Five years ago I wrote
in Radio World about Hurricane Ike,
a storm that had aimed directly at my station’s transmitter site
until it unexpectedly turned north at the last minute. Severe weather
often means power failures — sometimes extremely long failures. In
the aftermath of such storms, owners, general managers and chief
engineers, even those at stations well away from the impact zone,
begin weighing the advantages against the disadvantages of purchasing
a standby power source.
This generator can
easily power a 1-2 kW transmitter and is inexpensive, but lacks
auto-start and a changeover switch.
Wait a minute.
Disadvantages? Are there disadvantages to having a secondary power
source available when the grid goes dark?
In many cases there
are; but as with many engineering questions, some digging is required
to flesh those out. Only by going through that process can you arrive
at an educated decision for your station.
First, the “advantage”
side of the equation.
Obviously, the station
stays on the air when the primary power fails — a huge advantage
and, in fact, pretty much the only one.
But a bit more needs to
be said about “staying on the air.” Is that staying on with
everything? All studios, main or aux transmitter, production
facilities, office space, literally everything? In the top 10
markets, the answer might be “yes,” but even then maybe only at
the top-tier stations. The smaller guys might think having enough
power to run the necessities — a lower power aux transmitter, a sat
receiver and a small cut-in studio — would do just fine.
Also, in the “staying
on the air” definition column, you should put the question: “For
how long?” Hours, days, weeks? And does the cutover from grid to
generator have to be seamless? Or can you tolerate anywhere from a
minute of dead air (if the failure is during the day), or up to an
hour or more (if it fails when no one is around and things need to be
manually reset after the generator ramps up and stabilizes)?
The answers to these
questions, even for a small station, can mean tens of thousands of
dollars difference in cost.
So, with those
qualifiers added to the “Advantages” column, we can turn to the
“Disadvantages” side of the ledger.
Of course there is the
capital investment to worry about. To run a small Class A FM, or 1 kW
AM in bare-bones mode, it might only run $7,000 or $8,000, maybe even
less. But to keep a 50 kW AM on the air, or a full Class C FM, the
price is easily 10 times that much (and way more than that if UPS,
auto-switch and power-line sync equipment are included).
If your goal is to keep
both the transmitter and studio sites up, you can double the cost.
Many stations ignore studio power failure possibilities because urban
power grids typically are much more reliable than those out on the
top of a mountain, but as was proved in New York City last year, city
grids and substations can catastrophically fail.
A large generator
professionally installed with all the goodies can cost well over
Next, standby power
equipment belongs to the station, not the utility company. When it
fails or needs maintenance, it is your budget that gets hit, not
theirs. This might seem like a small issue, and perhaps not a
disadvantage at all. After all, doesn’t all of your equipment need
to be maintained? Isn’t that just the cost of doing business?
Well, sure, but
remember that the standby power equipment serves no purpose at all —
until it does. In other words, you are maintaining insurance, as
opposed to, say, your automation system. Add to that the fact that
the generator sits off to the side (many times on a concrete pad out
in the very weather that makes it “advantageous” in the first
place), and its maintenance is sometimes neglected.
There is certainly no
more embarrassing situation for an engineer than to explain in the
general manager’s office by candlelight why the gold plated
Volt-O-Matic generator is, right along with the transmitter, stone
Nor is a UPS without
maintenance expense. Those batteries are just like car batteries ...
they slowly lose the ability to hold a charge, and if you do not keep
track of how long they have been sitting there on constant charge,
they will likely last about five minutes less than you need them to
when everything goes dark. Hours and dollars must be dedicated to
maintaining your backup power source.
A third point is in the
“no” category is this: Generators require fuel and space. Small
units are usually powered with propane, which simplifies fuel
storage, since aboveground propane tanks of all sizes are available
Of course, the fuel and
the lease expense both get plugged in the expense budget. And you
will use fuel, even if the thing never powers your transmitter
for a single second. Most modern generator sets have automatic test
cycles, which start the generator and let it run for several minutes
on a periodic basis. Many also allow you to exercise the switchover
equipment, transferring the station load to the generator for several
minutes or longer and then back again when the test cycle ends. All
well and good, except that each test cycle burns fuel and adds cycles
to the unit itself.
Finally, if you think
thieves like your copper wire, wait until you install a generator. In
a building, this is not too big a problem (although I lost a very
nice Honda 6.5 kW electric start generator out of a leased
transmitter building, which had so many door keys duplicated over the
years it was impossible to track the culprit). But a nice 10 kW
Generac sitting on a pad next to an obviously unattended block
building on a deserted gravel road 20 miles from nowhere is a thief
magnet. You will need to examine site security if you install a
TANKS A LOT
Finally, really big
generators are diesel-powered units and those frequently use
underground fuel storage tanks. Three letters about that option: “E,”
“P” and “A.” A tank sends up warning flares to anyone doing
due diligence during a station sale and often triggers an
environmental study. Even a Stage One study can be very expensive, so
research your options carefully before making any decision to bury a
Above ground tanks are
an option, but in cold climates it is then absolutely necessary to
keep moisture from condensing inside the tank and freezing in the
line, lest you find yourself back to see the GM during his
Also, if your station
leases its transmitter/tower site, your lease likely controls how or
even if, you can use diesel fuel on-site. Often the answer is “no,”
but when it is “yes,” it usually costs extra dollars. Nothing is
I have run the “I
love it, I love it not” standby power equation about 20 times over
the past 30 years and have tilted both ways just about equally. The
determining factors (for me at least) always come down to two things:
utility reliability and listener habits.
How reliable is the
primary power? If the station has had, say, three power outages that
lasted a total of 49 minutes, it’s been off the air due to primary
power failure exactly 0.005 percent of the time. (There is also a 70
or more percent chance that those outages came outside the critical
morning or afternoon drive time periods.)
Maybe in that case,
backup power is not too high on the list. If, on the other hand, your
primary power fails twice a month during crystal clear weather, you
should probably be pricing generators right now instead of reading
You also have to ask
yourself about listener choices during a severe weather condition.
Will they tune to you, or go right to the news/talk boomer? And if
they do turn your way, will they hear something local, or just the
same old sat feed playing out those Golden Oldies as the town washes
away? Now, this will undoubtedly raise eyebrows in some quarters.
After all, the “public interest, convenience and necessity”
surely includes staying on the air during storms, regardless of
Yes it does; I agree
100 percent. However, if your station is way down the food chain,
behind the primary EAS station, the news/talk boomer and several
other Class Cs with full backup, could your money be more wisely
spent replacing a 25-year-old transmitter with a newer, greener
solid-state model? Public interest truisms aside, it’s a valid
Some readers might have
noticed I have not factored in advertising dollars. The reason is
that in most cases if your power is out, so is a major part of the
market and many advertisers will either cancel their buys altogether,
or ask for make goods or reduced schedules. So on the air or off, it
is likely you’ll take a revenue hit.
As you might have
already guessed, there is no right answer to all of this. Either way,
you might make the wrong bet. You might decide a catastrophe is
overdue at your station, purchase the backup power system and ten
years from now, still be waiting to gloat in brightly lit contentment
as your competitors wring their hands in the darkness.
Or, you might get hit
with an extended outage as the next monster storm rolls through just
after you felt so smart not spending $50K on the Volt-O-Matic. Since
there is no way to tell which scenario is in your future, all you can
do is do your homework and then decide whether or not at your
station, backup power is basic equipment or a boondoggle.
Jim Withers is owner
of KYRK(FM) in Corpus Christi, Texas, and a longtime RW contributor.
He has four decades of broadcast engineering experience at radio and
television stations around the country.