Ever think of having backup power for your contracting firm? Ever think of possibly selling backup generators?

You might consider both.

Thank goodness the summer of 2004 was not like the summer of 2003, with its Great Blackout. Kind of hard to believe, but an overgrown tree tangled with sagging power lines in Ohio triggered a series of human and technological gaffes that resulted in the largest power outage in North American history, putting 50 million people in the Northeastern United States and Canada in the dark - many for days. According to some estimates, the blackout resulted in $6 billion in lost productivity.

Since then, government-driven efforts to assign accountability for reliable power and begin improving the aging power grid have stalled, despite U.S. Department of Energy estimates that power outages and other significant power fluctuations cost the United States $30 billion in productivity annually.

Not a good picture, is it?

Respondents to the 2004 Small Business Power Poll, commissioned by Emerson, ranked the age of the power grid as an equal threat to anything Mother Nature can dish out to cut off electricity.

This same survey points out that 75 percent of small business owners believe a power outage is a threat to their businesses. But even though two-thirds of small business owners believe they will experience an outage, only one in five is prepared for such an event.

The survey is mind-boggling for Jim Blasingame, a member of the U.S. Small Business Administration National Advisory Board.

"Small businesses are no longer just mom-and-pop, backwater entities; they are integrated partners with large corporations," Blasingame wrote on his Web site (www.jbsba.com). "Small businesses cannot afford to risk those vital relationships by being unable to perform when the power goes out."

Some Good News

According to Blasingame, the good news is that those "big business" backup technologies are now available and more affordable to small businesses. These include the uninterruptible power supply (UPS), which are battery units, and gen-sets, which are diesel or gas generators with automatic power transfer switches.

There are generators to meet the needs of small businesses that range from $6,000 to $15,000. While some small generators are available over the counter, most generators for small business use are ordered through contractors or supply houses. This is a golden opportunity for HVAC contractors to be a part of that transaction.

One can step into automatic power transfer switches, too. When utility power fails, this technology serves as an automatic bridge from electricity supplied by the utility to a backup generator at the business. Again, these are available through contractors and range in price from $1,000 to $3,500.

According to the 2004 Small Business Power Poll, more than half of small business owners identified "securing computer data such as financial/customer records" as their biggest priority during a power outage. A UPS, in Blasingame's estimation, is critical to protecting the computerized systems every size business depends upon.

A UPS shifts small businesses to battery power when an outage occurs, providing uninterruptible power to protect computers and other sensitive electronics and data.

UPS systems can run from as little as $120 to $3,000 for a more complex system.

Blasingame provides the following four steps to identify your backup power requirements:

1. Calculate what it would cost if your business couldn't serve your customers in the event of a power outage.

2. Walk around your business and identify the computers, equipment, lights, etc., critical to continuous operation.

3. Talk with electrical suppliers about the UPS option, and electrical contractors about the gen-set solution.

4. Make the investment.

If you're tempted to say you cannot afford it, Blasingame suggests you reread Step 1.

The host of the nationally syndicated radio talk show "The Small Business Advocate" put it this way:

"Write this on a rock: The question is not whether you're going to experience a power outage; it's whether you'll be prepared to conduct business during the next one."

Mark Skaer is editor-in-chief. He can be reached at 618-239-0288 or markskaer@achrnews.com.

Publication date: 11/15/2004