With blackouts threatened this winter, we consider how real the risk is and how your business (especially the IT system) can prepare.
But first, a bit of context: Long, long before I was involved in computing, I was an electrical engineer. (In fact, I’m a 4th generation electrical engineer, with my great-great-grandfather being born only a few years after the Institute of Electrical Engineers was formed) – so I’ve got a bit of probity in this area.
How big is the risk?
My first thought is whether the risk is as serious as some media reports imply. For example, we live on a semi-rural road right on the edge of an overhead distribution network, and, like many non-urban households, we know full well that if a storm gets up there’s a high probability that the lights will go out.
So, would a planned blackout be any more disruptive? Probably not, especially if the blackout was pre-planned.
To prevent blackouts, the distribution network will, most likely, try and trim demand by the biggest consumers first – for example, industry and transportation – perhaps by arranging to reduce their activities during the peak hours (typically mornings and evenings) which is when domestic customers are at home and active.
Since business hours are generally between these times, the likelihood of blackouts impacting workplaces is going to be reduced; but with the recent increase in ‘Work from Home,’ this traditional pattern may need to be reviewed.
A bit of preparation will go a long way
I’m seeing a lot of discussions about backup generator systems, uninterruptable power supplies, and alternative energy generation such as solar, but are any of these options realistic, or even practical?
• Solar. Since solar panels require daylight to generate power, and we’re in the depths of the UK winter, the generation potential is going to be very limited.
• Backup generators. These all need a fuel source (typically petrol, diesel, or bottled gas) which will need to be stored. They also need to operate outdoors or in a well-ventilated area, and then the power needs to be delivered to the point of use. By the time the generator is set up, started and the extension cables in place the power may be back on …
• Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS). If you have an on-premise server then you probably already have a UPS protecting it against power blips, transient blackouts, and other assorted nasties that can wreak havoc with sensitive business software. They’re effectively a big battery backup – but bear in mind that their primary purpose is to keep the server running for just long enough to implement an orderly shutdown of the system and programs, and not as a substitute power source for normal operation.
Less obvious impacts
Beyond lights and computer power, here are a few things to consider.
• Internet routers need power, so network connections will be down as well as internet-based telephony.
• Traditional telephone lines will probably work (providing you have a wired telephone) but DECT cordless handsets will be off.
• Central heating may be gas-powered, but the controls and pump all require electricity, so this will be off as well.
Get ahead of the crowd
Now is the time to consider a low-cost ‘Blackout Preparation Pack’. Don’t wait until everyone’s trying to buy power banks and LED lanterns (remember how difficult it was to come by webcams when the Covid lockdown kicked in).
My top 6 tips
- Have a laptop ready – laptops are basically a PC with a very efficient UPS attached and will continue to operate normally for several hours without mains power
- Invest in a ‘MiFi’ unit – a portable Wi-Fi hotspot that connects to the mobile network and allows several computer devices to share the connection
- Invest in a rechargeable ‘power bank’ unit and keep it powered up – this will allow you to recharge mobile phones, tablets, and even laptops when the power is off
- Have some rechargeable LED Lanterns ready – LED technology has transformed portable lighting, and its extremely low power consumption means no more dangerous candles or oil lamps (plus you could recharge them from the Power bank)
- Keep your smartphones charged up, and perhaps get their batteries changed if they don’t seem to last as long as they used to.
- Have a little gas camping stove ready – ideal for boiling a kettle or even warming up beans
With this set – all of which might also come in handy for use on holidays and when travelling – you should be able to last through temporary power outages without undue expense or complexity.
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