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The 5 Myths of Power Protection for the Lab

The 5 Myths of Power Protection for the Lab

Lab managers need a strong grasp on the importance of clean, consistent power and the danger of unconditioned power

Electrical power plays a foundational role in a lab’s success. It is the driving force behind every mission-critical instrument in the lab—yet it is often overlooked as a potential source of issues. Lab managers need a strong grasp on the importance of clean, consistent power and the danger of unconditioned power. To protect your lab’s instruments and performance, let’s debunk the five biggest myths of power protection.

Myth #1: Power availability indicates power quality

Many people believe that power is power: if the lights turn on, power is being delivered and if they don’t, there’s a problem. That is only half right. While the inability to turn on the lights certainly indicates that a power environment has been compromised, the lights being on is no evidence that the power environment (and the power in it) is clean, consistent, and free from voltage spikes or drops. This is relevant because while clean power leads to consistent performance, inconsistent power into a machine leads to inconsistent performance. 

In fact, your systems are actually most vulnerable when the power is on. Though harmful power disturbances are most visible during an electrical outage, 90 percent of power disturbances stem from the internal environment and occur while the system is seemingly operating normally. Spikes, normal-mode noise, and common-mode noise are present to some degree all the time but left unchecked, these disturbances can lead to downtime, data errors, inaccurate measurements, shortened equipment life, and increased service calls. 

Myth #2: Power problems originate outside my lab

Storms and other natural occurrences account for only about 10 percent of power issues, according to industry experts. The remaining 90 percent come from within the facility itself. Anything that runs on electricity will create noise in a power environment, including other machines in the vicinity, the building’s HVAC systems, and even overhead lighting. 

These systems are necessary to keep laboratory building operations up and running, but they can also produce electrical impulses, high-frequency noise, and high-voltage transients. This noise leads to variance in power quality—irregular swells, sags, and spikes in the smooth sinewave electrical engineers prefer to see. That variance can easily disrupt sensitive electrical equipment in a lab setting.

Myth #3 – A surge protector will suffice

In technical terms, a “surge” is a high voltage transient or impulse. Surge protectors are designed to divert this impulse away from the sensitive electronic systems they protect but this does not eliminate the impulse. That means the power problem persists and the system strains. Many surge protectors are also functionally one-time-use only or degrade over time, with performance subject to their respective clamping voltage and response times. They are useful, especially in the residential or light commercial market, but they don’t offer enough protection for a laboratory environment. 

A majority of commercial-level power protection solutions deploy a surge diverter, noise filter, or both, but the most important element of power protection is actually a low impedance isolation transformer. This specialized feature acts to isolate the powered instrument from the power source and re-establishes the neutral-ground bond without opposing or disrupting the current path. The device is then truly protected from unwanted noise without negatively affecting power flow. This ensures only clean, reliable power consistently flows to and through your devices.

Myth #4 – A backup generator is good enough—I don’t need a UPS

A backup generator is designed to keep your most essential equipment running in the event of a blackout, but what if all your equipment is essential? What about power problems other than blackouts? A backup generator is not as productive or reliable as regular power from the grid, so it will be forced to prioritize where its power is diverted. Alternatively, the whole lab environment can run on reduced power. One major drawback is that a generator can take up to 45 seconds to start up and supply power, an eternity to unprotected sensitive electronic systems. Either way, this is less than ideal—especially when considering that a traditional backup generator does not provide power conditioning when not actively in use.

An uninterruptible power supply (UPS), on the other hand, not only delivers reliable, clean, and uninterruptable power when active, but also features a low impedance isolation transformer with a high load inrush capacity. Leading UPS models also include an internal maintenance bypass system, customizable PDU, wide input voltage range, and integrated SNMP capability. Some even feature hot-swappable batteries to allow the unit to stay online during maintenance. An additional and highly beneficial element of a sound UPS system is that it provides a central, clean grounding point for all components.

Myth #5 – Expensive equipment is built to withstand power blips

While you might assume that costly equipment is built to handle a bit of wear and tear, this is decidedly not the case with highly calibrated, sensitive electronics. Lab equipment may have been designed for extensive and intensive use, but it is generally performance-tested assuming a specific use or task. Its durability does not account for power problems. 

Dirty power won’t necessarily destroy your equipment, just as low-octane gasoline won’t crash your car. The issues it causes come in the form of degradation, system lockup, undetected data logic errors, and slow erosion of system components and performance levels. In a way, these problems are worse than an outright crash because you could accidentally act on inaccurate readings with no knowledge that your equipment results are flawed. Don’t let the false semblance of power protection lead to bad science; make sure your laboratory has the real thing.