Why Power Surges Can Be a Bigger Deal for Businesses Than Homes

A power surge can cause huge problems when it occurs in any electrical system that’s not designed with the proper precautions in mind. But when that electrical system is part of a commercial or industrial facility, rather than a house or apartment, the potential for hazards and costly downtime can be significantly higher.


Along with ingress protection from an instrument enclosure, power surge protection is one of the most important parts of designing a resilient commercial electrical system. Below, we’ll talk about what power surges can mean for commercial and industrial electrical systems, as well as how businesses can protect against them.



What Happens During a Power Surge?

The National Electrical Manufacturers’ Association defines power surges as “brief overvoltage spikes or disturbances on a power waveform that can damage, degrade, or destroy electronic equipment within any home, commercial building, industrial, or manufacturing facility.” You might also hear a power surge called a transient or a voltage spike.


Most electrical systems experience minor variations in their current from one minute to the next. Any well designed system can accommodate these smaller fluctuations. However, larger spikes in voltage can cause more significant disruption because they may overload a circuit beyond its rated load capacity.


Some of the negative effects that facilities can experience from a power surge include:


  • Damage to circuits and microprocessors (which may or may not be immediately obvious)
  • Burning and melting of key components
  • Loss of power, sometimes for prolonged periods of time
  • Downtime and/or data loss in IT systems
  • Arc flashes that can injure or kill workers and start fires


Causes of Power Surges

Power surges in industrial and commercial environments can come from several sources, including:


  • Disaster Events: A direct hit from a bolt of lightning can cause catastrophic damage, but even an indirect strike nearby can create current overloads in certain sensitive systems. Other events, such as downed trees on power lines, may also create dangerous current fluctuations.
  • Old Wiring: Outdated wiring may not be suitable for the current that it needs to carry, much less for the excessive current in a power surge. It’s easy to overload an older circuit and not realize it until a power surge causes a disruption.
  • Electrostatic Discharge: A sudden discharge of static electricity from a piece of equipment may create a dangerous voltage spike in your electrical system.
  • Switching: Many facilities require high current switches to regularly be turned on and off, which creates substantial current variations. Over a long period, these variations can contribute to breakdown in an electrical system.
  • Utility Issues: Some power surges come from upstream sources like electrical utilities as they switch local power grids on and off to accommodate demand. This is a normal process that typically happens without incident, but it can cause disruption in some systems.



Power Surges: Residential vs. Commercial and Industrial

So, why is it that a power surge can cause worse effects in a business than in a residence? These are just a few of the many reasons:


  • Commercial and industrial facilities almost always use more power than residences. The high voltage currents that these facilities use can make conditions in commercial and industrial equipment significantly more dangerous and costly.
  • Downtime due to electrical events is incredibly expensive for businesses, and the cost increases with the complexity of the system and the equipment. In large facilities, downtime costs can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour in lost production.
  • IT systems can be extremely vulnerable to power surges if left unprotected. A power surge that hits an insufficiently protected server, for example, can cause extensive data loss and days or weeks of potential downtime.
  • Many businesses, especially larger ones, now operate large systems with numerous interconnected nodes. A power surge that affects one system can create cascading effects in others, potentially even causing downstream damage to client assets.
  • In businesses with perishable inventory, such as restaurants and food processing facilities, a prolonged power outage caused by a surge can result in huge inventory losses if storage facilities can’t maintain safe temperatures.


Protecting Your Business from Power Surges

Protection against power surges is one of the must-have elements of electrical system design. Each type of system will demand different strategies that are tailored to the needs of the business and the facility.


Grounding is one of the fundamental tools for surge protection in any electrical system design. A ground gives a surge current a safe path to discharge itself and helps prevent fault conditions. One of the most common ways to provide a ground is through an industrial surge protector. These are more powerful versions of the surge protectors found in homes and offices. However, be sure to check that your surge protector has the correct joule rating for your needs.


Keeping properly maintained circuit breakers is another critical way to protect your business from power surges. Breakers interrupt a circuit in a fault condition before it has the chance to cause harm, so they’re a crucial measure for dealing with power surge risk. It’s common to use a surface mount electrical box with a bonding stud for your breaker box to ensure a path to ground is available.


In the event that a power surge does cause electrical disruptions, it’s a good idea for a business to have a power generator available. This helps minimize downtime and allows businesses to protect important equipment. For some devices, such as server equipment, it’s necessary to have an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) that will seamlessly switch on if it detects a power loss.


Source: Virrage Images/Shutterstock.com


Power surges are a fact of life for businesses of all kinds, but like power surges at home, strategies are available to mitigate them. A business’s success and its ability to fulfill its responsibilities to the community depend on successful mitigation of these risks, so don’t wait until it’s too late!

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