Power problems likely to drag on all year, says expert

Think the power crisis is over once power is restored to Auckland's CBD? Well think again, says one expert. Mercury Energy is disputing a claim by Maarten van Diemen, southern, southern regional manager of American Power Conversion (APC - a supplier of network power protection) that there will be a lot of maintenance work once power is restored.

Think the power crisis is over once power is restored to Auckland’s CBD? Well think again, says one expert.

Mercury Energy is disputing a claim by Maarten van Diemen, southern, southern regional manager of American Power Conversion (APC — a supplier of network power protection) that there will be a lot of maintenance work once power is restored.

“There will be switching back and forth between the old lines and the emergency network to unload the lines that are being worked on. The power could be restored in weeks but maintenance activities will go on even longer after that.”

He says the quality of power during the rest of the year could be low and predicts there will be surges and short power outages and that they will go on for at least the second quarter, and he believes, for the rest of the year.

“The emergency network is supposed to last for the coming 18 months. That’s already a sign on the wall, I say.”

But Mercury Energy engineer Peter Yeung says he can see no reason why there would be more short outages than usual, and that power surges are usually caused by things like drivers crashing cars into poles or construction workers digging into cables - not by maintenance.

“Switching on and off a cable or a circuit does not cause that sort of quality problem.”

Before maintenance on major circuits is done, workers backfeed all of them first.

“That is quite invisible to the customer because all our major circuits have backup, but for lower voltage circuits - which affect a much smaller area and are highly localised - we don’t have the backup as we have in the major circuits. But then when we do maintenance we will have to organise a shutdown and if we have to do that we always inform out customers.”

He says when it does any switching between circuits it’s a big job and is not like switching a light on and off. Planning is done beforehand to ensure the load transfers away to other areas.

“We won’t do it lightly. We do it with extreme caution.”

He says there will be no more surges or cuts than are normally experienced.

He says 1996 statistics show that in New Zealand the average number of short outages (up to 10 minutes) was three a year. Larger outages (one to two hours) occurred on average once very two years.

Van Diemen predicts that the statistics for 1998 will be more like 30 short outages for the year.

He believes the recent power cut has served as a warning to business.

“It’s very difficult to protect against 10-day outages, but afterwards there will be a lot of short dips (where voltage decreases enough to cause computer problems) and short outages. They’ve got time to put UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supplies) protection in place.”

UPS products switch on when the AC power goes off. Without a UPS, power disturbances can create bugs in software, upset a device’s calibration, or damage and destroy data altogether. A UPS will signal when there’s been a problem with the power line and its battery backup will then allow time to exit from applications.

Van Diemen says short power outages and dips can be just as bad as big ones in terms of the effects they have on computer systems.

Even so, in 1997 only about 55% of new servers in New Zealand had UPS attached. This compares to attach rates of 80% in the US, where van Diemen says a UPS is seen as being as essential as tape backup or virus protection.

“In New Zealand they just take power for granted like water from the tap or oxygen in the air you breathe.”

Businesses should be thinking about what components in their systems are mission critical to providing services to customers and take steps to make sure they’re protected.

When power comes back on, even if businesses haven’t lost data, they may still have problems with the reliability of the data.

“The businesses’ entire information integrity should be questioned. They may have lost orders or can’t tell if payments are done yet.”

That’s where tape backup is important, something many businesses do not do regularly enough.

“And really backup is the last resort when problems do occur - UPS is to prevent problems.”

Once businesses have a protection solution, they should redo the exercise every year.

“That’s where most businesses get out of control. They may have done an exercise 10 years ago at the mainframe time and may have put protection in place, but they don’t monitor it and that’s where you become vulnerable.”

He says many businesses just need battery back up for critical systems for 30 minutes to see them through short outages, or they may need a run time of two to three hours for some parts of the business.

For periods longer than about eight to 10 hours, they will need a generator. However because of the cost and inconvenience of maintenance of generators he says it’s probably only necessary for certain business such as banking. An alternative is to have a contract for a generator should you need one.

He says his warnings are not just an effort to get more business for APC.

“Of course business is very important to us but my main objective is helping out our customers and trying to pinpoint the risk that they have.”

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