After a series of catastrophic fires in the 1970’s, the National Building Code of Canada changed and dictated that all new buildings have an emergency, diesel fueled backup generator to:
- Allow for emergency alarm and voice communications;
- Sustain a fire-fighters elevator to serve stories above the first storey in a building;
- Enable fire suppression water pumps;
- Smoke control systems;
- Fans required for ventilation;
- Emergency lighting; and
- Exit signs that require electricity from the building.
Installed, emergency backup generators are often located in the basement of a building; in a room that has been specifically created for the generator, transfer switch and other mechanical equipment. A large, locally situated, storage tank will house enough diesel fuel for hours of continuous generator operation when the system is called into action.
Need for emergency backup power
Standby backup generators have become a critical piece of safety equipment, designed specifically to ensure everyone can safely evacuate a building if a fire were to erupt. However, most emergency systems are not designed for safe, sustainable occupancy in the event of a loss of electrical power from the Utility grid – resulting in a “blackout” situation.
People are only human, and human nature will dictate that most people are going to try to stay in their homes if there is a power outage – even an extended one. Most people will have provisions like flashlights, candles, bottled water, canned goods and other items to enable them to stay put if possible.
At some point, if the electrical service from the grid has not been returned, there may be no alternative but to have residents evacuate the building through the adequately lit, ventilated corridors and stairwells. Further, emergency crews will be able to assist the elderly and disabled residents by using a designated emergency elevator. All these critical systems will be powered by the activated emergency backup generator, typically fueled with diesel fuel.
Let us consider what would happen if your vital emergency backup generator ran out of precious diesel fuel and could not be re-fueled during an extended power outage… Air in hallways and stairwells may become thin, visibility would become extremely difficult, and evacuation for those who are not able-bodied would become next to impossible. This exact thing happened to numerous buildings throughout Toronto and The GTA during an ice-storm in 2013.
Are you compliant?
Building management has the ownness to maintain the operational integrity of installed provisional motors, generators, transfer switches, exhaust and fuel systems. A great deal of care goes into system cleaning, fuel top-ups, part replacements and generator load testing.
Unfortunately, changes in code and compliance as set out by the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA) caught many managers off-guard in the ice-storm of 2013. Mis-communication – or lack there of – left many buildings “in the dark” as re-fueling companies refused to refill storage tanks (as they emptied) due to what was billed as numerous compliance violations. This left many elderly and disabled residents in dire straights as emergency systems started going down.
TSSA sets the governance that holds all refueling companies responsible to inform buildings of compliance changes. Emergency diesel tanks do not require fueling very often, thus, many buildings may not have been given the necessary instruction for compliance, or maybe the warnings were simply not headed.
The last changes in compliance by the TSSA happened in 2006, then again in 2015. The most recent safety requirement update included storage, handling, and utilization of various fuels (including diesel).
- Requirements of double wall tanks and fire protection systems;
- Requirements for all tanks to be installed with double bottoms, double wall, or secondary containment with a leak detection system;
- Requirements for anti-siphon means to reduce leaks from piping failures;
- Requirement for high pressure piping;
- Requirements for improved tank foundations for residential tanks to prevent tanks from toppling over; and
- New approval requirements for more complicated transfer and leak detection systems.
As you might have already estimated, compliancy can become very costly. In fact, many buildings reported having spent well over $100,000.00 to bring their buildings emergency backup system up to the most current safety standard.
A movement to natural gas as a fuel source
For older buildings, whose emergency generators are reaching the end of there operational life-cycle, there may be a better option – replace the generator with a new natural gas-powered emergency backup system.
There is a misconception that diesel is a more reliable fuel source than natural gas for backup generators. I believe this is due to the fact diesel was the only fuel source approved to run engines in the early days of backup power. Decades later, diesel is what everyone has become used to even though there have been great technological advancements that have made engines driven by natural gas more viable, more economical and – most importantly – a more sustainable option.
Although natural gas emergency standby systems will have a slightly higher upfront capital cost and will still require a similar schedule for mechanical maintenance and load testing, there are numerous advantages, such as:
- There is no need for a local storage tank, gas is delivered through a pipe;
- Refueling is not an issue – regardless of the length of power outage;
- Quality of fuel will not degrade;
- Natural gas supply lines are buried underground and are not affected by erratic weather conditions;
- A natural gas generator will always be ready for operation so long as it is connected to the gas service;
- There is a lower cost per kilowatt-hour generated compared to diesel units;
- Natural gas is more environmentally friendly; and
- There will be no fuel contamination issues.
As touched on earlier, diesel gas-powered systems have the following disadvantages:
- Fuel quality can degrade and could cause Startup failures;
- Micro-organisms can contaminate fuel;
- Water, by way of condensation will form, causing tanks to rust if tank isn’t continually topped up;
- A supply local tank needs refilling during continuous operation;
- Before a tank can be refilled, the entire system must be safety compliant to current TSSA standards;
- Fuel consumption cost is double compared to natural gas; and
- More NOx emissions are created by burning diesel fuel.
If your building was built between the 80’s and 90’s chances are your emergency backup generator has reaching the end of its service life. Natural gas generators are an excellent replacement option to a current diesel-powered system. They can be very valuable in a high-rise residential building during an emergency, since they provide a constant power supply when power is lost due and emergency like a fire or simply to harsh weather conditions.