Back-Up Generators Back On Agenda; Not Just A Matter Of Flipping Switch

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It started with Y2K planning and resonated again on Sept. 11: disaster planning, and in particular the debate over whether credit unions need to invest in back-up generators.

"There was definitely a real upswing of interest in back-up generators when credit unions were preparing for Y2K, and even after that didn't happen, so to speak, people started thinking maybe it was a good idea anyway," said Robert Saunders of PWCampbell. "And then after the World Trade Centers got hit and electricity and phone lines were such a mess, well, people are thinking about it again."

The problem is, purchasing and hooking up a generator to run a financial institution during a blackout isn't as simple as running down to the Home Depot, buying the biggest one they've got and simply plugging things into it.

The first step is identifying "mission critical items"-the things that need to be operational even when the utility company is down, according to Roger Ramsey, president of Sys-Tech, a Jack Henry subsidiary specializing in facilities design and construction.

It sounds like a simple process, but Ramsey and Saunders agreed it's a little more complex than it seems. For one thing, Saunders pointed out, some credit unions will over estimate what a single generator can run. "A generator big enough to run a 40,000 square-foot facility is going to cost you six figures," Saunders explained. "You really need to decide what absolutely has to be operable and what can be left off."

On the other side of the spectrum, Ramsey related, is taking into account all the things that rely on one another. "For example, a credit union may decide it can use a smaller generator just to keep the mainframe computers up and running," he commented. "But if you don't keep the temperature controlled in that room, then the computer is going to shut down anyway."

Once the proper sized generator has been selected, fuel sources need to be considered. There's gas or fuel oil, natural gas or diesel, Saunders said, noting there are advantages and disadvantages to all of them. Natural gas, for example, is handy in that there is no need to store fuel onsite, but there has to be a natural gas line to connect into, and if for some reason access to the gas line is cut off-perhaps by the same events that have cut off access to electricity in the first place-then the back-up generator simply won't work.

"Diesel is the most failsafe, but there are some environmental concerns, such as where you will store it and how you will replenish it," he observed.

The location of the generator is also an issue as finding the most aesthetically pleasing means of siting and screening a generator from view can be quite a challenge. Not to mention the problems with exhaust and the noise level.

Beyond that are the more technical issues of ensuring the right type of power is making it to the various things a credit union is trying operate.

"The new systems in the data processing room are so sensitive to frequency," said Dave Goerke of Sys-Tech, who explained that the transfer switches and other step-down mechanisms are required to "clean the juice" that is ultimately being used by the systems at the credit union. "If it's not being sent along in a perfect sine wave, the PC just isn't going to run well at all."

Like anything else with a facility, it's easier to put a back-up generator "from scratch" before a facility is built so it can be incorporated into the very design of the building itself, while retrofitting an existing facility for a generator is definitely more challenging, Saunders advised.

"We've actually had some credit unions, particularly those in the Southeast and on the Gulf Coast where hurricanes can knock out power for quite a while, that have had us build their branches and other facilities with an access point for the generator, then they buy one generator and they can bring it to a particular facility on a trailer," he related. "It's a more affordable option to putting a generator at each facility. It's usually not cost-effective to do for branches. Most credit unions consider this something they do for the main operations center."

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