By Gary Thomas
In the past decade violent and destructive storms such as Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 have decimated the infrastructure of numerous American cities and communities. But Hurricane Katrina in 2005—which has been credited with 1,836 deaths, forced relocations of 1.5 million people over several states, property damage of $81 billion, and a total economic impact exceeding $150 billion—may be the “model” most studied and evaluated in recent history
The serious repercussions of Hurricane Katrina, and those that followed, prompted legislative actions by federal and state governments. In addition to financial recovery and clean-up assistance, new laws include emergency provisions (i.e., alternate generated power) to ensure availability of gasoline, commodities, and cash for residents and travelers. To accelerate compliance, state-funded financial incentives are being offered, ranging from $2,500 to $13,000, depending on the state and the type of equipment installed.
Introducing legislation to require gas stations to have backup emergency generators, New York State Senator David Carlucci echoed the sentiments of victims who have been trapped by the storms: “In the direct aftermath of hurricane Sandy, we found out how vulnerable and isolated we can become when there is no plan in place to deal with the repercussions of a gas crisis.”
Following Florida legislation enacted in 2006, several states have passed laws that require gas stations near designated evacuation routes (e.g., within one-half mile of an exit) to have “…appropriate wiring, including a transfer switch, to enable them to access an alternate generated power source during a power outage…” (cga.ct.gov/2011/rpt/2011-R-0389). Application of states’ laws may vary regarding (a) existing vs. new or completely rebuilt stations, (b) the number of hours in which stations are required to be operational using alternative power sources, and (c) a requirement that they have an on-site generator and other equipment features. The laws don’t dictate which kind of generator (permanent, mobile or rental) or transfer switch (manual or automatic) are to be installed or made available, but it is stated that the installation must be done by a licensed electrician.
Rich Thompson, director of marketing for Generac Power Systems (generac.com), pointed out that two-thirds of the nation’s 149,000 gas stations are independent, single-store operations and for them acquisition costs generally drive the product decision. A manual transfer switch is viable because it makes the station “generator-ready” without actually absorbing the cost of owning and maintaining a complete backup unit. “If and when a generator is needed, the operators will either buy a mobile generator locally or rely on a rental,” he said. Additionally, for a small chain of stations, a couple mobile generators can service multiple locations, as long as the power requirements aren’t on demand concurrently.
Having worked with ESL Power Systems, headquartered in Corona, Calif., on a national bank chain project, Phil Qualls, president of Tandem Electric in Ft. Myers, Fla., has seen an increase in manual transfer switch and generator awareness and demand.
“In the past 18-24 months, banks have started to include them in their new designs. For all new banks coming out for construction, the manual transfer switch is just part of the design documents,” he said. Qualls also noted that he has recently installed manual transfer switches at three locations for a major convenience store chain that includes gas pumps as part of its retail footprint.
Randy Carsten, sales manager, industrial markets, for ESL Power Systems, reiterated Qualls’ observation about the banking market. For instance, even though motorists may wait in line for hours to fill up a gas tank, vacationers may not only need gas, but also need extra cash to pay for lodging and meals as they endure the storm.
“Banks can’t afford to be down. When credit card machines are inoperative, customers need cash and they most likely rely on banks and/or their ATMs to get it,” Carsten said. Pre-emptive planning for such emergencies requires strategic placement of generators and transfer switches. Critical to choosing manual transfer switch equipment, he added, is to ensure proper UL listing, sizing, and safe installation. If full operation is required or safety is a concern, Carsten recommends that a self-contained, quick-connect manual transfer switch be considered. “It’s built for heavy duty operations, but doesn’t require a more expensive permanent generator,” he explained.
Bill Ragozzine, owner of Entire Home Generators in Oxford, Conn., noted that installing manual transfer switches is a routine process, taking two electricians a day or less to install. He added that, in addition to residential applications, demand for generator and manual transfer switch combinations is on the rise with convenience stores as well. “Even if the stores don’t remain open for business during the storm, store owners can’t risk losing their refrigerated inventory because of a utility power loss,” Ragozzine noted. “Having an inexpensive manual transfer switch installed as back-up and access to a mobile or rental generator is a reasonable economic choice.”
According to Thompson, legislation for back-up generators and transfer switches will ultimately spread to applications beyond gas stations and to other storm weary regions of the country. Healthcare (such as hospices, hospitals, pharmacies) and lodging industries have also shown interest in similar mandated emergency backup regulations. Lobbying efforts will no doubt ensue, he added.
Although most transfer switch and generator manufacturers sell through electrical distribution, the episodic nature of the need for these products has resulted in limited strategic focus by distributors. The extreme destruction caused by recent storms, the pre-planning for standby power alternatives now being put in place by corporations, and the proactive legislative actions by state governments may elevate electrical distribution’s awareness of potential and predictable opportunities.
Gary Thomas is principal of glt & associates (gltworkshops.com). He can be reached at 203-209-9072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Tagged with tED