Stop winter cold snaps scuppering your power protection

As temperatures plummet during the long, dark winter, our electricity network comes under increased stresses and strains to keep the UK’s power supply flowing.

But how does the ‘Big Freeze’ affect our essential IT equipment and infrastructure? And what steps can we take to make sure the icy weather doesn’t cause the country’s power grid to catch a winter chill.

Why do we get power cuts in cold weather?

It’s fairly obvious why prolonged cold snaps can often cause power problems. There’s greater demand for electricity as people fire up their heaters to try and keep warm, while the National Grid doesn’t have the same volume of renewable energy from sources such as solar as it does in sunnier times.

Build-ups of snow and ice can cause overhead power lines to break or lead to trees falling that knock out vital transmission infrastructure. High winds and winter blizzards can do likewise. And when all that snow and ice melts, there is, of course, the potential risk of flooding.

Believe it or not, animals are a major cause of power disruptions too. They can chew their way through power lines throughout the entire year, but this is far more common during cold snaps, where transformers provide warm and welcoming shelter for squirrels and other furry friends.

Of course, treacherous winter conditions can also impede and delay the efforts to repair any power outages, meaning the lights stay off for longer.

If we look back to the infamous ‘Beast from the East’ which crippled the UK in Spring 2018, electricity demand rocketed by 10 per cent as the shivering public plugged in their heaters. Peak energy use on Thursday 1 March was the highest for three years, an unsurprising statistic seeing as it was the UK’s coldest spring day (-3.8°C) since Met Office records began in 1910.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise to discover that it costs far more to produce electricity when we’re faced with icy blasts.

Wholesale power prices peaked at £990 per MWh during the ‘Beast from the East’ , five times higher than the average for the quarter.

According to the Drax Group, the electrical generation company that runs Europe’s biggest biomass-fuelled power station in Selby, North Yorkshire, for every degree Celsius the temperature falls below 10°C, electrical production costs rise by approximately £1.10 per MWh.

Does a big freeze damage IT equipment?

In reality, electrical equipment and computers operate far more reliably and efficiently in cooler conditions. They generate their own heat when running, and most of the problems with electronic components are actually caused by overheating.

This is why temperature and humidity-controlled environments with powerful air conditioning units play a crucial role in most reasonably-sized server rooms and data centres.

What is an issue is extreme cold, severe fluctuations in the temperature, and the knock-on effects of power disruptions linked to freezing conditions. For example, low temperatures can impact the properties of many materials used to manufacture electrical equipment. Metals and plastics become brittle, insulation on wiring and cables can harden and become weaker too.

Turning to critical power protection systems, and in addition to the issues described above, severe cold weather can impact an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) in two other ways. Firstly, if a UPS isn’t housed in a temperature-controlled environment, there could be potential problems with condensation forming on electronics inside the unit.

The main area for concern, however, is the UPS’s batteries. Traditional sealed lead-acid batteries (SLA) perform at their best at 20-25°C. In lower temperatures, batteries actually hold their charge for longer. But the cold does impact negatively on their internal chemistry, increasing their impedance. This means that they will discharge quicker and lead to a significant reduction in battery runtime.

Handy hints to stop your IT equipment catching a winter cold

The increased likelihood of power outages and disruptions during winter weather highlights the value of having a reliable uninterruptible power supply to provide ongoing critical power protection. However, there are several steps you need to take to ensure your UPS can perform effectively in such potentially severe weather conditions.

Firstly, redundancy is an important consideration with all UPS installations. And when the cold snap strikes, you want that added assurance that such redundancy has been built in to your system to alleviate against temperature-related faults or failures.

Where a UPS is located is also crucial. Where possible, it should be installed in a temperature-controlled and well-ventilated room. If feasible, this should be a dedicated server or IT room. But if this isn’t an option for your organisation, just use a bit of common sense. Why run the risk of placing your UPS in the basement in a room prone to dampness or flooding? And don’t leave it close to any open windows where arctic winds and snow can get in.

Here are some other top tips to bear in mind:

  • Never install a UPS underneath an air conditioning unit
  • Avoid placing heavy objects on top of a UPS
  • Ensure the unit’s fans aren’t blocked
  • Remember to leave room for batteries and switchgear
  • Allow space for maintenance access
  • Consider your future plans and whether you might require room for expansion

The challenges presented by harsh winter snowstorms also place the need for preventive UPS maintenance in the spotlight. It’s impossible for your uninterruptible power supply to always be 100 per cent perfect. But there’s far less chance of your system suffering a damaging major failure when the temperature drops if it’s frequently inspected by a competent and fully-certified UPS engineer.

Rigorous maintenance allows key components such as fans or capacitors to be proactively replaced if necessary. The unit can also have the latest firmware software updates installed and any niggling glitches with the system can be identified and fixed before they run the risk of becoming something more serious.

Another added-value service to consider is UPS remote monitoring like the cloud-based platform Riello Connect. This involves off-site technical experts analysing your power protection system in-real time, studying data such as input/output voltages and temperatures. This enables faults to be immediately investigated, with field engineers sent to site if required to fix more critical defects.

If we turn our attention to UPS batteries, they too perform at their best when they’re housed in a temperature-controlled location away from direct sunlight and moisture. In an ideal world, storing batteries in their own room is the best way to reduce the risk of failure. Such a set-up enables the UPS system and other IT equipment to be located in the server room at suitable temperatures for their safe operation.

And just as frequent maintenance is advisable for a UPS, it’s crucial too for their batteries. It’s the easiest way to spot and swap any cells that are defective or damaged by the chilly temperatures.

How to keep safe server room temperatures during winter

Now we’ve touched on the UPS and the batteries, let’s turn to the room where your other IT equipment is stored.

As explained briefly, colder weather isn’t per se a bad thing for computers. There are far more issues related to higher temperatures, which is why air conditioning units have to work much harder in the summer to keep things cool.

There are a couple of other things to keep in mind though. Firstly, ensure server room doors are kept firmly closed whenever possible to prevent air and moisture getting inside. And during wet, cold, and wintery weather, it’s important not only to carry out maintenance of your UPS, batteries and equipment, but also adopt good housekeeping practices for your building and surrounds. Freezing pipes can suddenly burst and cause water leaks, or debris such as leaves can block vents.

With power disruptions far more likely during the cold and bleak winter months, it’s essential your critical power protection systems can stand up to these additional strains. Follow our handy hints and all your potential ‘Big Freeze’ blues will suddenly melt away.

Leo Craig, general manager, Riello UPS