By Mike Elms, Managing Director, CENTIEL UK Ltd

It has been said: insurance is like needing a parachute. If it isn’t there, chances are you won’t be needing it again!  The majority’s perception is that a UPS protects a critical load from power outages.  However, it also provides protection against other supply anomalies such as dips, surges, spikes and brown-outs, to provide clean continuous power to that all important critical load.  It is a bit like an insurance policy.  If at the end of the year there are no problems, then you may think your investment in a UPS has been wasted.  However, one small interruption to that critical load (even 20ms!) could cost you thousands of pounds in business interruption, lost revenue, and potentially most damaging of all: customer confidence.

There are however, a few common misconceptions around UPS systems that may cause that insurance policy not to pay out when needed.  UPSs are sophisticated bits of kit and should be kept in optimal working condition. Firstly they should be installed in a clean, conditioned environment and secondly they should be regularly maintained.

I have found is that UPSs are often thought of as an item of “plant”, i.e. a boiler or calorifier and there is a tendency to dislike having them within the shiny IT environment!   Frequently, we find them housed in dusty basements or unsuitable environments that are baking hot in summer and freezing cold in winter.  I shall never forget visiting one UPS system in what can only be described as a tin outhouse, the internal heat from direct sunlight meant the temperature was in the 40s. The UPS was fine but the batteries were in a somewhat poorer condition…they were so swollen we had to crowbar them apart!  Thankfully this is an exception to the normal.

The next misconception is that UPSs may be considered as ‘set and forget’ systems, they are not!  The UPS and its associated battery system need regular checks and maintenance to ensure they are in optimal condition and, most importantly, will work when you need them.  As people will know from my previous articles, battery systems are a particular passion of mine. There are no ifs, buts, or maybes…batteries must be maintained, the integrity of your UPS depends upon them.  Identifying the condition of your battery system, load bank testing to confirm autonomy performance, impedance testing to establish a degradation trend and replacing a weak block early can and will save you money and protect your critical load when you need it most.

Another misconception is that a UPS is a UPS is a UPS…and can be maintained by a multitude of people.   Would you employ a plumber to do your electrics? Plumbers are highly skilled in what they do, but they are not electricians. I have a particular fascination with plasterers…what an artisan skill that is! Nevertheless, however skilled these people are you wouldn’t ask them to rewire your house…when you switch on the lights you want them to work!    I’ll be the first to admit I’m a qualified electrical engineer but my plastering is abysmal.

We all want best value when spending budget, but UPS maintenance does have a cost and maintenance contracts are a typical exercise in getting what you pay for.  Preventative maintenance is key to keeping your critical load protected and is an important part of the UPS lifecycle.  For this reason, the maintenance scope of works should be agreed upfront between all parties so everyone’s expectations are understood. And then the “correct” price for that scope should be factored into the overall purchasing price of a UPS. A fair price needs to be paid for maintenance, undertaken by qualified engineers experienced with the model of your UPS and provided by a company that holds spares.

When it comes to installation, experience has shown that most UPS systems already in situ are oversized.  Right sizing is important to keep total costs of ownership (TCO) low. Oversized systems cost more to purchase, install, run, and ultimately more to maintain.  Consider this simple calculation, a UPS needs to support 100 computers each at 1kW power as stated on the back of each unit, that’s 100kW.  But does each computer actually draw 1kW…invariably not.  This would result in a UPS being around 60% oversized!  Therefore, it is necessary to calculate the UPS size in relation to the actual load requirement.  Specialist consultants are experts in determining actual load requirements and can make the correct calculations ensuring a right-sized UPS from the outset.  We are happy to employ diversity in designing electrical installations so why not use the same principle in IT loads as well? Add a scalable modular UPS into the mix and you can right-size, and futureproof to a pretty accurate degree.

I suppose the point that I am making is that, a bit like insurance, any old policy won’t do.   A UPS configuration needs to be tailored correctly to the actual load requirement to minimise costs.  Yet, the UPS also needs to be correctly installed and maintained optimally to ensure that parachute opens when needed, and that insurance policy pays out when required.

Article featured in Networks Europe Magazine June 2020

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