Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)
What is an uninterruptible power supply?
An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is a device that keeps a computer running for at least a short time when the power goes out. As long as utility power keeps running, it also keeps the energy storage full and in good shape. The longer power can be kept on, the more energy can be stored. However, there are practical limits that will be talked about later. The technology that makes each UPS system do its job in a different way is what makes them different.
There are different ways to store energy. Most batteries these days are rechargeable. For ease of use, this article's examples and illustrations will be based on that technology. But kinetic energy can also be stored in heavy, rotating flywheels or as fuel.
Types of uninterruptible power supply
Most people use a type of UPS called a full-time or full double conversion UPS, which is also the most effective. The utility power that comes into a UPS is alternating current (AC), which is also what most IT equipment needs (ITE).
Batteries, on the other hand, use direct current (DC), so all battery-type UPSes must change the incoming alternating current (AC) power into direct current (DC) to charge the batteries. This process is called "rectification." The UPS must still send AC power to the ITE, so a device called an inverter must turn DC power back into AC power.
In a double-conversion UPS, power goes through the rectifier, and then the inverter is on its way to the ITE. The voltage and frequency of the output have nothing to do with the voltage and frequency of the input. They can even be completely different from the input, so this system is technically called "voltage and frequency independent" (VFI).
Voltage and frequency independent
In Figure 1, you can see a VFI system working as it should. There are two ways to deal with problems with the power coming in. The worst voltage spikes are taken care of by a surge suppression device (SPD). Lightning strikes on power lines, large motors like those in elevators or medical electronics, welders, and many other things can cause these. But even the smallest changes, like voltage dips or brownouts, never reach the output of a VFI UPS.
Batteries are great at absorbing electrical shocks, and they also send a steady voltage to the inverter. The inverter completely resynthesizes the voltage and current so that the power sent to the ITE is steady and clean. Connecting air conditioners or other motors to the UPS that powers the ITE could contaminate this clean output power, so it's not recommended.
Note the bypass circuit that goes around the UPS. We'll get to that later.
During normal operation, the battery is always in the circuit and provides small amounts of power when needed, such as during brownouts, so there is never even the slightest break in power output.
Figure 2 shows that when the power from the grid goes out, the battery keeps sending stored energy to the inverter, which keeps sending clean power to the ITE. When the power from the utility company comes back on, power flows back through the rectifier, into the inverter, and back into the batteries.
UPS static and maintenance bypass
UPSes are not uninterruptible. They are electrical or mechanical devices, so they need regular maintenance and can have parts break down. Because of this, all UPS systems come with a built-in bypass that lets power go around the system and straight to the ITE when needed.
The high-quality SPD is still in the circuit, but it isn't much better than using a power strip with surge protection to power your home electronics. It won't stop the power from going out or fix brownouts or drops in voltage. If the UPS fails, the bypass works as a static switch right away.
When a technician needs to work on the system, the bypass is turned on by hand to protect the parts inside. If the power from the utility fails while the UPS is in bypass mode, power to the ITE is cut off. This weakness is present in any installation with only one UPS. Figure 3 shows how the UPS looks when it is not being used.
The big spikes have been taken out, but the voltage drop keeps going.
Economy mode operation
The first law of thermodynamics, called the "law of conservation of energy," says that energy cannot be made or destroyed. No electrical or mechanical device is 100% efficient, so every conversion causes a loss, which gets lost as heat.
UPS systems are much more efficient than they were ten years ago, and they stay pretty much the same from low load to high load. But both the rectifier and the inverter still lose power, which is taken care of when the UPS is in bypass mode. As shown in Figure 4, many VFI UPSes now have a more advanced version of bypass called "eco mode." When needed, an eco-mode UPS can switch back to full VFI mode.
When rectifier and inverter losses are removed, power and money are saved until the power goes out and the whole UPS system needs to be used. Some users set the system to work in VFI mode during the day and have it automatically switch to eco mode at night if the tasks aren't as important. Most of the time, eco mode works well, but many people are afraid to switch between modes. Also, the efficiency of new VFI UPS is within 1% or less of what can be achieved in eco mode, so many users no longer find this mode useful.
Note that eco mode UPSes have high-quality filters that also cause a small loss and that switching modes usually causes a short period of instability. The efficiency of eco mode is based on statistics, but it can be 99% if power outages are rare and don't last long.
Line interactive UPS
The output frequency of a true line-interactive UPS is the same as the input frequency, which is why it is called "voltage independent" (VI). Except for the size of their rectifiers and the fact that they can't switch to VFI mode, they look almost the same as VFI UPSes in eco mode.
The smaller rectifier only needs to charge the batteries, which help absorb irregularities and increase power when voltage drops. When the power goes out, the batteries do everything. Figure 5 shows how the battery and inverter run in parallel with the output to help make up for changes in the voltage coming in.
Figure 6 shows a line-interactive UPS when incoming service fails. Just like in a double-conversion UPS, the battery takes over, but the utility is taken out of the circuit by the bypass. Since the ITE runs most of the time on power from the grid, the inverter doesn't have to do a second conversion until the power goes out. This eliminates one of the efficiency loss factors.
Before a decade, VI UPSes could be more efficient by 5% or more than VFI units, but VFI UPSes have improved so much that the difference is now 1% or less.
Figure 7 is called a standby UPS. It is a voltage and frequency dependent device. Power is sent straight to the ITE, like a VI UPS, but the battery and inverter are not in the circuit until the power goes out. The output is filtered, but it isn't as stable as a real VI UPS.
Figure 8 shows that when the power goes out, the utility is turned off and the battery and inverter are turned on. There is some instability in the switching, but the delay is short enough that most computer power supplies can handle it.
When the power comes back on, whether from the grid or a generator, the inverter is turned off, the line power is turned back on, and the rectifier, which is much smaller than in a VFI or VI UPS, charges the batteries.
Some standby or VFD UPSes are advertised as line interactive, which is a mistake. It's important to know what kind of UPS you have. The internationally recognized VI and VFD identifiers make it easy to tell the difference, but manufacturers don't always use them, especially for smaller systems.
Mechanical and non-battery UPS systems
There are three main kinds of mechanical UPSes, and two of them don't use batteries. All three are true VFI or double conversion systems, but the intermediate conversion is all mechanical:
UPS power factor
The difference between real power and apparent power is the power factor (pf). This is very poorly understood, but the buyer needs to know it. Historically, most large UPSes had a power factor (pf) of 0.8. This meant that a 100 kilovolt-ampere (kVA) UPS could only deliver 80 kilowatts (kW) of real power. Most modern UPSes have pfs values between 0.9 and 1.0. This means that the real power in kW is much closer to or even the same as the apparent power in kVA.
Central vs. distributed UPS
Distributed UPS usually means small UPSes that are mounted in each equipment cabinet, but sometimes there is a UPS for each cabinet row. There are some small VFI UPSs, but most are VFD or VI, so it's important to know which technology is being bought. Small, rack-mounted UPSes often have a power factor (pfs) of only 0.7. This means that a UPS that says it has 1,000 kVA might only deliver 700 watts. There are times when these are useful, but usually when there are only one or two equipment racks and a centralized UPS would be too expensive.
Small UPSes that are spread out aren't always taken care of as well as larger systems, so failed batteries are often missed until it's too late.
Considerations for selecting and using UPS systems
There are a few important things to think about when choosing a UPS system, such as:
Most modern UPS systems that use batteries are made up of separate parts. They are made up of several smaller UPS and battery units that can be put together as needed to increase capacity, provide backup, or do both. There's no longer a need to buy too much in the hopes of long-term growth. Just make sure the frame is big enough for long-term goals.
Real modules can be bought and put in place as needed, and an extra module or two can be put in place for redundancy. For example, an N+1 redundant UPS with 100 kW might have six 20 kW modules. The same way can be used to add more battery space. Also, most systems can swap modules without stopping operations. If a module fails, it can be taken out and sent back to the factory, and a new one can be sent overnight to the user for installation.
As was said above, Flywheel UPSs can also be put together in a modular way to make them bigger, make them last longer, or make them more reliable. These must be added and kept up by trained people, though.
When large loads are suddenly put on electrical equipment, the power can be unstable for a short time. This can happen when the power comes back on and the lights flicker or when big motors start up and the lights dim for a short time. This is a big problem when you have 2N UPS redundancy because if one UPS fails, the second UPS has to take on the whole load right away.
It's also a problem in VFD UPSes, where the full load is moved to the inverter when the power goes out. It can also be a problem in VI systems or systems that are running in "eco mode." When evaluating large UPS systems, it's important for the electrical engineer to get transient load data from the UPS vendor, compare it, and explain the results to the owner.
Batteries and battery duration
Batteries are a technology that is changing because more and more electric cars use them. Batteries are heavy, so you should always check the floor's strength. There are three main types of batteries used today:
No matter what kind of batteries they use, UPS systems give off heat, so they can only run for so long without air conditioning. The exact limit depends on things like room size, other equipment, and the heat load of the building, but 30 to 60 minutes is a good rule of thumb.
At some point, the UPS will get too hot and shut down automatically to protect itself. So, if there isn't a generator to restart the cooling, longer battery life is a waste of space and money. It also makes it very expensive to replace the batteries, especially if VRLA batteries are used. If one battery dies, the whole string must be replaced, or else the other batteries will die too soon. If IT staff want shutdowns to go smoothly, they should use a feature on most large UPSes that sends a signal over the network to shut down ITE when the battery life drops below a certain level.
With generators, UPSes are often set up so that they only have enough battery power for a few minutes. Quality generators should start up and be stable within a few seconds, but sometimes longer times are needed in case the generators don't start. Since there are two generators, this shouldn't be necessary.
A battery is the UPS part that breaks most often. So, to get the required length of time, the best setup uses at least two battery strings.
Battery monitoring and maintenance
Third-party battery monitoring is built into many newer UPS systems. If they don't, it should be added to the list of requirements. Batteries usually die when they are suddenly put to work, which is exactly when they are needed the most. There are different kinds of monitors, and different manufacturers have different ideas about which is best. However, any monitoring system will let you know if a cell is weak or has failed before something bad happens. Wet cells require regular maintenance. When monitoring shows a weak cell, the batteries should be changed.
Transformers and grounding
In the UPS drawings, there are no input or output transformers shown. Transformers used to be common in electronic UPSes, but now they are rarely seen. This is a big reason why the efficiency has gone up so much. Getting rid of transformers could have one more benefit and two possible drawbacks:
Considerations for low power quality and generators
When the power isn't stable, VI and VFD UPSs can have problems. Because power usually flickers a few times before staying on, these UPSes have built-in logic that keeps them from going back to normal until the power is stable.
VI and VFD UPSes shouldn't be used in places with unstable power because they have a lock-out feature that stops them from going back to normal if they switch back and forth too often. This means they have to be reset by hand. The same problem can happen if generators are turned on too quickly and go up and down as they try to take on the load.