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Blackout Punch PUBLIC ACCESS

A California Landscaper Discovers an Unorthodox Solution to Rolling Blackouts, Using Remote Power Generation.

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Mechanical Engineering 123(08), 68-69 (Aug 01, 2001) (2 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2001-AUG-6

A California landscaper discovers an unorthodox solution to rolling blackouts, using remote power generation. The AuraGen remote power unit, under the hood of Sepulveda Building Materials’ service truck, could provide enough power to keep the company operating during a rolling blackout. With the onset of the summer months, rolling blackouts are likely to continue, possibly with increasing regularity as California’s energy crunch extends. The result is that many companies will still suffer more from the lack of power supply and the increasing heat. The mainframe computer, an IBM Power P C, is networked and communicates with the other stores using Strata model telephone tie lines from Toshiba Phone Systems. Al Fergades, director of vehicle maintenance for Sepulveda, suggested that the company run cables to his service truck and use the power from the onboard generator. The company has been able to evaluate exactly which office machines need to be operating when a power outage occurs again, because now it has had the chance to think about it.

While politicians debate over Cost-effective solutions to energy problems and make proposals that await partisan discussion and approval in a state or federal building, little has been done to bring immediate help to those directly affected.

Rolling blackouts in California are neither Democrat nor Republican, and create problems as varied as spoiled meat in the freezer at home or mainframe network shutdowns at work. Sometimes, the best solution is the one that guards against surprise problems or the one enacted by a resourceful individual who has a sudden stroke of genius.

One example of this kind of resourcefulness occurred on March 20 of this year in Laguna Niguel, Calif. When a blackout hit the region that day, businesses and homes in the town and the surrounding area were crippled, leaving many stores and small businesses no other option than to close down. During the power outage, which lasted more than an hour, many businesses scrambled to find sources of emergency power or at least solutions to cut their losses. The local Costco warehouse club found itself in need of emergency ice because management feared that meat and dairy products would spoil when freezers and refrigerators lost power.

Things were different at Sepulveda Building Materials, though. What could have been a companywide crisis became merely a small bump in the road.

Sepulveda is a landscaping company and building materials supplier servicing a large portion of Southern California. Because much of the work the company does is on site, there are advantages to having access to remote power sources to run tools and lights. The company’s vehicles carry mobile generators that run off the engines to produce more than 5,000 watts of continuous power.

The AuraGen remote power unit, under the hood of Sepulveda Building Materials’ service truck, was able to provide enough power to keep the company operating during a rolling blackout.

Grahic Jump LocationThe AuraGen remote power unit, under the hood of Sepulveda Building Materials’ service truck, was able to provide enough power to keep the company operating during a rolling blackout.

George Whitmore, vice president of finance at Sepulveda, said the company bought the remote power generators for use at job sites in the field, but in the case of the unexpected blackout, they served an unforeseen purpose. They actually kept the company operating.

Remote power generators are not new and are generally used in vehicles where remote power is necessary. Other common uses are for ambulances, fire and rescue vehicles, police cars, utility service vehicles, and industrial and military vehicles.

The compact generator that Sepulveda uses, called AuraGen, has a diameter of 30.9 cm and is 14.2 cm wide. It fits under the hood of a vehicle.

According to the manufacturer, Aura Systems Inc. of El Segundo, Calif., the generator’s operating range with gasoline engines is 1,200 rpm to redline, and with diesel, 950 rpm and up. At low engine speeds, the generator operates at between 75 and 85 percent efficiency. According to the maker, efficiency is 80 percent at 1,300 engine rpm. An alternator can operate at 70 percent efficiency at high speeds and 10 percent at low speed.

Most often, a unit is mounted in the front of the engine compartment with a belt pulley aligned with the vehicle’s crank pulley.

One of the tools that Sepulveda uses on site is a Miller-matic 185-mig 5-kW welder. “Either we do the welding ourselves or hire a welder at $100 an hour,” Whitmore explained. “Obviously, doing our own welding makes the most sense.” He said that, depending on the job, the power supply was able to run the welder and several other tools without any drain on the generator or the service truck.

“We have AuraGens installed in our fleet of tractor-trailers and in our service trucks, because we use a lot of power for welders, tile saws, and lighting,” said Whitmore. “It expands our capability and can even lengthen our workday by powering lighting.”

“When the lights went out, we faced a big problem because the Laguna Niguel office is the company’s headquarters,” Whitmore explained. “While our other stores in Gardena and Palm Springs were not hit by the blackouts, they were brought to their knees because they had no communication with our mainframe computer.”

The mainframe computer, an IBM Power PC, is networked and communicates with the other stores using Strata model telephone tie lines from Toshiba Phone Systems.

A1 Fergades, director of vehicle maintenance for Sepulveda, suggested that the company run cables to his service truck and use the power from the onboard generator. The service truck, a 1995 GMC 3500 one-ton vehicle, has a 275-hp 5.7-liter engine.

“We knew it could provide us with a lot of power because of our use in the field,” Whitmore said. “AI had been working with Aura Systems and was pretty confident that this would work.”

According to Whitmore, within minutes after the blackout struck, they were running cables from the truck, through the window, to the computer. “The blackout lasted an hour and 15 minutes, and we were without power for less than 30 minutes,” he said. “We were then able to service our Palm Springs and Gardena stores with minimal downtime. It really saved our bacon.”

Connecting not only the mainframe computer, which pulls 2,000 watts, and the phone network pulling an additional 1,500 watts, they were also able to power a laser printer, fax machine, and some other office equipment. In all, the power unit in the service truck handled more than 4,000 watts.

Vehicle maintenance director AI Fergades feeds cable to Georgine Camilli, Sepulveda’s human resources manager, while the truck’s engine idled.

Grahic Jump LocationVehicle maintenance director AI Fergades feeds cable to Georgine Camilli, Sepulveda’s human resources manager, while the truck’s engine idled.

According to Aura Systems, the AuraGen needs 6.7 hp to run at full load capacity, so the idling engine of the service truck was enough to power the systems in Laguna Niguel without draining the vehicle’s battery.

Because it is installed in high-torque engines (mostly mid- and full-size work vehicles, trucks, and sport utility vehicles built between 1990 and this year), it is designed to handle surges up to 7,500 watts for three seconds. The generator produces 240 V ac in single phase, or 120 V in two-phase operation.

With the onset of the summer months, rolling blackouts are likely to continue, possibly with increasing regularity as California’s energy crunch extends. The result is that many companies will still suffer all the more from the lack of power supply and the increasing heat.

Unless a solution comes from the power companies, many homes and businesses will lose valuable time and money as this problem continues. Sepulveda Building Materials plans to keep its service truck at the ready for the inevitable power interruptions.

“We are now installing a switchbox here in Laguna Niguel so we can run power from the truck at any moment,” Whitmore said. He added that the company plans to buy mobile generators for its other sites. “This way, our other stores will have the same safety net we have here.”

The company has been able to evaluate exactly which office machines need to be operating when a power outage occurs again, because now it has had the chance to think about it. The first time was an emergency, but Whitmore said the actions taken during that first blackout have heightened the staff’s preparation. “The question is not if, but when,” he said.

Copyright © 2001 by ASME
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