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Large UPS Systems For Data Centers: Will You Get A Frankenstein?

By Michael Fluegeman - July 2013 - Power & Communication

ups, data centers


The large three-phase U.S. UPS (uninterruptible power supply) market includes a short list of leading domestic manufacturers and a shorter list of overseas manufacturers with significant U.S. market presence. Purchasing evaluations involve numerous factors: perceived reliability, quality, features, physical size, efficiency, scalability, specific application fit, regional sales and service strength, and certainly price. However, when a UPS capacity requirement is such that it is larger than what is available in a single, self-contained package that ships from a single factory, a system of components is required rather than a discrete product. Here is where the difference between vendors with a major U.S. market presence and those with a marginal presence can really play out. With any technical sales and service-intensive product, the depth and expertise of regional sales and service capabilities is very important. To reduce the risk of getting a “Frankenstein” system of mismatched components in large UPS systems for data centers, it’s important for facility managers to understand the importance of selecting a vendor with a substantial and experienced U.S. sales and service organization.

The importance factor escalates as UPS capacity and redundancy requirements increase, as the products become 15-year CapEx investments instead of three-year OpEx commodities. Without a strong technical sales application team, the system may not get properly represented and applied with appropriate accessories or it may not get delivered correctly in accordance with customer needs. Without a strong regional service organization, routine preventive maintenance and minor issues can lead to big problems, such as excessive planned or unplanned downtime or excessive repair time.

These concerns with buying complex systems from marginal players in the marketplace are well-understood among industry veterans. These concerns with UPS systems are not much different than with other complex data center support equipment technologies such as redundant standby generator systems and HVAC systems, especially central plants or HVAC systems with economizing features.

One additional key factor is not always well-understood. When an order is placed with a vendor for an integrated system of components, it is up to the vendor to pull together all the correct and compatible components and see that they arrive at the jobsite, at the same time, or are otherwise sequenced as required by the construction team. A large “single module” UPS system can require the main UPS box, boxes full of batteries, sometimes a separate battery disconnect box and often a separate maintenance bypass box, sometimes all shipping from different factories and often from different sub-vendors.

Imported UPS units are often matched with domestically designed and assembled battery and bypass packages. Sourcing these components is often left to the domestic sales organization, which is usually different in each marketplace. Often, a buyer thinks (or hopes) all of this equipment will be integrated together or even tested as a complete system at the “main factory or assembly plant.” This is rarely the case, as it would add significant cost. Getting these different components to show up correctly at the jobsite is where the marginal players often fall down on the job. Why? Because they simply don’t get enough practice. It’s not routine for them. Every project they get is either unique or separated by enough time since the last similar project that it becomes an adventure. What may appear to be a standard, high-production, “shelf” cataloged system approaches the complexity and challenges of a customized “one off.” What goes wrong? Plenty.

Mismatched details include the following:
• Submittals that don’t match accepted proposals or sales brochures, or that don’t have
applicable features highlighted or lined out from schedules.
• Products arriving onsite that don’t match approved submittals, i.e., equipment shows up larger than expected and won’t fit.
• Battery disconnect ampere ratings that don’t match UPS requirements.
• Battery disconnect control voltage (UVR) ratings that don’t match UPS requirements.
• Battery voltage ratings that don’t match UPS requirements.
• Expected battery runtime at full load (or partial load) that is “unknown.” (This is something that can be calculated and is rather basic to the UPS industry.)
• Maintenance bypass ampere ratings or configurations that don’t match UPS requirements or overall design requirements.
• Maintenance bypass key interlock systems that don’t properly interface with UPS requirements.
• Mismatched component nomenclature between the UPS onboard or published operating procedures and interfacing components, such as maintenance bypass disconnect naming conventions. (Understanding that 1,2,3 means A,B,C is not much of a stretch but needing to quickly surmise that CB1 means BIB or that CB3 means UOB only encourages operating errors that can be catastrophic.)
• Remote monitoring protocol and software (DCIM) that does not properly interface with customer requirements.
• Poor installation and operating documentation (especially that translated from foreign languages to American English, and even more so from non-Latin based languages).

Resolving these problems can be costly and disruptive to schedules, room configurations, reliability, and even life-safety. These mistakes can be made by anyone, including the best in the business, the leading vendors in the marketplace. Whereas they are exceptions for the big boys, one or more of these issues can almost be guaranteed on a given project with marginal players. Even though a product may be a leader in its home country or region, and may even be perceived as more reliable than domestic competition, when it is re-packaged and translated for UL/ETL listing and sales, installation, and service stateside, it often becomes a completely different story, at least and until significant U.S. market share is achieved. The best component in the world becomes part of a Frankenstein system supporting your data center.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. A small or start-up sales/service team with the right experience and attention to detail can sometimes overcome application/documentation issues and outperform a large, established organization that may have rookies in key positions or workers operating on cruise control.

Michael Fluegeman, PE, is principal and manager of data center support systems for PlanNet. PlanNet is an independent professional services firm that provides objective advisory, design, project management, and construction services supporting critical IT Infrastructure. He can be reached at mfluegeman@plannet.com.






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