They used to be called blackouts. At around 7pm, just as everyone in the neighbourhood was getting home and switching on the lights, TV, heaters and ovens, whole suburbs would suddenly be plunged into darkness. The race was then on to charge around the house and make sure all the power points were turned off so a power surge wouldn't blow the TV when the electricity was returned.
No great damage done, the business community had by-and-large closed down for the evening, and if the power stayed out for a while, a candlelit dinner of cheese sandwiches provided a novel adventure, at least for the kids.
These days however it s not called a blackout, its called load shedding, and it doesn't happen early on winter evenings, it happens on stinking hot summers days when just about everyone on the grid cranks up the air conditioning in an attempt to turn their houses into giant fridges. And no matter what time it happens there will be someone, somewhere relying on power to keep their company running.
On January 16 2007, amid record high temperatures and raging bush fires, millions of customers in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, and SA found themselves without power.
According to the industry regulatory body, National Electricity Management Market Company (NEMMCO), about 2490MW of customer load was disconnected for three hours. In the wake of such a widespread incident, NEMMCO released a report attempting to explain why the power went down and what could be done about it.
The answers were manifold, but can be whittled down to a few key factors. At the same time as governments are shying away from investing in infrastructure, the drought has reduced our capacity to make electricity because there is less water driving the hydroelectric turbines. At the same time, on the demand side, we are using more electricity than ever before, per capita and overall. And not just in the summer months.
This winter produced an all-time high demand for electricity in NSW and winter records in Victoria and SA. Not only are we still heating poorly insulated houses, these days at around 7pm it s not just the TV and the heater, but a power-hungry widescreen TV, probably a couple of computers or an Xbox, the oven and the rest of the electrical goods on standby.
Senior marketing manager for Emerson Network Power, Peter Spiteri, said there was an average of 350 power disturbances per month across the electricity grid in Australia. However, the vast majority of these went unnoticed.
"There are lots of different categories of power disturbance, and while the blackouts are the most noticeable, they are probably the least problematic when it comes to protecting data and electrical equipment," Spiteri said. "There are sags and surges and spikes, all of which can have very serious consequences for the home user and the business community."
Looking for opportunities
Managing director of UPS specialist reseller PowerOn Australia, Boyd Lockett, said the proliferation of electrical devices also came with increased sophistication, with the goods increasingly subject to damage caused by power fluctuations.
"When you're talking UPS you re not just talking an emergency device anymore, you re talking about a device which cleans up the dirty and fluctuating power levels that can cause terrible unseen damage to sensitive equipment like computers, home entertainment systems and devices like PlayStations," Lockett said.
Although he conceded the greatest spikes in sales always followed a large general electricity outage, he said many resellers were missing out on the opportunity to create clean power bundles in the initial sale.
"It's a bit like security, when somebody has been robbed then they all go rushing out to buy a new security system," Lockett said. "Whereas resellers can provide a long-term service from the very beginning by bundling a new computer system with a UPS to prolong its life." Moreover, he said the boom in digital home entertainment equipment had seen a new opportunity open up for resellers focused on the domestic space.
"We re now getting gamers coming to us to get UPS put on the games machines, and separate UPS systems to connect up to the plasma screens and the TV, as well," Lockett said. "Whereas years ago people wouldn't have been bothered because the devices weren't deemed critical, they are now spending more money on their home entertainment systems and they want to protect them."
National sales manager for MGE Office Protection Systems, Jonathan Keysdale, said demand for single-phase surge protection systems had increased sharply in line with growth in the digital entertainment sector. At the same time as the market was driving up demand, the nature and quality of the UPS systems on offer had improved substantially.
"Home entertainment has increased our sales figures quite dramatically," Keysdale said. "There's more of a market out there, because the devices do more than just keep the power on for a few minutes. They protect against surges from fluctuating supply and lightning strikes as well."
While he conceded it was a growing market, Emerson's Spiteri warned against resellers charging headlong into power protection in the home entertainment space, pointing to certain pitfalls which could trap the unwary. "Plasma screens, for example, require a big spike of power when they turn on, four or five times greater than what they need to run when they re actually running," Spiteri said. "A UPS based on the standard power usage will probably cause more problems to the customer."
Spiteri suggested resellers ensure they understand how the entertainment systems operated rather than installing ineffective power protection.