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Empowered with Uninterruptibility

There is a real difference between back-up power and truly uninterruptible back-up power.

There is a real difference between back-up power and truly uninterruptible back-up power.

ElPaso Water Utilities 1 Falcon UPSEl Paso Water Utilities provides water, wastewater and reclaimed water service to one of the region’s fastest growing areas—the greater metropolitan area of El Paso, TX. The utility analyzes water samples with sophisticated computer-controlled systems and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) instruments to ensure the sanitation and safety of potable water supplies.

The new El Paso Water Utilities International Water Quality Laboratory is built to withstand environmental disasters and emergencies. The building and infrastructure, including electrical and plumbing systems, comply with Environmental Protection Agency standards, as well as the more stringent federal and Department of Homeland Security-implemented criteria. Laboratory manager Paul Rivas is responsible for the lab’s equipment, which ranges from GC/MS to high-end microscopy instruments to sensitive measuring devices. Collectively, this equipment serves a vital function, as confirming test and equipment accuracy is paramount to the lab’s success. Any malfunction or downtime creates a bottleneck for the entire facility.

Senior Chemist Miguel Venegas and his team found that the laboratory instruments were being adversely affected by power problems. Venegas explains, "In spite of the investment and detailed plans that were implemented in constructing the new facility, there is one area that, until recently, had us confused—the frequent dips and overall unpredictable AC power. We knew that power outages were a reality, which is why we installed Smart-UPS units for a few instruments. Furthermore, the site-prep guide made it clear that we needed regulated and uninterrupted power for the GC/MS and other sensitive instruments to operate with accuracy and reliability.

"What we didn’t know was we needed a true online uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for these devices. Even though the Smart-UPS turns on instantly, it actually takes about a fraction of a second to come online. That is where the Smart-UPS we bought failed to do the job. Again, this again was a hit-and-miss proposition. At times, it seemed like the UPS protected the electrical load, and at others, we were still dealing with aborted test runs."

Case in point: During a recent review of its freshwater tests, Venegas’ team noticed that the GC/MS equipment was not performing accurately. It suffered from poor power, a conclusion reached after several incidents of mysteriously aborted tests with no-fault errors. Like most lab users, the team did some preliminary research and discovered that the equipment site-prep documents clearly stated they needed a power conditioner or UPS to address the issue of unstable power.

El Paso Water Utilities 2 Falcon UPSThe staff installed several commercial-grade Smart-UPS units and plugged in its GC/MS equipment, hoping it would solve the problem. The group knew very little about power problems or solutions, so it went with an off-the-shelf brand. What the team didn’t know was the units they were relying on were actually "line-interactive" UPS units, which do not regulate the power. These computer-grade UPSs do not offer the level of protection needed for sensitive laboratory equipment. While this type of inexpensive UPS is better than no UPS at all, using this device gave the staff a first-hand lesson in "caveat emptor" (also known as "buyer beware"). Calling a power unit a UPS does not ensure that instruments are protected. Only a small percentage of them provide true uninterrupted power.

"We contacted a number of UPS companies, and it became clear that most of the large manufacturers focus on information technology and communications. Also, it was almost impossible to get technical help at these companies. Their salespeople had never heard of a mass spectrometer or, even worse, when I tried to speak with a technical salesperson, I was told they would get back with me. As we continued our search, we found Falcon Electric’s website.

"Falcon Electric had specialized information about laboratory applications. I found a case study on a GC/MS user suffering the same problems we were having with the commercial-grade Smart-UPS. When I called Falcon, the salesperson was very knowledgeable and guided me through sizing the SG 3K-1T, a 3,000-volt-ampere lab-grade online UPS. We installed it on our most critical GC/MS system and waited.

"The true test occurred a few months later. We had a power outage during the evening, and I saw flashing consoles on most of the GC/MS equipment when I came into the lab the next morning. It was clear that another power event had taken place. When we looked closer, the only GC/MS completely unaffected by the power event was the instrument plugged into the Falcon SG3K-1T UPS. The other instruments suffered damage due to the tremendous surge that occurred when the power returned. Of course, the instruments that were plugged into the Smart-UPS failed the test run; however, they didn’t suffer physical damage from the surges, which was a relief.

"The instruments that were plugged directly into the wall outlets took the worst beating. At least a few needed expensive repairs that also required costly downtime. This experience showed us that the extra money we spent on the Falcon SG Series UPS was, and continues to be, an outstanding investment. When discussing this incident with superiors, it was nice to have the solid data to prove we made the right decision. The UPS more than paid for itself in terms of downtime, costly reagents and damaged components, which were all saved. We are true believers of the right tool for the right job." 

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