Poor power quality: don’t take the risk

All types of irregularity in the electricity supply have the potential to impact a given business through its effects on IT infrastructure. In turn, this places both the company’s revenue and reputation at risk. Power supply conditioning is the answer for end users, as Rob Morris explains.

At some point in time most of us have experienced a computer ‘playing up’. Maybe the file we want to access is determined not to open. Perhaps a specific document isn’t printing or the computer’s simply running a lot slower than normal.

Computers in public places – for example card readers and those underpinning supermarket checkouts – can also ‘act up’. Many people will have had a bank card rejected even if they were in the black, or they might have watched the shop assistant wave a product over the scanner without it being added to the transaction.

Not only is this a source of annoyance for the consumer, but it can also be embarrassing as well. Will the customer who has been embarrassed want to return to the store in question and risk a repeat performance? Let’s not forget, either, the resultant frustration experienced by customers who had to wait in the queue behind.

What many retailers fail to realise is that this isn’t just a case of the till or Chip and PIN machine malfunctioning. It could actually be due to the electricity coming through the line. The power emanating from the grid may have been reliable enough for computers and other electronics in the past but, as equipment such as this becomes more sophisticated, it also becomes more sensitive to variations in the power supply.

All types of irregularity in the electricity supply have the potential to impact a given business through its effects on IT infrastructure

All types of irregularity in the electricity supply have the potential to impact a given business through its effects on IT infrastructure

Poor quality power can be something as big as a power cut or something entirely unnoticeable (such as a small surge or ‘spike’). Either way, all types of irregularity in the electricity supply have the potential to impact a given business through its effects on IT infrastructure. In turn, this places both the company’s revenue and reputation at risk.

What is poor power quality?

The electricity that comes from the grid isn’t always reliable. Sometimes this can be obvious, for example during a power cut. However, such events are rare. Smaller variations are much more common. Some of these variations – the power surges that blow fuses and dips that cause the lights to flicker – are less visible. Often, though, the problems caused by poor power quality are seemingly invisible.

Tiny variations in electricity can cause IT systems to be disturbed but rarely are the problems attributed to power quality. In a restaurant, for example, food orders may be lost or incorrect. If situations like this happen regularly, it might be easy to blame the Electronic Point of Sale (EPoS) system.

Not only is the power that comes from the grid unreliable, but disruption can also result from equipment already inside the building. In a restaurant, it could be caused by the flash freezers. In a supermarket, cardboard crushers may bring about variations in the power. Even a printer can send tiny surges through the power lines which serve to wear away components in other electricals.

Poor power quality manifests itself in three ways commonly known as ‘The 3 Ds’ of power quality:

Destruction
While big surges blowing up circuits might seem like something from a cartoon, there’s a distinct possibility of this occurring in real life. When a fuse blows, it’s because the electricity flowing through it generated enough heat to melt it. The design aims to protect vital equipment from power surges but it’s often the case that damage has already been done before the fuse melts.

Retailers don’t need to risk their reputation with poor power quality. Some have already seen the benefits of back-up power supplies and surge diverters

Retailers don’t need to risk their reputation with poor power quality. Some have already seen the benefits of back-up power supplies and surge diverters

Degradation
Smaller spikes don’t create the same instant damage associated with a big surge. Instead, they slowly erode internal components over time. It’s a process that eventually leads to complete failure of the component or the device.

Disruption
Computers try to interpret these tiny variations as genuine instructions that may have originated from the user. The computer then makes incorrect decisions, perhaps in terms of which items should be added to an order. It might appear to be a bug but no bug will be found. The users might ignore these symptoms once they temporarily disappear.

Poor power quality: its effect on IT systems

It’s clear that if there is a power cut, the tills and card readers will not work. The automatic doors to a store will not open. While wreaking havoc with the system, less visible variations may damage any electrical equipment on a gradual basis. Small electricity spikes can wear away the components inside the system over time, eventually leading to their ultimate failure.

In the case of tills in restaurants, they will mistake these small spikes as genuine orders that the server has orchestrated or try to interpret the spikes before discarding them. Not only can this lead to incorrect transactions, but it also makes the EPoS system work harder than is necessary and may result in system overheating. Like a laptop that cuts out when it overheats, overworked electrical systems can fail instantly.

This overworking also shortens the lifetime of the equipment and increases the cost to the user.

What amplifies the situation is that the busier the retail outlet becomes, the harder it is for the electrical system to work correctly. It places greater pressure on the equipment, in turn creating further problems.

It may not be obvious but events such as the live broadcast of Barclays Premier League matches in pub-restaurant chains can affect the quality of power each outlet receives. If you’ve ever noticed your lights flicker after a critical episode of your favourite soap, this is down to lots of people drawing on electricity by flicking on the kettle or flushing the toilet. This causes a dip in the electricity received by your home. To cater for this increased demand, National Grid generates additional electricity, sending a surge through power lines.

This flux in electricity can happen on a local scale. During half-time of a football match, fans making a rush for the bar can cause similar power issues. Opening fridges, using tills and card readers all require electricity. These dips and surges cause the IT system to act up, and the increased pressure on the system then amplifies the problem. For a pub-restaurant that’s expecting a football match to bring in a lot of revenue, the ‘power problem’ places immediate revenues at risk in tandem with future revenues if reputational damage comes into play.

Power conditioning: why it’s important

Retailers don’t need to risk their reputation with poor power quality. Some have already seen the benefits of back-up power supplies and surge diverters. These alone, however, are not enough. To fully protect the business, managers ought to control the power scenario with the aid of power conditioning.

Put simply, businesses risk their revenue, equipment and reputation by not appreciating the damage poor power quality might realise

Put simply, businesses risk their revenue, equipment and reputation by not appreciating the damage poor power quality might realise

At the very least, power conditioning should include the following key elements:
• Surge diverter to direct large surges away from the system
• Noise filter to remove small variations (similar to static) from the power
• Voltage regulator which prevents the smaller dips and spikes from reaching vital equipment
• Back-up power in the event of a power cut

RST is one of the largest resellers of EPoS systems in the UK and Ireland, with the company installing and maintaining thousands of units on an annual basis. On occasion, though, customers often found they experienced problems with the EPoS systems, particularly when a given retail outlet was busy.

RST relates the story of one of its customers – a hotel also serving as a venue for large-scale events during the summer. Staff found that their EPoS terminals wouldn’t work properly during these events. From time to time this was something that could have been put down to human error, like an item being incorrectly added to the bill. Often, the cause was more serious.

Food orders were not correctly transmitted to the kitchen, restaurant tabs were not synced with the room bill or the terminals failed completely. Initially, at least, it appeared as though there was a problem with the whole Electronic Point of Sale system.

“The members of staff thought there was a problem with the EPoS equipment,” explained Neil Bradley, RST’s managing director, “but having seen this same situation arise many times over the years, we knew it was the power.”

Understandably, end users are sceptical when told poor power is at the root of their problems. Poor power quality is a problem about which not many individuals are fully aware. Power cuts are visible and recognisable by everyone. Small spikes which erode internal components, though, are a hidden part of the power problem. When equipment does eventually fail, it’s difficult to identify the cause.

As an organisation, RST has now been using power conditioning equipment for over a decade. Witnessing its customers’ problems disappear after power conditioning equipment is installed in EPoS units, the company is totally convinced of ‘the power of power conditioning’. In fact, RST is so convinced that power conditioning will resolve the problems it actually installs the necessary equipment required by end user customers free of charge. Once the customer is also convinced of the benefits, RST would then look to charge for the service.

What effect does power conditioning realise?

As customers of RST have seen, power conditioning equipment can prevent the effects caused by power cuts, surges and dips. Keeping the electrical equipment in working order helps to maintain revenues. By reducing engineer call-outs and the need for replacing broken equipment, power conditioning has the potential to save further costs.

For a typical piece of electrical equipment, the cost of ongoing repairs and maintenance is between 4%-8%. We often find that this drops by up to 88% once the equipment has been protected by power conditioning units. Even more impressively, some power conditioning end users find their return on investment is as high as 1,148%.

Unreliable power might conjure up images of generators in rural areas that provide intermittent power. In reality, the power that comes from the grid is not reliable enough for the equipment we use on an everyday basis. At home, your computer might start to malfunction. It may well be fine after it has been restarted and it’s likely we would forget about the situation. We might work out that the computer ‘goes awry’ every time we print something, but most people would never think the printer sends small power surges through their home capable of damaging the computer.

Electrical equipment is prone to malfunctioning. We could easily find ourselves with warm beer and the wrong food order in a pub restaurant, but rarely does the company’s management recognise that this could be caused by the power. This is partly due to the hidden nature of power problems. A power cut is very obvious. Even large surges might be noticed if they melt a fuse or fry a circuit board.

More often, though, small spikes and dips in the power go unnoticed. Lights might flicker, but the damage done to the internal components of a computer cannot be seen. It’s likely that any damage will only be noticed when the computer starts to act up or fails completely. If this happens in a retail environment, the damage to revenue and reputation may have already been done.

Businesses can protect themselves against the risk to their revenues and reputation by installing power conditioning units. As an end user, RST has already seen the benefits of power conditioning. The organisation’s customers had suffered from unreliable EPoS systems but the problems disappeared once power conditioning units were installed. Importantly, the company is now convinced that poor power quality is something that can be managed effectively.

Power conditioning eliminates the problems caused by poor power quality and can also provide an excellent return on investment.

Put simply, businesses risk their revenue, equipment and reputation by not appreciating the damage poor power quality might realise.

Rob Morris is country manager at Powervar UK

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