Figure 1. Clean diesel and tainted diesel compared.

When a company’s mandate will not allow power failures to compromise performance-it’s a mission-critical facility. From blackouts to hurricanes, man-made and natural disasters test that resolve. Back-up power generators need to be dependably operational, which means stocked with good fuel-a surprisingly difficult thing to do.

Fuel integrity has become an issue, compounding the difficulty of finding enough supply when it’s needed most-during outages caused by damaging weather. When an ice or electrical storm hits, fuel reserves must be in place, and personnel must know how to access them. When a business doesn’t want to miss a beat-it must know that the fuel in its tanks will work.

How Generators Fail

In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instituted a rule requiring diesel fuel to meet a 15 parts per million sulfur standard (ppm)-creating ultra low sulfur diesel (ULSD). “The new diesel” has a shelf life of only 12 months.

Because sulfates are anti-microbial, yesterday’s higher sulfur fuels were naturally tougher for algae and bacteria to colonize. Now, however, the make-up allows microbial growth, which is a problem because fuel is a hydrocarbon, which is a digestible organic matter. Tanks sit in the sun most days; then cool down at night, “breathing” in air, allowing water to form inside the tank. It’s a perfect environment for algae and other growth, which leads to “sludging” in generator tanks-damaging engines and clogging filters.

Fuel managers are beginning to realize that if programs that “exercise” the systems aren’t put into place, generators can fail. Field research shows that of the top nine reasons generators fail to start, three are fuel related. To forestall these problems, Mansfield Oil pioneered GenPro, a generator service program that uses fuel testing and additives to keep fuel vital and avoid contaminants.

Generator fuel that sits unused becomes stagnant. A rule of thumb indicates that if you’re not using 15 percent of supply each year, tanks have not been managed according to schedule.

The Fuel Distribution Network

Tracking fuel schedules and geographic availability is part of Mansfield’s IT strategy. Data systems integrate 900 supply points across 49 states, deliverable by over 450 distributors, to efficiently appoint supply to demand. Mansfield’s technology practices have been repeatedly tracked in InformationWeek’s 500 list of the nation’s most innovative IT organizations-including the 2009 list.

GenPro has proved its mettle for keeping operations live for UPS and Verizon on the heels of recent weather damage.

“We never ran out of fuel during the last two hurricane seasons,” says Tim Mosier of UPS. “Not to say it wasn’t a challenge, but thanks to creative thinking on the part of our long-time fuel supply partner Mansfield Oil, we have always had access to the fuel we need.”

During ice storms in January, Mansfield kept portable UPS tanks filled up in Louisiana. “UPS has got to deliver,” notes Tim Jones, account executive with Mansfield. “They’re also delivering packages to emergency personnel and their data simply cannot go down.”

Most commercial fuel distributors don’t guarantee service to generators because their volumes are low and sporadic. Being able to get the fuel to an affected area efficiently and expeditiously makes a huge difference, and Mansfield has the experience to do that in a crisis.

Figure 2. Fuel may arrive at a site ready to use, but it must be carefully watched after delivery.

In one instance, due to renovations, power to a UPS facility responsible for data worldwide was limited to a central data back-up building. A systems failure would have caused delivery service problems everywhere. However, the generator ran continuously, supported by Mansfield, without incident.

If Verizon’s facilities in Texas had failed, the number of people affected would have included almost the entire Gulf Coast area, reproducing the exact scenario that initially happened during Hurricane Katrina. Five to seven hundred thousand subscribers would have no cell phone, or no Internet, during a traumatic event in their lives. ATMs and many retailers (including Wal-Mart) use the network to communicate with banking systems. Still, the most critical operation for Verizon is 911 emergency service.

For communications, any problem with one facility creates a spider web effect of problems touching other areas. “Tandems and main switches almost always have a generator because if they fail it’s catastrophic,” said Rob McGee, fuel director for Verizon. “Main switches at a central office handle all calls that go through that geographic footprint, including any two computers communicating or any cell phone traffic. If a central office fails, you cannot ‘get out’ through that switch.” In Texas alone, Verizon uses 191 fixed building generators with 5,000- to 10,000-gallon capacity tanks.

McGee found out shortly before landfall of Hurricane Ike that their regular fuel supplier had evacuated. “We needed fuel for everything from the 750-kilowatt (kW) stationary generators down to the smallest Honda 5 kW gasoline generator,” said McGee, including 30 to 35 buildings with stationary generators. After the storm, tankers waited in line at refuel racks in Houston for days.

Mansfield’s solution combined trucking in large quantities of fuel, setting up land tanks and a bulk storage facility, coordinating with local vendors who were operational, and working in tandem to make deliveries to remote generators.

In one example from Hurricane Ike, a remote facility temporarily failed, leaving a small town without its communications or its radio station (which used circuits routed through the facility), which meant the town lost its only method of learning where emergency food pods would be set up. Verizon quickly restored the entire affected area using 80 to 100 generators.

If fuel is completely unavailable, there is a legislative option to pull the trigger with FEMA-to exercise a right to commandeer fuel. This is the last resort scenario, followed by government review of what failed in contingency planning.