How Are Hospitals Powered?

Hospitals are a crucial part of any country’s public service offering – providing life-saving services, they need to be operational all the time. How do they ensure the power’s always on? Find out…

SA Oil explains how hospitals are powered using different power and fuel types

Why Hospitals Need Power 24/7

As medicine and medical care has advanced, so too has its reliance on electricity. Patients undergoing critical medical procedures will have several intensive technological medical equipment monitoring their breathing, their heart rate and more – all of which is crucial to observe the patient’s condition during an operation. Even patients in hospital for ‘minor’ medical attention are monitored using different types of equipment – which is powered with electricity.

Besides patient care, hospitals rely on electricity for a range of other reasons: important patient information is stored digitally nowadays, as is electronic health records and electronic medical records; hospitals also make use of patient archiving and communication systems (PACS) to keep track of patient medical equipment use, and electricity powers systems imperative to supervise equipment maintenance. Many hospitals also have laboratories which carry out important tests – for which electricity is needed!

The most basic of hospital activities require power as well – cooks require electricity to make food for patients and staff, the entire building will need lighting to operate, aircons will be used to regulate temperatures, telephones and internet connectivity will need to be operational, and geysers will need to be heated to provide hot water for cooking, hygiene, and laundry activities.

Power Problems that Plague Hospitals

Hospitals experience power outages that are common to many other businesses and industries, caused by things like utility outages, equipment failures, maintenance and electrical faults. Unlike other industries, however, a loss of power can impact on human life. Usually, power back-up systems operate long and sufficiently enough for the hospital to continue to operate until power is restored – even so, there is a lag time between grid power going off and back-up power kicking in (unless the hospital makes use of UPS – see below).

In South Africa hospitals are plagued by rolling blackouts caused by load shedding, while other countries’ hospitals may struggle during natural disasters that knock down power lines and cause indefinite power outages. Where possible, hospital management will ensure that the electrical and power systems in use or available within the building are maintained to limit the power interruptions the hospital may face. However, in many countries, the supply and provision of reliable alternative power is not a major consideration in the hospital’s budget, where funds are directed at equipment and consumables, digital storage and backup facilities, and other hardware-related items instead. This leaves many hospitals vulnerable to the vagaries of power outages, for whatever reason.

Energy Options Available to Power Hospitals

As with many other public services (and even in the case of private hospitals), electricity is primarily obtained through the grid – this is the power supplied by power stations that feed electricity to businesses, homes and more. In an ideal situation, obtaining power this way would be sufficient to keep the hospital operational, but unforeseen circumstances can cause power interruptions at any time – highlighting the need for backup power sources, which are used for more than just electricity, but heating, laundry, cooking, etc. as well. Currently, hospitals have these  options :

  • Using uninterrupted power supplies (UPS)
  • Subsidising power supply with renewable energy sources
  • Cogeneration and trigeneration plants
  • Generators powered by hydrocarbon fuels

Renewable Energy for Hospitals

Renewable energy is becoming an increasingly popular power option, though it is rarely used to provide power on its own and is used instead in conjunction with another power source. This option is especially popular in regions aiming to implement greener principles, but is often costly in its initial installation, and later, when maintenance is required.

UPS Systems for Hospitals

Uninterrupted power supplies, or UPS units, are used in a variety of scenarios – for example, in homes and office to protect electrical items like TVs and computers from the dangers of power trips and surges. This option has some drawbacks – UPS units with adequate wattage are often very expensive, can only power so much equipment at one time, and take far longer to charge up than they last when providing interim power. They are therefore only really useful for computers and data storage systems. However, they have one major advantage – they provide for seamless integration during the transition from the grid system to a hospital’s back-up power system. This factor alone makes UPS systems indispensable to the modern hospital – even seconds of outage for crucial life-saving medical equipment and patient monitoring systems can have disastrous consequences!

Hospital Cogeneration Systems

Cogeneration is the simultaneous production of electricity with the recovery and utilisation of heat. Cogeneration and trigeneration plants can be costly initially but provide a one-stop solution for two problems a hospital faces when experiencing a power shortage or outage – electricity and heating. Cogeneration plants can provide both, and trigeneration plants can provide cooling as well. These facilities are absolutely critical, and using these plants has the added benefit of being able to run on one fuel type, meaning the hospital is able to access these facilities without costs skyrocketing. These plants can run on gas, diesel, biofuels and fuel oil. Fuel Oil can also be used to power hospital laundries and medical incinerators, keeping these energy-intensive systems off the grid and simultaneously lowering a hospital’s running costs.

Power Generators for Hospitals

Generators are the most common utility for backup power, though intended only for interim supply as generating power from them indefinitely can become costly and put the generator at risk of failure. Diesel generators are quite popular, given the efficiency of diesel engines and the generally lower cost of diesel in comparison to other conventional fuel options.

Standby power generator systems are the most common utility for back-up power, and depending on size, can provide for interim supply in the event of a short-term outage, or power an entire hospital for longer terms. The most common generator systems comprise diesel-fuelled combustion engines.

Reliable Fuel Supply to Keep Hospitals Powered

Cost is always a major factor for any business, including hospitals, which means backup power sources need to be both efficient and cost-effective. Obtaining the means of a backup power supply is the first step, but sourcing a reliable fuel provider to keep that power supply running is the most important one. Speak to the experts and keep your operation up and running…