Spokane Journal of Business

Liberty Lake consultant generates backup plans

Hurricane Sandy inspired PowerCheck’s beginnings

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-—Mike McLean
Mark Jacobus, founder of Liberty Lake-based PowerCheck LLC, says the company helps clients develop plans for maintenance, testing, and operation of emergency power backup systems.

As New Jersey businesses struggled to recover from Superstorm Sandy in late 2012, Mark Jacobus says he felt motivated to launch a company to help businesses and organizations secure programs and systems to ensure they can rely on backup power when the grid is down.

Jacobus brought the company PowerCheck LLC here when he and his wife moved across the country to the Inland Northwest two years ago to be closer to grandchildren.

“I do disaster preparedness and contingency planning making sure clients can manage their backup power needs,” he says.

Jacobus, the sole employee, operates PowerCheck out of his home in Liberty Lake.

Hurricane Sandy, also known as “Superstorm Sandy,” was the largest Atlantic hurricane measured by diameter on record. It hit landfall on the northeast coast at New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012, causing total damages second only in the U.S. to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina.

It took two to four weeks to restore power to some businesses while the power grid was rebuilt. Some businesses didn’t survive that loss of revenue, Jacobus claims.

While Spokane is safe from tropical storms and hurricanes, business owners that depend on uninterrupted power shouldn’t be complacent about it, he says.

“There still are ice storms, windstorms, firestorms, and things of that nature,” Jacobus says, adding, “A major disaster could very well happen.”

The Spokane-area power supply could be vulnerable to certain disasters, he claims.

“If you drive up north of the city, all of those powerlines give power to every area around here,” he says. “If a firestorm ends up burning up those lines, we’re going to be out for weeks or a couple of months.”

Large emergency-power assets, however, such as standby generators and portable generators that can support a facility when the power goes out for days or weeks at a time aren’t readily available here, Jacobus says.

“They’re sitting on the other side of the Cascades,” he says. “If a disaster happens, the amount of time and confusion in getting things over here is going to be astronomical.”

If there’s much advance warning of an impending emergency situation, chances are that equipment will be gone within a few hours or even before the disaster hits.

“If you hear there’s going to be a windstorm the day after tomorrow, you might want to secure assets now,” he says. “After Hurricane Sandy, we were pulling assets from Indiana, Illinois, and as far as Louisiana and Florida to get to New Jersey. People were saying they didn’t care what they had to pay, just get it there.”

One focus of PowerCheck is to help clients make contacts and form relationships with fuel vendors, equipment rental operators, and power-supply service providers to ensure clients have the best chance of getting a timely response in times of widespread emergency.

“If you’ve never called them before, they may not give you the priority you need,” Jacobus says.

He advises clients to get backup phone numbers and contact information for vendors and service providers, including email and residential addresses.

“With Hurricane Sandy, communications were compromised because towers were down,” Jacobus says. “One company had go out and pick up people (from their homes) to work on equipment.”

Jacobus says he’s been involved in the power systems industry for 30 years, focusing on sales and service for most of that time. He started in the industry as director of sales for a power systems company in Atlanta.

“We started to get a lot of education in maintaining equipment,” he says. “We learned how to do it and showed customers how our service guys can help them.”

He moved to New Jersey to initiate a similar sales-and-service program shortly before Hurricane Sandy, then formed PowerCheck in the aftermath of the storm.

“I saw a lot of small businesses that went out of business or were lucky to survive,” he says.

Jacobus, who declines to disclose clients’ names, says PowerCheck’s main revenue source is consultant fees.

Typical clients include health care providers and manufacturers, he says.

Since the PowerCheck move west, the company focuses on clients here in the Inland Northwest.

 “I have companies tied to the aeronautical industry,” he says, adding that some manufacturing clients have contracts with aerospace giant Boeing Co.

“If they don’t have backup power systems should they go down, they can’t take care of their contracts,” he asserts.

As a consultant, he doesn’t sell emergency power equipment directly.

“If somebody needs something, I could give an unabashed opinion about what type of equipment I would recommend,” he says.

If a facility already has a backup gas- or diesel-fueled electrical generator for emergency standby power, the owner still needs to maintain the equipment to specific manufacturer’s guidelines, Jacobus asserts.

“A generator is not like an air conditioner that you just turn on with a switch,” he says. “It’s got to go from fossil fuel to mechanical to electrical energy in seconds. Lots of things could cause it to fail.”

Commercial or industrial-sized generators are designed by manufacturers to be exercised once a week, he asserts.

Part of routine emergency equipment exercises should include running the generator under load at least once a month, meaning the generator’s transfer switch should be activated to disconnect the facility from the grid and energize the connection to the generator.

Often, a company’s information technology department doesn’t like the idea of transferring power sources, because computers and electronic systems rely on uninterrupted power, Jacobus says, adding, however, that’s part of the drill.

“If you’re not exercising the transfer switch, it could malfunction when you have a power failure,” he says.

In addition to weekly and monthly tests, PowerCheck recommends quarterly mock disaster scenarios, which include interactions with vendors and service providers.

“I won’t write a disaster preparedness contingency plan just so someone can put something on the shelf,” Jacobus says. “It doesn’t do any good unless it’s exercised.”

Many companies rely too heavily on a type of uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system that’s essentially a rechargeable battery system, he asserts.

“There are extreme vulnerabilities to that,” Jacobus says. “A battery-operated piece of equipment is constantly charging. The batteries generally are good for about two to three years before they begin having issues and need to be replaced.”

Ideally, companies that need uninterruptible power should have standby generators, so the UPS operates about 10 seconds until the generator kicks in, Jacobus contends.

“A UPS shouldn’t be used as a standalone backup for anyone who wants to keep data and equipment secure,” he says, adding that after extended outages, it can take hours to reboot an electronic network, and sometimes equipment has to be recalibrated, which can keep a company down for days.

Jacobus says it takes about 40 hours to evaluate a new client’s emergency power system and develop a disaster preparedness plan.

PowerCheck also offers a series of one-hour seminars on generator use and regulatory compliance, disaster preparedness and contingency planning, care and observation of emergency power supply systems, and choosing an emergency power system.

Mike McLean
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Deputy Editor Mike McLean has worked his entire journalism career in the Inland Northwest. Mike, who also lives to reel in fish and crank up music, has worked for the Journal since 2006.

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