Emergency and Standby Power Systems for Commercial Buildings
December 26, 2022
Public buildings and commercial facilities often have an emergency electrical source installed in case of power outages. This emergency power source keeps critical electrical components operating during an emergency. Rural residential properties often possess a smaller emergency power generator for the same purpose. But residential standby power systems are relatively simple. For commercial facilities, however, emergency power systems are far more complex, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.
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Emergency vs. Standby Power
There are three types of backup electricity systems available. Code officials dictate which type of standby power system can be used in a particular jurisdiction. Covering every single legal requirement for which elements must be included in an emergency power supply is beyond the scope of this article. But we’ll give a brief overview to give you an idea of the differences and similarities.
Emergency Power Systems
Emergency power systems give buildings backup power if normal power loss occurs. This emergency electrical source is a code requirement and must generate power within 10 seconds to all life safety systems. This includes things like egress lighting, fire alarm systems, elevators, smoke evacuation systems, etc. In general, anything that protects the life and safety of occupants should be connected to emergency backup power.
Additionally, emergency power systems need to be separate from the general power source. Code requires them to have dedicated conduit runs, separate panels, transfer stations, and similar electrical components.
Standby Power Systems
Standby power systems come in two flavors, one of which is legally required and the other which isn’t:
- Legally required standby power systems — this backup power system is a code requirement that must provide an automatic power source in case of normal power failure within one minute. It’s not a fully separate system but is required for hospital equipment, ventilation, heating, building automation, and communications.
- Optional standby power systems — these aren’t code required. They must provide backup power to operations the building owner deems necessary during an outage. Optional standby power systems are often used to prevent data or monetary loss.
Backup Power System
A commercial power backup system is ideal for productivity but isn’t always financially feasible to install. Often, keeping every electronic device connected to an emergency power supply isn’t cost-effective, and productivity gains will simply go to paying for emergency energy consumption. However, all commercial buildings must have certain operations connected to emergency backup power as required by code officials.
Mainly, this includes things like lighting for egress stairwells and pathways. Power for sprinkler systems must be available in case of an outage, as well as fire alarm systems. Hospitals, radio systems for firehouses, police stations, and emergency responders must also have access to emergency backup power.
Optional standby power systems will always be popular for things like refrigeration in commercial facilities. But it’s important to cut back on convenience usage during an emergency, especially if the power outage is expected to last weeks.
A backup generator for a commercial building runs off fuel and generates electricity to power devices and systems. You can use a turbine-style generator. But a reciprocating emergency power generator is ideal because it’s energy efficient and quicker to start.
Compared to a residential generator, whole-building emergency backup generators for commercial use are large, complex machines. In addition, they store more fuel and power a larger number of devices critical to commercial operations. Testing and maintenance of these generators is critical for ensuring an emergency power supply system works in the event of an outage.
The type of fuel used for generator power systems depends on the generator’s make and model. Usually, the most common types of fuel used to power a generator are diesel, gasoline, natural gas, and liquid petroleum. Diesel is the most common because it’s the safest to store.
It’s critical that you have enough space to store the fuel required to power the generator.
Day tanks are usually placed next to the generator, ensuring a fuel supply is immediately available all the time. Larger structures may require a bulk storage tank, which pumps fuel into the day tank to ensure constant operation. You’ll need to mix the fuel periodically to prevent degradation and settling.
Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)
Having a UPS for power outage is critical for situations where waiting ten seconds isn’t possible. Power systems UPS is meant to provide uninterrupted power for critical life and death operations.
This type of system acts as an intermediary between a power outage and backup electricity systems. Often, a UPS for power outage system is connected to a computer that stores vital financial information and data, preventing catastrophic loss or stealing.
There are two main types of UPS systems:
- Battery storage — a battery UPS is the most common type used for commercial facilities and is ideal for managing smaller loads. It operates off at least one, and sometimes more, rechargeable batteries. Emergency battery backup power with this type of UPS system requires meticulous maintenance. Since the system operates with a battery, it has a short lifespan, so you’ll want to ensure that it’s always charged fully.
- Flywheel storage — AKA a rotary UPS system, fly-wheel storage systems use electricity generated from a built-in rotating component. Usually, larger facilities use this type of system since it can handle a larger load than battery storage systems. Additionally, fly-wheel systems last longer. In some cases, up to 30 years, but maintenance is more extensive and downtimes are longer.
A UPS for power outages is ideal for generating immediate power in an emergency while waiting for a backup generator to get up to capacity. It’s essentially clean power that’s good for protecting sensitive equipment and electrical systems. Since a UPS system protects devices from surges and drops, a separate power conditioner isn’t required.
The Importance of Redundancy
When designing a backup power system for a commercial facility, you need to meet both your business and regulatory needs. In that case, redundancy keeps you from relying on just a whole building generator or a UPS system during power outages. Redundancy helps you determine the number of power supplies that need to be spread throughout the load. The two most common redundancies are n+1 generator redundancy and 1+1 redundancy.
The N in N+1 generator redundancy refers to the number of components required. The +1 refers to the additional unit that’s added to ensure continuous power in case one or more backup power supplies fail. An example of this would be if your commercial facility required three backup power supplies, then a fourth supply would be added to N+1 redundancy. The added generator wouldn’t start during an outage. Instead, it would only kick on if one of the primary generators failed to start.
In 1+1 redundancy, there are two separate power sources. Each source can generate the full amount of power required to service critical devices. With a 1+1 system, both generators stay active and ready to go, with one designated as a primary power source and the other ready to start if the first power source doesn’t work. But this system is less efficient than an N+1 generator redundancy system where the generators remain active and operational 24/7.
Importance of Generator Safety
Installing a transfer switch is vital when you are designing a backup power system for a commercial building. A transfer switch allows both standard utility power and backup power through without letting both power sources in at the same time. For example, when the generator starts, the transfer switch turns devices off from power sourced from the utility company immediately.
Without the transfer switch, simultaneous power use from two sources would create a backfeed. Backfeeds are incredibly dangerous for service technicians who are trying to restore power. In addition, a back-feed resulting in a power overload can damage generators and electrical devices and components once power is restored.
Regardless, it is critical that you work with an experienced electrician and electrical services provider when designing emergency power systems for your commercial buildings. Incorrect configurations can seriously injure or even kill someone, in addition to risking the viability of your generator and electrical devices. The price for making any mistake here is far too high.
Why Is Emergency Power for Business Necessary?
Designing and maintaining an emergency power supply system is vital to your business operations and occupant safety, data, and financial privacy.
Prevents Data Loss
If your facility stores private customer data or is otherwise data-intensive, then you need to maintain a constant power source for critical systems so they can remain online. In this case, you’ll need a backup power supply to kick on within ten seconds to prevent that loss of crucial data. Additionally, adding a UPS system to your backup power supply will ensure that your emergency power source remains uninterrupted.
Profitable companies aim for increased productivity. Maintaining an electric power backup system reduces downtime and protects your business' productivity. Costly power disruptions halt crucial, profit-generating business operations and can seriously hurt your company’s revenue streams. But installing a generator power supply will ensure workflows remain with minimal interruption.
Power failures can severely impact your business operations and hamper productivity. But that’s not all. A power outage can also damage or even destroy sensitive and vital equipment like security systems, computers, appliances, etc. Downtime is bad enough, but costly repairs on top of it can put a major dent in your bottom line.
For many companies, it isn’t possible to back up the entire building if the power load is too high or otherwise too expensive. In these situations, it’s best to do a cost-benefit analysis and determine which system or systems are most critical to your business and should get top priority for appropriately-sized backup equipment. Performing a load study can ensure equipment is sized correctly for the intended purpose.
General Requirements for Commercial Occupancies in Canada
The IBC sets strict requirements for commercial occupancies in Canada and backup power sources. Owners must install standby power systems and emergency power systems in compliance with the following codes:
- The National Electrical Code (NFPA 70)
- International Fire Code (IFC)
- NFPA 110 and 111
- Stationary Engine Generator Assemblies UL 2200
Additionally, uninterruptible power sources must be used if the manufacturer, equipment listing, code, or standard requires.
Exit signs must be placed on every door besides the main entrance to a room or building. The sign must be located either over the door or next to it. Exit signs must be used in the following capacity:
- For buildings in excess of two stories
- Buildings with an occupant load of 150
- Rooms or floor areas with a fire escape as a designated egress
Also, the exit sign must be clearly visible, have the words exit or sortie displayed in easy-to-read lettering, and be continuously lit when people are in the building.
You also need to ensure that the exit signs font is written in red with a contrasting background or vice versa. Letters must be at least 114 mm tall with a 19 mm stroke if the exit sign is lit internally. However, if the sign is lit externally, the coloring rules are the same, but letters can’t be under 150 mm high with a 19 mm stroke.
If the sign is illuminated with an electrical circuit, the circuit must be dedicated to emergency equipment and connected to an emergency power supply.
For egress illumination, property owners will need to provide emergency power and lighting systems at least 10 lx at the floor or tread level in the following areas:
- Principal routes providing access to exit in an open floor area
- Corridors accessible to the public
- Corridors that serve patient sleeping rooms
- Corridors serving classrooms
- Underground walkways
- Public corridors
- Floor areas or parts thereof where the public can gather
- Group A, Division 1 occupancies
- (ii) Group A, Division 2 and 3 occupancies having an occupant load of 60 or more
Also, emergency lighting needs to provide lighting of at least 10 lx at the floor or catwalk level. You’ll also need to include it in service spaces referred to in Sentence 188.8.131.52. (7). The minimum value of the illumination required by Sentences (1) and (2) must be at least 1 lx.
Voice and Alarm Communication Systems
According to the National Building Code of Canada, voice communication systems are required by Sentences (7) to (10), Subsection 3.2.6. or Clause 184.108.40.206.(14)(f). A voice communication system must include the following:
- A two-way means of communication with the central alarm and control facility and the mechanical control center from each floor area.
- Loudspeakers that are operated from the central alarm and control facility, and designed and located so that transmitted messages are audible and intelligible in all parts of the building, except in elevator cars.
Additionally, the voice communication system that Clause (1)(b) refers to must be able to broadcast pre-recorded, synthesized, or live messages.
Elevators Used for Emergency Operation
When a fire alarm sounds, most elevators are engineered to return to the ground floor. But, elevators designed for firefighter use are key-operated and either the fire service or emergency personnel control them. In some locations, these particular elevators are meant to safely bring people down to the ground floor.
During the 2003 International Conference on Tall Buildings, “the desire for increased egress (exit) capacity of tall buildings to facilitate simultaneous evacuation has rekindled interest in elevators as a secondary means of egress for all occupants.”
So, the Committee TC178 of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) identified at least 12 countries that require firefighter-controlled elevators in tall buildings. Tall buildings are those higher than 30 meters. These buildings must provide the fire department access and the ability to safely evacuate people with disabilities.
Emergency Responder Radio Coverage Systems
Commercial facilities must be properly equipped with systems that enable first responders to efficiently communicate throughout the building during a fire, medical emergency, or domestic threat. Regardless, emergency responders can’t be put in a dangerous situation where their radios aren’t working. It’s crucial that emergency responder radio systems can work everywhere in the building and during a power outage.
These systems must continue operating in hard-to-reach locations like elevators, basements, stairways, and thick-walled areas. It’s important to keep in mind that LEED-certified buildings outfitted with low-E glass can block signal coverage.
Adequate in-building signal coverage for emergency responders is a requirement. As such, almost every jurisdiction will have local ordinances and codes enacted, making building-wide signal coverage mandatory. It is the responsibility of the building owner to test the equipment and install a system that is up to code and ready to use at all times. Ultimately, the location of your facility and the local authority’s code and ordinances will dictate what specific system you’ll need to install.
Smoke Control and Ventilating Systems
A building’s age and construction will determine the particular type of smoke control systems it needs to have installed. Usually, a smoke control system is made of pressurization fans and additional devices such as automatic door openers or relays to disable make-up air units. All of the devices in a smoke control system are connected to a fire panel and operate immediately if the system goes into an alarm state.
According to the Ontario and National Fire Codes, a smoke control system needs to be tested regularly to ensure it is in working order at all times. Buildings must keep records of these tests to prove compliance. If the system isn’t up to code, then the building is subject to an inspection to be performed within about one month to fix any issues.
Special Purpose Horizontal Sliding, Accordion, and Folding Doors
If your facility has a high-speed door installed as an egress, then you’ll need to have the following to achieve code compliance:
- Manual operation through door counterbalancing — the door should be easy for anyone to open from either side. The force to put the door into motion should be 30 pounds or less and shouldn’t be over 15 pounds to open it.
- Breakout panels — you should be able to break the panels by hand in case of a power outage. The force required to break the door panels should be 30 pounds or less. The force required to push the door panels open to the minimum height and width for each opening should be 15 pounds or less.
- Backup power supply — the door should have an integrated standby power supply that’s electrically monitored. It must open to a height of at least 80 inches, with a minimum width of 32 inches within ten seconds of activating the door assembly. Also, the door needs to remain open until power is restored in fail-safe mode. Installing a backup power supply as a standalone option is subject to approval from code enforcement.
When Is Optional Standby Power Recommended?
In commercial buildings, some loads don’t need standby power, according to certain legal requirements. When designing an emergency power supply, you’ll want to work closely with emergency electrical consulting services to install a system that will meet your needs, occupant safety, and code requirements.
Power outages often mean that refrigerated items will spoil in a short period of time. In office buildings, this isn't much of an issue. But if you own a restaurant or hospital, losing expensive supplies to spoilage can be devastating. So in this case, you’ll want to install a standby power system even if it isn’t legally required in your jurisdiction.
Water Pumping Systems
Access to clean water is a must for commercial facilities. If your building relies on a water booster pump, you’ll want to install standby power. Otherwise, a power outage can seriously hinder your ability to service the upper floors with clean water for bathrooms and kitchens.
Networking infrastructure and information technology are critical components of modern commercial operations. Usually, these components require little in terms of energy expenses and electrical needs. But without them, operations grind to a halt. You’ll need to supply emergency power systems for these key components.
Air conditioning units require a large amount of generator capacity and providing them with standby power can be costly. But in some cases, losing air conditioning in a power outage can significantly disrupt operations. The additional cost of installing an emergency power supply for air conditioning units may be worth it, especially for retail stores and eateries.
Codes are meant to maintain the structural integrity of a building, its critical systems, and occupant safety. Systems that become defunct in the event of a power outage can have massive consequences for your commercial activities, as well as endanger workers and occupants. It’s for this reason that you’ll need to explore your options for installing an emergency power supply that fits your business needs, budget, and code and safety requirements. This is what MNA Quality Consulting Ltd. can help ypu with.
Get in touch with our experienced electrical consulting team to design the right emergency power system for your commercial facility.
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