What extreme weather, the COVID-19 vaccine storage, and Texas outages tell us about power management

By Ed Spears

The severe series of winter storms that hit Texas in February 2021 left close to four million homes and businesses without power for days. In Houston, a failed backup generator at the Harris County Health Department thawed freezers that kept a total of 8,430 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, risking the loss of critical doses had they not been salvaged in time.

In healthcare environments where the ability to access data and high-tech medical equipment is crucial to providing continuous patient care, any disruption to business continuity is not only unacceptable but potentially life-threatening. Combined with the current state of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, these types of adverse weather events strongly reinforce the need for a reliable power management infrastructure.

In this article, we’ll analyze how advancements in power management can empower healthcare facilities to navigate the dangers of extreme weather-related outages, as well as specific strategies that can help bolster the industry’s disaster preparedness plans in 2021 as we continue to review the lessons and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Power Management Playbook for Healthcare

Whether their biggest threat comes from hurricanes, winter storms, or tornadoes, healthcare facilities should prioritize developing or refining a robust power management strategy well before the next natural disaster hits.

Prevention and visibility are key to success in this area, especially with the increasing shift of critical healthcare data to “hybrid IT”—or a combination of on- and off-premises —infrastructure. From large university hospitals to local urgent care clinics, each facility is unique in their capacity and monitoring needs. It typically comes down to what capabilities the facility will need to maintain operations.

A typical integrated power management system includes a mix of hardware like rack enclosures, power distribution units (PDUs), and uninterruptible power systems (UPSs) paired with long-backup generators, as well as potentially software and services that can extend battery backup time and help safeguard systems in the event of an outage. It is important for healthcare facilities to understand their unique needs to ensure they are not paying for capabilities they don’t need while maximizing the ones they do. For example, an urgent care clinic would not need to purchase a UPS designed to support an entire hospital campus when one sized for a network closet will accommodate their needs.

Advancements in Battery Technology

While a robust power management system includes multiple components, UPSs are foundational for successful power backup, providing essential emergency power to a load when the input power source or mains power fails. Over the years, UPSs have evolved to meet single- and three-phase applications, extended runtime, and more. However, one of the biggest advancements in the technology in decades has emerged in just the last few years.

Lithium-ion battery technology has emerged in recent years to become one of the biggest innovations in powering UPSs. Offering a longer battery lifespan, a faster recharge time, and a smaller footprint, lithium-ion technology makes it easier to align refresh cycles with the rest of the IT stack while simultaneously providing more useful status information and logging data than traditional UPS battery systems.

As decentralized IT environments become more commonplace and providers continue to leverage distributed environments such as urgent care facilities for patient care, the longer battery lifespan offered with lithium-ion technology is significant for limited IT staffs that work in remote “edge” environments.

For healthcare, where a natural disaster-caused outage could mean the loss of crucial data necessary for patient care, lithium-ion’s increased resiliency and faster recharge time also allows for the use of a single large UPS or a group of UPSs in a hospital campus to provide peak shaving and ‘load shifting,’ to align power consumption with time-of-use utility rates to the monetary advantage of the owner of the facility.

Navigating the Decentralized Healthcare Environment

In a decentralized healthcare IT environment, institutions may regularly operate without onsite support staff. This makes it even more important to analyze how IT staff will be monitoring and maintaining these technologies. Fortunately, another key feature of UPS technology that has emerged in recent years is the integration of network cards that allow enhanced network connectivity. With network-connected UPS, battery and power dis-capabilities, IT staff can manage and monitor without the need to be on site, whether equipment resides in a larger data center or a network closet in an urgent care clinic.

How do they do this? By integrating with software and services that offer remote power management and predictive monitoring capabilities, allowing for visibility into key infrastructure as well as the ability to proactively identify and resolve issues. This ultimately shifts power monitoring from a reactive to a proactive model. The goal of remote monitoring services is to anticipate and, most importantly, prevent potentially detrimental power interruptions and address maintenance necessities before they become problems. And, should an adverse event threaten infrastructure damage, cloud-based software offers the ability to remotely shut down equipment—a must-have feature for any off-premise operations.

Of course, all these solutions, while valuable in maintaining operations, are only as good as their cybersecurity capabilities. With enhanced connectivity comes increased risk of cyberattacks, so it is important to seek out technologies that have been certified to meet UL and International Electrotechnical Commission cybersecurity standards.

Cyberattacks pose a big concern for many IT staffs, especially in the healthcare industry where patient data and care could be compromised. If your institution is planning to or has already implemented network-connected devices, make sure your power management system has the appropriate cybersecurity safeguards to match.

One Size Does Not Fit All

The recent winter storms that hit Texas emphasize the crucial role of power management in preventing downtime, especially as the country navigates the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. With the end goal of improving patient care in mind, healthcare organizations have made notable efforts in rethinking their approach to IT— especially as network management and disaster preparedness have become major areas of concern.

Just as healthcare professionals know that each patient’s needs are unique and require highly personalized care, HTM professionals also understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to purchasing and deploying power management equipment. By taking the time to research, plan, and deploy the right infrastructure, HTMs and their IT counterparts provide healthcare institutions, personnel and, most importantly, patients with a critical and foundational service—the ability to administer quality, essential patient care 24/7.

Ed Spears is technical marketing manager at Eaton. Questions and comments can be directed to [email protected].