Preparing for a Power Outage

Oct. 8, 2023
Restoring power in a crisis is easier when preparations are made in advance. Mike Madej of Altorfer Power Systems has shown hundreds of rental customers how to be prepared for potential power outages. In this interview with RER, he explains the basics.

When extreme weather events such as a hurricane, windstorm, ice storm or tornados hit, power outages are the probable result. Suddenly panic-stricken business owners call rental companies begging for help. But restoring power in a crisis is far easier when preparations are made in advance. Mike Madej, rental manager of Altorfer Power Systems, has shown hundreds of rental customers how to be prepared for potential power outages. In this interview with RER, he explains the basics.

RER: Extreme weather events have certainly increased in North America. How has this trend impacted your power generation business?

Madej: I’m involved with hurricanes, maybe not significantly. I work with my Cat Rental network partners, the ones in Florida - Ring Power, in Louisianna – ERS, and Carolina Cat in North Carolina, Thompson Machinery in Mississippi/Tennessee, and Yancey Brothers in Georgia. I also work with all my Cat partners on the East Coast when they reach out to me. I would say in the last three years, I probably sent on average 30 to 40 generators per year just for hurricane relief.

Do they come to you for your inventory or your expertise?

Most of the time they reach out to their neighboring Cat dealers and when their neighboring Cat dealers are out, they expand their search for equipment. But sometimes just because I have such a good relationship with the dealers there, they’ll contact me direct, “Mike, how many 150 kWs can you send me, how many 100s?” We’ll run a couple of trucks and send them down there.

Your territory with Altorfer Caterpillar is not so much a hurricane region in the upper Midwest, but you must have other power outages, with tornados and storms.

The utility grid, Commonwealth Edison locally, isn’t perfect.  And yes, we have windstorms, ice storms, tornadoes, derechos. We deal with a lot of power outages locally.

Obviously power rental is much more than renting generators. You do a lot of reaching out to businesses year around asking if they are prepared for power outages. How does that work go?

There are so many businesses in our territory, around northern Illinois, major companies that are headquartered in Illinois, with their corporate offices. We call on them. We call on the maintenance and or facility managers, or the maintenance supervisors in the industrial and commercial sector here. They are the ones we touch base with. It’s a much easier job convincing them nowadays that they need my phone number and that we need to come out to their facility, and we need to do a walk through and figure out what size generator they need, where would we park it in an emergency? We ask “Who is your house electrician onsite? If you don’t have one, I’ll give you the name of three popular ones that we use in that area.”

We’ll have those conversations with them. It’s much easier now. Seven to eight years ago I had to make phone calls to those customers or potential customers and convince them that this is a good idea. Now, especially the last five years, they reach out to us before we can reach out to them. Saying “we need to have an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) in place in case we lose power.”

So that is where the industry has shifted in the last five or six years. Now they’re reaching out to us to do site visits and make a plan for what to do if they lose power.

The first thing they need to do is call Mike Madej if they lose power! When we receive a call from them it’s usually after hours, 2 a.m., in a driving rainstorm. We have a 1-800 number, it’s on our business card, an emergency after hours number, it’s assigned to one of my reps that we rotate on call. Normally the way that calls goes is “I lost power, I need a generator” and if they don’t have a process or a plan in place it becomes very difficult. We will ask them, “What size do you need?” And many times their answer is “A big one.” And we basically have to tell them, call your house electrician and they will tell us what your amp draw is, what your voltage is and then we can size the unit from there.

It must be much easier if you have that information in advance!

When I go out there before and do a proactive site visit, that’s the first place we’re going to start. A common mistake if they don’t have an electrician to confirm the size that they need, they’re going to look at the size of their circuit breaker panel. Their panel might be a 3,000-amp panel, at 480 volt, but their load never goes over 1,000 amps. They’re going to ask me to provide a 3,000-amp generator, when they only need a smaller unit to cover their actual load.

There is a significant cost savings if they can tell us what their highest amp load is. If they can give us the amperage range of their high loads and what their voltage is, we can size their generator just from that. The other thing that we’re looking for is what is their footprint, an area where we can park the generator and how far is the generator going to sit from their tie-in spot. Sometimes that’s within 50 feet, sometimes that’s within 600 feet. It does no good to send and park a generator at their facility if we don’t have enough cable to go from the generator to the tie-in spot.

So obviously if your people do a site visit, they check out all of this to do an assessment.

If we’re doing a preliminary proactive site visit, we’re going to walk around the facility. We’re going to check the voltage, we’re going to figure out where is the best place to park the generators. And then normally we’ll bring measuring tools so we can walk off how far it is. We write it up. So if it says “75 feet” our cables usually come in 50-foot increments so we know we’re going to need 100 feet of cable. That’s all pre-planned.

I’ve also done site visits where they have multiple buildings, let’s say there are five buildings. Well, this building is set up at 208 volts and that building is set up at 480 volts. And another building we only need a 10-foot run and this building we need a 200-foot run. We’ll have all of that information down and we’ll mark it “Building 1” and “Building 2” and “Building 3.” We set up a lot of universities that way. So the rec center is at 480 volts and it generally draws no more than a 1,000-amps. The president’s house at the university just needs 208 volts because there’s an elevator there. We’ll have it all mapped out so all they have to do if they lose power is call me and say, “We need a generator for the rec center and we need a generator for the library” and I already have notes on how much cable I need to send and what size generator for each and I’m already ordering freight to have it delivered. That’s how fast it goes when I have the data.

There’s no way I can possibly send a generator out to somebody who lost power if they’re not sure what their amp load is or what their voltage is or how far the unit is going to be parked away from the tie-in spot. Without that I can’t send you a unit. If they don’t know, they need to find an electrician to give me those answers before I send it out. Companies are losing millions of dollars in product or labor while they’re sitting in the dark.

I imagine quite a few businesses have no idea how to answer these questions.

If I were to take a guess, I would say less than 50 percent know their amp draw, their voltage or how far the generator can go from the tie-in spot.

You’re looking at powering virtually every type of business – universities, factories, retail, hospitals?

Yes and a lot of municipalities. I have one particular customer from a municipality, a waste-water treatment plant. If they lose power for more than one hour people’s basements are flooding and I know what he needs on every single one of their buildings.

It’s interesting how the general public is so much more aware of the need to be prepared for power emergencies.

I think you can attribute that to social media and all media in general. Because in the past I’d have to go share stories when I’m on a sales call of what happened to their neighbor when they lost power. Now everything is publicized and people can see the damage that’s being caused all across the country due to power outages, and large corporations are making sure they have a plan to save time and money during these circumstances.

Another recent trend in the last few years, is that many companies are contacting us prior to storms arriving in Chicagoland based on weather forecasts.  We will periodically receive calls from local customers asking us to put units on rent and keep them in our yard in case they lose power after an approaching storm rolls through. It is very smart for them to be proactive. We have had many storms in the past that caused local widespread power outages.  Although we have hundreds of generators readily available, there have been times where more units were needed then what we had ready to deliver.

So I imagine you go with a sort of check list of everything you have to cover..

Yes. And we take a lot of photos. One of the most important parts of the plan is not only the equipment needed, but the priority list on how you contact us. Normally the call comes to my rental rep who covers the territory. If they don’t answer, they call our 800 number emergency line. If they don’t answer, Mike Madej is everybody’s backup and my phone is always on, we’re here to help the customer. That’s one of the things we’re best at in my department.

So sometimes you get the calls yourself.

Yes. Sometimes I get out of bed before I answer so I don’t wake my wife.

You must keep a steady communication with Caterpillar to order inventory rapidly if you need it.

Yes. And two years ago I joined the Cat Dealer Advisory Team, there are 12 of us on that team. We act as the liaison between all the Cat dealers and Cat Corporate when it comes to power rental. So yes, we have a high level of communication with Caterpillar.

And if necessary you can draw from Caterpillar dealers around the country.

Yes, and that’s one of the biggest advantages that we have, our Cat rental network. Anywhere in the United States, I can pick up the phone and call my Cat rental partners and I have access to their entire fleet. So, if I get a call from a local customer that needed a 400kW in Texas tomorrow, I can pick up the phone and call Holt Cat and I just say, “Hey it’s Mike Madej and I’m looking for a 400 kW in your area, do you have any available, and it’s for this address to be delivered this time.” And they’ll bill me and I’ll pass it to my customer.

It's a very dynamic network.

What is the key to what you do?

The first key is answering our phone when the customer calls us, any time of day – 24/7/365. It is paramount for us to always be available when our customers need us! After that, it’s those three important facts about their facility. 1. What is the voltage in their building? 2. What is their amp draw? (their current amp draw, their average amp draw, their maximum amp draw). And 3. Approximately how far can we park the generator from the tie-in spot? If they don’t know all of those things, at least have a direct communication with their electrician so they can answer those questions. If they have that, that’s the fastest, and best way I can help them.