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Make sure your battery backup doesn’t leave you in the lurch when you need it most

03 August 2015

By Marco Da Silva, Managing Director for Power Solutions, The Jasco Group

Power problems are a reality in South Africa for the foreseeable future, and many organisations have already implemented solutions to minimise downtime and ensure business can continue as close to normal as possible. Common equipment to enable this includes Uninterrupted Power Supply’s (UPS’) with battery backup that benefits in a number of scenarios. This type of system either provides enough time to safely shutdown equipment that may be damaged by sudden power cuts, bridges the power gap for the switch to generator power, or powers critical equipment for a few hours. The battery is essential to the successful use of such a failsafe, however, what many organisations forget is that no battery lasts forever, and they have a limited lifespan before they must be replaced. If the battery fails, the entire backup power solution is at risk. It is therefore critical to monitor the health of batteries to ensure your battery backup will not leave you in the lurch when you need it most.

Batteries have a limited lifespan and can only be used a certain number of times before they will cease to hold a charge, which means they will be unable to perform their intended function. General wear and tear and usage will also inevitably deplete a battery’s capability, and the general expected life of a UPS battery is typically between three and five years as a result. However, the life expectancy of the battery is greatly affected by a number of factors, which can be controlled to ensure you get maximum usage from your battery. Failing to account for these factors can also cause premature battery failure, leading backup solutions to fail themselves, often at the most inopportune moment.

The physical location or environment of the UPS battery is an important consideration. A temperature-controlled environment is ideal, as temperature can have a significant effect on the life of a battery. In addition, the UPS should ideally not be located in areas of high humidity, very dusty environments, or areas where it may be exposed to corrosive chemicals or fumes. Ventilation is important, and the openings on all sides of the UPS must not be covered.

As mentioned, temperature is a critical factor when considering UPS batteries, specifically the ambient temperature in which the battery is located. Most UPS batteries are lead acid batteries, which operate best at an ambient temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. Keeping the UPS in an environment that is as close as possible to this ideal will maximise its life expectancy. If the temperature is too high, the battery will bulge, damaging the cells, resulting in the requirement to replace them. If the battery is kept at a consistently low temperature, the cells will begin to crystallise. Both scenarios result in degraded performance and a reduced life span over time.

Poor charging practices can also negatively impact a battery’s life expectancy, as both over charging and under charging can affect performance. The recommended charging time of most UPS batteries is 10 hours, however suppliers may undersize chargers in an effort to save costs. While this will bring down the initial price of the solution, it will cost more in the long term, as batteries will need to be replaced more frequently.

UPS system design is critical in ensuring maximum functionality is achieved. In fact, a poorly designed system could destroy the batteries in as little as a few months, and since a battery is around half of the total cost of a UPS solution, this is a costly error. In addition to correctly designed systems, it is also essential to ensure that batteries are proactively monitored and maintained in order to address any issues before they can become problematic. For applications where uptime is mission critical, including hospitals, financial institutions and security organisations amongst others, it is recommended that a permanent online monitoring solution be installed on all batteries. Such a solution is self-contained, meaning it will not be influenced by other equipment, and will manage and measure all relevant aspects of the battery, proactively sending out alerts to possible failures or issues.

Permanent, proactive battery monitoring solutions make use of historical data that is continuously monitored by the second in order to assess the status of the quality of the batteries in the field. By applying this methodology one can immediately determine the risk associated with the possibility of batteries failing, the approach and technology algorithms allow one to forecast risks. This ensures that battery backup is continuously maintained to optimal levels, and will never fail without warning, preventing the potentially catastrophic consequences of such an event.