What to do when the batteries run out

Techs often assume that management understands details about how backup power systems are supposed to work. For example, does your business owner have a clear picture about how long the batteries will last on your UPS? I found out the hard way that he had no clue when the power went out in our business for a few hours one day.

Most small business server rooms have at least one Uninterruptible Power Supply. Of course the intent of a UPS is to provide power to the servers, switches and internet connections in case of a power failure. The UPS also helps to regulate power and keep it clean from surges, spike, sags and brownouts. The more servers and network equipment you have, the more UPS units you will probably find in the server room.

In a small business with only a few servers, the UPS usually provides just a few moments of battery power to allow you to shut down the servers gracefully when the power fails. Some UPS units can be programmed to automatically shut equipment down in case of an extended outage. Without spending an arm and a leg and with careful calculations, you can purchase enough UPS juice to power your server room for several hours.

If you really need it and can afford it, you can buy UPS units for larger server rooms that will power your equipment for five or six hours. Most UPS batteries have to be replaced every few years so be sure to budget for that. If your servers are mission critical, invest in a diesel generator. I've never worked for a large enough company that wanted or needed this kind of power, but I know that it is a major investment and expense.

Educate management on UPS expectations

When I joined my current organization, I happened to come on board at a time when there was some construction going on down the street. Somebody required more power than the city could provide so they were adding additional capacity in the underground conduits. It seems like we were experiencing power outages every few weeks. Most would last only a few moments so the servers never shut down.

One day, the power went out unexpectedly. The outage lasted longer than our batteries could provide the needed power for the servers and they began to shut down. Our phone system is located in the server room and is also plugged into the UPS units. When the batteries were exhausted, we lost our phone service. I was shocked when the President came running over and asked why the phone system stopped working.

I tried to explain that the batteries had run down but he acted like that was the first time he had heard that such a thing could happen. "You mean they aren't supposed to last for more than an hour?" I replied in the affirmative and watched his face turn red. "We've got to do something to get the phones back online now!" I told him I had nothing to offer and reminded him that he did not want to invest in a diesel generator.

A unique temporary solution

When I said generator, his eyes lit up and he ran back out of the building, barking orders as he went. I followed and could not believe what I was hearing. I work for a private jet charter company. My office is in a hangar and I work about 100 yards from the ramp where the jets load up and taxi down to the runway. The boss was telling some of the crew to back one of the jets out of the hangar and fire up it up.

He then had me run some extension cords from the auxiliary power unit on the jet, into the offices and down to the server room. Yes, he was burning fuel that cost hundreds of dollars an hour to power a phone system. I could not believe it. He would not invest in a generator but was willing to burn fuel in a GulfStream V in order to make sure callers to our 800 number could get through. Amazing! I had to shake my head in disbelief.

I guess I shouldn't have been so shocked by the idea of spending hundreds of dollars to save a few phone calls. When you figure a client who charters jet aircraft is willing to pay $4,200 to $7,500 an hour for the plane and crew, what's a few hundred dollars? We are not the only private jet charter business working with the rich and famous of Hollywood. If our phones are down, they will just call our competition next door.

Summary and conclusion

Yes, I know that there are lots of solutions that would allow us to transfer our incoming 800 calls to another location. I suppose if you have it set up in advance, you can even have each individual line transferred to somebody's cell phone. A better solution is to sign up with a company that hosts your phone system offsite - in essence, a virtual phone system. Of course you still need power to the switches for VoIP to work.

Did the boss agree to spring for the generator after this little episode? No. He figured it was worth it to just power up another jet if we go through a long power outage again. I guess I can't blame him. Who wants to go to all the trouble and expense to get the permits to store fuel on-site and to arrange contracts for guaranteed replenishment? If we were in the ISP business of course we would do that, but we just sell jet airplane time.

Someday, we are going to get hit by "the big one" here in Southern California. Everyone knows it is coming but I suspect that many businesses will not be prepared to be several days without power. Of course, what good is generator power for your phone system and servers if the T1 is broken somewhere in between here and the ISP? Personally, I'm more concerned about how the freeways will hold up in such an emergency.