

Not all healthcare facilities have been able to keep up with a proactive maintenance plan, however.

Scott Kesler, P.E., director of electrical engineering, OWP/P in Chicago, IL, said, “What we’re seeing is that maintenance hasn’t always been taken into consideration throughout the life of the facility. In years past when staff and budgets were reduced, preventive maintenance didn’t happen. Now, equipment is breaking down, they need to replace it sooner, and it costs more to maintain. Day to day operational costs would have been lower with an ongoing maintenance program. Facilities are really taking note of this and placing renewed emphasis on ongoing maintenance.”

To ensure emergency power systems are properly maintained, hospitals generally follow one of two approaches. The first strategy is to hire and train in-house staff to conduct all maintenance. The other is to contract with outside sources. With the variety of equipment needing to be maintained and its increasing complexity, more hospitals are opting to contract out their maintenance requirements.

In time, lack of regular maintenance ought to move down from its spot as the top cause of failure of emergency power engine generators.

Phelan is director of marketing services for ASCO Power Technologies, located in Florham Park, NJ.

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