Does the NFPA 110 Support Automatic Generator Starter Battery Testing?
By: Allan Evora
Battery failures are a significant issue when it comes to emergency generators. The EGSA reports about half of emergency generator set failures are due to battery problems. Whether from sulfation buildup, open cells, loose connections, or a tripped charger breaker (human error), testing of starter batteries on your emergency generators is critical, which is why it’s required monthly by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 110.
Testing of generator starter batteries is generally done manually. It involves maintenance visiting each generator to conduct a visual inspection of electrolyte levels and use a hydrometer to check specific gravity. This may not be that big of a deal for an Ambulatory Surgery Center (ASC) with only one generator, but on a major healthcare campus with 10 or more generators, this can be a significant expense.
But practically everything else about emergency generators and their maintenance is automated…so why shouldn’t we include starter battery testing?
Automating Monthly Testing of Starter Batteries
In a recent project, Affinity Energy developed a solution that requires no human intervention to run tests, notify personnel in the event of a failure, and automatically email monthly test results for every generator starter battery system. It can run standalone, or be incorporated into an EPMS or other monitoring solution such as this.
Affinity Energy’s client Novant Health wished to test starter batteries without sending personnel to their 16 emergency generators at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, NC each month for a visual inspection.
Novant hoped to utilize La Marche Stationary Battery Informer hardware, which:
- Determines battery condition under load within seconds without disrupting system operation.
- Never disconnects the battery and charger from the load, even during the test.
- Does not allow testing when batteries are being used in an emergency situation or recharging from a recent discharge.
- Signals if the tester has failed and/or charging system is inoperative.
- Performs a unique discharge test, signaling whether batteries are missing, good, have open cell(s), are sulfated, and whether failure is imminent.
The problem was, viewing test results from the Stationary Battery Informer still required a physical visit to look at the front panel hardware and determine if the last test passed or failed, or hook up a computer to interrogate the unit for details. Unfortunately, requiring a human presence totally defeated the purpose of using the Stationary Battery Informer.
Novant Health and their generator partner, Carolina Cat, enlisted the help of Affinity Energy engineers to determine how to automate the results out of the Stationary Battery Informer hardware in a seamless way that didn’t require human interaction.
Affinity Energy engineers researched how to communicate with the battery informer and implemented the ability to automatically:
- Initiate tests
- Verify test results
- Generate a summary report, which includes pass/fail data, test dates, and second-by-second test details for each 60-minute test.
- Send reports in emails as attachments to a predetermined distribution list
- Generate an alarm if the test fails and send a test fail email alert to a predetermined distribution list.
Not only did Affinity Energy determine how to remove the need for manual generator starter battery testing, but they also were able to utilize existing Novant infrastructure and incorporate the automated capability as an add-on to Novant’s NFPA annunciator panel. The added system is unobtrusive, and available to access from the annunciator panels if owners wish to request a report on demand or check statuses of generator batteries.
Does the NFPA 110 Support Automating Monthly Testing of Generator Starter Batteries?
As a Level 1 facility, Novant Health’s generators are required to comply with NFPA 110 standards, which include the rules for inspecting and testing emergency generators.
In the latest version of NFPA 110-126.96.36.199, there is a clause that states:
“Maintenance of lead acid batteries shall include the monthly testing and recording of electrolyte specific gravity. Battery conductance testing shall be permitted in lieu of the testing of specific gravity when applicable or warranted.”
This seems to validate that the La Marche Informer is a valid substitute for manual testing. Affinity Energy recommends that prior to proceeding with a project to automate the testing of generator starter batteries, the owner consult with the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), to review their test methodology and get approval.
In addition, in 110-1.3, it states that requirements are for new installations only, except for Chapter 8 which covers Routine Maintenance and Operational Testing and applies to new and existing systems.
The answer is yes: the written regulations within NFPA 110 support the automation of monthly starter battery testing.
Why Bother Automating Generator Starter Battery Testing?
Affinity Energy has customers considering automating their generator starter battery testing for both new construction and retrofit. But how does a Level 1 owner justify the expenditure of new hardware and systems integration for starter battery testing?
Let’s start with the 3 most obvious reasons to automate generator starter battery testing:
- Automation saves maintenance hours: By the time maintenance personnel test, record, and travel to and from all generators, how much total manpower time is spent? For example, Novant Health’s Presbyterian Medical Center has 16 generators, and each takes about 1 hour to test. At a minimum that’s 16 hours per month simply spent testing starter batteries.
- Automation is more likely to identify a problem. There’s nothing to say owners can’t run battery tests more than the monthly the NFPA requires. In fact, Novant Health schedules their tests to run every week. Why not? After all, it doesn’t cost any more. The ability to reduce risk has a real and tangible $ figure associated with it.
- Automation addresses one of the largest issues in the industry...personnel. Ask any facility manager what their top 3 challenges are, and you will most likely find that people will be on that list, probably at the top of the list. Automation allows businesses to do more with less, if forced to. It also helps with retention. The current generation of workers want to work in an environment that provides them with the necessary tools to do their jobs in a cost effective and efficient manner. They also want to focus their efforts in areas that will help them grow professionally. Automation helps today’s businesses find and retain talent.
Reduce Your Risk. Automate Generator Starter Battery Tests.
To summarize, it is a fact that one of the largest reasons a generator fails to start is due to a problem with the starter batteries. An automated starter battery testing system not only reduces the labor expense associated with conducting manual monthly testing, it reduces the chances you will have a failure associated with the supply of emergency power due to early detection. Depending on the situation, a generator event could cost an owner thousands, if not millions of dollars. Automating the testing of generator starter batteries helps reduce risk and provide more peace of mind.
Please let us know if you have questions.
Learn more about Novant Health’s Generator Audible Alarming.
Allan D. Evora is a leading expert in control systems integration and president of Affinity Energy with over 20 years of industry experience working in every capacity of the power automation project life cycle. With a background at Boeing Company and General Electric, Allan made the decision to establish Affinity Energy in 2002. Allan is an alumnus of Syracuse University with a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering, graduate of the NC State Energy Management program, and qualified as a Certified Measurement & Verification Professional (CMVP).
Throughout his career, Allan has demonstrated his passion for providing solutions. In 1990, he developed FIRST (Fast InfraRed Signature Technique), a preliminary design software tool used to rapidly assess rotary craft infrared signatures. In 2008, Allan was the driving force behind the development of Affinity Energy's Utilitrend; a commercially available, cloud-based utility resource trending, tracking, and reporting software.
Allan has been instrumental on large scale integration projects for utilities, universities, airports, financial institutions, medical campus utility plants, and manufacturing corporations, and has worked with SCADA systems since the early ‘90s. A passion for data acquisition, specialty networks, and custom software drives him to incorporate openness, simplicity, and integrity into every design in which he is involved.