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Backup Power for Small Businesses: Always Be Prepared editorial staff editorial staff

It's important to develop a disaster plan for your business that accounts for the scenario of a power failure.

  • Power failures pose a serious financial risk to small businesses, interrupting your operations and income if you don't have a backup plan.
  • Onsite power backup options include uninterrupted power supplies and generators.
  • Price and capabilities determine the best generator for your business. Portable, stationary, propane and natural gas versions are all available for commercial use.

Power failures are one of the most common risks to small businesses. You don't need to live in the path of a hurricane or in an earthquake zone to be at risk of this particular disaster. Widespread power grid failures can occur almost anywhere. While manufacturers and retailers can experience substantial losses of perishable inventory, service-oriented businesses can be impacted by the loss of computer and phone service.

Regardless of your location or type of business, it's a good idea to assess your risk and develop a disaster plan for the event of a power failure. Your contingency plans should address power failures lasting minutes, hours, days or even weeks. [Read related article: From COVID-19 to Hurricane Season: Disaster Preparedness for Small Business]

These are a few options to consider for your onsite backup power.

Uninterruptible power supplies (UPS)

These are your first line of defense for computers and sensitive electronic equipment. Most of these are relatively inexpensive and maintain power for just a few minutes.

The goal here is to give you just enough time to save your data and safely power down the equipment. Depending on your power requirements, a larger investment of a few thousand dollars may increase the backup time by an hour or two. If you have a standby generator, a UPS will be required to bridge the short time period between the power failure and the startup of the generator.

Portable generators

These can be purchased at many home improvement stores and are a cost-effective method of providing emergency power for short periods of time. Your disaster plan should identify exactly how and where the generator can be safely used. Identify your wattage requirements, and size the generator accordingly. The generator should be placed outside in a well-ventilated area.

Electrical devices are usually plugged directly into the generator. If a power transfer switch is installed on your main electrical panel, it may be possible to use portable generators to power your existing electrical system. Most portable generators use gasoline. Other options are diesel, propane and natural gas. Some generators can even use multiple fuel types. Be sure to identify the source and storage requirements for fuel in your disaster plan.

Standby generators

These backup generators are plugged into your power system at all times and automatically kick on in the event of a failure. It's critical that the generator is installed by a professional and incorporates an automatic transfer switch.

While these generators are probably your most effective option in an emergency, they may be costly or require permits. Automatic standby generators typically run on natural gas or propane, though some models burn diesel fuel.

How to choose a business generator

According to Consumer Reports, you should know your power priorities before selecting a generator. For instance, if you need refrigeration during power outages, each refrigerator requires around 600 watts to operate. When total restoration is needed, you should review your utility bill to see how much wattage you need to remain fully operational. For full load capacity, you divide the supply voltage by 1,000 and then multiply the sum by total amps.

Another consideration is whether you need the generator to be portable or stationary. Portable generators typically provide less power and are cheaper than stationary types. They usually require gasoline to operate, so you'll need to have gas on hand in case of power outages. Stationary generators usually have more fuel options, including propane and natural gas.

When developing your disaster plan, think outside of the box. Here are a few alternatives to reduce your exposure without adding new backup power.

  • Inventory levels: Invest the extra time involved in maintaining minimal inventory levels, especially of perishable items. This will improve your turns and cut the risk of loss during an emergency.

  • Cloud computing: Many businesses now store their computer data and run their business applications through a cloud hosting provider. The large data centers that house these servers are already protected from most disasters. Because your software and data will be accessible from just about any device with internet access, you can more easily move your business functions to a temporary location with power.

  • Third-party logistics providers: Store perishable items in a third-party warehouse that already has substantial power backup systems. If one of these facilities is near your business, you could move your inventory to the facility temporarily in the event of an emergency. Logistics companies like these may also be able to provide refrigerated trucks for short-term emergency storage.

  • Electric vehicles: If your business has an electric vehicle sitting in the parking lot, you may already have a backup power source. Some companies are developing inverters to allow you to utilize the power stored in your vehicle batteries.

Every business is unique, and no backup solution is best for everyone. The most important thing is to develop a comprehensive disaster plan that works for you. Remember, a devastating power failure can hit your business tomorrow, so prepare today!

Image Credit: scyther5 / Getty Images editorial staff editorial staff Member
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