Alexa, turn the electricity back on!

June 11, 2020
Daniel D. Chapel, AIA, NCARB

Dan Chapel is president of Chapel Associates in Little Rock, Ark., a nationally recognized firm that has participated in the design of more than 500 veterinary hospitals, boarding kennels and animal shelters. Past projects include two Veterinary Economics Hospitals of the Year and several Merit Award winners. Chapel is a nationally recognized expert in the field of veterinary architecture, and has served as a featured speaker on topics of animal facility design at all major veterinary conferences.

Supplements, Hospital Design360 June 2020, Volume 1, Issue 1

Consider these factors if you’re thinking of purchasing an electrical backup generator for your veterinary hospital.

What do ice storms, tornados, hurricanes, high winds, blackouts, wildfires, uprooted trees, rolling brownouts and power grid problems have in common? Each of these events can leave your veterinary hospital without electricity during critical surgeries or treatments. Other consequences include lab refrigerators warming up, no heat or air conditioning, hospitalized pets untended, and nonfunctioning security systems, computers and internet. A power outage also means that clients may not be able to contact your hospital.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average duration of an electrical power outage in 2017 was seven hours. And you don’t need to be located in Tornado Alley or a coastal hurricane zone to be at the most risk for an outage. California leads all states in the number of outages, followed by Texas, New York, Ohio and Michigan.

Obviously, no matter what your location, every veterinary practice needs a preparedness plan to remain functional during emergencies. The continuation of electrical power is a critical component of that plan. The days of preparing for power failures by stocking up on bottled water, candles, flashlights and batteries are long gone. Today, too many necessary practice functions rely on electrical power.

An increasing number of animal care facilities are investing in electric generators that will provide sufficient power to operate anything from basic practice essentials to the whole hospital during power failures. But there are several decisions that must be made before you make the investment.

Identify essential systems and equipment

What do you need to keep your hospital operating? Do you want to power the whole building, or can you function with just a few selected systems or areas in operation? This decision will certainly affect generator cost, convenience and emergency hospital function. Consider your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems; medical equipment and major appliances, such as refrigerators and freezers; lights (interior and exterior); computers, internet and other office equipment; and alarm systems.

To determine what size generator your hospital needs, you must calculate the total number of watts that are required to run each electrical system and appliance that you want to power. This important calculation should be performed by an experienced electrician or electrical engineer. Then a generator with a rated wattage equal to or larger than the wattage total will be required.

Types of generators

Two types of generators are suitable for animal hospital emergency electrical backup: permanent standby and mobile. Each has benefits and drawbacks, so make an informed decision based on your circumstances and how much power you‘ll need if the lights go out.

Permanent standby generators

This type of emergency generator is obviously the ideal choice for animal facility use. These generators remain permanently outside the hospital. They run on an existing fuel source, either liquid propane or natural gas, so there’s no refueling, and they can generate enough wattage to re-energize your hospital only seconds after it loses power. That‘s because the permanent generator works in conjunction with an automatic transfer switch to monitor incoming electrical voltage. When your hospital‘s power goes out, the transfer switch will disconnect the main utility electrical line and connect the generator to restore power within seconds.

Due to the amount of power that permanent standby generators can provide—and the 24/7/365 certainty of response—they carry a hefty price tag. Like most technologies, however, they continue to become more affordable. A licensed electrician must install these generators, and your local utility company must be notified that you have a backup system in place.

Mobile generators

Mobile generators can provide partial power to large hospitals or full power to small hospitals. For clarity, these generators not the small portable generators one sees in use at campgrounds, tailgating or for home emergency use. These trailer-mounted generators can be owned by the hospital or rented from a commercial generator company. They are generally stored off site and transported to the hospital when needed. This might be especially useful if a permanent standby generator cannot be installed on the hospital grounds owing to zoning or other considerations.

Because these generators must be delivered and manually started when the power goes out, the time lag between the power failure and the delivery and connection of power to the hospital is a major shortcoming. Once on site, the mobile generator is connected by a cord to a manual transfer switch subpanel off your main circuit panel. As with standby generators, a licensed electrician must install the transfer switch subpanel, and your local utility company must be notified. Mobile generators run on gasoline, diesel or propane and must be refueled periodically during operation.

Before you buy

Determine any utility requirements, planning department regulations, noise ordinances or building codes. Ask your utility company and local building departments if they have regulations that govern the use of emergency power equipment. Specifically check the requirements for the use of automatic or manual transfer switches or mechanical disconnecting means to ensure the safety of power company personnel working to restore power. Permanent standby generators should always be installed by qualified technicians in accordance with utility company regulations and local and national building and electric codes.

What’s the warranty?

The standard warranty for generator systems typically ranges from one to five years depending on the generator type. It’s a good idea to understand the warranty duration and coverage of your standby system, and ask for upgrade costs if you prefer increased coverage.

Conclusion

Before selecting or installing any electrical generator, speak with an experienced electrician, electrical engineer, your utility company or generator sales consultant who knows exactly what kind of generator will work best based on your needs. Regardless of which type or size of backup generator you choose, it’s a significant investment, but one that many veterinarians are willing to make to keep their hospitals and their patients safe and comfortable during the darkest of times.

Dan Chapel is president of Chapel Associates in Little Rock, Ark., a nationally recognized firm that has participated in the design of more than 800 veterinary hospitals, boarding kennels and animal shelters. Past projects include two Veterinary Economics Hospitals of the Year and several Merit Award winners. Chapel is a nationally recognized expert in the field of veterinary architecture, and has served as a featured speaker on topics of animal facility design at all major veterinary conferences.

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