Backup power generator

Backup generators such as this one keep essential services running during emergencies and unexpected outages.

For Dale Dickson, the biggest compliment he can receive on his work is that no one notices it. From plumbing and HVAC systems to lighting, power systems and backup generators, Dickson’s work, which is essential to buildings’ functionality and daily lives, is only noticed when something isn’t working properly.

As team leader for McClure Engineering Company’s (MEC) mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering, Dickson primarily works in the Midwest, an area known for its tornadoes, hail, ice and snow storms. Power outages are a reality for businesses and municipalities; however, a properly designed backup power generation system can enable city operations and critical services to continue to function through emergency outages.

“In the case of a large fire or a tornado, having backup power in a command and communication center is essential,” said Dickson. “If they don’t have backup, the people who are making the decisions can’t communicate with those who need to be addressing the emergency, carrying those decisions out and keeping the community safe.”

Dickson added that for fire departments, backup power generators can be a life saver. Generators are needed to power their radios and to raise the doors to allow them to get the equipment to the scene of the emergency.

“It can be really hard to justify $40,000 or $400,000 on something you hope you never have to use, but it’s an insurance policy and a very necessary one,” said Dickson.

One of the first things Dickson and his team work with the client on is identifying needs for power during emergency situations and whether they will power their entire building or just critical components. They ask questions to help them think about what needs to be powered, how much power it will take to restart those things, as well as related technology concerns such as uninterruptable power supplies. With this information, they are able to integrate clients’ needs into the design of the generator.

“One of the challenges is to size a generator for an existing building where you are not sure of all the loads,” said Dickson. “The utility company can give a maximum demand, but you need more information than that. You have to know enough about the building motor loads to size it just right to provide a cost effective and efficient solution.”

One of the other considerations when designing a backup generator system that can have a significant fiscal impact is the location of it. In the case of one city Dickson worked with, the cost difference between the optimal and secondary location was $100,000 due to the cost of the trenching, conduit and copper.

“Of course, budget will always be driving some of these decisions, but I work to make sure the solution will serve the community and residents during the times they need it most,” Dickson added.

Dickson has worked with both diesel and natural gas power generators and installed both manual and automatic transfer switches based on the needs of the individual entity. Noise and access to the generator are both considerations that drive these decisions.

“Natural gas is simple in some ways. You don’t have to worry if the generator has to run for a weekend, and you don’t have to fill it with diesel, but there is always the chance that you would not be able to obtain natural gas in some emergency conditions,” said Dickson.

During his time at MEC, Dickson has seen backup power generator technology progress and become more reliable. While most cities’ staff understand that backup power is needed, funding can be a challenge when balancing spending among all the municipalities’ infrastructure needs and budget constraints, but helping solve these and other challenges is part of what makes the job interesting.

“Every day is different because I get to do everything from working with clients to designing the project, overseeing the construction and then doing it all over again,” said Dickson. “Every day is a new day.”