By Mike Grennier
This article appeared in the October 2022 issue of EC&M digital magazine.
While the DC Power industry has more than its fair share of challenges, one stands above the rest: the lack of adequately trained stationary battery technicians.
A recent study of data center outages by the Uptime Institute estimated that almost two-thirds of all unplanned outages are associated with human error. Most of these events appeared to occur when technicians failed to satisfactorily complete a defined operational procedure. While this study covered data centers, all indications are that this trend may well apply across many industries where technicians are required to carry out mission-critical, procedural-based tasks.
So, who’s at fault when it comes to human error on the job The technician on the front lines or the employer required to give their employees the knowledge and skills necessary to adequately perform their job?
Regardless of where we want to start pointing fingers, on a recent episode of the “DC Power Hour” podcast, three respected stationary battery industry experts overwhelmingly agreed that it’s high-time we address this issue and the impending shortage of specialized technicians responsible for ensuring backup power reliability is at its best – where it needs to be at all times.
“There is greater reliance on stationary batteries today than there was before and it’s going to continue to grow. Ensuring the maximum reliability and uptime of a battery as intended requires specialized talent. There are no two ways about it,” said Ed Rafter, a 35-year veteran in battery systems, primarily for data centers.
“A stationary battery is a far more complex device than most people realize. Many have no idea how important they are to their ability to do the things they are supposed to do. They simply don’t understand the importance of training,” said George Pedersen, who has been immersed in the battery industry for more than 40 years. Pedersen is now an instructor with Eagle Eye University (EEU), an industry-leading stationary battery training subsidiary of Eagle Eye Power Solutions (EEPS) in Mequon Wis.
Whether it’s the stationary battery installation, service, or maintenance providers , or the end-users themselves, more industry-wide emphasis on training is essential, said 40-year industry veteran J. Allen Byrne, an EEPS technical advisor.
“You’ve got to change the attitude of a lot of people,” Byrne said, “It is going to be a challenge and I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but it has to change.”
Standards Only Go So Far
The lack of people specially trained in stationary battery installation and maintenance didn’t happen overnight, according to these experts. They say it’s been brewing for decades.
One of the reasons, they cite, has to do with the lack of widespread adoption of industry standards and guides designed to determine the skill levels required by technicians.
Among the U.S. standards is IEEE Standard 1657, IEEE Recommended Practice for Personal Qualification for Installation and Maintenance of Stationary Batteries. It was developed in the early 2000’s by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Power Engineering Society’s Stationary Battery Committee at that time, now the IEEE Power and Energy Society Energy Storage and Stationary Battery Committee (IEEE PES ESSBC). Another key standard is from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which created NERC Standard PRC-005-2 to assess the operational reliability of batteries used in the electrical utility industry.
While all three experts agree that these standards are a step in the right direction, they say standards only go so far when it comes to training because they’re designed primarily to provide guidelines. They do not dictate how training should be implemented.
IEEE 1657 is a prime example of the limitations of any standard when it comes to training, said Byrne and Rafter, both of whom helped develop the standard.
“It basically tells you what you should know but not how to do it,” Byrne said of IEEE 1657, which sets a high bar for the required knowledge base for the various technician levels, with an emphasis on safety.
“While 1657 covers everything from a knowledge standpoint, the missing link is in the delivery of training. You need trainers, you need instructors, you need people to deliver it, and that’s one of the issues we have now,” said Rafter.
A Two-Part Problem
The lack of people who work as specialized stationary battery technicians is a two-part problem – and one that is common to most technical trades, say the experts. Part of the problem has to do with a lack of interest in the battery trade in general. The second concerns the steady departure of those in the field with the knowledge and expertise to pass along to the next generation.
“We’re struggling to find qualified technicians, and at the same time, the trainers and the people who know the material are moving on,” said Rafter.
A major issue with qualified people for the job, said Pedersen, is the absence of a career path for those who choose to work as stationary battery technicians.
“The traditional way to get into this type of technical field would have been apprenticeships. Very few of those exist today,” he said. “A lot of young people see no real career path there. There’s no structure in place for them to be promoted or moved up in an organization.”
“People aren’t getting into the field. Maybe they don’t see it as glamourous,” said Byrne, adding how the issue is exacerbated by old school experts who are exiting the industry. “In years past, you learned from the old guy. But there aren’t many left to pass on the knowledge. They were either let go, or they retired, and they weren’t replaced.”
Profitability a Clear Factor
Another major reason for an inadequately trained workforce of battery technicians concerns the drive for profitability across virtually all industries, the experts say.
“In my opinion, it has to do with a ‘financial engineering’ decision. Many organizations are saying, ‘If it’s not a profit center, it’s not on the radar,’” said Byrne, noting how many place the responsibility for stationary batteries on the person who oversees maintenance for an entire facility. “They want to spread these specialized tasks among the fewest people possible.” In many cases, these personnel are responsible for many other non-battery related tasks.
The competition for business, as well as skilled employees, also plays into the decision not to invest in people who are truly specialized in stationary batteries, said Rafter.
“How do you make any profit margin without sacrificing something?” Rafter said. “I’m not saying it’s always even intentional, but what are your options? It comes down to money.”
Pedersen said it ties back to the investment needed for things like apprenticeships and more robust training programs that focus on more than simply how to perform tasks.
“There are people out there doing the job, but they don’t necessarily understand why they’re doing it,” Pedersen said. “If you don’t know why, it’s boring and it’s likely you won’t do it very accurately. The problem we have in general is that while battery maintenance may be performed, it’s no longer being done by people who specialize in it.”
Safety and Reliability at Stake
Although there are a variety of factors behind the shortage of trained stationary battery technicians, the experts say the issue is one that can no longer be swept aside – especially given the importance of stationary battery safety and reliability.
“There can be a lot of ‘gotchas’ if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s vital that the person who installs and maintains the batteries understands all the procedures and what’s right and what’s wrong,” said Rafter, noting how the issue has taken on even more importance since new battery technologies have been introduced ahead of the final standards for installing and maintaining them.
“Gotchas” cited by Rafter, Byrne and Pedersen include ineffective maintenance and monitoring, damage to systems, and complete system failure, among others.
“The backup power system, whether it’s an Uninterruptable Power System (UPS) or a DC system, is an Achilles’ heel. If it fails, the whole system could be at risk,” said Byrne, citing one of many issues he experienced firsthand with battery installation and maintenance. “Numerous studies show battery-related failures cause most of the outages and downtime in data centers. That can cost millions of dollars.”
Without proper training in stationary battery maintenance and monitoring, the ability to ensure reliability is in question, said Pedersen. Take a basic 120-volt utility battery as an example, he said.
“You might not be able to identify the potential points of failure that can occur within the battery,” said Pedersen. “There are actually 60 cells in series within that battery. Any one of those 60 cells could fail and effectively take the battery offline.”
In addition to reliability issues are major safety concerns. The list of potential accidents caused by inexperience or negligence is lengthy, according to all three experts.
“You’ve got a chemical hazard because the electrolytes in the batteries are highly corrosive. You have the potential for electrocution. You have the potential for arc flash. You’ve got the potential for explosion because the batteries generate hydrogen. And batteries made of lead are very heavy and you can have handling accidents with that,” Pedersen said.
Accidents can cause not only serious physical harm, but also death, say the experts.
“It wasn’t long ago, I knew of someone who got killed on the job,” said Rafter. “It does happen. There is definitely a serious safety issue involved.”
Human error is clearly one of the main reasons why accidents and technical failures with stationary batteries happen, noted Pedersen.
“Human error is very high on the list,” Pedersen said. “If you have human error, that’s a clear indication to me that you didn’t have proper training.”
Answers Can be Found
There is no one answer for how best to ensure the people who install and maintain stationary batteries are adequately trained and qualified to safely and effectively perform the work required. Yet the answers have to be found.
“We have more stationary batteries today than ever and there are more coming. The importance of training is self-evident,” said Rafter. He noted how the industry needs to find a way to get people interested in the technical trades and take on jobs like that of a stationary battery technician.
“We have to have more qualified people to install and maintain batteries,” he said. “If someone comes in and puts in their time on the job, they can then learn, and they can then advance accordingly. That’s something I’d like to see happen.”
Byrne said an increase in accountability would go a long way toward addressing the issue. Accountability, he said, starts with the person performing the work since they need to ensure they receive the proper training. It also applies to the employer who needs to ensure that the person they hired to do the job is adequately trained. The industry as a whole might also want to look at other options, such as certification or licensing, he said.
“If you hire an electrician to perform work, for example, they’ve usually gone through an apprenticeship program and worked as a journeyman to get their license. I just think there needs to be more accountability,” Byrne said.
Pedersen strongly supports this notion, adding there is no substitute for more well-rounded training at all levels with or without an apprenticeship.
“We need to change this idea of training some people in the theory of battery installation and maintenance and training other people in how to actually do battery installation and maintenance. The industry needs to do training both ways,” he said. “The people in supervisory levels should also learn this on the job. Training is something that’s been neglected, and we have to accept that it’s now more important than ever.”
For more information about training, check with a number of entities now offering courses on stationary battery maintenance.
About the Author
Mike Grennier is a freelance writer specializing in business-to-business content.