School Power Outages Mean More Than Canceled Classes

September 23, 2016

By Steve Anderson - Contributing Writer

Just recently, a couple of schools lost power, including Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), which prompted the cancellation of some of the school's evening classes, and the Marcellus Central School District in New York. While the outages probably didn't impact all that many classes, it could have had a much farther-reaching impact than it did, demonstrating conclusively why it's a smart idea to have backup power systems.

While several area customers lost power, VCU lost it over several buildings, which made canceling classes necessary, some cases in mid-class. The outage struck around 5:30 p.m., which likely made its impact comparatively limited—some colleges do have classes around that time, with some going as late as 8:00 p.m. or later—but still present. Given that stoplights and streetlights also went out, canceling classes likely was a public safety issue as well. The power wasn't out long—about a half hour, give or take, as the lights started coming back around 6:00 p.m.—but any outage can be too long in some cases.

The Marcellus Central School District outage, meanwhile, shut school down at about 10:15 a.m. for the rest of the day, despite power being back on by 12:30 p.m.; the schools couldn't serve lunch—a central component of being able to count a school day as a school day in some places— and the school only had limited phone service in that time.

Having the power off to such systems for any length of time, with abrupt shutdowns and an unknown time to restarting, can be a major source of damage for such systems. The good news about this is that it's comparatively easy to establish backup power supplies for information technology (IT) operations. From a simple uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system to a larger-scale battery backup or generator system, keeping the lights on and the servers running can be fairly simple.

It can also mean the difference between work lost and work salvaged. By having backup power generation facilities in place, business can keep running through all but the very worst conditions. This in turn can be a competitive advantage, as no one really wants to lose business to competitors who could keep running despite a blackout. The power grid these days, though we all rely on it, is increasingly aging and fragile, so having some kind of backup system in place is a responsible countermeasure that most every business should undertake, even a college. Perhaps especially a college; with several science and environmental studies departments in place, installing power backup systems may well be an engineering challenge worthy of a doctoral thesis.

Regardless of what form it takes, backup power is a worthwhile step to take, and depending on the grid fully just means occasional shutdowns and lost business. The students might have been happy about canceled classes at VCU and Marcellus, but parents, the IT department, and others might have been nowhere near so happy.

Edited by Alicia Young

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