If you told someone in the early 1990s that cellphones would one day become the dominant mode of communication, they’d probably cock their head in confusion. Back then, cellphones were housed inside of giant bags that people carried around and plugged into their cars. They were bulky, had terrible reception, and were a far cry from today's smartphones.

Just as cellphones have advanced rapidly in features and functionality, the same holds true for data center power management devices. In this article, we’ll explore how lithium-ion batteries are pushing the industry to rethink the way UPSs are designed and deployed.


A New Era of Innovation

A myriad of advancements has brought lithium-ion technology to the forefront when it comes to backup power. First and foremost, the cost has fallen dramatically, while some historical concerns regarding safety have been sufficiently addressed. The chemistry of lithium-ion batteries for UPS applications is much safer than those used in the past for other applications and is more akin to the batteries found in electric cars.

Lithium-ion batteries perform the same functions as traditional lead-acid batteries while offering a variety of advantages. With a 10- to-15-year life cycle, data centers that have traditionally been forced to replace UPS batteries every three to five years can reap significant cost savings. The upfront price of a lithium-based solution with monitoring is now on par with valve-regulated lead-acid (VRLA) battery solutions but with the added benefit of a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) when maintenance and replacement costs are considered for the life of the UPS system.

Additionally, lithium-ion batteries are lightweight and have a small footprint, allowing customers to pack more power backup per square foot. As edge facilities become more popular, longer battery life spans make managing continuous power for those remote environments easier with little to no on-site IT staff required.


UPS purchase
Like deciding on a new cellphone, data center operators and IT managers should consider how technology has evolved as they weigh their next UPS purchase.
Photo courtesy of Eaton.


Case in Point

Database marketing provider Axciom became an early lithium-ion adopter when it was time to overhaul its power infrastructure. For nearly a decade, the company managed power backup requirements for its data center’s construction projects by renting temporary mobile UPS trailers and saw immediate benefits in transitioning to a more lightweight, flexible lithium-ion based UPS system. This temporary power support arrangement saves dramatically on project cost and time to completion for any client that is replacing or upgrading a large UPS system. Lithium-ion reduces the battery weight and increases the capacity of each temporary UPS trailer, so fewer trailers are required for the job.

“Nobody else was using the technology at that point, but it proved to be a huge benefit,” said Marc Basche of Global Power Supply, who co-owns the trailers with Martin Bosch of Air Power Consultants. “Not only does lithium-ion increase reliability, but the dramatically lower weight of the batteries makes the trailer highly transportable.”

A first-of-its-kind system to leverage lithium-powered batteries, the solution helps the mobile station’s six battery cabinets weigh in at just 7,200 pounds — more than five times less than the 40,000-pound lead-acid alternative.

“Lead-acid batteries pose a great challenge from a physical footprint and weight standpoint because the trailer is not transportable without first removing the batteries,” Bosch said. “In the trailers where lead-acid is used, we have to remove all of the batteries, ship them separately, and then reinstall all of them on-site. Obviously, this adds a lot of time and expense.”

The mobile backup station met a vital power protection need for Axiom’s mission critical space while a new UPS system was installed in its data center. As the company upgrades UPS systems in the future, the lithium-ion system will continue to save time and money while helping to facilitate a smooth transition with no impact to customers.


Photo courtesy of Eaton


Integrated Capabilities to Consider

Lithium-ion batteries present advantages for data center operators seeking to get more out of their UPSs, but there are several additional advancements that can help operators drive greater value from their power management investments. Power monitoring software allows data center operators to remotely monitor backup devices and other equipment. Operators can use their software to keep an eye on systems across their networks, which can often include multiple locations.

Backup power systems can also be used with predictive analytics services that enable operators to anticipate the failure of critical components, such as batteries and mechanical parts, before they occur. That means data centers can turn their reactive maintenance strategies into proactive ones. Amid the pandemic and beyond, ensuring service technicians are deployed on-site only when necessary minimizes in-person interactions and reduces risk of infection. Repairs or updates can be scheduled at convenient times, thus avoiding unplanned service disruptions.

Cybersecurity is another important factor to keep in mind as interconnectedness continues to increase within power management infrastructures. Certified network management cards can help protect UPSs against potential threats. Using security locks on rack enclosures can also be helpful in ensuring only authorized personnel have access to power devices.


An Energy-Aware Solution

As the industry begins to gravitate more toward lithium-ion technology, leaders are also beginning to think differently about traditional UPS applications. While data centers maintain control of their power requirements — choosing how much capacity to offer and when — new advancements provide the opportunity to turn a previously idle asset into an energy storage resource that can provide a revenue stream by participating in utility demand reduction programs. In this environment, operators can use UPSs to anchor new strategies for lowering energy consumption and offsetting costs.

When deploying an energy-aware UPS, long-life lithium batteries can be used to optimize budgets and generate additional revenue from the power infrastructure. Potential capabilities include providing peak shaving to avoid or reduce demand charges, shifting energy consumption for time-of-use rate optimization, providing frequency regulation to help grid operators meet explosive growth demands, and balancing the impact of increasing renewable energy production that may change rapidly with cloud cover and wind speed.


The Bottom Line

Like deciding on a new cellphone, data center operators and IT managers should consider how technology has evolved as they weigh their next UPS purchase. There can be significant benefits in deploying optimal systems. And, in the never-ending quest for energy efficiency, there may be opportunities to leverage these solutions to improve sustainability and drive more revenue —both now and in the future.


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