Load shedding and security - what you should know

June 2008 IT infrastructure

The power crisis affecting South Africa has led to load shedding becoming an almost daily occurrence, significantly interrupting everyone's lives; countless business hours have been lost, productivity across all sectors has been impacted, time is wasted and frustrations boil over due to the traffic backlogs caused by traffic lights not working, and families are unable to cook or bathe in hot water

These and countless other problems are affecting both the private sector and the consumer, but worse still is the impact these power blackouts could have on your businesses or home's security.

It is logical to expect South Africa's large criminal element to begin targeting areas that do not have power, therefore it is up to each and every one of us to ensure that our back-up systems are in place, whether it is for an alarm system or an electric gate.

The impact of power cuts

The vast majority of security solutions rely on electricity - whether it is surveillance cameras, electric fences or automatic gates. While most have some form of back-up battery that kicks in when the electricity is cut, constant power failures can quickly reduce a battery's lifespan. A slightly more expensive battery will last longer than the batteries used in most installations as these have a better discharge/recharge lifespan. Prolonged power cuts, however, not only shorten the battery's lifespan, they can also negatively impact its ability to recharge properly.

Worse still, problems with the batteries could mean that your alarm systems, garage doors and electric gates fail to work properly, leaving you locked in (or out) of your house. Gates are a particular problem, as a power failure increases a person's chances of being hijacked, as they have to physically open the gate, leaving themselves that much more vulnerable.

"While all good security solutions have battery backups, it is the actual length of time these can last while running the system that is the thing in question, and it is this that people need to be educated about," says Zane Greeff, technical director at Elvey Security Technologies.

"There is a concern that the battery backup period of many of the currently installed security systems may not even last the four-hour load shedding period. This in turn could affect whether or not the radio signal through to your response company will be triggered, so it is vital that people have their alarm system's batteries tested regularly."

When testing these batteries, it is critical that the amp hour of the battery is tested and not just the voltage. This test cannot be done by using a multimeter, but needs a special battery tester.

Greeff says that another alternative is to invest in multiple power packs, each with their own battery backup, as these are capable of spreading the load from the security devices, which in turn means that they will last longer.

Corporates also face major problems with these blackouts. Worse than even the lost productivity experienced, companies' access control systems are impacted, creating security and safety dilemmas for the business.

After all, you can either leave the doors open so as not to trap staff members inside in an event of an emergency, but doing so also leaves you open to unlawful entry from the outside - it is the classic Catch-22 situation.

Solutions to the problem

While the impact of load shedding is not something to be trifled with, the good news is that there are solutions that can help limit the problem.

"There are a variety of backup options available for people to choose from, including power packs with backup batteries, uninterrupted power supply (UPS), generators and inverters, to name just a few, but the important thing to remember when deciding which one is best for you, is to remember that your backup system should be designed according to your specific security application," he says.

Batteries are often the best method of providing alternative power to a home for a limited period, as they are low cost in terms of maintenance and are currently the most effective for storing large amounts of energy.

It is important to connect a battery to ones electric gate motor as a backup, in order to reduce the risk of hijackings while entering your home. Another option is to work with your installer to add batteries to the panel power supplies for each zone, giving you backup power in the event of an emergency.

"It is also critical that people are made aware of the fact that while certain aspects of a security solution have a built-in battery backup, items like DVRs and monitors run off the mains only, so there is no backup built in - you will need to arrange your own backup for these devices."

A UPS is ideal for the corporate market that wishes to prevent security equipment from shutting down the moment Eskom engages in its increasingly frequent rolling-mass-blackouts. One can also use a UPS in a private household, although it may be rather expensive.

A UPS is particularly suited for use with access control and CCTV equipment. Of course, for optimal results, one should switch off all non-essential items - such as monitors - while keeping the essential equipment like the DVR alive.

It is important that the UPS is designed to offer a continuous power supply for the upkeep of required essential equipment, for the period required, as a UPS is often designed to supply power for a limited period of 10 to 20 minutes.

A true UPS converts the 240 V a.c. mains power to 12 V d.c. power, which is then run through the batteries, before being converted back to 240 V a.c. In the event of a power failure, no switching is necessary as the 12 V d.c. battery power continues to be converted to 240 V a.c.

This also automatically protects equipment from power surges or spikes. When selecting a UPS it is important to consider the type of power signal that is generated. A UPS running sensitive electronic equipment should have a true sine wave, and not a square wave power signal, as the latter could damage sensitive equipment. The type of power signal could also affect the price of the UPS.

The SPS (standby power supply), is often called a UPS, but does not provide the same level of surge protection as a UPS. This allows equipment to run off the mains, when power is present and switches to battery backup in the event of a power failure. Power signal quality is not as critical with an SPS as the power signal is only applicable during a power failure.

Inverters are yet another backup option, as it is a system that automatically starts to operate once the power has been cut, and then instantaneously begins to recharge once the power is back on.

Power inverters can provide the user with up to five hours of power during load shedding, and unlike generators, they are noiseless and require no petrol or diesel, which in turn means no fumes, thereby making them ideal for private homes.

Greeff points out that the batteries used in both inverters and UPS solutions are very expensive, so any private consumer wishing to use one of these options should consider the price beforehand.

"The age old backup in times of electricity crises is the generator, which is virtually hassle-free in terms of maintenance, it guarantees performance and has a very long lifespan," he says.

Generators are ideal to run applications such as security intercoms, gate door motors, security systems, fridges and other appliances.

What to watch out for

Greeff says that with generators, one must also take into consideration the fact that they are costly in terms of fuel, there are regulations around noise pollution (particularly in residential areas), there is a huge waiting list to purchase such equipment, and there is also a lot of bad quality out there, so "one needs to look into this thoroughly and make sure that what you buy is what you need".

He points to the battery costs for inverters and UPSs being a big drawback, as well as the fact that these solutions require a qualified electrician to wire them into the property.

"Power surges are another major problem, as these can cause irreparable damage to electric appliances, costing consumers thousands or rand to replace their goods."

"Power surges can weaken typical electronic components over time, and an unexpected problem here can bring your entire system to its knees, so my advice would be after every load shedding period, do a thorough check of your system and bring any problems you may find to the attention of your service provider," he concludes.


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