Power outages: A few seconds down mean 24 hours of work

When a power outage hits the WSU campus, the challenge is a little more complex than an outage at your house. Okay, a l-o-t more complex, especially for the folks at Facilities Operations.

Sure, the Oct. 18 power outage had students pouring out of labs and classrooms like a band of elementary school kids at recess. And hundreds of employees were idled, as police directed traffic at several intersections. But that’s only a fraction of the story.

Power outages generally throw FacOps crews into a red alert, confronting them with a multitude of challenges that requires everything from answering a flood of calls, to physically checking on alternate power sources, security systems, pumps, and more.

“The potential impact of an outage is more apparent when you consider the size of our campus,” said Terry Ryan, WSU’s energy manager.  “It is really a small city in it’s own right with 300-plus buildings and over 9.5 million square feet of space … and  that count includes about 70 buildings with over 50,000 sq. feet (each) — the largest is the New Library at 285,674 sq.ft.”

Of course, not all facilities have complex systems requiring manual “resets” after an outage, or verification that automatic resets worked as designed, but most of the larger facilities have some systems that fall into that category.

Last week, the power was returned gradually and sporadically to campus over about 90 minutes. But even if the power outage only lasts several seconds, the process to return things to “normal” usually requires a 24-hour effort involving electricians, refrigeration specialists, electronics technicians, dispatchers and more, said Howard Gossage, maintenance utilities services manager.

It always begins with a “monumental amount of phone calls,” says Jackie Knight, operations center supervisor for FacOps maintenance, with a laugh. “Everyone wants to make sure we know there is a power outage.”

Last week Knight and her crew fielded about 100-150 calls, not including communications from FacOps staff who called in via their radio system.
From there, FacOps crews worked their way through a long list, including checking and/or resetting (often manually):  

* campus electrical distribution systems
* circuit breakers in buildings
* security systems in buildings and at entrances, i.e. veterinary medicine, plant biosciences, IT, etc.
* fire alarm systems
* heating and air conditioning systems
* condensate pumps, which pump moisture out
* refrigeration units
* subzero freezers
* growth chambers
* water chillers
* building fans that provide air circulation
* pumps at the swimming pools in the Smith Building and PE Building

FacOps crews also need to:
* check elevators to make sure people are not stuck in them, and get help from an elevator contractor if needed
* ensure that disabled people are not stuck on upper floors, and get help from the fire department if necessary
* confirm that backup generators kick in to supply power to critical air and refrigeration equipment
* determine if the outage is going to be extended and if alternative generators need to be brought in to operate critical equipment 

And lest you think these tasks are relatively minor in scope or magnitude, think again. Most buildings have several fans providing air. For example, Bustad has 11 supply fans, 9 exhaust fans and 2 return air fans. Then, you have the freezers, generators, elevators, fire alarms … 

“I don’t think most people know what has to be done and the level of effort required to get the campus back to normal operations.” (when a power outage occurs), said Rob Corcoran, assistant director of FacOps.

“Some operations are automated and can be done remotely from a computer, but some still have to be done manually. It was fortunate that the recent outage occurred when it did, because we had maintenance people on site to handle the situation and there were fewer classes in the mid afternoon.”

The Pullman campus is fed by two different sources from Avista, one coming from the Colfax area and a second coming from the Lewiston area.

When an extended outage occurs, said Ryan, FacOps has three major generators at its Grimes Way steam plant that can supply up to 3.5 megawatts of electricity for critical needs. First on the list are the steam plants, life safety systems and IT for critical communications. After that, electricity is provided for less critical loads on a priority basis.

Fac Ops has a Central Control and Monitoring System allowing it to monitor the condition of various systems within most buildings. It also allows FacOps to reset some systems remotely via the computer. Oct. 18, however, was the first time that system had its own emergency backup generator.

“It was a success, and it ran perfectly,” said Knight, whose staff tends to always be at the eye of the storm.

Ryan noted that there have been significant advancements made over the past three years in the configuration of electrical services to the campus. “We’ve made a lot of good strides in expanding the computerized automated system and installing alternate energy sources,” he said. “This is the result of much planning with Avista and our engineers and minimizes the potential impact of long-term outages that would result if major equipment failures were to occur on Avista’s system.”

 “We’ve been very fortunate,” said Knight, who has worked for WSU for 44 years. “This is really only the third outage we’ve had this year. The most common cause of outages is lightning storms… I hate to see thunder and lightning storms come through (when I’m at home), because it means I could be called back to work.”

And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a lightning storm in Pullman itself. It could hit the Lewiston or Colfax areas, from where WSU’s power is supplied.

So next time you see a big bolt of lightning and hear a crack of thunder or see the lights flicker and go out, take comfort in the fact that FacOps is ready to roll.

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